Despite the endless hype about how crucial hot sex is to a happy relationship, few couples on the planet actually do the deed every night. Even if you were married to Russell Crowe or....ooh, Christian Bale, there's no way you'd feel horny 365 days a year. In fact most couples go through periods when one or both partners would rather watch Animal Planet than make the beast with two backs. One study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy found that 24 percent of couples reported having a sexual drought in the past 3 months.
Whether you're stressed, he's tired, or you both have something else on your minds, it's perfectly normal to have the occasional sex-free week. But if you've been low on lust for a little too long, there are plenty of ways to reignite those love sparks. We identified four phases in relationships when sex drives typically fizzle and asked top experts for the best strategies to get you both back into a steamy groove.
Lackluster Phase #1: The Novelty Has Officially Worn Off
When you first met, your mattress springs squeaked on a regular basis and you always had that dewy glow. That's because infatuation triggers the release of extra dopamine, a brain chemical that fuels your libido, says Laura Berman, Ph.D., director of the Berman Center for sexual health and menopause management in Chicago and author of The Passion Prescription. When the novelty wears off, so does the dopamine boost, Dr. Berman says.
Get Back on Track Scare your pants off. Dopamine also kicks in when you're taken by surprise. "Do things that are new and different together, even a little scary," Dr. Berman says. Even a relatively tame act can be a thrill if it's unexpected, says Sherry Amatenstein, relationship expert for iVillage.com and author of Love Lessons from Bad Breakups. Pick up a box of drugstore hair color (the kind that eventually washes out) and go to town on each other. You'll get that sexy hands-on-the-scalp feeling along with the risky excitement of not knowing quite how it's going to turn out.
Reset boundaries. Sometimes people get so comfortable together they forget that sexual attraction requires a little mystery and excitement, says Mary Ann Donohue, Ph.D., administrative director of psychiatric services at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Maybe it's time to start closing the bathroom door, burping under your breath, and getting dressed up for bed the way you used to. And schedule some dates at swank venues Ã¢â‚¬” cocktails at a posh hotel bar or a night at the opera Ã¢â‚¬” where you have to dress up and act formal. Seeing each other looking your best and surrounded by lights, music, and other couples can bring back the thrill of dating, which will segue into livelier sex when you get home.
Lackluster Phase #2: You're About to Forsake All Others
And one, or both, of you is freaking out. Before her wedding, "I was so stressed about losing control over my life," says 33-year-old Stephanie T., who's been married to Joel for 10 years. For some of us, the idea of one sexual partner for a lifetime makes walking barefoot over thumbtacks sound more appealing than sauntering down the aisle.
Get Back on Track Just do it. Sex is how guys say "you're the center of my universe" without having to utter the actual words. "Women may want to shoot me for this, but in an otherwise good relationship, if you sometimes go ahead with sex even when you're not in the mood, the benefits can be significant," Dr. Berman says. Stop addressing those envelopes and undress each other instead. That 5-minute nooky break tells him he's more important than the florist or the caterer, Dr. Berman says. And it releases oxytocin, a hormone that makes you feel bonded and attached Ã¢â‚¬” so you'll remember the reason for those 200 invites in the first place.
Look beyond the big day. Odds are on your side: Married women are more than twice as likely as single ones to have sex two or three times a week, according to a survey by the National Opinion Research Center. And that marriage bond will actually bring you closer. "These last few years we've been very sexually connected," Joel says. What's different? He and Stephanie know each other better. "Now we communicate about intimacy; we make time to do that. We've grown to understand the other person's sexuality and needs better, too."
Lackluster Phase #3: One Of You Gets Pink-Slipped
"We'd been dating for a year when Matt got fired," says Cynthia B., 41. "He responded by withdrawing; he didn't want to sleep with me." Stress Ã¢â‚¬” financial or otherwise Ã¢â‚¬” can cause levels of libido-stoking testosterone to drop, says Beverly Whipple, Ph.D., a neurophysiologist and coauthor of The G-Spot: And Other Discoveries About Human Sexuality. And when a guy loses his provider status it's a blow to his ego and manhood Ã¢â‚¬” not exactly the feeling he wants to bring into the bed. If you've been canned? Research reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that when a woman's income is reduced by just 20 percent, her self-worth and sex drive can plummet.
Get Back on Track Tackle it together. When he's the one taking the hit, form a united front, says Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D., a psychologist in Los Angeles. Refer to the issue as "ours" instead of "his," which lets him know you don't blame him. Also make it clear that he hasn't lost any status in your eyes. Remind him how talented and capable he is. Then break out the massage oil and offer to rub his worries away. No, you're not his geisha girl, but playing that role for a night or two will pump up his self-esteem.
Think dirty thoughts. When it's you in the stress-induced slump, talking about sex in a positive way can be powerful, Dr. Berman says. She suggests saying something like "I miss being intimate with you." It can help you recall your last intimate encounter Ã¢â‚¬” and all the delicious details Ã¢â‚¬” reminding you how good getting naked can make you feel.
Lackluster Phase #4: You're Baby Bombed
Every parent you know points out the irony of having kids: The very act of creating them is unceremoniously sidelined once they're born. "Our toddler has bad dreams a lot and wants to sleep in our bed," Rebecca B., 40, says. Not a sexy threesome.
Sometimes just trying to get the sperm to sidle up to the egg can be enough to make your inner horndog hibernate. Janine L., 34, and Roger L., 35, tried for about a year to have a baby and wound up seeing an infertility specialist. "When you're dealing with a fertility schedule, sex stops being fun," Roger says. "Pair that with having to perform as often as possible during a brief monthly window and you start to lose your steam."
"He felt so much pressure that a couple of times he couldn't 'finish,'" Janine adds. "He'd feel guilty and embarrassed, which only made it worse."
Get Back on Track Do it when it doesn't count. When sex's end result is pure pleasure instead of pregnancy, you have fewer expectations and less likelihood of disappointment. So sneak in non-baby-making sex when you're not ovulating, Dr. Berman says. And if your bedroom has become "fertility central," take the fun-only sex on tour. Your best bet? The closet Ã¢â‚¬” where, according to a University of California at Berkeley study, clothes emit a potent chemical from men's sweat, hair, and skin that arouses women. Who knew?
Schedule a grown-ups-only playdate. Once kids arrive, "getting regular alone time gives you a chance to talk like adults about intimate things," Dr. Whipple says. This may seem obvious, but as Rebecca admits, "We're so busy, it wouldn't happen if we didn't plan it." Sneak away for a day or two every few months. If you've got weather (and geography) on your side, head to the ocean. You'll have uninterrupted time for conversation in the car and Ã¢â‚¬” dopamine booster! Ã¢â‚¬” you can jump in for a late-night skinny-dip. Even the local Starbucks makes for an easy getaway. Talk like adults over cappuccino and use the caffeine perk for that crucial extra hour after the kids go to bed.