How to Reignite Your Sex Life After a Big Life Change

Tips to bring back the spark

A scary diagnosis. Kids leaving home. A job loss or promotion. These and other changes are a common part of life, but they can cause big shifts in your most cherished and intimate relationships and take the sizzle right out of your sex life.

“If you and your partner are together for a lifetime, you are going to have to deal with some big changes and transitions,” says marriage counselor Lori Hollander of Relationships Work. “The event is simply a trigger for what’s underneath it. If something triggers anxiety or anger, you may have a harder time staying close emotionally and sexually.”

And that kind of sexual and emotional disconnect can chip away at a relationship, especially during a difficult time when people need support and affection from one another the most.

“If a couple is not having sex, I think that is a problem for the relationship,” says Katie Hendricks, Ph.D., who along with her husband Gay Hendricks has counseled and taught relationship skills to thousands of couples and co-authored the best-selling Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-Commitment and other books.

Yet couples can reconnect and thrive despite life’s transitions, Hendricks and Hollander say. In fact, the very changes that test couples can also strengthen their relationship both in and out of the bedroom.

How sex helps you cope with life’s challenges

Five years ago doctors told Sherri Sacconaghi she had breast cancer. At first, her thoughts were about getting the cancer out, completing the six weeks of radiation therapy, and simply surviving. But when the treatments were over and the wounds had healed, she realized it wasn’t just her body that was different. Her relationship with her husband had also changed.

Before treatment, her breasts had been a sensuous part of her sex life. Now, she says the scar that runs along her left breast is painful to the touch and unattractive. She no longer wants to be touched there, nor does she view her breasts as sexy.

The physical change also hid an emotional shift. The cancer had shocked Sacconaghi. It forced her to reevaluate her life and her marriage. Those feelings made it a little scary to reestablish a sexual relationship with her husband.

Despite those big life challenges, a healthy and satisfying sex life can be the thread that brings people closer and helps hold the relationship together, experts say.

“A couple’s sex life is a relatively reliable barometer for the state of the overall relationship,” says Dr. Les Parrott, a psychologist and professor at Seattle Pacific University, and author of Crazy Good Sex and other books. “While certain circumstances will change various aspects of a couple’s sex life, it’s still a part of married life that needs to be tended to. If it’s not, the whole relationship suffers.”

Rekindling intimacy in and out of the bedroom

Often our sex lives suffer in the midst of great change or transition because we become locked in anger or fear instead of facing what’s really going on and dealing with the authentic emotions that come up, Hendricks says.

If one of you can connect emotionally and express your feelings while being present to what your partner is experiencing, it can open the flow of love and feeling and support throughout the relationship, she says.

It worked for Sacconaghi. Instead of avoiding the difficult topic and holding onto her fears and insecurities, Sacconaghi talked to her husband. She shared her concerns about the relationship and the discomfort she felt about the scars and physical changes she had experienced. In turn, her husband expressed his feelings and reassured her that he still thought she was beautiful. Through that emotional connection, the two also reconnected sexually.

“Emotional intimacy is just as important as physical intimacy,” Parrott says. “And that is a result of heartfelt conversations, tender touches and any expression of love.”

Tips to help you reconnect

To rekindle the emotional and physical fires with your partner, start by becoming present to what is really going on, Hendricks says. Take a couple of slow deep breaths, then try these other tips from the experts:

1. Start simple. Pay attention to how your body feels and share that. For example, you could say, “I feel tension in my back and I’m not sure what that is.” Don’t analyze or control or try to make it go away, just notice what’s going on right now and express that to your partner.

2. Share and listen. Don’t judge or criticize what you or your partner is feeling, Hendricks says. Share your own experience, then listen to his. Support him by offering statements of understanding such as “sounds like you are feeling scared,” when appropriate.

3. Reach out and touch. As you begin to connect emotionally, it’s important also to reestablish a physical, non-sexual relationship built on supportive and loving touches. Reach out and touch her cheek, brush his shoulder, put your hand on her hand, your arm around him. Kindly tell your partner what kind of touch feels nurturing and supportive. Ask him what he prefers. Then offer it several times a day.

“And take time for plenty of warm and reassuring embraces,” Parrott says. “Focus on each other — the value of having each other in spite of what you’ve been through.”

“All our emotional and physical needs cannot be met through sex,” Hendricks says. “If touch is all about sex, that can cause people to shut down and withdraw from any contact.”

4. Create a no-guilt zone. It’s normal to not want sex after an intense life experience or a period of change or transition, Parrott says. “Any abrupt change or major jolt is likely to alter your libido as well as the other neurochemical activity in your body.”

So, create a no-guilt zone when it comes to what goes on — or not — between the sheets. Talk about it, share your feelings, be honest and then focus on developing emotional intimacy and affection until you’re ready to reignite that sexual spark.

Often, sharing your more vulnerable side leads to a flow of shared feelings, creativity and support, Hendricks says. Those qualities create a connectedness between a couple, which provides plenty of inspiration in the bedroom.

“When you are together sharing what’s going on, that is an incredible aphrodisiac,” Hendricks says. “Telling the truth — your truth — is actually very sexy and it rekindles intimacy immediately.”

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