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What A Sex Therapist Tells Couples Who Aren’t Having Sex

What A Sex Therapist Tells Couples Who Aren’t Having Sex

The confession comes out after a second glass of wine at Book Club or in a hushed voice on a girls’ trip: It’s been forever since we’ve had sex.

It’s not that moms *want* to go all celibate after popping out a kid or two — they tend to flush with guilt and even shame when calculating the last time they did anything besides snore beside their partner. Whether sexless couples are short on time, privacy, desire, or a lethal combination of all three, a common theme is that they’d benefit from couples’ therapy… and oftentimes forgo it for budgetary reasons.

New York-based psychotherapist Ian Kerner, Ph.D., says the majority of couples he works with are new parents or couples with multiple kids suffering from sex ruts, sexless marriages, or discrepancies in sexual desire.

The author of She Comes First and So Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex, he admits his services aren’t cheap — they can run over $300 per session. But he says he only needs a few meetings to kick things into high gear. “Sex is a really important part of a relationship,” says Kerner, who’s been married for 25 years and has two kids. “Sex therapy is much less costly than divorce and infidelity.”

Nevertheless, the cheapest route is still DIY.

4 Things You Get in Sex Therapy

To skip to the good part — or at least understand what you’re getting when you throw your date-night budget to the wind — here are four things a pro like Kerner would tell you and your partner if you splurged on sex therapy. (Plus, what you won’t get in sex therapy, so buyer beware.)

1. Prompts to Get You Talking About Sex

Kerner kicks off sessions by asking couples to recount the last time they had sex. “We live in a culture where we’re bombarded with sexual images, but we’re not actually having sexual discussions,” Kerner notes. After all, even the closest of couples can sometimes stay mum. As such, he helps duos narrate their “sex script,” or sequence of behaviors that constitute a sexual event, including where it happened, who initiated it, how partners became aroused, what they did, who had orgasms, and who didn’t.

Discussing how each partner felt each step of the way helps all parties understand why they’re in a rut so they can rebuild a sex life that’s mutually satisfying, Kerner explains.

2. Some Psychoeducation

Much of the work done in therapy for couples not having much sex involves correcting misconceptions around differences in desire, Kerner tells me. For instance, if you wanted sex all the time at the beginning of your relationship and now every time you turn on the TV you see couples throwing each other into each other’s arms, you might be thinking, Something’s wrong with me. But the truth, Kerner explains, is that the media inaccurately represents female desire, which can spur profound misunderstanding.

For women to get turned on IRL, he tells me, the part of the brain associated with stress and anxiety has to be turned off — and we all know that switch can be hard to find, let alone operate. While stress can really dampen the female sexual libido, that’s not typically the case for men.

Not to get all binary, but biologically, men tend to experience desire in a more spontaneous, highly reactive way. “They can see a sexual cue and be ready to go,” Kerner says.

When couples come to Kerner complaining that one partner has high desire and one has low, he helps them see that this is simply a difference between their respective desire frameworks — no one is damaged, undesirable, or disinterested. “A little psychoeducation goes a long way in helping couples get on the same team and create mutual understanding,” he says.

3. A Calendar Invite for Sex

While the thought of scheduling sex makes e-v-e-r-y-b-o-d-y cringe, Kerner calls bullshit on shooting for spontaneity — especially when children are in the picture. “When you have two kids, two jobs, and you’re stressed out, what in your life is spontaneous?” he asks, and don’t tell me you don’t feel seen. “Everything gets scheduled. Making time to get a colonoscopy but not to schedule sex is, to me, kind of ridiculous.”

The reason why we’re so opposed to scheduling sex is because there are plenty of times when one or both people just… don’t want to have sex. But in the spirit of valuing sex and wanting it to happen, “You’re going to have to replace desire with the willingness to put yourself through the motions of getting things going,” Kerner says.

As such, he suggests nailing down a “willingness window,” or block of time when you and your partner commit to connecting, warming things up, and being sexual with one another. You don’t have to have sex, he says, although he sometimes tacks on an extra assignment for couples who can’t quite get there. On the day of your willingness window, go about your day in a way that makes sex a priority, he suggests.

It’s actually quite simple: Maybe you get a good night’s sleep or a workout, choose foods that make you feel good, collaborate with one another on chores, avoid that intense conversation with your MIL, and do something fun that helps you both let loose a little. “This way, it’s not a matter of finding the energy; it’s about mustering the desire,” he says.

Next, you’ll want to create what Kerner calls an “arousal runway” that leads to the sexual experience you both want to have. “A lot of couples started off kissing and fooling around, and now they don’t even undress each other — they undress themselves,” Kerner notes. “You need to re-engage each other above the neck, above the waist, and psychologically.”

Discussing your sexual fantasies or remembering something that aroused you in the past can help bring your sexual selves out to play, he says. Alternatively, you can always outsource the effort by watching, reading, or listening to something sexy, like or Dipsea for audio erotica, or for erotic fiction. “Then get in bed together and see where your hands go,” he suggests.

4. A Deadline

At the end of the day, sex is an experience, not a convo. Meaning? “You’ve got to get to it, not just talk about it,” Kerner says. While he’s not that kind of therapist — you guys, this isn’t SATC! — he encourages couples to take action on their own time within three weeks, when he’ll often set a follow-up therapy session for accountability. Luckily, many of his clients don’t end up needing it.

“A couple can be touched out, tapped out, over-stretched, and struggling to find the energy to have sex,” he says. “But if they do it once, they might enjoy it and wonder, jeez, why aren’t we doing this more often?”

4 Things You *Won’t* Get in Sex Therapy

Even Kerner admits it: “Sex therapy can accomplish a lot, but it can’t accomplish the impossible.” Here’s what you won’t walk away with in sex therapy.

🙅‍♀️ 1. A Sex-less Solution

Cue the awkward birds-and-bees conversation your mom once sat you down for. Sex is, as she told you, important. “When we have sex, we feel good, and it’s a source of connectedness,” Kerner says. While he’s not going to force two uninterested partners to make it happen, he’s always going to shoot for some sort of physical solution.

That could mean editing your sex script, challenging sexual beliefs about, say, what gets you off, exploring non-monogamy, or planning a sexual adventure together, like going to a sex party or finding another couple to hook up with on Feeld, a dating app for non-traditional sex.

Regardless of which route you take, most sex therapists will encourage you to make moves that re-establish a healthy sex life. “It’s easy to lose the thread,” Kerner says, “but sex is a glue that gets you through the hard stuff and makes you feel connected, like a team.”

🙅‍♀️ 2. A Return Ticket to Your Sex Life Before Kids

Kerner calls a couple’s early sex life the infatuation phase. “It’s an evolutionary adaptation to help us procreate,” he explains. While erotic and exhilarating, it’s a pretty sh*tty benchmark for what sex is supposed to be, going so far as to call this delusion “misinformed.”

“That doesn’t mean couples can’t have a consistent, interesting, and exciting sex life. It’s just that it won’t continue with the same sense of newness because it’s not new,” he says. The good news: Couples can evolve organically from that kind of can’t-keep-your-hands-off-each-other business and make sex a more integrated part of their relationship, he says.

🙅‍♀️ 3. A Firm Sex Quota

Kerner isn’t about setting high-pressure sex goals. “You never want to put a number on it since there are so many different factors like age, lifestyle, and time,” he insists. “But I do think there’s something about having sex once a week that feels achievable and keeps you sexually connected.” Otherwise, one week becomes two, two becomes three…

“The more you let sex go, the more you feel pressure to have sex, and that pressure doesn’t have a positive effect on being a sexual person,” he warns.

🙅‍♀️ 4. Pressure to Do Things You Don’t Want to Do

Kerner isn’t here to turn you and your husband of 15 years into reborn porn stars. (Thank god, really!)

“You don’t have to have off-the-charts new and novel sex — just having that really nice weekly comfort sex can provide a foundation and opportunities to spice things up, be risky, and try something new,” Kerner tells me. When it’s mutually satisfying, he says, re-establishing that consistency can be plenty satisfying… especially if you and your partner can make it happen without footing the therapy bills.

While Kerner is all for trying, he urges couples not to stall indefinitely. “By the time most couples get to me, they’ve waited far too long,” he cautions. “I do the triage work to get couples out of pain and get the issue solved.”

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