We’re always hearing that we could be having better sex, a better orgasm, or a better relationship. But how often do we hear the nitty-gritty of how we can actually better understand our deepest desires and most embarrassing questions? Bustle has enlisted Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist, to help us out with the details. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions will remain anonymous. Please send your sex and relationship inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Now, onto this week’s topic: how to repair your sex life after a major fight.
Q: “Looking for a little advice and help here, in a tricky situation. My partner and I have been together for 5+ years and are deeply committed to each other, in love and life. About 4 months ago we hit a sexual roadblock, where we realized there was a disconnect that we needed to fix. Long story short; we worked through the issues, made much progress, identified the issues and their origins, and eventually worked toward the resolution. However, as we're trying to get back into the sack with each other, my partner is held up by bad associations from the time period of bad sex that led to our conflict. They want to move forward and still find me desirable sexually, but cannot disassociate me from the bad sex, which scares them and makes them nervous that sex will still be ‘that’ way. Do you have any advice for us on how to take steps towards recovering our sex life with each other?”
A: Thanks for the question! It sounds like the two of you have been really thoughtful and purposeful about repairing the issues between the two of you. Unfortunately, sexual issues can sometimes linger long after you think you’ve resolved them. It’s a bit challenging for me to answer your question without knowing the specific issues that came up, but here are seven general tips for repairing your sex life after a fight.
Make Red, Yellow, Green Lists
The first step is to get a better sense of what exactly is triggering the two of you. Think about all of the physical activities that you guys usually engage in. Write down everything from holding hands to having sex (whatever sex means to the two of you). First, create individual lists. For each activity, mark it as green (“I feel totally comfortable doing this”), yellow (“I sometimes feel comfortable doing this,” “it depends on the context,” or “I’m not sure”), and red (“I get triggered doing this”).
Once you’ve finished your lists separately, compare them, and create a master list. If there are any overlaps between what the two of you wrote, add them to this master list. So you should wind up with a list of everything the two of you feel completely safe doing, everything that feels somewhat safe, and the things that tend to be triggering.
Focus On Safe Activities
For now, I would recommend that the two of you spend time only doing the things on your “green” list. You both want to break the associations that you have between sex and negative outcomes, so you need to focus on the things that you feel most comfortable with. You want to rebuild the foundation between the two of you. If kissing and cuddling have always felt safe, spend oodles of time kissing and cuddling. If oral sex has always felt comfortable, go wild with it!
Keep in mind that this isn’t a perfect process, so there may be times where something that you both thought was “green” actually leads to a triggering experience. In that case, move the item to your “yellow” list, and don’t do it for now.
Have New Experiences
Another way to break the associations between sex and negativity is to have new experiences with each other. If you’ve never done something before, it can be harder to get triggered by it. After you’ve spent plenty of time on your “green” list items, see if there are any items that didn’t make it onto either of your lists.
For example, maybe the two of you have never played with sex toys before, or never given each other erotic massages. Try experimenting with those new activities! Again, this isn’t a perfect process, so something brand-new might be triggering as well. If that’s the case, you can decide together whether to put it in the “yellow” list or the “red” list.
Avoid Trigger Areas
Another thing to think about is location. I’ve worked with lots of couples who were dealing with negative associations, and one of the biggest triggers can actually be the bed! Since our beds are typically the most common places we have sex, it’s easy to start associating the bed, and even the entire bedroom, with negative feelings.
I would highly recommend taking your sex life outside of the bedroom for a little while. If you’re fortunate enough to have a guest room, hang out in there! If you have comfortable sofas, spend plenty of time cozied up. You can even get creative with this. Try setting up a sex nook in your living room. Put sofa cushions and blankets down on the floor. The main point is to get yourselves out of the bedroom, but there are also lots of good benefits to this as well. It can make intimacy feel more playful, and it can shake things up since most people don’t venture outside of the bedroom.
Take Steps To Ensure The Issue Doesn’t Happen Again
This is where it gets a bit challenging for me to give you advice, not knowing the specific problems that cropped up in your relationship. But in general, it’s good to see if there are any ways the two of you can be proactive about not getting to that place again. See if you can identify any of the variables that led to the issue in the first place, and if there’s any way for the two of you to be active about avoiding those things.
For example, if you have always had a hard time talking about sex, maybe you can make a commitment to see a therapist (more on this below), with a focus on learning better sexual communication techniques. Or maybe you can generally agree to see a therapist once a month, just as a “check-up.” If your problem was something like not having sex regularly, maybe you could schedule sex once or twice a week. If the issue was not prioritizing each other enough, you could agree to have a weekly date night. These are all just examples, but again, the idea is to see if there’s any way you can be proactive.
To be clear, you’re still going to have occasional ups and downs with each other, but making this effort will make both of you feel much better about yourselves and about each other. You’ll feel like you’re taking your commitments to each other seriously, and like you’re working as a team to keep having the best sex life you can have.
Go To Sex Therapy
Yep, you guessed it! You didn’t mention in your original email if the two of you ever went to therapy to work through your issues. Like I said above, it sounds like you’ve done a great job of working through things on your own. But it may help to see a sex therapist to address the lingering sexual issues. A sex therapist can give you more targeted, specific advice about breaking those associations and rebuilding your sexual connection.
Keep At It
Finally, I want to mention that it’s important to give it time. It sounds like the two of you went through a really intensive process sorting out all of these issues. It’s great that you were so active, but it’s also important to remember that healing just takes time. Any time you have a negative experience, keep reminding each other that you love each other, and you’re willing to stick by each other’s sides as you work towards getting back to normal.
Wishing you both the best of luck!