Maintaining a healthy sex life is not easy. Couples get into a routine and life gets busy. Add kids and demanding jobs to the equation, and maintaining any sort of intimacy is a daunting task. But however hard it might be, it's important. Good sex keeps couples connected and content. Luckily, there are tried-and-tested tips and strategies to help keep that spark alive.
For advice, we turned to sex therapists and relationship experts Cyndi Darnell and Kristie Overstreet. We also interviewed real women about how they maintain a healthy sex life with their partners (we changed their names to respect their privacy). Here is everything you need to know.
Meet the Expert
- Cyndi Darnell is a certified clinical sexologist, sex therapist, relationship counselor, and sex coach. She is the author of Sex When You Don’t Feel Like It: The Truth About Mismatched Libido and Rediscovering Desire and host of The Erotic Philosopher podcast.
- Dr. Kristie Overstreet Ph.D., LPCC, LMHC, LPC, CST, is a clinical sexologist, certified sex therapist, and psychotherapist. She is the author of Fix Yourself First and host of the Fix Yourself First podcast.
Signs of a Healthy Sex Life
It's hard to know what a healthy sex life is. If you're having sex once a month, is that positive? What if you are only having sex a few times a year, but you and your partner are content? Darnell says there is no one-size-fits-all definition of a healthy sex life. What is important is that you and your partner are happy and satisfied. "Consent and pleasure are the only clues," she shares. "Ask yourself, 'Is this nourishing me in some way?' If so, then you are on the right track. If not, ask yourself, 'What would make it better for me?'"
If you and your partner feel something is missing, don't worry, says Darnell. "In my 20 years of sex therapy, I have never met a sex problem that couldn't be resolved with kindness and education."
Tips for a Healthy Sex Life
1. Focus on Yourself
Having a positive relationship with others—whether that be a physical or emotional one—requires that we first work on the most important relationship of all: the one we have with ourselves. "Improve your connection with your sexual self-esteem," recommends Overstreet. "Focus on being your healthiest whole self with your sexual self." Try journaling to see what hang-ups you may be holding onto and then give those areas of your life some TLC. If you find that you're carrying any sexual shame, this would be the time to recognize and acknowledge it as you work through it. The resulting confidence will radiate outward, lifting all external relationships in kind.
2. Communicate Openly
When it comes to enjoying a healthy sex life, communication is everything. Talk to your partner about what you like, how much sex you want to have, and even how and where you like to do it. "Talk about pleasure," offers Darnell. "Talk about what turns you on and what turns you off with equal vigor." Many couples avoid the conversation because they don't want to offend their partner or admit something is lacking. But remember, nothing can be resolved until it is discussed openly. "Work on developing your ability to openly talk about what you like/don't like with sex," says Overstreet. "Speak up when your partner is doing something that feels good or doesn't feel good."
Darnell recommends talking about sex when you're not in bed and not naked. That way, the discussions will become a more regular, normal part of your life. "Talk about sex with the same freedom you talk about recipes and baseball," she adds. "That will reduce the stigma."
3. Educate Yourself
Before you tell your partner what you like, you need to know yourself. Darnell encourages her clients to educate themselves about sex and find out what they enjoy. "If you don't know what you like in bed, learn," she says. "Take classes and workshops with your partner. Masturbate. Watch porn. Talk about touch. Follow sexologists on Instagram for thousands of free tips daily." Overstreet echoes the importance of self-discovery. Take time to identify your turn-ons and turn-offs and explore what feels good to you.
4. Don't Judge
You both need to feel safe in order to open up and keep your sex lives healthy. That means no judging (yourself or your partner!). "Sex is sex. There are hundreds of ways to have sex," explains Darnell. "Focus on how you want to feel, not what judgment is placed upon the activities."
Do not assign blame if your sex lives aren't going well. Many couples struggle with intimacy, and it's very normal.
5. Don't Make It a Measure of Your Love
It also has nothing to do with how much you love each other and how committed you are to the relationship. "You have to cultivate connection and pleasure," says Darnell. "It will not fall out of the sky and love is not enough. You have to make it happen."
6. Work Through Resentment
If lack of communication, judgment, and blame have been common in your sexual relationship, it's possible that one, or both of you, are harboring some resentment. This can also be the case if one of you feels a sense of inequality. One partner may feel resentful of carrying the heavier load, whether that be the emotional baggage of a diminishing sex life or the physical responsibility of always being the one trying to resuscitate it. "Deal with your resentment and heal it, there's no shortcut," says Overstreet. "You've got to do the work individually and as a couple. It takes time and work but is so worth it if you want to remain in the relationship."
7. Build Trust
When trust between two people deteriorates, so does sexual wellness. If there is a trust issue that's been festering, it needs to be reconciled and healed. Open communication, compassionate honesty, and perhaps the help of a therapist can help. "Ask yourself if you want to truly be in this relationship," says Overstreet. "It requires both people committing to show up more days than not to do the work. If both are on board, then begin to explore the 12 types of intimacy and what each of your needs are. As you identify what you want more of and listen to what your partner wants more of, then you can collaborate on working on each of the types. What you'll find is when emotional intimacy and communication intimacy improves so does physical intimacy because all of these are based in trust."
Overstreet lists feeling too stressed to be in the mood for physical intimacy as one of the most common reasons why couples stop having sex. While eliminating the stressors altogether may not be realistic (quitting your job, for example), there are techniques that can help build your resilience and response to such stimuli. Meditation, mindfulness techniques, practicing being present, and breathwork have all been proven to decrease stress levels. Having those stressors under control may in turn contribute positively to one's libido.
9. Be Active Together
We all know that a good workout not only helps with stress but also releases an endorphin rush for a more lifted mood and positive mindset. But including your partner in the activity can have benefits all its own. "Doing something active together helps you feel closer," explains Overstreet. "You're working toward the same goal to be your healthiest self and this is a turn-on."
10. Compliment Each Other
Flattery can go a long way, especially when that person is your spouse. Who doesn't immediately feel all warm and fuzzy when their partner notices something nice about them or vocalizes their reverence for you? Overstreet notes that this boosts confidence and validates that you're doing a great job being you, in turn improving all areas of self-esteem.
11. Get Flirty
That's right, we're taking it way back to the start of the relationship when casually flirting with each other was the most exhilarating experience. "Who doesn't want to feel wanted or desired?" asks Overstreet. "Flirting can bring back fun to your relationship." Plus, it will remind you of the very beginning when you couldn't wait to get your hands on each other.
Typically, when a couple's sex life is on the decline, kissing is the first thing to go out the door. Make a point of reintroducing it into your daily routine, and build up to kissing more often and for longer. According to Overstreet, this form of physical touch is important to build trust, freedom, and fun in a relationship.
13. Engage in Casual, Non-Sexual Touches
Building a life together can often make you underestimate the power of simple touch. Holding hands, rubbing your partner's back, walking with your arms around each other, or cuddling during a movie are all ways to maintain physical contact without necessitating a culmination in intercourse. "It builds up connection and trust by showing that you can touch one another and there isn't the expectation that it has to lead to sex," explains Overstreet. Plus, this is especially important if one of your love languages is physical touch.
14. Be Spontaneous
"Long-term relationships become monotonous and it can feel like every day is the same, which doesn't entice excitement," says Overstreet. "You get used to being around one another so much and seeing, as well as experiencing, all of the areas of their life that you begin to feel more like roommates than life partners." Shake up the status quo by doing something completely different. "It doesn't have to be something huge, just by changing up a few small things can make a big difference."
15. Make Foreplay a Priority
We've all heard the comedic anecdotes of nonexistent foreplay in marriage, and there's a whole lot of truth to them. Once couples get stuck in a routine, foreplay is quickly forgotten. As a result, the entire buildup of excitement—and arousal—is no longer present which results in less satisfying sex. This is especially the case for those that primarily feel a responsive desire (instead of spontaneous desire) where seduction is a major component of arousal. "You can't bake a cake without preheating the oven," says Overstreet. "The same is true with foreplay, it's mandatory."
16. Read Erotic Stories Together
Speaking of foreplay, consuming erotic content together can help increase both of your levels of arousal. Whether you prefer the written word, more visual stimulation, or audiobooks, enjoying the storytelling together can liven up your sexual relationship. "It forces you to visualize, dream, and fantasize through the words while activating a different part of your brain," explains Overstreet. "Your brain is your biggest sex organ, so use it!"
17. Share Fantasies With Each Other
In a similar vein, sharing your own personal fantasies with your partner can open up a world of pleasure. While this may be quite scary at first, it's a wonderful way of building and enhancing connection with your spouse. "It brings back excitement and what's possible when you're vulnerable with one another," adds Overstreet.
18. Experiment With Toys or Roleplaying
Staleness and monotony in long-term relationships are just not sexy. Spice things up by introducing new concepts in the bedroom, such as trying out toys or a whole new persona between the sheets. "Changing things up helps you better connect because you're trying activities together," says Overstreet. "And it serves as a way to enhance pleasure." Just make sure to discuss what you're willing to try and what doesn't do it for you beforehand to avoid any awkward moments during the act.
19. Create a Sexy Bucket List
"This is a great way to dream and fantasize without the pressure of actually having to check off all the items," says Overstreet. "It's a safe place to share these activities with one another. Be sure to decide that just because you put them on your list, they don't have to happen."
20. Consider Maintenance Sex
While the idea of whirlwind rendezvous is far more, well, sexy, being intentional about your sex life can have a resounding impact. Scheduling maintenance sex holds you accountable for being there for your partner, reduces the burden of incompatible sex drives, and minimizes the risk of being too busy to remember to get busy since you've already carved out the time for it. Plus, just knowing when it's going to happen builds anticipation and excitement.
21. Seek Professional Help if Needed
If you are unsatisfied with your sex life, you are far from alone. "Many people have problems with sex because most of us grew up in a culture that taught us that balancing a checkbook was more important than creating harmonious sexual relationships," admits Darnell.
If you and your partner have tried to talk about your problems and it hasn't made things better, or if you are struggling to have the conversation altogether, you might want to seek professional help. "Having problems with sex is normal. Ignoring the problems is a choice," she shares. "Most sex problems are resolved with meaningful adult sex education provided by a sexologist or sex counselor or coach."
How to Keep Intimacy Alive in Your Marriage
Here is wisdom from two real-life women about how they keep intimacy alive in their marriages.
Sarah: With her husband for 15 years. Married for nine years.
As two working adults with stressful careers and young children, by the time we're done with work, feeding the kids, bath time, putting them to bed, we are mentally exhausted (and maybe physically as well). On the weekends, there is always something going on with the kids or friends or family.
As with anything that is important to you, you have to make having sex a priority, even if it’s something as "unsexy" as scheduling it. For example, we realized we were just having sex once a week on weekends, so we decided to have sex every Wednesday. Now, we both know that Wednesday is a sex date, and even if we’re tired, we have sex. Once we start, it’s great!
We also do our best to get away, just the two of us, even if it’s just for a couple of nights. It really allows us to get grounded as a couple and relax and focus on each other. We also schedule date nights once every two to three weeks.
I think it’s also important to continue making each other feel wanted. We do things like give small compliments. As cheesy as it sounds, you should continue to court each other.
We try to communicate what we need to feel satisfied sexually. For example, my husband likes to experiment with sex toys on me, and I like to have sex with him while watching porn. It's spiced up our sex life.
Rebecca: With her husband for 17 years. Married for nine years.
Whatever excitement exists when you are dating, engaged, and then in early marriage has to be replaced by a more purposeful decision to prioritize your relationship. I think a lot of it is making sure you still feel sexy and think about sex. If sex doesn't remain a top-of-mind priority, I think it's easy to ignore it and forget its importance. I think we all expect immediate attraction to our partner to do the work for us, but long-term relationships obviously don't work like that after the first few years.
For women, it's often more of a mental game than anything else, so you need to figure out what gets you in the mood. Personally, I love reading rom-coms that are a bit steamy. I think women need to be more willing to experiment to figure out what works for them, both mentally and physically—be it novels, vibrators, lubricants, positions, porn, whatever. It isn't your partner's job to get inside your head—do your own work.
We are lucky to live in the age of the internet where even the most squeamish people can Google questions without having to actually ask anyone in person. Come up with ideas and then communicate them to your partner, no matter how uncomfortable you feel verbalizing those ideas. The more you talk about what you want, the more comfortable you will get, and the easier it will be to get in the mood with your partner.
The reason you married this specific person is for friendship and sex. So much of the bond in a marriage is because of that intimacy that you only share with each other—so if that portion of it falls by the wayside, then you are reducing your marriage to nothing more than a friendship or even a child-rearing business proposition. You are never too busy to have sex a few times a week because there shouldn't be a higher priority. Think of your own sexual pleasure as a necessary part of your life, like showering and eating (you wouldn't get so busy with work or kids that you forgot to shower, right?).