Is Sex With Your Partner Getting Boring?
Even in an otherwise healthy relationship, it’s possible for sex to get a little, well, stale. According to a study published in January 2023 in the journal Innovation in Aging, in people over age 40, just 56 percent of heterosexual adults and 52 percent of sexual minority adults (homosexual, bisexual, or other) said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their sex life.
So why are only half of people, regardless of sexual orientation, happy with their sex life? If you’ve just recently, or occasionally, noticed a slump, it may not be cause for alarm. “It's important to remember that you might be going through a phase, whether it's illness, something hormonal, or something in your family or work life — there's a million reasons that your sex life might be impacted, and that doesn't mean that it's always going to be that way,” says Shoshana Bulow, PhD, a psychotherapist and licensed sex therapist in private practice in New York City. If you’ve had so-so or bad sex since the beginning of the relationship and have chosen to stay in it, though, you may want to ask yourself why you’ve been willing to overlook it until now.
A ho-hum sex life may be as simple as not wanting to make your partner feel like they are doing something wrong. “What I've noticed is that when folks come to see me, a lot of times they may be a little fearful of expressing their displeasure about sex with their partner because they don't want to hurt their feelings,” says De-Andrea Blaylock-Solar, LCSW, a certified sex therapist and owner of Sankofa Sex Therapy in St. Louis.
When we learn about the birds and the bees, we probably aren’t taught how to have a frank discussion with our partner about sex and what exactly we want. But being able to do this just takes a little practice — and the right tools.
What Is Spectatoring? Sexual disconnect is one of the main reasons couples land in sex therapists’ offices. In fact, it happens so frequently that there’s actually a term for it: spectatoring.
“Spectatoring refers to the experience of watching yourself from the third person during sex. From that perspective, we judge ourselves on how we are performing during sex,” says Seneka LaBonde, LMFT, a sexuality therapist and educator at PHIIRST in Philadelphia. “This can be judging the body, specific body parts, or any other perceived inadequacies.”
Many people are not completely happy with their bodies, so if you're a little self-conscious during sex, that's normal. But it can help to put yourself back in the moment to fully enjoy it and share it with your partner, by focusing on touch and what feels good, suggests Dr. Bulow.
When the rest of your relationship is good, is it really worth speaking up about the lack of fireworks you’re feeling in the bedroom?
The answer, simply put, is yes. It’s part of the unique bond you share with your partner.
“In a monogamous relationship, sex is the one intimacy that you can't have with someone else,” says Bulow. “You can travel with someone else, you can confide in someone else, but you're not having sex with someone else.”
Here are seven ways to strengthen your sexual bond with your partner and have better sex.
1. Get to Know Yourself, Intimately Do you even know what turns you on? Many people haven’t taken the time to figure this out. And if you don’t know, you aren’t going to be able to guide your partner to do it either. “Take time for yourself, to explore your own body, its likes and dislikes,” suggests LaBonde. Self-touch and masturbation can help you determine what you’d like your partner to do, and it can help you take control of your sex life instead of leaving everything up to your partner. “Mostly, we are responsible for our pleasure,” says LaBonde.
2. Quit Faking the Big O At some point, you may have faked an orgasm to make your partner happy — or because you’re tired and just want to move on from sex to other things on your to-do list. While the occasional fake-out may be understandable, it isn’t a good long-term strategy for your relationship. “Essentially, it's lying to your partner,” says Blaylock-Solar.
And while you think it may be doing your partner a favor, you probably aren’t. “More importantly, you are teaching your partner to stimulate you in ways that don’t work, thus setting up a negative feedback loop that is hard to get out of,” adds LaBonde. “It’s better to talk about your expectations for sex and orgasm before you start.”
Orgasm doesn't have to be the barometer by which we measure sex, notes Blaylock-Solar. “Although orgasms are great, they are not necessary to have a good time.” Instead, think of orgasm sex as just one of the types of sex you and your partner can have. “You can have a lot of pleasurable experiences without orgasm, and it tends to take the pressure off of the situation,” she adds.
3. Speak Up, But Do It Nicely As children, we all learned that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Which is fine when Great Aunt Gertrude gives you a puce, hand-knitted sweater.
But staying silent doesn’t apply to your bedroom partner; so you’ll need to find a way to speak your mind when it comes to sex — tactfully.
“I really don't like when people say to their partner, ‘Oh, you couldn't make me come.’ Well, first of all, you're responsible for your own orgasm,” says Blaylock-Solar. “But also, it makes it sound like it's a character flaw in your partner that you're not getting what you need, when you may just have to have a conversation about it.”
Instead, focusing on the positive can be a key way to get through to your partner. Rather than focusing on what they are doing that you don’t like, “Respond to touch that you like positively,” advises LaBonde. “You can also suggest your partner try a new thing — ‘My friend told me about …’ is always a good way in.” Do this from a positive place. “Treat it as something new to try, rather than something they are doing wrong to fix.”
4. Tell — and Show Even if you wish they could, your partner can’t read your mind. That goes for every aspect of your relationship, especially sex. This goes back to reaffirming the positive. “You can say something like, ‘I really love it when you touch me here, and, I'd love more of that,’” suggests Bulow. You can also show your partner how you like to be touched using your own hands.
Of course, some people can be more sensitive to this than others. “Sometimes people do say things in a really nice way and their partner still feels like their sexual ego gets hurt,” says Bulow.
In that case, you may need to have a more extensive conversation — about how you two can talk about sex. "I think it's reasonable to say, 'We need to talk about how to best have those conversations, because my goal is not to criticize or to hurt you, or to offend you. And I also don't want to feel like I can't tell you how I feel. So how can we do this better?'" says Bulow. This often helps your partner realize this isn't about them doing something wrong.
5. Check in With Your Partner When you and your partner are both sexually satisfied, it’s bound to help you feel more connected. So once you’ve figured out what you like and how to express this to your partner, make sure they are feeling fulfilled too. All you have to do is ask. “Check in after sex. Be open and nonjudgmental to their desires and interests,” suggests LaBonde. “Speak up for your desires and wants, and advocate for yourself. Encourage your partner to do the same.”
Of course, it may not be easy to hear if your partner feels like something is lacking. “Try to receive what your partner is saying, understanding that it's not necessarily criticism of you as a person but an opportunity for them to express what it is that they're wanting and needing from their sexual experiences,” says Blaylock-Solar.
While some sexual requests may be a hard "no" for one of you, others might be more along the lines of, "I could try it; I can't promise, but I am open to trying." And you two may choose to incorporate something in your sex life even if it isn't one person's favorite, such as something that may seem boring or perhaps too kinky for one partner but feels exciting for the other. "No one should feel pathologized or put down for what they like or what they find sexually fulfilling," says Bulow. "It's important for everyone to feel like their fantasies, their erotic scripts, their thoughts, and their needs are heard and incorporated into their sex life."
6. Let Go of the Fantasy of Spontaneous Sex To try out your new moves, you’re going to need some time for sex. And while many people think sex can be spontaneous, like in romance novels and erotica, it rarely is. When you’re dating, you’re taking extra care with your appearance, washing your bed sheets, and following other steps in anticipation of sex, Bulow says. That’s far from spontaneous.
One issue may be the way we view sex: In a study published in February 2023 in The Journal of Sex Research, when people assumed that sex has to be spontaneous to be enjoyable, they felt less sexually satisfied with planned sex. But when people believed that planned sex was satisfying, they enjoyed having planned sex just as much as spontaneous sex.
“A sex researcher named Jack Morin stated, 'Routine is the secret, it's not the culprit,’” says Bulow. While it may not sound sexy, carving out a certain night of the week — or whatever frequency and time you and your partner want — can actually help your sex life. A regular date or sex night can help relieve the pressure of figuring out when you’ll have sex in your busy week.
Within that time, you can be spontaneous, like lighting candles in the room, trying out a new massage oil, or anything that might be a turn on for you or your partner. “When we plan for something and think about the details of it, it makes it special,” Bulow adds.
7. It’s Okay if It’s Awkward to Talk About Sex Some of us are more comfortable talking about sex than others. If having these conversations makes you blush, that’s okay. They are still worth having. “Embrace the awkwardness and know that everyone struggles to talk about these things,” says LaBonde. “Give each other space and grace to miscommunicate and to work through it. It gets easier the more you do it.”