This Is What We Do When Our Sex Life Sucks

Fifteen years in, we’ve learned a few things

by Maddie Eisenhart, Chief Revenue Officer

Woman in mint green panties and black and white striped shirt lying on white sheet next to Judy Blume book Are You There God? It's Me Margaret

A few weeks ago, we published a fantastic (if I do say so) piece on improving your sex life when you’re in a long-term relationship. It was backed by lots of research from really smart people whose job it is to think about sex professionally (sexperts, if you will). I worked on that piece and thought it provided some great really great nuggets of advice. But between you and me? I also thought that maybe, in the midst of all of those nuggets of wisdom, some very simple tips and tricks were missing. Because here’s the deal: I’ve been married to my partner for nearly ten years, and we’ve been together for almost sixteen (yup, since high school). And over the years I’ve learned some really basic things about keeping your sex life healthy and what sex in a long-term relationship can look like. Including (bum bum bum) what happens when things are… not so hot.

Because spoiler alert: there will be dry spells. (And that’s okay.)

I recognize that I’m something of an anomaly when it comes to sex. I grew up without the understanding that sex is something to be ashamed about. (Don’t ask me how. My parents weren’t nudists or anything. But I credit a healthy dose of Judy Blume Books and early access to HBO.) I told one of my first boyfriends that I wouldn’t give him a blowjob until he gave me an orgasm. I bought a vibrator more or less the day I got my license. And in high school, I carried an entire box of condoms in my purse at all times. Because you just never know who might need one and when. (Ask me about the various times that got awkward in front of my family.) In short, I refused to sit in the passenger seat of my own pleasure. And I ended up marrying someone who celebrates that.

In that respect, I think teenage Maddie had something figured out that I didn’t even realize would be so important until now: marrying a sex positive person helps a lot when things are less than perfect. And by sex positive, I just mean someone who doesn’t think of sex as something to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. Because when your sex life takes a dip, it’s really helpful to tackle the problem from the standpoint that it’s just another normal part of any relationship, like money or chores or family dynamics.

But that’s easier said than done. (If sex positivity is your particular struggle right now, and you’re trying to figure out how to broach the topic with your partner, this thread is a good place to start.) I see this often in the comments when we talk about sex here. Is the sex not great right now? Can you even talk about it without someone’s ego getting bruised? Is it possible that you just aren’t sexually compatible? Maybe you don’t even like sex that much! Of course, there are no simple one-size-fits-all answers to those questions, but here are a few of the things I’ve learned.

1. The long haul will not be a straight line

Sexual relationships have an ebb and flow, and they are personal and reflective of the stage of life you’re in right now. The first time our sex life dipped (when our dog was really sick and my commute sucked), I freaked out. Was our marriage on the rocks? (No.) Did we even like each other anymore? (Yes.) Life just sucked at that point. Now, as we progress further into our marriage, I freak out less when things dip a little, because I have faith (and historical evidence) that things will pick back up again in the future. Case in point: we had a baby five months ago. Sex was a no-go for several months leading up to birth, and we’re working our way back into it now. It’s pretty infrequent, but the quality of sex is way better when we have it, and that’s cool for now.

2. You define what is good for you

A while back, we posed this question to our community: Does sex really matter that much in a relationship? There was quite a bit of disagreement in the comments about the importance of sex. And I think maybe that’s because the question isn’t quite right. The better question is this: Does sex really matter that much in your relationship? If the answer is yes, then whatever comes next in your thought process is valid. Maybe it’s, “Yes, but it’s not great right now.” Or, “No, and we’re just trying to survive this period of our lives so that’ll do for now.” Or maybe it’s, “We’re not super sexual, but our levels are compatible with each other and we’re satisfied.” It’s important that you and your partner are aligned, and if you’re not, I think that’s when you consider if this is part of your natural ebb and flow, or if there is something bigger going on. (Are we talking a short-term incompatibility here? Or is it the kind of misalignment that would benefit from some conversation and maybe even professional help? The first step is figuring out how to talk about it.) But what you don’t have to be is aligned with where you were three years ago, or where Cosmo says you should be.

3. Sometimes the simplest answer is the best answer

When we’re in a rut, it’s easy to over-analyze and make sex mean everything. But that often adds more pressure, which in turn makes it harder to get out of the rut. So now my go-to is to simply initiate sex and see what happens. And I’m not talking the kind of creative, full-body latex and melted chocolate kind of initiating from the magazines of my youth. In our house, sex can be initiated by such activities as 1) doing the other person’s chores; 2) wearing yoga pants that show off your butt; 3) watching too much Grey’s Anatomy; and 4) saying the words, “We should probably have sex today.” (Or next Thursday. Because scheduling sex can still be sexy.) Or if we’re already having sex and want to spice things up, trying something new (never underestimate the power of couch/kitchen floor/back of the car sex).

I hate the stereotype that marriage always ends in bed death. I think it just makes things worse when you’re wondering if this slow period in your sex life is going to last for-e-ver. For me, I’ve found that married sex just gets… different, over time. In a lot of ways, it’s better. So much better. And thank God for that. Because at least in my case, my husband and I met as horny teenagers. And it really doesn’t get much worse than that.

how do you and your partner cope with dry spells in your sex life? how has your sex life changed since you’ve been together? As always, feel free to post anonymously! (just make sure to log out of disqus when you do.)

Maddie Eisenhart

Maddie is APW’s Chief Revenue Officer. She’s been writing stories about boys, crushes, and relationships since she was old enough to form shapes into words, but received her formal training (and a BS) from NYU in Entertainment and Mass Media in 2008. She now spends a significant amount of time thinking about trends on the internet and whether flower crowns will be out next year. A Maine native, she currently lives on a pony farm in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband Michael, their son Lincoln, and an obnoxious mastiff named Gaia. Current hair color: Natural (gasp!)

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  • Anon

    I’ve always loved these APW sex talks :D Seven years into our relationship, I’ve definitely experienced the ebbs and flows that Maddie talks about, but ultimately, things are pretty good and my hubby and I still manage to make each other very happy in bed. I think what I have absolute terror about thought- and I’m glad Maddie brought it up – is sex post kids. We are currently childless but gearing up to start fertility treatments next year. I’m really nervous about a whole lot of aspects about becoming parents, but honestly one of my biggest fears is the doom and gloom I keep hearing from EVERYONE in my life about how having kids ruins your sex life (and basically ruins your whole marriage) and that if we have kids we’ll never have sex again, or never good sex anyway. And I find this whole narrative so depressing. I keep thinking that this won’t be us – but ultimately we don’t know how it will be because we’ve never been there. Sex has always been an extremely important part of my husband’s and my relationship – TMI, we met through the BDSM community – it’s a huge part of both of our identities. Also, while I know many couples who’ve dealt with infertility find it to negatively impact their sex life, for us it’s actually brought us much closer, made sex better in a strange way – now that we know that our future children will almost certainly NOT result from sex, it’s taken all the pressure off. Sex is not about procreation for us, just as it never has been – it’s just for the two of us. And it’s awesome. But I have this terror about it all ending as soon as we have kids. None of our close friends have kids (definitely none of our kinky friends have kids) and I’ve frankly never seen many healthy role models of couples that are parents. I feel like it’s completely uncharted territory. It’s wonderful to hear these positive stories from APW; it helps counteract some of that cultural narrative of doom.

    • anon2

      It’ll be fine! When your kiddo is very young (like less than 3 months) you’ll have people offering to babysit so you can “go out to dinner” or whatever, and see if you can convince them to take the baby out somewhere instead so you can have the house to yourself for some uninterrupted partner time. But by the time a baby is 3 months old they should be going to bed around 7 or 8, so your evenings won’t be so baby-focused. And (blushing while I write this, I’m normally not this open even when posting anonymously!) if you breastfeed, the chance of leaking while you’re having sex can actually add in another fun kinky element.

  • On an Up-Swing

    I would highlight that dry spells can be caused by birth control or other medications. My partner and I had an awesome sex life and then we went through a number of life changes and I completely lost my libido, though I still found my partner to be sexy. I wasn’t sure if it was stress, depression, etc so I didn’t do anything for a couple of years (and my partner was awesomely supportive during all that time). A few months ago I switched birth control methods and it was like a light switch. We are completely back on track. So if it is a possibility, you might want to explore it earlier than I did.

    Now that we are having a ton of great sex again, I can say that one of the best things about married life is that you have the time and increasingly deeper levels of intimacy to get to know your partner better than you’ve ever known anyone, which makes sex amazing. Spending a lifetime getting to develop the best sex life with a single person is one of my favorite goals. (I recognize that is monogamous-centric – no disrespect to any poly people here.) And I also have the space to get to know myself and explore my own turn-ons in a way I didn’t allow myself to when I was younger and dating. So basically married sex is so much better than I ever anticipated.

    • Kerry

      I would love to know what birth control you were on before and what you switched to that made all the difference? I was on the Mirena for years and when I took it out as we were trying for a baby (took us a year and a half to conceive) it was like someone had switched on a lightbulb and I was horny like I hadn´t been in years. After the baby is born, I am sceptical about going back on the Mirena, as there will be enough other factors affecting our sex life and I don´t need to add in another libido-killer… but am unsure of what else to use.

      • Up-Swing

        I went from using Nexplanon (a 3 year arm implant) to Ortho Tri-cyclen Lo (a daily pill). Hope it helps!

        • Amie Melnychuk

          Interesting, because Tri-cyclen Lo made me batshit crazy. Like manic depressive crazy. It wasn’t until I switched to Marvelon that I levelled out and became a normal person again. My libido went through the roof when I went off the pill when we tried to conceive with both kids.

          Now it’s almost time for me to go back on as I’m nearing the end of breastfeeding, but I still want a libido but I do not want the acne. Hubs is getting snipped, too, so the hormonal control is more for my sake.

      • Brittany

        Following this because I also use the Mirena and my sex drive has been doooown the past few years.

        • CMT

          Mirena definitely kills my libido. But also I don’t have to remember to take a pill every day . . .

      • anon

        If you’re happy with a non-hormonal option, the copper iud is great. I heard horror stories about it causing heavier bleeding and painful periods but it was one of the few options available to me for medical reasons and I’ve been really happy with it. My periods were heavier and more painful initially but they settled down in 3-6 months and now they’re pretty much back to normal.

      • KBN

        Following as well – I think this is happening to me!

    • Sarah


      • AB

        +1 on the copper IUD Paragard for anyone hesitant about hormonal birth control, for this reason or others. The insertion can hurt and I do have to be on top of painkillers for cramps, but I had reason to believe that I would respond poorly emotionally & sexually to one of the hormonal IUDs. I also had heavier-than-average periods before getting the IUD, and they did get a little worse but not much. My doctor had strongly recommended Mirena, and at the time I was hesitant about whether “I’m worried it will change how I feel” is a valid reason to ask for alternatives. But it totally is.

        • Anna

          “I’m worried it will change how I feel” is 10000% a valid reason to ask for alternatives, and I’m really glad that the Paragard is working for you. It seems like a lot of doctors are down on it and very into the Mirena and similar ones, and like… different people require different birth control options. The insertion isn’t going to feel like an ice cream sundae either way :-P

          Note to anyone who hasn’t been thrilled with non-IUD forms of hormonal birth control (like me), though: the Mirena might still be fine for you. The Paragard wasn’t going to work for me for other weird body reasons, and I got the Mirena and I haven’t had any of the side effects I’d had on previous hormonal BC options (all progesterone-only, because I get migraines so estrogen is a no-no; apparently it can increase the risk of stroke in people who get migraines… but any long-term BC is going to be progesterone-only anyway, since long-term estrogen exposure can be risky).

      • Anonymoose

        I changed from Estelle to the Copper IUD 21 months ago to try to raise my libido and… it worked! It’s been slow and steady, but my libido has grown since then – not sure when it’s going to stop but it’s now getting distracting, it’s constantly telling me to have sex even when I’m trying to do work (it’s like being 17 again, basically) … and I became way happier – I hadn’t even realized the pill was affecting my mood.
        But I do have 2 weeks on, 2 weeks off periods now. Not, like.. fully on for the whole two weeks, but a little heavier than spotting for a week, then a week like a regular period. And the pain is way worse than it was (although I’m currently on super strong anti-inflammatories for something else and boy does that help). I feel like I should try the Mirena to treat the bleeding, but I’m worried about the hormones destroying me again…

        • jem

          I can’t recommend the book womancode by Alisa Vitti enough if you’re struggling with hormone issues! It has helped me sooo much (although some of her opinions/recommendations I take with a grain of salt)

        • Anna

          I had three-weeks-on, three-weeks off periods on the Nexplanon implant, a lot like you’re describing (where some of that time was a little heavier than spotting and some was regular period), and then switched to the Mirena and now I have minimal periods (like, basically spotting; I only even need to use my DivaCup at all for about one in three periods) on a normal 28-to-30-day cycle. Basically every other hormonal side effect I had from the minipill (which I was on before Nexplanon) or the Nexplanon is completely undetectable. The levels of added hormones in your bloodstream from the Mirena are super minimal because mostly it just acts directly where it is. YMMV, but it’s been nothing but a wonderful experience for me.

        • Sarah

          SAME to the mood thing – I had started a job I hated ~ 1 year before I switched and after the change I noticed I was smiling and laughing at work – something I NEVER had done previously. It made me happy my life wasn’t total trash but also sad I’d missed out on good times bc of stupid hormones that weren’t even freaking mine.

          As for the bleeding, there are other options now that have lower hormone dosages than the mirena, like the Kyleena and another one I can’t remember the name of. Me & 2 girlfriends all have different iud’s and we all love them. And now you know what your baseline is for libido/mood, so you could nip any changes in the bud? (Though you’d potentially have to go through multiple iud insertions which FUCK THAT.)

    • Laura

      I’ve heard tons of people say that birth control killed their libido, so I was super pumped to go off it a couple of months ago. And…..nothing changed. So just to note that sometimes (sadly) a birth control change is not the solution.

      • Aubry

        Yeah, that was disappointing for me too. It’s actually so much worse off BC. I had the copper IUD for over a year and it was terrible!! I’m so glad it works for some people but OMG I was in so much pain constantly. I went back on my beloved hormones for a while and recently went off them. My sex drive bottomed out hard, like it was a bit scary. It now peaks around ovulation time (and by peaks I mean like back to slightly higher than BC levels) and then tanks to less than zero after periods and maybe 25% of normal in post ovulation weeks. I’m hoping it will continue to even out as my body adjusts to being off of them.

  • Ella

    When we’re in a low-sex time, I find it helpful to make sure that we’re still being physically intimate even if it’s not sexual. It takes the pressure off.

    • Anna

      Agreed, although sometimes my husband takes this too far and will start down a sexual path (playing with my nipples, grabbing my ass) even if he’s not actually up for anything further than that, and as the one who’s usually hornier, that’s difficult. I get super worked up and then (best case scenario) go to the bedroom and get myself off while he watches TV or plays video games, or (worst case scenario) it kicks off a huge argument about how I’m only with him for the sex (…fortunately, it’s been years since we went in that direction, although sometimes he does still get a little miffed when I’m like “entertain yourself for half an hour, you got me all turned on and if you’re not going to do anything about it, I’ll do it myself”).

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  • Anon

    I’m so glad this stuff gets talked about here. A relative low-point is something my partner and I have been dealing with lately but it’s caused/complicated by medical stuff. I have vulvodynia (for the uninitiated- basically, even normal touch hurts) and haven’t been managing it well (or at all) for the last few years. Personally that adds a huge layer of shame on top for me, as in theory it should be “fixable” but reality doesn’t work quite as smoothly. Obv there’s stuff other than penetration, but the shame + previous pain = huge mental block when it comes to sexy time. Lately it’s starting to pick up a little bit and we’re getting more relaxed together again, which is great, but it’s been hugely frustrating overall.

    No real question here, I guess, just throwing it out there in case anyone else ever feels alone in this kind of struggle.

    • Anon

      I also suffered from vulvodynia and it was really hard to find a doctor who understood it. I finally did and she put me on a low dose (5 mg per day) of tri cyclen antidepressant (Amitriptilyne). I was on it for about 8 months, and while there were some side effects (dry mouth, drowsiness), it resolved the issue, which has not come back since. I’ve also heard that you can obtain it in a topical form that can be applied directly to the Bartholin’s glands and thereby avoid the side effects. Not sure if you’ve tried this already but I wanted to share it because it really helped me. It is such a difficult thing to deal with and not many gynecologists understand it or how to treat it. It was a terribly stressful condition to deal with and I hope you find a therapy that works for you.

      • anonabove

        Thanks for the input! I’m so glad to hear it’s resolved for you! (Also that blows my mind, this has been a since-forever-feels-never-ending thing for me.)

        I feel like I’m fairly well versed on gyn-health stuff at this point but I had never even heard of Bartholin’s glands and that’s EXACTLY where my worst pain is! Will def. talk to my MD about it… when I find one a new one. I’ve gone through a couple in my city already and haven’t been too impressed so far. (One woman jumped right to giving me a too-big dilator in our first appointment and it was…. unpleasant, to say the least.) Crossing my fingers that the next person I see works out.

    • anonvaginismus

      Hi there. I feel you. I am fairly sure I have vaginismus (the doc couldn’t even get far in enough to make a certain diagnosis) and the shaaaaaame. It’s like the childhood shame I felt if I thought about anything sexual compounded with the shame that I’m “broken” when it comes to sex because I can’t handle penetration. I have my first PT appt on Monday for pelvic floor and I have no idea what’s going to happen. Thankfully I have a gyn who referred me both to PT and to talk therapy.
      I get you with the frustration. It can be hard to overcome shame even enough to seek help.
      I’m also glad APW is a space where these kinds of things are open. Idk what I would do without it.

      • JRL

        I was diagnosed with vaginismus after a year and a half of very frustrating doctors appointments. My doctor referred me to PT and also Botox injections (yes, down there!). PT is about as awkward as you would expect, but by that point I was so desperate for relief I was willing to try anything! Thankfully, I’ve been free of symptoms for almost 5 years. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.

      • vaginismanon

        Fellow vaginismus sufferer here. The quality of advice you’ll get is variable but working with a good sex therapist is what really helped me, and getting some prescription dildos, because nothing is funnier than prescription dildoes. Getting past the shame is important, and as you do that you’ll find that the physical therapy practices become easier to make yourself do, even if it doesn’t actually progress any more quickly. I still find I need a bit more stretching than I’d like, and if we skip that I regret it, but otherwise penetration isn’t a bit deal to me any more.

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