There's no drama, no fighting. You've been together for years, raised kids and pets. The love is still there, but the spark just isn't. As months drift into years, you realize: You're in a sexless marriage.
Most married couples don't really know what to expect of a long-term relationship, says Diane Solee, MSW, a former marriage counselor who is the founder and director of Smartmarriages.com. She is also director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education.
"It's so normal to hit the doldrums. In a way, you should be smug about it," Solee tells WebMD. "You have a partner who is not bringing drama into your life. You're not going to alcohol or cocaine treatment classes. You are in a very good place. Realizing all that, your job is to get out of the doldrums. You may have gotten into a rut."
There's more at stake than simply boredom. Very often, couples are headed toward a bigger disconnect in the marriage -- and possibly divorce, says Pepper Schwartz, PhD, professor of sociology, psychiatry, and behavioral medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Schwartz is on the Health Advisory Board at WebMD, and author of several books including Prime: Adventures and Advice about Sex, Love, and the Sensual Years.
Signs you're in the marital doldrums: "You're leading parallel lives, and don't see each other anymore," she tells WebMD. "You tell everything important to your friends but not to each other. Those are really big problems, and you've got to tend to them."
A sharp tongue is a red flag of growing frustration in a passionless marriage, Schwartz adds. "If you're bitchy, if you treat each other with contempt, it's a warning sign. It may not happen all the time, but it happens often. It's because people start to feel neglected, disappointed. They had expectations of what marriage should be like, and this is not what they'd hoped for."
In fact, boredom is very often a cover-up for anger and disappointment, Schwartz explains. "Those deeper feelings have to be dealt with. I'm not talking about deep therapy; it can happen in one or two visits. But there has to be a refocusing on the relationship... a renewal of what this marriage is supposed to be."
The Anatomy of Love
First step: Be realistic. If you're looking for the swept-off-your feet sex of those first few years, dream on. And a new partner certainly isn't the solution. Three years later, you'll have the same sizzle-less marriage you have right now.
"The initial passion of any relationship changes after 18 months," says Sallie Foley, MSW, director of the Center for Sexual Health at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Modern Love and Sex and Love for Grownups.
"It moves from the romantic and exciting to an attachment kind of loving, fondness," Foley tells WebMD. "That gotta have it, gotta have it feeling is gone."
Take stock of what you want, she advises. If you want a sex life, then commit to making it happen, Foley says. "Not everyone wants a sex life as they head into last third of life. But AARP studies show that 65% remain sexually active."
Put aside the romanticized, silver-screen notions of sex, Foley says. "The majority of people your age are having good-enough sex. Occasionally, they have sex that knocks it out of the ballpark. But they're having sex regularly. They're getting into bed, hugging and touching, canoodling as I call it, and they're doing it on a regular basis."
You've also got to set aside negative attitudes about your spouse. "You have to give up fantasy notions that he or she is suddenly going to be 20 pounds lighter with no cellulite. You have to decide, 'This is what I want, how do I proceed,'" she advises.
Then, have "the talk" with your spouse. You have to be willing to say this to your partner: "We need to jazz up our sex life. We have fallen into some bad habits. I'm not going to settle for this level. We need to have sex, the same as we do other things that are important to us. We have to set aside time for it.'"
He's Just Not Up for It?
If your partner is unwilling, here's your dialogue: "We need to go for a brief round of counseling to get our priorities straight. I'm not willing to settle for a relationship where you sit in a chair, pop a few beers, and our sex life is over."
The stereotype of grumpy old men exists for a reason, Foley explains. "With aging comes an increase in depression and irritability. Women complain to me -- I was ready to try these things, but I couldn't get my partner to do it."
Often, the irritability and crankiness is actually masking anxiety and depression. If your partner is downright snarly about it, then you've got to stand your ground. "This isn't the kind of thing in this day and age that people live with," she says. "Our parents or grandparents may have lived that way, but we don't anymore."
With therapy and the right medication, the irritable anxiousness and depression can disappear. If your partner won't go to counseling, then you need to go alone, she says. "Counseling can help you figure out strategies to help yourself."
Put Sex on the Schedule
If you're both on the same page, it's time you put sex on the schedule. Think of it as exercise, your regular workout -- whatever time of day you choose. After all, sexual health is an important part of general health, Foley says.
"It's a very healthy thing for a partnership, there's no question about that," she tells WebMD. "People who have sex tend to feel closer, more intimate."
When you're over 40, there's definitely a "use it or lose it" aspect to sex, she adds. "That means you have to do it every day. You have to be committed to intimate time together. That doesn't mean every single time you take off your clothes and have sex. But set aside time just for the two of you."
Fall in Love Again
Outside the bedroom, you must make time for each other. "If you're bored, you can figure your partner is probably bored, too," says Solee. "Think what would put excitement into your life. Take responsibility for doing something about it. You really owe it to yourself."
Take a cooking class together, take up kayaking or dancing -- or sign up for a sex workshop, she advises. "Share each other's interests. Find new interests together. Single people can follow their own interests. You don't want to send your partner off to a class alone. Mother Nature abhors the doldrums, so don't let someone else fill it."
Trying something new requires a lot of focus -- and that's good for your sex life. "It's like when you had kids, or bought your first house. People actually fall in love again."
Between the sheets, keep things spontaneous and fun, she says. "The phone is turned off, the dog is behind the door. You get into bed with an attitude of good will. You don't have to have an attitude of 'complete hot.' That's a big misconception."
Allow each other plenty of sensual time to get warmed up. When you're over 40, foreplay is important in building arousal and desire. "When we're 20, it's all pretty straightforward -- desire, arousal, orgasm. After age 40, you need to give arousal more time. You get into bed, start doing it -- then you start feeling some physical arousal. That increases your desire, which increases more arousal."
Also, your mind-set changes. "As men get older, they get more focused on eroticism," she says. "They're much more interested in pleasure, in having the connection. Women start asking for what they want."
Couples should also develop a "sexual style," Solee tells WebMD. "Most people think that if they've found a lover and soul mate, the sex will be great. Early marital sex is essentially sex with a stranger. This is about letting your partner know you, and getting to know them, intimately. Marital sex can be hotter if you can develop an intimate sexual style with your marriage partner."
Vibrators and Pills
Tools and toys are important, too.
Ladies: Don't fret if you're not feeling desire right away. Enjoy the process of becoming aroused. A vibrator can help with that, she advises. "After menopause, they may need a more intense vibration, at least initially, if a woman hasn't been sexual in awhile. She may need a vibrator."
If vaginal dryness and pain are issues, look into topical lubricants and moisturizers, Foley adds.
Many vaginal products contain estrogen (which can come in cream, vaginal ring, and vaginal tablet formulation), which helps with dryness, irritation, and muscle tone in the area. If you cannot take estrogen, products like Replens or K-Y Jelly can help with lubrication.
Try a Marriage Retreat
Keeping your marriage on track -- sexually and otherwise -- requires good communications skills, Solee adds. A therapist can guide you toward improving those skills, possibly recommending a marriage retreat.
"It's not our differences that pull us apart, it's how we handle them," she tells WebMD. "You need to really listen to your partner in a way he knows you love and respect him. Take a marriage cruise or retreat or a wilderness workshop. Learn to disagree in ways that breed joy and intimacy." Marriage education classes are also held in local community centers, churches, and military bases, she adds.
Some workshops are intense group therapy for couples. "Some are enrichment weekends -- you learn to massage each others' feet, or talk about sensuality. It depends on how deep your rift is, whether a therapist would recommend a lighter or deeper workshop," Schwartz says.
Group therapy lets you see the relationship more clearly. "Often, people find it easier to give empathy to other people than to each other," she explains. "But once empathy is in the room, it kind of fills the room. It helps you give it to each other."
You learn from other couples in the room, Schwartz adds. "Some people give voice to something you haven't been able to. It's different if it doesn't come from an authority figure. It becomes a discussion among equals. Other people can see things you may not see. If everybody looks at you and says, ‘Why are you being so hard on her?’ everything changes. You suddenly see, whoa, I am."