Hope's husband, Tom, puts in 60 long hours a week at the office. So when the couple meet between the sheets on the weekends, he just doesn't want to work that hard.
"Tom's a lazy lover," confides the Hickory, North Carolina, mom of two. But, she adds, he's a wonderful friend, father, and provider—so bad sex is hardly a deal-breaker.
Colleen, a Dayton, Ohio, mother of a 2-year-old son, isn't exactly seeing fireworks either. In fact, she once stopped midway through making love with her husband, David, to answer a ringing phone. "It's not that I'm not attracted to him," Colleen says. "I am. But it's hard to enjoy sex knowing we're going to argue about some aspect of it—like why I don't want to do certain things to him." Colleen says her marriage's good qualities far outweigh the bad vibes in the bedroom, and that she and David are in it for the long haul.
Certainly, less-than-thrilling lovemaking is no reason to give up on a good marriage. But neither is so-so sex something you should just accept with a shrug and a sigh. It's simply too important to the health of your relationship, says Barry McCarthy, Ph.D., co-author of Rekindling Desire: A Step-By-Step Program to Help Low-Sex and No-Sex Marriages. That's because sex serves several vital roles besides physical pleasure. It's what separates your marriage from your other close relationships, Dr. McCarthy explains. It's the salve that soothes the day-to-day irritations that come from living and sharing responsibilities with another person. It deepens your level of intimacy. And it's adult playtime—that rare chance to completely let your guard down.
Too often, couples just avoid the issue of sexual dissatisfaction—especially if they're parents, coping with the daily demands of raising kids. "It's easy to be in denial about it," says Valerie Davis Raskin, M.D., author of Great Sex for Moms. "But boring sex doesn't get better on its own—not even 21 years later, when the children move out."
If you and your spouse are already working in harmony as partners and parents, you could—and should!—be totally in sync as lovers too. You just need to pay some extra attention to that part of your relationship. Here's a four-step love-life makeover to help you move toward more pleasure, passion, and just plain fun.
Most of us think of sex as something that's supposed to come naturally. And that's a major mistake, says Diane Sollee, director of Smart Marriages, a counseling program and Website. In fact, Sollee says, "sex isn't supposed to make you hot. Instead, it's your job to make sex hot."
You can't abdicate responsibility for your sex life and leave it up to your partner to turn you on in exactly the right way, at exactly the right time. And don't assume that boring sex means you've chosen the wrong man. More likely, it means he's not clued in to your desires.
So what would you like to see your spouse do differently? You may be able to dream up a long wish list—or you may find it tricky to pinpoint just what you want from your love life. If the latter is true, think back to the best sexual experience the two of you had together. What made it so amazing? What inspiration can you take from that peak encounter to energize your bedroom sessions now? Jot notes, if only to clarify your thoughts.
Even couples who can communicate easily about everything else can find it difficult to talk about sex. It may help to know that once you do bring it up, your spouse probably won't be surprised—in fact, he may be relieved. If you're not thrilled with the sex, chances are he isn't either.
Choose the right time and place for the discussion. Don't give feedback about sex right after making love, when you're still in bed, Dr. McCarthy says. Your lovemaking sessions aren't Olympic competitions, where you get to hold up a scorecard after each performance. Instead, wait for a relaxed moment—over coffee, while sitting on the porch, when the kids are in bed, or when it's just the two of you in the car.
The best way to start is with praise. Dr. McCarthy advises couples to take turns revealing a few things they admire about each other—both sexually and otherwise. Then take turns making a specific request that would make your mate more sexually inviting or boost the fun quotient in your lovemaking. Just remember that your desire for change has to come across as a request, not a demand, Dr. McCarthy says. You want your mate to hear your input as an affirmation of your marriage, not a criticism.
If you're still feeling tongue-tied, consider a humorous opener: "Is it just me, or are you also finding it tough to choose between sex and Seinfeld reruns?" A good laugh can set the stage for a relaxed exchange of ideas and intimacies.
The best way to have better sex is simply to have more sex, says Helen Fisher, Ph.D., author of Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. Like chocolate or exercise, the more you have sex, the more you want it. Plus, the more frequently you make love, the less pressure there is to get each and every encounter "right." You'll have plenty of chances to experiment and figure out what works.
Of course, carving out time for sex and romance is a challenge for parents of young kids. But think about it: If one of you were having an affair, you'd find the time to meet your lover. If you can't arrange or afford a babysitter, wake up earlier or go to bed later. And remember that you don't need endless empty hours to have great sex. Take advantage of a few stolen minutes here and there, Sollee suggests: "Lock the bathroom door or hide in the pantry for a few minutes." Even if you just kiss and cuddle, that stokes the fires.
Perhaps the easiest way to find the time for sex is to schedule it. If you know in advance when you're going to make love, you'll be able to mentally and physically gear up for it, the way you did when you were dating (remember, your dates were planned!). You can take time to shave your legs and skip the granny panties for that day.
What you do outside the bedroom has a tremendous impact on what happens between the sheets, so work on reintroducing different levels of touch throughout the day. "A marriage needs a variety of bridges to sexual desire, not all of which lead to sex every time," Dr. McCarthy explains. Hold hands at the mall, and kiss him in front of the neighbors. Pinch his butt when he's washing the dishes. Designate a particular sofa as the "make-out couch"—where you can go no further than smooching.
Try shaking up your daily routines too—this can actually trick your brain into producing more of the chemicals it associates with lust and love. "The human animal loves novelty—it drives up dopamine in the brain and makes you feel good," Dr. Fisher says. "This chemical then triggers a release of testosterone, which boosts the sex drive." No doubt, breaking out of a rut—alone, as a couple, and as a family—can benefit every part of your life. So take an impromptu camping trip—even if it's just in the backyard. Surprise him with tickets to a ball game. Pick up a new lamp (with a dimmer switch!) for the bedroom.
It couldn't hurt to change yourself a bit too: Stick on a temporary tattoo in a spot where he'll accidentally discover it; do a chore with a smile instead of a scowl; praise him in front of his friends. Do anything you can to throw him off balance and make him wonder who this woman is—and how he can get her into bed.
Never thought you'd see a sex therapist? Many couples need help communicating effectively and staying focused. Choose a qualified counselor or sex therapist who works with you to solve problems rather than prescribing "cures," Barry McCarthy, Ph.D., advises. To find a counselor, get a referral from your health-insurance company or contact an organization like The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy.
A couples class can help you communicate with each other about sex and other issues that inevitably creep under the bedroom door.