Carla* admits to having affairs with married men. One man told her that his wife perceived herself as less desirable after giving birth to their first child and believed he felt the same way. But he didn't perceive his wife that way, he told Carla. "He doesn’t want to be seeing [me]," Carla says. "He just wants his wife back."

This story shows how communication breakdowns can create a loss in sexual interest between spouses, sometimes leading to tragic circumstances. The cause of these breakdowns can range from life circumstances and physiological issues to pornography use and emotional affairs. And while sexual frequency isn’t the sole indicator of a healthy marriage, there may be reason to be concerned when your relationship has ceased to be physically intimate.

But how do you bring this up with your spouse?

"Many times people who lose interest in sex don’t understand what is going on, so how can they explain it to their spouse?" says Dr. Jennifer Degler, a clinical psychologist and co-author of No More Christian Nice Girl, adding that spouses may feel shame at a lack of interest or ability to sexually perform, which can cut off communication between spouses. "Humans hide when they are ashamed. It was true in the Garden of Eden and it continues today."

These miscommunications can significantly impact a couple’s sexual intimacy. Research by the University of Guelph found that sexual desire and sexual satisfaction are significantly influenced by relationship satisfaction. If spouses are experiencing difficulty communicating and connecting on an emotional level, chances are they will not have a healthy sex life.

We talked with several experts to help you and your spouse examine the root cause of this issue, communicate about this aspect of your relationship and reclaim intimacy in your marriage.

Understand why you drifted apart

Before you can identify a specific problem in your marriage, it’s important to remember that marital intimacy encompasses far more than just sex. "God designed marriage to be the most intimate of all human relationships, in which we share life intellectually, socially, emotionally, spiritually, and physically," says author Gary Chapman in an interview with Today’s Christian Woman.

Experts say a loss of sexual interest is usually a sign of a deeper issue, as spouses may subconsciously retreat from the relationship when communication starts to break down in their marriage.

"People [sometimes] drift apart from one another in a marriage," says Michael Stiglitz, a licensed marriage and family therapist. "Infrequency or absence of sexual intimacy, generally speaking, can be seen as being symptomatic of this drift."

This drift can begin when you wrongly interpret your spouse’s actions and then compartmentalize your own feelings.

"There’s a direct link between thoughts, behaviours and feelings," says Amy Morin, a licensed social worker. "When there’s a change in thoughts, people often begin to behave differently, which in turn influences their feelings." For example, if you have a disagreement and think, ‘My spouse doesn’t care about me,’ your behaviours reflect that thought process. This can also impact your sexual behaviour, causing you to not be as physically affectionate.

Maggie Reyes, a life coach and co-host of Life Coach Jam, says this mindset sets a destructive precedent.

"What we make things mean has a huge impact on how we manage our relationships," she says. "If we are constantly in fear that what we say or how we act sexually means, ‘You don’t love me,’ we will not have clear communication physically or verbally. That is how problems arise."

Have the conversation

Communication problems can also occur during natural life chapters and alter your sexual frequency. For example, your wife will likely feel drained of energy after giving birth, or your husband may suffer from depression after being laid off at work. This is why counsellors so strongly advise couples to communicate with each other about these new circumstances.

Keep in mind that you and your spouse may interpret your physical relationship differently. According to the Guelph study, one spouse may interpret their sexual frequency by how many times they have sex over a given period of time, whereas the other spouse may determine it by averaging higher and lower frequency periods.

"It’s good for couples to remind themselves and each other that lack of sex drive is [often] temporary," says clinical counsellor Esther Kane.

Eight strategies for reconnecting

  • Reflect on God’s original design for marriage. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame" (Genesis 2:24-25).
  • Communicate your individual feelings before trying to resolve the issue. "If you jump over feelings in a race to get to a solution, you are likely to derail the whole process," Dr. Degler says.
  • Listen to your spouse and respect their feelings. "This is a very sensitive topic and there is a big tendency to take things said by a partner personally," says Kane. "Removing the emotional charge from telling the truth is the first step," adds Reyes.
  • Choose to look at your marriage through a positive perspective. "Focusing more on what’s right in the relationship rather than what’s wrong can go a long way to creating the atmosphere of togetherness," says Keith Dent, president and CEO of Strive 2 Succeed Coaching Services.
  • Build on your commitment to one another. "If couples already have a strong bond of trust, affection and commitment to the relationship, they can usually find a loving and healthy way to talk about their sex life," Kane says.
  • Constantly look for ways to build up your spouse. "Relationships are not about getting what you want," Dent says. "It’s about helping each other strive to become the best version of yourself."
  • Discover and foster safety in your relationship. "When you feel safer and safer with your mate, you open up your heart and you reveal everything you can about yourself because you are not going to get judged," says Dr. Gary Smalley in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network.
  • Stay curious and keep learning new things about each other. "Partners come to the belief that they know each other to such a degree that there is no more to be learned," Stiglitz says. "With this belief often comes a sense of resentment, boredom and resignation. If couples can intentionally stay curious and engage one another, they will naturally feel close. Honest, respectful, curious dialogue creates the safe space and desire to have ongoing sexual intimacy in a long-term relationship."

Reference to the individuals and organizations quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individuals’ external work or their respective organizations.

Todd Foley is on staff with Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2012 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.

Our recommended resources

Join our newsletter

Advice for every stage of life delivered straight to your inbox