Dear Patti,

For a while now there has been a lot of stress on our marriage due to a death in the family and my husband getting laid off from his job. I guess these problems as well as other everyday family issues just got away from us and, over time, my husband and I stopped having sex. It has now been over three years. It was never discussed, and although most of the stressful issues have been resolved, we never returned to being intimate. We finally talked about it and both admitted we no longer want to live this way. Both of us had complete physicals recently and our respective doctors said there’s nothing wrong health-wise.

We love each other but it’s as if we needed a jumpstart or something so we went to a family therapist for help. The therapist said we were both being avoidant and gave us homework that would end with having sex at the end of the night. It sounded like a great idea, but, in reality, we ended up feeling awkward, anxious and didn’t follow through. When we tried a few nights later, my husband started laughing and making a joke out of it and I admit I started cracking jokes too.

Maybe the therapist is correct about our being avoidant. I don’t really understand it because in the past we had a normal sex life.

  — Mary

Dear Mary,

Since it’s been a while since you’ve been sexually intimate, you might want to start with strengthening the sexual chemistry and romantic longing between you. The renewed closeness can then become a foundation for initiating other changes in the future. If we can rule out a history of sexual problems or current emotional issues (i.e., depression or anxiety), it’s definitely possible to renew your sexuality, but it will take motivation and work. The chemistry must be built from scratch—just like a brand new courtship. The key, however, is that it be so gradual as to feel natural.

Don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourselves. Your therapist’s ideas might be exciting and rewarding, but perhaps if you slow down a tad it could be easier for both of you to experience an intimate sexual re-awakening. Foreplay needs to be started outside of the bedroom. Set the mood. Rekindle nonsexual intimacy first.

For starters, make a conscious effort to smile warmly and make eye contact with your husband at least three or four times daily. Once this practice comes easily, start adding at least one or two compliments each day. If it comes naturally, start flirting a little. Listen carefully when he chooses to open up and communicate to you. Realize the importance of talking. Express appreciation whenever he demonstrates love, affection and understanding. Pay special attention to things that interest him. Try to anticipate his needs for pampering even before he asks.

After these simple, subtle behaviors have been established and you have both become used to the smiles and compliments, start holding hands and putting your arms around each other. Next, you can proceed to touch him affectionately with movement involved. No more than once a day at first, you can rub his feet or neck while you’re watching TV. Slowly punctuate these behaviors with one — and only one — light kiss on the forehead, cheek or the lips. When these gestures appear to be comfortably accepted, the touching can become more intimate, (i.e., giving or receiving a full back massage).

I can’t stress enough that this process needs to happen extremely slowly and naturally so it doesn’t seem artificial. Gradually become more sexually adventurous and a time will come when both of your moods are good, the timing is right and intuitively you’ll feel the connection between you and know to make your move and initiate sex. Yes, this sexual reconnection process may seem overly tedious. Remember, though, that you’re changing a three-year pattern. As for other changes you’d like to make, be gentle and patient with each other without giving up. Don’t let the occasional procrastination or delay dissuade you from revitalizing the passion, long-term growth and connection that is your ultimate goal. 

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, is a psychotherapist in private practice with offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email Visit her Web site,