Q Is it even possible for a couple that stopped having sex to start back up again? My girlfriend and I (we're both women) have been together for four years, and we haven't had sex for two. I thought the sex was good before it stopped, but apparently she was going through the motions. She's a sex worker, and it took her awhile to figure out she was not being present, and she wanted to stop having sex with me until she could figure out how to change that. I get that and respect it. We have an open relationship, so I started having more sex with other people. And while it's fun, I do find myself wishing I could have sex with someone I actually care about—and I only care about her.
She says she wants to start having sex with me again, but we don't really know how to do that. Everything is kind of terrifying and awkward. She said it's hard to go from sex with zero intimacy into sex with the intimacy turned up to 11. We're very romantic with each other, and there are other forms of physical affection like kisses and snuggling, but no making out or humping. I love her more than I knew I could love a person, and if we never do figure out how to have sex together, I'll still stay with her. But for two people who are both highly sexual and want to have sex with each other, we sure are perplexed at how to make this work. —Sex Or Romance Dilemma
A "Let's cut to the chase: Yes, it is possible for a couple that has stopped having sex to start having it again," says Lori Brotto, a clinical psychologist and a sex researcher at the University of British Columbia.
You ended on a note of despair, SORD, but Brotto sees two good reasons for hope: You and your girlfriend are completely open and honest with each other, and you're committed to staying together whether or not the sex resumes. Your communication skills and that rock-solid commitment—neither of you are going anywhere—are the bedrock on which you can rebuild your sex life.
"There are two aspects of SORD's question that jump out at me: One, the reference to wanting to be present for sex, and two, the description of the situation as terrifying and awkward," says Brotto. "SORD's girlfriend likely perfected the practice of 'going elsewhere' during sex while at work, which meant that it became almost automatic for her to do this while having sex in her relationship. This is classic mindlessness, and it is why mindfulness—the state of full awareness to the present moment in a kind and compassionate way—may be a tool for her to consider implementing."
Mindfulness is the subject of Brotto's new book, Better Sex Through Mindfulness: How Women Can Cultivate Desire.
"Mindfulness has a long history in Buddhist meditation, and it allowed monks to sit with their present experience, including pain and suffering, for hours or days—or sometimes weeks and months," says Brotto. "In more recent years, mindfulness has been reconceptualized as a tool that anyone can use and benefit from. It doesn't rely on having a Buddhist orientation or a cave to retreat to."
So how does this ancient mindfulness stuff work where modern girl-on-girl sex is concerned?
"The practice is simple," says Brotto. "It involves deliberately paying attention to sensations, sounds and thoughts in the present moment—and noticing when the mind gets pulled elsewhere and then gently but firmly guiding it back. Mindfulness is also about not berating yourself for finding it challenging, or judging yourself for the thoughts you have."
In her practice, Brotto has seen research subjects successfully use mindfulness to cultivate and/or reignite sexual desire, calm anxiety, and relieve the awkwardness and fear that some people experience with sex.
"Suffice it to say," she says, "there is an impressive body of research that supports the practice of mindful sex, and people who otherwise may believe that their minds are incapable of staying still can effectively learn to fully engage their attention to sex and the person(s) with whom they are having sex. It doesn't matter if you are skeptical about whether mindfulness works or not—if you are willing to learn the skills and apply it to sex, you're likely to benefit."
If you're nervous or scared it won't work or you'll never reconnect sexually with your girlfriend, Brotto wants you to know that those feelings are perfectly normal.
"The uncertainty surrounding what will happen when they try to reintegrate sex can be terrifying for some couples," says Brotto. "What if it doesn't work? What if neither of them has desire? What if the sex is just plain bad? If SORD and her partner are worrying about the anticipated sex, or even catastrophizing over it—a jargony term meaning they imagine it ending in disaster—that can make it damn near impossible to remain in the present. The good news is that mindfulness can help with the tendency to get lost on the thought train."
So here's what you're going to do, SORD: Order a copy of Brotto's new book and read it with your girlfriend. And while you wait for the book to arrive, you're going to try a mindful touching exercise called "sensate focus."
"She will invite her girlfriend to touch her from head to toe, minus the genitals, for 15 minutes—without the goal of triggering arousal or desire," says Brotto. "SORD's role is to pay attention to the sensations emerging, and curtail any thoughts by redirecting attention to the here and now. And relax. After 15 minutes, they switch roles so SORD becomes the giver and her girlfriend is the receiver. This is not foreplay. It is not manual sexual stimulation. It is a mindfulness exercise designed to teach a person to remain in the present while receiving sensual touch."
There are solo mindfulness exercises, SORD, and some good, commercially available apps out there that can walk you through them. But if your goal is reconnecting with your girlfriend, Brotto strongly recommends that you two work on mindfulness together.
"My view is that a couple-based mindfulness exercise like sensate focus will get them to their goal of mind-blowing, mind-knowing sex," says Brotto. a
Follow Dr. Brotto on Twitter @DrLoriBrotto.
CONFIDENTIAL TO CANADIAN STUDENTS IN ONTARIO: Thank you for walking out of your classrooms to protest the scrapping of Ontario's sex-ed curriculum by Doug Ford, your newish (and thuggish) premier. Every student deserves an up-to-date sexual education that covers reproduction, pleasure, consent, tech, sexting, sexual abuse and LGBTQ issues. Watching students stand up against Ford's reactionary, bigoted, sex-negative assholery has been truly inspiring. Keep it up!
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