Gay Relationships and the ‘Sexual Thaw’: Restoring Sex After a Long Stalemate

In a recent informal Facebook poll I conducted on suggested blog topics, this topic won the most votes, so here goes:  (Readers are encouraged to notify me at Ken@GayTherapyLA.com if you have suggestions for future blog/podcast topics.)

In my long (28 years in 2020) career providing therapy and coaching for gay men, couples therapy for gay men in California, and relationship coaching for gay men all over the United States and the world, this topic of gay men expressing frustration over the lack of sex, or at least the lack of sexual frequency, in their relationship, is one of the most common.  It is so oft-heard, and so pervasive, that the complaint transcends location, length of relationship, ethnicities/national origins of the partners, and ages of the men involved.  (Straight couples often have this complaint, too, but here we focus on gay male relationships, which has been the majority of my clinical work, writing, research, and speaking).

We define these complaints as being focused on the fact that one or both partners in a gay male relationship expresses complaint, frustration, demoralization, boredom, anger, or sadness – or some combination of these, and more – over the fact that to that person’s mind, there is not enough sex in the relationship to satisfy the man’s physical and emotional needs.  This topic is widely discussed socially, formally and informally.  There is a joke that I heard a long time ago somewhere from a standup comic that says that if a couple puts a marble in a jar every time they have sex in the first year of marriage, and take a marble out of the jar every time they have sex after the first year of marriage, they will never empty the jar.

Now, this might be a bit of an exaggeration, but the hyperbole fits the sense of frustration guys can have.  Esther Perel, LMFT, who wrote the great book, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, explored this topic (for all kinds of couples) in impressive detail.  But the original tag line for that book was not “unlocking erotic intelligence;” it was “reconciling the erotic with the domestic,” which I actually prefer.

Because in relationships, especially long-term, cohabitating ones (whether it’s legal marriage or not), we often find this dichotomy that starts with the domestic bliss of making a home:  sleeping together in the same bed; making meals; being social; vacationing; perhaps raising children; pooling our incomes; redecorating the living room; providing mutual emotional support; doing each other favors; sharing the domestic chores; and integrating each other’s greater families of origin, and, especially for gay men, families of choice.

The other side to that dichotomy is the erotic: not the way we are in the living room, as well-behaved gentlemen, but how we are in the bedroom, where, as Perel says, we lose the “political correctness” of everyday life and give in to our more primal desires.  (In another article, I talk about reconciling the living room with the bedroom; that is available here.)

But today, I’d like to describe more of the “too-infrequent sex” complaint, and offer some actual options and practical steps on what to (fucking) DO about it, at last.  I find this kind of helpful advice generally lacking in articles, and in my identity not only as a gay men’s specialist therapist (individuals and couples), I’m also an adjunct professor of a Couples Therapy course at USC, as well as a trained sex therapist (through the Sexual Health Alliance) and very close at the time of this writing (December, 2020) to earning a full, formal certification in that area (more on that another time).  So, I tend to write more frankly and candidly about gay men’s sexual issues/challenges, and more importantly, how, in my practice experience, gay couples can address them to find relief.

Defining the Problem

Conceptualizing a “sexual thaw” can be multifactoral

What a lot of gay men that I see in practice seem to need, first off, is just an acknowledgement that the problem of too-infrequent, or even non-existent, sex in a long-term gay relationship exists.  Somehow, some way, the couple has fallen into a sexual complacency, where they just plain ain’t doin’ it.  And yet, with a reasonable medical health and overall physical functioning, their body still wants sex, perhaps as much or more than when they were very young men (such as a guy in his 40’s having just as much desire as he had when he was 19, and possibly closeted).

The etiology of this “sexual stalemate” can have many contributing factors.  Certainly, in 2020, the global pandemic of COVID-19 has put a damper on all “fun” things, sex included, whether it’s fear of death or disability from having COVID itself, or knowing someone with it, or being affected by the loss of someone who has passed away from it, or being hurt by the economic impact of public health restrictions closing businesses (with next to no government financial aid or meaningful leadership to make up for it in the United States, unlike all other Western countries that provided generous, stabilizing financial relief to their people).  COVID is a certain “time-limited” stressor in current times, but the problem of sexual infrequency pre-dates COVID, and it will persist beyond it.

Other stressors include the opposite, which is having “too much” work that makes a guy too tired to be sexual most days/nights.  Or the demands of raising children.  Or something stressful in the environment, like an unsafe housing situation or other economic pressure.  Or, certainly, medical issues:  low testosterone, other hormonal factors, hypertension (and its related medication side-effects), depression (and its related medication side-effects), penile blood flow problems, prostate issues, or practical issues like erectile dysfunction (my article on that, here) or premature ejaculation.

Other times, there can be psychosocial stressors, which is why sex therapists are trained in a combination of a psychological/psychotherapy angle in talk therapy, but also with an eye toward the medical influences, and of course, the psychosocial dynamics of the couple’s relationship.  Sex therapy is often inter-disciplinary, between the sex therapist and various MDs (primary care physician, urologist, endocrinologist, psychiatrist, hematologist, etc.).

The interpersonal couple dynamics that can contribute to “sexual stalemate” include an unacknowledged, un-discussed, perhaps even unconscious anger or resentment at your partner (which could be anything: a sense of competition, resentment about a disparity in incomes (my article on that is here), resentment about an uneven distribution of household chores, or resentment about perceived power and control imbalances (power and control issues in gay male relationships, I contend, are exaggerated from straight relationships, because men in general (gay or straight) are so socialized to “get their way”, that another man “telling them what to do” doesn’t go over well (and I always say, if you don’t realize how much privilege men have (especially White ones) in society, go ask a Black lesbian; she will tell you all about it!).

So between psychological stressors, medical conditions, psychodynamic/interpersonal issues, and social pressures/influences, it’s no wonder that the complaint about sexual stalemate is so pervasive.

Fixing It

OK, some of you skipped the preceding paragraphs and went right to this one because you saw the heading of “fixing it,” and that’s OK.  People are busy, I get it.  But part of “fixing it,” if we can use that term cautiously, is understanding the etiology of the sexual stalemate situation in the first place.  Naming a problem is the first step toward solving it.  So, to “fix” it, you have to consider what kind of influences and pressures got you to the place you are now: all dressed up with a hard dick and no place to go.

Couples therapy or relationship coaching can help you uncover the interpersonal, relational dynamics that might be the culprit, such as unexpressed or unresolved resentments.  But let’s say both you and your partner/spouse agree that you each want more sex, and want help and support for making that happen.

First, you have to differentiate whether you want more sex, period, or more sex with your current partner.  This is an important distinction.  If you want sex with that hot guy from the gym – yes, that one (we all have one) – but not with your partner, think why.  Is it because of these underlying resentments?  Or is it because your mind, body, and soul have gotten so used to sex with that one partner that you crave what I call “novel stimulation” to get yourself aroused sexually?  Both gay and straight men can have this craving for novel sexual stimulation (there is  rather vulgar term some straight guys might use, that “sometimes you just want some strange pussy.”) If you watch a scary movie for the first time, you might jump at certain scenes when the axe murderer jumps out from the dark.  However, if you’ve seen that same film 5 times, you’d be like, “Yeah, yeah, dude; go out to the tool shed so that your flashlight burns out, and cue Axe Murderer in 3…2…1…, boom!”  After that, you don’t jump in your seat anymore.  Sex with a long-term partner can be like that:  “OK, so this is when he kisses my neck…now the right ear…now he takes his hand and cups my balls, been there, done that, yadda, yadda, yadda.”

Then you imagine what Gym Hot Guy would do if you were both naked and alone (at long last). He would be different from your partner:  He would have a different hair color (possibly).  Or different color eyes. Or a different chest hair situation. Or a different height.  Or a different scent.  Or a different voice, and different words he said with it.  His hands would feel different on your body.  His mouth would feel different when you kissed him.  All of that “novel stimulation” would be like watching a new horror movie (only much more fun) and you would “jump” all over again.

And for some couples, going down the road of opening their relationship through a compassionate, communicative, above-board discussion of Consensual Non-Monogamy (I’m in a certificate program for therapists for extra training CNM relationships now, and for the next year, through Sexual Health Alliance).  My previous articles on gay male open relationships are here and here.  And for some very long-term, happy couples (where the relationship both endures a long time (decades, even) and the partners each report high levels of relationship satisfaction, some version of a CNM relationship style with lots of discussion about “ground rules” to prevent emotional hurt or feelings of abandonment anxiety can do the trick (so to speak) (my article on troubleshooting the special challenges of an open relationship is here).

But for couples where both partners want to remain monogamous, for all kinds of very meaningful (for them) reasons (and my article on hotter monogamy is here), then having “novel stimulation” in the form of “outside” people isn’t an option; the “novel stimulation” must come from the creativity generated by the two monogamous partners in collaboration.

Tips for the Sexual Thaw

“Thaws” take time, under a consistent source of warmth.

So, how does a monogamous couple perform a “sexual thaw” after a long stalemate?

Of the couples I’ve seen in practice who are successful with this (and there are some, although not all – we’ll get to that), this is part of how they did it:

  • They each acknowledged that there is a sexual stalemate, and they have been avoiding talking about it, but no more. They bravely sit down and just accept that it might be an awkward conversation, but they approach it with compassion, patience, validation, and acceptance of their respective feelings.  They express a basic desire for their relationship to move from the non-sexual to the again-sexual.
  • They begin to “relate” to one another not as partners they take for granted for sharing household chores, but to allow themselves to each revisit the purely sexual objectification that they had for each other at one point, even if it was long ago.
  • They acknowledge that it can be cognitively difficult to both love your partner profoundly, emotionally, with all you’ve shared over the years (good and bad), and still think of the time when everything about them that sensually stimulated you (their hair, body, face, skin, scent, musculature, laugh, smile, personality, humor, philosophies, talents) were all very new.
  • They allow themselves to begin to think of their partner in sexual terms again; not what they say, but what they look like saying it. Not how they move, but how sexy their body is moving.  They give themselves permission to put “respect” aside and allow their primal lizard-brain to take over; the Superego takes a break while the Id comes out in full force, allowing themselves to think of their partner as a highly-doable man again.
  • They allow for a slow pace and some awkwardness as they re-introduce physicality into their relationship. Many of these couples already report a good “cuddle relationship” or casual affection of sleeping together, cuddling on a couch, kissing hello/goodbye, and hugs.  But it’s taking that next step – from a G-rated video to a PG-13 or X-rated video – that is a line that they walk back up to, just like “the old days”, and give themselves and each other the permission to cross that line once again.
  • They recognize that it is a cognitive shift to think of your partner from the everyday guy who’s “always there” to being the hot piece o’ meat you just want to fuck (blow, tie up, massage, etc.) from here to next year. They give themselves permission to sexually objectify their partner at home, just as they sexually objectify subjects of novel stimulation in other settings, like their fantasies of Hot Gym Guy (who, by the way, has a name and a life well beyond “those” biceps (or hair, ass, shoulders, chest, legs, etc.) of his).
  • They experiment with one sexual act at first: Taking their partner’s penis in their mouth for the first time in years. Pressing their cock against their partner’s hole, like entering the front door of the summer cabin after it’s been locked up for the past winter, or like Howard Carter breaking the seal to King Tut’s tomb after it hadn’t been entered in 3,200 years.
  • They realize that the first acts in a sexual thaw probably aren’t going to be as easy as subsequent acts later in the thaw, and there should be subsequent acts. (After Howard Carter entered King Tut’s tomb once, he went back in subsequent days to dive deeper and enjoy the treasures that being in the tomb over and over offered.)
  • They actually don’t talk about it at first, and let their bodies do the talking, in order to move from the “heady”/cognitive to the more genital/primal for a bit, letting go of the domestic and focusing only on the erotic.
  • They DO talk about it later, to “process” the feelings of how sex today differs from when they were first together, and how/why those differences are important. Sometimes there are variations on the sex they were once used to, such as experimenting with top/bottom roles, vanilla vs. kink play, or different ways to mutually stimulate each other’s bodies in the ways that work for each of them today.

While I realize some of this is a bit simplified, it’s important also not to over-think it.  Over-thinking and focusing on the domestic/cognitive and ignoring the primal is what got them into the stalemate in the first place.  Sometimes, the finer points of the sexual thaw are the topics of sex therapy sessions, as each partner has the opportunity to express and advocate for his own needs, as they are today.

Other tips that I’ve seen work (remember, I’m old: I’ve been in practice a long time and helped hundreds of gay male couples by now) include options that can feel outrageous (at first) to talk about.  Do you “jump start” their sexual thaw by having a three-way (often on a vacation – and my article on three-ways is here)?  Do you accept an offer for a four-way that you previously rejected?  Do you visit (after COVID, of course) a commercial sex venue like a sex club or a bathhouse, so the couple is surrounded by the erotic energy of the setting?  Do you hire an escort who knows how to stir things up (my article on the risks and rewards of seeing escorts is here).  Do you utilize porn to get you guys in the mood (one of my mentors in sex therapy, the excellent David Ley, PhD, wrote the wonderful book, Ethical Porn for Dicks)?  Do you spice things up by purchasing sex toys or bondage products that you use on each other (one classic vendor for this that is especially high quality, if perhaps also high prices, is here)?  Do you explore more edgy options in non-monogamy, like cuckolding (another great book by Ley on that is here)?

What permeates the discussions (either at home or in a session with a professional) are themes like mutual respect, patience, consent, non-exploitation, mutual pleasure, compassion, equal opportunities to talk/listen, and forging mutually-beneficial compromises in good faith.

But even in this context of compassion, there can be a place for frank and candid feelings to be shared.  Sometimes, a partner has to disclose that they have turn-offs from a partner, and brainstorm what to do about them.  They can be issues of attraction (the most common complaint is a reduced desire for a partner because one or both partners have gained weight as they transitioned from young men, to middle-aged men).  Another one can be medical or physical traits, such as the role of psoriasis or other dermatological conditions, anorectal conditions that make being penetrated uncomfortable (even if it was fine before), skin growths, degree of hairiness, changes in personal scent, personal grooming (facial hair, hair styles), changes in personality dynamic (from the submissive twink to the more-assertive later adulthood), and sexual style (one partner cultivated an interest in kink play, while the other did not). The down side of admitting “turn-offs” is how it can come off as insulting to a partner you love, but the up side is that the issue can be brought out into the open, and coping strategies can be brainstormed or compromises identified.

What If It’s Not Fixed?

The other huge option in the “sexual thaw” is, frankly, not doing it.  Sometimes passively, a couple is making the decision not to have the sexual thaw, because being non-sexual with each other is actually reasonably OK.  There’s a reason why the stalemate has persisted for so long, and that’s because it works.  There isn’t enough “pain” to provoke change, or enough necessity for the Mother of Invention to be invoked.  If this is true, it’s still worth discussing why.  Maybe both partners are older with less interest in sex.  Maybe a relationship arrangement where they get their emotional, domestic, social, and “home instinct” needs met with one partner, but erotic needs met with others (a fuck buddy, a series of hookups, an outside “paramour” in polyamory, etc.) is actually workable, practical, and stabilizing.

Other times, doing the work of the sexual thaw (communicating about it, scheduling time for sex, doing exercises, processing them after, confronting the associated feelings) is just too much work, and the status quo is just less painful and less arduous. In that case, it’s accepting that these are the choices that both partners are making.

Other times, a sexual stalemate “can” mean the end of a relationship, but that’s a broader discussion in couples therapy, and the (actually) “good” reasons for a relationship to end are another topic entirely (my article on reasons why a relationship should end is here).  I will say, in most of my experiences with the sexual stalemate couple, they actually do not want their relationship to end, at all, which can actually make the situation more complicated, because they are both clear that they want the relationship, but just with changes that work.

Of course, “fixing” a sexual stalemate and achieving a sexual “thaw” does not mean that the couple will not face sexual stalemate again.  It can be a cyclical thing, and each instance needs its own examination of the forces that created it, and its own solutions, which might be different from the solutions that were achieved last time.  This is common, because as both individuals in the relationship age and move into different developmental stages in the lifespan, so does the lifespan of the relationship.  The emotional and sexual needs of two men in a gay male couple who meet at 37 will be different from their respective needs by 57 (speaking from this exact experience).

Conclusion and Resources

Part of my goal in working with these couples is first to reassure them that they are not “doing it wrong” simply because their relationship has reached a sexual stalemate phase.  Gay men in general are under-served when it comes to psychotherapy, as evidenced by the dearth of gay therapists (especially gay male specialist therapists) outside of major urban settings, and even more so when we talk about the huge dearth of available gay male specialist sex therapists.  And yet these guys need and deserve help, just like straight or lesbian couples.  Part of my pride as a mental health and social services provider is to close that gap between the (global) community need the resource pool of providers who can (or want to) help.

Getting support from various self-help books, videos, and seminars can all help, although finding affirmative books specific to gay men’s sex therapy is tough.  Despite my obvious “horse in the race” of providing these services as my livelihood, I think there is no substitute for direct, customized, culturally-specific, and culturally-affirmative services.

Gay Therapy LA
Ken Howard, LCSW – Founder, GayTherapyLA.com

If you, as an individual, or you, as part of a relationship (dyadic or polyamorous) need or want these services, I would be happy to help.  For more information, call/text 310-339-5778, or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com.  We have a couple of service options, providers, and price-points, and offer all services (currently) online via phone or webcam platform consultations.  There are no minimum number of consultation sessions, or frequency, required.

Part of the coming out process in being gay is simply to affirm that you have a human right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that happiness includes a right to sexual enjoyment with another consenting adult(s).  That’s why gay men come out in the first place, which is an act of affirming your identity and your sexuality.  We may have to do these kinds of actions – asserting our right to a rewarding sex life — many times throughout the lifespan.  It’s work, but I think you’ll find it’s worth it.

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