That feeling when you hear yourself using the same agitated tone with your romantic partner that you used with your little brother as a kid. Or when a week goes by and you realise your only physical contact has been the kind of sanitary pecks you exchange with your in-laws.
We're calling it "familialization"—the phenomenon of significant others starting to see themselves as relatives rather than as a couple—and it's one of the biggest problems that sex and relationships counselors encounter in their practices, says therapist Ian Kerner, Ph.D., author of She Comes First. Even Pink recently revealed that she and her husband had not had sex in a year.
It starts with a slow creep. The beginning of a relationship means the constant thrill that you've found this great person and you get to keep learning about them—and learning more about yourself. "That mutual self-expansion fuels circuitry in your brain that plays a role in arousal," Kerner explains. But gradually, couples stop expanding. They settle into routines, get comfortable with each other—and having kids further shifts the focus away from duodom. Before you know it, your SO becomes just the father of your children, or another relative living in your house, rather than someone who turns you on. And when that happens, intimacy, like the good china, tends to get shelved for special occasions.
"I've been with the same man for nine years, and in that time we've gotten married, bought a house, combined our bills, and had a baby," says Kathleen, 34, a producer living in New York City. "He and I agree that we've been slipping toward acting like cranky roommates to each other." They also agree that sex is important, but, as she puts it, "We're tired, we're busy, and there's now a tiny human in our bedroom."
That's all so very understandable. Even the steadiest romances shape-shift over the years. And experts say it doesn't take a weeklong tropical vacation to go from roommates to "get a room." Try this five-step plan to once again see your sweet, kind, responsible bill payer as the hot piece you fell for in the first place.
STEP 1: TAKE A BREATHER FROM EACH OTHER
"One of the first things I'll do with a new couple is see how tightly they are enmeshed," says Holly Richmond, Ph.D., a sex therapist who practices in Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. "Is there enough autonomy in the relationship? Are they still two people engaged in their own lives, with their own friends, or are they completely intertwined?" She finds that the friskiest couples in her practice are the ones in which each person has their own hobbies, friends, and lives—those that give each other space so that their partner can seem sexy and new again. Tap into that effect by planning regular mini separations, with minimal check-ins, like girls' nights with friends every Thursday. (If you can, try a solo weekend away too.) "You're cultivating longing," Richmond explains, and a little mystery. "Give the relationship some air. Remember, fire needs air to grow."
STEP 2: RESEXUALISE YOURSELF
Let's play the "in bed" game with Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All." Get it? You gotta reawaken your own sexuality before you can feel his again. "I find that if couples are not having sex, they're also not masturbating much, they're not watching porn, they're not doing the things they used to do as individuals to keep their sex drive alive," Richmond says, which only deepens the problem because feeling sexual begets sex. She recommends starting by taking a dance class, getting your hair blown out, or buying new lingerie—anything that makes you feel beautiful and just present in your own sexuality. And why not get yourself a sleek little gift? "We're living in a golden age of sex toys," says Kerner. "There are so many fantastic, female-centric toys, with beautiful designs and creative approaches and powerful motors." Richmond also recommends tuning in to Violet Blue, a podcaster who reads erotica aloud and gives sex tips on her show.
STEP 3: GET PHYSICAL OUTSIDE THE BEDROOM
Tiny effort, big payoff: If you can tweak your interactions from being primarily familial (we see you, rote five-second shoulder rub) to more affectionate and sensual, you'll cultivate a newly charged energy. "Be proactive in transforming mundane activities to generate a little more arousal," Richmond says. If your partner is sitting and watching TV, bend down and kiss him on the neck, or run your fingers through his hair. Grab his butt in the kitchen while he's washing the dishes. "It's the element of surprise that captures eroticism," Richmond says. Your subtly sexy touches will influence him to follow suit.
It's clutch to regularly communicate "I want you"—not just "I want you to do the laundry."
STEP 4: DUMP THE STRESS FROM DIRTY TALK
It's clutch to regularly communicate "I want you"—not just "I want you to do the laundry." But "few of us have the skills to talk about sex, even within our relationships," Kerner says. It's just so awkward! Think of it like learning any language: You have to start with the basics and be willing to feel a little silly. Actually, start with the silly. Kerner suggests creating a code word (say, checkers) so that you can hint at sex in public or in front of the kids ("Wanna play checkers later?").
Sometimes you don't even need words. Emojis were born for this purpose, unless there's some other use for that eggplant one. Or, during a FaceTime session while on a work trip, surprise him with the flash of a boob. Infusing a lighthearted approach to sexuality will help you discuss more serious or kinkier stuff down the road. "I worked with a couple and spoke to the woman separately," Kerner recalls. "Immediately, she said, 'I want to be spanked. I want to be f-cked, but I never talk to my husband like that.'" If you two aren't having sex (or good sex) anymore, it's hard to jump into the deep end with "Here are all the things I've secretly been wanting for years." Launching with the playful stuff can remove the pressure while allowing you to dip a toe in.
STEP 5: MAKE A "YES" (AND A "NOT SO MUCH") LIST
Chores. Bills. Work deadlines. A screaming kid. What, those things don't make you want to jump each other's bones? "If you are in a relationship where your partner is more like your roommate, then your number of sexual inhibitors is greater than the number of exciters," says Kerner. An inhibitor, essentially, is a turnoff, and an exciter is a turn-on—like a car's brake and gas pedals. Kerner asks couples to each observe and write down what makes them feel sexual and what shuts them off. Exciters can be directly related to your partner, like the sight of his bare back or forearms (what is it about men's forearms?), or indirect, like your mood after the gym when your body feels strong. While making a list of your turnoffs might sound like a big ol' boner killer, it may actually open his eyes to things he never knew were inhibitors for you (like, say, how it's hard for you to get hot and bothered when there's a ton of housework to do, no matter how cute he is). Sitting down with him and identifying what gets both of you going will help you revisit that coveted "mutual self-expansion" stage—and serves as a turn-on in its own right.
This article originally appeared on Women's Health US.