Fighting, blame, criticism, shame and cruelty…While trace amounts of these elements can exist in a healthy relationship, perhaps, most of your relationship should be about support, encouragement, constructive feedback, respect and self-confrontation.  Though David Scharch has coined the term “normal marital sadism” and writes about the fact that we can love AND hate our partners at times, it’s a problem if hostility is the predominant flavor of your relationship. When that hostility leaks into your sex life, as it inevitably will, you end up either not having sex at all or using sex to hurt the other person.

There are a lot of ways this can look in a sexual relationship. You could make it clear that you are going through the motions of sex and not enjoying it. You could withhold the sweet elements of sexual acts. You could stop just short of what would be meaningful or fulfilling for your partner. You could cast your partner as the one who is broken or inadequate. You could seethe with anger, drip with contempt, withdraw with disinterest or paw with ineptitude. How do I hate you? Let me count the ways!

Stop the bleeding

Once a relationship, and a sex life, have dropped this low, it needs serious attention. Since it’s clear that the two of you are already not working well as a couple, your only option is to take yourself on. The first step is to stop pretending that you don’t know what you are doing to each other and what exchanges are hurtful. Take a complete stock of your own contribution to the dynamics and resolve to handle it differently. This is a unilateral move; you should do this whether or not your partner is yet changing their behavior. You are not going to change this if you stay in a tit for tat mentality.

Ask for change

It’s also appropriate to call out your partner about what they are doing, holding them accountable, but do it calmly and only after you’ve changed your role. If you decide you want to keep, and improve, your relationship, talk to your partner about wanting to make a fundamental shift in the way you are dealing with each other. Don’t blame them, and don’t fall on the sword, but own your part and ask that they join you in a process of really dealing with how the two of you interact and handle problems. See if they are willing to go to couple’s therapy. Ask if they’ll devote the time and effort to talk together and stick with it until there is clarity about what’s going on and what you both want to do about it.

Address the issues

There must be some serious issues between you that have never been resolved. Often there is resentment that has festered for a long time. There may have been specific events or violations that occurred in the past, or perhaps the anger and hostility come from longstanding power dynamics. Whatever has been going on, you’re going to have to dig through the issues that have generated that much bad feeling between you. Since you have gotten to this point, you may need the help of a therapist to have different kinds of conversations that can actually get to the root of the problems and move past them once and for all. If you get stuck trying to do this on your own, consider finding a therapist by asking friends and family for recommendations or by searching online.

Rebuild your sex life

Once the two of you have calmed the hard feelings and are open to working on a sex life that won’t be a battle ground, you can approach sex with a sense of partnership. You may need to talk specifically about how your previous hostility was playing out in your sex life and make sure you’re not repeating those old patterns. There may be new insight into the way you were hurtful to each other in sex that need to still be processed. I recommend that you start slowly and focus on a sense of kindness, connection and pleasure as you move forward. You can reclaim your sex life piece by piece, making sure each step is rooted in respect and collaboration again.

You might also enjoy:

Sexless marriage – 5 tips to stop avoiding the problem

Sexual expectations – treat sex like growing to the playground

When it feels like work to have sex

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