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By Sex therapist and relationship counselor
TODAY contributor
updated 5/29/2008 4:07:30 PM ET 2008-05-29T20:07:30

All stressed up with nowhere to go? Stress can take a major toll on your sex life. For a man, work and money-related stress is particularly likely to take its toll on libido. For a woman, stress that originates at home, including what’s going on in her relationship, can send her sexual desire packing.

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In today’s harried world, many couples find themselves juggling a laundry list of responsibilities (no pun intended). From kids to careers to simply getting enough sleep, it’s all too easy for many couples to allow their relationship to fall to the bottom of that to-do list, since there are so many other pressing concerns.

The problem is that even if a couple shares a strong commitment and partnership as parents, without sex, a relationship becomes very vulnerable. Sex isn’t all that matters — unless a couple isn’t having it! Then it becomes the elephant in the room that no one’s taking about. Often, one partner is more interested in sex than the other, and the lack of physical intimacy becomes a source of conflict. As a result, in addition to stress taking its toll on sex, our sex lives themselves can become a source of stress and anxiety, which creates a vicious, destructive cycle for our relationships.

Not surprisingly, sex is one of the main reasons people argue, often above money, housework and other common sources of conflict. Sex is also one of those subjects that women tend to keep bottled up because they’re afraid of eliciting an angry reaction.

Arguing naturally triggers the brain’s “fight or flight” response system. Many men respond by fighting, and it’s been shown that this confrontational approach raises one’s heart rate, increases blood pressure and plays a big role in cardiac disease. But interestingly, the opposite reaction, flight, can be just as harmful, if not worse, for women. It leads to self-silencing: a bottling-up of emotions that causes anxiety, depression and a cascade of unhealthy behaviors.

Whether they’re arguing or allowing resentment to build, a couple will get further and further away from physical intimacy, which is an important part of reconnecting and buffering stress. As they start to feel more disconnected, they’re not apt to feel very sexual, and the vicious cycle takes over. One or both partners may turn to sex-substitutes, which often come in the form of overeating, alcohol and drug use, or, if the problem goes on too long, some form of infidelity. Drinking too much can result in sexual dysfunction, which will only make matters worse. Alcohol interferes with erectile function, lubrication and sexual desire, as do other common treatments for too much stress, like antidepressants and sedatives.

To jump-start a positive sex cycle, which, admittedly, can feel awkward after a dry spell, couples need to find a way to make sex a priority again and to dedicate themselves to reducing daily stresses where they can. Men and women must redirect some energy toward their relationship with each other, and get over feelings of guilt or excuses that they are “too busy” to do so.

If one person reaches out and starts to make the effort, most couples find that it becomes easier relatively quickly. Both people begin to feel closer to each other. Couples stop existing as roommates and remember what they had together before the kids and all of the responsibilities came along.

I advise couples to try to have sex once a week, unless there is an illness or recent childbirth. Whether you plan a date night, or simply spend some time together after the kids have gone to bed, try to devote some attention to each other at least one night a week, if not more. Start a new ritual together, then work from there. Soon, you’ll find you’re taking a bite out of stress from both ends — you’ll be a more connected, supportive presence for each other, and you’ll feel the benefits of regular sex for body and mind.

Ian Kerner is a sex therapist, relationship counselor and New York Times best-selling author of numerous books, including the recently published “Sex Detox: A Program to Detoxify and Rejuvenate Your Love Life.” He was born and raised in New York City, where he lives with his wife, two young sons and plump Jack Russell terrier.

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