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Asking for a friend: ‘My husband and I only have sex after drinking wine or smoking a few joints. We never even attempt it sober. Is this a bad sign for our marriage?’

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Q: I’ve realised lately that my husband and I only have sex after drinking wine or smoking a few joints. I didn’t even think about this until we spent a month without alcohol and weed as a health kick, and we didn’t even attempt to have sex, even though we were feeling healthier and better than ever. It was only a few glasses of wine, and I wouldn’t say we were drunk, just merry. I was thinking about why this was, and remembered that, for us, sex has usually been an evening activity, and always after drinking or smoking. I can’t even remember a time when we were sober, and we have been together for years. Does this mean that we don’t really like having sex with each other if we can’t do it sober? Is this a bad sign for our marriage? I’m not sure that we will stay off the booze or smoke, but I would like to be intimate with my husband again, and I don’t know how he feels about this.

Dr West replies: Firstly, congratulations on enjoying some time away from substances. More and more of us are realising that a little bit of time on the alcohol-free drinks is good for us, and it is always a good idea to reassess our relationship with alcohol. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have an issue with alcohol, but it can be good to shake up patterns from time to time. In our Irish culture, alcohol is such a huge part of our lives, and we might only notice this when we take a break from it. It is great to improve your physical wellness, and the knock-on impact is often improved mental wellness. It also has a very positive impact on your sexual wellness.

Having sex sober can provide an opportunity to really connect with each other and be truly present in the moment. You aren’t hiding behind anything. While this may be exciting, it can be really scary for some people. Lots of people have body hang-ups, issues around sex, feelings of shame, and so on. It’s a lot easier to have a few glasses of wine to suppress this than face these issues in the cold light of day. But, I promise, it is worth it. Really satisfying and authentic sex does mean being present and being free to be vulnerable with each other, and telling each other about our sexual desires. It sounds like your break from alcohol is an opportunity to refresh your relationship with sex, pleasure, and your body.

It’s also OK to have a few drinks before sex — once everyone is consenting, conscious and knows what’s going on, of course. But it is important to remember that alcohol does have detrimental effects on your sex life. Some people view alcohol as an aphrodisiac, but it’s actually an anaphrodisiac — the opposite of an aphrodisiac as it can inhibit self-esteem and make you lose control of your motor functions. The ‘high’ of booze is temporary and can often make you feel bloated and sluggish, which doesn’t make for a good sexual experience. It can also impact erections and can lead us to misread body language, which may mean consent can be misinterpreted. The same goes for cannabis — it can make us aroused, but it can also lead to erectile issues. However, the research on this is mixed, as cannabis is illegal in many places, so it has been harder to study than alcohol, which is legal in many places.

It seems as if you and your husband have slipped into a comfortable and familiar routine. You have both associated sex with substances and, therefore, it is not a huge surprise that you didn’t have sex while sober, especially if neither of you spoke about it. It is worth examining the reasons why you only have sex in these circumstances. Do either of you feel anxious about sex, or stressed after a long day? Perhaps alcohol or cannabis calmed those nerves. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t like having sex with each other, but this can also be seen as an opportunity to refresh your sex life and explore what you want to do. Our desires can change over time, and we might no longer like the same activities that always did the trick. Desire can also be impacted by changing hormone levels due to menopause, health issues or stress, so an opportunity to talk about what works and what doesn’t will help refocus your sex life.

Talk to your husband and ask him if he has noticed any positive changes since you stopped drinking. If he mentions a few benefits but doesn’t bring up the topic of sex, ask him directly about it. Chances are, he might be like you in not connecting the dots between your sex life and your substance use. When we do something for so long, it just becomes the norm for us and we don’t pay much attention to it. Now that you will both be aware, talk about how you feel about it, and make a plan to have sober sex soon. Afterwards, you can talk about how it felt, any differences you noticed, any comfortable or uncomfortable moments. You can work together on the uncomfortable moments to transform them, and this will enhance your sex life, even if you do go back to drinking or smoking.

It could be time to buy some new modern sex guides along with your non-alcohol beer. Sex guides are not just for those who are inexperienced but can serve as a refresher. There’s always more to sex than we know, which is why it can be so fun to explore. This may also provoke anxiety, which is OK, and open and honest communication with each other will help that. Investing in your health is fantastic; please do invest in your sexual health too, as this will bring you just as much joy as a hangover-free morning.

Dr West is a sex educator and host of the Glow West podcast, which focuses on sex. Send your questions to drwestanswersyourquestions@independent.ie. Dr West regrets she cannot answer questions privately

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