Discussing attraction in a relationship is difficult, but experts say there is a right way to do it.
1. Figure out where you're coming from.
"Weight gain and clothing are probably the two biggest physical complaints people make when they talk about losing attraction to their partners," says psychotherapist and relationship coach Heide Banks. "But if you were attracted before and now you're not, something deeper may be going on with you."
This may sound like the ultimate retort, but it actually makes sense. We often differentiate between physical attraction and emotional/intellectual attraction, but the two are intertwined. Emotional attraction can increase or decrease physical attraction, and vice versa. The origins of attraction—and consequently, unattraction—may also differ by gender.
"More than anything, women are attracted to the security that comes from an emotional need being met," Banks explains. "If that need is no longer met or a woman feels taken for granted, she might register that as losing attraction to her partner. For men, attraction is connected to self-esteem. If a man doesn't feel good about himself for any reason—whether it's stress or a setback at work—he may look down on everything he has, including his partner."
Think before bringing up lack of attraction. Is your concern something legitimate that you've observed over a period of time, or might it be a side effect of something going on with you?
2. Identify the target.
It's true that diminished attraction to your partner is often a product of your own emotions. But your partner probably has something to do with it, too. In the Power of Attraction survey, both men and women identified poor personal hygiene (87 percent) and bad personal style (45 percent) as two factors that can kill attraction over the long haul.
But 76 percent attributed loss of attraction to boredom and lack of adventure. How we look and what we do go hand in hand, so you may not even have to call this the "I'm no longer attracted to you" conversation.
"People tend to stop trying as hard when they're in a relationship," Banks explains. "They may stop exercising, pursuing their own interests or spending time with their friends. Investing in yourself and not always being available is attractive to a partner. It makes you more interesting."
If your partner used to enjoy working out and eating well, but have stopped doing so, you can bring this up without mentioning weight gain. "Focus on health, not weight," said YourTango Expert and relationship coach Melodie Tucker. "You can mention side effects, like having more energy and sleeping better, instead of saying 'looking better.'"
Bring up how much your partner enjoyed former activities, whatever they were. Tucker recommends offering to help make these activities possible again. If your partner doesn't hang out with friends much, it may be because he or she feels like there's not enough time to do so. If your partner doesn't put much attention into eating healthy foods, it may be because he or she feels crunched for time or knows that the rest of the family doesn't enjoy healthy food. "In the case of eating better, that's something the whole family can work on," said Tucker. "Everyone benefits from that."
YourTango expert Jean Fitzpatrick, a therapist and marriage counselor in New York City, advises using "we" instead of "you" when having this difficult conversation. "This conversation isn't an attack on one person—it comes from a place of caring," she said. "You should say, 'I feel like we're not paying as much attention to each other as we could be' or, 'Maybe we should go out and act more like we're dating.' Make it a shared project. If you think your partner might be depressed, express your concern."
3. Choose the right time and place.
A conversation this sensitive is not something you should have off the cuff. You may permanently damage your relationship if you do it the wrong way. Most people broach the topic when they reach a breaking point, which often happens before or during sex. "Take this talk out of the bedroom," said Banks. "Don't approach it before you've had time to think."
Have the conversation privately in a neutral space when you're not already arguing. Do it when you know there's plenty of time to talk—you don't want to be interrupted.
Most importantly, make sure you're clear about how you feel and what you want to say. "Once you ring that bell, you can't unring it," said Banks. "This conversation must be as careful and loving as possible."
Fitzpatrick encourages starting with the positive. "Express appreciation for the good things in your relationship," said Fitzpatrick. "Then you can say what you want to work on together. Make it clear that your goal is to make your relationship better."
If your partner gets upset, stop the conversation before things escalate. Acknowledge that your partner is upset, but that was not your intention. "It's as simple as saying, 'I can tell I hurt you, and that's not what I wanted to do,''' Fitzpatrick said. "Tell you partner you care and want your relationship to be better, so you'd like to talk about it another time."
Give your partner a chance to cool off. Be sensitive when you bring up the topic again, reaffirming that your goal is to make your relationship stronger together.
4. Explain that this conversation is feedback, not an ultimatum.
A healthy "I'm no longer attracted to you" conversation isn't intended to make your partner feel bad. It comes from a place of love and a desire for things to get better. Ideally, a secure partner will see the conversation as feedback on your relationship, not something to take personally. Still, it's easier said than done.
"With something as tender as this, acknowledge your partner for even listening," advised Banks. If your partner asks for support in making changes, offer it. Otherwise, stay quiet. Your job is to address your feelings, not to tell your partner what to do or how to do it.
Despite stereotypes that women are more concerned with their appearance than men, Banks said men have a harder time processing a conversation like this and tend to get more defensive when criticized. "When a woman looks at a man and thinks he's not attractive, it's not necessarily about his clothes or how he looks—it's about how he lives his life. Consciously or unconsciously, men know this," said Banks.
Interestingly enough, Banks said that in her experience, women are better able to handle the blow. Perhaps it's because women are exposed to more scrutiny of their appearance in everyday life. "Women are better able to justify what their partner says. They invest more time thinking about how they look, and they also know they can do something about it."
5. Hear your partner out.
What if you're on the receiving end of the "I'm no longer attracted to you" conversation?
Ideally, your partner will approach the issue constructively. That way, it's easier to stay calm and open to what he or she is saying. It's OK to show that you're hurt in a nondefensive way. "You can say, 'This is hard to hear, and I think I need time to think about it,'" said Fitzpatrick. "It's better than being defensive."
If the conversation turns into a blame game, shut it down. "If you feel attacked, mention that relationship issues have to be addressed as a team," Fitzpatrick said. "You can say that you need time to think, or ask to discuss the issue later."
Women on the receiving end of "the talk" are more likely to share details with friends. "I'd be careful about that," Banks warned. "If a woman gets friends to side with her, she may not even consider whether the criticism is valid." Dismissing your partner's feelings when you're on the receiving end, especially when he or she is trying to be constructive, can be just as damaging as being inconsiderate when initiating the conversation.
If your partner goes through great pains to address a relationship issue with sensitivity, do your best to listen and respond.
Have you ever had the "I'm no longer attracted to you" conversation? How did it go?