5 Big Ideas for Keeping Sex Fresh in a Long-Term Relationship
“There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, the other is getting it,” said Oscar Wilde.
Passion is a tricky, elusive thing. Once captured, it flounders. But why does it wither when domesticated? Why do sexy intense beginnings so often lead to boring, sexless or otherwise meh middles and endings? Why aren't we having sex with our dear, highly-available partners, like, all the time?
“Our senses crave novelty. Any change alerts them, and they send a signal into the brain. If there's no change, no novelty, they doze and register little or nothing. A constant state—even of excitement—in time becomes tedious, fades in the background because our senses have evolved to report only changes,” writes Diane Ackerman in A Natural History of the Senses.*
Or, says my friend Matthew, who thinks deeply on such things: “Once you're with someone, they become your family. And you don't want to have sex with people in your family.” Which is true enough, especially that last bit.
But you can rekindle passion, at least according to the top Big Thinkers in the field, who offer differing—sometimes wildly so—theories on how to do it. By reframing things a bit, you can soon be happily fucking your beloved family member once again. Though you'll probably want to phrase that differently in your head.
Cred: Corporate lawyer-turned-writer and speaker on sex, relationships and porn. Co-hosts Your Brain on Porn website with husband Gary Wilson.
The Big Idea: Karezza sex (slow sex without attempting orgasm) can help hack your neurochemicals.
The Fix: The neurochemicals that make us so giddy with the first flush of love only last two years, tops. After that, the buzz wears off and couples get habituated (the nicer, more sciencey term for bored). Instead of trying to jack things up with new positions or sexy clown costumes that can further numb response to pleasure, slow things down with karezza sex, a form of affectionate, sensual sex that generally doesn't result in orgasm. This sex, according to Robinson, strengthens lovers' bonds and results in more frequent and satisfying sex. “It's like learning to diet by eating smarter, rather than struggling to eat less,” writes Robinson. “As my husband says, 'My limbic brain stays enchanted because I don't attempt to fertilize you.'” (Her husband, it will not surprise you to learn, is a science professor.)
Test drive: Practice a “bonding behavior” like gazing into each other's eyes for several minutes or lying with your head on your partner's chest and listening to their heartbeat or synchronized breathing.
Further reading: Cupid's Poisoned Arrow: From Habit to Harmony in Sexual Relationships.
Cred: American Orthodox rabbi, author and TV host.
The Big Idea: Women are deep and endless sources of sexuality. Exploring that eroticism leads to richer, more profound sexual/spiritual connection.
The Fix: A woman's sexuality is “much deeper and longer lasting than a man's. In the face of such intensity, most husbands fear they can't measure up,” writes Boteach in The Kosher Sutra: 8 Sacred Secrets for Reigniting Desire and Restoring Passion for Life. But for the husband who's brave enough to jump in there and explore, there are sublime pleasures to be uncovered. “There is a part of us, a passionate part that is raw, instinctive, animal, visceral, and not attuned to social norms. It's incredibly erotic to witness this side of a person become revealed. A man who can arouse a woman to this level of abandonment witnesses something incredible,” writes Boteach, in perhaps the hottest collection of sentences you'll ever read by a rabbi. This deep sensuality flows into the rest of life, giving everything an “erotic pulse.”
To get to that place, Boteach recommends “Kosher Tantric” sex, including delayed orgasm to prolong sex, making it into “a worship of the divine spark in each other.” He's also against going to the bathroom in front of each other—ruins the mystery.
Test drive: Try the Jewish custom of abstaining from sex for two weeks when the woman starts her period. “Every month, there must be two weeks devoted to physical love, and two weeks devoted to intellectual communication and emotional intimacy," Boteach writes in Kosher Sex: A Recipe for Passion and Intimacy. It may sound a bit old school and rigid, but the forbiddenness fostered by abstinence can build lust, plus the on/off plan happens to correspond nicely with most women's monthly swings of desire.
3. Esther Perel
Cred: Writer, speaker, couples and family therapist.
The Big Idea: We need safety and security in a relationship, yet we also need adventure and excitement. The problem is that satisfying either of these needs sort of negates the other. The trick is riding the wave between security and excitement, figuring out ways to introduce novelty, risk and mystery into the familiar and comfortable.
The Fix: The erotic thrives on power plays, thwarted desire, threats of rivals and other non-safe and lovey ideas. Tap into these rich sources of desire by questioning your ideas about what's “acceptable” to you. For a lot of people, the greatest sources of excitement and pleasure have to do with childhood hurts. Being willing to poke around in these dark areas of your erotic brain is a potent natural fuel for pleasure.
Test drive: Embrace the “shadow of the third.” In every relationship, there are other players, whether actual infidelities, flirtations or agreed-upon partners. Accepting this and working with it—whether by actually introducing others into your marital sex, negotiating monogamy or just feeling the arousal of a threat (perceived or real) of a romantic rival—beats complacency back and helps you see your mate as the desirable creature that they are.
For further reading: Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic + the Domestic
Cred: Husband and wife psychologists who run the Gottman Institute and the Relationship Research Institute.
The Big Idea: Married people do best when they behave like good friends and handle conflicts in gentle positive ways.
The Fix: The Gottmans are known for their Love Labs, in which they observed couples and found that future divorcees tended to handle conflict via what the Gottmans call “The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse”: stonewalling, contempt, defensiveness and withdrawal. So don't do those.
Good behaviors, which lack a catchy 4 Horseman-like name: Respond positively to your partner's “bids” (bids are requests for emotional connections via a question, quick hug and such). Create a love map—a mental list of your partner's preferences, dreams and sexual proclivities. Create rituals for initiating and refusing sex to minimize miscommunication and feelings of rejection. The resulting atmosphere of kindness and communication is conducive to “personal sex” that's focused on intimacy instead of intercourse.
Test Drive: “Plan time for activities like hot baths, back rubs, touching, holding and simply making each other feel good physically and emotionally. If sex happens, that's fine. But if it doesn't, you'll still have met your expectation of enjoying time together,” advise the Gottmans.
Further reading: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
Cred: Psychologist, sex therapist and director of the Marriage and Family Health Institute.
The Big Idea: Passion (as well as a healthy relationship) depends on “differentiation,” that is, each partner cultivating a strong sense of self, despite his or her partner's (very normal) efforts to thwart that growth.
The Fix: When partners work on becoming differentiated, it creates tension and gridlock. This, coupled with what Schnarch delightfully calls “normal marital sadism,” can lead to marital breakdown, but it's actually an opportunity. Gridlock and tension create a dynamic environment for growth and help passion thrive. Anxiety is also good. Instead of working on anxiety reduction, couples should work on ways to tolerate anxiety via self-soothing. “Anxiety is often part of the best sex we ever have. It's part of growing sexually. Anxiety makes us pay attention to what's going on,” writes Schnarch.
During sex, couples should focus on the connection, working on truly feeling their partner as they touch them. Also good is “hugging til relaxed,” which is pretty much what it sounds like.
Test drive: Try for “eyes-open orgasm.” Looking deep into each other's eyes adds intimacy and meaning to sex. The more you do it, the longer you can do it and the deeper the connection.
For further reading: Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships.
*This, however, does not explain why there are so many strip clubs called Deja Vu.