Maintaining a hearty sex life throughout a long-term relationship is much harder than the movies would have us believe. Lyla Cicero explains the reality.
The sexless marriage is much maligned in our culture. Most of us, including a lot of mental health professionals, view a sexless marriage as a bad marriage. But when you think about it, things that make us want to have sex are often not the same things we want in a long-term partner. For a lot of us, unpredictability, passion, spontaneity, and even conflict can be sexy. However, in a long-term partner, we seek reliability, stability, safety, and trust (doesn’t knowing that someone will remember to take out the recycling every week just make you want to rip your clothes off?). In a wonderful book called Mating in Captivity, psychoanalyst Esther Perel argues there are good reasons why sex drops off in long-term partnerships, even good ones. In fact, these relationships are often quite stable and the partners extremely connected. Perel argues that desire and lust are borne out of distance and difference. We feel there is some space between us and another person and we long to physically unite. Feeling very connected and similar to someone doesn’t stir up that desire.
This brings up the issue of limerence, the early stage of relationships in which our brain chemistry sustains feelings of passion and desire that lead us to pursue the object of that desire and block out almost everything else. Though it certainly can be exhilarating, limerence is not sustainable. Eventually we settle back into normal life and things come back into focus. Yes, our partner may still be sexy, but we’ve smelled him after the gym, seen him whine like a toddler when he gets the flu, and the fact is the garbage needs to go out, the taxes need to be done, and sometimes it just sounds more appealing to curl up together with a good book.
Even when we do motivate to have sex, it takes a lot more effort. During limerence, everything just seems to fall into place. It’s spontaneous, we’re usually able to get ready for sex relatively fast, everybody’s parts work right, we climax at the right times, and everyone ends up feeling pretty darn satisfied. But once our brains go from lust mode into attachment and stability mode, it can be a lot harder to maintain a level of desire for sex, and a lot harder to make everything fall into place. We crave novelty, and novelty takes work when you’re having sex for the 4,763rd time. Like everything else in a relationship, sex takes a lot more effort after limerence ends.
So should we just throw in the towel after a year or two and settle into a sexless routine of connectedness without passion? Not necessarily. There are ways to keep passion alive, but the most important way to feel good about one’s relationship and one’s sex life after limerence is to know what to expect. I find so many folks look back on their early days together and conclude their relationship must be broken now. We don’t talk about our relationship challenges, and certainly not our sexual challenges. We look to television and movies and see a billion portrayals of that early relationship high where the sex goes way too smoothly (even for real-life limerence), and life seems to boil down to wanting that one special person. We never see portrayals of folks later in their relationships because things like sharing a good laugh when your kids do something funny, being there when your partner’s boss is driving them nuts, or enjoying the perfect torte together are just not, well…sexy. When we do see portrayals of marriage and long-term relationships they are caricatures of fat, balding men with their eyes glued to some sports event ignoring their nagging, jaded, overly responsible wives. That doesn’t give us a lot to work with.
The fact is, it’s possible to find a balance where passion and great sex can live side by side with a stable, deep connection. To find that balance we have to accept that it’s not going to be easy, be willing to work at it, and understand the issues involved. Sometimes closeness can actually backfire. Sometimes we need just the right amount of distance to keep some sparks alive. Having our own hobbies, friends, interests, and taking time apart can bring some of that mystery back, and make us once again long to bridge the physical and emotional divide between us and our lover. Sometimes we have to actively focus on our differences, not in a way that breeds conflict, but mystery and interest.
Once we are at the point where we feel that renewed desire for sex, our expectations for the sex have to change, especially if the sex is with a woman. While many men feel ready for sex quickly, even after limerence is over, women frequently need a lot more time to “simmer” before they are really in the mood. Foreplay becomes key here, but even before that, anything that keeps sex in the forefront of one’s mind can help. An open mind and willingness to experiment is crucial here: Sexting, watching porn, reading erotica, and sending sexy pictures to each other are all ways to stay/get in the mood. The sex itself also needs to be novel. The same old techniques are not going to work year after year, especially for women, but for many men too.
These are the times to try role play, anal play, spanking, blindfolds, restraints, videotaping, and anything you’ve fantasized about but never tried. For example, try creating a Tumblr account where you and your partner can discuss and even play out fantasies as strangers would on the Internet. Send each other pictures and videos. Say all the things you’d be embarrassed to say in person. Eventually, you may be comfortable bringing some of those things into the bedroom. For some couples, bringing other folks into their relationship can even work to insert some distance and restore passion.
The key is expecting that seeking out new sexual adventures together is going to be a lifelong process. If we go into relationships expecting to do that work, we can feel a sense of satisfaction when we are able to keep that passion alive, instead of blaming ourselves or our partners when everything doesn’t easily fall into place.
Lyla Cicero has a doctorate in clinical psychology, and focuses on relationships, sexual minorities, and sex therapy. Lyla is a feminist, LGBTQIAPK-affirmative, sex-positive blogger at UnderCoverintheSuburbs.com, where she writes about expanding cultural notions of identity, especially those surrounding gender, sexual orientation, motherhood, and sexuality. Follow her on Twitter @UndrCvrNSuburbs.