Having a good sex life that lasts the distance of time is one of the holy grails of popular culture.
It’s certainly possible to maintain high levels of sexual satisfaction and desire whilst having sex with the same person time and time again but it requires some investment and for most, some effort.
Of course the early stages of sexual relationships tend to be high in lust and desire, and this time is characteristically different from more established stages of our sex lives when we get to know partners on a deeper level.
In therapy sessions, I see many couples who want it ‘to be like it was in the beginning’. Although sex therapy can create huge shifts if people are committed to the process, it’s often important to know that this stage of a relationship, the early feeling sometimes referred to as ‘limerence’ – where we are driven to distraction by wanting, lust and obsessive thoughts- can’t really last.
Something else takes it’s place. An opportunity for knowing another person intimately (both physically, sexually and emotionally), and the foundations of a relationship (of whatever type and structure) that can lead to personal, sexual and emotional growth.
One of the great cruelties of this, is that for many couples the things that they value about a relationship (trust, security, stability, predictability, knowing another person completely), can bring with them an overfamiliarity and predictability that can inhibit desire. If we add this to unhelpful and inaccurate societal messages that you should desire sex with a partner in a relationship often, without having to do any work on triggering that desire, then we can start to understand why sexual dissatisfaction within relationships is a common experience.
“If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by repetition. It thrives on the mysterious, the novel, the unexpected”
The concept of people in long term relationships having their passion stifled by being too intimate, too close, lacking in autonomy is not a new one, and one that has been written expertly about by psychotherapist Esther Perel in her book ‘Mating in Captivity’ and in her TED talk on the same subject. Perel pitches the erotic wanting of ‘otherness’ as fuel for desire, and the crave for stability and predictability as the unerotic but important, foundations of love
So what can we do?
A recent paper by Dr Amy Muise and colleagues in the US has added to what we know about how we spend time with our partners and the impact of this on sex.
We already know that couples who engage in activities that excite and inspire them with a partner revisit some of those much sought after early relationship feelings towards one another, and Muise and her colleagues wanted to look at the impact of this on sexual desire.
Their recently published study suggests that an injection of novelty and ‘self -expansion’ to ourselves or our relationship outside the bedroom can affect what happens within it, and that couples that spend more time doing novel, interesting and challenging activities individually or together see an improvement in their sex life as a result.
Basically, they found that couples that spent time on these ‘self-expansion’ activities (as opposed to just time together as usual) were more likely to experience sexual desire, and more likely to have sex.
What’s important here is that it was not the amount of time couples spent together, but how they spent it which resulted in higher reported desire and sexual activity. Couples who found ways to ‘excite, inspire and connect’ with each other, may have created some space to learn new things about themselves or each other, and create conditions of novelty, distance and newness, akin to those early months, fanning the flames of desire.
The last crucial point found by this study? The longer sexual partners had been together, or the more pressed for time they were (think new parents), the more impact self-expansion activities such as these had on their sex lives.
Our experience of desire and sexual satisfaction are complex and there are many things adding to this picture (what’s going on in our bodies, our personal relationship with sex, our relationship with our cultural and social contexts) but there is a tangible real-life value for studies such as this which demystify what practical steps we can take to improve things.
What does this mean for our long term sexual relationships?
It means that if we want to keep our sex lives hot then perhaps it’s time to prioritise making time to really connect, by having explorative and meaningful conversations with the intention of discovering new things about each other -not just about what we ate for lunch or who said what at the photocopier.
For some of us it might be as simple as looking at each other through another person’s eyes, or in a new environment, like watching our partners charm the new neighbours at a party.
For others it might be planning an adventure together, trying something new and exhilarating, or learning how to dance.
The bottom line is- the challenge to creating time together which involves something novel and exciting might take a bit of thought and planning, but could have some serious benefits to our sex lives.
Dr Karen Gurney, Clinical Psychologist – The Havelock Clinic
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