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Making Lust Last

Intimacy doesn't equal sex

When a man and a woman reveal themselves to each other, it makes each person feel more vulnerable. And, particularly for men, it's hard to have amazing sex while feeling emotionally exposed. Our earliest experiences with being close come from our relationships with parents. And those relationships aren't (in any normal scenario) linked with sexual passion. That's why some husbands and wives are open about what pleases them sexually only when they have affairs. They feel as if they have to be free of "family" to be free with their amorous impulses.

Having kids definitely doesn't lead to better sex

Children in the home define husbands and wives as parents first and foremost, not lovers. That further sets the psychological cement that reminds us we are in a family home, not a love nest. Most couples get caught up in the momentum of deciding who's going to drive which child where, how everyone will end up getting dinner, who's doing laundry because there's no clean underwear for tomorrow, and more. It's hard to switch gears and end up in overdrive in bed.

The love nest you create often feels a lot like the family nest you left

The way we behave in marriage frequently ends up resembling how we acted with our parents and siblings rather than the way we acted on our honeymoon. We wind up expressing jealousies transplanted from sibling rivalries, or we shut down because we feel like we aren't getting the attention we missed as children. And when childhood dramas take over a marriage, the spouses start to drift apart, especially sexually, because powerful, conflicted emotions from the past siphon any pure passion from the present.

What turns him on? You may be the last person in the world he'd tell

With all the talk about the difference between sex and intimacy, the two are powerfully connected. That's why what moves us sexually is usually one of our most closely guarded secrets. It's a window to our soul. In a marriage, opening that window means being seen emotionally naked 24/7. That's why many people don't open it at all. And that's a big loss. In working with couples for more than 15 years, I've rarely met anyone who doesn't welcome hearing a partner's sexual fantasies, once that person summons the courage to reveal them. I've seen lots of people blush, but I've never seen anyone get angry.

5 ways to put the X back in married sex

Luckily, with so much passion locked inside us, there's a lot to unlock. It's just a matter of finding the right key. For most couples, being married makes being passionate together more difficult, not less. Admitting this is happening is the first step toward making it stop. You can change your sex life this week. Pick one item from this five-point plan and try it out. Have your husband pick another for next week. You'll be on your way to married sex that works. Trust me. Not only am I a doctor—I've been married for 12 years.

  1. Assume you don't know everything about each other sexually. As I've said, very often a husband and wife can be married for many years without ever telling each other what they find most exciting in bed. This is partly because many people remain painfully embarrassed about their sexual needs. But it's also because too much is at stake—namely, the emotional bond between husbands and wives—to gamble it on fulfilling a need that might be seen as odd, selfish, or simply beyond the comfort level of their partners for life. And after years pass, it often becomes more and more difficult to reveal a "hidden" desire, because it feels like introducing something very foreign into the relationship (or admitting that you've been fibbing about your sexual desires all that time).

  2. Offer up an emotionally safe way to explore each other's fantasies. The walls separating husbands and wives romantically do not dissolve spontaneously. They have to be dismantled piece by piece. You can start by inviting your husband to slowly reveal aspects of his sexuality. I recommend my patients say something relatively nonthreatening, like, "I had the craziest thought. Why don't you tell me something you think would really surprise me about what you wish we could do in bed? Then I promise to tell you something I think would surprise you." Putting it that way assures the other person that you anticipate being taken aback, and welcome it. And that means your husband doesn't automatically have to edit out the most erotic parts of his fantasy. If saying anything out loud is just too embarrassing for you, try putting a block of Post-its in an envelope for him with a note that says, Leave a fantasy under my pillow, and I'll wake you up in the middle of the night. Or send him a special Valentine's card.

  3. To make sex less intimidating, turn it into a game. Ask your partner to tell you three of his fantasies, and you get to choose one to act out. Then it's his turn—you tell him three of yours, and he selects one. If he wants to pick two from your list, and you take him up on that offer, he also gets one of the two remaining fantasies on his list. Bargaining builds romantic tension. Being playful will be a welcome reminder of how energized the two of you once were—and could be again. As an alternative, you could simply say, "I know you haven't told me everything you like in bed, even though we've been together for years. So give it up: What have you been dying to do?"

  4. Provide examples. In order for your spouse to believe that you want to hear his real fantasies, you'll have to prove it by giving a believable example. Otherwise, he'll think you expect him to say something nice about you falling asleep in his arms. Try something like this: "You know, whatever really excites you—being tied up, pretending I'm someone else, you name it."

  5. Give real-life routine a rest. Monotony (not to be confused with monogamy) is the enemy of passion. In order to see your mate as the prince, and for him to see you as the princess, it helps to set the stage and put on the right costume. Tell him to meet you at a restaurant for a date. Dress to impress each other. Then surprise him with a key to a motel room or a secluded beach cottage—no packing allowed. Even if an overnight isn't possible, you can alter your look to be "new" for your partner. A different style of clothing or different hairstyle or even a tiny tattoo on your ankle might trigger new feelings in him. Being "different" for him in bed doesn't mean he won't love you for everything you've always been outside the bedroom. But part of him (you know which part) wants to believe he just met you. And there's nothing wrong with your wanting to meet him for the first time too. Feel free to suggest that a beard or more closely cropped hair might look cool on him for a while.

Ironically, the kind of fantasies we try to keep so private are the kind of scenes that actually do appear in movies. That suggests that all of us have some potential to write true romance into our lives. We just have to decide it's time to start. My guess is you won't get too far down that road before you notice the passion wasn't really gone from your relationship. It was just hibernating.

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