Generally speaking, magazine articles about how to improve your sex life -- especially in marriage or a long-term relationship -- contain the same advice: candles, hot baths and soft music are often invoked.
That may be because these “better sex” stories are a staple of women’s magazines. I don’t know about you, but candles always make me think of church, baths are something my mother made me take, and soft music reminds me of going to the dentist. Definite turn-offs all.
But how do you regain the passion in your relationship when you feel it's slipping away? Is it possible? Or when that train has left the station, is it too late to bring it back?
“A lot of people get to that point and have to decide what to do about it,” says Louanne Cole Weston, PhD, a marriage and family therapist and board-certified sex therapist in Fair Oaks, California. “Novelty is sexually interesting to most people -- not always to the point that they will act on it, but the idea has a little bit of a thrill to it, for men or women.”
Does Novelty or Predictability Make a Sex Life Better?
In dealing with people who have been married or together for a while, she has found that familiarity breeds -- if not contempt -- then at least too much familiarity. “Sometimes with a long-term partner, a person feels like they know every freckle on that other person’s body,” she says. The solution may lie in exploring the unfamiliar -- though not necessarily.
“For some people, predictability is very exciting,” cautions Weston. “You have to figure out if you’re a ‘surprise’ or ‘predictability’ person. If you’re a surprise person, asking your partner to surprise you is a good first step. If you’re a predictability person, and there is something predictably bad or neutral about your sexual experience, getting some changes in there can be a positive thing.”
Too Much Togetherness Can Kill Passion in Marriage
Those same darn women’s magazines often offer intimacy as the tonic to save the foundering sex life. You’ve drifted apart, the logic goes. Take interest in his life, his work, his recreation -- even if it’s watching retired athletes yelling at each other on cable. But there is a fine line between being cared for and being crowded -- and the latter is definitely a buzz kill.
“Sometimes too much closeness stifles desire,” says Esther Perel, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Manhattan and author of Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic. “Separateness is a precondition for connection. When intimacy collapses into fusion, it is not a lack of closeness but too much closeness that impedes desire," she tells WebMD.
Don’t call each other ten times a day, she cautions, and don’t ask each other about every little thing. “These questions turn intimacy into surveillance.”
Dealing with Alienation and Anger in a Low-Sex Marriage
Sometimes a man’s lack of desire is really about something else. “In those situations there is often something going on that is unexpressed or unknown, says Mark Epstein, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice in Manhattan and the author of Open To Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life.
Most often, Epstein says, that lack of attraction stems from anger. Perhaps your anger is misplaced; perhaps you are angry at her because you are not attracted to her. You can get to the source of your anger and beyond in therapy. But getting down to getting down is the relationship equivalent of advanced physics.
“You have to be able to experience conflicting feelings, or difficult feelings,” says Epstein of the rapprochement process. “If you are holding yourself back all the time, you don’t have to face what you might be feeling. But if you get close to her in bed, if you get aroused, there might be a lot of conflicting stuff that comes up. You want to be with her, you want to make her happy -- but you are angry with her.” To get past the anger, and on to the fun part, you have to be willing to let down your guard, and let love in.
Improving Your Sex Life: Anticipation Instead of Spontaneity
There’s nothing wrong with candles and baths -- or, for that matter, lingerie and scented oils. “Those are all stand-ins for the little signals most couples have,” says Epstein. “Most couples’ signals are subtler: being in bed and awake at the same time, reaching out to one another on a weekend morning, making some gesture.”
You may pine for the days of spontaneity that you enjoyed when your relationship was young -- making love at odd hours, in the least likely places, just because you felt like it. But if you have small children, and two careers, and the usual laundry list of responsibilities, the chances of you spontaneously hooking up without some planning are about like the chance of your playing in the NBA -- when you’re over 40. And white. It takes a little doing to have a passion in marriage.
There is nothing wrong with planning to have sex, is there? Thinking about it ahead of time might just get you in the mood, just as thinking about what you’re going to eat before you go to a good restaurant only whets the appetite.
“People have to get in the habit of making time to be sexual in the same way they make time for everything else that’s good in life,” says Weston. “Some people will just sit and let the hours wash over them in front of the TV rather than do something that takes a bit of energy and a bit of intention. You have to kind of get conscious about what you’re doing.”
Rediscovering What Makes Your Partner Tick -- or Hum, or Buzz, or Flutter
And don’t be so sure that you know that woman that you’re with. In her work with couples, Weston has found that people don’t always know what creates sexual arousal in their long-term partner.
“I try and lay out their own idiosyncrasies -- what 'does it' for them or what did it for them when they were younger and first dating,” she says. “There is often a moment of revelation: ‘I always thought you liked that!’ Or, ‘I always thought you hated that!’ And it’s often based on something the other person said 18 years ago when you tried something once. So they closed off one portion of sexual experimentation or behavior because of one errant comment.”
A lot can happen in those intervening years. Isn’t it time you found out what’s going on beneath the surface?