Carlin Ross walked into a ritzy Manhattan nightspot, dressed to the nines. She sat down, set her handbag on the bar, and ordered a drink. The fellow sitting two barstools away took immediate notice of her. He slid over and said hello.
"Excuse me, do I know you?" she asked. He seemed taken aback, and well he should have. He was, after all, Ross' longtime boyfriend. "You're one of those investment banker types, aren't you?" she said, teasingly.
It wasn't long before he realized what Ross was up to, and began to play along. The two "strangers" kept up the act for the rest of the evening -- and into the morning.
Ross runs the sex-positive, femme-focused web site Cherrybomb.com. When people email or post to the site's message boards asking for ideas to spice up their relationships, she often suggests this game. "It was a wonderful experience for me," she tells WebMD. "It wasn't about any sex act or anything extreme," she says, but it was hot.
She's not the only one who recommends role playing of this sort to couples whose long-term relationships have turned tepid.
When couples pretend to pick each other up in public, "They get to appreciate their partner's talent and abilities on the dating scene," says Barbara Bartlik, MD, a sex therapist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University.
For married people, these talents may have been hidden for years. "They have forgotten that this guy or this woman that they're married to is actually attractive, and could be sexy, and a turn-on, and sought after by others. So it does work."
"Role playing is very important, and we use it all the time in sex therapy," she says.
"One of my women patients, although she loves her husband dearly -- he's the father of her child, and they have a very good marriage in many ways -- she finds his gentleness unappealing sexually," Bartlik says. "She was attracted to her husband because of his kind, considerate nature. But when it comes to the bedroom she wants him to give her exactly the opposite of what she selected.
"She wants a brute, so we had to get him to role-play being a brute."
But if your imagination stalls when you try to dream up sexy scenarios, or if your acting abilities are found wanting, don't despair. There are many other ways to turn up the heat in your relationship.
Explore Erotica (or Look ... and Touch)
"Another thing to spice up a long-term relationship, which I find is very effective, is to have people read to each other from books of sexual fantasies," says William F. Fitzgerald, PhD, a sex therapist in San Jose, Calif. "They will often come across a fantasy that turns them both on like crazy."
He recommends Nancy Friday's books, such as the classic My Secret Garden, as well as Men In Love and Women on Top. These are compilations of regular folks' sexual fantasies, as told to the author, a sort of Studs Terkel approach to erotica. Similar books include The Sweet Life by Violet Blue and The Pocket Book of Sexual Fantasies by Richard Craze. There's a whole world of erotic fiction that you could delve into also, from the many anthologies of literary erotica to Penthouse Letters.
In addition to getting worked up over fantasies on the printed page, many couples go for watching erotic videos together. While common hardcore adult films, produced primarily by and for men, serve some couples perfectly well, a growing genre of female-friendly films may fit better into a shared experience.
"A lot of traditional pornography women find offensive, and they can't relate to it," Bartlik says. "These new products that are directed by women have a slightly different take on them and women are more likely to enjoy them. They tend to be more naturalistic, I think, in the way couples really make love."
Vanilla is good. There's nothing wrong with it. But imagine if you'd never tried anything else -- no vanilla chocolate chip, even. That's how it is in some relationships, and sex therapists and educators usually try to get couples to experience new things together.
Fitzgerald says he is consistently surprised to hear people say they would have liked to try something, but were afraid their partner would think them kinky. Get over it, already.
If you haven't before, "visit a sex shop or a web site," Bartlik says. Buy a fun dildo or vibrator, and use it with your partner.
The booty is another territory that many couples haven't fully explored.
"One of the most common things that comes up in sex therapy is he or she proposing to experiment with anal intercourse, and then to find the other partner either very enthusiastic beforehand, or very enthusiastic after the event, and wondering why they didn't try it sooner," Fitzgerald says.
"Try having sex in a place that's different from where you normally have sex," Bartlik says. Especially summertime, you could go out to a secluded outdoor spot and get your thing on there. Probably everyone has fantasized about languid, passionate lovemaking on a private tropical beach. Unless you're planning to travel to an uninhabited island anytime soon, however, you may have to settle for the woods out back.
That other ubiquitous fantasy, the ménages à trois, rarely works out for couples in committed relationships, Fitzgerald says. "Their fantasy is so out of proportion with reality that it's ridiculous," he says. He says that in 17 years as a sex therapist he has seen only two couples for whom it has been a truly great experience. More commonly, it begets weirdness between the two principals.
The Way We Were
Often when people talk about wanting to heat up a long-term relationship, what they really want is to recapture the excitement they felt in the beginning. So think back to how the two of you related at the time.
"I'm thinking about all the romance that went into trying to win the person over when they were dating," Bartlik says. "There were words, and phone calls, and kisses, and making out for hours, and all this buildup to sex that now they just bypass."
You can never recapture the "thrill of the chase," Fitzgerald says. "It can't be repeated." But you shouldn't take your partner for granted, either.
"I think if you want to spice up your love life you need to become a more loving person, a more attentive person, on a regular basis," says sex therapist Carole Altman, PhD, author of Electrify Your Sex Life and other books.
"As we become more and more important to each other -- as we get engaged, as we get married, as we have children, as we make all the steps that are so important in our lives -- we disconnect more and more," she says. "It doesn't have to happen."
No trick or tip will raise the heat in your relationship one degree if there's not genuine warmth there already. "You see so many couples that are so disrespectful to each other that it's amazing they can even touch each other," Altman says. "Everything revolves around if you really care."
More Ideas From the Experts
- Leave your partner suggestive notes around the house.
Shower together. Keep a bowl of coarse salt handy to rub on your partner's body.
Make dates to go out.
Kiss your partner often -- not just pecks, but like you mean it.
Banish television from the bedroom. Sitcoms and the evening news are an anathema to romance.