Passionate Marriage

Experts explain what it takes to keep good sex, passion, and intimacy in your relationship.

Medically Reviewed by Cynthia Dennison Haines, MD on February 14, 2007
8 min read

Don't believe the jokes you've heard about passionate marriage: "I never knew what real happiness was until I got married, and by then it was too late." Or "The longest sentence you can form with two words: 'I do.'" Max Kaufman and H.L. Mencken, while always funny, missed the mark on marriage -- at least as far as sex and passion are concerned.

Sex researchers have found that passionate marriage is alive and well; in fact, marriage is where the best and most satisfying sex is happening in America. Married couples have more sex, more varied sex (including oral sex) -- and more emotionally and physically satisfying sex -- than singles. When sex works well, it can add a great deal to how happy couples feel about their lives -- as much as a 15% to 20% increase in satisfaction, according to Edward Laumann, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, and lead author of The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States, a compendium of the most comprehensive survey data on sexual practices in the United States.

When passionate marriage works well, it works very, very well. However, when it doesn't work well, it's awful. "When sex works badly, it can take away 50% to 70% of marital satisfaction," says Laumann.

Yes, there is a lot at stake in trying to create or sustain a passionate marriage. But it doesn't mean your marriage is in trouble if you are feeling less passionate or if sex is less exciting than when you first met each other. That is inevitable -- infatuation fades and "sexual boredom is a given in marriage," says David Schnarch, director of the Marriage and Family Health Center in Evergreen, Colo., and author of Passionate Marriage: Sex, Love, and Intimacy in Emotionally-Committed Relationships. "Normal sex is doing the leftovers -- whatever is left over when he says he's not comfortable doing that, and she says she isn't comfortable doing the other," Schnarch explains.

But you don't have to settle for less than a passionate marriage. With careful attention and a little creativity, you can keep the home fires burning.

"It is the dilemma of modern relationships: reconciling security and adventure -- eroticism and domesticity -- in the same place," says Esther Perel, a couples and family therapist in New York City, and author of Mating In Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic. We live decades longer than we did a century ago, long past the reproductive stage of life. And we expect to have sex and passion, both for pleasure and connection -- not just reproduction -- for the rest of our lives, too.

"Expectations are over the top. We want security and financial support, and the best friend and trusted confidant -- and a passionate lover -- all in one," Perel has observed through decades of marital counseling. So is passionate marriage impossible? "Yes, as a sustained thing. Passion ebbs and flows," Perel says.

People have the mistaken idea that if there is "sexual chemistry" then good sex doesn't take work, says Schnarch. That's simply wrong. The chemicals don't make for good sex -- nor do they get "used up," Schnarch insists. To keep passion flowing rather than ebbing away in a relationship takes work -- on yourself as an individual and work together as a couple. And the best time to start is before the flames are out.

1. Forget the "fusion fantasy" to create a passionate marriage.

"The fusion fantasy, or what is known as the idea that 'two shall become one' is lauded as the zenith of emotional bonding -- but it is the cause of lack of intimacy and passion," says Schnarch. "We go into marriage looking for someone to complete us, and that creates all the problems," he adds.

Instead, you have to be willing to grow as an independent, mature person -- what Schnarch terms a "differentiated person" -- to have a passionate marriage ... or even to have a healthy and happy relationship as a couple. "You are more capable of an intensely intimate sexual relationship as you mature and become more differentiated," Schnarch says.

2. Pursue your separate interests to sustain a passionate marriage.

Instead of jumping into activities together to create or revitalize a passionate marriage, it may be best to start with the personal passions that made you interesting and attractive to your partner in the first place. Take a class, play an instrument, go out with your buddies to a museum -- and bring back to the marriage a fresh sense of excitement and passion.

"It is sometimes too much closeness that stifles desire, not distance between you," says Perel, "Fire needs air. Desire is about wanting -- and love is about having. Desire needs a synapse to cross ... Thus separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex."

3. Novelty is the key to a passionate marriage.

"Desire is numbed by repetition; eroticism thrives on the mysterious, the novel, and the unexpected," says Perel. Next time you go to a dinner party with your partner, try to look across the table at your partner as if he or she were a stranger -- you may not know him or her as well as you think you do. "We try to turn our partner into someone who won't surprise us," Perel says, explaining that it makes us feel safe and secure to know we won't be caught by surprise. But the problem is, that leads to boredom, the enemy of the passionate marriage. Instead, break out of your comfort zone and try something new, or a little daring -- then see what your partner does in response.

4. Flirt with your partner to feed a passionate marriage.

Never forget that foreplay begins outside the bedroom. "Teasing and flirting to create anticipation is seductive," says Perel. "Flirting comes from the French fleuret -- the tip of a sword -- with which you tease about what could be. That is a massive turn on," says Perel.

You cannot simply turn to your partner and say, "are you in the mood" and expect that to be enough for sex and passion. Good sex begins long before you get into the bedroom, starting with how you treat each other with your clothes on. The way you look at each other as you pass in the hallway, the way you touch each other as you pass the pepper, how often you laugh at the other's jokes, the small compliments, even saying 'I'm sorry,' as you hold hands -- all can build excitement and erotic tension.

5. Make a date for sex -- and build the passion until then.

Every marital therapist on earth (and probably on Mars and Venus, too) advises couples to "Make a date for sex," and we all just roll our eyes at the banality of the idea. But it really is central to a passionate marriage. So hey, think of it as building anticipation -- extended day-long foreplay. Take pleasure in planning the details; imagine what you'll do, what underwear you'll wear (or not). Light candles, wrap a little present, put on your favorite music from your sexy youth, rub each other's backs. And agree, in advance, to take your time.

6. Fan the fantasies for a passionate marriage.

"The erotic mind is the main thing that allows us to sustain desire over time," says Perel. Reconnect with your imaginative capacity, with your fantasy life. Read together -- erotic or other literature. Ask each other about your fantasies. They don't have to take the form of Naughty Nurse and threesomes -- they don't even have to have a plot, says Perel. Anything you can imagine your partner doing to you that gives you pleasure, from a foot rub to a new sexual position, counts.

7. Focus on the whole body for passionate sex.

Where sexual pleasure is concerned, the shortest distance between two points -- from arousal to orgasm -- is not necessarily a straight line to the genitals. Take it slow, and take detours along the whole body, every contour. Be pleasure oriented, not goal oriented. Tease and touch each other everywhere but the genitals for as long as possible. Continue to take your time even when you shift gears into passionate sex.

8. Reconnect to share sex and passion.

"I call this exercise 'heads on pillows,' say Schnarch. That's all there is to it. You both lie on the bed and gaze into each other's eyes. For a long time. Five minutes, 10 minutes. At first it may feel like forever. But Schnarch insists this is an excellent way to reconnect in a way that stimulates calmness, peace, intimacy, and ultimately deeper, more passionate sex.

9. Try "eyes-open sex."

"Seventy percent of couples have sex with their eyes closed," says Schnarch. "Only 15% open them during orgasm." What that means, he says, is that "most of us tune out our partner at a time that is supposed to be the most intimate." Schnarch suggests keeping your eyes open, although he acknowledges that some people find this prospect intimidating and are unable to climax this way. But others "burst into tears because it is so heartwarming," he says. At the very least, you will feel the thrill of trying something novel. Schnarch believes it will also help couples expand their intimacy and have deeper, more passionate sex.

10. Mix laughter with passion and sex.

Calvin Trilling observes in his latest book, named after his late wife, Alice, that he won her love by being funny. Mickey Rooney once said, "Women like me because I make them laugh. And what is an orgasm, except laughter of the loins?" Passion is not always serious business -- it can be playful. Be willing to laugh at yourself when you try something new, especially when it doesn't work -- a new position that gives you a cramp or a belly dance that turns out to be more strange than sexy. When you laugh, you give your partner permission to do so. And you create an environment where each of you is free to try anything without fear of ridicule -- a liberating atmosphere where passionate sex can flourish.

Published February 2007.