Can Sex Endure?
Can we ever truly desire what we already have?1 That's the conundrum at the heart of long-term relationships: how to sustain erotic desire when, over time, the mystery and novelty that stimulates sexual interest inevitably wanes. It's a question that has baffled academics, sex therapists, and ordinary folk trying to keep the spark alive.
Sex educator and author Emily Nagoski2 3 acknowledges that it's rare to encounter long-term relationships with a high frequency of sex. What may have been true in the beginning — creative or adventurous sexual activity, an inability by partners to keep their hands off each other — rarely persists as the years go by. What, then, is the secret to preserving sexual intimacy, regardless of its frequency? Nagoski's research has found two components among long-term couples whose sexual connection hasn’t gone extinct:
The first component: a strong friendship undergirded by a sense of trust. One way we know there's trust if we can answer "yes" to the question, Is he/she there for me? The absence of trust usually signals hurts, resentments, disappointments and grievances — accumulated painful emotions. Sometimes those hurts and grievances are small enough that a generous measure of kindness, compassion, and forgiveness may be sufficient to push past them and keep friendship alive. Other times, hurts and grievances loom so large that we need the help of a skilled counselor to disentangle ourselves from the constraints of past injuries.
The second component: prioritizing sex — deciding together that physical intimacy matters and that it will be given intentional time on the calendar or appointment book — regardless of its frequency. This means occasionally putting aside children, television, email, and laundry in order to make time for sex. Introduce the concept of a "sex date." It might be monthly; it might be quarterly. But it means not waiting for the erotic urge to strike spontaneously — not waiting until both of you feel "in the mood." In long-term relationships, the mood might not arrive. "What you need to do," says Nagoski, "is put your body in the bed and let your skin touch your partner's skin." It will remind you that body contact feels nice, that skin-to-skin sensation is pleasurable — especially if you’re with someone you trust. For many couples, that's all it takes to create a little heat: trusting friends touching skin to skin.
1 Perel, Esther. Interviewed on the podcast Armchair Expert. May 2, 2019. https://armchairexpertpod.com/pods/esther-perel
2 Nagoski, Emily. How Couples Can Sustain a Strong Sexual Connection for a Lifetime. May 2019. https://www.ted.com/talks/emily_nagoski_how_couples_can_sustain_a_strong_sexual_connection_for_a_lifetime?language=en; Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that will Transform Your Sex Life. Simon & Schuster: New York. 2015.