How to Bring the Sparkle Back Into Your Relationship: why eroticism fades over time and what you can do about it.
"I know nothing about sex, because I was always married." -Zsa Zsa Gabor
Think back to the moment when you first met your significant other and the months that immediately followed. Do you remember feeling butterflies in your stomach when your partner held your hand for the first time? What was your first kiss like? What about the first time that you made love? Do you recall having difficulty falling asleep because of all of the the excitement and energy that you felt? Were you hopeful that your partner felt the same way about you that you felt about them?
Now think about what happens when you see this same partner now, after years of being together. You may still feel that same twinge of excitement when they walk through the door at the end of a long day but does that enthusiasm quickly dissipate? Perhaps you initially experience that comforting sense of familiarity which immediately dissolves into annoyance when you discover that they forgot to take out the trash, pick up the kids from daycare, or lost their cell phone....again. And those traits that you initially thought were adorable and whimsical (e.g., the jokes they tell, their quirky way of dancing, the fact that they spend their money so generously), now piss you off.
The very thing that many of us look for in a long-term relationship; stability, reliability, familiarity, safety, comfort, and a sense of home, is also the thing that ultimately leads to a decline in desire. Desire flourishes in an environment based on novelty, mystery, adventure, danger, and risk. Judy insisted that her lack of sexual desire was the result of the antidepressants that she had been prescribed. But it was not the antidepressants that were turning her off, it was her long-term relationship. It was not until her relationship ended and she started to date again that she remembered what arousal and sexual pleasure felt like. Richard loves his wife but lusts after several of his friend's spouses. He worries that if any of these women were ever to proposition him, he would have a hard time saying no. Wendy is keen on her girlfriend but the sex feels lackluster at best. In the beginning everything was so hot but now she cringes when her partner touches her.
In committed sex, individuals often stop making an effort to seduce, tease, be fully engaged, or build tension. It is not hard to imagine why coming home to your partner dressed in an old t-shirt and frumpy sweats isn't erotic. Or why grabbing your partner's butt or breasts as she walks by you isn't great foreplay. Or why the fact that year-after-year, having sex in only one position, as quickly as possible, the whole time worrying about the kids walking in or choose lefts undone, isn't arousing.
Esther Perel, a well known psychotherapist who is an expert on relationships and sexuality, claims that we expect a lot more from our relationships than we previously did. In a traditional model of marriage, the expectation was for companionship, social status, family life, and economic support. In modern marriage, we want all of these things plus more. We insist that our partners also be our best friends, confidants, and passionate lovers. And not only do we demand all of these things, we also live twice as long! It is this enmeshment and merging that often leads to a slow suffocation of our erotic longing.
Affairs become a means for differentiation, a path to autonomy. Affairs are not about sex. They are about desire, attention, and reconnection with lost parts of ourselves. Affairs allow us to be selfish and to focus on our own pleasure and needs. They allow us explore parts of ourselves that we forgot existed. Affairs make us feel alive in ways that our long-term relationships do not.
While affairs can be incredibly damaging to a relationship, they also have the ability to invigorate a dying marriage. Once the fear of loss is ignited and the illusion of safety is challenged, desire is often rekindled. Partners begin having conversations with each other that they should have had years ago. When asked whether she would ever recommend an affair to her clients, Perel answered, "No more than I would recommend cancer and yet a lot of people finally understand the value of life when they get sick."
How to Bring the Sparkle Back:
Unless a couple has chosen a non-monogomous relationship structure (e.g., an open relationship, polyamory, swinging), the implicit expectation is that each partner will remain faithful to one another. Within this agreement, many individuals are unhappy and unfulfilled but unable to communicate their needs. When was the last time you had a healthy conversation with your partner about your sexual needs? How does one bring the sparkle back?
Remove as Many Stressors as You Can: Stress is the enemy of sex. Many individuals find it hard to connect with their sexuality when there are chores to be done, emails left unfinished, and dinner to be cooked. This is why (for some) having sex while on vacation is easier: no household responsibilities or work the next day. It is nearly impossible to remove all stressors from one’s life, but work together to figure out what stressors are getting in the way of connecting and if anything can be done about this. This may involve dropping the kids off at a friend’s house for the night, hiring a weekly housecleaner, and/or ordering take-out. Doing a short mindfulness exercise together before connecting can be a great way to start getting into the proper headspace.
Make it Sexy, Fun, Playful, Naughty, and Hot: Enough with the vanilla sex! Sex where you know from the beginning how it is going to end. Enough with the safe, predictable, and boring lovemaking. Bring back adventure, mystery, risk, the unknown. Try experimenting with sex within your relationship rather than outside of your relationship. Surprise your partner with something new. Try lovemaking in a different order. Experiment with things that you have never done before. Try different positions and in different rooms. Explore each others bodies like its the first time. If you are usually the one who takes control in bed, try relinquishing it next time. Or if you are usually the passive one, try taking the lead. Go to your local sex shop (Good Vibrations is one that I recommend in the Bay Area) and purchase scented lubes, erotic literature, or a new toy. You are only limited by your imagination.
If you need help (and don't worry if you do!) there are a number of apps that can help spice things up: Desire is a game for couples that involve intimacy/sexual dares. Fruit Salad Tonight has naughty challenges that you and your partner are sure to love.
Share Your Fantasies: Fantasies often speak to our conscious and unconscious desires. We often play it safe by keeping our fantasies hidden from the people we love. The fear of judgment can keep us close lipped, but it can be very erotic to share fantasies with your partner. You may be surprised to find out that your partners shares these same fantasies or at least are willing to help entertain yours. One suggestion is to open an email account that you use only to email one another. This email is reserved solely for erotic conversations: sex, fantasies, memories, questions. and desires. You can also leave sexy voicemails for each other throughout the day which can help build tension and arousal.
Eroticism Begins Outside the Bedroom: It is important that you be kind and loving outside of the bedroom. There is nothing less arousing than a partner who is only sweet on you when they want to get in your pants. Remember how at the beginning of the relationship you would bend over backwards for one another? Reinvest in this idea. Step outside the box and try courting again. Bring home those flowers, pack that romantic picnic, leave sweet love notes around for your partner to find.
Desire Needs Space: Be in a position to miss one another. Travel independently. Spend time apart. And while you are apart make an agreement to not constantly text, email, or video chat. Get back in touch with a sense of absence and longing. Desire thrives on space and distance.
See Your Partner in A New Light: Many times we are most drawn to our partners when they are truly in their element. For example, you might feel turned on when you are at a work function together and they are talking shop with their coworkers. Or when you are at a party and they are telling an amusing story to a group of your friends. Make time and hold space for seeing your partner with fresh eyes and from a different perspective. It can be such a turn-on!
Flirt with Others: Yep, go to a bar or club together in the next city over and flirt with others. Take turns watching each other from a distance. There is nothing that fans the flame of desire more than a sense of danger. After flirting with others, try flirting with each other. Have your partner sit at the bar counter alone and see if you can pick them up and bring them home.
Get Out of Your Own Way and Deal with Your Shit: Seriously, take a break from your own mind. Stop focusing on your children for a hot minute. And is focusing on that extra weight that you have gained since you got married helpful to you in the bedroom? Or that to-do list that is ever growing? Schedule time together and agree to leave your worries outside the room. When worry starts to knock on the door, disinvite it again. Consider therapy. Deal with your shit! It is almost impossible to feel desire when you are anxious, distracted, and/or insecure.
Stop Giving Everything You Have to Your Children: This one may be controversial, but many of us spend a large share of our energy on our children. They get our affection, humor, love, energy, and time. Meanwhile, our partners are neglected. We are left exhausted at the end of the day and have nothing left to give. An interesting read is Bringing Up Bebe, a book that explores French parenting from an American's perspective. One of this books most important contributions is the notion that there should be explicit "child time" and "adult time." Children in France are not the center of the Universe in the same way that they tend to be here in the United States. French parents make room for maintaining their identities separate from their children and good boundaries are upheld (e.g., an adult won't interrupt a phone conversation with a peer to attend to their child's every whim). Go on a weekend vacation, just the two of you. Hire that babysitter during the week. Child swap with other parents from school so you have a weekday alone. Rediscover who you are outside of the role of parent.
Schedule: Schedule intimacy. Numerous couples complain that scheduling sex ruins the fun. "It should be spontaneous" they argue. But think back to when you first met your significant other. You scheduled a date with the anticipation that sex would follow. You dimmed the lights, put on some smooth jazz, and shared a bottle of Merlot. Don't wait for sex to just happen or to "be in the mood" because it won't and you won't.
These are some of the tools that you can utilize to reignite desire in your relationship. If you find yourself making excuses for why these ideas won't work for you, you may want to consider enlisting the help of a professional.
To learn more about participating in sex therapy in Silicon Valley, visit my website: https://www.drpomeranz.com