How do we want what we already have? We long for that pair of dream shoes, we see them in the shop window, we dream about them, imagine ourselves wearing them, and then we finally buy them – they are beautiful, the focus of our heart’s desire – and yet, a year on, they sit in our wardrobe and they don’t seem quite so special.
I think there is an element of that when we think about our sexual relationship. There can be something very alluring when we are dating – we don’t quite “have” that person and that feels exciting and wistful. There is distance between us which keeps us on our toes. In those early days, we are more likely to show our best side and our partner will do the same. Five years down the line, there is not much we don’t know about the other and the novelty factor has often worn off. So what is the answer?
You can fix it, but it takes work
I think the first thing is we have to accept that this change in the way we feel is part of a normal process in a committed relationship. It doesn’t mean we are with the wrong person. Films would have us believe that if we are not ripping one another’s clothes off, having sex in acrobatic positions and climaxing at the same time after little or no foreplay, there is something fundamentally wrong. But we need to remember films are not real life. So it’s normal to feel this way and if we want to create something different and not just accept this as the status quo, we have to be prepared to work at keeping desire alive.
‘Work?’ I hear you say. ‘Sex is the one area I don’t want to have to work at. Life is hard work enough, surely sex doesn’t have to be too?’ I think the reality is that actually, if we want to nurture the flame of desire, we do have to think about it and be intentional about it, and there is an element of work to this. If we wait until we are both well rested, the house is tidy, the children are sleeping angelically in their beds and the stars are aligned before we have sex, it will simply never happen. So how do we continue to have satisfying sex amongst the routine and hum drum of normal everyday life?
Rediscover your partner
The sex therapist Esther Perel has done some research that shows that, when partners in long term relationships are asked when they are most attracted to their partners, they say it is when they see them out of their “usual” context. Perhaps talking animatedly at a party or giving a speech at work. We are reminded of the fact that our partners are separate from us and that, as Esther Perel says, we need “a bridge to cross” to get to them.
We need to carve out time as a couple to connect and, in that time, we need to re-engage with what we first found attractive about our partners. For many of us, that was discovering new things about them, their passions, how they felt about things and what energises them, and we need to be able to offer that to them too. We need to keep ourselves engaged and alive. We need to pursue areas of life that bring us joy so that we can reinvigorate the relationship with new life. This could be something as simple as talking about a book that has gripped us or pursuing a hobby or describing a night out with friends where our partner was not present.
Keep having sex!
If we are intentional about keeping sex alive, then I think we need to commit to making sure we engage in intimacy regularly. How regular is regular? It is difficult to get really accurate information about how often couples have sex. Some surveys have suggested that on average British couples have sex once a week and I think this is quite a helpful rule of thumb. It means that you are regularly connected – the more a couple have sex, the more likely they are to be able to understand what arouses their partner and themselves, and what makes intimacy enjoyable.
Research has shown that men and women function very differently when it comes to sexual desire. Men are likely to have more spontaneous desire whereas women are more likely to be in sexual ‘neutral’. They don’t not want sex but they are not actively seeking it in the way their partners might be. Interestingly, if a woman is able to get sexually aroused in her body, sexual desire is likely to follow in her mind. So we have to think about how a woman might get sexually aroused physically.
Find what works for you
I don’t think that sexual intimacy always has to include penetrative intercourse, in fact I think it is helpful if a couple varies their sexual repertoire so that it doesn’t become predictable or boring. There are also many reasons why, on occasion, penetration might be painful or uncomfortable – after childbirth, for example – but that doesn’t mean that the couple can’t enjoy oral sex or mutual stimulation. For women, sex is much more likely to be comfortable and enjoyable if the women is adequately aroused. One of the problems is that if a woman is struggling to get aroused, the couple can then get into quite a negative cycle – the more they try, the less aroused she feels, which compounds the problem.
Introducing a vibrator can be a really helpful tool for some couples. Just as some of us need glasses to aid our sight, some women find that using a vibrator especially for clitoral stimulation with her partner quickly overcomes this problem and then sexual desire is likely to follow. We also need to recognise that if sex is enjoyable, we are more likely to want to do it more. Introducing a vaginal lubricant to make sure that penetrative sex is comfortable is another very simple but practical tool that can help. This is particularly important during the menopause when hormonal changes can make arousal more difficult and sex less comfortable.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
Finally, we need to keep talking to our partners – and this includes talking about sex. What we like, what we might want to try and anything that we recognise in ourselves that hinders or encourages our desire. If we can get over the idea that sex always has to be spontaneous and that our bodies always respond as we want them to do, then we can start to have some really helpful conversations that can deepen our intimacy and ensure both our own and our partner’s needs are met in this really important aspect of our relationship.
Emma Waring is the author of Seasons of Sex & Intimacy. In her day-to-day work, she counsels individuals and couples who are experiencing sexual difficulties and/or relationship problems. She regularly speaks on how couples can nurture lasting sexual enjoyment in their relationships and on how to manage common sexual difficulties. She also works closely with Nicky and Sila Lee on the sex element of The Marriage Course.