Dear Neil: What is it about being married that takes all the erotic juice out of a relationship? I’ve been married twice, once for 15 years and the other for 20. I’ve noticed a gradual wearing down of romance that happened to both. The relationship starts out hot, romantic and loving—but work, stress, taking care of a home, paying bills and children take so much time, effort and energy that there is very little left for erotic play, starry-eyed romance or passion.
I have read that closeness and intimacy normally leads to good sex. But I have always found that the best sex is during dating and courtship, not marriage. Do you think that intimacy really leads to good sex, or is that just what people want to be true? Does commitment deaden desire? Does feeling secure in a relationship also lead to feelings of monotony? Does parenthood doom a good sex life? Why is it harder to want what we already have?
Do you have any answers?
Wanting to Know in Colorado
Dear Colorado: We all desire a stable, reliable and trustworthy relationship, which propels us toward commitment in the first place. But we also have an equally strong need for adventure, novelty, excitement and stimulation, which drives some people away from monogamy and long-term commitment. Ester Perel has written a whole book on the interplay between these two opposing forces, called Mating in Captivity (Harper).
She acknowledges that too many love stories sacrifice passion in order to achieve stability. But she also asks the questions: Can we have both love and desire in the same relationship over time? How? What exactly would that relationship be like?
“Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery….If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by repetition. It thrives on the mysterious, the novel and the unexpected. Love is about having; desire is about wanting. An expression of longing, desire requires ongoing elusiveness. It is less concerned with where it has already been than passionate about where it can still go. But too often, as couples settle into the comforts of love, they cease to fan the flame of desire. They forget that fire needs air,” says Perel.
Playfulness—whether it’s done with lingerie, weekend getaways, hotel rendezvous, naughty voice mail messages, suggestive cards or notes, trading massages or any other way—is essential to eroticism. And such eroticism extends beyond the sexual act. It takes time, effort and energy to create and nurture such an erotic space. That is one thing you could do to keep a long-term relationship sexy over time.
Sometimes good sex can be meaningful and loving—an expression of closeness, commitment and connection. But other times sex is “just sex.” There can be playful sex, fantasy sex, angry sex and half-hearted sex also. It’s OK to very the feelings and emotions that go with lovemaking, so that you have a repertoire of choices and expressions, instead of the same one each and every time.
Another thing you could do is to recognize that virtually all couples go through periods of time “when desire is dormant—when they are estranged from each other, or simply immersed in their own projects and in their own lives—but they don’t panic, terrified that something is fundamentally wrong with them. They know that erotic intensity waxes and wanes, that desire suffers periodic eclipses and intermittent disappearances. But given sufficient attention, they can bring the frisson back,” says Perel.
It would be useful for you to look at how you might introduce an element of risk, novelty and mystery to your love life. The same-old/same-old doesn’t work very well for most people long term. Most of us require an element of surprise, unfamiliarity, imaginativeness and creativity to keep us charged up and interested. Find ways of doing that.