“Marriage is where you least have sex,” said Brazilian psychoanalyst Regina Lins Navarro in a recent interview on modern love. She’s known not to mince words. As someone in a committed relationship who studies sexuality, I’ve learned that in this world nothing is certain but death, taxes and changes in sexual desire for your partner.
Why exactly does this happen and what can we do? Can we restructure how we think about it to build a fulfilling sex life in the long run?
To understand how we got here, let’s start with some historical context.
A brief history of monogamy
Monogamy gradually began when humans transitioned from nomadic hunter-gatherers to farmers. The exact time is widely debated, anywhere between 1,000 to 5,000 years ago.
Marriage was an economic entity and monogamy was a way to protect a family’s lineage and inheritance. This is still the case in many parts of the world, but in the West with the rise of the Industrial Revolution things started to change.
Nuclear families living with multiple generations under one roof suddenly found themselves alone migrating to the cities. So around the 19th century, marrying for love became more common. It made the move away from the larger family more bearable.
It took feminism, birth control, Hollywood and a few other happenings along the past 150 years for romantic marriage to become what it is today.
Modern romantic marriage: unrealistic expectations
What once took a village, now takes one to be a village. We idealize marrying someone we are passionately in love with who will be our best friend, lover, caretaker, confidant and incredible parent to the children (if you decide to have them). Sounds exhausting, right?
No wonder divorce rates in America are so high! At roughly 50% in the first marriage and 65% in the second, it sounds like today’s romanticism is setting us up for failure.
Then there’s the sexual dynamic. This is the largest change relationships have experienced over the last 60-70 years.
Historically, sex was a marital duty for women to perform, done mainly to procreate, with no thought to their pleasure. Monogamy was not synonymous with love – it was a means to preserve patrimony. Passion and true love was often found in extramarital affairs, permitted only to men.
When birth control came out in 1950, women suddenly had reproductive autonomy. Premarital sex and affairs became more common, as women became sexually liberated. Our happiness became associated with emotional and sexual satisfaction, and monogamy became synonymous with love.
The modern concept of romantic marriage and monogamy portrays a couple as one: we mean everything to each other. Should our partner be interested in someone else, we are quick to judge that we are not enough, that there’s something wrong with us. We begin questioning everything – our identity included – and have a hard time trusting our partner (and others).
So, how does this all tie into sexual desire?
As renowned relationship therapist Esther Perel explains in her book Mating in Captivity, love is about needing your partner and desire is about wanting.
“Today we want a partner that gives us stability, security, playfulness and mystery. I want you to be edgy, and I want you to be familiar, I want continuity and novelty. Nothing material will solve that. What is desire? Desire is to own the wanting,” says Perel.
When we couple up, many of us seem to lose our sense of identity as we dedicate ourselves to our partner and the new life we’re building. It’s not uncommon to see people abandon hobbies, jobs, friends and even family.
Having our own activities is a healthy way of preserving our autonomy within a relationship. It creates just enough space to fuel the desire we crave.
Let me ask you this: when do you feel attracted to your partner? This prompt is found in Wonderlust’s Mindful Intimacy Deck and it’s a common one in couple’s therapy. People’s description usually has to do with seeing their partner in their element. Why? Because that’s when they are exercising their individuality, and they don’t need you.
Philosopher Alain de Botton shares another piece of advice. Because the person we have sex with is usually someone we are doing many other things with, “sex gets squashed among any of these priorities. It means that if there’s a problem with any of those targets, sex takes a hit. So in order to get back to having a bit more sex, what you need to try and do is remember what it was like to see that person when all you were trying to do is have sex with them.”
That’s why date nights and the occasional hotel stay works. It takes you away from the daily routine to remind each other of who you were together before you became confused with so many other roles.
Ironically, the things that reignite desire aren’t sexual at all.
Remember the effort you put in to show up as your best self when you were dating? Over time in a committed relationship, we start giving our partners what’s left of us at the end of the day. That’s usually exhausted, impatient and anything in between.
Perel also shares that most people talk better to others than to their partners. With others we can’t get away with it, but with our loved ones, we think we can because we erroneously take them for granted.
Yet we forget that foreplay really begins at the end of the last time you had sex. How you treat your partner on a daily basis greatly impacts their desire for you. Humans like to feel appreciated and acknowledged – your partner is no different.
Successful relationships run much like successful companies. They have incentive systems that work. Here are 7 of them to apply to your relationship, according to Perel. They may sound simple, but are often forgotten.
Say please and thank you. So many people stop thanking their partners, but this small act is a reminder that you are not owed anything and it makes them feel appreciated.
Do little things that go out of your way, rather than just do the bare minimum to not be scolded.
Occasionally, do something for your partner just because it matters to them, even if you could care less.
Give each other individual space. We all have different interests and friends, and not everything needs to be shared. We need these separate spaces to co-exist.
Admire them. It’s an act that reveals their “otherness”, and one of the strongest aphrodisiacs in my opinion.
Don’t try to make your partner the one person to fulfill all of your needs. Find multiple sources of connection and support, whether it’s through a community group, therapist, friends or family members.
Apologize. Telling your partner you’re sorry for what you did and know you could have done better goes a long way.
Of course, the sexual things make a difference too.
Let’s go back to when you were dating. You would take the time to get ready, look your best, surprise them, whisper something in their ears, take your time kissing and eventually take each other’s clothes off.
That buildup of excitement and sensuality over time became replaced by “Hey, do you want to have sex?” as you two walk to bed, take off your own clothes, maybe share a few kisses, skip the foreplay and go straight to penetration. No wonder couples get bored and sex becomes an afterthought. If this sounds like you, it’s a common script, especially amongst heterosexual couples.
That’s not to say queer couples don’t fall into the same trap of boredom and laziness, but they are much more creative when it comes to the sexual experience.
In Dr. Ian Kerner’s book So Tell Me About The Last Time You Had Sex, he shares that in a 2011 study with 25,000 American gay and bisexual men, over 1,300 unique combinations of behaviors were reported during a sex script. A sex script is a sequence of actions during a sexual experience.
Nearly 65% of them did not have intercourse in their most recent sex script. However, according to another study, only 10-15% of heterosexual couples did not include intercourse in their last sex script.
While queer men reported practicing on average 5 to 9 different behaviors during a sex script, heterosexual couples tend to practice 1 or 2 before intercourse.
So what can these more varied sex scripts look like? An example could be holding your partner romantically, kissing, solo masturbation, masturbating your partner, giving and receiving oral sex, genital to genital contact and/or intercourse (whether vaginal or anal).
In another study at Indiana University with 4,000 people with 92% being heterosexual, findings show that the more variety a sex script included, the better the ease of orgasm and satisfaction was for both men and women.
Everyone can incorporate more variety, seduction and plot. The key is curiosity. When you’ve been together for a long time and assume you know everything about your partner and what they like, there is no room for possibility, play and exploration.
Now I know what you may be thinking as you’re reading this (because this is what I often hear): “Wow, this seems like a lot of work!”. But if this advice had been given to improve your business, you would probably think otherwise and start implementing change.
Building a healthy, fulfilling relationship and sex life takes effort – just like anything else in life. Yet your relationship is the most important investment. As Perel famously says, “The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives.”
Learning how to communicate effectively with your partner about your relationship and desires is crucial, and a great place to start.
When we launched Wonderlust, we surveyed over 500 couples to understand their sexual pain points, and guess what? Talking about sex was it. Before you start having more sex, better sex, novelty in sex, you and your partner need to communicate with each other.
That’s why we created the Mindful Intimacy Deck – a tool to strengthen your relationship’s emotional and sexual intimacy. It’s approved by therapists, based on couples therapy principles and loved by couples. I invite you to learn more if you think it can help your relationship.
This post was originally published on substack.