Letter #22 LTR Without Stale Sex

How do you build a long term sexual relationship without the sex getting stale?

I think it is a mistake to assume that sex is inherently going to get stale in a long-term sexual relationship. It’s true that there are certain advantages to a new sexual partner: the thrill of discovering your partner’s body, the uncertainty of whether they really like you, the “will we or won’t we” tension, and of course the all-consuming nature of new relationship energy. Novelty is exciting for many people!

But there are a lot of advantages to a long-term relationship. Your partner knows how to touch you in a way that makes you feel good, and vice versa; there’s a reason women are more likely to orgasm in committed relationships. You have already communicated complicated sexual preferences, like how exactly you like to get tied up, and don’t have it again. You feel safe and comfortable sharing vulnerable aspects of your sexuality or your sexual fantasies and proposing new activities that your partner might judge you for. There’s less of a pressure to perform; you don’t get so distracted going “do they like me? Am I doing this right?” that you forget to enjoy yourself. And, well, sex with someone you love is in fact as nice as everyone says it is. In a healthy relationship, old-relationship sex is often more fun than new-relationship sex!

This is similar to how I think about secondary versus primary relationships, actually. It’s very common to worry that a secondary relationship will threaten your primary relationship, because your partner’s secondary keeps going on fun romantic dates with them, and you and your partner spend a bunch of time arguing about taxes. A very common solution to this is “go on more fun dates with your primary.” But I think a better solution is to consciously appreciate the unique good things that a primary relationship lets you do: waking up together every morning, shared injokes, binge-watching TV shows together. You can try to make old relationship sex more like new relationship sex, but I think a better approach is learning to appreciate old relationship sex for what it is.

But how do you make sure you get good old relationship sex?

Of course, the first step is to commit to someone broadly sexually compatible: someone with similar kinks and a similar libido, who is attracted to you and whom you are attracted to. Before you commit to a long-term sexual relationship with someone, it’s a good practice to have an open discussion of sexuality: your sexual history, your kinks, your fantasies, your preferred sexual frequency, your hard limits, your traumas, what parts you like or don’t like to be touched, dirty talk, how long you like sex to take…

Once you’ve committed, both you and your partner need to make sex a priority. It’s okay to have a sexual relationship in which sex is not a priority, of course. In my primary relationship, sex is a priority, and a clean house is not a priority; someone else may well have it the other way around. But, because keeping the house clean is not a priority, my house is often really messy; similarly, if sex is not a priority, you will often wind up having less and less fun and affectionate sex.

What does it look like to make sex a priority? You might promptly seek medical treatment for sexual pain or other functioning issues. You might avoid medications that lower libido. You might cut out your late-night John Oliver habit. You might get a sitter so you can spend an unrushed night in bed together. You might say ‘no’ to more activities so that you have time to have sex. You might buy sex toys. You might try things your partner is interested in, even if you’re ‘meh’ on them. You might commit to taking time for your private sexual life, whatever that means for you: perhaps you want to masturbate regularly, or spend time erotically touching yourself without masturbating, or regularly explore new fantasies, or read or watch new porn.

You get the idea! Good sex doesn’t generally happen by magic. You have to put time, energy, and effort into making sure it happens.

In order to have good sex, you have to accept bad sex. This happens on both the macro level and the micro level.

On the micro level: half of all sex is below average. Hopefully, the average is going to be pretty high! But often sex is not going to be mindblowing: you’re going to have warm, loving, affectionate, mutually enjoyable sex and then cuddle up and fall asleep. And sometimes sex is going to be bad. Your partner is going to say something totally unsexy, or you’re going to become aware of a body part you don’t like and get turned off, or you’re going to try something and it turns out it just makes you both feel riiculous. Sometimes your body is just not going to cooperate with your plans: you can’t come or can’t get it up or come too quickly or have pain or start gagging or vomit or fart at absolutely the wrong time. It’s important to be able to approach this with a sense of humor and proportion — to laugh off the occasional human foibles without assuming it presents a major problem, to not be resentful that your sex life isn’t the same as in the fanfiction you read when you were fifteen, and to be ready to work on the problem if there actually is one.

On a macro level: there are going to be times in every person’s life where they have bad sex. You’re not going to have the same level of sexual variety and satisfaction when you have a newborn that you did when the baby was conceived. People get health problems: cancer, chronic fatigue, depression, trauma from being raped. Sometimes there’s a lot going on in your life: many people are not going to be in the mood for sex if their cat is dying, they just lost their job, their dad has to go to a nursing home, and their best friend is homeless. Sometimes you just get trapped in a bad cycle without meaning to.

It’s important to understand that these sorts of changes are normal. It doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a crappy sex life forever. Keep making sex a priority, but understand that that might look different: maybe it means “spend ten minutes twice a week doing something together that’s at least a little bit sexy,” maybe it means “wear sexy underwear sometimes,” maybe it means “talk about sex regularly,” maybe it means “keep treating the depression, stop doing anything sexual for now,” maybe it means “commit to checking in regularly to see if your life has stopped being on fire.”

A quality sex life requires a quality relationship. If you don’t really like the person you’re committed to — well, then you’re probably not going to like the sex you’re having either. If you don’t feel affection for them, if you don’t trust them, if you don’t love them, all of these can cause sexual problems.

There’s a certain kind of person who is like “I can’t remember the last time my wife and I had a conversation that wasn’t about the house or the kids. We argue constantly about tiny things — we can’t talk about the proper way to fold laundry without it turning into a screaming match. I don’t particularly like her. In fact, I think she’s stupid, boring, and immoral. We almost never have sex and when we do it sucks. How can I get my wife to have hot sex with me?”

I am genuinely confused about how this kind of person comes to identify their problem as a sex problem, since from my perspective it seems obvious that the sex is a symptom and in fact the bad part is literally everything about their relationship. But if this description sounds familiar, nothing about sex will improve your sex life. The thing that will improve your sex life is making your relationship suck less.

Improving your relationship is a broad topic, but I recommend John Gottman’s excellent books and classes for people who are concerned about the quality of their relationship.

Relationship quality pretty much just improves your sex life. But relationship closeness is a double-edged sword. Esther Perel argues that for many people a certain distance is necessary to create eroticism. If you spend all your time with another person, they’re familiar and almost boring. To create eroticism, you need tension, unpredictableness, even fear of loss. You have to have a chance to miss your partner if you want to appreciate them.

(Of course, this doesn’t work if the relationship sucks, because your partner isn’t like “I miss you,” they’re like “thank God I get a moment away from that asshole.”)

Creating a certain distance can be (but isn’t always) easy for poly people. If you’re too enmeshed in your primary relationship, try dating a new person! It can, oddly enough, improve your sex life with your primary. For monogamous people, creating the distance can be more complicated. Consider taking up separate hobbies, spending time with different friends, or committing to getting out of the house without your partner on a regular basis. Build lives that are, in some sense, separate from each other. For some monogamous couples, flirtations outside the primary relationship can create that erotic charge; of course, this is up to the individual couple, and many monogamous couples are not comfortable with flirtations.

If there’s one secret to sexual success, it is communication. I know, every sex-positive blogger says this, but that’s because it’s true. Set aside time to talk about sex when you’re not having sex — especially if you’ve been having problems, but even if you haven’t. Talk openly and honestly; be a person your partner can be safe openly and honestly talking around. Talk about what makes sex good for you, what you think causes the problems you’ve been having, your fantasies, your insecurities, things you’ve been meaning to try.

It’s easy to avoid bringing up issues because your partner might be insecure about them, but be brave. It is much better to have one awkward conversation about your partner’s bad breath, unattractively shaved genitals, habit of painfully pinching your nipples during sex, or offputting dirty talk, than it is to fuck up your entire sex life because you didn’t want to bring a thing up. You might want to consider using email, if that’s easier.

When it comes to low desire problems, there are two categories: “gas pedal” and “brakes”. A gas pedal problem is when you don’t have any particular reason to have sex: gas pedal problems include “sex isn’t fun,” “my partner isn’t the kind of person I find hot,” and “my antidepressant is killing my libido.” A brakes problem is when you have a reason to not have sex: brakes problems include “I don’t feel safe,” “my partner smells bad,” “I’m worried about pregnancy,” “I’m tired,” “I’m busy,” “the trash is overflowing and it’s gross,” and “I expect sex to hurt.”

It is important to know which sort of problem you have: gas pedal, brakes, or both at once. If your partner is too tired for sex and keeps staring at your dirty underwear on the floor every time you fuck, it will not help to put on some nice clothes, wear perfume, buy a sex toy, and try out some new dirty talk or positions. On the other hand, if your partner is not attracted to you, it will not help to make sure the house is sparkling clean, give them lots of time to nap, and point them to reassuring statistics about the effectiveness of birth control. Many people try to improve their sex lives by pressing on the gas pedal as hard as possible, when actually they have a brakes problem; if you do that, you’re not going to go anywhere (except by coincidence, as when a romantic vacation happens to be to a place where someone else is doing all your laundry).

It’s also important to understand spontaneous versus responsive sexual desire. Spontaneous sexual desire is what we commonly think of as “wanting sex”: you’re just going about your day and sexy thoughts pop into your head and you’re like “sex sounds good now.” Responsive sexual desire occurs in response to a stimulus: you see an attractive person without many clothes on, or read a sexy story, or kiss and touch your partner, and you want sex. Nearly everyone experiences both spontaneous and responsive desire for sex; however, some people experience very little spontaneous desire, some people experience very little responsive desire, and some people experience very little of either.

For various reasons — including the fact that men in general tend to have more spontaneous sexual desire and women in general tend to have more responsive sexual desire — our culture treats spontaneous sexual desire as “real” and responsive sexual desire as “fake.” It’s important to accept responsive sexual desire as an equally valid and wonderful way for sexuality to work.

People with responsive sexual desire may need to make a particular effort to include sexual stimuli throughout their day: maybe you read a sexy book or watch some porn before bed, maybe you wear clothes that make you feel hot, maybe your partner dresses up nice, maybe you sext your partner during the day. It’s also a good idea to regularly do no-pressure foreplay: kiss, touch, talk about sex, do kink, whatever without the expectation that it will necessarily lead to sex. Sometimes, the partner with responsive desire will find that kissing and touching puts them in the mood for sex; sometimes, they won’t. Either way it’s fine. Many people with responsive sexual desire don’t like doing foreplay because they’re not in the mood for sex, which is a problem, because foreplay is the kind of thing that puts them in the mood for sex. By separating foreplay from the expectation of sex, you actually wind up having more sex.

For more about spontaneous and responsive sexual desire and the gas pedal/brakes model of low libido, I recommend Emily Nagoski’s excellent Come As You Are.

Partners with libido gaps, even small ones, often find themselves falling into chasing dynamics. One partner is always the initiator, while another partner is always the one who ends up saying ‘no’. If this works for you, great! But chasing dynamics can cause a lot of problems: the partner who says ‘no’ feels pressured; the partner who always initiates feels unwanted. The easiest solution is for the partner who says ‘no’ to make an effort to notice when they want sex and initiate. For some people, scheduling sex or the initiator taking a break from initiating may also help.

For many people, scheduling sex is a good idea. It can help some couples with chasing dynamics. It’s really really good for busy couples, for whom sex won’t happen unless they set aside some time for it. Scheduling sex is a lifesaver for couples where both partners have responsive desire.

Some people object to scheduling sex because it is not very spontaneous. Spontaneous sex is great! But scheduled sex is also great. You get to look forward to it. You get to anticipate and think about all the sexy things that might happen. Early on in their relationships, nearly everyone schedules sex: we call it “a date.” If dates were sexy early on, then scheduling sex can be sexy once you’ve been together for a while.

“Scheduling sex” is a bit of a misnomer. I don’t think you should go into scheduled sex with the expectation that genitals will be involved. The expectation is that you will spend some time together close, probably naked, intimately touching each other, and not talking about the bills, Donald Trump, or that thing your partner did that annoyed you. Sometimes this will result in sex! Sometimes one or both of you will be tired or not in the mood, and then kissing and touching and talking is just fine.

Scheduling sex doesn’t work at all if it creates the obligation to have sex — obligations are not hot. It works if it creates a little uncertainty about whether you’re going to get to have sex, because that builds up eroticism.

In a long-term committed relationship, I think, you’re often well-served to broaden your idea of sex.

I don’t think this is at all a substitute for the stuff I’ve talked about earlier: if you’re enmeshed too closely, or if your relationship sucks, or if you don’t have much time together for sex, or if you don’t know how to handle responsive desire, or if you have a low libido for some reason, or if your communication sucks, simply adding variety will not help. And if you have all those things, variety is kind of optional. There are lots of people who have great sex lives where they basically have the same sex every time.

But let me be frank: human sexuality is varied. If you wanted to, you could do a different sex act every night for the rest of your life and never repeat any, and you would die without ever running out of possible sex acts.

Of course, many of those sex acts have at best niche appeal. If you tried this, you would probably not get much out of the month or so you’d devote to balloon-related sex acts. But even just in the space of sex acts a reasonably vanilla person would find appealing, you have so many options. Saying sex is boring because you only have one sexual partner is like saying food is boring because you only have one cook. Maybe you need to try a different dish?

Trying new things is not only useful for adding to your sex life some of the novelty and adrenaline we appreciate about new-relationship sex, it’s also useful for those troublesome times in life — particularly ones that don’t lead to low desire altogether. If you have vaginismus or erectile dysfunction, if you’re in a long-distance relationship for a while, or if you have to adjust around pregnancy or a disability or weight gain, it helps to have a bunch of different sex acts in your toolkit.

Sex doesn’t have to look like “kissing, touching, maybe oral sex, PIV until male orgasm” (as surprising as this would be to many straight people). Sex doesn’t have to involve a hard dick (lesbians do fine). Sex doesn’t have to involve orgasms. Sex doesn’t have to involve genitals. Sex doesn’t have to even involve being on the same continent, now that we have chat, video calls, phones, and teledildonics.

Of course, it’s totally reasonable to want sex that involves those things — most people do. But in a long-term relationship, there’s going to be times when it’s just not possible. And flexibility and novelty are going to make for a good sexual experience.

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An advice column project run by Ozy of Thing of Things. Send in letters to thingofthingsadvice@gmail.com. Letters may be edited for space.

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