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When my husband and I first started dating, we were so hot for each other that nothing got in the way of our urge to be together. It didn't matter how busy we were at work, how many errands we needed to accomplish, how many family or social obligations we had. If the time was right, we were together. And the time was nearly always right. I remember returning to his apartment after a wedding. It was very late, we were very tired -- but we still had our clothes nearly all the way off before we'd even gotten fully in the door. It was unspoken, delicious, and very spontaneous.
Fast forward several years. We got married. We had a son. We still have sex, to be sure, but it's just not as ... spontaneous as it once was. A typical conversation: "We should really have sex sometime this weekend." "Hmm, yes, you're right." Like most long-term couples, we're sometimes left wondering if the spark of early-relationship sex is gone forever.
The bad news: Yes, it is. The good news: If you maintain the right attitude, sex can get better in the years to come. But first, a look at why couples together for a long time go through such a shift.
Back when you two first fell in love, you experienced chemical changes in your body that you felt as lust. In that period, just thinking about your beloved counted as foreplay. But when that initial intensity fades, as it inevitably does, some couples feel betrayed by their own bodies. One or both of the partners, not feeling as instantaneously turned on, initiate sex less often, or gradually stop having sex altogether. They've fallen into the trap of believing that supercharged sex is the only good sex. "We have outsized notions of what a 'good' sex life should look and feel like," agrees Aline Zoldbrod, PhD, a certified sex therapist in Lexington, Massachusetts, and author of Sex Talk: Uncensored Exercises for Exploring What Really Turns You On (New Harbinger, 2002).
"We expect that the effortless arousal we used to feel will continue until we are old and gray." It's not just a woman thing, either. Both husbands and wives, says Zoldbrod, feel sad when they find that foreplay takes forethought. When they have to start thinking about or scheduling sex, "they interpret this to mean that they are not attracted to their spouse anymore -- and not attractive to their spouse anymore." But in the majority of cases, that could not be further from the truth.
Other factors play into the problem too. When you were first together, your sweetheart could do no wrong. But once you've been in the relationship for a while, the rose-colored glasses come off, little annoyances escalate, and larger resentments may set in and fester. "Over the years," says Zoldbrod, "partners inevitably end up hurting one another. And anger and hurt feelings tend to suppress sexual feelings, particularly for women." Throw in the hormonal shifts and sleep deprivation women experience after childbirth, and sex takes yet another hit.
So how can you keep your sex life humming, whether it's year three or 33? The first thing you should do is dispense with any notion that sex needs to be "perfect." Forget starry-eyed sex scenes in movies and on TV, and take with a grain of salt articles about G-spots, multiple orgasms, and the like. And keep these practical pointers in mind:
Periodically, do a sexual "check in" with your partner. "You continually need to reassess how you touch each other," says Zoldbrod. "Just because a particular routine worked well 15 years ago, doesn't mean it'll work forever." Don't be afraid to talk about your needs for fear of hurting your partner's feelings. If you frame the conversation as a "check in," it's less likely to be interpreted as criticism.
Don't be so goal-oriented. "If I feel like every sexual encounter with my husband has to end in orgasm, I'd never do it," says Jeanette, 37, a stay-at-home mother in New York City. She's right -- women, say experts, are particularly prone to distraction when it comes to sexual pleasure. "Instead of worrying, I try to just clear my mind and enjoy the moment. If it happens, it happens. If not, I'm just glad we took the time."
Have sex as often as you can. Okay, that may sound like pressure that you don't need, but it's not what it sounds like. "My husband and I make a concerted effort to have sex -- or at least spend some time together naked -- a couple of times a week. For us, sex leads to more sex, because it makes us feel sexy. The longer we go without, the more okay it feels to go without," says Emily, 40, a medical administrator in Boston.
Rethink that automatic "no." If it's been an exhausting day and you're thinking, "If he asks, I'll say no," try to retrain your thinking. Leave the question open.
Tap into your primitive brain, says Zoldbrod. "Sex is a basic human drive, in the primitive part of our brain." Unfortunately, that gets boxed out of a life where we are using our "higher" brains to get our jobs done and our families cared for. To tap into that part of your brain, think of sexual images that appeal to you. Look at pictures, read erotic literature, watch sexy movies, whatever works for you.
Reject the "normal" model of sex as desire, arousal, orgasm, resolution. It may not always happen that way, or in that order. Says Zoldbrod: "Good sex is what happens when two people who love and trust each other take off their clothes and spend some time together, secure in the knowledge that whatever happens, it will be pleasurable."
"For me, it's about getting in the mood well before we'll be together," says Donald, 34, a health consultant in Long Island City, New York. "If my wife and I are e-mailing each other during the day about 'normal' things, like picking up the dry cleaning, I'll add a P.S. with some sexy suggestion. Nothing super overt, just a reminder that I'm thinking about having sex."
If you don't think that a sexy movie and some time away from the kids and the bills is going to rev up your sex life, there may be other factors underlying your flagging libido. Here's what to do to get to the bottom of the problem.
Rule out medical issues. If you've had a baby recently, give yourself a break. For some women, it can take a year or more to adjust to shifting hormonal levels that interfere with arousal, especially if they're nursing.
Consider medications. If you're taking antidepressants, ask your doctor about sexual side effects; many antidepressants suppress arousal. Perhaps your doctor can help you find a different medication.
Get at underlying emotional issues. Anger and resentment toward your spouse can deal a blow to your sexual relationship. In that case, the two of you may need couples therapy. Important point: If you and your spouse have issues to work out, you need to do it together. Individual therapy is fine, but you may also need to find someone you can both talk to, says Zoldbrod.
Consider sex therapy. If you feel your relationship is fine except for the sex, you may want to seek out a certified sex therapist. While a marriage counselor or therapist can talk about your sex life too, a certified sex therapist is more specialized in getting to the emotional roots of sexual issues couples have. To find one, go to the Web site of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists or the American Board of Sexology. Note: Most sex therapists are also marital therapists.