Jamie slumps on my therapy couch, his head in his hands. “My wife says her attraction to me has waned. She asked me if we can open our relationship, but that’s not something I want. What do I do?”
As a psychologist and sex therapist, I work in the world of sex and intimacy every day. I consider my job as a psychotherapist, author, and educator especially important because we don’t talk about sex enough–even with our partners.
There is so much mystery and shame around exploring our sexuality. I’ve heard dozens of spouses confide that they don’t feel passion for their mate anymore. They bravely share their fantasies about finding sexual excitement in new ways. So I’m eager to help Jamie understand the challenges of long-term love and explore how he and his partner might move forward.
Even though his wife’s concerns have thrown him into a panic, I reassure him that sexual desire disconnect is a common problem in long-term love. His wife, like many people, longs for the easy excitement and horniness she felt when they were dating.
In the beginning, attraction comes easily. Lust is a biological cocktail of dopamine, oxytocin, hopes, and expectations garnished with a giant splash of novelty. And it’s powerful. When we’re drunk on love the object of our affection grabs us like a rottweiler does a squeaky stuffed toy.
His wife used to daydream about him and feel a delicious sense of thrill. Sexual arousal flushed her body during a business meeting. The passion was visceral, and it felt fantastic.
But after a while novelty wanes, the relationship settles down, and the erotic is replaced by the every day. I call this Marriage Incorporated: two people love each other but their relationship becomes a business instead of a romance. Kids, careers, soccer practice, tax returns, and peeing with the door open. They do everything together but each other.
Sex falls way down the priority list. And when they do make love, it’s pretty boring. The typical sexual encounter in a long-term relationship is less than seven minutes from nudge to snore. Last week, one patient told me when her wife wants sex, she asks, “Is your mouthguard in yet?” So much for romance!
What’s more, the infrequent sex may lead to orgasm but it’s devoid of passion, creativity, and sizzle. There are no surprises in the predictable routine of “nipple, nipple, crotch, goodnight.”
And gee whiz, one day couples realize they’re not attracted to their mate. Marriage Inc. has replaced Passion Inc.
Here’s what Jamie’s wife did right. She started the conversation about attraction, passion, and their sex life. This is the best-case scenario. She didn’t cheat.
Sneaking around for secret sex is a common way that a partner who has lost attraction recreates sexual thrill. Because even though 95% of people in ongoing relationships state they want sexual exclusivity, reported infidelity rates range from 20-50%.
So research on sex, desire, and monogamy challenges us to face the facts. Wanting monogamy is one thing—actually creating sustainable passion is another. It’s more normal than you think someone to fantasize about sex outside their relationship.
But instead of having an affair Jamie’s wife is proposing an open relationship, or consensual non monogamy (CNM). The details are worked out by each couple, but the basic idea is simple: partners openly agree to engage in sexual exploration with other people while staying emotionally exclusive.
While he may be shocked that his wife is floating the idea, approximately 4% of North Americans are in a CNM relationship, and up to a quarter of men and women report being willing to at least consider engaging in this alternate relationship model.
As difficult as it is, together they are starting to face the facts, which is what I hope all couples with sexual desire disconnect will do. His wife longs for more sexual passion but she doesn’t want to leave the marriage. She thinks new experiences will satisfy her. And they might, but only for a while. Novelty, by definition, doesn’t last.
So if we need novelty to “make us” attracted, we have to keep seeking new partners, new thrills, or new taboos. So what can you do about it?
Talking honestly about these big—and very threatening—feelings and ideas is a brave and intimate act. And it can be a pivot point to a far more satisfying relationship. But not an open relationship. Because Jamie wants monogamy. And that’s okay.
As with any sexual behavior, don’t agree to something you don’t want. As a sex therapist I am not opposed to open relationships on a philosophical level, but in real life, this model doesn’t work for most couples. In my clinical experience, even when the terms are negotiated and both partners are on board, jealousy, guilt, and unresolved relationship issues often tear couples apart in an agonizing failed experiment.
But what if he can become the new partner she seeks? Instead of opening their marriage to other people, what if they open their marriage to each other?
If his wife is willing to play ball, I suggested he commit to changing their relationship from the inside out and vow to re-ignite desire, attraction, and sexual thrill with each other. Since almost all of us want monogamy, but passion fades with familiarity, the challenge is to make monogamy hot again.
Five Tips to Make Monogamy Hot Again
Bring Buddha into the bedroom
Mindful sex makes the familiar exciting again because attraction is all in your head. When you nibble a delicious chocolate truffle, you enjoy it fully here and now, even though you’ve had hundreds of chocolates before. Why? Because paying attention to this truffle with mindfulness makes the familiar experience fresh, alive, and sensory-each chocolate tastes new and interesting.
You can create erotic novelty the same way by getting your head into bed. Research shows that mindfulness practice increases sexual desire, arousal, and satisfaction. Instead of kissing someone new, kiss your same old partner for the very first time in this moment. When you are mindful of lips, tongue, heat, and breath, excitement can surge, and this kiss feels new and exciting. Experience the thrill you used to feel, one kiss, one breath, at a time. Pleasure is available right now, with the one you are with.
Treat sex like exercise
Just do it. Sure, in the lustful dating days spontaneous desire swept you away and you tumbled into bed like a pair of mating otters. But in long-term relationship, it helps to schedule sex. Just like you do with the gym, commit to your sexual workouts, get going even when you don’t feel like it, and afterward you will always be glad you did.
Make a weekly sex date and no matter how tired you are, or how compelling the couch and Netflix seem, honor your commitment to your passionate life. Couples who make love on schedule often discover they start having sex in between sex dates—it’s as though their sexual fitness increases.
Have gourmet sex
Complacency and laziness lead to boring sex. Many of us forget the vast possibilities for sensual exploration that two bodies multiplied by five senses offer us. When is the last time you licked the back of your partner’s knees, or blew gently on their neck?
The erotic menu is vast. So stop relying on fast food. Shake up the old routine of “nipple, nipple, crotch, goodnight.” Get creative and curious and vow to surprise each other with a lingering five course sensory feast. Give each other a slow, erotic, sensual massage, or visit a love shop and get some sexy toys to bring the play back into foreplay.
Explore your dark sexual energy
When a person seeks an affair or open relationship, they are longing for the excitement of the taboo. And let’s face it—taboo is sexy. We all have what I call “dark sexual energy.” This is the raw, primal aspect of our sexual desire. But often we hide this side of our sexual self from our partner. So, instead of denying this part of your eroticism, take a risk and share it with your mate. Tell them, in explicit detail, one of your secret fantasies.
Now there is a difference between fantasy and reality, so you may not choose to act this scenario out, but it can be highly arousing to expose our deepest sexual desires to our beloved. And explore something new—visit a fetish party together dressed in leather and lace, or have a quickie in the spare bedroom at your boss’s dinner party. Create excitement with sexy scenarios. Kick Marriage Inc. in the butt and re-ignite the fire of lust.
Expand your orgasms with tantric sex
The typical climax orgasm lasts for 7 seconds for men and 21 seconds for women. Imagine extending that to minutes, and beyond. If regular orgasm is a firecracker, tantric orgasm is a bonfire. You can learn to play with your sexual arousal by changing how you breathe, connecting more deeply with your partner while you make love, and staying intently conscious at orgasm (instead of swooning into fantasy or zoning out).