Seven things we're getting wrong about sex in long-term relationships
Everyone knows that the passion dwindles in long-term relationships, right? It’s just an inevitable fact of life (and a million stand-up routines can’t be wrong). Not true, according to relationships expert Esther Perel, who reckons we’ve got long-term loving all wrong – but there’s plenty we can do about it.
The psychotherapist and bestselling author has helped thousands of couples, and this week turned her attention to the problems of Woman’s Hour listeners for our series The Spark - from mismatched libidos to what to do when kids put the brakes on things. So put your book down and find out why things don’t have to descend from swinging from the chandeliers to living life as platonic friends…
Stop expecting sex to 'just happen'
While you might yearn for that old spontaneity, Esther says planning is essential in a long-term relationship and we need to banish the notion that sex should ‘just happen’.
“When you go to play tennis, you first have to prepare your gear, book your court, find the person you’re going to play with and then set the time aside. Nobody says, ‘oh, how boring to prepare to play the tennis game’. Everybody totally understands it, and nobody regrets planning for the game,” says Esther.
"Long-term sex is premeditated, intentional, wilful and conscious – it only happens because you willingly attribute value to it.”
The wanting often comes AFTER you start
Let’s talk about food for a minute. “You’re not always hungry when you start eating,” says Esther, “but as you taste it and it smells good, and as you enjoy what you’re eating, the appetite comes.
“It’s actually quite similar in terms of our sexual involvement.”
Esther suggests getting a head start by using your imagination.
“When you go on a trip, you haven’t been to Paris yet, but you’re imagining yourself walking in Paris and how much you will enjoy being in Paris - and that motivates you to buy the tickets and pack the suitcase.
“Our erotic mind has the capacity to imagine ourselves in a situation we’re not yet in, and that makes us want it.”
Stop only having conversations about the sex you're NOT having
“When couples finally do talk sex, they often end up talking about the sex they don’t have, which has never made anybody want to be more involved,” says Esther.
“You need to be able to have conversations with your partner that are really about, ‘what would we enjoy?’, ‘what have we enjoyed in the past?’ and ‘what could we enjoy tonight?’
“And don’t wait for the other person to take the initiative!”
And if you find the whole thing a bit excruciating, Esther recommends avoiding face to face chat by striking up a conversation when you’re out walking, so you don’t have to make eye contact.
Sometimes you might have to put pen to paper
Squaring up in person isn’t always the answer though. By putting your thoughts down on paper you give yourself the chance to get everything off your chest uninterrupted, and your partner gets the space to process it without the aforementioned eyeballing.
Not sure what to write? “Say ‘I miss you, I miss being with you, I miss feeling like a woman with you’,” Esther suggested to one listener ‘Lizzie’, who found herself stonewalled by her partner of 10 years after several attempts at conversation led nowhere.
Things don't always have to go downhill
“We have this notion that relationships start passionate, hot and intense - and they have only one way to go and that is down,” says Esther.
“There are plenty of relationships where sex becomes better over time. Sexuality is rooted in a sense of self-worth and confidence, certainly desire is, and as people feel more at ease in their skin, they often actually experience a much more luscious sexuality than they may have had in the beginning, when they were more anxious and insecure.
“There isn’t only one story, although it is the one we hear more often.”
Don't let kids put the brakes on your sex life
Trying for a baby can turn sex into a chore, and then if you are blessed with children, it’s likely you’re too tired to change the channel, let alone change into ‘something more comfortable’.
But while having kids involves sacrifices (lie-ins, nights out, firm skin), Esther reckons giving up your whole sex life is a step too far.
“Couples often become ‘parentified’,” she says, adding: “The burden of care-taking is the primary block in female sexuality.”
The answer? “For women who are disconnected from their own bodies, find an activity that puts you in touch with your own movement, sensuality, femininity - any type of dancing. Do a class that expresses that, so you connect with the woman inside of you.
“If you don’t, at some point your relationship will have suffered so much that you will have given everything to your children but the family will dissolve.”
An affair doesn't always have to spell the end
“I have worked with thousands of people who have been shattered by the experience of infidelity,” says Esther.
“[But] I have seen more than once where the affair breaks the stalemate, and suddenly they experience desire for their partner that they haven’t had in years.”
Esther’s new book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity has faced criticism for ‘condoning’ cheating, but she argues we could all do with rethinking our attitudes.
“[Infidelity] is systemic, and we need an approach that is more compassionate and caring for all those involved.
“Some affairs break relationships, sometimes a relationship was already dying on the vine, and some affairs remake a relationship and jolt people out of a state of complacency and laziness. It becomes a powerful alarm system when people realise, ‘I don’t want to lose this.’”
For more advice on reigniting the spark in long-term relationships listen to our special programme featuring Esther Perel in conversation with Jenni Murray, and hear her advice for 'Sian', 'Diane', Katy and 'Lizzie' in full.