All About Sex

The best sex ever

Four Effective Ways to Break Out of Sexual Ruts

Love and lust are all about dopamine. Here's how to raise it.

When people fall in love, the sex is incredible—at first. But the hot-and-heavy period lasts only six to 12 months; and when it’s over, even as love and commitment deepen in lasting relationships, ironically the sex becomes routine, even boring. Want to reignite lost passion? You can—with a little help from biochemistry.

Why does erotic heat cool? Psychologists, poets, and lyricists have suggested a myriad of answers, but for couples interested in rekindling erotic passion, the key player is dopamine, the brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that both lights sexual fire and throws water on it.

When people fall madly in love, their dopamine levels soar. High dopamine causes a number of reactions, among them: exhilaration and difficulty concentrating and sleeping. Your heart pounds. You lose your appetite. And you become obsessed with your object of desire—all elements of falling head-over-heels in love. In addition, as dopamine rises, so does testosterone, the hormone that fuels sexual desire in both men and women. But over time, dopamine levels return to normal and Fourth of July’s fireworks morph into Thanksgiving’s cozy affection. However, if you tweak your dopamine, longtime couples can enjoy the erotic heat of second honeymoons.

How do you boost dopamine? In a word, novelty. Doing new things together elevates it. In one experiment, psychologists gave 28 couples questionnaires that explored their feelings for each other. Then half the couples completed a tedious task, while the others engaged in a new and exhilarating activity. Afterwards, everyone completed the questionnaire again. The couples involved in the exciting activity reported greater relationship satisfaction, and said they felt more passionately in love. Credit their novelty-induced spike in dopamine. Here are four effective ways boost your dopamine and break out of sexual ruts:

Do exciting new things together. This is standard relationship-enhancement advice. It’s no coincidence that weekends away are often called “romantic getaways,” or that sex often feels more passionate in hotel rooms. You’re in new and different surroundings. That’s exciting and romantic—and it spurs the libido. Of course, there are different grades of “new,” from a new restaurant around the corner to a month in China. The more novel the activity, the greater the increase in dopamine. But any shared new experience can echo in the bedroom.

Laugh. Humor is funny because the punch line is a surprise—in other words, something new and unexpected. Like other novel activities, humor raises dopamine levels. Ask couples how their relationships have endured, and many credit a shared sense of humor. When humor dies, the relationship is in trouble. Maybe that’s why we call relationship movies with happy endings “romantic comedies.” See or rent some, or attend a comic play or stand-up comedy show.

Keep ’em guessing. Oscar Wilde once said, “The essence of romance is uncertainty.” An age-old strategy for winning a love is to play hard-to-get, which spurs yearning and anticipation, but delays the reward. Guess what surprises, uncertainty, and delayed gratification trigger in the brain? A surge of dopamine. Romance experts Barbara and Michael Jonas, coauthors of The Book of Love, Laughter, and Romance, urge couples to schedule regular “surprise dates.” One plans an afternoon or evening outing, but keeps it secret, telling the other only what to wear and what time to be ready. “The anticipation makes surprise dates very romantic and enriching,” Barbara says, “and each person sees the other expending effort to please them, which is flattering—and arousing.”

Make love. The skin-to-skin contact of lovemaking and especially orgasm trigger release of testosterone in men and closely related hormones in women (androgens). These, in turn, raise dopamine. To make sex more exciting and to inject an element of playful surprise, try something new on the way to bed or between the sheets. Make love in a different place, at a different time, and with different accoutrements: candle light, music, lubricant, lingerie, sex toys, or professional massages beforehand.

Of course, love is a mystery, but on some level, everyone seems to appreciate its biochemical basis. Perhaps that’s why, when two people fall in love, they say: “We have great chemistry.”

Source: Why We Love by Helen Fisher, Ph.D. 

San Francisco journalist Michael Castleman, M.A., has written about sexuality for 36 years. more...

Subscribe to All About Sex

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.