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Sex Shockers

Everything you know about sex is only a first step. Most advice for couples doesn't go far enough—as a result, basic truths about long-term passion are surprising.

We can all recite the mantras of modern sex advice: Tell your partner what you want; focus on how your body feels; relax. Since it's only natural, goes this idea, great sex is a matter of getting over your hang-ups, loving your partner and "letting go."

Yet something doesn't add up, as the huge market for self-help books and advice columnists proves. As a nation, we're not getting any. We crave sexual bliss—but all our relaxing and getting-in-touch isn't helping most of us. When the standard advice doesn't work, you feel like a failure: Too uptight. Not "in your body." Worse, maybe you're not really in love.

While the "relax and connect" advice isn't wrong, it's just a first step, addressing mechanics rather than the deeper dynamics at the heart of sexuality.

  1. Many people don't really want great sex. Good sexual experiences can be emotionally overpowering—mind-blowing, rather than warm and comforting. Lusty sex requires you to confront all kinds of worries—getting so close to your partner that he or she overwhelms you, or being rejected at an intensely vulnerable moment. It may even put you in touch with your own mortality, reminding you that your partner won't always be around. Great sex requires inner reserves to tolerate the angst.
  2. It gets better with age. Even though young people get aroused more quickly, amazing sex is a specialty of people in their 40s and 60s, contends Schnarch. In youth, women struggle to be sexual but not "cheap"; men are easily threatened. Midway through life, you have a stronger sense of self and are less self-conscious and insecure.
  3. Compromise may not work. Trade-offs (I'll do this if you'll do that) may seem egalitarian, but in practice, each partner rules out anything that makes him or her uptight. The couple is left with a limited repertoire that guarantees boredom, not to mention scorekeeping and resentment when one partner is less enthusiastic than the other. Better to take the initiative and challenge yourself to try something new.
  4. Women like hot sex. Women are often much more interested than men in talking about "fucking"—horny, lusty, intense sex—Schnarch reports. But in bed, they often hold back out of shame or fear of making their partner feel inadequate. A lot of couples think that married sex is supposed to be gentle, affectionate "making love"—and feel guilty if they want to get nasty.
  5. Sex isn't a skill. The hoopla about techniques is a red herring. If you think of sex as a set of talents, you're going to wind up focused on doing it right, rather than on who you're doing it with. Likewise, giving your partner a technical playbook (there but not here, this way and not that way) leads to mechanically proficient, predictable and emotionally dead sex. You may also not know exactly what you want—it changes! Pushing your own limits by organically exploring new sexual styles fosters more sizzle.
  6. Cancel the orgasm derby. More orgasms don't equal better sex. Lots of people can perform in bed—all the parts work just fine—but are never really satisfied, because they're too emotionally disconnected. That's usually said about men rather than women, but both sexes are capable of being physically aroused without getting any erotic charge, and both can have orgasms without really enjoying the sex. Instead of focusing on orgasms, pay more attention to the emotional and physical connection: Can you become intensely aware of your partner during sex? Can you make contact?
  7. Tune in—don't space out. Shutting down your brain, focusing on your sensations and going into a trance state, or fantasizing about others, all of which sex therapists often recommend, may help you have decent sex, since it can jump-start your engine. But by zeroing in on your body or your thoughts alone, you've tuned out your partner. You're also vulnerable to distractions: The mood can easily be shattered by a car alarm. Shifting your focus to include your partner can make the experience much more intense.