The Secret to Satisfying Sex in Long-Term Relationships
A divorce lawyer shares how you're probably missing the mark and how to fix it.
Posted Apr 15, 2018
As a divorce lawyer, I meet a lot of married people with very satisfying and active sex lives. Most of the time, however, the person they’re having that satisfying sex with isn’t their spouse, and therein lies the problem.
If you've been married longer than 10 years, and you and your spouse still want to have sex with each other, you're clearly doing something right. However, I don't get to interact with many individuals in such unions. Instead, I see lots of marriages with the same basic and binary problem: One or both parties are dissatisfied with the quality and/or frequency of the sex. The sex is either unfulfilling or fulfilling, but not frequent enough.
There are, of course, marriages in which neither party is all that into the sex anymore. Maybe they never were, or maybe, with time and age, it’s just not much of a priority anymore. Maybe they both have really interesting hobbies. Maybe they both are out of shape to the point where sex seems like too much cardio to be fun.
I want to talk instead, though, about the far more common scenarios where an imbalance exists — where sexual desire is no longer a two-way street; where one person is still feeling highly sexually attracted to their partner (or just has a tremendous libido that needs to be satisfied with someone, and the person they chose to be married to is, legally, supposed to be that someone), and the other partner feels sex is little more than a chore that needs to be performed with a certain regularity to prevent discord.
The Cruel Choice
If you’re married, and your sexual needs aren’t being met by your spouse, you’ve got a cruel choice, as I see it: You can go without or go elsewhere. You can have your needs remain unfulfilled (go without) or have them fulfilled by someone other than your spouse/partner (go elsewhere). In my book, I share stories of clients who experienced a disparity in their sexual needs in their marriage. While that issue was rarely, if ever, the lone reason for divorce, it played a significant role in the demise of the relationship.
Every couple has a different idea of what is “good” sex, and most of the time it’s probably whatever you were doing when you settled into dating seriously. So let’s use that as our working definition here. Let’s be candid: When relationships begin, there’s usually a lot of sex (let’s call that variable “frequency”), and the sex is fun and exciting and varying degrees of adventurous (let’s call that variable “intensity”).
So there’s the formula for an early relationship: High Frequency x High Intensity = “Good” Sex.
As a monogamous relationship progresses, there are a host of reasons for the frequency variable to drop. Here’s a selection of “greatest hits” from my clients:
- "I’m exhausted at the end of the day with the kids."
- "I’m so busy at work, we're rarely in the same room awake to chat, much less have sex."
- "I’m just not as into it anymore. I like skiing, but if I did it every day for six years, I wouldn’t find it as exciting anymore."
The reasons for the decline in the intensity variable are in some ways similar and in some ways a bit more complicated:
- "After watching her wipe the butts of our children all evening and listening to her talk on the phone to her sister for half an hour before bed, I don’t really view my wife as an object of lust as much as I did when we were dating and still a mystery to each other."
- "My husband really let himself go in the last five years. He put on 20 pounds and isn’t as sexy or energetic and fit as he was when we were dating, and I just don’t find him as sexually exciting as I used to."
I know these examples are harsh — but they’re candid, honest, and real. This isn’t speculation; this is what clients have told me. There’s little reason to lie to your divorce lawyer about why your marriage fell apart, or why you and your spouse stopped sleeping together.
Screwing It Up — With the Best of Intentions
It’s not like married people aren’t trying to keep their sex lives enjoyable. Sometimes even the best-intentioned couple, in the process of trying to have great sex with each other, can inadvertently screw up their sex life by throwing off the intensity variable, often by trying to maintain the frequency variable. I’ve seen this a bunch of times, and it always makes me a little sad. Having lots of bad sex does not equal a good sex life.
Let’s look at an example of how a perfectly happy and well-intentioned couple can screw it up. Let’s call them John and Mary (but it could as easily be Mary and Eileen, or Steve and John because this isn’t a problem exclusive to heterosexual marriages).
John and Mary have been married for five years. Each still finds the other attractive. Neither has any particular hang-ups about sex; both are committed to a marriage that features, among other attributes, a mutually satisfying sex life.
As with any two people who have had sex with each other a few hundred times, John and Mary have figured out (through communication, observing reactions, and noting what was requested and/or selected) what the other likes best. John likes, among other things, morning sex; Mary likes, among other things, when John pulls her hair (but not too much).
Mindful of each other’s pleasure and aiming to please John and Mary each learn to work these “highlights” (for the other) into their sex, both to maximize their partner's enjoyment and to increase the efficiency of their sex. For some people, this is why monogamy is ideal for people who like sex: Sure, you give up the novelty of frequent new partners, but you trade it for a partner who knows your “highlight reel.”
Like most married couples, John and Mary have a somewhat predictable day-to-day routine filled with personal and professional obligations. They've got careers, children, social obligations, and a myriad of other things that take up time. Mindful of their desire to maintain a healthy sex life and keep the other satisfied, they try to remember to “fit” sex into their life. As a result, without conscious deliberation and with only good intentions, they begin having sex on somewhat predictable days, at predictable times, when the four most important conditions are met: They are together, they are alone, they are awake, and Game of Thrones isn't on.
Can we agree that John and Mary have expressed, thus far, only the best of intentions?
Spoiler Alert: John and Mary, after a few years of marriage, and with the specific goal of having relatively frequent and mutually satisfying sex, have inadvertently created the conditions where sex becomes unsatisfying and, as a result, eventually infrequent.
Here’s where the perfect storm arrives, often culminating in them showing up at my office.
How Marriage Ruins Good Sex
John and Mary, like most married couples, have created conditions in which the sex happens on the same days and at the same times, under generally very similar scenarios (e.g., Tuesday evenings after they've finished dinner, but before bed, and in the master bedroom, because that was where they preferred to watch TV after they’d gone upstairs for the evening). They have created the conditions for predictable sex, but "predictable” is not an adjective people use to describe an ideal sex life.
John and Mary have also created conditions where the sex, when it happens, features the same specific sexual acts, ones that, as mentioned earlier, they knew from experience were the ones their partner liked best. So now they are two people mostly doing the same things to each other, in the same place, at the same time. In short, they have a sex life that is “routine” — another adjective never employed to describe a superior sex life, or a sex life (for those who really like and need sex) that motivates one to remain monogamous.
So How Can Married People Not Ruin Their Sex Life?
The secret to staying out of my office for these reasons is — once again — simply to talk to each other about sex and how you’re feeling about where your sex life is standing, at that particular moment, in both the frequency and intensity categories. Your partner can’t hear what you don’t say, and if you value your marriage, you don’t leave things like this up to chance.
Don’t wait until you’re in the heat of the moment to have the discussion. In a long-term relationship, if you’re looking to throw some “new moves” into your bedroom game, don’t just shoot first and ask questions later. Mid-sex isn’t the best time to “call an audible” and add something new to the menu.
Be candid with your spouse about what’s in your head and your heart. Tell your partner, early and often, that they’re the one you want to meet your sexual needs with, and help them see your candor about what you need from them in the bedroom as what it is — a desire to keep your marriage happy, satisfying ... and out of my office.