How do you keep passion going in a long-term relationship? What can you do to get more of what you want when it comes to sex? And what are we getting wrong in the way we think about sex?
I asked two psychologists, Drs. John and Julie Gottman, for the answers. They've been studying the science of love, sex, and relationships for decades, and they have written a number of influential papers and books, with their latest being Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.
I interviewed the Gottmans about their new book and some of the key insights they've learned over the years. You can listen to our complete conversation in this podcast; however, in this post, I will share the Gottmans' advice on improving sexual communication and what they see as one of the biggest myths out there about sex. Note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Justin Lehmiller: Do you have any insight or advice that you would share with regard to how couples can improve sexual communication in their relationship when it comes to getting what they want or initiating sex?
John Gottman: One of the things that has impressed me the most about this question of "What does it take to have a great sex life? What does it take to keep romance and passion alive in a relationship, to nurture desire?" is the study that was done which led to 70,000 couples being studied in 24 countries and is presented in the book The Normal Bar. What I took from that was a baker's dozen of habits of people who have a great sex life—and they're so simple.
They say I love you every day and mean it. They kiss one another passionately for no reason at all. They give compliments. They give surprise romantic gifts. They have dates. They cuddle often. And they express affection in public. It's not rocket science. Having a sexual relationship is about staying in touch—literally in touch—with one another.
Julie Gottman: Let me also add that in the chapter in our book Eight Dates about sex and intimacy, we had couples have conversations about the kind of touch they like, what kind of erotic interaction they like, and what is the best way to refuse to have sex during a particular time without crushing the other person's ego. One of the big findings we've seen is that the couples who are able to talk about sex openly have more sex and more passion and pleasure in their sexual interaction.
One thing that we also did at the Gottman Institute is we produced a package called GottSex. It has seven exercises that really help couples, both heterosexual couples as well as gay and lesbian couples, discuss in more detail their own sexual preferences, their own sexual history—all kinds of things.
So in this book, there is a piece of that incorporated to help couples be more open, less repressed, and more comfortable really saying what they want and need—and to be able to hear that from their partner without hearing it as criticism.
John Gottman: We have a hundred questions that you can ask a man about his erotic world and a hundred questions you can ask a woman about her erotic world to build what we call an erotic "love map" of your partner's inner world. This can allow you to have those kinds of conversations that, quite often, heterosexual couples, in particular, are very uncomfortable having.
Justin Lehmiller: Something else I noticed in your book is that you address some of the myths and misconceptions that people have about sex. One that stood out to me is this idea that it's a myth that sex is or should be deeply romantic, and I think that's a really important point. Can you tell us a little more about what you mean by that?
Julie Gottman: What we're talking about is that people think sex has to be perfect—it has to look like Hollywood. You have to have fireworks. You have to have stars shining under the moon. And it's not 39 degrees outside as you're making love—it’s always going to be 80 degrees and perfect.
It's just not realistic.
People's sexual congress can look like all kinds of things. People can be playful. People can have a quickie. People can take their time if they want to. Those at our age and our generation don't have to be sexual athletes, thank God, because I’ve had both knees replaced now, and that’s going to be kind of hard.
So, you know, sex can be everything you want it to be. It doesn't always have to be romantic and perfect. And that gives a couple much more freedom to be expressive and creative in their sexual relationship.
Listen to my full conversation with the Gottmans here to learn more about the science of sex and relationships.
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