Good Sex in Long Term Relationships
Couples in long term relationships often complain of lagging sexual energy. In fact, over half of the people in my "Retreat for Couples" sexuality workshops attend with the hope of increasing their sexual energy, and others want to know they are not perverts for enjoying sex, especially at midlife and beyond. All want passion and they want it with each other. They want to grow old together as lovers, not roommates.
According to sexual older couples, keeping sexual energy is satisfying but not easy. Hidden sexual energy can be found when people know how and where to look. Most couples search for it where it feels comfortable, not where it is. Couples often act like the drunk searching for his keys under a street light because darkness prevents his looking for them where they are.
Comfort, more than anxiety, obstructs sexual passion; yet, comfort is necessary to relationships. It affirms and sustains partners with closeness, familiarity and predictability. Partners who stay friends for life know how to care about, respect, and complement each other's growth. There is ease in comfort.
Staying exclusively in your personal comfort zone stifles sexual energy. Couples seek comfort (look only under the streetlight) and avoid anxiety (dodge the darkness). Anxiety is hard to bear, but managing it can fuel growth. Relationships without anxiety allow blandness to overshadow intimacy. A "no-growth" agreement prevails when partners avoid tension, discomfort, and knowing each other. The cost of rigidly maintaining comfort is the sacrifice of sexual energy.
Being deeply sexual over time with your life partner produces both joy and anxiety. This means that consciously managed anxiety can promote, even escalate, erotic energy. For example, the ability to soothe your own anxiety instead of expecting your partner to do it for you helps you create a resource for erotic feelings. This is equally true for adult survivors of incest and other traumas.
Anxious tension between partners can push them to develop tolerance, skill, and taste for highly erotic sex: "Am I willing to say how deeply sexual I feel or don't feel, and why?" "Do I say what I really want/don't want,?" "Do I say 'yes' to myself as well as to my partner?" "Do I keep faith with myself when I get upset or disagree?" "Do I have the courage not to fake feelings, not to protect against uncomfortable emotions we both avoid?" "Do I speak the truth about my own experience?"
Managing anxiety in the service of growth means you risk improving yourself in relationship. You demonstrate integrity when you manage yourself. Integrity helps you judge which anxieties to risk, such as getting to know your hidden self with your partner, and which to forego, such as having an affair. By managing anxiety you deepen your relationship as you stay intentionally connected to your partner. For example, you learn to affirm and sustain yourself; you become self-validating without pushing your partner to be different even when you dislike him/her. You can tolerate your partner's intense emotions and you can accept and regulate your own, even when that feels impossible. You compromise neither yourself, your partner, nor your self-respect, and you promise yourself to do all this in relationship. Managing anxiety means you can tolerate intimacy. This is different from closeness. Where closeness is usually anxiety-free, familiar, comfortable, and predictable, intimacy can be anxiety-laden, strange, risky, and surprising. Intimacy is the deep experience of self in relation to a partner. With intimacy, you experience yourself in a different, new, and profound way, not necessarily at the same time your partner does.
Intimacy can be profoundly joyful and penetratingly uncomfortable. The latter happens when you presume your partner will either reject you or smother you (they can do both) and you actually believe you are helpless to handle yourself in the face of either event (as an adult you are, in fact, not helpless and will survive both without ado). It is the former when you finally own your thoughts, feelings, and behavior and are willing to share all this with your partner, with and without anxiety.
Intimacy is not negotiable (behavior is negotiable). People who can risk both integrity and intimacy often stay sexually expressive in some manner throughout life. They struggle successfully to be true to themselves and at the same time face the anxiety inherent in a life that will certainly end no matter what else happens in it. This can be a powerful incentive and deterrent to learn to be deeply sexual with the life partner you know you will eventually lose. In a culture that decries death, it takes courage to love a partner for life.
Last Updated: 01 April 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD