I'm sitting in a bar with a couple of friends — literally, a couple, married couple. They're the parents of two young children, seven academic degrees between them, big nerds, really nice people but very sleep-deprived. And they ask me the question I get asked more than any other question. They go, "So, Emily, how do couples, you know, sustain a strong sexual connection over multiple decades?"
I'm a sex educator, which is why my friends ask me questions like this, and I am also a big nerd like my friends. I love science, which is why I can give them something like an answer. Research actually has pretty solid evidence that couples who sustain strong sexual connections over multiple decades have two things in common.
Before I can tell my friends what those two things are, I have to tell them a few things that they are not. These are not couples who have sex very often. Almost none of us have sex very often. We are busy. They are also not couples who necessarily have wild, adventurous sex. One recent study actually found that the couples who are most strongly predicted to have strong sexual and relationship satisfaction, the best predictor of that is not what kind of sex they have or how often or where they have it but whether they cuddle after sex. And they are not necessarily couples who constantly can't wait to keep their hands off each other. Some of them are. They experience what the researchers call "spontaneous desire," that just sort of seems to appear out of the blue. Erika Moen, the cartoonist who illustrated my book, draws spontaneous desire as a lightning bolt to the genitals — kaboom! — you just want it out of the blue. That is absolutely one normal, healthy way to experience sexual desire. But there's another healthy way to experience sexual desire. It's called "responsive desire." Where spontaneous desire seems to emerge in anticipation of pleasure, responsive desire emerges in response to pleasure.
There's a sex therapist in New Jersey named Christine Hyde, who taught me this great metaphor she uses with her clients. She says, imagine that your best friend invites you to a party. You say yes because it's your best friend and a party. But then, as the date approaches, you start thinking, "Aw, there's going to be all this traffic. We have to find child care. Am I really going to want to put my party clothes on and get there at the end of the week?" But you put on your party clothes and you show up to the party, and what happens? You have a good time at the party. If you are having fun at the party, you are doing it right.
When it comes to a sexual connection, it's the same thing. You put on your party clothes, you set up the child care, you put your body in the bed, you let your skin touch your partner's skin and allow your body to wake up and remember, "Oh, right! I like this. I like this person!" That's responsive desire, and it is key to understanding the couples who sustain a strong sexual connection over the long term, because — and this is the part where I tell my friends the two characteristics of the couples who do sustain a strong sexual connection — one, they have a strong friendship at the foundation of their relationship. Specifically, they have strong trust. Relationship researcher and therapist, developer of emotionally focused therapy, Sue Johnson, boils trust down to this question: Are you there for me? Especially, are you emotionally present and available for me? Friends are there for each other. One.
The second characteristic is that they prioritize sex. They decide that it matters for their relationship. They choose to set aside all the other things that they could be doing — the children they could be raising and the jobs they could be going to, the other family members to pay attention to, the other friends they might want to hang out with. God forbid they just want to watch some television or go to sleep. Stop doing all that stuff and create a protected space where all you're going to do is put your body in the bed and let your skin touch your partner's skin. So that's it: best friends, prioritize sex.
So I said this to my friends in the bar. I was like, best friends, prioritize sex, I told them about the party, I said you put your skin next to your partner's skin. And one of the partners I was talking to goes, "Aaagh."
And I was like, "OK, so, there's your problem."
The difficulty was not that they did not want to go to the party, necessarily. If the difficulty is just a lack of spontaneous desire for party, you know what to do: you put on your party clothes and show up for the party. If you're having fun at the party, you're doing it right. Their difficulty was that this was a party where she didn't love what there was available to eat, the music was not her favorite music, and she wasn't totally sure she felt great about her relationships with people who were at the party. And this happens all the time: nice people who love each other come to dread sex. These couples, if they seek sex therapy, the therapist might have them stand up and put as much distance between their bodies as they need in order to feel comfortable, and the less interested partner will make 20 feet of space.
And the really difficult part is that space is not empty. It is crowded with weeks or months or more of the, "You're not listening to me," and "I don't know what's wrong with me but your criticism isn't helping," and, "If you loved me, you would," and, "You're not there for me." Years, maybe, of all these difficult feelings. In the book, I use this really silly metaphor of difficult feelings as sleepy hedgehogs that you are fostering until you can find a way to set them free by turning toward them with kindness and compassion. And the couples who struggle to maintain a strong sexual connection, the distance between them is crowded with these sleepy hedgehogs.
And it happens in any relationship that lasts long enough. You, too, are fostering a prickle of sleepy hedgehogs between you and your certain special someone. The difference between couples who sustain a strong sexual connection and the ones who don't is not that they don't experience these difficult hurt feelings, it's that they turn towards those difficult feelings with kindness and compassion so that they can set them free and find their way back to each other. So my friends in the bar are faced with the question under the question, not, "How do we sustain a strong connection?" but, "How do we find our way back to it?" And, yes, there is science to answer this question, but in 25 years as a sex educator, one thing I have learned is sometimes, Emily, less science, more hedgehogs. So I told them about me.
I spent many months writing a book about the science of women's sexual well-being. I was thinking about sex all day, every day, and I was so stressed by the project that I had zero — zero! — interest in actually having any sex. And then I spent months traveling all over, talking with anyone who would listen about the science of women's sexual well-being. And by the time I got home, you know, I'd show up for the party, put my body in the bed, let my skin touch my partner's skin, and I was so exhausted and overwhelmed I would just cry and fall asleep. And the months of isolation fostered fear and loneliness and frustration. So many hedgehogs. My best friend, this person I love and admire, felt a million miles away.
But ... he was still there for me. No matter how many difficult feelings there were, he turned toward them with kindness and compassion. He never turned away. And what was the second characteristic of couples who sustain a strong sexual connection? They prioritize sex. They decide that it matters for their relationship, that they do what it takes to find their way back to the connection. I told my friends what sex therapist and researcher Peggy Kleinplatz says. She asks: What kind of sex is worth wanting? My partner and I looked at the quality of our connection and what it brought to our lives, and we looked at the family of sleepy hedgehogs I had introduced into our home. And we decided it was worth it. We decided — we chose — to do what it took to find our way, turning towards each of those sleepy hedgehogs, those difficult hurt feelings, with kindness and compassion and setting them free so that we could find our way back to the connection that mattered for our relationship.
This is not the story we are usually told about how sexual desire works in long-term relationships. But I can think of nothing more romantic, nothing sexier, than being chosen as a priority because that connection matters enough, even after I introduced all of these difficult feelings into our relationship.
How do you sustain a strong sexual connection over the long term? You look into the eyes of your best friend, and you keep choosing to find your way back.