I admit I may be “biting off more than I can chew” with a short article on this topic, but I feel that it needs to be addressed because it comes up so often in my practice. Everyone loves “great sex”, and everyone wants to have it (well, almost everyone)! Nothing wrong with that, but it is important to first explore what makes sex “great” for each individual–you may find out that it is different for others than it is for you!
Great sex is whatever YOU and your partner(s) want it to be. For some, that does not always equal “feeling good”–sometimes it equals “pain” (with consent, of course!)–but no matter how we experience pleasure, most want their sexual activity to bring them closer their partner, most want to feel cared about, most want to feel better about themselves as a result. Does this happen automatically? Not necessarily. Some effort is required to keep sex delivering the rewards we enjoy and desire.
Notice I said “effort” and not “work”. Few people like to think of “work” and “sex” in the same context, and yet for many that is exactly what it feels like more often than not. Some clients tell me that sex feels like a job to them. That is fine if you love your job, but if not, something needs to change! In this article I intend to give you some ideas of where to direct that change, so that you don’t end up where you started.
BE INTERESTED IN YOURSELF: What does it mean to be interested in yourself? Isn’t that being “self-involved”? Yes and no. There is a difference between grandiosity and curiosity when it comes to the self. Rather than thinking you know everything about yourself, I suggest being curious about yourself as a sexual being and a sexual body, because believe it or not, you change over time. What pleases you? What excites you? What scares you (just a little bit)? What turns you on now? What no longer turns you on?
One of the easiest ways to explore your sexuality is with self-pleasure. This in itself can inform many things just in the way we think about it–do we see it as harmless fun, a weakness, or a “sin”? Do we feel shameful or celebratory about it? Do we feel that it is something that should be “controlled” so that we don’t do it too often? Are there fantasies that we feel we should not be thinking about when self-pleasuring? Are there parts of your body that you don’t like to explore for pleasure?
It can be very useful to take some time discovering your own body and mind, allowing yourself to freely notice what feels good, without judging it. When we know our own bodies, we can approach sex with more confidence, guiding our lovers to things that please us. Additionally, getting interested in your own pleasure can inform how you please others, since we all have biological similarities.
Who are you now? What makes you feel vulnerable/powerful/sexy/loving? Do you like to laugh during sex or cry? Do you want to be looked at, or do the looking? What are your fantasies? Is sex a release or an exercise in control for you? We are always changing throughout our lives–being curious about who you are now can reflect in others being interested in you as well. If you feel you are genuinely interesting (meaning: interested), that is how you will likely be seen.
Speaking of which…
BE INTERESTED IN YOUR PARTNER: Sex today has become, sadly, like commodity trading. We look for what we want, and offer what we are willing to give. If there is a match, a good time can be had, in that our needs get met, but what is missing? Discovery and connection.
Treating sex as a trade-off isn’t bad, per say, but it diminishes it somewhat from what it can be, which is a way to connect, build trust, transform, and express love. There is no way we “should” have sex, but why diminish it unnecessarily? I see this happening mostly because some people are afraid of closeness and vulnerability–it is too risky. I get that, but if you are reading this article, then I suspect that is not you, or if it is you, that you want to change.
So if you want to connect with your partner(s), get interested in them. Sex is a great opportunity to get interested in them, but you don’t have to wait until the big moment. Our partners are sharing information with us all the time, and if we pay attention, we will learn a lot about what they like and don’t like. But showing interest means going further than just paying attention–it means asking questions–questions that come from your curiosity about how they are unique and different from you.
You like your neck to be kissed? Maybe they don’t! It helps to ask about that–but you don’t have to ask a yes or no question (Do you like your neck kissed?), you can instead ask open-ended questions: “Where do you like to be kissed?”, or “Do you like it when I touch you there?” Remember that questions, and answers, can be communicated nonverbally, and they can be presented both in and out of the bedroom. Who is your partner now? Finding out can be erotic for both of you.
In my work with couples, I often assign what is known as sensate focus exercises. These exercises allow a couple to take orgasm and penetration off the table to make room for exploration and discovery of each other’s bodies apart from the genitals. It can be a wonderful and fun way to get interested in not only what arouses your partner, but what arouses you to do to them! Ideally, getting interested in your partner is also going to give you information about yourself that you may not have been aware of.
MAKE SPACE: Sex takes time. The average sex act lasts anywhere from four to nine minutes, but even so there is time needed to get ready, make sure the kids are sleeping, shower, etc. Couples with small children have an especially challenging time fitting sex into their marriages/relationships, but I notice that even single folks struggle with scheduling free time.
In my practice, I tell couples that in a marriage with kids, the marriage “comes first”, but in a divorce, the children do. This does not mean that you leave the kids on the back porch while you do it in the bedroom, it just means that a healthy and satisfying marriage benefits the children–who often pick up on any anger and tension in the household and internalize it. Children also benefit from seeing appropriate and healthy expressions of physical affection between their parents. You don’t have to delay affectionate foreplay until you are behind closed doors!
Good sex does not take hours, but it does often require mutual intention and planning. Couples will tell me that they want sex to be “hot and spontaneous” like when they were dating, and I then ask them how long they spent “getting ready” for those dates? An hour? Were they not consciously or unconsciously getting ready for the possibility of sex? What made it feel exciting was the anticipation and the sense of risk–elements that Esther Perel has famously talked about as two of the key components in passionate sex. These made fade a bit as time together goes on, but they don’t have to disappear, and this is one way to make sure that you are not only making time for sex, but wanting to.
It is up to you to decide if making space for sex in your relationship or marriage is important, but if it is, being intentional about it is critical–just as you make time to eat, shower, or sleep. It might require that you lessen the time you spend on your devices by fifteen minutes, but when you weight the benefits, you might find it worth it, as NO device satisfies our need to connect and bond with another person quite like sex does. Scheduling sex can be sexy if you want it to be, especially when it results in you have more sex!
It used to be that sex was a leisure/pleasure activity, but in today’s fast world, it seems to be just another pressure-associated task to complete or avoid. You can bring it back to its roots with a little bit of mutual intention and effort, and perhaps some healthy boundary-setting with children in the house. It IS okay to close or lock the bedroom door (depending on the age of the children and if they need to be looked after) while you connect with your partner in sensual and erotic ways.
Just remember that in order to be interested in anything, you have to find it interesting! Our long-term partners are no exception. If you pay attention to each other and get curious, you may find that they are just as mysterious and exciting as when you first were dating them. The added bonus is that if you have spent time building trust and security, this can be a great place from which to take risks with each other. If you don’t have that secure base, couples therapy can help you build and strengthen it together.
Sex in long-term relationships can continue to be great in ways that are far more satisfying than consensual hookups, but you have a role if making it great. That is good news, as long as you are willing to get interested in each other and in yourself. So what are you waiting for?