It’s been well documented that married people have sex more often than single people do. But it’s not always great sex. Build strong bonds, and better sex will follow
By Elizabeth Svoboda, Men’s Health
If you’re looking to recapture the manic sexual frenzy of your first months together, fuzzy handcuffs and herbal supplements just won’t cut it. In fact, you’ll probably feel just as stymied as you did before you tried to amp up the action, says Sandra Scantling, Psy.D., a certified sex therapist. “People think lust is a prerequisite for having great sex, but it’s just one biological piece of attraction,” she cautions.
So what will elevate the ecstasy? Simply being up close and personal, in the share-nearly-anything, build-rock-solid-trust sense. “Comfort is the best aphrodisiac,” Scantling says. “It’s about the lasting experience of connection.” Dive into this guide to keeping your physical and emotional bonds strong, and you’ll never fear stumbling into a long-term sex rut.
1. Track the good times
One way to combat the common trap of long-term boredom is to make sure you’re always using your baseline affection as a springboard for exploration and adventure. In a recent University of North Carolina study, people who felt that their partners appreciated them expressed more satisfaction with their relationship. “The key is to cultivate a ‘beginner’s mind’ and look at each other from a fresh perspective,” Scantling says.
Your move: Make a list of five to 10 qualities you admire most in your partner. Then, each time you notice one of those qualities in her behavior, let her know how much you value it. As she senses your efforts at showing appreciation, she’ll likely respond in kind-and both of you will be happier for it.
Another strategy: Start using that vast backlog of digital photos you’ve been taking and collaborate on a photo album. Do it old-school, printed-picture-style, in a way that memorializes the funniest and best times you’ve had together. Doris Bazzini, Ph.D., of Appalachian State University, found that couples who laughed and reminisced about good times were more likely to feel more satisfied with their relationship.
2. Become a sculptor
A man who’s in a long-term relationship sometimes says of his partner, “She brings out the best in me.” That’s actually true. In the best relationships, partners support and encourage each other in ways that help both of them become the people they want to be.
Summarizing results from recent studies, Eli Finkel, Ph.D., a psychologist at Northwestern University, concluded that the more each partner promotes the other’s ideal self, the better a relationship functions and the happier both partners are. Researchers call this the “Michelangelo phenomenon,” because the famed Renaissance sculptor described his artistry as releasing the sculpture residing in a block of stone.
Your move: Map out long-term goals for yourselves. Doing this allows you to help each other without adding unnecessary pressure. (It’s remarkably easy to go from gently prodding your unemployed partner to apply for jobs to berating her because she’s not taking the exact steps you think she should be taking.) The best way to make sure you’re supporting her without coming across as a stage manager, Finkel says, is to spend time once or twice a year going over those goals. That way you can gain a more specific idea of the kind of encouragement your partner actually wants. Try asking straight out, “What’s the best way I can help you?” For instance, if she already has a job but secretly harbors dreams of switching her career to nursing, she might appreciate a gentle reminder about registering for night classes or a celebratory dinner when she does well on a big test.
3. Trick your brain
When you first fall in love, your brain teems with a cocktail of addictive love chemicals. Brain scans of men and women in the throes of new love reveal high activity in the brain’s caudate section-the area responsible for cravings-in addition to its ventral tegmental zone, which produces dopamine. That’s the same powerful neurotransmitter that floods the brains of people who are high on drugs.
Of course, a drug-fueled high doesn’t last forever, and dopamine levels tend to slide once you’re deep into a relationship. But another chemical, oxytocin—a pituitary-gland hormone that promotes sexual arousal and bonding and elicits feelings of attachment and security-takes over as the relationship progresses. It continues to be released long after the initial dopamine high has worn off.
Your move: Your goal is to stimulate oxytocin production. That’s an incredibly unsexy way of saying “cuddle and have sex as often as possible,” because in reality, both activities produce the hormone. It might seem like a backward approach, but having sex can make the romantic side of your relationship sizzle, says Bianca Acevedo, Ph.D., a social neuroscientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “The neural circuitry used for sex overlaps with the circuitry for pair bonding,” she says. One easy way to carve out more time together is to head to bed half an hour earlier than you normally would. This gives the two of you the chance to focus exclusively on each other with no outside distractions. And invest in TiVo so you’re never derailed by the thought of missing your favorite television show. Mad Men can wait!
4. Spill your guts
The strong, silent stereotype is the last thing you want to embrace when it comes to building a lasting bond with your partner. In fact, improving your communication skills may have the added benefit of boosting your sex life. In a 2008 couples study at Texas A&M University, researchers analyzed each man’s willingness to disclose exactly what he was feeling, as well as the empathy he displayed toward his partner while she was talking. Men who scored well in both categories felt greater intimacy with their partners later on—a feeling that was reciprocated by their grateful mates. “When you see that she treats you well when you are vulnerable, you feel warmer toward her,” says Los Angeles psychologist Seth Meyers, Psy.D., the author of Dr. Seth’s Love Prescription. “In turn, when she knows that you trust her enough to be vulnerable around her, she feels more connected to you.”
Your move: Every day, start at least one conversation with your partner about a topic that interests both of you. It can be about anything, from Stephen Colbert’s latest hilarious sketch to your desire to travel the world with her someday. Don’t think of this as a duty but as a way of enjoying the time you spend with her even more. “Do your best to make it fun. And don’t force the communication—it will flow organically if your priority is to make each other feel tended to and comfortable,” Meyers says. If you can’t think of anything to chat about right off the bat, he suggests finding a couples quiz in a magazine or online, and taking it together as you watch television or eat dinner. “The point is to find vehicles to start the two of you talking.”