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Sustaining sexual connection

In a committed long-term relationship, one of the most common reasons that couples seek sex therapy is down to one partner wanting more sex than the other. Commonly it is reported that one partner experiences a loss of desire.

I have recently come across the concept of a ‘sex contract’ drawn up by couples, by way of formulating an expectation around how often they commit to have sex each week/month with each-other. There are actual contracts that exist as templates – easily found on google. It all smacks (pardon the pun) of ’50 Shades of Grey’ and look how that ended up (plot spoiler: they never enjoyed an equal, mutually pleasurable, loving relationship until the contract was put aside).

Whether or not you have signed an actual contract, Aaron Anderson (Director and Lead Therapist at The Marriage and Family Clinic in Colorado) argues that when you enter into a marriage contract (I’d like to add, that I believe the same goes for the big step of moving-in together, and/or making a long-term commitment to one another) there is an unspoken, unwritten contract that happens in the mind of one or both partners..

“And because you’ve decided that you’re “compatible” you expected that your expectations (aka contract) around sex is the same, too. In your mind, this sex contract says that my spouse will only have sex with me and I will get to have sex whenever I want, (or don’t want). You think that this contract says that sex will always be spontaneous, that your partner will always want you sexually, and they will never have sexual desires for anyone other than you. Furthermore, this contract also says that your partner won’t flirt with, or even fantasize about, anyone other than you.”

I know I entered into this silent contract, unspoken, un-discussed, and just expected my partner to have the exact same expectations. This road only ends in disappointment. It has the potential to also pick up some shame, insecurity, hurt and a few misunderstandings along the way too.

Emily Nargoski in her book ‘Come As You Are’, says that in her extensive research, there are 2 key factors that help couples sustain a strong sexual connection over the long term.

  1. They are friends – even best friends – Their relationship has at its core, a deep trust. Therapist and relationship researcher Sue Johnson defines trust, as ‘Are you there for me’?
  2. They prioritise sex. They decide it matters for their relationship so they set aside the mundane aspects of their shared life – jobs/kids/sleep/TV – to honour it. They choose to show up, ‘to put their bodies in the bed. They let their skin touch their partner’s skin, and their body remembers, oh right, I like this. I like this person”. As a good friend of mine once said:

“Sex, for me, is like swimming. I never actually feel like it, but once I’m in, it really is quite nice”.

Responsive desire
Spontaneous desire

Nargoski describes desire as falling into 2 camps – ‘spontaneous’ and ‘responsive’. Both are equally valid. Spontaneous desire emerges in anticipation of pleasure and responsive desire is more the ‘swimming’ analogy – it emerges in response to pleasure.

Pleasure is the measure of sexual wellbeing. It’s not how much you crave sex, it’s not how often you do it, what you do, or where, or how many orgasms you have. Its whether or not you like the sex you’re having. After all, why would you desire sex if the sex isn’t pleasurable?”

Exercise (adapted from Nargoski’s workbook):

Consider how context can shape your experience of desire.

Each partner takes 30 minutes to write down 3 headings and contemplate:

  1. Contexts that shut off desire. eg if the kids are around; if work is stressful; following an argument; feeling bad about your body; tiredness; high anxiety; staying at someone else’s house etc
  2. Contexts that facilitate a responsive desire. e.g when your partner unexpectedly touches your arm gently while you are sitting at your laptop and it feels nice, then they kiss your neck and that feels really nice too, then they kiss your lips and KA-BOOM your body responds – you like this and you’d like it to continue. Or your partner sends you an erotic text, you feel your body responding to it and you start to look forward to what will follow. Or you are lying in bed and start kissing or touching for a while, then slowly, gradually you get into it and then you get to the point where you are thrilled you did!
  3. Contexts that facilitate a spontaneous desire.e.g when your partner is wearing that top, or wearing that scent; when you feel you have been really listened to; when they have cooked the dinner; when they turn up unexpectedly with a gift that you love (maybe even an erotic gift?!); when you’re out at a party (remember those?) and you catch them across the room looking really fit; when they are ‘in their element’ doing what they love.

Then discuss it with one another, making sure to not interrupt and to give your full attention to what your partner is saying. This can be vulnerable stuff you are sharing. Then you just need to give each-other time and space to try out the different styles and find out what works. Above all, the key thing is to prioritise it – whatever your approach to desire .

You may think you already know everything about your partner. However, we all change over time. Sometimes life events, or age, can change who we want to be, and can shift our perspective on life. We are in the middle of a global pandemic right now, this is pretty likely to be changing us. Let’s get to know our partners again, and in turn let them get to know who you are now, too. Good communication builds trust, trust builds friendship and friendship is the basis of maintaining a good sexual connection.

Susannah Baker

After giving up a senior nursing role spanning 14 years, and moving to North Devon, Susannah is now a founder and trustee of The Pickwell Foundation (working mostly with displaced people); the owner of a holiday business; an interior designer, partner to Steve and a mum to two teenagers.

Keeping her hand in with the nursing side, she works as a Community First Responder for the South West Ambulance Service.

The question of 'what makes relationships great', together with a real curiosity of how people stay together for a lifetime, has always caused much fascination.  

On a search to discover some answers for herself, One:Retreat was born.

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