Margaret Nichols, Ph.D.
Executive Director/Founder of the Institute for Personal Growth
Among the most pervasive and destructive myths that we tend to hold are the ones we believe about
sex and relationships. When I do sex therapy with long-term couples, I find that I almost always have to
spend quite a bit of time on 'psychoeducation' - in other words, dispelling illusions about how
relationships work and replacing them with reality. The fuzzy-headed, romantic 'ideals' we strive for and
think we need are not only virtually unobtainable, they are downright dangerous. We are taught to want
a partner who is a 'soulmate,' with whom we can live in eternal bliss, closeness, and togetherness, until
one of us dies, perhaps with whom we will share finances, living space, and even children. And, we are
led to expect that we can do this at the same time that we maintain a level of passion and heat in our
sexual encounters that is not far removed from what we had in courtship.
To the extent we hold these largely unattainable ideals, we will be unable to see the value in
relationships and sexual encounters that don't live up to these fairy tales but which sustain us and
support us nevertheless. And 99.9% of relationships, even the ones that last 'forever,' don't resemble
the 'ideal.' I've had to teach these things to clients so often I decided to write some of them down. So,
here are some realities about sex in long-term relationships, along with the fantasies they shatter. The
bad news is you won't like to hear this stuff. No one likes to have their bubbles burst. The good news is
that if you acknowledge these facts you may have far more sexual pleasure in your relationships than
you have now:
1. Passion and love are not necessarily related.
Most of us realize that passion - the intense desire to be with another
sexually and romantically - is not the same as love. Many of us confuse
passion for love - we think if we feel ‘in love’ - with someone it is a sign
that we should be in a relationship with that person. But even those of
us who realize that passion may hide some fundamental mis-matches
between people tend to assume that we can retain passion in a
romantic relationship. Sure, we say we know that 'passion doesn't
last.' But what we expect is that, over time, that weak-in-the-knees
sexual desire may happen less frequently. We don't expect it to
disappear altogether.
Unfortunately, the elements that make for torrid, seeing-stars mindaltering sex can be present in a high quality intimate relationship - but
past the initial stage, what sexologists call the 'limerance' phase, it's
very difficult to retain. In fact, in some ways intimacy interferes with passion. As a relationship deepens,
some barriers to good sex, like lack of knowledge of your partner, or mistrust, may disappear - but other
roadblocks to passion emerge. Pepper Schwartz, the sociologist sex researcher, found lesbian
relationships to be highly egalitarian compared to heterosexual couples - but the frequency of sex in gay
female relationships is low, as it is in egalitarian heterosexual couples, as well. The romantic myth we
need to dash is that intimacy breeds sexual heat. Once you let go of that belief, you can consider things
that will increase passion - more about that later.
In part, this is because we seek relationships for many reasons, not just great sex. Some people in
relationships never experience 'great sex,' not eve1.1 in the beginning 'falling in love' stage. But most of
us have fond memories of the passionate encounters at the beginning of every long-term relationship
we've ever had- as well as not so fond memories of that passion fading with time, if the relationship
lasts more than a year or two. Curiously, that doesn't deter most of us from clinging to the model of
ongoing, effortless white-hot sex. So, why does that happen - why is the sex so good at the beginning,
why can't it last? Here's why:
2. Limerance - a.k.a. romance, 'being in love,' 'falling in love,' - is chemically-induced fantasy.
Romance is a state in which we are 'drunk' on a chemical called PEA, secreted by our own brain when
we find someone that triggers it. PEA literally makes life a pink cloud; our brain on PEA overestimates
the positive attributes of the stimulus, and minimizes or denies the negatives. PEA also is a powerful
aphrodisiac, so powerful that it can 'override' day-to-day sexual desire and push people whose overall
sex drive is low to dazzling heights of horniness for the beloved. Thus, it can cover up discrepancies in
sexual desire and mismatched sexual scripts… as well as covering up just plain bad judgment about who
is relationship material and who is not.
True intimacy develops when the PEA is drained out of our system, usually 6-18 months after we 'hook
up.' Unfortunately, that moment can be a little like waking up hung over and not believing who you find
in bed next to you. When and if you get over the shock of discovering that your partner is a real human
being, who can't transport you to ecstasy on a daily basis, and who is sometimes a 'downer' in their own
right - that is the beginning of true, realistic intimacy.
3. The transition out of the limerance phase into real life often coincides with a decrease in passion.
Passion thrives on illusion, and as romantic illusion disappears passion wanes, unless other kinds of
illusion or stimulation are added (more about this later). One thing that does happen when PEA
recedes is that individual differences in sexual style, level of sex drive, etc. emerge. And gender
differences start to surface, if they haven't already.
4. In real life, people in long-term relationships don't have sex all that
Research done within the last ten years shows that the statistical norm
for sexual frequency for couples - including couples who are in their 20's is several times a month or less. Only a third to forty percent of couples
have sex more than once a week. And fully one-third of all women and
one-sixth of men say they are uninterested in sex.
5. When limerance dies, sexual differences emerge.
Frequently, one member of the couple loses passion more quickly than another. Also, differences in
level of sex drive or in sexual styles will emerge. This is when you find out your partner really doesn't like
oral sex or that he or she wants sex only once a month. At this point, certain patterns tend to develop,
often depending upon gender of the partners. Sex in lesbian relationships can slow down to next to
nothing, though the level of closeness and the physical ‘cuddling' stays high. Gay men may be more
likely to consider limited nonmonogamy at this point, in an effort to balance differences. In heterosexual
relationships, the pattern that frequently develops is this: the couple has less sex than he wants and
more than she wants; she often simply acquiesces to sex with little pleasure for herself. Since quick,
routine sex can bring him to orgasm, sex tends to be late at night, last thing before going to sleep, take
no more than ten minutes, and be essentially a little bit of 'foreplay' and then intercourse until he
'comes.' In all types of couples, one or both people may feel 'betrayed’: this isn't what my partner
seemed to be at the beginning.
6. Men and women tend to deal with sex very differently.
Remember the figures I cited earlier about lack of sexual interest: twice as many women as men say
they have no desire. In a nutshell, this summarizes sex differences: men want more sex and have more
sex than women. In opposite sex relationships, this breeds misunderstanding. In same sex relationships,
gender differences may be amplified, or, one partner may have more 'male' characteristics regarding
sexuality and the other may have more 'female' characteristics.
7. Men like sex more than women, and it's less complicated for them.
Testosterone is the hormone associated with sex drive, for both men and women, and the average guy
has 20-30 times more testosterone than women. Think about the implications of that! Men have more
sex drive than women, which means they think about sex frequently (usually daily), desire sex more
often, masturbate more, are more easily aroused and more quickly aroused (arousal=erection) than
women. Once aroused, they usually orgasm one way or another. Perhaps related to higher drive, men
also seem to be easily aroused and satisfied with sexual 'routines' -sexual scripts with little or no
variation. Men also tend to be more aroused by purely visual sexual stimulation. They are less likely to
feel 'limerant' just because they've had good sex. In other words, for men, having sex with someone is
neither dependent upon nor does it necessarily lead to feelings of being 'in love' with them. On the
other hand, men may also tend to use sex as a way of feeling connected, so that in a relationship they
may try to achieve closeness through sex. The greater ability to separate sex and love helps gay men be
practical about both. This is why many gay male couples practice what may be called 'limited
nonmonogamy,' a type of relationship that allows for outside sex partners as long as the primacy of the
couple is clear. In this way, partners can retain hot sex and a close, intimate relationship - just not in the
same relationship.
8. Women have a lower sex drive and a more complicated sexuality than men.
For example, Beverly Whipple, who identified the Grafenberg spot in women, lists several types of
orgasms women can have, whereas men seem to have only one orgasm pattern. Many aspects of
female sexuality follow from the fact that their sex drive, on average, is lower than men: women think
about sex less frequently, often only occasionally; they masturbate less, desire sex less, are less easily
aroused, and need more time to get 'turned on.' Orgasm is not consistent and takes longer to achieve.
They are not usually aroused purely by 'visuals.'
Women tend to fuse sex and love. In fact, love - or
limerance, anyway - is what turns women on the
most. One consequence of this is women often don't
distinguish between passion and love at all; not only
are they not turned on unless they feel ‘in love’ - they
assume that if they have that feeling it signifies
mature, lasting love, and if they lose it they
sometimes think that means they are no longer 'in
love.' A theory about female sexuality developed by
psychologist Rosemary Basson proposes that in long
term relationships, women's sex drive transforms
from a more 'active' drive to a 'receptive one.' In
other words, a woman in an ongoing relationship may not actively seek sex, but may respond if seduced
by her partner. These patterns can be especially problematic in lesbian relationships; if both women are
in 'receptive' mode, no one initiates sex; and if passion dies, one or both women may decide the
relationship is 'wrong,' she is no longer 'in love,' and needs to change partners to attain the 'in love'
feeling and passion.
9. Men, especially heterosexual men, feel they are supposed to be able to give their partners pleasure
without guidance or explicit direction.
That means they don't ask their partner questions about what turns her on - they are supposed to
already know. They feel threatened when their partner doesn't enjoy sex - they have failed. Yet they
can't talk about how she could enjoy sex more - so a situation is set up that is ripe for deception - for a
woman faking arousal or orgasm. It also means men may be threatened by a woman who wants to
'direct' sex a bit more or one who gives herself her own orgasm.
10. Women also tend to believe that it is their partner's responsibility to know what they want
In heterosexual relationships, this puts even more burden on the man. In lesbian relationships – well, it
can get really confusing.....
11. Men also think they are not supposed to feel vulnerable or ignorant about sex.
More opportunity for miscommunication - men can't express fear or insecurity….or ask for directions,
even in a sexual situation!
12. Both women and men are ignorant about female sexuality.
Most people's models of sex are based on male patterns and male needs; for example, the idea that sex
should occur 'spontaneously' with little warm-up and that, for heterosexuals, it should proceed quickly
to intercourse and center around this activity is a concept of sex suited to men, but not to women.
Unfortunately, many women don't understand their own sexuality well enough to articulate their needs
to themselves, much less to a partner, so women's preferences for sex are not recognized and their
requirements for satisfying sex go unmet.
I've already described how female sexuality is tied to
limerance, and how relatively difficult it is for women
to be aroused comparative to men. There are many
other idiosyncrasies of female sexuality that are often
overlooked in heterosexual sex but which are crucial
for pleasure. For example, lubrication in a woman is not
a sign that she is ready for penetration, and yet the
average heterosexual couple has only a few minutes of
foreplay before moving to intercourse. In fact,
lubrication is only the first sign of arousal in a woman...
she generally needs much, much more stimulation
to desire penetration, and even more to be near orgasm. Moreover, many people still do not realize
that the clitoris is the dominant organ of sexual pleasure. Some women 'get off' through stimulation of
the G spot... but for most, clitoral stimulation is necessary for an orgasm to occur. Moreover, while a
minority of women have multiple orgasms, this cannot be expected, nor is it necessarily 'better.' Many
women have infrequent orgasms, and a majority do NOT orgasm during heterosexual intercourse
precisely because it usually involves insufficient clitoral stimulation. Many women orgasm best with a
vibrator, but both women and men feel this is a 'lesser' kind of orgasm, and so they never use a vibrator
during partner sex - thereby neglecting an important agent of sexual pleasure. In addition, what some
people have called 'erotic image,' - the vision you have of yourself as a sexual being - is often very
important for women. So if a woman has gained weight, or if she has unshaved legs or feels like she
needs to take a shower, she may have greatly diminished ability to be in the mood for a sexual
13. Same sex partners sometimes feel they should understand and be understood implicitly, without
communication - because they are both men or both women- and therefore must have 'the same'
So even though same sex partners avoid some of the classic mis-matched sexual scripts found in
heterosexual relationships, they still may not be communicating sufficiently to each other.
Now that I have destroyed a number of myths about sex and relationships, you may be wondering if this
means that 'hot monogamy' is an oxymoron. Don't despair; there are some things that can counter
what sometimes seems like an overwhelming tendency towards sexual inertia in long-term
relationships. Here are some principles that can guide you to better sex:
1. Everyone is responsible for their own arousal and orgasm- for knowing how and for telling your
This means it's your job to know the specifics of what turns you on and brings you to orgasm… and to
communicate it to your partner, preferably ahead of time. If you know that receiving oral sex is fun for
you but never 'gets you off,' don't wait till your partner's jaw is sore before verbalizing this. If you want
to be ‘taken' and 'ravished,' let your partner know instead of hoping they guess. You may want to buy a
good, imaginative sex manual and consider all the possibilities in this manual with your partner. The
two of you can discuss each new technique or activity with open minds, and ask about each: is this an
activity than totally turns me off, turns me on, leaves you feeling neutral - or, is it something you aren't
sure about but would be willing to try if your partner wanted to? These kinds of exercises and explicit
discussions, far from making sex mechanical, broaden the possibilities at the same time that they make
likes and dislikes explicit and thus diminish the possibility of negative encounters.
2. Recognize that in long term relationships, sex will rarely be 'spontaneous.' Time for sex needs to
be scheduled on a regular basis... or it won't happen at all.
Sex therapists frequently prescribe an exercise called 'sensate focus' for couples with problems. In this
exercise, partners schedule a 'date,' usually an hour or two, in order to take turns giving and receiving
sensual touch without orgasm as a goal. Clients often report that this was the single most helpful thing
they got out of therapy - learning to schedule time for physical intimacy instead of just expecting it to
happen on its own. I tell couples who have trouble scheduling sensate focus that the frequency with
which they are able to do the sensate focus exercise roughly corresponds to the frequency of good sex
they can expect in their relationship.
3. Variety is extremely important to keeping sex hot in a long term relationship - much more so than
in a new relationship. Ironically.
Most couples tend to be more experimental in the limerance stage and lose that creativity just when
they need it the most. There is increasing agreement in the field of sexology that sexual desire is driven
in large part by a 'barrier' - something new, forbidden, a little dangerous, a bit unattainable, something
or someone different. In long-term committed relationships, that 'barrier' needs to be artificially
introduced. A few couples will achieve this by adding new sexual partners to their couple via 'threeways,' 'swinging,' or multiple relationships (polyamory). But most couples will opt to seek to attain
variety within a monogamous framework. Variety can be in techniques - not only different positions, but
different activities altogether, such as bondage, spanking, anal play, etc. For guidance, get some sex
manuals; some of the "kinky" sex manuals, such as ‘S/M 101’ or ‘Screw the Roses, Send Me the
Thorns’ contain many novel ideas that would appeal to a
mostly 'vanilla' couple.
Sex toys should be considered an important source of
variety, and you can find them online at sites like or Not just vibrators,
but toys like dildos and butt plugs, creams and sensual
lotions, restraints like soft handcuffs, blindfolds - all of these
might become part of the equipment of a lusty couple.
Pornography/erotica, including videos and erotic stories,
can be a source of renewal for a boring sexual repertoire.
Find things to watch or read together, or tell stories to each
Another way to make sex in a long term relationship hot again-to achieve variety - is through fantasy
roles. Couples can escape the sexual inertia that often comes with intimacy by 'getting out of
themselves' in the bedroom. By playing out make-believe erotic roles (the enchantress and her strong,
insistent ravisher, the slut who picks you up in the bar, the teacher and student), you can develop a
deep sexual intimacy as well as turning up the heat of your encounters.
4. In relationships where there are large discrepancies in desire, couples should learn compromise
It is important to get rid of the conception that all sexual encounters should be 'equal' for both partners.
For many people with lower sexual desire, the worst pressure they feel from partners is the pressure
that they should get highly aroused and orgasm during every sexual encounter. It's okay for a sexual
experience to be 'one-sided,' and if differences in sex drive are great, 'one-sided' experiences may be
crucial to meeting both partners' needs. Prototypical encounters might be, for example: I’ll hold you
while you watch porn and masturbate; I’ll help you by playing with your nipples while you use your
vibrator; we can have a 'quickie' so you can come but I'm not interested in getting aroused myself. In
these situations, the person with lower desire - or, the one who is simply less interested in sex at that
moment - is mostly a 'helper' to the person with higher desire. This is not exploitation of the lessinterested partner, nor is it 'phony' intimacy. The intimacy of pleasuring your partner and holding him or
her during their ecstasy can be equal to or better than having an orgasm yourself, and there is nothing
artificial or unreal about this kind of loving giving and receiving.
It is extremely important that you get rid of the fantasy that sex in your long- term relationship will be
like the sex you had in the very beginning. Treasure those memories, but don't expect them to be
repeated. With imagination, making 'dates,' and learning some new techniques, sex can get good in a
very special way, but it will never be as effortless as it was in the beginning. After all, if you want sex to
always be like the beginning, you will always be in the beginnings of relationships, one after another
after another. Couples who keep their sexual partnerships creative, alive, fluid, and changing attain a
depth of sexual intimacy impossible to achieve in limerance. And this makes giving up the 'swept away'
sex of infatuation worthwhile.
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