What if I were to say that everything that made you believe in your sex life is not true?
That the standards with which you assess yourself and possibly your partner are not realistic? That you can feel little or no spontaneous desires, but at the same time have a happy and mutually satisfying sex life in the long term?
There aren’t many areas of science where we’ve been wrong for so long that great myths have permeated our collective psyche, but sex is one. So much of our understanding comes from culture, religion, hearing and saying that we have lost sight of the facts.
My time as a clinical psychologist and psychosexologist has been devoted to unlearning everything I thought I knew about sex, to help those who come to visit me. The truth is that sex science has continued – but the way we understand sex and desire as a society has not yet been overtaken.
Dr. Karen Gurney, author of the new book Mind The Gap: The Truth About Desire, shared advice on how to make your sex life ‘futureproof’ (file image)
My new book, Mind The Gap: The Truth About Desire, and How To Futureproof Your Sex Life, is aimed at correcting common mistakes.
These include the idea that desire should happen easily if you love each other, that a good sex life is equivalent to a lot of spontaneous sex and that sexual satisfaction inevitably diminishes during a long-term relationship.
The latter is particularly useless because it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Lifelong great sex does not happen as if by magic. But we can and must all strive to make our sex lives get better and better over time.
So how does “futureproof” our sex life exactly?
Forget the good old days
Many couples come to me because they want it to be “the way it was in the beginning.” But the intense lust of the early stages cannot last.
Unfortunately, it is very common for women to blame themselves for this change in desire and feel broken.
Take Anna, 36, who is single, who told me: “In the beginning I am looking forward to sex, but after a while it just goes. I must have the problem because it has happened in every long relationship I have had. “
Anna’s decline in spontaneous desire is a normal experience for women. In fact, a large proportion never or almost never feel like having sex with their life partner.
Dr. Karen said that maintaining a high level of sexual satisfaction with the same person requires investment, research shows that discussing sex can improve your sex life (file image)
This is not a problem with desire, but with how we understand it. Wouldn’t it be great if Anna – and the rest of us – would understand that desire works perfectly if we know how to encourage and sustain it?
For many couples, the things they value about longer relationships (safety, knowing another person fully) can cause over-familiarity and predictability that is not always great in the bedroom.
If we add this to society’s useless message that you have to crave sex spontaneously, we can begin to understand why sexual dissatisfaction is so common within relationships.
It is possible to maintain a high level of sexual satisfaction and desire while having sex with the same person time and time again, but it requires investment and effort.
Let’s talk more about sex
Research shows that the more you talk about sex together, the greater your chance of a better sex life. By talking we can share our preferences and dislikes – we cannot expect our partners to be mind readers.
Women often have the wrong type of sex for them and then feel guilty when they don’t enjoy it
But communication is also important because we are strongly influenced by the world in which we live. Unless we can indicate our preferences, we run the risk of being dragged into a model of how society tells us that sex should be. We also run the risk of making false assumptions about our partner based on gender stereotypes.
Take Helen, 48, and Doug, 51, who were together for 15 years when they came to see me.
Helen felt less inclined to have sex. She put it down to early menopause symptoms and the fact that she cared for a sister who suffered from cancer.
Clinical psychologist revealed that it is common for heterosexual couples to fall into a “fixed menu”, where women often have the kind of sex that does not best suit their anatomy (file image)
She had begun to find Doug’s pleas for sex irritating and saw his repeated requests for sex, or “jokes,” about how long it had been, as insensitive and offensive.
During therapy, however, we learned that Doug was actually motivated to have sex when he wanted to feel close to Helen. In the course of her sister’s illness, he became increasingly worried about Helen’s death and was getting sick.
She was shocked and understanding what sex meant to him changed her feelings completely. In fact, sex took on a life-giving meaning in a time of increased stress.
Always avoid the “set menu”
Are you stuck in a sexual routine? Does intimacy always start with a quick hassle followed by penetrating sex?
It is common for heterosexual couples to fall into a “fixed menu” – despite the fact that it is not very satisfying for women and is not conducive to maintaining the desire for either partner.
In fact, women often have the type of sex (penetrating) that does not best suit their anatomy and feel embarrassed because they do not experience the “right amount” of orgasms.
Dan, 36, and Vanessa, 34, are a good example. They had been together for 11 years and Vanessa’s desire had subsided until it no longer existed.
I discovered that Vanessa, like most women, enjoyed clitoral stimulation as her main source of sexual pleasure.
Dr. Karen said that another bad habit in which couples can fall apart is the leftovers, one-word answers and hardly any eye contact (file image)
Yet their sex life tended to kiss for two minutes, followed by Vanessa who satisfied Dan and then penetrating sex that lasted until he had an orgasm.
Then it was not intentional orchestrating sex that limited Vanessa’s pleasure. Vanessa hadn’t even thought about it. They both simply created an image of sex that is the norm of society.
But it is not surprising that Vanessa’s excitement, pleasure and desire have diminished.
The only word in our language that I despise the most, that limits our sexual pleasure by its mere existence, is foreplay. It represents a hierarchy that elevates some types of sex as “better” or “more like real sex.”
Pay attention to the dangers of such assumptions and always “order the set menu.” Especially if you plan to eat in the same restaurant every night for the rest of your life.
Stop giving each other the leftovers
Can you remember the last time you were actually smiling, excited or excited by your partner?
Another bad habit that we often fall into is presenting the most dynamic, interesting sides of ourselves to our friends, our colleagues, and our neighbors. At home we give one-word answers, lie down on the couch and hardly make eye contact. I mention this and give each other the leftovers.
From a positive perspective, it can be seen as the joy of having a concerned other person, someone in whose company you can relax completely.
Recent research suggests that an injection of novelty and “self-expansion” outside the bedroom can stimulate what happens inside (file image)
This is something great in itself. But there is also a risk that you and your partner might forget those ‘best’ sides of each other that were so delicious in the beginning.
A recent article by sex researcher Dr. Amy Muise and colleagues in the US suggests that an injection of novelty and “self-expansion” outside the bedroom can influence what happens inside, and that couples who spend more time on individual and challenging activities individually or together they see an improvement in their sex life.
That can include learning a language, visiting a new place or accepting a physical challenge.
It can be as simple as watching our partner enchant the new neighbors at a party and see them through new eyes. For others it might be an adventure to plan together or learn to dance.
However, don’t be fooled into thinking that spending time in the same room, house or apartment is this time.
First, put down your phone, turn off the TV, and truly connect, listen, and appreciate each other’s thoughts or opinions.
The idea is that such activities bring about a change in intimacy, and new perspectives on a partner who might otherwise seem too familiar. This can trigger a real injection of desire.
Dr. Karen said it’s not always realistic to expect sex to just happen, it’s normal to want to watch Netflix and scroll through Instagram after your time has passed (file image)
Add intimacy to your task list
One of the most important hurdles for couples is the idea that sex should just happen. That’s what we see in movies and on TV, so the idea that you have to put time aside is seen as definitely unsexy.
But let’s be realistic here. Think about your week with your partner. Discount every moment with children or family and see every moment at work, sports or friends. Discount when you dress, cook, clean, admin and sleep. How much is left?
By the time you finish everything, you may have the feeling that you just want to watch Netflix and scroll through Instagram. You would be normal in this regard.
But how much of a challenge is it to expect that sex will easily happen in this narrow window?
Katy (26) and Ryan (28) came to me after they realized that their schedules had no room for sex, and that their expectation that sex would happen spontaneously was not realistic.
They decided to set aside one night every two weeks – Katy’s yoga night, which Ryan usually spent with friends – to make real emotional and physical contact, to create the right environment and conditions for sex.
They have not always had sex these nights, but more often than not. Your sex life is on its own route. The question is, how much do you want to steer – or just look in which direction it drives?
Dr. Karen revealed that developing a high level of sexual currency is one of the easiest changes you can make to improve your intimate life (file image)
Increase the sexual currency
The term sexual currency refers to the amount of erotic charge or interaction between you and your partner, apart from actual sexual experiences. And it’s one of the easiest changes you can make to improve your intimate life.
Introduce ways to respond to your partner who have sex undertones. A brief touch as you walk through the kitchen, a seconds-long but passionate kiss before you go to work, or just spend some time naked in bed together, have no sex.
The litmus test is: would you do it with your aunt? If this is not the case and there is no sexual act, it is sexual currency.
High levels of sexual currency make you a more sexual couple, whether you have sex once a day or once a year.
If you read this and realize that you and your partner only kiss passionately as part of sex, or interact with each other primarily as housemates or co-parents, then it is important to realize that you can easily change this behavior.
As soon as we know more about how desire works, we can be at the wheel – in control.
Yes, yes, yes … it can get better with age
Our sex life is constantly at the mercy of changes in our relationships and changes in our bodies, identities and preferences. That is why communication is the key; without this we cannot navigate through these changes.
For example, women generally report fewer concerns about their body image the longer they are with a partner. They also report higher levels of sexual assertion – and thus sexual satisfaction – as they age.
For some of them, this can manifest itself in a renewed sexual confidence and the feeling of wanting more variation in their sex life as they go through life.
The myth of women reaching their ‘sexual pinnacle’ for men in old age is not necessarily about sexual function, but a realization that it can (unfortunately) take decades for women to be held back by fears about body image, lack of knowledge about their body and the feeling of not being able to demand the kind of sex they need.
Research suggests that many middle-aged and elderly people do not feel comfortable talking to a doctor about their sex lives (file image)
This increase in sexual self-confidence must be celebrated, but the relationships in which women find themselves must be able to withstand and adapt to these changes.
One way I often talk about couples embracing change and growth in their sexual relationship is by making a ritual of regular reviews and conversations about sex.
This includes four important questions: what is going well in our sex life that we want to continue? What do we want to do more from? What new directions can we take? And what do we want to explore, try together or alone, or learn more?
We often regard changes in body function, health and ability as disadvantages for sexual function, but they don’t have to be.
The physical and psychological effects of menopause, such as hot flashes and a bad mood, naturally reduce desire. But research suggests that your pre-menopause sex life, and your feelings toward your partner, are more reliable predictors of how post-menopause sex will be than estrogen levels.
Research also teaches us that many middle-aged and elderly people do not feel comfortable talking to a doctor about their sex life.
This is a by-product of the impact of outdated (and inaccurate) ideas about our sexual needs. But please get support through this transition so that you can enjoy the surprising benefits of aging when you’re on the other side.
Adapted by Felicia Bromfield from Mind The Gap: The Truth About Desire, and How To Future-Proof Your Sex Life, by Dr. Karen Gurney (£ 14.99, Headline Home), out on March 5. © Dr. Karen Gurney 2020. Pre-order a copy for £ 12 (offer valid until 05/05/2013; P&P free), visit mailshop.co.uk or call 01603 648155.