Many people in longer-term relationships ask me the age-old question – how can we keep the spark of desire alive in a long–term relationship?
By understanding a little basic neuroscience and by using the tips I’ll show you here, you and your beloved can keep that thrill of the new excitement flowing for years
Getting turned on starts with turning off!
It’s an irony of life that, especially for women, arousal starts with something getting switched off before the juicy bits can get switched on. In order to feel aroused we generally need to feel safe. When we feel safe our Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) kicks in and our bodies relax. The PNS slows down our heart rate, relaxes our breathing. Feeling safe also switches off the amygdala – the fear and anxiety centre in the brain. When you’re relaxed the nerves in the genitals respond to touch with pleasure. If the amygdala is still active those same nerves will be shut off. They say that foreplay begins with the man taking out the rubbish and there’s a lot of truth in this approach. When a woman feels safe and cared for, her body relaxes.
Naomi Wolf in her latest book Vagina: A New Biography makes a strong case for the vagina being the “brain below the waist”. It’s neural responses and the hormones associated with it can determine whether sex is on the cards or not. So how do we make increase the likelihood of a positive response to sexual advances? Here are some techniques for success:
Anyone who’s attended a tantric workshop knows that there’s usually a lot of deep eye gazing involved. Far from being just new age nonsense it turns out that there is a neurological reason why this is effective. It may have something to do with mirror neurons. Nerve endings in the eyes lead straight to a structure in the brain linked to emotion and empathy, the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). When these are stimulated we generate feelings of empathy and connection with the other person. When we feel connected we are more open to sexual interaction.
Exercise: Try lying comfortable opposite your partner, far enough apart that you can see each other clearly. Without touching just allow yourselves to look into each other’s eyes and notice how you feel.
Activating the cuddle hormone
Oxytocin has become famous for its role as the bonding hormone. When oxytocin is released we feel increased feelings of trust and safety (remember that safety is the key to allowing sex). It also reduces cravings (good for those wishing to diet), and increases receptivity to sex.
Exercise: You can easily stimulate oxytocin release in your partner. A hug engaging the full body, including heart and genitals, and which lasts for longer than 20 seconds will stimulate oxytocin release. Add eye gazing and you’ll also be triggering those mirror neurons into even more empathy. You can also trigger oxytocin release by placing a hand on your partner’s belly and heart since a key part of the SNS, the vagus nerve runs through them and responds to the warmth and contact of touch.
The mind is rather easily duped in some ways. For example, when we recall old memories our bodies respond as if they’re happening now. Remembering what attracted us to our partner in the first place can help to re-trigger those same feelings of desire and excitement that we had when we started out together.
Exercise: Try doing the same eye gazing exercise as above but add in the memories of what got you hot and turned on about your partner in those early days. Recall specific moments of passion and how it was to yearn for their touch.….you’ll soon find your body responding to the memories.
Good sex is addictive!
The more sex you have the more you want. Sex and especially orgasm is the biggest legal drugs hit a body can have. When we have positive sexual experiences our bodies release dopamine (associated with the brain’s reward centre) and oxytocin, amongst other things. The more of this we get, the more we want. So once you start having good sex, you’ll want even more of it. There is a good case that many arguments happen between couples 3-5 days after their last orgasmic sexual experiences. This may be because the hit of dopamine has been absorbed and the body is craving more of it. The best way to stop this happening is to have sex again at least every 3 days – just to be sure you don’t let your dopamine levels get dangerously low!
Whilst good sex is addictive, as Naomi Wolf points out in Vagina “bad sex – inattentive sex with a selfish or distracted partner – is actually chemically dispiriting and damaging psychologically to women”.
One key component in libido is testosterone. High testosterone means high sexual desire – in both men and women. When we have sex we produce more testosterone, so again the more you have the more you want it.
Love and Desire are different
We’ve seen how you can use neuroscience to help get your partner in the mood, now let’s look at some ways in which you can keep the things flowing in a long-term relationship. Firstly, you need to understand that Love and Desire are two very different energies. Love is about merging, becoming one with another. Desire requires distance – the grass is always greener, you always want what you can’t have….
Sexual desire works best when you and your partner are like two opposite magnets attracting one another. If you leave magnets together for too long they lose their charge and become the de-polarised. The same thing happens in relationship. If you’re living together, bumping up against each other every day it’s easy to lose that magnetic charge. So, a little distance will help bring the spark back into your lives.
Exercise: Try spending some time apart and then coming back together. Whilst your apart recall those early days when you longed for your partner’s touch. Before long you’ll be hungry for it again.
Don’t let sex be the leftovers
For most couples sex consists of the leftovers. What I mean is that unconsciously (in most cases) each person in the relationship draws up a list of which sexual acts are acceptable to them. We then compare this to our partner’s list and wherever there is an overlap in our sexual Venn diagram, we allow that. Where things are outside of one partner’s comfort zone, we generally agree to discard them. In most cases this leaves a relatively small overlap in what couples get up to.
Exercise: Instead of taking this binary approach, with your partner write a private list of sexual acts which you’d say Yes to, which ones are a Maybe and which are a No. If you’ve been together for some time you’ve probably tried all the ones in the Yes zone, but explore some of the Maybes.
There is excitement in the taboo. Perhaps you’ve made love in a public place or when you the kids were home and you thought you might get caught. Breaking taboos is a sure-fire way to get those fires of passion burning again.
Exercise: Explore a new place or situation to make love. We all know that variety creates excitement but adding a twist of the forbidden makes it even more alluring.
Get to know yourself better
Make time for yourself to get to know your body and your sexuality a bit better. The chances are that if you self-pleasure you do it in the same old way – it’s tried and tested, you know it gets the job done, why change it? Well, by giving yourself variety you discover new things about yourself. The better relationship you have with your own sexuality, the more you’ll be able to enjoy more variety with your partner – and variety helps to keep desire alive.
Exercise: Imagine different parts of your sexual self – the seductress, the demure virgin, the slut, the dominatrix, the tender lover. Imagine what they’d look like and how they’d have sex or make love. For example the slut wouldn’t make love in the same way the virgin would. When you make love with your partner imagine these different parts in action – it’s guaranteed to bring lust back into your life.
Whatever you do, try something different. Remember, variety is the spice of life. Your sexual energy is your life force energy, cut it off and you cut yourself off from life itself. Engage with it and you’ll feel more alive – however long you’ve been in the same relationship.