Donald Trump’s second wife Marla Maples claimed in 1990 that he was, bar none, “the best sex [she] ever had.” Adult actress Stormy Daniels, who says she had an affair with Trump in 2006, suggests that her experience was not quite this glowing. While great sex is clearly in the eye of the beholder, it’s worth nothing that Maples’ assertion of best sex may be why the marriage was doomed. After all, there’s an adage (directed at women at least) that you aren’t supposed to marry the best sex you ever had. In fact, you marry the second best.
It’s a confusing sentiment, because having a great physical relationship — sex and affection — is considered a major priority in a marriage for most people. Still, debates rage over whether we should marry a passionate lover or a best friend (or, gag, a “soulmate”) to achieve maximum marital bliss, off the idea that these two things don’t often appear in the same person. We ask what gets us through the long haul with someone — hot, passionate sex, or the quiet, steady (implied: boring) reliability of someone who is never going to forget to pay the credit card bill on time — as if we have to pick one or the other.
In one study looking at marriages to lovers versus friends, about half of respondents said their spouse was their best friend — happily. And in a different study looking at whether women ended up with the man who totally rocked their world in the sheets, half said their husband was not the best lay they ever had, suggesting that perhaps these are the same people: The half of people who marry their best friends are also the half fantasizing about that other boyfriend who gave them the best sex of their lives, but with whom the reliability of a stable, committed, actual relationship remained too elusive to lock down for more than a “fun” weekend trip to Vegas.
That study spawned a number of pieces arguing not only that women don’t marry the best lay, but that they shouldn’t if they want to actually be happy and secure. Sex should just be consistently good, one such personal essay argued, not mind-blowing. A piece at the New York Post took a more expert-backed approach: “Nobody marries their best sex ever,” the headline reads. The photo caption doubled down: “Guys who rock your room don’t make great grooms.”
Women in the story attest to the fact that the guys they have the greatest sex with they either had nothing else in common with, or perhaps are remembering it more fondly than it actually was. Was it hot sex in a hallway? Or were you in the hallway because he “had four roommates and slept on a futon.”
The reason, though, suggests that we think people who are great at sex can’t be great at the gentler, everyday, more mundane qualities we need to have a secure bond.
“Your best sexual relationship has likely been with the person who was most unstable and most volatile, but was very passionate,” sex therapist Sari Cooper told the Post. “That’s like riding a roller coaster. That’s passion. But if you have a family, riding a roller coaster isn’t that great for kids.”
Talking with MEL colleague Tierney Finster, she too, took issue with the idea that while we sometimes think of great sex as part of a wild or even abusive dynamic, that in advocating for healthy pleasure, “amazing or “ultimate” or “best” pleasure can come from dynamics that aren’t spontaneous or crazy. That would be helpful for people who associate the best sexual pleasure with relationships that might be otherwise manipulative or even dangerous.
This notion comes up in the Amy Schumer movie Trainwreck, where a conversation between Amy and sister Kim (Brie Larson) goes something like this:
Amy: “You want to stay with the best [sex] you’ve ever had guy.”
Kim: “No you don’t. That’s a creepy guy. Best sex you’ve ever had guy is in jail.”
On its face, there’s a kind of common-sense logic to this thinking. Great sex, from nearly every message we receive about it as teenagers and twenty-somethings — in movies, songs, and porn — is not about love, but about lust.
Lust is about novelty, so it follows that the literal newness of a body is what allegedly inspires the most desire. Maybe from there we extrapolate some deeper conclusions about our partners: Someone who is really great at sex cares too much about the physical and perhaps not enough about the other values of a long term relationship: emotional availability, reliability, warmth. And beneath those assumptions are value judgments about what relationships are for anyway — pleasure, or settling down and making a family?
On internet forums, women back this assumption up anecdotally that great sex is unpredictable and thrilling, not tried and true. On wedding board Wedding Bee, a woman asks the forum if their fiancés are pumping them with the best sex they ever had.
“Mine isn’t,” she writes. “Our chemistry is hit or miss, sometimes it’s really REALLY good and sometimes it’s rather routine. We don’t do it very often either, maybe 2–4x a month. He can get me off every time, but the passion with my last ex was just off the charts. We were not very compatible, he drove me absolutely insane most of the time and we barely had anything in common but the moment he touched me, I’d just forget all of that. We could barely make it past the door before tearing each other’s clothes off and it was like that for over a year. I’d never go back to him, but fantasizing about the sex is pretty great.”
Two words: fuckin’ yikes. Anyone who has spent anytime in a long term relationship knows that it never remains as fresh and exciting as it was in the beginning, but if it’s going well, that’s a good thing. Yet, jump to enough Reddit forums about dead bedrooms and comedian’s jokes about boring, sexless marriages and you get the chilling sense that almost every relationship — even the good ones! — inevitably turn into companionship, not steady humping. And this is simply a fact of life.
Perhaps the people that choose friendship over passion in a marriage either believe this is the only option, or perhaps those who do choose this would not be capable of combining the two anyway. Therapist Lawrence Josephs wrote in a therapy column for the New York Times about the sort of people for whom affair sex is the best sex they’ve ever had, even if they otherwise love and enjoy the stable union of their best friend partners. Josephs explains:
Freud claimed that people often split love and lust. It is not uncommon to have great sex with someone who isn’t lovable, or to have a trustworthy loving relationship with someone with whom the sex is boring. Recent empirical research shows that individuals who exhibit high degrees of narcissism have difficulty integrating love and lust in a single relationship. This is also true of individuals who are “avoidantly attached” — they can’t tolerate the vulnerability of being intimate with someone on whom they are dependent, and so they create a self-protective distance from their partner.
But a more modern and increasingly appealing idea about how one might have the mind-blowing sex of real intimacy and also the reliable stability of a relationship argues otherwise. We do ourselves a disservice, this theory suggests, in defining great sex as only the animalistic, crazy, rip-your-clothes off sort that comes with a new partner we’ve barely gotten to know. Many long term couples (who still have sex) write about how much better sex gets the better you get to know someone. That it’s not novelty, but familiarity and intimacy, that make sex “great.”
This Carlsberg beer ad, called “The Tryst,” for instance, shows a couple rushing into a hotel room to go at it like they are in the throes of an affair, before focusing in on their wedding rings. “A friend of mine once tried to tell me that the best sex I’d ever have would be with my wife,” the ad reads. “He was right.”
That’s pretty cheesy, but relationship experts and therapists who routinely counsel couples through marriages — including infidelity — take a similar angle. Esther Perel, a Belgian psychotherapist who posts audio of the couples counseling sessions she oversees in a podcast called “Where Should We Begin?” is one. After working with couples for some 33 years, she guides couples through the strange paradox of intimacy and sex, which is, ultimately, that we must be connected just enough, but without merging totally, to experience both closeness, but also continued desire. And Perel believes a committed partnership is the best way to do this.
“[Your sex life] doesn’t end when you take your vows,” she said last year at a Goop wellness summit. “This is when the story starts.”
Of course, you don’t have to marry someone to begin the story of a good, long-lasting sexual relationship. But you definitely have to stop defining great sex in such narrow terms. And do yourself and your partner a favor: If you did marry your second best sex partner and not the first, keep it to yourself.