We all know how the story goes: You get together, have amazing sex, get married, spew out a few kids, buy a house and hang a hand-painted “Live, Laugh, Love” sign above your toilet to remind yourself of better days (or that time Hobby Lobby was having a 20 percent off crafts sale). Sometime later, you divorce or die, which doesn’t really matter, because by now, the sex is so terrible that you’re essentially an asexually reproducing tree anyway.
Or, you know, something like that.
Whether you skip a few of these milestones or not, it’s generally a given that, no matter how much you love each other, sex in a long-term relationship takes a nose-dive. Actually, it seems to be in free-fall for almost everyone — one study, which examined more than 2,800 heterosexuals between the ages of 25 and 41, found that sexual satisfaction tends to peak during the first year of a relationship, then plummet incrementally thereafter, along with frequency. For some couples, relationship sex gets so un-shaggy that Georgia State University associate sociology professor and celibacy expert Denise A. Donnelly told the New York Times that by her estimates, 15 percent of married couples have gone without any sex with their partner in the previous year. Even when people are having sex, studies are showing it’s not always mutually beneficial — as one study suggests up to 80 percent of heterosexual women fake orgasm during vaginal intercourse about 50 percent of the time, whereas 25 percent fake orgasm nearly every time. (All of this data is blindingly heterosexual, in case you couldn’t tell.)
Of course, this assumes that decreasing quantity of sex is the issue, but for most couples, it’s really not. In a TED Talk on desire in long-term relationships, Esther Perel, a superstar sex and relationship therapist and author of the dead bedroom bible Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, told the audience that in general, it’s not more sex that people want — it’s better sex. “In love we want closeness,” she said. “In desire, we want someone on the other side that we can go visit. We don’t want familiarity.”
Yet, familiarity is exactly what millions of couples like 32-year-old Rebecca and her husband Giles, 33, are grappling with today. The two met when she was 16 and he was 18; one of those “love at first sight” moments you see in the movies. “The second I saw him I thought, ‘I’m going to marry that guy,’” she says.
They enjoyed a blissful six months of dating before a difficult couple of years when Giles moved away to university. He decided he didn’t want to be with her anymore, but she insisted they stay together. “He’d be at university and all ‘I don’t want to be with you,’ during the week,” she says. “But then I’d drive to see him at the weekend to talk about it… and boom! We’d have sex, I’d stay for the whole weekend and I’d leave knowing I’d see him the following weekend. I basically threw sex at him, and he took it.”
For Rebecca, sex became a weapon; one she could exact upon him when she wanted to rope him back in. And while neither of them would have entered their relationship into the Healthiest Post-Teen Romance category at that time, Rebecca says that lording sex over Giles made her feel “powerful” and “like she still had him.”
This pattern continued for 18 months or so, until one day they sat down and decided to start again from scratch. Ever since, they’ve been rebuilding their sex life, trying to balance the familiarity and comfort they now have with their mutual desire for passion and the sort of high-stakes, emotionally charged sex they had during those few awkward years at college. For a while, they hit a good stride with their sex life peaking brilliantly after their marriage, but then, as happens in so many relationships, life got in the way. “Schedules got busy, and sex slipped down our priority list,” she says.
Today, Rebecca and Giles can go weeks without having sex. “We’re not one of those couples who can be tired but do it anyway because we haven’t done it for five days,” she explains. Their biggest problem? Initiating. Though they’ve still got the hots for each other after all these years, Rebecca says there have been so many times she’s said “no” to him that it puts him off instigating. “We’re not very tactile, so the second he gets all touchy I know he wants sex and I often don’t feel like it,” she says. Over time, he’s gotten the message that his attempts are futile, so he’s almost stopped trying altogether.
So, how do they manage to get going at all?
“I’ve got to feel sexy about myself,” Rebecca says, explaining that this has far more to do with her cycle than her husband. “I’m always attracted to Giles — I genuinely find him hot — but I’ve noticed that the time that I’m ovulating is the time we’ll have sex.” That’s not entirely uncommon — most women tend to feel hornier and have more sexual fantasies during ovulation, as it’s the time of the month when they’re most fertile.
It also might explain why Rebecca and Giles have two young children. In her TED Talk, Perel grins when she talks about the weird irony that sex makes babies, but in turn, babies spell erotic disaster. In fact, she laughs, anything that brings up parenthood can kill desire. Though, Rebecca doesn’t think that motherhood itself makes her feel less sexy. If anything, she feels “sexier, prouder and more empowered since becoming a mom.” It’s just that she finds it wholly un-arousing when she has to mother Giles, too. Asking him to pick up things around the house or “checking that he’s got what he needs” pretty much douses whatever bit of arousal she’s built up.
That’s not uncommon, either — women who do the majority of the housework and caretaking tend to have lower libidos, and couples who split chore and child-rearing duties tend to be more sexually satisfied.
Still, no amount of shared raking or dishwashing (and no matter what Rebecca says) can change the fact that long-term couple’s sex lives are, as we know, most affected by kids. For Rebecca, breastfeeding has also made things trickier. “You go from boobs being a sex thing, to shutting that off as you feed your children,” she says. “You can’t then go and make them a sex thing again.” The appearance of her breasts has also changed. “I’d always had good boobs, but after pregnancy they changed, shriveled up. I was so self-conscious, I couldn’t escape thinking about them. Sex felt like an invasion of privacy.”
Motherhood changed 36-year-old Apollonia’s feelings about her body, too. She met Ricardo, 37, eight years ago when she was a headhunter. He came in for an interview and left with her number. A year to the day later, they got married. Life was good.
But after having children, Apollonia started to lose her body confidence. “Every time I said, ‘You’re hot,’ she told me I was crazy,’” begins Ricardo, as they speak to me on the phone together. “I wanted to give her proof that she was beautiful. I found a website called Bent Box (where you can upload adult pictures for others to buy). We put some pictures of her up and sold some. It helped her see she that is sexy.”
Perel talks about busting the myth of spontaneity in long-term sex. If couples are willing to let go of the idea that sex has to be a spontaneous event that occurs only when both people are ravenously horny, they can start to plan and schedule their sex lives in a way that actually offers them more novelty and passion, not less. Knowing that they’d be far better off taking their sex life into their own hands, Ricardo and Apollonia started busting the spontaneity myth all over the place.
First, they got curious and started exploring new kinds of sex together, specifically sex toys, which they discovered they both enjoyed using. Apollonia says she particularly liked the Satisfyer vibrator that sucked on her clit as Ricardo penetrated her, but they also tried fake vaginas, strap-ons and anal toys, too. They even set up a finsta (private Instagram account) of naked pictures of Apollonia, which users can request to follow. She also sends him a daily naked selfie.
Pushing it even further, they tried a sex club in Chile, which made them feel a bit uncomfortable, but they didn’t give up — they also tried a fancy sex club in Paris (where it felt like everyone was showing off), and then Killing Kittens, a female-centric, upmarket sex club that throws events around the world (a ticket for their New York parties costs $450 per couple). That time, it felt right.
“When we first went to the parties, it was difficult to be naked,” admits Apollonia. “But I could see that other people were enjoying themselves too much to be pointing their fingers at my cellulite. Being naked around others and seeing other people’s imperfections really helped with my body confidence.”
Emma Sayle is the founder of Killing Kittens. Over the last 15 years, the brand has amassed 180,000 members worldwide, and she estimates that about half a million people have come through its doors. So, what does she think long-term couples enjoying fabulous sex are doing differently? “They’re communicating honestly,” she says. “When it comes to sex, people are so scared to say what they’re really thinking, or to be vulnerable. They’re worried their partners will think they’re twisted or weird, but you’ll find deep down, most people are thinking the same thing. The couples that come to our parties are open with each other, and this makes them more intimate, even when they’re at home.”
Apollonia would agree: “When you’re married, every day is the same. This keeps us curious. Even if we’re home, we can fantasize about it; we don’t need to go every weekend.”
On the surface, these couples don’t appear to have much in common. But talking to them, it becomes clear that both are touchingly in love, an observation that underscores just how normal it is for two people who are completely into each other to fall off the sexual cliff. When I ask Rebecca what she loves most about Giles, she giggles like the 16-year-old who fell in love with him in the first place. “He’s a fantastic dad, with a genuinely good heart,” she says. “Loving him is like breathing.” And when I finally get to talk to Giles, it’s much of the same: “She’s funny. She makes me smile. She’s interesting, driven, organized, self-disciplined — all the things I’m not.” He laughs again. “She fills a lot of gaps.”
Ricardo and Apollonia are equally smitten. They’re playful and sweet, speaking about their relationship as if it’s a sacred, special thing. Ricardo speaks time and again about wanting to help Apollonia with her confidence, to make her see herself as he does. Interestingly, neither agrees with the idea that marriage itself leads to dull sex; instead, they talk about the security and commitment it gave them, which made them feel more free.
All of this raises a question, though: As long as couples are in loving relationships, does it even matter how lively their bedrooms are? While some wring their hands over decreasing sexual frequency, “sex recessions’” and “passion decay,” Chrisanna Northrup, co-author of the relationship book The Normal Bar, talks about the less sensational “relationship blahs,” or the feelings of “meh” ordinariness and routine that befall most couples who have been together for longer than a year or so. These “blahs” are almost universally unavoidable in long-term relationships, so as long as a couple accepts them as normal, the answer to the question of lively bedrooms really comes down to what a couple believes is important in their relationship.
And for most, weirdly, it seems not to be sex. Northrup’s book, derived from a global sex survey of 100,000 people, found that the happiest couples rated communication as the most important factor in a relationship, followed by friendship and then affection, which refers to G-rated touch like hugging, kissing and cuddling. In fourth place, sex didn’t even get onto the podium (though that’ll vary from couple to couple and person to person).
But if the death of your sex life is bothering you, there are plenty of things you can do. Northrup recommends sleeping nude together and kissing for affection rather than just during sex, for example. Perel takes a more psychological approach. She talks about the need to leave behind the notion of the “good citizen” (“The erotic is not politically correct,” she says), of giving each other sexual privacy and understanding that passion waxes and wanes. She suggests looking inwards, and instead of focusing on your partner and what they’re doing right or wrong, finish the sentence “I turn myself on/off when…” More than anything, she extols the benefits of adventure, curiosity and novelty; all concepts that Apollonia and Ricardo have grasped so enthusiastically.
Although, caution must be exercised if one decides to go down this route of reinvigoration. Rebecca tells me that after a night with girlfriends who were all discussing their wilder sex lives, she decided to do something about her own. She Googled tantric sex and laid on a night of candle-lit seduction for Giles — deep breathing, meditation, massage, eye-gazing, full nudity, the works. The sex was mind-blowing… and now she’s pregnant again.
This time with twins.