Their difficulty was that this was a party where she didn’t love what there was available to eat, the music was not her favorite music, and she wasn’t totally sure she felt great about her relationships with people who were at the party. And this happens all the time: nice people who love each other come to dread sex.
These couples, if they seek sex therapy, the therapist might have them stand up and put as much distance between their bodies as they need in order to feel comfortable, and the less interested partner will make 20 feet of space.
And the really difficult part is that space is not empty. It is crowded with weeks or months or more of the, “You’re not listening to me,” and “I don’t know what’s wrong with me but your criticism isn’t helping,” and, “If you loved me, you would,” and, “You’re not there for me.”
Years, maybe, of all these difficult feelings. In the book, I use this really silly metaphor of difficult feelings as sleepy hedgehogs that you are fostering until you can find a way to set them free by turning toward them with kindness and compassion. And the couples who struggle to maintain a strong sexual connection, the distance between them is crowded with these sleepy hedgehogs.
And it happens in any relationship that lasts long enough. You, too, are fostering a prickle of sleepy hedgehogs between you and your certain special someone. The difference between couples who sustain a strong sexual connection and the ones who don’t is not that they don’t experience these difficult hurt feelings, it’s that they turn towards those difficult feelings with kindness and compassion so that they can set them free and find their way back to each other.
So my friends in the bar are faced with the question under the question, not, “How do we sustain a strong connection?” but, “How do we find our way back to it?”
And, yes, there is science to answer this question, but in 25 years as a sex educator, one thing I have learned is sometimes, Emily, less science, more hedgehogs. So I told them about me.
I spent many months writing a book about the science of women’s sexual well-being. I was thinking about sex all day, every day, and I was so stressed by the project that I had zero — zero! — interest in actually having any sex.
And then I spent months traveling all over, talking with anyone who would listen about the science of women’s sexual well-being. And by the time I got home, you know, I’d show up for the party, put my body in the bed, let my skin touch my partner’s skin, and I was so exhausted and overwhelmed I would just cry and fall asleep.
But he was still there for me. No matter how many difficult feelings there were, he turned toward them with kindness and compassion. He never turned away.
And what was the second characteristic of couples who sustain a strong sexual connection? They prioritize sex. They decide that it matters for their relationship, that they do what it takes to find their way back to the connection.
I told my friends what sex therapist and researcher Peggy Kleinplatz says. She asks: What kind of sex is worth wanting? My partner and I looked at the quality of our connection and what it brought to our lives, and we looked at the family of sleepy hedgehogs I had introduced into our home.
And we decided it was worth it. We decided — we chose — to do what it took to find our way, turning towards each of those sleepy hedgehogs, those difficult hurt feelings, with kindness and compassion and setting them free so that we could find our way back to the connection that mattered for our relationship.
This is not the story we are usually told about how sexual desire works in long-term relationships. But I can think of nothing more romantic, nothing sexier, than being chosen as a priority because that connection matters enough, even after I introduced all of these difficult feelings into our relationship.
How do you sustain a strong sexual connection over the long term? You look into the eyes of your best friend, and you keep choosing to find your way back.
Resources for Further Reading: