In my recent book, Shadow Light: Illuminations at the Edge of Darkness, I dedicated an entire chapter to sexual Shadow—material we are unaware that affects our sexuality and relationships. Why focus so much on sexuality? Because it is a huge big deal!
I’ve conducted close to sixty thousand therapy sessions in my career, tens of thousands of them couples’ counseling sessions. I cannot remember one couple who reported consistent mutual sexual fulfillment over years of a relationship who couldn’t find their way back to love through any number of marital crises and problems. Most marriage counselors will tell you the same. That being said, why is it that consistent mutual sexual fulfillment seems so rare in long-term relationships? What can we do to establish and maintain such fulfillment?
Let’s face it. Maintaining sexual chemistry in a long-term relationship is difficult. Sexual urgency often fades after romantic infatuation progresses into intimate bonding. When this happens, an alarming number of couples either take this dimension of their relationships for granted or, even worse, give up on it altogether. In a recent study, one in five married people reported having no sex in the last year. Apparently, to some, it requires too much effort to keep sex and romance consistently alive and growing through all of life’s challenges—work, children, aging, defensive states, and other sources of distraction.
The sad truth is that half of marriages end in divorce. Of the couples who stay together, I suspect at least half feel dissatisfied and unfulfilled sexually—and I think this is a conservative estimate. That gives newlyweds at best a 50% chance of staying together and a 25% chance of having a plenty-of-sex long-term marriage. These are miserable statistics that we need to change as a culture. How do we do it?
If you’re in a “plenty-of-sex marriage,” I suggest you go out this week and celebrate being in the top 25% of married couples in the U.S. when it comes to sexual fulfillment. Have a good time and toast each other with the beverages of your choice. Go home and have fun sex!
If you’re not a plenty-of-sex marriage, then I suggest you start prioritizing what I call your “marital love affair.” What is a marital love affair? Well, sometimes it’s as simple as it sounds. It means consciously cocreating and sustaining mutually fulfilling romance and sex with our spouses (as opposed to someone else). This is an intentional act to support intimate passion in marriage, and I’ve found in my own life and with many of the couples I’ve worked with that it’s a great way to stay positively connected and get things back on track when problems arise.
Most marriages begin with spontaneous love affairs. According to John Gottman, 20% of couples start well and keep doing well throughout a lifetime. 45% to 50% of couple start having problems and then adjust back to love (but not necessarily back to a satisfying love affair). Couples who can intentionally maintain their marital love affair do way better.
How do you intentionally maintain your marital love affair? Here are 3 ways:
1.- Understand and accept sexuality throughout the life cycle and cycles of progressive bonding. We are all genetically programmed to lust after others that meet our sexual attraction standards, to fall in love with a lover who feels special to us, and to intimately bond with a lover after six to eighteen months to form what feels like a life partnership. We are also programmed to have sexual interest fade after romantic infatuation passes, to lust after strangers, and cheat on our spouses if given the opportunity. Understanding and accepting these forces rather than denying them makes us wiser and more able to sustain love and passion as relationships mature. Consciously and compassionately discussing distracting attractions and flirtations while also helping each other feel erotically fulfilled and stay faithful helps us negotiate the minefields of our genetic programming.
2.- Create and practice rituals/ceremonies of connection/intimacy/eroticism. I call such rituals, “American Tantra,” because the Eastern traditions of sacred sexuality involve conscious practices, many of which don’t make sense to most Americans. On the other hand, the ideas of date nights, intentional/premeditated sex, focus on affection/romance/sensuality/eroticism with our spouse, and feeling responsible for ourselves and our spouse to stay sexually fulfilled –all similar to many Eastern tantric practices–have resonated with the couples I’ve worked with over the years.
3.- Cultivate “I’ll do what it takes,” commitments to nurture the marital love affair throughout lifecycles.We begin relationships with an “I’ll stay as long as…” commitments, as in, “I’ll stay as long as we love each other,” or “As long as my needs are fulfilled.” If we are successful at taking care of our love for each other, these shift to “I’ll do what it takes.” commitments, where we both resolve to face problems and work through them when issues arise. “I’ll do what it takes,” couples tend to stay together and be more fulfilled. “I’ll do what it takes,” couples are more willing to keep focusing on the marital love affair to keep it satisfying and alive through all the life stages.
I believe all of us in relationships do way better putting our marital love affair near the top of the list in life responsibilities, and keeping it there through the demands and challenges that life brings our way!
How do we do this? We can learn how sex really works. We can create tantric rituals that please and fulfill us and our partners intimately and erotically. We can cultivate “I’ll do what it takes” commitments and encourage our partners to do the same. Mostly, we can regularly talk in a caring and positive fashion with our partners about friendship and sex, consistently nurture both, and seek help if we don’t make satisfactory progress.
I signed on to this program decades ago with my wife Becky, and, like countless couples I’ve had the privilege of helping over the years, I’m glad I did!
Gottman, John. (2015). Principia Amores: the new science of love. New York: Routledge
Rutter, Virginia. (2014). Love and Lust. Psychology Today, July/August, 2010.
Saxby, Darby. (2009). 10 ways to perk up a relationship. Psychology Today. November/December, 2009.
Sessions, Laura. (2007). Older couples may need pillow talk, not pills. L.A. Times, Dec. 17, 2007.
Witt, Keith. (2014). Integral Mindfulness. Integral Publishers, Tucson, Az.
Witt, Keith. (2016). Shadow Light: Illuminations at the Edge of Darkness. Integral Publishers, Tucson, Az.
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