Talking about sex, especially to a stranger, is not something that comes naturally to a lot of people. It can bring up feelings of embarrassment, shame, or inadequacy—all of which is why even couples who seek out a sex therapist can skirt around the issue. This leads to a lot of misconceptions about intimacy, from thinking that having less sex means your partner is cheating to believing that sex toys are only for couples with major issues. That's why we spoke to sex therapists to learn the biggest secrets they wish couples knew. Read on for expert advice that might change your whole outlook in the bedroom.
A change in frequency is normal… and chemical!
For many couples, one of the most worrisome signs in the bedroom is when they stop having as much sex. But if you've been together for a long time, this might not be quite the red flag you think it is.
"Understanding that desire changes, ebbs, and flows throughout life is normal," says Gigi Engle, ACS, resident intimacy expert at 3Fun and author of All The F*cking Mistakes: A Guide to Sex, Love, and Life. "We need to work with it, not have unrealistic expectations."
According to Engle, there is something called New Relationship Energy (NRE), which is that intoxicating feeling of lust when we first meet someone new. "We are majorly all over each other because our brains are awash in feel-good hormones like oxytocin and dopamine," she says. "That's why we feel so sexually aroused and horny all the time in new relationships—we don't need as much of all the other situational factors."
However, once we settle into a more comfortable and familiar pattern, "the love hormone or cuddle chemical oxytocin" decreases, according to Tatyana Dyachenko, sexual and relationship therapist at Peaches&Screams. She advises long-term couples to try something new in the bedroom to spike these chemicals.
Women get bored more often than men do.
Society tends to depict men as more likely to cheat and as having a larger sexual appetite. But according to Tara Suwinyattichaiporn, PhD, sex and relationship expert at Luvbites, "research has found that women get bored of sex with their partner a lot faster than men."
One such study that corroborates this was published in 2017 in the British Medical Journal. It found that women were twice as likely as men to lose interest in sex after a year of being together or while living with their partner.
Likewise, a 2012 study published in the Journal of Sex&Marital Therapy concluded that "women's sexual desire was significantly and negatively predicted by relationship duration," whereas that was not the case for men.
Suwinyattichaiporn says it's important to understand this so partners of women can prioritize "passion, excitement, playfulness, and variety."
Sometimes there is a lack of attraction.
This is a hard truth, but sometimes couples find themselves not having sex because one person has stopped finding the other attractive. "Many long-term couples don't find their partner attractive and lose sexual interest in them," says Suwinyattichaiporn.
That doesn't just mean physical attraction. If you've grown grumpy or no longer enjoy discussing the topics you used to, these could also hinder your partner's desire. "The advice is rather simple, take care of yourself physically, mentally, and intellectually," says Suwinyattichaiporn.
It's also important to note that women may find their partner less attractive during certain times of their menstrual cycle, according to a 2020 study published in Biological Psychology.
"Women's hormone levels change across their ovulatory cycles, and these changes are likely to affect their psychology and, perhaps, the way they feel toward their romantic partner," study author Francesca Righetti, an associate professor at the Department of Experimental and Applied Psychology at the VU Amsterdam, told PsyPost. "We found that the hormone that peaks just prior to ovulation, estradiol, was associated with more negative partner evaluation."
Sex is more than penetration and/or an orgasm.
There are so many ways to be intimate with your partner, many of which don't include penetration and don't have to end in an orgasm.
"Anytime we hug, kiss, rub, squeeze, and nuzzle into a romantic partner, there is an intimate charge," explains Engle. "This doesn't involve the touching of genitals but is intimately based in that it allows us to meet the needs of sex like feeling desired, expressing desire, and connecting in a way unique to us as sexual partners."
Realizing and appreciating this can take a lot of the pressure off couples who are struggling in the bedroom. "When we feel like every hug, kiss, and nuzzle is going to need to be followed up with sex, we start to avoid it. Allowing it to take root back in your relationship can be the balm that heals it," Engle adds.
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Sex toys don't mean there's a problem.
Sex therapists find that oftentimes their clients equate sex toys with a problem in their sexual intimacy. But that is not the case.
"Even couples who have great sex integrate sex toys into their sexual routine for new stimulations and deeper orgasms," explains Dyachenko.
According to Engle, staying curious and trying new things is, in fact, one of the best ways to recreate some of that NRE energy. "Rekindled relationship energy is important because it encourages the new couple to spend time together and get to know each other," she says. "It is the time where trust is built and the foundations of the relationships are established."
Infidelity can strengthen a relationship.
Cheating is usually considered the most unforgivable offense in a relationship, but according to Lee Phillips, LCSW, a psychotherapist and certified sex and couples therapist, with the correct guidance, infidelity can actually strengthen a partnership.
"People usually do not wake up, and say, 'I am going to cheat on my partner today.' Usually, there is an emotional disconnection that has led to resentment causing this ultimate betrayal," explains Phillips. "Couples can learn to identify why the infidelity occurred and heal from it by identifying a 'new normal' of their relationship … This is something that could have been missing for years."
To work through an issue as complex as infidelity, it's advisable to see a couple's counselor.
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Communication is key.
It might sound obvious, but sex therapists find that so many of their clients lose sight of how important it is to communicate about sex.
"There is this idea that when a couple has sex, they just do it. However, sex is about pleasure, and it is important to talk about what sex and pleasure mean to the both of you," advises Phillips. She notes that in many cases, couples will discuss sex at the beginning of a relationship but not as time goes on. And, as we know, sexual desires and libidos change over time.
Nicole Schafer, LPC, a sex and relationship coach, adds that communication can itself be sexy. "Learn to take things slowly and draw it out. Take your time, focusing on the details of each other while communicating with your partner about what you like and don't like, or what they love or wish you would do," she suggests. "The build-up and attention to detail will make your time together phenomenal."
Setting boundaries can help.
It's important to remember that both you and your partner should never have to feel uncomfortable with sex.
"Boundaries can be healthy, and they are a way of showing respect to your partner," says Phillips. "Here are some examples of boundaries: I know that you are feeling sexual, but I am just not in the mood, can we try this weekend? I am not a mind reader; can you please tell me what you are thinking? I am still thinking about what you said the other night, I need more time to think about it."
Being open will help you both relax and be more receptive to intimacy.