If there’s one sex question nearly every person in a relationship has asked themselves at some point it’s this: How do I get my sex drive back? This is probably the number one reason couples contact me for sex therapy. As a sex therapist, neuroscientist, and relationship expert, I find one of the most common concerns I see in my practice is how to deal with the inevitable changes and challenges that come along with having sex in the context of a long-term relationship—and how to get back into that hot honeymoon period.
The Inevitable Rise and Fall of Honeymoon Lust
Libido plays a huge role in relationships—whether they’re with a partner or with your vibrator, and whether they last for a night or a lifetime. In a longterm relationship, it’s only natural to expect that sexual desire will change throughout its course. There’s the sweet, sweet honeymoon period, which commonly involves tons of mad, passionate lovemaking fueled by an explosion of brain chemicals—including dopamine, the neurotransmitter underlying the buzz of sex, drugs, and pretty much anything else that gets us high—that supercharge lust. This is the physiological reason we experience a wildly ramped-up sex drive, crave contact with our lovers, and are otherwise hijacked by this New Relationship Energy/Euphoria (NRE).
The NRE buzz can be so potent (and the decision-making influenced by it so impulsive) that I highly recommend that people do not operate heavy machinery while under the influence. NRE generally lasts anywhere from 18 to 36 months—a period which serves as a biological highlighter, powerfully focusing our attention on that new relationship long enough for us to start bonding with that partner. NRE isn’t the same thing as love per se, though it’s easy to think it is. A more accurate description is lust, fueled by novelty and the unpredictability of new chemistry.
So, what happens to that NRE?
NRE settles down as the newness of the relationship wears off, and as it does, we tend to forget about our original baseline desire—the typical levels of lust we experienced before the start of a new relationship. Whether you start off with a relatively high or a relatively low level of sexual desire at baseline, NRE is going to drive up your sexual energy. During all the active horniness felt at the peak of the honeymoon period, we tend to forget what our baseline desire really is—this is what fuels our feeling the post-NRE crash so acutely.
Once we start returning to that level as the relationship progresses, we feel loss. Partners who enjoyed being pursued for sex feel abandoned. We feel like there is something wrong with us, like the relationship is fading, or like whatever thing inside of us made us feel like Beyoncé when the relationship was new has suddenly stopped working.
It’s natural for sexual desire to fluctuate over the course of a relationship—especially when you have kids. But fortunately, this is one of the easier sexual issues to tackle—once you understand what I refer to in my book, Why Good Sex Matters as the desire curve.
How to Get Your Sex Drive Back
There are two types of sexual desire: active desire (when we feel horny), and responsive desire (when we are turned on by an external factor). The desire curve is the natural path your sexual desire takes, from the lower point at baseline to the big juicy peak of NRE, followed by the inevitable and slippery slide down into post-NRE.
Start by sorting out where you are on the desire curve. (Here’s a quiz to help you get your bearings.) Enjoy the peaks and try not to sweat the valleys too much—but for the latter, here are some tools to help you get your sex drive back.
1. Identify your love style.
Your libido type includes what turns you on and how you like to have sex. A big part of sexual chemistry is learning how your libido type matches with your partner’s. A big issue that can squash sex post-NRE is when partners’ libidos, lacking the ramped-up sex drive of the honeymoon period, no longer mesh well. Someone who needs soulful connection to access their sexual energy, for example, might have trouble with a rough-and-tumble lover who’s generally more interested in athletic sex than in eye-gazing.
Don’t panic if you feel like you and your partner aren’t on the same wavelength. Mismatched libidos can provide an opportunity to explore and expand your own erotic repertoire. Soulful lovers can learn to enjoy sporting sex, and rough-and-tumble lovers can find the fun in more touchy-feely forms of connection. Use the bedroom as a playground to get inventive with your sexual styles.
2. Learn to stoke your responsive desire.
NRE is filled with active sexual desire—it’s why you want it all day every day in those early days of a new relationship. But when NRE wanes, so does active desire—suddenly having sex in the shower before work seems like more of a hassle than like a hot way to start the day.
This doesn’t mean desire has left the relationship forever. We can learn to kindle our responsive desire into that active lust by jump-starting the engine of arousal. Remember what came naturally during courtship? Flirting! Dressing up! Trying new things! Having lots of orgasms! I tell clients to be the lover you want to have—show intense interest in your partner, and don’t be afraid to take matters in your own hands and get the juices flowing through masturbation.
3. Take risks to ask for what you want in the bedroom.
This is the way to keep your sex life alive. Stop relying on your habitual sexual relationship and start relating in present time. If you typically only have sex on the weekends, plan a date night for a Wednesday. Physically breaking your routine can help you cultivate the courage to get bolder in conversations in and out of the bedroom. And if you’re struggling to come up with ideas, ask your partner what he or she really, really wants. That's taking a risk too.
4. Address any lingering resentments that might be dampening your desire for your partner.
There’s nothing as dulling to a sex life than long-standing, low-boiling upsets or frustrations. (Which exist in pretty much every long term relationship.)
Do what effective couples do: Have regular and productive active listening sessions (the #1 tool I teach couples) so you can get mad and get over it.
5. Learn to turn yourself on.
People who cultivate lifelong sexual potential are those who are erotically engaged in living. They pursue their passions for learning and experience as human beings. When we cultivate ourselves as separate individuals, we can be both part of and apart from our relationships in ways that enliven our sex drive. Go out and fall in love with life and bring that home to your partner.
Nan Wise, Ph.D., is an AASECT-certified sex therapist, neuroscientist, certified relationship expert, and author of Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-Filled Life. Follow her @AskDoctorNan.
Originally Appeared on Glamour