Old and Improved: Long-Term Sex and the Myth of the Slow Decline

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

When you’ve been involved with someone for many years, does having sex with them become a chore? A duty? Like cleaning the toilet?

Via Pharyngula, we have a charming piece of marital advice from Christian marriage advisor Mark Gungor. The gist: Couples who have been married a long time shouldn’t expect sex to be as exciting and passionate and emotional as it was in the early days. They should expect it to become safe and comfortable and unexciting. But they should go ahead and have sex anyway — because it’ll feel reasonably good even though it won’t be as great as it used to be, because it’ll be good for the marriage, and because it’s one of your basic marital duties. The money quote:

As I said, sometimes sex is just sex; it’s what you do when you are married. Just like cleaning the toilet is what you do to keep your house clean… and I bet you don’t have this great desire or huge emotional connection to scrubbing the porcelain! [Bold in original – GC] You do it because it needs to be done and that’s the way it is with married sex… it does need to be done! It’s the glue that God gave us to bond us to one another. The bible is very clear that it is your responsibility as a spouse.

There are so many different directions I could go in on this one, I don’t even know where to begin. (Although screaming and tearing my hair out would be a good start.) I could talk about how Gungor utterly fails to talk about how long-married couples could make their sex lives more exciting… and instead, encourages them to settle for what amounts to a lifetime of mutual mercy-fucks. I could talk about the profoundly screwed-up gender assumptions in this piece — the assertion that “Women, more often than men, get hung up on this one and think they have to have all these warm and fuzzy emotions to feel like they can get physical with their husbands” [again, bold in original – GC], and the notion of “chick flicks being a huge culprit” in creating unrealistic expectations of marital sex. (As if there’s something patently stupid about expecting warm emotions during sex with your spouse — and as if men never have unrealistic expectations about sex.) I could talk about this pattern of hard-core Christian marriage advisors giving advice that’s almost right, advice that with a little tweaking could be halfway decent… but that, because of their profoundly messed-up assumptions about gender and relationships and religion and whatnot, goes completely, hideously, would- be- laughable- if- it- weren’t- so- desperately- sad wrong. (A place I’ve gone in the past, and thus don’t feel a compelling need to re-visit.) I could talk about how yes, you don’t always need to be in the mood for sex when you start, as long as you’re willing to get into the mood as things get going — and how this still doesn’t translate as sex being a chore or a duty. I could even beg Gungor, for the sweet sake of fuck, if he’s going to compare sex to a household chore, could he please make it vacuuming or laundry or something less disgusting than cleaning the toilet?

But today, I want to go someplace else.

I want to talk about the assumption Gungor makes without even thinking, the assumption that forms the foundation for everything else he writes in this piece… an assumption that’s very, very common, not just among Bible-thumping marriage advisors, but in the culture at large.

Years calendar
It’s the assumption that, when you’ve been in a relationship for a long time, the sex just naturally becomes less exciting. It’s the assumption that of course sex is passionate and intense and highly charged in the early days of a relationship… and that, of course, as the years wear on, sex is going to become less exciting and passionate, and more routine and predictable. There’s no use fighting it. That’s just the way it is.

I’ve been in a long-term relationship for over twelve years. And it’s true, I have to acknowledge; the sex is not what it was in the early days.

It’s better.

Way, way better.

By several orders of magnitude.

Now, I realize that my marriage with Ingrid is a sampling size of one, and therefore is not statistically significant. (If you’re in a long-term relationship and are still having amazing sex — please speak up in the comments!) But at the risk of sounding like what Bridget Jones called “smug marrieds” … the sex is so much better now, so much more passionate and intense and highly charged, I can’t even tell you. (Although I’m certainly going to try.)

For one thing: There is nothing in the world like having sex with someone who you’ve had sex with hundreds of times before… and who therefore really, really knows you. Someone who knows exactly how you like your clit to be touched, who knows exactly how hard you like your nipples pinched, who knows the exact circular motion that you like your prostate to be massaged. Verbal communication is a wonderful thing in a sexual relationship, not to be underestimated for a second… but some things, like “Just ten millimeters to the left and with a slightly slower figure-eight motion, alternating with a light, fast flicking”… some things are hard to say in words. There really is something to be said for physical trial and error. And there is most emphatically something to be said for the exquisite fine-tuning that results from physical trial and error taking place over years and years and years.

And there’s an ease and fluidity that comes with familiarity as well: a letting go that makes sex completely explosive. I can be a very self-conscious person, constantly parsing my actions and reactions and fretting over what other people will think of them. (Sexually and otherwise.) Which, not surprisingly, makes it hard to let go and lose myself in sensation and pleasure. Having sex with the same person, over years and years, has helped me relax enough to be present in the moment; to get the hell out of my head; to stay in my body and feel what I feel; to trust that I won’t be seen as greedy or selfish when I want to come one more time. (And one more. And one more. And, okay, just one more. Okay, maybe another one.)

But amazing long-term sex isn’t just about familiarity. It’s also about having a strong, safe foundation for experimentation.

With a handful of exceptions, I have never felt as comfortable asking to try freaky things with new partners as I am with my wife. Years of hard work put into our relationship — years of going through horrible shit and coming through stronger on the other side — have built a foundation of trust, a deep confidence that this person is really, really not going anywhere. So when I want something totally fucking freaky — or even not so freaky, maybe just goofy or silly or embarrassing — I feel safe asking for it. She may not say yes… but I feel confident that she’ll seriously consider it, and not laugh at it, or denigrate it, or break up with me for suggesting it.

Gungor, and others in our culture, make the assumption that, when it comes to sex, “safe” somehow equals “boring.” In my experience, it’s anything but. “Safe” equals “trusting.” And trust is the core, not only of kink, but of a whole host of wild, intense, exciting sexual explorations.

I have nothing at all against the early stages of a sexual relationship. The early stages of a sexual relationship are lovely. They have a sweetness, a newness, a sense of adventure, a feeling of being alive and awake, that are unique. And the early stages of a sexual relationship often make it easier to discover new things about your sexuality: sexual territories that you had no idea existed until this new person showed up to show them to you. (When Ingrid and I were first starting out, I was like, “Vanilla sex! Oh, my God! I’d completely forgotten about vanilla sex! Sexual pleasure without pain or power games? What a concept! What a delightful change of pace! Vanilla sex can be totally awesome!” It was an area of my sexuality I’d been ignoring for years… and was tickled pink to re-discover.) You can do that sort of discovery in a long-term relationship too, of course… but it takes more conscious effort. In a new sexual relationship, it’s more likely to just happen automatically.

But the early stages of a sexual relationship can also be fraught: with anxiety, with awkwardness, with misunderstanding, with self-consciousness, with doubt. The early stages of my relationship with Ingrid were a delight: they made me feel boisterously, gigglingly happy just to be alive and walking down the street, and I wouldn’t trade the memory of them for anything. But I also wouldn’t go back to that time for anything in the world, either.

A years-long relationship takes work. Really hard work sometimes. It takes patience, courage, introspection, the willingness to have difficult conversations, the willingness to go to parties you don’t feel like going to, the willingness to change. But it’s work that pays off. Not just in security and comfort… but in passionate, intensely emotional, highly charged, mind-blowing sex that feels new every single time.

Old and Improved: Long-Term Sex and the Myth of the Slow Decline
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16 thoughts on “Old and Improved: Long-Term Sex and the Myth of the Slow Decline

  1. 1

    Well said.
    I don’t know where people get the idea that having sex with the same person gets boring – the only thing I can figure is that they’re doing it wrong. I’ve talked to my Christian friends – specifically, a woman who “saved herself for marriage”… and got married way too young for the most definitely wrong reason. Which is how she, after eight years of marriage, is absolutely bored with sex – with her husband, with the concept… In fact, she’d likely rather be scrubbing the toilet than doing her womanly chore in the bedroom. Of course she’s bored with it – it’s the same, exact thing every day. From what she’s told me, she’s yet to have had an orgasm. But, naturally, since they’re huge on the Church thing… welp, they’re stuck with it. I can’t imagine that her husband is having a great time of it, either.
    I’ve been in my relationship for six years, and did a great lot of slutting it up prior. And y’know what? Having a man who knows exactly what I want, who I can trust to try new things… Better than all the novelty in the universe. Definitely not boring.

  2. Jon

    Terrific column. If one !*must*! compare sex to a household chore, why not preparing dinner??? Methinks the fellow’s analogy of scrubbing toilets is a Freudian slip of alarming proportions.

  3. 4

    Articles like this are why I love Greta so much – she continually blows my mind with the simple clarity of just plain common sense…
    -David Fitzgerald
    San Francisco Atheists

  4. Jen

    “Women, more often than men, get hung up on this one and think they have to have all these warm and fuzzy emotions to feel like they can get physical with their husbands”
    Not everyone is turned on by physical sex, just like not everyone is turned on by naked men. That’s one specific sexuality and it’s unfair to expect it of everyone.

  5. 6

    @ Jen:
    it may be unfair to expect it of everyone. It’s not at all unfair to expect in a marriage, or in a long term relationship, unless both parties agree otherwise.

  6. 7

    Wonderful post. As a woman who’s been with the same partner monogamously for 19 years, I’d add that yes, we are in a most wonderful sexual space today – better than ever, more open to experimentation, and just having way more fun. Today’s joy was preceded by many years in the wilderness. Rediscovering our sexual selves together was often excruciating, fraught with pain and failure and accusation and fear. But it was worth the hardship and risk.
    Anyway, I want to reaffirm that excellent sex is far from automatic – a point Greta made beautifully – and that the arc of our libidos and connections can be highly discontinuous. The secular blessing of wonderful sex in marriage isn’t automatic. It’s often hard. But it’s a tragedy when anyone gives up on it (barring, of course, other serious issues in the relationship).

  7. 8

    >(If you’re in a long-term >relationship and are still having ?>amazing sex — please speak up in >the comments!)
    This sounds like a selection bias.

  8. Jen

    I disagree. The sentence I quoted was about people being turned on by “warm and fuzzy” emotions during physical sex–and, as a result, having the kinds of sex their partner liked and (at least when their preferred conditions were present) enjoying it. This is what I assert, and stand by:
    a) the kind of sexuality described in that quote is very compatible with physical-contact sexualities.
    b) marriage and long-term relationships are great environments for the warm-and-fuzzy emotion fetishist (and oh yes, there is such a thing).
    c) physical sexualities shouldn’t be treated as the default, and being turned on specifically by the physical component of physical sex is not a fair expectation. There are all kinds of other forms of non-physical sexuality.
    I’m curious as to what Greta Christina thinks about this. I mean this with no sarcasm–if I’m asking too much from a relationship, I’d love to hear it from the expert. 🙂

  9. 10

    At 66, and after 42 years with the same lady, sex is still excellent.
    Someone once said, “sex with a different person each time is always the same, while sex with the same person is always different.”
    Not exactly. Its not always completely different, rather by degree. But sex with the same person is much more relaxed, fun, and exciting.

  10. 11

    Jen, I’m going to say this as nicely as I can:
    Sex — physical sex — is an important part of life for almost everyone. It’s a fundamental animal drive, like the hunger for food. And it is a major component in most long-term relationships.
    If that’s not true for you, that’s fine — as long as it’s also fine for your partner or partners. If it’s not fine with them… then I’m afraid I have to disagree with you. The expectation that physical sex will be part of a long-term romantic relationship is not, in my opinion, unreasonable. It’s a major part of what the overwhelming majority of people want from those relationships.
    You’re obviously not obligated to provide it. None of us is ever obligated to have sex that we don’t want to have. But I do think you need to accept that your preference is very much a non-standard one. And like anyone with very non-standard sexual preferences, I think you have an obligation to spell it out early in any relationship, and to accept that it’s going to be a deal-breaker for an awful lot of people. For many years now, I’ve spelled out my preferences for both kink and non-monogamy very early in my relationships — for this exact same reason. I have the right to my desires and preferences, of course — but I don’t have the right to expect that any particular partner will participate in them with me.
    And now, maybe more to the point:
    I am a sex writer. I write about sex. Physical sex, mostly. The Blowfish Blog, for which I originally wrote this piece, is a sex blog. I find sex interesting, and I like to write about it. And sex is a part of life about which there is a great deal of fear, ignorance, and misinformation. and I therefore think it’s valuable (as well as personally interesting) to write about it in a way that dispels these things.
    If you’re not interested in physical sex and its complications/ implications/ ramifications/ expressions in culture/ etc., don’t read my writing. Or rather: Read my writing about atheism, politics, food, science, weight management, cute cats. Don’t read my sex writing. But please don’t complain that my sex writing is too focused on sex.
    I’m sorry if that is coming out harshly. But one of my pet peeves as a writer is the complaint that “You wrote about A, and A doesn’t apply to me or interest me — why didn’t you write about B?” If you want to read about B — i.e., romantic relationships without physical sex — read someone else. I am under no obligation to write about your particular areas of interest.

  11. Jen

    Whoops. Sounds like I overstepped my bounds. I really do enjoy your sex writing, I didn’t intend “I’m curious…” to come across as undue pressure, and I am definitely not complaining about this article. My first post was a complaint (not really directed at you) about the Mark Gungor article you were responding to in this post. Specifically, a quote about people who were enjoying physical sex but only when specific emotions were involved. I have no issues with you or anyone else not wanting to write about that kind of sex. The article that quote is from brought up the subject on its own and then trivialized it. I’ve never seen you do that–in fact, I read this blog because you make such an effort not to put down anyone’s preferences. Sorry to have bothered you, and I hope you don’t mind if I keep reading your sex writing.

  12. Ed

    I agree that one can have wonderful sex in a long term relationship. My wife and I have been married 28 years, and now and then it feels like it’s the best, most intense it’s ever been. I’m in my late 50’s and don’t have the body I had when I was 20, and my wife has her age related changes, but making love to the person you love will always be wonderful.
    I think the advice that sex is a duty that a spouse has just saps the act of all its joy. Of course it will not be pleasurable if you are doing it because you have to. I suspect the writer of that advice is in that situation himself, and assumes everyone else is.
    Age is more of a factor than length of relationship. Changes happen to one’s body, and both women and men can experience a decline in the level of desire. It’s not boredom, it’s hormones and other natural changes. But, less frequent desire does not mean absence of desire, and the advice I would give is to simply be patient and affectionate, and sex will continue to be a wonderful part of even the longest relationships.

  13. BJ

    Whatever your type of wonderful sex is, for me it’s all about trust. If you’re with the one/s you can completely relax and engage with, the sex will be fantastic. Because you can turn off the judging, analytical part of your brain and let yourself be…
    If you buy the ‘age means less’ argument (less beauty, less physical ability, less desirability, less point in existing) then you’ll also buy the ‘age means less ability to enjoy [therefore less POINT in having sex]’ argument. I totally reject that. Just because we change physically? I had an amazing body at 21, but all the self-esteem of a doormat. *I* didn’t value me; so I couldn’t understand how anyone else would. So for me, sex was very problematic – having to expose myself to another [perceived] judge and leaving myself open to criticism was more than enough to ruin most of the warmth and desire.
    Now I’m older, scarred, blobbier and I LOVE my body and what it can do, and what it’s done. Damned if I’m going to write myself off because ads only use slim tanned underdressed chicks who smile at the camera like they want to lick it!

  14. 16

    I’ve been with my first husband for over 16 years and the sex just keeps getting better and better.
    The same goes for my other husband and my girlfriend too.

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