These are astonishing times for sex. With the click of a mouse, you can check your technique, look for new positions or even find a partner.
But with sex getting all this attention, are people feeling any more satisfied in bed?
I doubt it. Couples in long-term committed relationships have as much trouble as ever keeping desire alive.
Some people know intuitively how to stay erotically connected once the overwhelming desire they felt in the first few years starts to wane. But many don’t, which is unfortunate since it’s not that hard once you know how.
Over the past 30 years as a sex therapist, I’ve treated more than 1,500 individuals and couples. What’s that been like? Well, chiefly it’s meant hearing about lots of bad sex.
It’s all about feelings. Sexual arousal is a particular state of mind and follows its own set of rules
I think by now I may be one of the world’s foremost experts on bad sex. That may sound like a dubious honour, but, in fact, it’s been really useful.
Hearing about so many kinds of bad sex has left me with a deeper understanding about what makes for good sex — and even great sex.
There are lots of books these days about technique, but my new book, Love Worth Making, How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex In A Long-Lasting Relationship, goes in a completely different direction.
It’s all about feelings. Sexual arousal is a particular state of mind and follows its own set of rules.
Once you learn how arousal really works, that can pay off big-time in a committed relationship.
Interested? Good. Let’s get started.
It’s what a woman sees in that mirror that matters
A midlife woman comes to see me about some problems with her husband. She mentions that in the early years of their marriage the sex they shared was particularly good.
‘What was so good about it?’ I ask, naturally curious.
She answers without a moment’s hesitation. ‘I felt pretty,’ she says. ‘And I felt sexy.’
Things have changed a little since this woman was a newlywed. It’s now recognised that there’s much more to a woman’s sexual pleasure than simply being the object of desire.
But many women in my practice still tell me that feeling desired is more important than orgasm. They still enjoy fantasies of being sexually irresistible.
The reality is that most women don’t just like to feel desired: they need it. It’s like oxygen.
Most women tell me they rather enjoy being chased, by someone who’s worthy of her.
The problem in most marriages is that when a man starts to feel his wife is a sure thing, he stops chasing her.
Sexual selfishness tends to be more erotic than sexual generosity and being a generous lover isn’t a bad thing
When that happens, their erotic relationship loses something essential.
Sex books typically advise women to manipulate the situation — by introducing elements of risk or uncertainty, or by making themselves less reliably available.
I don’t like that approach. Most men don’t enjoy having their feelings manipulated, and most women don’t appreciate having one more job to do.
I find it’s better to put the responsibility on the man, and to educate him about his partner’s need to be pursued.
Then it’s his job to decide how to use this information and to face the consequences of his decisions. If he doesn’t act accordingly, then I have no sympathy for him.
Don’t snuggle up in front of the TV
Too much cuddling can neuter your relationship. Sorry, I know you don’t want to hear it, but it’s true.
Couples who spend their evenings curled up together in front of the TV are quietly depleting whatever erotic charge might remain between them.
I’d rather couples not touch each other too much, unless there’s some erotic energy to be passed around.
A better alternative to cuddling is what we sex therapists call ‘simmering’ — getting aroused together on a regular basis, just for a moment or two, even when you don’t have the time or inclination to go all the way.
That generally means no orgasms, no rhythmic stroking, no heavy breathing. Nothing that’s going to leave you too frustrated after you have to stop.
Couples who are overworked and distracted (i.e. most of us) often neglect to get aroused in each other’s company unless they intend to have sex. That’s a mistake.
Most couples need to get aroused together much more frequently than that. Simmering is probably the most important technique in the whole sex therapy tool-kit.
The happiest erotic couples simmer all the time.
The deep secret to most sexually happy couples’ erotic connection is that it’s the simmering, rather than the sex, that keeps them erotically attuned to each other.
Here’s an example of what simmering looks like: A man is about to leave the house to go to work.
Kissing his wife goodbye, he buries his face in her hair to inhale her scent. His arms circle her waist to pull her closer.
Her body moulds to his, and they breathe together for a moment, both feeling excited. Then he looks at his watch and hurries off.
With any luck, the experience leaves them both feeling slightly buzzed, in that goofy way that good arousal can make you feel.
Also a bit frustrated, maybe. But that bit of frustration can be erotic in its own right. Properly managed, it can pay off big-time in good lovemaking later on.
So instead of sending your partner off to work with a peck on the lips, try holding them close for a bit longer than usual. There’s a moment there that won’t come again. Yes, I know you’re anxious about the day ahead, but this is important, too.
Yes, you should be selfish in bed
A man comes to see me for advice on how to please his wife in bed. He says her needs are very particular.
For instance, the two of them will be involved in some kind of foreplay, and she’ll interrupt him with criticisms like: ‘Stop, don’t — that’s too much,’ or ‘No, not like that.’
The poor man tries his best to please her, or at least not to upset her. But the harder he tries, the more frustrated she gets. He’s at his wits’ end.
Fortunately, I know this story well, having heard it so many times over the years from so many men.
When I first started as a sex therapist, I’d routinely ask to speak with the wife in private. Here’s how the conversation usually went:
Me: ‘Your husband says he doesn’t know how to please you. He says you’re very sensitive.’
Wife: ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, I’m not sensitive at all. I’m just dying inside for him to show me some passion. All he does is fumble around. It drives me crazy.’
You see the problem? He’s focused on trying to satisfy her. But all she really wants is to feel his passion, his confidence, his hunger to devour her in an ecstasy of selfish abandon.
Sexual selfishness tends to be more erotic than sexual generosity. Being a generous lover isn’t a bad thing, of course. But if it’s not accompanied by the right kind of selfishness, it can be a problem.
After all, no hero in a romantic novel ever rips off the heroine’s clothes and says: ‘Tell me how you like to be touched.’
To have good sex with someone you love, it can be best to love them a little less — to become oblivious to their needs and trust them to take care of themselves.
Orgasms aren’t the goal for great sex
We sex therapists aren’t so interested in orgasms. We’re among the few humans on the planet who aren’t.
One of my favourite definitions of a sex therapist is someone who spends most of their professional life urging couples not to make too big a fuss about orgasms.
Why not? Because in really good sex, orgasm is like dessert at the end of a meal. Memorable, perhaps — but not the reason you went out to dinner.
In my experience, the couples who have the best sex don’t set orgasm as a goal. They just enjoy it if it happens.
Two simple steps to better sex in marriage
Many couples’ capacity for channelling erotic energy tends to diminish in midlife.
As a result, being sexual can start to feel awkward.
One of the biggest mistakes I see midlife couples make is to go to bed and try to have sex immediately.
By midlife, most couples need first to spend some time opening up together before engaging in any serious love-making.
Here is my basic two-step recipe to ensure your sex life survives marriage:
STEP ONE: Spend time in bed doing nothing together, naked if you prefer.
If you like, talk about whatever’s on your mind. It doesn’t have to be erotic, but keep it simple.
See if you can give yourselves permission just to be together quietly, doing nothing.
Notice your breathing, the temperature of your skin, the way your body presses against the mattress.
STEP TWO: Now turn to your partner. If you’ve taken the time to tune into your breath and your body, you’ll probably find your senses are more open, and physical intimacy can proceed in a more natural, less forced way.
You’ll probably notice that your own desire rises and falls. That’s natural.
Notice where your erotic attention goes, and follow it there.
You may decide to have intercourse, or not. The main thing is to stay present in the moment, without judgment.
If you can do that all the way through, then you’re well on your way to a better sex life for years to come.
Now you might think I’m crazy to minimise the importance of orgasms — especially when nearly every other sex book is promising you bigger and better ones.
But desire doesn’t like goals. It’s better to focus on turn-ons instead.
Then, if you’re lucky, after you’ve eaten and enjoyed everything on your plate, the dessert trolley appears and you realise: ‘Oh, I forgot! There’s dessert!’
You’ve had that happen a few times, am I right? Pudding just kind of finishes you off.
That’s how an orgasm should be. You can’t survive on just dessert.
A lot of couples try to satisfy each other with orgasms, then wonder why they’re still hungry.
What to do if you lose confidence
It’s commonly assumed men automatically want sex. And, in fact, most men do respond automatically to attractive body parts.
But in a real situation with a partner, a man ordinarily needs more. If most women need to feel desired, most men need to feel welcomed.
There’s a certain smile a woman wears when she’s really pleased — a big, welcoming smile of pleasure that says: ‘Hey, I’m so glad you showed up!’
At the start of a relationship, he sees that smile a lot.
The trouble often begins when he first sees her looking disappointed or unhappy.
Especially if he’s the source of her disappointment or unhappiness. When that happens, his desire can become far less automatic.
He’ll usually just try to adopt as confident a pose as he can and hope his hurt feelings will pass.
But this tends not to work so well. Eventually, out of desperation, a man who feels criticised or unaccepted will usually just withdraw, both emotionally and sexually.
When he withdraws, she feels unwanted and their sex life starts to fall apart.
The best solution, frankly, is just to recognise that the two of you are very different.
Men are ordinarily more sensitive to feeling abandoned, and women are ordinarily more sensitive to feeling shame.
Women tend to be better at handling emotional conflict in relationships.
This is because, typically, they’ve had more practice at it, since their same-sex friendships and family bonds often tend to be more intimate. Men typically haven’t had as much practice at tolerating disappointment and frustration in intimate relationships, so those things tend to frighten them more.
Most men are terribly afraid of disappointing the women they love. It’s important for men to learn that a partner’s frustration or disappointment is not necessarily a catastrophe.
Adapted from Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex In A Long-Lasting Relationship, by Stephen Sunder, M.D.
Ten questions you must ask to keep love alive
By Andrew G. Marshall, Leading Marital Therapist
The middle years of a marriage are the most challenging.
The honeymoon period ended aeons ago and you’re now facing the twin stresses of children and elderly parents.
Throw in the demands of a job and running a house and it is easy for your relationship to be the last item on a long ‘to do’ list. Sure, you love each other, but how connected do you feel?
Unfortunately, if you bring up any concerns, your partner is likely either to brush them away or get defensive. That’s why I use a radically different approach called Appreciative Inquiry.
Used by many businesses to improve their performance, it can revitalise your relationship. Instead of focusing on what doesn’t work (and trying to fix it), the idea is to look at what does — and build on it.
The aim of the Appreciative Inquiry is to be positive and it has four parts: discover, dream, design and deliver
So instead of having a supposedly romantic Valentine’s Day meal where you talk about the kids, jobs, the dog . . . ask each other my ten Appreciative Inquiry questions.
Sound frightening? Don’t worry, the exercise encourages connection and creativity rather than criticism. (If any negative issues do come up, simply write them down to discuss another time.)
The aim here is to be positive — hence the name Appreciative Inquiry.
It has four parts: discover, dream, design and deliver.
Set it up . . .
Hold hands across the table and look into each other’s eyes.
Harvard psychologist Zick Rubin found couples in love spend 75 per cent of their time looking into each other’s eyes, rather than the usual 30-60 per cent. I’d like you to spend at least five minutes doing this.
Keeping eye contact is both intimate and challenging, so if your partner gets emotional squeeze his or her hand. Use the time to think about the qualities you admire in your partner.
When one of you is ready, start to share your thoughts.
One- or two-word qualities work best, for example: courage, strength, compassion, kindness, beautiful eyes — and there is no need to explain. Take your time. It is all right to pause and see what comes to mind, but I would like at least five qualities.
If you’re on the receiving end, please accept the compliment by just saying thank you — — even though you might normally demur or run yourself down. Now, swap over roles.
Once you have finished this warm-up and are in a positive mood, you can start asking and answering my ten questions . . .
1. When we first met, what made you think I was someone special?
Why: It is good to remember what brought you together and your original connection.
Take it further: Remember funny or touching incidents from your courtship. Think about what you did that helped to build the connection.
2. When are we at our best together?
Why: Love is built as much from overcoming obstacles as from sharing good times. What kind of circumstances bring out the best in your relationship?
Take it further: How do your different strengths complement each other and help make your marriage stronger?
3. In your opinion, what was the most romantic day we have spent together?
Why: It is likely that each of you will come up with different days. Rather than assuming your partner’s take on romance is the same as yours, here is a chance to find out what builds the connection for him or her.
Take it further: Go over this day in as much detail as possible so you discover the exact events or actions that made it special.
4. What do you enjoy most about our sex life?
Why: It is embarrassing to talk about sex and that’s why I have put in this question so you don’t conspire together to overlook it.
Take it further: It is really important to keep this conversation positive because sex can make us feel vulnerable. If you find yourself thinking about what you don’t like, flip it over. So, if you don’t like rushed sex, answer: ‘I like it when we take our time’ (even if you can’t remember when that last happened!).
5. What would be the perfect day for you, from waking up to falling asleep?
Why: This question is designed to help you think about some goals for changing your relationship.
Take it further: Don’t censor yourself. It doesn’t matter if the dreams are hard to achieve. It is important, at this stage, to listen to each other and be creative together. Anything is possible — you can think about practical matters later.
6. What ambitions have you still got to achieve?
Why: One of the biggest problems in midlife is feeling bored and trapped. Setting fresh goals can help your life become meaningful and focused again and avoid a midlife crisis.
Take it further: Ask your partner: How can I help with your ambitions? Instead of your beloved feeling alone or held back, you can start to become a team. Remember, you are only asking how to help your partner, not achieve the goal for them.
7. If we had all the time in the world, what would you like us to do more of together?
Why: This question allows you to look further into the future. Contrary to popular belief, the older we are, the happier we are.
The Office for National Statistics collected data from 300,000 people and found life satisfaction improving from 60-plus, and the age group with the most positive ratings were aged 70 to 74.
Take it further: Encourage each other in a flight of fantasy by saying: ‘Yes, and another thing we could do. . .’
8. How can we make our dreams come true?
Why: After discovering what works currently in your relationship and dreaming of how it might be in the future, comes the more practical part.
Take it further: Think about how your skills might help —one of you may be good at research, the other at planning.
9. What obstacles could there be and how can we overcome them?
Why: You know all the problems, like lack of time and money, but the idea is to focus less on those and more on how to carve off enough emotional space and energy for your relationship.
Take it further: If you find yourself slipping into old negative patterns or feeling anxious, hold hands and take a few deep breaths together. It is amazing how this will help you calm down and enjoy being together right here and now.
10. What are the next steps each of us is going to take?
Why: According to the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (601-531 BC): ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’ You are going to commit to the journey ahead by thinking about what each of you can do to start it.
Take it further: Discuss what you’ve enjoyed about this experience and how you can build on it.
Perhaps Appreciative Inquiry could be used for other things in your life. You’ll probably find that, just like at the start of your relationship, the time has evaporated and, if you’re at a restaurant, staff are starting to worry you’re never going to leave.
Endings are just as important as beginnings. So spend some time looking into each other’s eyes again.
You could finish off by taking it turns to list all the things for which you are grateful, from the profound to the silly. For example: good health, time together, chocolate and long walks.
Say thank you and hug long enough for you both to relax and melt into each other.
What if your partner will not do it?
Present the exercise as fun rather than a test of your relationship. If your partner is frightened of being judged, he or she will be resistant to the idea.
Acknowledge your misgivings and ask about his or hers.
Discuss how it could be made into a more positive experience. Perhaps doing it on Valentine’s Day adds too much pressure. If so, fix an alternative date.
If the whole idea is still threatening, ask yourselves: what can we learn from this? Why is talking about our relationship so difficult?
Do we have old messages from our childhood? For example: ‘Some things are too important to talk about’ or ‘love should flow naturally’. How have these ideas served you?
Perhaps asking your partner to answer these questions feels impossible or you’re afraid he or she will be nothing but critical. If so, consider getting professional help to learn how to talk constructively together.
Andrew G. Marshall is the author of Can We Start Again Please? (Marshall Method Publishing, £6.99).
The four most common problems with midlife love
By Bel Mooney, Mail Advice Columnist
The four most common problems with midlife love and how best to tackle them
Nearly 14 years have passed since I started my advice column for the Mail, so (with my two marriages to draw on, too) I’m pretty experienced in the ups and downs of human nature.
I have friends who’ve stayed happy and faithful for decades, and others who’ve survived affairs.
Acquaintances have experienced divorce and the upheaval of midlife love, new marriages, melded families and so on.
Then there are the problems of boredom, ageing, lack of communication — all the snags that can hit relationships.
One thing I’m sure of: there are no rules. We do our best to muddle through — and it helps to have a sympathetic listening ear.
Here are four of the problems I see most often — and how best to tackle them.
1. We can’t cope with the empty nest
After all the stress of schooling, exams, teenage angst, money and university applications, suddenly childhood ends and you’re left just gazing at each other across the breakfast table.
The house seems so quiet. Until now, a huge amount of energy has been spent on parenting. Without the children, you are still a parent, but you also need to start learning to be part of a couple again.
The trouble is that the loss is real, and this can affect women in particular, especially if they have been full-time mothers.
THE SOLUTION: It’s vital not to let this problem lurk, waiting to attack. Be prepared. The empty nest is a natural development: it’s coming and you need to be well-armed.
It always worries me when people say their children are ‘their life’. Love them, but realise one day they will fly the nest — and so you need to nurture your own identity.
Couples should ensure they have ‘date nights’, or at the very least make room for their own interests.
2. We’ve grown apart over the years
Sudden loneliness can loom between long-term couples.
What can we talk about? Women complain about lack of communication (‘He never says anything’), while men are more likely to be bothered by a physical lack.
It seems ages since you first met — those heady days of being in love, creating a life together. But you don’t feel old: in fact, there’s a restless, inner 30-year-old raring to go.
The danger comes when those inner selves want to go in different directions. As a young journalist, I listened to endless pub-moans of middle-aged colleagues whose wives ‘didn’t understand’ them.
Those wives were probably very lonely — and maybe understood their husbands only too well.
THE SOLUTION: The phenomenon of ‘silver splitters’ shows how many couples just give up at this stage.
But to throw away everything you have built — including the (possible) future delight of sharing grandparenthood and having more freedom together? Think carefully, as you might face old age alone. Visualising that is a wake-up call.
If you’ve grown apart, then you must start rebuilding: get busy with the metaphorical bricks and mortar to remodel your marriage.
Professional counselling is good (try charity Relate, relate.org), but so are DIY therapy sessions.
Decide on an evening with the photograph album. Sit with a glass of something delicious and share memories and laughs. Plan a holiday. Pick a shared project in the home or garden.
All this has to be deliberate: relationships don’t move on by accident. Decide that togetherness beats loneliness and take charge.
3. Affair has put our relationship in peril
The saddest letters I receive come from men and women whose partners have had an affair.
The betrayal, hurt and rage is devastating, the grief akin to a bereavement. You’ve lost your cherished image of the person you loved, and it’s a blow to your own identity.
It’s also important to emphasise that infidelity can be platonic on the surface. If you find out your partner has had secret lunches with an attractive colleague and has been sending flirty texts, then what? ‘But nothing happened!’ comes the protest.
The answer to that is: ‘Yes, something did happen. You deceived me.’
THE SOLUTION: This problem isn’t age-related but infidelity surely brings more pain in midlife, when what has been built up over years looks like it is shattering.
If a couple have children, they owe it to them to have couples-counselling to work out if there is a way through; or mediation (try National Family Mediation, nfm.org.uk) to engineer a separation without damaging anger.
Some marriages have real flaws. Some run their course. Infidelity, be it actual or virtual, can be a cry for help — or a wave goodbye.
But some marriages can be saved, if there is real remorse, forgiveness and a desire for a new start. The only advice is to talk and talk, to discover what went wrong and whether it can be put right.
4. Will it work out a second time around?
How do you learn to trust again? What happens if adult children don’t like your new companion? How do you give your all to a relationship after bereavement?
These are some of the key decisions that often have to be made in midlife when facing second-time love — or third, or fourth.
Decisions made all the harder, perhaps, because age and experience have bred caution. But it’s a short step from caution to fear.
THE SOLUTION: I think it’s healthy to see later years as just another stage in life. I can’t stress enough the importance of accepting adjustments, in order to move forward.
This is your own precious life, so be brave, embrace change, tell yourself ‘I can do this’ — and make the most of the rest of your days!
Make mine a Flirtini
The most romantic drinks are those chosen with care to match the tastes of your partner, says top mixologist Clair McLafferty.
A well-made cocktail demonstrates the depth of your love far better than the mere uncorking of a bottle of wine.
Bubbly or creamy, bitter or sweet, sipped by a roaring fire or at a hotel bar, the cocktail has always been associated with all things sexy and intimate. So try these elixirs to get you both in the mood …
A classic Valentine’s Day tipple that combines white crème de cacao with vodka and chocolate.
l 1 fl oz Chambord liqueur
l 1 fl oz vodka
l 1 fl oz white crème de cacao
l ½ fl oz Cointreau
l 1 fl oz single cream
l 1 chocolate-dipped raspberry
Put Chambord, vodka, white crème de cacao, Cointreau and single cream and ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake. Strain into a glass and add the raspberry.
Silk with Champers
Containing a scoop of vanilla ice cream, this drink — Soyer au champagne in French — has a sensuous texture.
l 2 tbsp vanilla ice cream
l 2 dashes maraschino liqueur
l 2 dashes pineapple juice
l 2 dashes orange curaçao
l 2 dashes brandy
Pour the liqueur, pineapple juice, curaçao, and brandy over the ice cream in a parfait glass. Fill with champagne. Serve with a spoon.
THE Italian liqueur Fernet-Branca is packed with aphrodisiac spice saffron.
l 1 ½ fl oz gin
l 1 ½ fl oz sweet vermouth
l 2 dashes Fernet-Branca
l Orange peel to garnish
Stir gin, sweet vermouth and Fernet in a mixing glass with ice until chilled (about 30 seconds). Strain into a chilled coupe glass. Squeeze orange peel or twist over the glass and drop into the cocktail.
Love Potion #9
This potion is sure to inspire romance. Ancient Greeks considered strawberries to be great aphrodisiacs.
l Lemon wedge
l 2 tbsp sugar for the glass’s rim
l 1 ½ fl oz vodka
l ½ fl oz peach schnapps
l 3 fl oz grapefruit juice
Using a lemon wedge, rim glass with sugar. Shake vodka, peach schnapps and grapefruit juice with ice, and strain into glass. Add a strawberry to garnish.
For the sweet nights of new romance. Champagne adds crispness to the fruitiness of other ingredients.
l 1 fl oz vodka
l 1 fl oz pineapple juice
l ½ fl oz orange liqueur, such as Cointreau
l champagne, to top
l maraschino cherry, to garnish
SHAKE vodka, pineapple juice and orange liqueur with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Top with champagne and garnish with the cherry.
And if you’re off alcohol
Berry Ginger Fizz
A vitamin C-packed pick-me-up to really get the blood flowing.
l 4 blackberries, strawberries or blueberries, plus extra to garnish
l 1 ½ fl oz syrup (one part hot water with one part white sugar).
l 1 fl oz fresh lemon juice
l ginger beer, to top
l mint leaf, to garnish
Muddle berries in a shaker with ½ fl oz of the syrup. Add rest of syrup, lemon juice and ice. Shake and pour into a tall glass. Fill glass with ginger beer and top with garnish.
Romantic Cocktails by Clair McLafferty is published by Whalen Book Works. Buy at amazon.co.uk