Friendship, cuddling, trust, prioritizing — while these may not sound so sexy, they can help keep the fires burning in a long-term relationship, according to sex educator Emily Nagoski.
This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from someone in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.
“I’m sitting in a bar with a couple of friends — literally a married couple,” says Smith College sex educator Emily Nagoski, in a TEDxFergusonLibrary talk. “They’re the parents of two young children, seven academic degrees between them, big nerds, really nice people but very sleep-deprived. And they ask me the question I get asked more than any other question … ‘Emily, how do couples sustain a strong sexual connection over multiple decades?’”
Since this is a question that Nagoski, author of Come As You Are and coauthor of Burnout, frequently fields, she had answers. For starters, she knew two things that don’t keep the home fires burning: frequency (“Almost none of us have sex very often,” Nagoski says. “We are busy.”) and having an adventurous sex life.
In fact, she adds, “The best predictor of whether or not couples will have a strong relationship and sexual satisfaction is not what kind of sex they have, or how often, or where they have it, but whether they cuddle after sex.”
When a couple can’t keep their hands off each other, they’re overcome by what researchers call “spontaneous desire.” While this kind of wanting is great, it’s not the only kind — there’s also “responsive” desire. “Whereas spontaneous desire seems to emerge in anticipation of pleasure,” Nagoski says, “responsive desire emerges in response to pleasure.”
You can think about responsive desire with a metaphor. (New Jersey sex therapist Christine Hyde shared this one with Nagoski). “Imagine your best friend invites you to a party,” explains Nagoski. “You say ‘yes,’ because it’s your best friend and a party, but as the date approaches you start thinking, ‘There’s gonna be all this traffic, we have to find child care — am I really gonna put my party clothes on?’ But you put on your party clothes and you show up to the party. And what happens? You have fun at the party!”
Similarly, with sex, it’s all about showing up at the party. Nagoski says, “You put your body in the bed, you let your skin touch your partner’s skin, and you allow your body to wake up and remember, ‘Oh right, I like this; I like this person.’” That’s responsive desire, and the ability to feel those “I like this; I like this person” feelings — even after years together and despite the annoyances and troubles of daily life — is critically important.
What’s more, Nagoski says there are two characteristics of long-term couples who stay sexually connected: friendship and trust (Is your partner emotionally present and available for you?) and making sex a priority. Happy couples, she adds, “choose to set aside all the other things that they could be doing — the children they could be raising, the jobs they could be going to, the other friends they might want to hang out with,” and take the time to re-discover those “I like this; I like this person” feelings.
When Nagoski relayed all this to her friends — “I told them about the party, I told them you put your skin next to your partner’s skin”– she saw one of the partners cringe. “This happens all the time,” she notes, “nice people who love each other come to dread sex.”
What’s getting in the way? “Sleepy hedgehogs,” according to Nagoski. (Don’t worry, it’s another metaphor.) These figurative hedgehogs are the prickly, unaired worries, wounds, dissatisfactions and preoccupations that get in the way of connection.
“The difference between couples who sustain a strong sexual connection and the ones who don’t is not that they don’t experience these difficult, hurt feelings,” she says. “It’s that [the connected couples] turned toward those difficult feelings with kindness and compassion so that they can set them free and find their way back to each other.”
Yes, everyone who’s in a relationship has hedgehogs — and that includes sex educators. When Nagoski was working on her book about women and sex, she recalls, “I was so stressed by the project that I had zero interest in actually having any sex. Then, I spent months traveling all over, talking with anyone who would listen about the science of women’s sexual well-being, and by the time I got home, I’d show up for the party, put my body in the bed, let my skin touch my partner’s skin, and I was so exhausted and overwhelmed I would just cry and fall asleep. The months of isolation fostered fear and loneliness and frustration — so many hedgehogs.”
What made the difference in their relationship were those two common characteristics of connected couples: friendship and trust (“No matter how many difficult feelings there were, [my partner] turned towards them with kindness and compassion,” says Nagoski) and prioritizing sex (“My partner and I looked at the quality of our connection and what it brought to our lives, and we looked at the family of sleepy hedgehogs I had introduced into our home, and we decided it was worth it,” she says).
And while “prioritizing sex” may sound forced and cold, Nagoski disagrees. She says, “I can think of nothing more romantic, nothing sexier than being chosen as a priority because that connection matters enough.”
For the harried among us, Nagoski has a TL;DR one-sentence answer to that initial question from her friends: “You look into the eyes of your best friend, and you keep choosing to find your way back.”
Watch her TEDxFergusonLibrary Talk now: