The secret of keeping old married sex hot is courtship for life
The New York Times asked 2,903 subscribers: If your entire sexual history were made public, would people find it shocking or boring? Two-thirds said boring. Sexual boredom is quite common, especially in long-term relationships. To spice it up, do something different—anything. Most couples notice that compared with sex at home, doing it while traveling feels hotter. Travel brings new and different experiences—and novelty is a potent, reliable turn-on.
Sexual boredom usually means loss of libido. University of Chicago researchers asked 6,437 Americans age eighteen to eighty-five if they lacked interest in sex. Among men, low libido ranged from 13 to 29 percent, among women, from 27 to 49 percent, with lack of interest increasing with age.
Many people with low libido make love anyway, but their hearts aren’t into it. Sexual novelty can change that. Introducing anything new into the horizontal dance piques libido and arousal, and boosts pleasure and satisfaction.
Novelty, Dopamine, and Erotic Heat
You meet. You click. And suddenly, you’re head-over-heels in love. You can’t think of anyone—or anything—else. You can’t keep your hands off each other. The sex is fabulous. But not for long. After a year or so, most couples wonder, What happened?If the relationship works, you’re still in love, and time has deepened mutual attachment. But time almost always cools erotic heat. The fireworks fizzle. The Fourth of July becomes Thanksgiving.
Of course, the transformation of passionate heat into cozy warmth is no surprise. Almost everyone experiences it. You tell yourself, That’s what happens. Accept it.
Anthropologist Helen Fisher, Ph.D., couldn’t accept it. She wondered why people fall so madly in love, and why lust subsides. On a message board at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, she posted, Have you recently fallen madly in love? Dozens of students replied. Fisher use MRIs to track their brain activity. When she showed them a face they didn’t recognize their brains remained quiet. But pictures of their new beloveds made the MRIs light up like Christmas trees—and their brain levels of dopamine soared.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that enables communication among brain cells. When it spikes, people become energized, exhilarated, and obsessed. Their hearts pound. They lose their appetites and have difficulty sleeping. In other words, they fall in love.
Dopamine also governs cravings and dependency, two hallmarks of drug addiction. All addictions raise dopamine levels. Falling in love has been compared with addiction. It involves drug-like euphoria and dependency when new overs are together, intense cravings when they’re apart, and debilitating withdrawal reactions if they break up.
In addition, as dopamine rises, so does the testosterone family of hormones that fuels libido in all genders. Horniness is, of course, a hallmark of falling in love.
Finally, high dopamine depresses another neurotransmitter, serotonin. Low serotonin is associated with obsession, another element of falling in love. Love-obsession takes many forms. New lovers often daydream about their beloveds, and communicate so frequently they seem to have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Italian researchers tested serotonin in three groups: controls, some madly in love, and others with OCD. The controls showed normal serotonin levels, but levels were significantly lower in both the OCD and new-love groups. “Poets often call love madness or insanity,” Fisher says. “In the brain, it really is.”
Fisher asked her love-crazed volunteers to return for repeat MRIs. Their beloveds’ faces continued to trigger sharp spikes in dopamine—but only for an average of seven months. Other researchers have found that what’s often called the hot-and-heavy period lasts from six months to a year, two at most. Subsequently, dopamine returns to normal. New lovers may feel crazy in love, but it’s temporary insanity.
If the relationship endures, it evolves into “married love,” warm—but rarely hot—attachment that combines affection, security, trust, and contentment. Attachment also has a biochemical basis, the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, both produced in the sex organs and the hypothalamus, the brain’s seat of emotion. These hormones spike after orgasm. “They’re cuddle chemicals,” Fisher explains. “They contribute to the closeness and connection lovers experience after sex.”
From Embers To Flames
Many couples would like to pour kerosene on the embers of married love. Fisher’s research points the way—boost dopamine. How? Novelty—doing new things or old things in new ways. To keep relationships fresh and exciting:
- Have more fun together. It’s no coincidence we call weekend trips “romantic getaways.” You’re enjoying yourselves together in different settings. That’s exciting and arousing.
- Laugh. Humor is funny because the punch line is unexpected. Laughter raises dopamine. In relationships that endure, spouses appreciate each other’s senses of humor. When humor dies, the relationship may be in trouble.
- Keep ’em guessing. Oscar Wilde said, “The essence of romance is uncertainty.” An age-old strategy for winning new love is to play hard-to-get, which spurs anticipation, but delays reward. Surprise, uncertainty, and delayed gratification trigger release of dopamine.
- Make love. Sex boosts testosterone, which raises dopamine. To make sex hotter, include something new: a different time or place, new moves, new lingerie, a new sex toy—anything.
“You Want To Try What?!”
Desire for novelty impels many lovers to ask for new erotic moves—everything from lingerie to vibrators to kink. But it’s can be difficult to make sexual requests. Actually, it may be easier than you think.
- Start with nonsexual fun— a new movie or restaurant, a trail you haven’t hiked, or a trip to a first-time destination. As people become more willing to try new things out of bed, they often become a more open to sexual experimentation.
- Keep it playful. Maintain your sense of humor. Novelty involves experimentation, and many experiments fail. So what if the movie stinks? What’s important is your willingness to keep trying new things together.
- Think small. Modest changes often mean significant steps in the direction you desire.
- Be patient. Look for reasons to laugh.
Romance experts Barbara and Michael Jonas, coauthors of The Book of Love, Laughter, and Romance, urge couples to make regular “surprise dates.” One plans an outing, but keeps it secret, telling the other only what to wear and what time to meet. Planners pledge not to arrange anything that might unnerve their partners. Followers agree to play along, even if surprise dates push their comfort zones.
During your first few surprise dates, don’t introduce anything sexual. Give your lover time to warm up to the notion of regular novelty—and to trusting you not to overdo any surprises. When you decide to introduce sexual novelty, don’t venture very far out of the ordinary.
Say you’re the planner, and you take your reluctant-to-experiment honey to an old familiar bar, then on to an old favorite restaurant, and from there, to a stroll along an old familiar route. By the time, you’ve walked fifty yards, your spouse is bound to ask: What’s the surprise? Your reply: Wait till we get home.
Once you’ve introduced the idea of ongoing experimentation, birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day and other special occasions offer opportunities. Again, don’t expect great leaps beyond your lover’s comfort level. But compared with the rest of the year, it’s often easier to ask for experimentation on special days—and partners are more likely to grant such requests, especially in a new context, for example, a hotel room.
Half a Loaf Is Better Than None
Warming up to new moves often takes time. Give your lover the gift of that time. Take small steps along the path to your ultimate goal.
This is especially true when a lover says: We’re too old for that. Advancing age may kill willingness to experiment. But it also opens doors to novelty. If your partner says, You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, ask how your spouse plans to adjust to retirement, or if retired, review what’s happened since. Retirement often includes: travel, long-deferred activities, perhaps even relocating—all new tricks for old hounds. If your lover can consider a huge change like moving, why not a vibrator?
As you slowly transcend old routines, you may have some ultimate sexual goal in mind. If you reach it, great. But most lovers find that getting part of what they desire is almost as good. Half a loaf is better than none. If you don’t get everything you want, count your blessings. Half a loaf often provides major enhancement.
As hot-and-heavy romance evolves into old married love, most couples make less special time for each other. Relationships become predictable … and maybe boring. Re-introducing novelty recreates some of the magic of falling in love. Novelty is a nutrient that nourishes relationships and enhances sex.
Novelty is what courtship is all about. Everyone loves to feel courted, no matter if it’s your fifth date or fiftieth anniversary. Your willingness to invest time, energy, and enthusiasm in fun new activities together demonstrates that you value your partner and don’t take your love for granted. If you want sexual heat to endure, court your sweetie for life.
You may also want to read Sex Toys and Lingerie Glossary.
Fisher, Helen. Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. Henry Hold, NY, 2004.
Giuliano F. and J. Allard. “Dopamine and Sexual Function,” International Journal of Impotence Research (2001) 13(Suppl 3):S18.
Kruger, T.H.C. et al. “Prolactinergic and Dopaminergic Mechanisms Underlying Sexual Arousal and Orgasm In Humans,” World Journal of Urology (2005) 23:130.
Laumann, E.O et al. The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States, University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Lindau, S.T. et al. “A Study of Sexuality and Health Among Older Adults in the United States,” New England Journal of Medicine (2007) 357:762.
Morton, H. and B.B. Gorzalka. “Role of Partner Novelty in Sexual Functioning: A Review,” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy (2015) 41:593.