Sex, money, chores, and children: These are the four "hot topics" in most live-in relationships, sex being by far the hottest and - sadly -- the most pervasively avoided.
Stacks of self-help books and legions of therapists concur: Good sex is a barometer of relationship health. Making love can help establish a bond of respectful kindness and is an opportunity to relax, put aside pressures, and reinforce emotional intimacy.
Put in its negative: Sexual inactivity is a reliable predictor of marital unhappiness and divorce. So, why do we avoid communicating about it?
First, as the quintessential playboy Hugh Hefner opined: "Our puritan roots are deep. We're fascinated by sex and afraid of it." Plainly put, communicating about sex embarrasses most people.
Secondly, couples often fear that lagging sexual attraction is a sign that their relationship is failing.
What they may not realize is that it's natural, even biologically inevitable, for attraction to flag. During the first two years of a relationship, both partners produce phenylethylamine, a natural amphetamine that could well be called the love potion.
Just four years into a relationship, the proportion of 30-year-old women wanting regular sex falls to below 50 per cent. Among cohabitating American couples, one-third have sex twice a week or more, one-third a few times a month, and one-third a few times a year or not at all. The reasons range from extramarital affairs, demanding jobs and other responsibilities, drugs, alcohol, and finances. The problem is so prevalent that lack of desire even has a medical moniker: hypoactive sexual desire disorder.
Libidos can differ wildly between the sexes, partly because of natural hormonal levels, but also because of the role sex plays in men's and women's lives. Generally speaking, men use sex to feel good, while women need to feel good before having sex. In other words, when life gets stressful, he wants it and she doesn't.
And so we have a paradox: Sex is essential to sustaining a marriage, but sex and marriage are seemingly not simpatico. What can you do?
There are two keys to a healthy sexual relationship: chemistry, which is essentially beyond our control (Viagra and testosterone patches aside), and communication and action, which we can control.
Talk your way through
Set aside your inherent reservations, make a date, and have mindful, respectful, and calm conversations about underlying issues, such as the division of household labour, job dissatisfaction or overwork, rearing of children, and money. You'll also need to talk about sex specifically: what you like and don't like. A survey of people in long-term relationships found they were more sexually satisfied when they communicated their likes and dislikes to their partners than when they did not.
Don't talk desire to death
But beware, if you make sex a self-help project, with the attendant monitoring of frequency and reciprocity, essentially demystifying your erotic experience, it will become dull drudgery. Communication is not about words, it's about connection.
Strive to re-mystify your eroticism; rediscover the power of flirting, wit, innuendo, and pacing. You know what draws your partner in. Non-sexual touching is a good example. A man needs two to three times as much touching as a woman. Another way to kindle the spark is to enjoy fun activities together or just look into her/his eyes and smile.
Sometimes you have to work at "playing around." In the classic how-to book, The Joy of Sex, Alex Comfort writes that "sex is a deeply rewarding form of play. Children are not encouraged to be embarrassed about their play: adults often have been and are still." But as long as our play is not "hostile, cruel, unhappy, or limiting," we absolutely should not be embarrassed.
Make a play date with your partner and take turns providing the "sexual meal" to set the stage for lovemaking, using toys, games, and fantasy. Have an affair with your partner.
Meet your partner in a bar and pretend to be strangers. Afterwards, act like cheating lovers and book a hotel room. There's nothing unusual in this: 58 percent of Canadians say they watch erotic material with their partners, and 43 percent have spiced things up with a toy. Another survey reveals that 66 percent have done it in a car, 49 percent in a public park, 40 percent at a party, and 33 percent in the bathroom. Your imagination is your gateway.
Don't let your relationship succumb to mutual sexual neglect: better sex than sorry.