This post originally appeared at reddit.com.
Why do many couples have mismatched libidos?
To start with, dating is a poor audition for a long-term relationship. All that anticipation and built-up sexual energy explodes when you finally get together, and you’re both trying to present yourselves as people who are sexy and passionate and fun.
Then you move in together, and over the first couple of years you find out what your actual sex drives are like and how they vary in response to changing amounts of stress.
And then you have to deal with any long-term changes in libido. Even if a couple is perfectly matched in every other way, there are a lot of things that can cause libido to drop, including health and medication issues and personality differences.
But perhaps the most common cause of long-term libido loss is trying to stay with a routine version of the kind of sex that worked during the early stages, instead of making the transition to a more sustainable kind of sex. For loving, healthy, long-term couples this causes more decline in sexual desire than anything else I know of.
Humans have two overlapping and contradictory systems for sexual pleasure, one based on excitement and risk and the other based on safety and sensuality. For simplicity, I call these “adrenaline sex” and “oxytocin sex,” because these are the two different hormones involved in triggering the brain’s reward system.
Think about a sky diving, or something else really intense and exciting. There’s a strong feeling of risk, even if the real risk is actually small. There’s a long build-up of suspense, a mad rush of intense sensations that are almost too much to process, and then the aftermath… success! Lived through another one! Woohoo! The adrenaline is coursing through your bloodstream and the release is incredible!
Now think about lying on a perfect beach, enjoying the sun and the breeze and some lazy conversation. Then head over to the clubhouse for a cool dip and a massage before sharing a drink or two and a long, slow, perfect meal with a few close, trusted friends. You’re safe and completely relaxed, and your senses are all being stimulated in delightful ways. Good feelings, good food, good company, good music, good aromas, beautiful surroundings … and zero stress, fear, or anxiety. What could be better?
Both are wonderful, but different people will be attracted to one more than the other. Your true adrenaline junky would be bored silly by a leisurely day with friends at the beach, and would immediately start looking for a jet ski to rent. Your true sybarite might enjoy an occasional thrilling adrenaline surge, but can’t understand why the thrill-seekers are willing to put so much effort into chasing excitement, especially with all the risk and physical discomfort it often involves.
Many of us enjoy them both, but unfortunately you can’t really combine them. Adrenaline blocks any kind of sensory input that is not relevant to the risks at hand, including things that we would normally find enjoyable. If you are tense or scared, and I offer you a perfect almond truffle, you may brush it aside or gobble it down, but the one thing you probably won’t do is savor it slowly, appreciating all the subtle flavors.
Sex can be great either way. Sex starts out exciting and somewhat scary for everyone. There’s always some anxiety about the unknown and usually some fear. There’s fear of possible pain and abuse (especially for women), fear of screwing up (especially for men), and fear of being embarrassed or rejected (for everyone).
In spite of that, most of us have good memories of a first successful sexual experience when all that tension built up and then everything worked right, and it felt amazing.
Sex with comparative strangers is exciting and always at least a little bit risky, because you can’t be sure of how the person will react. And for young people who have never had a really long-term relationship, that’s all they know, so that’s what sex means for them: the excitement, the rush of adrenaline, the thrills, of sex with people they don’t know well.
But the problem is that you can’t sustain that “new relationship energy” forever with one person. After living with someone for months or years that sense of personal and emotional risk goes away, and there are fewer and fewer surprises left.
In particular, after several hundred times with the same person, sex inevitably becomes routine. There’s very little novelty left. And if adrenaline sex is the only kind of sex you know and enjoy, you will wake up one day and realize that the thrill is gone. If you choose to stay in that relationship, your libido and your satisfaction level are going to suffer a big hit.
This means that adrenaline sex is generally not sustainable in a monogamous LTR. You can try to sustain the risk, novelty, and excitement by opening the relationship up, getting kinky, and so on, but doing that without wrecking the relationship can be really hard. Some couples find a balance between dependable comfort sex and high levels of novelty, but not many are able to maintain that for decades.
For most couples, the new relationship energy simply fades away. They’re busy, time is short, and their routine sexual encounters get shorter, without all the teasing and anticipation that used to be standard. And that’s when any major differences in basic libido are exposed and become apparent.
Or, worse, it can create differences in sexual desire that weren’t there to begin with, because the kind of sex they are having becomes actively unpleasant for one of the two people. Let’s say that sex now leaves both people feeling unsatisfied, but they have opposite reactions to it. One person wants sex more, because the brief, unexciting sex they are having never quite satisfies the itch. And the other person wants to have sex less, to avoid repeatedly getting aroused and then not getting satisfied. And when this starts to happen, you can pretty much put up a sign that reads: “This way to a dead bedroom.”
But that doesn’t happen to all couples, because some learn to tap into another, slower kind of sexual pleasure that can equal or exceed the rewards of adrenaline sex.
Oxytocin is the basis for the bonding process between mother and child in all mammals. In humans that bonding process has been generalized to create other kinds of bonds as well, like the bond between father and child, and the pair-bond between romantic partners.
Oxytocin production is triggered by close proximity to a loved one, especially by loving touch in a safe environment. Whereas adrenaline acts fast, in just seconds, oxytocin takes much longer to build up. Furthermore, the stress hormones (adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol), inhibit the pleasurable sensations and the bonding effects of oxytocin production.
But when couples are free to have long, leisurely, sensual sex in an environment of complete trust and safety, high levels of oxytocin are generated. This triggers a cascade of other chemicals (particularly PEA, endorphins, and endocannabinoids) in the brain that feel great and can literally get you high.
So we have two alternative reward mechanisms possible during sex. One operates quickly in a scary or exciting high-adrenaline environment. The other operates more slowly in a safe, low-adrenaline environment.
The second kind of sex doesn’t depend on risk, novelty, and uncertainty. On the contrary, it works best in a safe, secure, familiar environment with a person you know, love, and trust. And the flood of oxytocin that it produces strongly reinforces that loving bond between the two people. So oxytocin sex is highly sustainable.
Over the last two decades I have interviewed five dozen couples who are still having great sex after many years together, and the big difference I see between couples who lose their mojo over time and couples who go the distance while keeping their passion for each other, is that the couples who keep the fires burning have all figured out how to make the transition to a slower-paced, more sensual, more playful, and more sustainable kind of sex.
The most notable single contrast with typical heterosexual couples is the duration of sex, counting from the earliest point of initiation to the last cuddle. At least once a week, most of these couples spend considerably longer than normal on kissing and affectionate cuddling before starting foreplay, they spend more time on foreplay and on actual sex, and they take lots of time to cuddle afterwards. Generally, sex also involves more different activities than normal and more time “taking turns” in pleasuring each other, and it is less dominated by simple PiV.
Many of these couples still enjoy quickies and still seek out and create intervals of exciting, high adrenaline sex. But the core of the relationship is the mesmerizing pleasure of longer, slower, more sensual sex.