It’s no secret that long-term relationships are hard to sustain. All parts of them take work. Communication takes work, romance takes work, cohabitation takes work. Arguably the most infamously difficult part of a serious monogamous commitment to maintain is the sex. Sex in a long-term relationship is constantly shifting, and you can get a sexual peak turn into a valley.
Sex drives change. People grow. Habits form and un-form. So it’s natural that EVERY long-term sexual relationship evolves as it ages. They’re like landscapes. When you’re committed to one person, your sex life has high points, low points, plateaus, and bodies of water that ebb and flow for a myriad of different and unique reasons. And it is OKAY.
I personally have a rich and storied relationship history. I’ve had stretches of singleness, friends with benefits, and so, so many partners. But if you look at the big picture, you might classify me as something of a serial monogamist. I fall deep and fast. I’m a glutton for commitment. And the one thing I can attest to when it comes to long-term committed monogamous relationships is that they are all unique. There is no one way a relationship unfolds. Every detail is totally case by case. Every sexual landscape, unique and imperfect. But with each of them there were frenzied peaks, and there were dry valleys.
The First Peak—A Sexual Rush
I know I just said that all sexual relationships are unique and different snowflakes. And I’m not unsaying that. But a common and well-known thread in almost every relationship is the way they start. I’m talking about that blissful period before they become long-term. That delicious chapter in which they’re just fledgling love stories. This stage is commonly known as the honeymoon phase, and it’s every relationship’s first sexual peak.
Driven by lust and fixation, the anticipation of something new thrusts you and your partner upwards together to a peak of sexual elation. Coming from a state of single-dom, or the death valley of a dead love, your body gets excited about the prospect of a partner. And in addition to being an extremely emotional experience, studies suggest that it is also very chemically induced.
When you’re climbing this first sexual peak, your nerve growth factor increases. This means that the development and growth of your neurons are heightened. Elevated NGF leads to feelings of euphoria and connection. You idealize your partner. Nothing about them is lacking and all you want to do is be around them, and touch them and have sex with them. And when you have sex, your brain releases oxytocin (sometimes called the cuddle hormone) which increases the euphoria and attachment.
The honeymoon phase is science! It’s wonderful and it’s lovely. However, though most relationships start with this phase, the details are where they can vary. It can be as short as a couple of weeks or can last as long as a couple of years. It can be intensely sexual or heightened romantically. The peak can be sharp and steep, or it can be more like the slow and steady curvature of a hill. It’s the nature of peaks that they eventually descend. It’s the nature of monogamy that a shift will occur.
The Valleys—Or Sexual Lows
What is a valley? National Geographic describes them as “depressed areas of land–scoured and washed out by the conspiring forces of gravity, water, and ice.” So metaphorically speaking, sexual valleys are stretches of your relationship that are low and have been battered by outside forces, as well as time. Maybe you started to notice something you don’t like about your partner (or yourself). Maybe you’ve been fighting. Maybe you’re too stressed out. Maybe you’re just bored. Maybe you have no idea why the sex has stopped.
There are so many reasons why sex in a long-term relationship sputters. Our libidos can be affected by outside forces like medication or trauma. Sex drive also fluctuates as a result of natural hormonal changes our bodies go through every few years. Maintaining excitement is hard for all living creatures. Eventually, cats get tired of their new toys. Teenagers change their fashion choices. Flowers wilt at the slightest gust of wind. It’s natural to be searching for something to fulfill natural curiosity. And when you’ve made a commitment to stay sexually faithful to someone, it’s your responsibility to fulfill that curiosity within that relationship.
These sexual dry spells happen for different reasons, but also, they look totally different from couple to couple. In one of my relationships, reaching a sexual valley meant that sex dwindled down to once a week. In another, it meant that sexual encounters happened months apart. In another still, it was all about the quality of the sex. The important thing to remember is that you are in control of your own landscape. Assessing the situation, communicating, and doing the work can get you safely out of the valley and onto the next peak. Or if you’re comfortable with a dry spell, you can find the nicer, more positive aspects of the valley. Whichever path you can travel, make sure that you can see the road ahead. And if it’s what you want, envision another peak.
Climbing Back Uphill—Sexual Reclamation
There comes a point in every LTR where you and/or your partner are faced with the challenge of spicing things up. You have to try and rediscover the sexual excitement of your first peak. During this time, it’s imperative that you reinvest in each other and not be fearful of trying new things when having sex in a long-term relationship.
Do what you can to make your sexual encounters feel fresh again. If one of you is usually dominant, switch up the dynamic. If you usually do it in bed, venture to a different location. Maybe if you’re adventurous, try to kink up your sex life a little bit. If you tend towards kinky sex, slow it down and go back to the basics.
If you’re climbing out of a particularly low valley, you may have to do some extra work to get back to where you were before. You might consider couples counseling or sex therapy. You might need to make a sex schedule and do your best to stick to it. But just like when you’re hiking, climbing is the hardest part.
The Topography is Ever-Changing
I’m speaking in a giant extended geological metaphor, but it is true that the landscape of your sex life is constantly changing. At any moment, an earthquake or tsunami or tornado could come and change the entire topography of your relationship. Be ready for these changes, and be present! Notice the difference between steep falloffs and steady descents. The journey never ends! The lower your valley is, the longer and harder you have to work to climb back to it. If you must plateau, give yourself a nice view. Try and make it as high as possible before leveling out.
Monogamy is hard. It’s a challenge and a daily choice. Sometimes things end or our sexual relationships don’t turn out the way we want them to. But as I’ve learned many times over, all you can do is roll with the punches. In navigating sex in a long-term relationship, find fun in the valleys and cherish the peaks. There is no normal and no supposed to be. We’re all inventing what relationships look like as we have them.
Laurie Magers is a comedy writer and actor living in Los Angeles. Her favorite color is red and her favorite food is crab legs. Check out more from her at www.lauriemagers.com.