Let's face it: Sex in real life is not the sex we see in the media. But that doesn't mean you can't make the most of your intimate moments with simple techniques and tips. In “Real Sex for Real Women,” sex therapist Dr. Laura Berman explains how to combine the reality of everyday life with fantastic sex. Here's an excerpt from Chapter 4: Know your relationship.
Our human bonds are vital in keeping us happy. A strong, healthy relationship with a person you love and respect brings support, joy, friendship, fun, passion, and love. Yet our relationships are constantly evolving — highs, lows, and everything in between are part of our romantic journey. As both of you grow and change, you might find your relationship changes, too. At times your sex life may hit a stalemate as your career takes off or your parental responsibilities increase. The challenge is to keep your relationship fresh and sexy throughout life’s many stages.
Types of relationships
Where are you in your relationship? Are you delighting in the butterflies-in-the-stomach phase, when every moment is exciting? Are you at the stage where you sleep in his T-shirt and boxers without worrying about your appearance? Or are you at the point where his minor bad habits grate on your nerves, and you long for the time when your relationship was fun, flirtatious, and sexy? Whatever the case, each stage and each type of relationship presents women with unique challenges and blessings.
Review your relationship Romantic relationships can be incredibly varied, so a one-stop shop for advice won’t work for everyone — each situation is unique and requires a different set of responses to effect positive change. In order to maintain a strong emotional and sexual relationship throughout the natural progression of your life, you need to understand where you are in your relationship and where you want your relationship to be in the future.
New relationships The beginning of a relationship is an intense and memorable time. From your first kiss to the magical moment when you realize that you are in love, new relationships can make even the most composed person’s head spin. Your libido is in overdrive, your senses are supersensitive, and being apart is unbearable. The simplest things — a whispered endearment or shared confidence — have the power to take your breath away, and every moment spent together is precious. However, as the saying goes, the course of true love never did run smooth, and many of the issues confronted by couples at the beginning of their relationship — from lifestyle habits and beliefs to interfamily relations — will set the tone for your future relationship. Communication is especially important during this phase.
Long-term relationships Marriage and lifelong partnerships are the quintessential monogamous relationships. Most people aspire to obtain lifelong love, though divorce rates show that the journey to “happily ever after” is harder than it might seem.
Long-term relationships promise love and companionship, which most people crave in their lives. Most couples also have shared goals, such as having children, and financial commitments. The couple relies on each other in good times and bad, and feels completely comfortable together. Although this stage brings with it familiarity and security, it can also mean the end of passion and excitement, along with emerging worries and doubts. At this stage, couples still have to work hard to preserve the romance in their relationship.
Keep your sex life vibrant by trying new positions or techniques, and taking the time to flirt with, seduce, and romance each other. Fantasy, erotica, and sex toys may help to keep it exciting. If work and other commitments mean you can’t spend much time alone or have sex very often, keep your connection close with erotic touches, deep kisses, and loving hugs.
Open relationships Some people believe that monogamy is unsuited to today’s modern world. In an open relationship, both partners are permitted to sleep with other people. This type of relationship is generally built on the idea that lust cannot be governed and sexuality should be enjoyed and explored. However, it is only fair to be honest about your expectations. If you don’t see a committed relationship in your future, tell your lover. If you one day would like to make the relationship exclusive, be upfront about those hopes, too.
Open relationships provide the comfort and companionship of a long-term relationship with the excitement of new love. The “butterflies” stage often lasts longer in an open relationship, as it does in a long-distance relationship. This is because the freedom to sleep around, or the distance, sets up a barrier that prevents a couple from moving on to a more settled relationship. Although many people dabble in open relationships, settling down remains important to most men and women. In the meantime, make sure you both practice safer sex with other partners and promote safer sex by being tested regularly. Always use protection for both intercourse and oral sex.
Also be aware that open relationships can be particularly difficult and unsatisfying for women. When women achieve an orgasm, the brain releases oxytocin, otherwise known as the chemical of attachment. Men have higher levels of testosterone in their brains, which may help to counteract this chemical. So protect yourself from becoming too comfortable with a partner who might not share your feelings: set limitations, and guard your emotions and your health.
Casual encounters These types of attachments can be temporarily fulfilling. They are often based upon sexual gratification — think one-night stands. Where do casual encounters stand in an average woman’s life? Most will have explored the one-night stand at least once, and it can be tempting on a lonely night. With the right precautions, casual encounters can be a satisfying part of a woman’s sexual journey.
Take advantage of the temporary situation by being as wild and kinky as you desire. After all, it’s just for one night, so you don’t need to hold back or feel embarrassed. Try out a new position and get in touch with your femme fatale. Casual encounters might not be the place to find love, but they can help you hone your sexual prowess.
May–December relationships A significant age difference between partners has the tendency to set some people’s heads spinning, including family members and close friends. It can also be tricky for the couple in question. With this sort of relationship, you must be prepared to confront differing age issues.
Perhaps one of you has children who have hit their rocky adolescent years, or maybe he is nearing retirement while you are just getting into the swing of your career. Different stages of life also present different energy levels and health concerns. While it is true that May–December couples learn a lot from each other, they also encounter unique concerns about aging. Age might not be an immediate issue, but will you still feel the same way when you are 60 and he is 45, or 70 and 55? How will you handle illness and aging?
Another major issue is children — whether you have them already, or one of you wants them and the other doesn’t. Manage these difficulties by remembering that the relationship is not necessarily about whether you are compatible parents or whether children are in your future — shared life goals, an enjoyment of each other’s sense of humor, similar interests, affection, and open communication are the basis of good relationships. If his stance on children is a deal breaker, don’t force or trick him into adopting your point of view. Make a clean break and find someone who shares your dreams for the future.
Empty-nest relationships When children grow up and leave home, one or both parents often imagine that blissful romantic nights will follow. However, many couples find that by the time they have the house to themselves again, they feel they have nothing left in common with each other. Without the children’s lives to discuss, parents may find their only topic of conversation is the weather.
The empty-nest syndrome is common and expected — after all, your life is changing for the first time in 18 years. In the wake of this, your relationship will inevitably shift and evolve.
You can get it back on track, but you might have to get to know each other again. Think about building up the common ground — shared interests such as travel or golf. Now that children are no longer at the forefront of your minds, you have time to explore other interests, whether they be fitness, cooking, or gardening. While it is important to have separate hobbies to maintain your independence, having a mutual one will help create conversation and give you shared goals.
Also have honest conversations about what you want from this next chapter of your life. Take some risks by stating that you would like more intimacy, and attempt to jump-start your sex life.
These changes can herald the beginning of a new and beautiful time in your relationship — long weekends away, quiet nights, late mornings and breakfast in bed, and sex all over the house. And this really is a situation that you can create for yourselves, by yourselves.
Get the romance back Don’t just long for those heady moments you experienced in the early days of your relationship — make yourselves a promise to reignite that excitement you shared together. Turn off the TV, feed each other strawberries and champagne, make love into the early hours of the morning — and don’t worry if you are late for work.
Pursue adventure Your initial feelings of excitement when you first met your lover cannot be duplicated, but they can be imitated. When people engage in adventurous activities such as bungee jumping, riding roller-coasters, skiing, or even watching a scary movie, their brains emit dopamine and adrenaline, which are similar to the chemicals emitted during infatuation. By participating in these types of activities with your partner, you get to spend quality time together and benefit from the surges of excitement and attraction.
Stay sexy The way we dress and groom ourselves is a large part of sexual attraction, yet many couples let their appearance fall by the wayside once they become comfortable with each other. Paying attention to your appearance reminds you, and your partner, how sexy you are. Even though you have been together a few years, making as much effort as you did on your first date can lead to similar emotional and sexual rewards.
Make a date No matter how busy your lives and careers are, or whether you have children, all long-term couples benefit from setting a date night and spending quality time together outside the home. Go to a restaurant or a bar and spend an hour or two flirting with each other. Don’t talk about work, domestic troubles, or the kids’ homework. Instead, make each other laugh, enjoy kissing at the bar, holding hands in the taxi home, and having great sex afterward.
The urge to be with an attractive stranger is often a natural element of our sexuality, and striving for something new is part of being human. This is even more true when a relationship is faltering as a result of arguments, miscommunication, and unspoken needs. Affairs can create the rush of the unknown, a sense of romance, and a feeling of being sexy and desired. While infidelity is damaging, some people believe it is easier to satisfy their sexual desires with someone other than their partner.
Face the truth As tempting as that sexy stranger or seductive co-worker may be, you first need to ask yourself a hard question: what are you looking for? Is it sex? Romance? Feeling attractive, wanted, or loved? The latter is the common response, but while you get this feeling in the short term, an affair doesn’t provide for your long-term emotional needs.
Is an affair worth it? If your partner caught you or knew you were doing it, would it then be worth it? You also need to ask yourself another hard question: are you willing to do the work needed in your relationship to get what you want?
If your relationship has been under duress because of external factors, such as a change in financial circumstances, blame the issue at hand and not your partner. An affair might help you forget problems at home, but it won’t solve them.
The danger of emotional cheating Even if you remain faithful physically, emotional infidelity has the potential to short-change your partner and stifle your relationship. Emotional cheating comes about when you devote undue amounts of time, energy, humor, sensitivity, and affection to someone other than your partner — a colleague, for instance, especially as many of us now spend more time with our co-workers than we do with our partners. We only have so much emotional energy, and if we bestow these gifts on other people, our partners will inevitably feel neglected and resentful.
Know what is real, and what isn’t You can allow yourself to feel lust for that handsome guy in Marketing. It’s okay to think someone is sexy and to express those feelings in private, because the more you repress your thoughts the more they will persist in your mind. You can even daydream from time to time that you are with a different person — but that doesn’t mean you actually have to act on those fantasies.
Realize that what is real is the relationship you have with your partner — warts, roses, and all. If you want to get your relationship back on track, you need to put in some time and effort to make this happen. Consider counseling as you and your partner work on strengthening your relationship.
Picking up the pieces Many people consider cheating an absolute deal breaker, but in some relationships, healing is possible. Couples’ counseling is a good idea when healing. A therapist can help couples rebuild their relationship and reconnect sexually with each other, and can also help people discover why the infidelity occurred in the first place.
But to go about healing this massive wound, the injured partner will need time to vent about the way he or she feels. Couples often have a hard time bouncing back from an affair because the betrayed partner can’t let go of the pain and the guilty partner feels helpless to fix the situation.
To help begin the healing process, the betrayed partner should be able to vent about his or her anger and sadness for 10 minutes a day. After the 10 minutes is up, the affair should not be discussed for the rest of the day. This will help to prevent the affair from becoming the focus of the relationship.
The cheating partner will have to be honest without being hurtful if the relationship is to make it through this period. When discussing the affair, the betrayed partner is likely to have many questions. The guilty partner should offer truthful answers, but avoid any intimate details about the other woman or man as it will only further upset their partner. Honesty is a must when rebuilding a relationship after an affair — but so is tactfulness.
Know your limits Email, instant messaging, texts, and social networks blur the line when it comes to adultery. Sending your colleague a suggestive text or email seems harmless, but it is a form of cheating. Don’t write anything in an email, blog, or text that you wouldn’t say in front of your partner. At home, avoid spending hours in front of the computer when you should be with your partner. If it feels wrong, it probably is.
Connecting with your relationship All relationships take work, so it makes sense that the most important relationship in your life should require the most work and commitment. “Happily ever after” is the stuff of fairy tales, but deep, lasting love is possible. It just takes effort, communication, and dedication. Luckily, the payoff is huge — a happy life, a fulfilling relationship, and unconditional love. However, it helps to know how to bypass the roadblocks, keep your love life exciting, and navigate the trials and triumphs of monogamy.
Keep it realistic Make a commitment to reality. Your relationship isn’t going to be a fairy tale. There will be times when you are not attracted to your partner, times when you want to kill him, and times when the sex isn’t great. But by making a commitment to realistic goals—such as not expecting sex to be mind-blowing every time — you can create an atmosphere in which unconditional love will thrive. In addition, you will be relieving yourself of the pressure that women feel to be perfect, especially within their relationships.
Maintain the excitement Once two people are in a committed relationship, they tend to let certain aspects of their lives fall away — sex and excitement are sometimes among them. And some couples reason that if sex isn’t there naturally, you can’t create it. They’re wrong. By the time your relationship hits the two- to three-year mark, you need to put in some effort and use a little imagination to recreate the passion and romance of your early relationship. This might mean regular weekends away or marking a “sex night” on the calendar. But in order to spice things up, you both need to be willing.
Stay connected to each other You love your partner, and you find him sexually attractive. But when you both get caught up in your jobs, domestic chores, routines, children, and hobbies, you can often forget to give attention to your most important connection — the one you have with your lover.
Don’t become invisible to each other. Smile and be glad to see each other. Ask relevant questions about each other’s day. Think before you, or he, starts ranting about work, grumbling about the babysitter, or worrying about the bills. If it is not that important, leave it unsaid. Don’t waste your time on negative trivialities.
You can maintain your emotional connection by keeping your exchanges light and flirtatious. This will make it easier to feed your sexual connection—it is hard to turn on your sexual excitement when you spend the evening arguing about domestic trivia. Eat dinner together and try to go to bed at the same time as your partner. Even if you don’t have sex, you can spoon or cuddle before you sleep. Alternatively, if you both enjoy morning sex, set the alarm 20 minutes earlier and indulge in a quickie before you get up.
Intimacy and romance Everybody has a desire for intimacy. Add some romance, conventional or otherwise, and your relationship becomes exciting and exclusive. We want the whole package from our loving relationships — affection, hand-holding, cuddles, sharing, lovemaking, and flowers. Though the image of a couple strolling off into the sunset is a cliché, this is what we long for. And believe it or not, it is achievable — you can build a relationship in which intimacy and passion abound, years after the first date.
Romance is an attitude You don’t have to wait for your lover to turn up with a bunch of flowers in order to enjoy an intimate moment. Romance is not a single event, but an ongoing attitude. When sitting in the car, reach over and touch his thigh. Leave him a love note on the fridge door. Post a sexy promise on his pillow. Call him at work and tell him you’re thinking of him. These small things add up to something much bigger.
Preserve a little mystery It might go against popular opinion, but there is no reason to share everything with your lover. He doesn’t need to know that you plan to shave your legs tonight, or every sordid detail of your year abroad. He may be your soul mate and you may have the burning desire to reveal all your secrets, but a little mystery will keep things interesting. Men are usually not so inclined to share — don’t demand every single last detail of his life, but do let him surprise you with the occasional new story.
Create your own moments If your man prefers a Saturday night in front of the TV to a candlelit dinner for two at a restaurant, there is no reason why the occasion can’t be romantic. Don’t spend hours cooking, just order in or enjoy a gourmet takeout. Dim the lights, snuggle up on the sofa, and enjoy the intimacy. Don’t let the dishes, the phone, the children, the laundry, or mundane thoughts about work interrupt your time together. Make sure you don’t let the TV stop you from showing him some thigh and kissing his neck, and seize the opportunity to seduce him during the commercial break.
Use your sense of humor Make your relationship a haven for laughter, silliness, and fun. Whether it is the private nickname you call him, his shower songs, or your special jokes during sex, intimacy is created through these little secrets. Allow room for humor, even during arguments. Have a safe word you can rely on when a disagreement becomes heated — perhaps a reference to your favorite movie or a past joke he made — and agree to use it to defuse the situation. Jokes can’t solve arguments, but every once in a while they can prevent a silly argument from getting any bigger.
Make disagreements work for you Accept that even if you and your partner have almost everything in common, you are never going to agree on every single topic. Luckily, these differences of opinion don’t have to get ugly — and sometimes they can even help you create extra passion. Use the heat generated from your political debates to spice up your relationship.
A little verbal sparring can be very sexy, especially if you are secretly fantasizing about tearing the other person’s clothes off. Your different beliefs can create excitement in the bedroom. Your relationship can continue to be fun, intimate, and romantic — with the proper nurturing, it should be the most fulfilling and meaningful part of your life.
Reap the benefits of intimacy The most beautiful part of being in a relationship is knowing that you are not alone — that no matter what else happens in the world, you have someone to count on to make you laugh, wipe away your tears, and pick you up when you are down. You and your partner can take turns at being the support system — when you have health or family concerns, you know you have someone to worry with you and to offer practical help. Take turns caring for each other, whatever happens.
Loving rituals Sexual and emotional routines are a simple way to create intimacy in your relationship. Nonsexual rituals such as Tuesday-night tacos, Friday-night movies, or breakfast in bed on Sunday can help to create intimate bonds between you. You should both look forward to these rituals, and enjoy them. You can also create sexual rituals — you may already have a few, such as cuddling after orgasm. Reprinted by arrangement with DK Publishing from “Real Sex for Real Women.” Copyright © 2008 by DK Publishing. Text © 2008 by Laura Berman, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Dr. Laura Berman is the director of the in Chicago, a specialized health care facility dedicated to helping women and couples find fulfilling sex lives and enriched relationships. She is also an assistant clinical professor of OB-GYN and psychiatry at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. She has been working as a sex educator, researcher and therapist for 18 years.