Tips on Maintaining Chemistry After the Honeymoon Period

I’ve always been fascinated with courtship, with how two people’s eyes meet across a crowded room and something magical happens. There is an instant recognition of our compelling attraction. When the desire is reciprocated, its magnetism draws us into close physical proximity where chemicals surge, pheromones bubble, and we adopt courtship behaviours born in primordial ooze.

If our chemistry and our personalities continue to spark, we enter the limerence phase, which lasts six to eighteen months and is layered with falling in love (or not) with our new lover. It is during this limerent period that we learn that our beloved has habits and quirks that either amuse or annoy us. Now we must decide what we can accept and what we cannot.

One way of ensuring that you make good choices for yourself – even in the heady courtship phase – is to have a prepared list of what you desire in a date and in a mate (and to understand that they are not necessarily the same). How your date handles housekeeping (or money or spare time) is of little import, but how your mate approaches those life issues will be paramount if you choose to live together. Similarly, it is useful to refer to your list after an affair has ended…whatever we learned we can incorporate into our guidelines for future choices.

As important as it is to be self-aware during dating, it is also essential to be able to allow your mate to be a flawed human being. Once we consciously decide to accept our mate, we must choose, whenever we can, to be amused rather than annoyed by their imperfect qualities.

Our culture’s insistence on fairy tale romance and happily-ever-after endings can leave us unprepared to address the everyday realities of ongoing relationships. We may lament that our lover doesn’t share our love of romantic comedies while they complain that we lack sensitivity about family obligations. If we’ve become complacent in the partnership, we can see these differences as irritations, and resentment builds. We may feel restless and unfulfilled. We may wonder how they could have been so perfect and now be so…human.

What we need to understand is that the perfect mate does not exist. When we are lucky and alert enough to find someone with whom we mesh well, we owe it to ourselves and our partners to allow them their quirks. We do not get to order a la carte on the romantic menu. There’s no picking out the shortcomings from the attributes like the mushrooms in the lasagna.

Part of the key to long-term success in a partnership is to remind yourself often of all the things you like about your mate and share those thoughts. Choose to laugh at the small irritations. Embrace all that you can. Enjoy yourself in this unique relationship you’ve built together. It’s a necessary component in a happy union.

From “Hello” to “Good Morning”

The subject of courtship is vast. We’re all interested in it, and few of us feel equipped to do it with grace. It’s exciting…and it’s scary. We know some things about the courtship process. It has a certain number of steps, which differ depending on whose research your using (today we’ll use mine), and starts with ‘hello’…first meeting…and progresses through a ‘getting to know you’ stage to the pivotal point of being sexual together, which we call ‘consummation.’ Of course courtship continues…hopefully forever, but here I want to talk about the early part of the process because it is so important…and where we all start.

Every relationship begins with “hello”, in one form or another. We rarely know when we’re going to meet someone new, nor do we know where that new relationship will go. This is one of the exciting aspects of dating. When we are open to opportunity, all sorts of surprises are in store! We are easily intimidated by courtship. We hear warnings like, “You won’t find anyone special until you quit looking.” Hogwash! It’s fairy-tale thinking: that if you just sleepwalk through life, waiting for your prince (or princess) to come, that your passivity will be rewarded with happily-everafter. The truth is we have a much better chance of getting what we want if we ask for it, and we spend far more Saturday nights in our jammies…alone… waiting for a knock on our door than if we are out there having fun and keeping our eyes open.

Another trap we can easily fall into is going to some place loaded with potentials rather than going somewhere where we know we will have a good time. If you’re lousy at drinking and loud music gives you a headache, quit frequenting the bars. If you don’t ‘get’ poetry, stay away from the slams. If you were born lacking a sporty gene, leave that locker room. Ask yourself, “What do I really enjoy doing? What do I do just because it makes me happy?” That’s where you want to hang out, and that’s also where you’ll find others who share your interests.

“That’s it? Just show up?” you ask? Adopting an attitude of watchful waiting is a fundamental step in the process. It pays to set up for success, as well. Consider your forays out into the social world as chances. If you want to win, you have to play. Moreover, you want to play smart to increase your odds. So before you head out, stop and evaluate your presentation. Brush your teeth, and your hair. Are you clothes clean? Do you look good? If in doubt, change something and check the mirror again. Would you notice you? Now I’m not suggesting that you be a fashion slave, just that you be intentional about what you communicate about yourself to others. After all, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

When we first meet someone, eye contact is our first connection. We make a jillion assumptions about people based on all sorts of things that have nothing to do with truth. Does this person remind you of someone you like….or don’t? Are they part of one of your groups, or are they different from you? Are you physically attracted to them? Although sometimes we grow to appreciate someone’s looks as we come to love them, initial attraction is the norm. It immediately puts that person in a different category. Sexual attraction is a compelling force. If they share the reaction, sparks fly and pheromones permeate the air. We (stereotypically) become coquettish (if we’re female) or grandiose (if male). We revert unconsciously and somewhat uncontrollably to our ancestral selves, complete with biologically determined courtship dance routines. For those of you intrigued by this fascinating topic, find Sex Signals by Tim Perper, books by Helen Fisher, author of The First Sex, The Sex Contract: The Evolution of Human Behavior, and Anatomy of Love: The Natural History of Monogamy, Adultery, and Divorce, or find a copy of Desmond Morris’s unfortunately titled Manwatching, in which there we are in all our animalistic, evolutionarily-charged predictability.

Now that we’ve made eye contact with someone we’re attracted to, and they seem interested in us, too, what happens next? Then we need to speak. It doesn’t matter much what we say, though witty opening lines can be attention-getting and remembered. On the other hand, smarmy comes on turn people off. There are a number of books available to smooth this part of the process. A book I heartily recommend is Carol Queen’s Exhibitionism for the Shy, a guide to how to become socially graceful and confident.

So now you’re eyes have met, you’re pretty sure you’re mutually attracted, and you’ve begun a conversation. Let’s assume you find talking smooth and enjoyable. Awkward pauses are non-existent. You’re starting to feel a bit confident, and a bit aroused. You realize you’re thinking sexual thought about this person. When you’ve spent enough time to validate the mutuality of this attraction, move the two of you to another location. It doesn’t have to be to different province, or even building, but carve yourselves out of the group you’ve been in and geographically establish yourselves as a couple having a private conversation. This step isn’t mandatory, and is sometimes impossible, but it tends to move the process along more quickly and symbolically changes the dynamic.

Now it’s time for goal clarification. You’ve gathered a lot of information so far. You have chemistry, and you converse easily. Where would you like this go? At this point, you have a lot of power to decide what’s going to happen next. Are you looking for someone with whom to play tennis? A lover? A mate? Of course each of these has different criteria. Do you know what you’re your various criteria are? Making a list of attributes and ranking them according to priority can help avoid regrettable choices when hormones and opportunity combine to muddy our thinking.

You know the old chestnut: You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find the handsome prince. Don’t think every frog is a prince. The concept of soul mates is fairytale thinking again. On a planet of billions of people, there is certainly more than one perfect mate for each of us. More likely, there are hundreds of others with whom we could happily couple. The problem is that there are probably hundreds of thousands with whom we would be mismatched. The trick is sorting the two piles accurately. Think critically. Don’t let the stars in your eyes blind you.

But let’s suppose that you have consciously assessed this person and decided he or she is worth risking a romantic encounter. You know that, whatever else may be in store, you are sexually interested. Now is not the time to become mute and to wait for sex to “just happen.” Bring up the topic of sex. You don’t have to be a boor or a bulldozer; innuendo and flirtation are easily decoded by a mutually-interested companion. Still, if sex is what you want, you need to communicate that clearly. Then you are ready to make a direct approach. Touch your new friend. I’m not suggesting you grab ass….after all, you are hoping to establish a mutually-respectful encounter. But making physical contact will give you lots of information about how this new partner responds to you. When you place your hand on his or her shoulder as you laugh at a joke, for instance, does s/he lean in to you, pull back, or remain stationary? Read the body language. After all, you’ve made no binding commitment yet. If you are seeking a responsive lover, pay attention to what kind of response you get from touch. It’s an important indicator of what may lie ahead.

The next step is establishing a specific date. Suggest spending time together doing an activity that you’ve already determined interests you both. Even going to a movie together will work, although sitting in a dark public place silently staring at a screen precludes conversation and further opportunity to assess whether this is, indeed, the direction you want to go. Regardless, build in time together after the event. Go somewhere private and comfortable and plan the main event. Talk about the kind of touching you like. Ask the same questions of your partner. Be specific. It doesn’t have to be unromantic. Not speaking about our sexual preferences is another part of the “spontaneous sex” myth, when we believe that owning our desire sullies it. Simply not true. Sex is play for adults. If you’re adult enough to be involved, then be adult enough to be proud and determined about your decision. It can be very sexy, indeed, to listen to your about-to-be-lover tell you what really gets his or her mojo going. Ditto telling your sexual penchants. And it takes a lot of the awkwardness out of the first encounter. If you hear that your new sexual friend swoons to having his/her neck kissed, you’re guaranteed at least one move that will make you look like a sensitive and generous lover. The more information shared, the better the sex will be. This is NOT the time to stumble with shyness. Now is the time to embrace the moment, and your partner, and dive into mutual delight.

Coupling really is quite simple, once we get past the temptation to play games and avoid responsibility for our own actions. Remember, though, that a successful sexual encounter doesn’t guarantee a successful relationship or, for that matter, any further relationship at all. Do not confuse lust with love, which takes a loooong time to grow. What we are talking about here is only the first steps on that uncertain journey.

Dating is where the frog-kissing comes in. Just as every relationship begins with hello, each ends in goodbye, whether that’s tomorrow morning or when we are parted by death. Grab hold now and have the most fun you can. Appreciate every minute. Make wonderful memories.

Rekindling the Fire

– Originally published on DrKoop.com

Some of us are smart and lucky enough to have coupled with partners with whom we live comfortably. Seldom do we argue about who does which chore. Our interests coincide or coexist amicably. We agree on most of life’s important issues, and we maintain similar values. We could not find a better room mate, and we are content.

Sometimes, however, these easy relationships suffer from lack of care surrounding sexual activity. Content to be living with our best friends, we slip into a pattern of benign neglect regarding our physical encounters. It is not long before we can’t remember the last time we felt passion or consuming desire. Before too much longer, we realize that we would feel awkward making a sexual advance, as though that part of our interpersonal vocabulary has been erased through disuse. We tell ourselves that since nothing is really wrong with the relationship, we’ll just wait out this erotic hiatus. Sometimes the wait is very long indeed, as our spouse may well be feeling the same hesitation and embarrassment about sexual initiation, meaning that no one makes the first move.

Sometimes this sexual shyness can appear rapidly. If our lovemaking frequency is once a week, for instance, and we realize that we’ve not been sexual for three or four weeks, we commonly begin analyzing our recent interactions. How quick we are to worry and to blame, wondering if this interruption in our status quo is an indicator of trouble within the relationship. We ask ourselves questions like, “Am I not a good enough lover?” and “Does s/he no longer find me attractive?” We begin to identify the length of time since we’ve made love as a problem, and before we know it, it becomes one. Now we find ourselves tongue-tied and worried.

The easiest solution, of course, is to give our heads a shake, take our mate’s hand, and say, “I’m still as crazy about you as I was when we first fell in love. Let’s go to bed.” This course of action usually results in a therapeutic reunion on both physical and emotional levels, and in the afterglow of sexual communion we can reiterate our desire and devotion. This is a prime opportunity, as well, to note how easily the time slips away when we aren’t paying attention to the importance of sexual connection and to commit anew to making time for sex consciously. We can set up our next date in the near future, agreeing to do something we both consider fun and ensuring that we will be unhurried and uninterrupted.

Sounds easy enough, you say, but what about spontaneity? Doesn’t planning for sex make it clinical, sterile? Actually, romance is based on planning. Remember when we were still courting, when each date brought a quickening of the pulse, an unsettling and seductive wonder of whether our affections and excitement were reciprocated? We spent hours getting ready, ensuring that we made the best possible impression. The planning is exciting and arousing in its own right. To borrow a line from the movie Cross My Heart, “It must be getting serious – I’m shaving above my knees.” Planning for a sexual encounter is not the problem; often not planning for it is! And the anticipation of an upcoming night of sexual abandon heightens our arousal and can let us feel giddy with desire again.

Perhaps germane to this discussion is the effect of boredom and complacency. Boredom occurs when we allow the dynamics of our relationships to lose their priority in our daily lives. We become complacent when we do not recognize, or do not respond to, the need to revitalize a flagging connection with our mate. Is it difficult to risk the vulnerability necessary to initiate intimacy after an extended absence? Yes, it can be. Still, when we stay on our toes, checking regularly the ‘pulse’ of our commitment, we are rewarded with fresh perspectives and new experiences on an ongoing basis. Relationships are much like gardens in that they each require care and tending to grow. Like gardens, our marriages are dependent on what and how we plant, and how much time we spend working in them. External forces (like weather in a literal garden) can affect our personal gardens, but so long as we protect them and nourish them, they will reward us with blossoms of magnificent beauty. Sex is perhaps the most magnificent of these flowers. We can rejoice whenever we take the time to appreciate them.

Puckering Up

-Originally published on DrKoop.com

Valentine’s Day brings thoughts of love and romance….and kissing. What better portrays love’s qualities than a kiss? We kiss to greet and to part, to comfort children and pets, to bestow kindness and gratitude, and to celebrate lust. Kisses mark the entrance to intimate relationships and sustain the bonds of friendship and kinship. Kissing is a distinctly human form of communication, learned in infancy and translated globally. Poor is the person who does not speak the language of the kiss.

In considering kissing, I reminisced about my own first kiss. I was a thirteen year- old girl recently-blossomed into puberty and newly aware of the sensation of desire. I had exhilarating and consuming crushes on teachers and movie stars. The concept of reciprocation of affection was mysteriously compelling but nonetheless alarming, for I knew that a shared kiss would be the gateway from the innocence of childhood to the rights and responsibilities of a sexually mature adolescence. I kissed that first time with youthful wonder and an insistence infused with sexual recognition. It was exhilarating! I felt powerful and wise! I so wanted that first kiss to show, like the budding of my breasts or hair under my arms, so that everyone would understand that I had tasted the fruit of arousal, had desired and been desired, that I was now an adult. Well, at least, I had experienced my first taste of that game that only adults could play: sex.

No such marks appeared, however, and I relied on social cues and attentive listening to find access to the world of women, who had done way more kissing than I had and thus were fonts of information I wanted and needed. I eavesdropped on their whisperings and jokes. I talked endlessly with my girlfriends about the ‘good kissers’ and whether French kissing should be reserved for ‘steadies.’ And of course there was a sea of boys who would do anything, certainly kiss, if they thought it might get them closer to actual sex. All I wanted to do was kiss. I did not feel ready to become more actively sexual, especially as long as kissing served so well my purposes of reveling in arousal and fantasy.

I suspect the Sweet Sixteen parties of the youth-indulgent post-War years were a belated attempt to validate the passage from youth to adolescence that is marked by the first romantic kiss. Surely those parties, attended by awkward, squealing, hormone-driven teens, embodied the transition begun by menstruation and ended, often, by pregnancy. Kissing is the starter pistol of sexual maneuverings, the activity in which we learn social and sexual negotiation and compromise, and through which we explore the strong and gentle swellings of romance and lust. How marvelous that we can practice our interpersonal relationship skills in such a pleasure-filled and consequence-free manner.

I propose a Valentine’s Day toast. In the spirit of love and romance, let’s salute kissing. Here’s to your first kiss…..and to your next!

Disparate Desires

In thinking about the issues that routinely come up in my therapy with clients, I realized that there are a few recurring themes. Disparate desires – when the partners have different sexual appetites – is a common problem, and one that can destroy an otherwise happy and healthy relationship.

Having disparate desire is a difficult problem to address because there is so much pride and vulnerability involved. Both parties truly believe the other is acting intentionally, that the other is wrong. The core of the issue, aside from the obvious sexual negotiation, is power.

Whoever wants less, has more power.

I understand that this sounds backwards. Let’s tease it apart and it should become clear. If I want to have sex once a week, and you want to have sex once a month, then I am going to be horny and frustrated three weeks a month. You, on the other hand, let me know when my advances will be accepted, or perhaps you even initiate sex, but on your terms. I am usually, by that time, grateful if not downright desperate. I begin to wonder if you want me at all, or if you are bestowing ‘mercy sex’. Still, having sex with you, believing that everything will be all right now (we humans are a hopeful lot) encourages me and re-connects us. The problem is that the cycle gets repeated, and repeated, and repeated. I feel…

Powerless, which eventually leads to Resentment.

Now let’s view it from the other side: When we first got together, you were so romantic, attentive, and sexy. I couldn’t keep my eyes off you…or my hands. We fell in love, and this process was fuelled by long sessions of look-into-your-eyes lovemaking. We became a couple, and the importance of life crept into our fairy tale romance. A trip to Home Depot became more practical than passionate. If kids came along, you can bet our sex lives changed along with everything else. But I know in my heart that we are solid and safe and I love it when you cuddle with me. Trouble is, every time we touch each other, you want to have sex. I’m beginning to wonder if you even notice who I really am anymore. I know you want sex (I’m not so sure if you really want me), so I can’t risk approaching you because I’m afraid you’ll interpret it as a green light for sex again. Why can’t you be satisfied with leisurely lovemaking a couple of times a month? What’s wrong with you?! I feel devalued and objectified, which in turn makes me feel…

Powerless, which eventually leads to Resentment.

For those of you who are nodding your heads in recognition, I regret that I have no magic elixir, no snappy psychobabble that will ‘fix’ either one of you (you see, there’s nothing wrong with either of you). This is truly a thorny, complicated, and sensitive issue. There are solutions, but not every couple are able to make the necessary changes and accommodations to ease the tension. Sometimes, the problem is just plain temperament.

Some of us like sex (or classical music or hockey) a lot; others don’t. Different, not right nor wrong. But when we mate with someone whose sexual desires vary greatly from ours, we easily have a problem on our hands we don’t know how to address. There are some things you can do to assess your differences and hopefully bring them closer together:

– take turns initiating sex and monitor the intervals
– establish regular ‘date nights’ (for more, see “Mate Dates” article) where thoughtful, indulgent lovemaking can occur
– inject sex with something new: toys, positions, costumes..
– evaluate, separately and together, the role of sex in your relationship

If, after trying to address the disparities in your desire levels, you are still stalemated, consider getting the help of a professional sex therapist. This is a difficult problem and sometimes the perspective and skill of another person that you don’t have to live with can help to clarify the issues and create options you’ve missed or not thought of at all. We all deserve to feel loved, cherished, and appreciated by our mates. It’s vitally important to stay clear about the value of sex and love and to try every avenue to regain and maintain that magic that helped us find each other in the first place.

Mate Dates: Planning Your Pleasure

– Originally published on DrKoop.com

Take two loving people with demanding jobs and divide them into a typical month filled with obligations, expectations, family, and friends, and you often find a couple who rarely find themselves in a relaxed and sensual environment enjoying passion and intimacy. How often do you and your spouse plan time together for the sole purpose of mutual enjoyment? If you are like the typical harried couple, the answer is often seldom or never.

Given the choice between sex and sleep, your exhaustion casts the deciding vote. Of course you care about your marriage and would love to enjoy an unhurried, indulgent interlude; you just can’t quite fit it into your schedule. And after all, you see each other daily, share all your news, and sleep in the same bed. What more is expected?

Why is it important?

In fact, it can be that same domestic comfort that can threaten or extinguish the desire and intrigue that glues a marriage together. Successful couples insist it is a matter of prioritizing. Busy lives require careful planning. Putting time for dating near the top of your list is life insurance for your marriage. Remember how, in the beginning, you thrilled at the sight of one another? Your time together was precious, decorated with dancing slippers and fireworks. You longed to see more of each other, never to be separated again. A few years later, perhaps, those dancing slippers become house slippers, and fireworks get translated into power bills. Somehow, you’ve become roommates. “Oh, well,” you shrug, “the honeymoon can’t last forever.”

And yet we know that long-term happy couples do retain some of that heat year after year. They do so by sustaining their courtship throughout their marriage, by dating even though they are mates. They tell us they design time to caress and explore one another, to laugh, and to luxuriate in the lust and love that initially drew them together. Each ‘date’ codifies the bond between them, supports and nourishes it, and guarantees the twinkle in the eye we sometimes glimpse when watching them interact.

Where do we find the time?

Regularity is the key. You may want to choose a particular weeknight and block it out in your daybooks as immutable. You may prefer a weekend morning, Sunday perhaps, when the phones and pagers can be shut off and you are inaccessible to the outside world. It takes a surprisingly short time before others realize that you are simply not available during this time. You set up for success, hiring the babysitter or delegating the duties on a regular, long-term basis. Your time together becomes inviolate and precious, stolen from your day-to-day existence because of its importance and value.

What do we do with this time?

The actual activities are not of much importance here. What matters is that you assign this time to luxuriate in your mutual regard, attraction, and passion for one another. You do not have to make love, but you will surely
want to create an environment in which sex can easily happen. Avoid discussing external issues and concentrate on your feelings for each other. This is your opportunity to appreciate and augment your bond, to revel in the good fortune of finding each other, to build and strengthen your alliance, to coalesce your physical, emotional, and mental connections.

As with any endeavor, practice makes perfect. You may feel a bit awkward at first, unsure of how you can decompress and move to a place of stressfree interaction. Preparing the environment is helpful. Light candles and incense, adjust the lighting, choose mood-setting music, warm some massage oil. Perhaps you will want to begin with a bath or shower, together. Make eye contact before you make skin contact. Coo and smile. Relax. The time is yours to experience as you wish. It is an opportunity to refuel your personal, as well as your interpersonal, resources. It will not be long before you wonder how you ever managed without these luxurious, restorative interludes.