Around the same time I graduated with a Ph.D. and started to pursue a career as a part-time academic and part-time sex educator, I got married.
I’d heard about how marriage can change a relationship, and I was confident that with my budding sex ed knowledge set and tool kit, I could handle it. After all, I was going to major sex education conferences like Woodhull and AASECT, networking with the stars of our field, voraciously reading books, taking workshops (like the SAR, or Sexual Attitude Reassessment), writing for sites like MySexProfessor and Kinkly, and stuffing as much sexuality knowledge into my head as I could. What could go wrong with this plan?
Plenty, as it turns out. I was so focused on acquiring sex facts and tips that I forgot to take into account my own needs, and the needs of my partner, in our marriage. I forgot about how much of a toll major life transitions – and concurrent ones at that – could take on a person’s sex life. Plus, I wasn’t really prepared for how much intertwining my life with another person’s would change how we interacted, which in turn impacted my ideas and expectations around sex. The good news is that we put in the work, and I was able to use my sex ed skills to level up my married sex. Here’s how I did it.
Start With Self-knowledge and Communication.
The ancient Greek oracle Pythia reputedly had the words “Know thyself” inscribed at the entrance to her shrine at Delphi. This is nowhere truer than with married sex.
You need to take responsibility for knowing your sexual preferences. Your spouse cannot know what goes on inside your head, heart or genitals. It’s on you to know what facilitates or impedes your arousal, and then to use your words to tell your partner these things.
Some things it might be useful to know about yourself include:
- Is there a time of day or night when you feel most aroused or desirous of sex? How can you synchronize your schedules to spend time together then?
- Do you know if you tend to have responsive or spontaneous arousal, in the words of Dr. Emily Nagoski? Knowing how you respond to sexual stimuli can help you coordinate your arousal patterns with your partner’s.
- What do you fantasize about? Which fantasies can you share with your partner, either verbally or in the form of role play?
- What do you need in terms of environment to feel comfortable having sex? Some people like to have sex in every room of a house once they start living together, while others prefer the comfort of a bed. Is having toys, lube and safer sex supplies within reach important to you? Or is part of the fun the sense of immediacy, which can work with a scramble to get your hands on the basics?
Schedule Sex Dates. Yes, Really.
Scheduling sex sounds like such a drag, and many people assume it’ll just kill the mood. But it's really about being realistic. Married adults tend to get really busy really fast. Sometimes, if you don’t make time for sex, it’ll slide lower on the priority list until it’s rarely happening.
Give Yourself Permission to Play Sensually Without Committing to Sex.
At the same time, if every time you engage with your partner you’re thinking that it has to result in sex or else it’s a meaningless encounter, that’s also a potential mood-killer. Feeling pressured to have sex, even when no one’s intending to apply pressure, can be off-putting to many folks. One way to get around this is to engage in sessions that focus on sensual touch alone. Can you set a timer to make out for just five minutes, promising not to escalate at all? You might be surprised at how sexy that feels!
Learn Your Partner’s Love Language and Use It. Advocate the Same in Return.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of love languages, the brief version is that most people are geared to be more receptive toward affection expressed in one of five ways: giving gifts, physical touch, words of affirmation/praise, quality time, and acts of service. While you can read Gary Chapman’s books that introduce these concepts, be aware that they’re a bit heterosexist and mono-centric, as I note in my review of the first book.
The truth is that learning to speak someone else’s love language can feel weird, arbitrary and fake at first. Poly writer Ferrett describes this awkwardness, and counsels everyone – regardless of their relationship style – to suck it up and learn to speak your partner’s love language anyway. It’ll pay off later.
However, the flip side is that you have to gently, constantly remind your partner to keep taking those baby steps to speak to you in your love language. You have to remember when they’ve failed yet again to do the one thing you’ve asked them to try to do, that it’s probably not malicious. It simply didn’t occur to them because it’s not how their brain works.
Find Ways to Break the Touch Barrier.
The term “touch barrier” has been used by dating coaches and pick-up artists alike (in ways that are sometimes creepy and consent-obscuring), but I believe that in the context of a married or long-term co-habitating couple, it takes on a special connotation. Probably you two have already been physically intimate in some fashion, whatever that looks like in your relationship, so it’s not a matter of touching someone for the very first time.
Instead, my sense is that in a marriage, spouses can get so used to practical touching moments (handing off a baby, folding laundry together) that it becomes difficult to initiate sensual or sexual touching moments. It’s important to challenge the experiences that pile up that reinforce the sense that you’re domestic partners first and foremost, because as Esther Perel has brilliantly noted in her TED talk, security and arousal are often at opposite poles of human experience.
So, what are some ways that you can (consensually, of course) initiate touch with your spouse outside of daily tasks? My spouse, whose main love language is physical touch while mine is most definitely not, suggested playing a game where we competed to see who would remember to lovingly touch the other person first as soon as we both entered the same room. Who won? We both did – it helped put affectionate touch on my radar more often, and he got his touch needs met more frequently.
Even if you’re intelligent and good at relationship communication, and even if you’ve got a background in gender/sexuality studies like I do, married sex can pose unique challenges. Take advantage of resources like Adult Sex Ed Month here at Kinkly to stay engaged in learning about not only concrete sex topics but also what sex means to you!