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← How couples can sustain a strong sexual connection for a lifetime

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Showing Revision 7 created 09/24/2019 by Brian Greene.

  1. I'm sitting in a bar
    with a couple of friends --
  2. literally, a couple, married couple.
  3. They're the parents of two young children,
  4. seven academic degrees between them,
  5. big nerds, really nice people
    but very sleep-deprived.
  6. And they ask me the question
    I get asked more than any other question.
  7. They go, "So, Emily,
  8. how do couples, you know,
    sustain a strong sexual connection
  9. over multiple decades?"
  10. I'm a sex educator, which is why
    my friends ask me questions like this,

  11. and I am also a big nerd like my friends.
  12. I love science, which is why
    I can give them something like an answer.
  13. Research actually has
    pretty solid evidence
  14. that couples who sustain
    strong sexual connections
  15. over multiple decades
  16. have two things in common.
  17. Before I can tell my friends
    what those two things are,

  18. I have to tell them a few things
    that they are not.
  19. These are not couples
    who have sex very often.
  20. Almost none of us have sex very often.
  21. We are busy.
  22. They are also not couples who necessarily
    have wild, adventurous sex.
  23. One recent study actually found
  24. that the couples
    who are most strongly predicted
  25. to have strong sexual
    and relationship satisfaction,
  26. the best predictor of that
  27. is not what kind of sex they have
  28. or how often or where they have it
  29. but whether they cuddle after sex.
  30. And they are not necessarily couples
  31. who constantly can't wait
    to keep their hands off each other.
  32. Some of them are.
  33. They experience what the researchers
    call "spontaneous desire,"
  34. that just sort of seems
    to appear out of the blue.
  35. Erika Moen, the cartoonist
    who illustrated my book,
  36. draws spontaneous desire
    as a lightning bolt to the genitals --
  37. kaboom! -- you just want it
    out of the blue.
  38. That is absolutely one normal,
    healthy way to experience sexual desire.
  39. But there's another healthy way
    to experience sexual desire.
  40. It's called "responsive desire."
  41. Where spontaneous desire seems
    to emerge in anticipation of pleasure,
  42. responsive desire emerges
    in response to pleasure.
  43. There's a sex therapist in New Jersey
    named Christine Hyde,

  44. who taught me this great metaphor
    she uses with her clients.
  45. She says, imagine that your best friend
    invites you to a party.
  46. You say yes because
    it's your best friend and a party.
  47. But then, as the date approaches,
    you start thinking,
  48. "Aw, there's going to be all this traffic.
  49. We have to find child care.
  50. Am I really going to want
    to put my party clothes on
  51. and get there at the end of the week?"
  52. But you put on your party clothes
    and you show up to the party,
  53. and what happens?
  54. You have a good time at the party.
  55. If you are having fun at the party,
  56. you are doing it right.
  57. When it comes to a sexual connection,
    it's the same thing.

  58. You put on your party clothes,
  59. you set up the child care,
  60. you put your body in the bed,
  61. you let your skin
    touch your partner's skin
  62. and allow your body
    to wake up and remember,
  63. "Oh, right! I like this.
  64. I like this person!"
  65. That's responsive desire,
  66. and it is key to understanding the couples
    who sustain a strong sexual connection
  67. over the long term,
  68. because -- and this is the part
    where I tell my friends
  69. the two characteristics of the couples who
    do sustain a strong sexual connection --
  70. one, they have a strong friendship
    at the foundation of their relationship.
  71. Specifically, they have strong trust.
  72. Relationship researcher and therapist,
  73. developer of emotionally focused therapy,
  74. Sue Johnson,
  75. boils trust down to this question:
  76. Are you there for me?
  77. Especially, are you emotionally
    present and available for me?
  78. Friends are there for each other.
  79. One.
  80. The second characteristic
    is that they prioritize sex.

  81. They decide that it matters
    for their relationship.
  82. They choose to set aside all the other
    things that they could be doing --
  83. the children they could be raising
    and the jobs they could be going to,
  84. the other family members
    to pay attention to,
  85. the other friends they might
    want to hang out with.
  86. God forbid they just want
    to watch some television or go to sleep.
  87. Stop doing all that stuff
    and create a protected space
  88. where all you're going to do
    is put your body in the bed
  89. and let your skin
    touch your partner's skin.
  90. So that's it:
  91. best friends,
  92. prioritize sex.
  93. So I said this to my friends in the bar.

  94. I was like, best friends, prioritize sex,
    I told them about the party,
  95. I said you put your skin
    next to your partner's skin.
  96. And one of the partners
    I was talking to goes, "Aaagh."
  97. (Laughter)

  98. And I was like, "OK,
    so, there's your problem."

  99. (Laughter)

  100. The difficulty was not that they did not
    want to go to the party, necessarily.

  101. If the difficulty is just a lack
    of spontaneous desire for party,
  102. you know what to do:
  103. you put on your party clothes
    and show up for the party.
  104. If you're having fun at the party,
    you're doing it right.
  105. Their difficulty was that this was a party
  106. where she didn't love
    what there was available to eat,
  107. the music was not her favorite music,
  108. and she wasn't totally sure she felt great
    about her relationships with people
  109. who were at the party.
  110. And this happens all the time:
  111. nice people who love each other
    come to dread sex.
  112. These couples, if they seek sex therapy,
  113. the therapist might have them stand up
  114. and put as much distance
    between their bodies as they need
  115. in order to feel comfortable,
  116. and the less interested partner
    will make 20 feet of space.
  117. And the really difficult part
    is that space is not empty.

  118. It is crowded with weeks or months or more
  119. of the, "You're not listening to me,"
  120. and "I don't know what's wrong with me
    but your criticism isn't helping,"
  121. and, "If you loved me, you would,"
    and, "You're not there for me."
  122. Years, maybe, of all
    these difficult feelings.
  123. In the book, I use
    this really silly metaphor
  124. of difficult feelings as sleepy hedgehogs
  125. that you are fostering until
    you can find a way to set them free
  126. by turning toward them
    with kindness and compassion.
  127. And the couples who struggle
    to maintain a strong sexual connection,
  128. the distance between them
    is crowded with these sleepy hedgehogs.
  129. And it happens in any relationship
    that lasts long enough.

  130. You, too, are fostering
    a prickle of sleepy hedgehogs
  131. between you and your certain
    special someone.
  132. The difference between couples
    who sustain a strong sexual connection
  133. and the ones who don't
  134. is not that they don't experience
    these difficult hurt feelings,
  135. it's that they turn towards
    those difficult feelings
  136. with kindness and compassion
  137. so that they can set them free
  138. and find their way back to each other.
  139. So my friends in the bar are faced
    with the question under the question,
  140. not, "How do we sustain
    a strong connection?"
  141. but, "How do we find our way back to it?"
  142. And, yes, there is science
    to answer this question,
  143. but in 25 years as a sex educator,
  144. one thing I have learned
    is sometimes, Emily,
  145. less science,
  146. more hedgehogs.
  147. So I told them about me.
  148. I spent many months writing a book about
    the science of women's sexual well-being.

  149. I was thinking about sex
    all day, every day,
  150. and I was so stressed by the project
    that I had zero -- zero! -- interest
  151. in actually having any sex.
  152. And then I spent months
    traveling all over,
  153. talking with anyone who would listen
  154. about the science
    of women's sexual well-being.
  155. And by the time I got home, you know,
  156. I'd show up for the party,
    put my body in the bed,
  157. let my skin touch my partner's skin,
  158. and I was so exhausted and overwhelmed
    I would just cry and fall asleep.
  159. And the months of isolation
    fostered fear and loneliness
  160. and frustration.
  161. So many hedgehogs.
  162. My best friend, this person
    I love and admire,
  163. felt a million miles away.
  164. But ...

  165. he was still there for me.
  166. No matter how many
    difficult feelings there were,
  167. he turned toward them
    with kindness and compassion.
  168. He never turned away.
  169. And what was the second characteristic
  170. of couples who sustain
    a strong sexual connection?
  171. They prioritize sex.
  172. They decide that it matters
    for their relationship,
  173. that they do what it takes
    to find their way back to the connection.
  174. I told my friends what sex therapist
    and researcher Peggy Kleinplatz says.
  175. She asks: What kind of sex
    is worth wanting?
  176. My partner and I looked
    at the quality of our connection
  177. and what it brought to our lives,
  178. and we looked at the family
    of sleepy hedgehogs
  179. I had introduced into our home.
  180. And we decided it was worth it.
  181. We decided -- we chose -- to do
    what it took to find our way,
  182. turning towards each
    of those sleepy hedgehogs,
  183. those difficult hurt feelings,
  184. with kindness and compassion
  185. and setting them free
    so that we could find our way back
  186. to the connection that mattered
    for our relationship.
  187. This is not the story we are usually told

  188. about how sexual desire works
    in long-term relationships.
  189. But I can think of nothing more romantic,
  190. nothing sexier,
  191. than being chosen as a priority
  192. because that connection matters enough,
  193. even after I introduced all of these
    difficult feelings into our relationship.
  194. How do you sustain a strong
    sexual connection over the long term?

  195. You look into the eyes
    of your best friend,
  196. and you keep choosing
    to find your way back.
  197. Thank you.

  198. (Applause)