Cultivating Good Sex in Long-Term Relationships

It’s Utopia, the lost city of Atlantis, and Mount Olympus all rolled into one: the idea that we can have good—sorry, make that great—sex years into monogamy. But what if it’s not just a fantasy? What if mind-blowing sex really is attainable in a long- (and long-long-long-) term relationship? And what if we’ve been looking at good sex—what it is and how to get it—from entirely the wrong perspective?

Meet your “sexual self.” This is one of the fascinating ideas explored by psychiatrist Stephen Snyder, M.D., in his book Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship. Snyder posits that it’s our sexual self that holds the key to all that great sex, that mindfulness may be the biggest turn-on there is, and that sexual narcissism isn’t only acceptable; it’s requisite.

Whether you’ve been married for twenty years or you’re in the swipe-right chapter of your life, Snyder makes a compelling case that the essence of good—rewarding, memorable, impassioned—sex is understanding our sexual selves.

A Q&A with Stephen Snyder, M.D.


What is good sex? And is there a secret to it?


Here’s my favorite definition: Good sex makes you feel good about yourself. It makes you feel special. Validated. You think, Yes, that’s me. The me of me. Thank you for bringing me back home to where I really live.


Most books on sex subscribe to the idea that sex is just “friction plus fantasy.” But that’s not the kind of sex most of us are looking for. Good friction is nice—and certainly better than bad friction. But think about the greatest sex you ever had. Chances are it’s not the friction that made it memorable. And fantasy can be fun, but the sexual mind is a restless consumer—always wanting something new.


The kind of sex I’m recommending involves the heart as well as the mind and body. The emotion that goes with it is not really desire or lust—but rather gratitude, or perhaps awe. It’s a more personal feeling, and most of us feel it somewhere in our chest. A more accurate term for what I’m talking about might be “sex of the self.”


What is the “sexual self”?


Good sex engages a part of ourselves—what many therapists call the “sexual self”—that operates by its own distinct set of rules. Your sexual self is basically infantile. Good sex awakens unconscious memories from earliest infancy—of being held, stroked, rocked, nourished, and enjoyed by someone for whom, at that moment, you’re the most important person in the world.


Your sexual self is also extremely vulnerable; it lacks the coping capacities we adults take for granted. That’s why sex is such an emotional experience for people and why there are few human activities that can leave you feeling so good about yourself. Or so awful.


What are some big misconceptions you find patients have when it comes to good sex?


The first is that sex is primarily about pleasure. Sure, sex should feel good. But when you think about it from the perspective of the sexual self, sex is much more about getting someone’s complete and utter attention. It’s narcissistically rewarding. That’s the main reason people have sex rather than just masturbating.

The sexual self is deeply and utterly narcissistic, in the same way that very young children are narcissistic. They don’t worry that their needs might be excessive. They just want what they want.


When you’re intensely aroused, you may feel deeply involved with your partner, but you’re not really interested in hearing the details of how their day went. You want to be fussed over, told you’re wonderful, and treated like the most important person in the universe.


What’s the solution?


People can stop trying so hard to be good lovers. Couples spend too much time thinking about technique, which leads to a lot of very boring sex because there’s no passion in it. I have nothing against good technique. Hey, it’s whole lot better than bad technique. But technique has very little to do with great lovemaking.

Technique tends to be about giving. But your sexual self has no idea what the word “giving” even means. Think of a mother enjoying her baby’s feet. It’s purely selfish. But with any luck, that child will grow up with a deep unconscious feeling that the universe takes pleasure in his or her existence. Good sex should have that same organically selfish quality.

People worry that if they act more selfish in bed, they won’t feel as connected to their partner. The reality is that erotic selfishness can produce a deeper sense of connection than erotic generosity. If you simply enjoy your partner and take responsibility for your own arousal, then they can do the same, without having to worry about you.


“People worry that if they act more selfish in bed, they won’t feel as connected to their partner. The reality is that erotic selfishness can produce a deeper sense of connection than erotic generosity.”

I ask men in my practice, “When you touch your partner’s body, are you doing it for your pleasure or for hers?” Inevitably they say it’s the latter. But often there’s no passion in it. Most of us want to be consumed by lovers who thoroughly enjoy us.

We see a lot more written about sexual generosity than sexual selfishness, because sexual generosity is easier to write about. There are thousands of articles about “Seven Ways to Drive Him Crazy in Bed,” because that’s an easy piece to write. You call up a bunch of sex experts and ask for their favorite sex tips.

Sexual selfishness is much harder to write about. Obviously not all sexual selfishness is erotic. The kind of organic erotic selfishness we’ve been discussing here can connect two people on the deepest level. But obviously not all sexual selfishness has that organic, connected quality.


When you’re with someone for a long time, why does the fire eventually seem to burn out?


Eros seems more intended to get us into relationships than to keep us happy once we’re in one. The first few times you take off someone’s clothes, you transgress a social boundary—which on some primitive level feels dangerous and hot. New couples also need a lot of reassurance, and sex can be a powerful way to get that kind of reassurance. Later on, there’s virtually no transgression, and with any luck you’re less in need of reassurance, so you’ve just knocked out two of the main ingredients of new desire.

There’s lots of advice out there on how to keep it hot in a long-term relationship. Couples usually get told to try new things: sexy dates and destinations, getting kinky together, and so on. I think these things are for the most part a waste of time. They’re consumer society’s answer to erotic boredom.

Your sexual self is like a very small child. Give it a new toy and it will play with it for a week or so and then throw it away. In general you don’t want to work too hard to keep a child entertained. The child won’t end up any happier, and usually you’ll end up exhausting yourself.  

Much better to step back and let your sexual self cultivate its own potential for wonder. That begins with accepting that desire has its own rhythms, which you can’t control.

That’s one reason I often recommend some form of mindfulness training for people in couples. With mindfulness, you can tune in to the subtleties of desire. You can observe how arousal comes and goes, without getting too anxious about it. Most sexually happy couples stay contented not by seeking adventure but by disciplining themselves to pay attention to the ordinary erotic moments they share together. It’s been known for millennia that most real happiness comes from a sanctification of the ordinary.  


How does mindfulness relate to sex?


Mindfulness is all about paying attention, it exists only in the moment, and you have to suspend judgment for the whole thing to work—just like sexual arousal. As Masters and Johnson discovered over fifty years ago, most sex therapy involves learning to get out of your own way. So does most mindfulness practice. Masters and Johnson’s original techniques were mindfulness techniques, though they didn’t have the word for it yet.


Jon Kabat-Zinn, who derived the modern concept of mindfulness practice from traditional Buddhist meditation, notes that in many Asian languages, the word for “mind” also means “heart.” So “mindfulness” also necessarily implies “heartfulness.” Couples who practice mindful sex often report feeling that it’s more from the heart.

“Most sexually happy couples stay contented not by seeking adventure but by disciplining themselves to pay attention to the ordinary erotic moments they share together. It’s been known for millennia that most real happiness comes from a sanctification of the ordinary.”


I recommend couples do some kind of mindfulness practice before they have sex: I call it the two-step. Step one is some form of mindfulness practice—whatever works for you—and step two is to have sex. I think of the two-step as an alternative to sex dates, which couples in my office tell me don’t work so well. The problem with sex dates is that you can’t control desire. By the time your assigned sex date arrives, you might not really be in the mood. That’s a recipe for bad sex.

Instead, I usually suggest couples make a date to go to bed together for step one with the intention of doing nothing at all. Just spend a little time cultivating attention to the moment, noticing sensations, feelings, and thoughts but not getting too attached to any of them. There’s a kind of stillness you can achieve that way—sometimes more, sometimes less—that’s at the core of authentic arousal. That stillness is where all the good stuff happens.    


Any tips for staying honest about satisfaction and desires?


Ideally, each person should take responsibility for their own desire, their own arousal, and their own orgasms. Issues tend to arise, though, when there’s something you desire that your partner just doesn’t enjoy. Part of the art of good sex is to be able to express your desires while keeping in mind that the other person doesn’t exist to satisfy them.


It’s a good rule to absolutely avoid doing anything in bed that you don’t like. Don’t do it because it pleases your partner. Instead, find something else that you do like that your partner likes, too. Whatever it is, make sure it makes both of you happy. Otherwise, in the long run, no one’s going to be happy.


Any other advice for people in committed relationships who want to still have great sex?


Shut off your phones. As I mentioned above, the most important rewards of good lovemaking are narcissistic: having your partner’s complete attention and feeling in the moment that you’re the most important person in the universe. Sex used to be one of the few ways people could get that kind of narcissistic gratification. Nowadays, our phones supply us with endless narcissistic rewards—likes, follows, shares, and so on. It’s also our electronic devices themselves. They’re so responsive. They’re beautiful, they light up when you touch them, and they’re always happy to see you. That’s very narcissistically gratifying.


What’s a couple to do? One thing I suggest is for a couple to make sure to let themselves get aroused together every day, even if they don’t have time or energy to have sex.  For example, just for a minute or two before falling asleep or before you leave in the morning to go to work. That way, you keep your private love channel open.

Unfortunately, many long-term couples avoid getting aroused unless they’re going to have sex—as if arousal were something you shouldn’t mess with unless you plan to extinguish it by orgasm. That’s silly. Arousal feels good. Sure, it can be frustrating if you get aroused and you have to wait till later to have sex. But a little frustration can be erotic—especially now, when everything else increasingly happens at light speed.  

Stephen Snyder, M.D., is an AASECT-certified sex and relationship therapist in full-time private practice in New York City. He’s an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Love Worth Making (St Martin’s Press, 2018) is Snyder’s first book—drawn from his thirty-plus years of experience helping over 1,500 individuals and couples find greater sexual fulfillment in relationships.

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