How couples can sustain a strong sexual connection for a lifetime | Emily Nagoski


I’m sitting in a bar
with a couple of friends — literally, a couple, married couple. They’re the parents of two young children, seven academic degrees between them, big nerds, really nice people
but very sleep-deprived. And they ask me the question
I get asked more than any other question. They go, “So, Emily, how do couples, you know,
sustain a strong sexual connection over multiple decades?” I’m a sex educator, which is why
my friends ask me questions like this, and I am also a big nerd like my friends. I love science, which is why
I can give them something like an answer. Research actually has
pretty solid evidence that couples who sustain
strong sexual connections over multiple decades have two things in common. Before I can tell my friends
what those two things are, I have to tell them a few things
that they are not. These are not couples
who have sex very often. Almost none of us have sex very often. We are busy. They are also not couples who necessarily
have wild, adventurous sex. One recent study actually found that the couples
who are most strongly predicted to have strong sexual
and relationship satisfaction, the best predictor of that is not what kind of sex they have or how often or where they have it but whether they cuddle after sex. And they are not necessarily couples who constantly can’t wait
to keep their hands off each other. Some of them are. They experience what the researchers
call “spontaneous desire,” that just sort of seems
to appear out of the blue. Erika Moen, the cartoonist
who illustrated my book, draws spontaneous desire
as a lightning bolt to the genitals — kaboom! — you just want it
out of the blue. That is absolutely one normal,
healthy way to experience sexual desire. But there’s another healthy way
to experience sexual desire. It’s called “responsive desire.” Where spontaneous desire seems
to emerge in anticipation of pleasure, responsive desire emerges
in response to pleasure. There’s a sex therapist in New Jersey
named Christine Hyde, who taught me this great metaphor
she uses with her clients. She says, imagine that your best friend
invites you to a party. You say yes because
it’s your best friend and a party. But then, as the date approaches,
you start thinking, “Aw, there’s going to be all this traffic. We have to find child care. Am I really going to want
to put my party clothes on and get there at the end of the week?” But you put on your party clothes
and you show up to the party, and what happens? You have a good time at the party. If you are having fun at the party, you are doing it right. When it comes to a sexual connection,
it’s the same thing. You put on your party clothes, you set up the child care, you put your body in the bed, you let your skin
touch your partner’s skin and allow your body
to wake up and remember, “Oh, right! I like this. I like this person!” That’s responsive desire, and it is key to understanding the couples
who sustain a strong sexual connection over the long term, because — and this is the part
where I tell my friends the two characteristics of the couples who
do sustain a strong sexual connection — one, they have a strong friendship
at the foundation of their relationship. Specifically, they have strong trust. Relationship researcher and therapist, developer of emotionally focused therapy, Sue Johnson, boils trust down to this question: Are you there for me? Especially, are you emotionally
present and available for me? Friends are there for each other. One. The second characteristic
is that they prioritize sex. They decide that it matters
for their relationship. They choose to set aside all the other
things that they could be doing — the children they could be raising
and the jobs they could be going to, the other family members
to pay attention to, the other friends they might
want to hang out with. God forbid they just want
to watch some television or go to sleep. Stop doing all that stuff
and create a protected space where all you’re going to do
is put your body in the bed and let your skin
touch your partner’s skin. So that’s it: best friends, prioritize sex. So I said this to my friends in the bar. I was like, best friends, prioritize sex,
I told them about the party, I said you put your skin
next to your partner’s skin. And one of the partners
I was talking to goes, “Aaagh.” (Laughter) And I was like, “OK,
so, there’s your problem.” (Laughter) The difficulty was not that they did not
want to go to the party, necessarily. If the difficulty is just a lack
of spontaneous desire for party, you know what to do: you put on your party clothes
and show up for the party. If you’re having fun at the party,
you’re doing it right. Their difficulty was that this was a party where she didn’t love
what there was available to eat, the music was not her favorite music, and she wasn’t totally sure she felt great
about her relationships with people who were at the party. And this happens all the time: nice people who love each other
come to dread sex. These couples, if they seek sex therapy, the therapist might have them stand up and put as much distance
between their bodies as they need in order to feel comfortable, and the less interested partner
will make 20 feet of space. And the really difficult part
is that space is not empty. It is crowded with weeks or months or more of the, “You’re not listening to me,” and “I don’t know what’s wrong with me
but your criticism isn’t helping,” and, “If you loved me, you would,”
and, “You’re not there for me.” Years, maybe, of all
these difficult feelings. In the book, I use
this really silly metaphor of difficult feelings as sleepy hedgehogs that you are fostering until
you can find a way to set them free by turning toward them
with kindness and compassion. And the couples who struggle
to maintain a strong sexual connection, the distance between them
is crowded with these sleepy hedgehogs. And it happens in any relationship
that lasts long enough. You, too, are fostering
a prickle of sleepy hedgehogs between you and your certain
special someone. The difference between couples
who sustain a strong sexual connection and the ones who don’t is not that they don’t experience
these difficult hurt feelings, it’s that they turn towards
those difficult feelings with kindness and compassion so that they can set them free and find their way back to each other. So my friends in the bar are faced
with the question under the question, not, “How do we sustain
a strong connection?” but, “How do we find our way back to it?” And, yes, there is science
to answer this question, but in 25 years as a sex educator, one thing I have learned
is sometimes, Emily, less science, more hedgehogs. So I told them about me. I spent many months writing a book about
the science of women’s sexual well-being. I was thinking about sex
all day, every day, and I was so stressed by the project
that I had zero — zero! — interest in actually having any sex. And then I spent months
traveling all over, talking with anyone who would listen about the science
of women’s sexual well-being. And by the time I got home, you know, I’d show up for the party,
put my body in the bed, let my skin touch my partner’s skin, and I was so exhausted and overwhelmed
I would just cry and fall asleep. And the months of isolation
fostered fear and loneliness and frustration. So many hedgehogs. My best friend, this person
I love and admire, felt a million miles away. But … he was still there for me. No matter how many
difficult feelings there were, he turned toward them
with kindness and compassion. He never turned away. And what was the second characteristic of couples who sustain
a strong sexual connection? They prioritize sex. They decide that it matters
for their relationship, that they do what it takes
to find their way back to the connection. I told my friends what sex therapist
and researcher Peggy Kleinplatz says. She asks: What kind of sex
is worth wanting? My partner and I looked
at the quality of our connection and what it brought to our lives, and we looked at the family
of sleepy hedgehogs I had introduced into our home. And we decided it was worth it. We decided — we chose — to do
what it took to find our way, turning towards each
of those sleepy hedgehogs, those difficult hurt feelings, with kindness and compassion and setting them free
so that we could find our way back to the connection that mattered
for our relationship. This is not the story we are usually told about how sexual desire works
in long-term relationships. But I can think of nothing more romantic, nothing sexier, than being chosen as a priority because that connection matters enough, even after I introduced all of these
difficult feelings into our relationship. How do you sustain a strong
sexual connection over the long term? You look into the eyes
of your best friend, and you keep choosing
to find your way back. Thank you. (Applause)

100 comments

Girl….you haven't lived long enough to know what you're talking about. Stop reading the books, and wait 20 years, then get back to us 🙄

Is it me or I see more and more single people nowadays? I think a "Why there's more single people now than ever" Ted talk would be a more relevant topic instead

change your hair color seems to be the answer for the low iq group. party has nothing to do with any part of a relationship. she is so wrong in so many ways.

I cannot agree with the best friend thing… not the Idea of trust but the Idea of calling my partner my best friend – It's a huge turn off…

Nope… and nope.
It's all about the person who says No. After that why even care to make the effort.
Can you say Control?

Strong sexual connection is all about POLARITY in a relationship.
Attraction is pulling power between the opposites (masculine and feminine energies).
Regardless of orientation.

A very sensible, to the point and beautiful talk. No paraphernalia whatsoever , she said what needed to be said . Thanks Emily.

Loved this! Helped me think of my relationship in a completely different way. And I enjoyed the fostering hedgehogs metaphor!

Thank you for this. Very well said. Science tells us so much but being able to use what we know is different. You did a great job bringing the conversation to a applicable level!

Great talk but this comment section is horrific. You can deff tell all the uneducated and miserable people…the amount of idiocracy I just read just makes me SMH.

Those who are saying they need a partner beforehand, what she’s talking about is the attitude: knowing what you want and not neglecting it. Cherishing what you have at hands is not an easy thing. Especially when you get used to having your partner around, you may start taking their presence for granted. Think abt what you love and see what you are doing with it or for it. If you start practicing appreciation once you finally meet the one, it might be a little late, cuz you can’t build a habit of appreciating and showing affection in a day.
Hope this delivers.

What’s the sexuality for giving the D to every woman who wants it? That’s my sexuality. One partner for life is a prison sentence.

Well that's the first TedTalk I've listened to in a long time that didn't suck. Kudos. And thanks for your perspectives.

She loves me. She doesn't want me to die of prostate cancer. She helps me achieve two oreganos per week for the lifetime of our contract (and yes I will reciprocate). Two oreganos per week lowers my chances of getting cancer by a third. (Hand not good enough, has to be an orifice.)

Saw a blue haired feminist looking lady, instantly downvoted. Thought about it for a minute and decided that's not the kind of action I want to take part in. Went back and listened to the talk, I thought it was fantastic, excellent well based points with good data and presentation. Happily changed my thumbs down to up and learned a good lesson.

How about sustained marriage and family? Listen to the kid below "I need a girlfriend first" WTF are you teaching our children?

“Two things in common,” I got that far and thought, they’re both humans?

Alright…now let’s see what her two things are lol.

What do you do when your spouse absolutely refuses to “find their way back” (including refusing to go to counseling)?

I needed to hear this talk. I'm so tired and have been since the birth of my second son (who's nearly 21, so it's been a long time) and I would like to even be interested. Your words have given me a way to find my way back. Thank you.

Generalising is a problem on any topic. But points and tips are worth keeping for future use as circumstances always change. They always do.

Take note of Emily's tips, they are worth those possible circumstances when they arrives.

Exceptional video! Love it! Great points too. Just recently found your channel and added you to my list of best self development stuff! Feel free to check my stuff if you get a chance, I make videos on minimalism, productivity, Bullet journals, mental clarity and 30 day challenges 🙂 Have a wicked day!!!

I'm glad someone' finally tackling this very severe problem, my hand and I have not been too happy with each other as of late. I'll keep you guys on progress.

Call us in 50 years when you've succeeded in your own relationship honey. And as for your "science…" lol. Come study physics or biochemistry with me. You know. Real science.

Soft science is science of a sort. Unreliable. Buried in confounding factors. Virtually worthless for future predictions. But hey. They are useful for keeping those with low critical thinking skills out of the way of real scientists.

TED Talks used to be interesting. Covering actual science. Now they've become sociological garbage which does absolutely nothing to help Humanity.

Wow that's very powerful!!! Well said too!!! My husband and I just celebrated 10 yrs of marriage on Sept 12th, and 21 yrs in a committed relationship on Sept 18th, of 2019. We are bestfriends, and we choose to make each other as well as our sexual relationship a priority! It has worked for more than 21yrs for us. I love him, and I love hanging out and spending time with him. We are raiding our now almost 8 yr old granddaughter, and we enjoy spending time"quality" time with her. We go hiking in a local State Park, we go to local recreational parks so she can play, and so do we. It's romantic to still enjoy hanging out. And we have had our share of ups and downs as a couple. But always choose each other and our relationship and friendship. Love this video!!! Thank you for putting this out there. I wish more ppl could have and experience the friendship and warmth of their special person!!!

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