Finding the Spark Again (or for the First Time)


Aphrodisiacs have been around probably as long as humans have been around. Take a look at Botticelli’s famous painting, Birth of Venus, and you can see why oysters have been linked to hot sex. When I was a teenager, people would talk about the turn-on Green M&M’s could bring and that’s still depicted today with the cartoon version of M&M’s popularized in commercials where the only female candy is green and overtly sexual. And before anyone ever heard of Viagra, there was something called Yohimbine which is an oil from the bark of a West African tree which was made into a tea and used as a general aphrodisiac and cure for impotency for hundreds of years. 

Why all the focus on getting partners turned on and making sure everyone could perform? The answer to that is easy, many of you might say. It’s because we’re wired to procreate and pass along our DNA. While this is true, thinking of sex in a vacuum doesn’t tell a full story. It’s also the reason so many couples get stuck around sex in their relationship. 

Biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher, Senior Research Fellow at the Kinsey Institute, has been studying our brains in relation to sex, love and relationships for decades. She’s come up with some important findings in the quest to figure out how to build your relationship and get that spark back.  

Dr. Fisher has identified three different brain systems in relationships which I have dubbed the Relationship Brain Constellation. I want you to think of it this way, as a constellation, because all three work together. One isn’t more important than another in creating a connected and hot relationship. Each star of the constellation has an important brain chemical associated with it. If you want to get that spark back, you need to focus on creating each of these chemicals.

The three stars she’s identified are: 

  1. Sex and lust
  2. Your feelings of attachment and trust
  3. Being in love and romance

1. Let’s talk about Sex and Testosterone. The chemical that you need to focus on in relation to your sex drive is testosterone. Testosterone is in a class of hormones called androgens. In general, the more testosterone you’ve got, the more sex you want. 

Testosterone starts to slowly decrease in men, typically after age 30. Besides aging, weight gain, decreased movement, some medications and emotional or physical stress can all cause lower levels of testosterone. 

What many people don’t realize is that women also have testosterone. Although women’s testosterone is much lower than men’s, it’s still an important hormone related to sex and mood. For women, testosterone decreases by about half by the time we’re 40. This directly affects sexual desire and satisfaction but can also be a contributing factor to depression and anxiety. For both men and women, a decreased sex drive tends to be related to stress, lack of movement, relationship issues, and tiredness.

Stress is such a big culprit because, when you’re stressed, you’re releasing other hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine (which is also known as adrenaline). These are the hormones preparing you to fight or flee. As you might imagine, if a tiger was jumping out to eat you, sex should be the last thing on your mind. These hormonal disturbances are at the core of a lower sex drive. 

So, what do you do to create more testosterone and have a higher libido and more satisfying sex life? Competitive and/or aerobic exercise is the winner here for a few reasons. 

First, competitive exercise increases testosterone levels in the body and helps keep them on an even keel when you do it consistently. 

Second, aerobic exercise is the best antidote for stress. Some studies show it’s more effective than medication. Exercise burns off those stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline while pumping up the production of endorphins and enkephalins. Endorphins and enkephalins are neurotransmitters (a fancy way of saying they’re your brain’s chemical messengers) that help relieve pain, anxiety and stress. Basically, these chemicals are your brain’s natural valium. Decreased stress equals hotter sex.

Lastly, exercise also helps with sleep. Remember, being tired is one of the other key factors that reduces sex drive. By the way, some studies have shown that having sex raises testosterone levels, so the more sex you have, the more sex you you’ll want. 

2. Let’s talk about attachment and trust: The chemical you need to focus on if you want to create feelings of trust and attachment in your relationship, is oxytocin. Oxytocin is basically a bonding hormone, most famously produced when women have babies. However, you can create it all the time with something a lot simpler than having a baby; you can create it easily with touch. Get in the habit of touching your partner often. This could mean holding hands, spooning at night, cuddling on the couch, giving a foot massage or any other way you can pump up the touch volume in your relationship. 

Having sex, but especially an orgasm, is the way to release the most oxytocin and build feelings of attachment and trust quickly. Outside of the actual act of sex, men get the most oxytocin when they kiss, and women get the most when they hold hands. So, make sure you’re doing more of what your partner wants when it comes to the oxytocin build. 

When you trust your partner, the sex can get REALLY good. You’re willing to try new things, you’re not so worried about looking stupid or embarrassing yourself. You’ll go for it because you trust that it’s a safe space. 

Hot sex is messy: you might choke (and even throw up a little) giving a blow job; you might see some poop if you try anal sex; you could find out the hard way that the living room coffee table doesn’t support your weight when you try to have sex on it; you might find that you have no dirty talk game or that when you scream out “eat my pussy!” your partner pulls back and then you feel embarrassed. 

If you have missionary sex, every Tuesday at 8:00, only in your bed, for 20 years I’m going to go out on a limb and say there’s no way you’ve got erotic spark happening! By definition, an erotic sex life with your long-term partner is going to mean bringing something new in.

When we try new things, they don’t always work. We’re putting our fragile egos on the line and we need to trust that our partner will be there with us as we take risks. 

3. Let’s talk about love, romance and dopamine. The chemical you need to focus on to create that “in love” feeling is another neurotransmitter called, dopamine. Dopamine is one of the main components in the brain’s pleasure center and studies have shown that dopamine stimulates romantic love. 

How do you get that dopamine flowing to get that in love, romantic feeling? Research shows that trying new things or novelty triggers the release of dopamine in the brain. I like to say, “Happy couples do new things together.” 

When you have a new experience your reward system is activated and floods with dopamine and other neurotransmitters. These are the same brain circuits that fire when you first fall in love. You remember that feeling of new love when you can’t stop thinking and fantasizing about the other person and your whole life feels better and more exciting? Doing new things together can recreate that feeling again. Numerous research studies have shown that the more novelty you introduce, the closer a couple gets.  Once again, closeness and that “in love” feeling definitely leads to wanting more sex and to taking more risks with sex which can lead to a more erotic sex life. 

I want you to make a plan to do something new together.

I want you to choose something neither of you has ever done before so you can learn something fresh and different together. You can go to an ashram and learn to meditate, learn to ice skate if neither of you knows how, take a metal-smithing class, do a walking tour in a nearby city or try that Ethiopian Restaurant that you’ve thought looked strange but interesting. If you’re really desperate, try Date Nite Box they’ll schedule your whole date and you don’t need to do anything but pay and show up. No matter what you choose, make it something where you’re both on the same learning curve so you can create something new together.  

So, now you know about the Relationship Brain Constellation and how each star is important to getting and maintaining a happy and satisfying sex life. 

Domestic or Erotic?

But no talk about getting the spark back would be complete without talking about the work of Esther Perel. Dr. Perel is an expert in the relationship field, especially around this idea of sizzling, even after years together. If you haven’t read Mating in Captivity yet, it’s a great book that examines what she sees as the main issue in long-term relationships. The reconciling of security and adventure. 

In other words, we want stability, sureness, dependability and security (domesticism) but we also want spontaneity, desire, risk, newness, what’s taboo and adventure (eroticism). How do you have both in a relationship, especially after many years together?

One of the questions she’s asked in her exploration is: “When are you most drawn to your partner?” I love this question because it’s not about when you find your partner most attractive, sexy or fun. Instead, it’s asking about when you feel that pull toward your partner versus feeling like you want to step back. 

The two big answers were:

  1. I’m most drawn to my partner when they’re away (when we’re apart and then we reunite)
  2. When they’re in their element or doing something they’re passionate about; when they’re holding court at a party; when I look at my partner and their “radiant and confident”. She explains this word “radiant” as being self-sustaining. It’s when your partner is strong on their own. 

Let’s talk about that first answer. I’m most drawn to my partner when they’re away (when we’re apart and then we reunite). The well-known quote, “Distance makes the heart grow fonder” couldn’t be more true. To have some of this balance from feeling like a mom, dad, or bored partner to feeling like a risk-taking sex machine, there needs to be some mystery, some distance, some anticipation. The daily grind of bills, farting, picking up after people, going to work, commuting, is all about the stability and it’s a hot sex killer. 

Having some distance breathes life into things. Having too much distance, of course, can be detrimental, so finding the balance is key. Are you taking a “gals/guys” weekend with regularity? Do you have things you do on your own and not “as a couple?” Do you have interests outside the couple? 

Also, with all the texting and ways to be connected these days, we often don’t get breaks from our partners. It wasn’t that long ago that, when you went to work, you didn’t speak to your partner until you saw them again that night. There were no cell phones, emails, social media or the myriad of ways we stay connected today. There’s something important about having some distance and to allow yourself to fully be where you are. When you’re at work, don’t be distracted by things at home and vice-versa. Allow yourself the luxury of complete attention to a given thing – it’ll change your life (and your effectiveness). 

Now let’s talk about that second answer: You’re drawn to your partner when they’re in their element or doing something they’re passionate about; when your partner is strong on their own. One of the issues that’s way too common in heterosexual relationships, especially with the introduction of children, is that women become caretakers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a wife say to me, “I’ve got 3 children at home: my husband and my two young boys.” This is a set up for being roommates, not lovers. 

It’s also somewhat common for a stay-at-home parent to become needy with their partner. They’ve spent the day disconnected from adults and, when their partner comes home from work, can pounce on them in their thirst for adult conversation.

I remember feeling quite needy myself when I first had my kids. Not being at work, I found that I lost quite a bit of myself and how I fed my ego. While I loved my children and was grateful to have some months home with them, I felt adrift. I’m also the youngest child in my family so never had any experience with babies. In fact, the first diaper I ever changed was my son’s! I felt completely out of my element and in over my head, so I definitely clung to their dad!

As Perel so eloquently says, caretaking and neediness are not components of desire.

So, what can you do to bridge this gap?

Tip #1:

Remember that foreplay happens all the time. It is not the five minutes before actual penetration. Put energy into the other stars of the Relationship Brain Constellation, building trust and romance. If you’re only focused on the sex, you’re missing some key components that will, ultimately, make your sex life WAY better!

Tip #2:

Having said that, once you’ve been working on those other two stars, you have to come back to the sex and lust and make that a priority too. Have it scheduled or on your “to do” list every week. Don’t just wait until the feeling overtakes you – it’s likely not going to happen that way. Get premeditated when it comes to your sex life. Wear nice lingerie or underwear all day long, every day. Keep things waxed, shaved, clean and kept all year long. 

If I waited to work out until I felt like it, it would never happen. It’s totally premeditated and, guess what? After every single workout I’m happy I did it. There’s not one workout I’ve had, even if I wasn’t at my best, where I thought, “Well, I should have just slept in.” Planning time to have sex doesn’t make it bad or boring. What you do with that planned time is where you get creative. What are your fantasies? Do you like to watch porn on your own? Masturbate in the bathroom at work? Collect anal plugs? Would you like to be dominated in the bedroom? Role play? Bring in another person? 

Focus on allowing yourself to be completely vulnerable and honest in the bedroom. Go with what you really want and have that be separate from what happens in other parts of the relationship. Have your own sexual persona that’s somewhat different from how you are in other ways in your life. Build that. 

When all of this is said and done, I want you to remember that it’s not more sex you’re necessarily looking for. Instead, it’s more exciting, more erotic, more connected sex that you crave. Focus on that.

Dr. Abby with her Book "Be Happily Married, Even If Your Partner Won't Do A Thing"


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