How to Keep the "Spark" in your Long-Term Relationship

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


Written by Pegleess Barrios

Everyone wants that spark in their relationships. But what is "spark"? University of Guelph professor and researcher Robin Milhausen, a leading expert and popular personality in sex research, presented a colloquium to the Clinical Psychology: Applied Developmental Emphasis graduate students last week, aiming to teach students what that "spark" is, and how people can maintain that in their long-term relationships.

Milhausen explains that the spark in a relationship, as defined in sex research, is a perceived passion and desire for one another. In other words, a relationship that doesn't lose its spark, by this definition, would be a relationship that is sexually satisfying and exciting for both parties involved. Milhausen examines what you can do to help maintain a spark, and what your partner can do as well.

There are several factors involved in creating and maintaining a passionate relationship that works for you, key aspects being: focus, mood, comfort with communication, body image, and perspective.

Focus is not something that may seem inherently important in the bedroom, but research shows that being focused during sex leads to higher arousal and chances of reaching climax. Thinking of your grocery list or stressing about papers that are due will detract from the sensory experience and make it harder to have great sex. And of course, having several negative sexual experiences over time could detract from the passion and desire in your relationship.

What mood puts you "in the mood"? Milhausen attests that a small percentage of people are more physically aroused when they are angry or upset, however, most people need to feel comfortable and happy in order to have great sexual encounters.

Another important factor for any relationship is comfort with communication. Milhausen says, "You need to be able to tell your partner what feels good and what you like, and they need to be able to do the same." Being comfortable with communication will help you and your partner understand each other's needs, and maintain the passion in your relationship.

Body image is another element that can make or break the spark, and it's not just a problem for women. Many men interviewed by Milhausen expressed a desire for increased praise and compliments, saying that although men are expected to give women praise on their appearance, men are not encouraged to ask for it in return although many of them would like to hear it. A negative body image can also be distracting from focus in sexual activities.

The last thing you can do to help maintain your spark is to have a positive but realistic perspective. Milhausen states that couples who are realistic about each other tend to be able to make their relationships work better. It's easy to idealize a person, especially in the early stages of the relationship, but ultimately you will do yourself and your partner a favour if you accept and understand your weaknesses and shortcomings as well as your strengths.

What kind of partner creates a spark for you? Women 18-24 years old rated humour, talent, and intelligence as the most important traits in creating and maintaining a spark in their relationships. Another important trait was hygiene. Females couldn't always put a finger on what it was, said Milhausen, but they tended to rate men with better hygiene as more attractive than those with lower levels of hygiene. And a side note on that for people with messy rooms - an easy way to maintain your spark would simply be to clean your room. Studies have concluded that women are much less likely to experience an orgasm in a messy room as opposed to a tidy one.

Another important element in maintaining the passion in a long-term relationship that Milhausen has found involves communicating attraction and desire of your partner. Actually saying that you are attracted to your partner, or that you desire them can make them feel sexy and wanted - two good kinds of kindling to keep the fire burning.

In addition, Milhausen found that communicating enjoyment of and interest in the sexual activities people engaged in with their partners helped maintain passion as well. Many long-term partners complained of feeling that their partner was "just putting in time" when it came to sexual activity, or very reluctant. Although Milhausen stresses that sexual activity is always a choice that should be respected, the partners involved in the study felt unwanted and less loved and desired due to the attitudes from their partners. Milhausen suggests that exploring the reasons why an individual may not want to have sex can be an interesting and helpful exercise, that can help partners be on the same page and help support each other and understand each other's perspective, as well as, come up with strategies that work for both parties.

Another factor in maintaining the flames would be to use effective initiation strategies for sexual activities. However, this is easier said than done, since women in studies personally differed on how they wanted sex initiated depending on their mood, partner, time, etc, leading researchers to conclude there is no "secret recipe". Milhausen suggests that people ask their partners, "What is your ideal initiation of sex?" Although many people think they know the answer to the question, few actually ask that specific question to their partners. Some women interviewed wanted people to ask them clearly if they could have sex, others wanted a more passive initiation. An interesting side note on this topic was that people who imagined more classically romantic settings and initiations of sex were more likely to be disappointed in the sex and in their relationship. Milhausen adds, that number of attempts is an important factor as well as initiation strategies - in one of her studies, she examined why "bad boys" have more sex than "good guys". Her ultimate finding was that it was, as many people joke, a numbers game. The "bad boys" simply made more attempts with more people to initiate sexual activity than "good guys" did.

Furthermore, being high in emotional intimacy between you and your partner, and low in conflict and jealousy tends to lead to better long-term relationships and a higher perception of spark. Milhausen also states that it is highly common for there to be one "high desire" partner and one "low desire" partner within a relationship. "What are the chances that you will both want the exact same meal, at the exact same time, in the exact same proportions?" Milhausen asks. "The chances are very slim."

She likens this to sexual appetite - although people may feel that there is something wrong with them if their desire is higher or lower than the other partner's, it really is quite normal for levels of desire to be unmatched.

Additionally, Milhausen continues, there is still "everything else"; both positive and negative. "Sometimes people are going through things that will leave them in no emotional state to want to have sex," Milhausen states. However, being honest and open in communication with your partner about how you're feeling and why you feel that way can help to buffer the potential negative effects of such circumstances on your relationship, and help you maintain the spark despite having low levels of desire.

Milhausen suggests couples ask each other; "What kind of sex would motivate you to have sex?"

Other questions to explore would be how important sex is to each partner, as well as what kinds of sexual activities partners would be interested in exploring, if any. For partners with differences in desire, Milhausen recommends that the partner identifying as having a higher level of desire ask the lower-desire partner about their ideal sex, ideal initiation, ideal setting, etc., in order to be able to cater to their needs and create better cohesion and understanding within the couple. Milhausen also states that a balance between eroticism and intimacy, as well as realism and perseverance are important and to feel free to seek help through books, online resources, and therapists, among other options.

Ultimately, Milhausen explains, "the key to keeping the spark in your long-term relationship is to make your partner feel like there’s no place you’d rather be and no person you’d rather be with."

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