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New Year, New Sex

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The new year is a fresh start, a symbolic disengagement from the past, and an opportunity to reflect on and tackle issues that matter the most. Improving relationships ranks near the top of the "issues" list. Each January, I see an uptick in my couple's therapy practice as people emerge from the emotional demands and intensity of the holidays. Holidays magnify both joy and sadness -- sadness especially at the loss of the joyful years of courtship and the exciting first years of married life.

How did romance give way to an evening wearing slipper socks and watching TV? As Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, put it in a New York Times opinion piece earlier last month: "In fairy tales, marriages last happily ever after. Science, however, tells us that wedded bliss has but a limited shelf life."

How did marriage get compared to rotting produce? As an academic researching human happiness, Lyubomirsky chalks up the "short shelf life" of passion to the "craving" for variety. Humans need newness and the unexpected to keep the dopamine receptors pumping out "feel good" neurochemicals. Familiarity breeds if not contempt, then boredom.

Yet, it's little acknowledged in our culture that it's the woman who first loses sexual interest in marriage, especially after she has kids and, in the language of psychoanalysis, becomes "maternalized" not only to herself, but to her husband. He still wants sex, of course, but -- hey, the woman who was his object of sexual desire is now a mom (to his children). Is he really going to throw her on a bed or drag her into the back of the Explorer to fulfill his wildest sexual fantasies? Paradoxically, that sort of drive and aggression are precisely what women need to get turned on. Every woman wants a Don Draper.

Unlike Don, most women don't stray. They typically find emotional intimacy and fulfillment with their children, especially during their first years of infancy and early childhood. That evolutionary bond roots them to their family and keeps them from leaving their kids to seek sexual excitement with a new man.

So, what's a couple to do if they want to keep marriage and sex alive? First of all, put aside cultural norms and expectations. Women are highly sexual beings even after motherhood. Husbands need to know that the "Nurturer-in-Chief" needs to be pursued to get aroused. To put it bluntly, although she probably won't insist on this, a woman likes variety and a hint of danger. Even when she's wearing her slipper socks and after putting her children to bed.

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