Passion, Novelty and Hedonic Adaptation: In the Bedroom (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series I discussed the topic of Hedonic Adaptation from a general relationship perspective. Part 2 of this series will focus on the application of these ideas to the sexual domain.

To recap, Hedonic Adaptation in relationships is where, after a surge in happiness and passion at the beginning of a new relationship, people generally adapt to this scenario over time -the passion then reduces and happiness comes back down to the person’s previous baseline.

This process plays out in two main ways:

1) The effect of positive experiences lessens over time – we acclimatise, we take the good things for granted.

2) Our aspirations increase over time – it takes more and more positive experiences to reach the same amount of passion and relationship happiness.

In the bedroom this might mean:

  • The things that initially caused sexual excitement, arousal and connection at the beginning of a relationship become less stimulating and intense over time.
  • Couples get into predictable sexual routines, perhaps to the point of feeling mechanical or “going through the motions”.
  • Couples can take for granted the positive sexual experiences that are occurring, and gradually increase their expectations for what constitutes a good sex life.
  • Increasing expectations may include comparisons to perceptions of other couples’ sex lives or representations in books, magazines, movies, pornography/erotica and TV programs.

Preventing the Passion Slump

As discussed in Part 1, strategies for combating or slowing down hedonic adaptation rely on deliberately creating positive events and positive emotions, decreasing negative events and negative emotions, and being mindful of our aspirations and expectations.

The popular belief about flat-lining sexual passion is that everything is too familiar, and you just need to spice things up – buy some lingerie, try horny goats-weed, have a threesome, or buy that sex-swing and install it to the roof.

But familiarity isn’t the enemy – over time you can gain valuable knowledge and techniques for turning each other on, sex is often more relaxed and leads to less performance anxiety, and there is usually a sense of emotional safety and acceptance of each other.

What can often happen in sexual relationships though, is that familiarity becomes too dominant. And with too much familiarity and routine, sexual boredom and choredom can ensue.

But on the other end of the spectrum, too much focus on novelty and wildness in one’s sex life can create performance pressure, reduce sexual connection and emotional safely, and just feel like hard work.

Therefore, the idea behind hedonic adaptation prevention (HAP) is not to eradicate familiarly, but to have a nice balance between familiarity and novelty in your sex life – to capitalise on the benefits of both.

Strategies: Variety and Appreciation

Similarly to the strategies suggested in Part 1 for your overall relationship, the key strategies I am about to discuss require a simultaneous process of appreciating what you already have, whilst also striving for change.

Simply appreciating does not lead to change and growth, and always seeking change means we rarely enjoy the journey. But if we can bring the two together, then there is space for really appreciating your lover and your sexuality, while also taking small steps towards certain goals.

With this in mind, here are some strategies aimed at addressing hedonic adaptation in the bedroom:

Balancing Variety and Familiarity

It is not the specific activities done in the beginning of your relationship that bring the excitement and passion, it is the fact that these experiences are new adventures together.

Whilst your favourite sexual position can be a nice and comfortable sexual routine, novel sex play has the potential to inject some extra excitement and passion into the bedroom.

This can mean stepping slightly out of your comfort zone, but does not mean you need to engage in any activities that feel inappropriate, demoralising or aversive. This needs to be about mutual fun and creativity, and the kinds of novel sexual activities couples incorporate into their sex lives will be very individual.

And you certainly don’t need to be doing novel things all the time – this would take away the benefits of a familiar and comfortable sex life.

One interesting way to think about the balance between sexual routine and sexual novelty is “The Healthy Sex Pyramid” – an idea coined by Dr. Ian Kerner, PhD.

This idea draws on our knowledge of The Healthy Food Pyramid, where there are everyday foods at the bottom of the pyramid that make up the bulk of your diet, every-now-and-again foods in the middle of the pyramid that get thrown in the mix, and once-in-a-blue-moon foods at the top of the pyramid for special occasions.

Similarly, hedonic adaptation in our sex lives can be addressed by having a good balance between your everyday/week-to-week comfortable sexual routines, some novel activities that get thrown in the mix (and often require more thought or preparation), and some happy-to-try-it-once sex play ideas.

Read more about The Healthy Sex Pyramid.

Note: With any kind of sex – familiar or novel – it is still very important to remember the Condition for Good Sex.

Maintain Reasonable Aspirations

Holding high expectations of your partner and your relationship is a positive thing, but only when these expectations are reasonable and realistic.

Due to media and pornographic depictions of sex, misinformation passed down from generation to generation, and a lack of information about what real people’s sex lives are actually like, sexual expectations are often either too low (not expecting sex to meet any of your needs, expecting sex to be unenjoyable) or too high (expecting sex to always be smooth sailing and meet all your sexual and intimate needs).

Realistic expectations on the other hand, might look something like this:

  • Focusing on sex as a healthy and valuable aspect of intimate relationships.
  • Maintaining respect and non-judgment in the bedroom.
  • Striving for satisfying sex, but making room for the times when sex is a bit flat, awkward or doesn’t quite hit the mark.
  • Knowing that communication and effort are necessary for a long term enjoyable sex life.
  • A focus on “good enough” sex where enough of your needs and wants are met and respected – but not aiming for perfect.
  • Knowing that sexual needs and desires change over time, and that room has to be made for these changes.

To help maintain realistic aspirations, couples can try to be mindful of when they are slipping into a mindset of either too low or too high expectations.

In particular, noticing feelings of sexual entitlement that may stem from pornography and TV/movie sex representations where everybody is always ready for sex and everything is always easy, hot and mind-blowing. This is fiction.

Also watch out for sexual expectations that are too pessimistic and might stem from negative family, cultural or religious messages about sex. These messages include the idea that sex is only ever good at the beginning of a relationship, that sex is only about men’s pleasure, that pain is a normal part of sex, and that you have no control over shaping your sex life.

Discussing your sexual expectations as a couple can also be a great way to see where you are both coming from, and assess whether any current expectations are becoming unhelpful in the bedroom.

Cultivate Appreciation and Gratitude

To further help with aspirations/expectations, and to capitalise on positive sexual events as they occur, sexual appreciation and gratitude can be fostered. Here are a few simple ideas to help cultivate gratitude and appreciation in the bedroom:

  • Savour positive sexual experiences – after sex, while you’re having a cuddle, jumping into the shower or straightening your clothes, genuinely express to your partner what you enjoyed about the experience.
  • Enjoy the familiar – pay attention to the sexual rituals and routines that make your sexual relationship comfortable and enjoyable.
  • Reminisce together – talk about positive or erotic sexual experiences from the past and why you enjoyed them.
  • Reflect on the positives – whilst a long-term enjoyable sex life requires communication about what is not going right, you can also get into the helpful habit of regularly reflecting on the positive aspects of your sex life together.
  • Appreciate your partner’s body – let your partner know why you find them attractive on a regular basis. This can be done with words, or with gifts and gestures like giving a sensual massage, buying some nice body wash or perfume for your lover, or writing sexy love notes.

Combat Negative Experiences

Sexual differences and difficulties are inevitable over a long-term relationship. But there are ways that these can be managed so as to decrease negative or toxic interactions and increase personal growth and connection.

Rather than avoiding negative experiences, couples can take a joint responsibility to reduce the impact of these experiences. Here are some suggestions:

  • Talking about sex can make people feel very uncomfortable, vulnerable and defensive. Practice talking about sex when you are both calm and relaxed – this will help down the track when you have difficult discussions during times of high tension and stress
  • Use conflict management skills which help you both to remain respectful. In particular, avoid blaming and criticism for sexual issues, and instead seek to really understand the issue from both perspectives.
  • If a sexual experience is feeling uncomfortable or unenjoyable for some reason, or if orgasm is being elusive and sex is going on-and-on (common when people are stressed or intoxicated), it is sometimes better to just stop and take it as a “write-off” rather than enduring in the hope that it will get better. Then you can focus on next time being more enjoyable.

Frequency of sex is also something to consider. If sex is quite infrequent (for example, once a month), a not-so-good sexual experience is more likely to linger and dominate your memory. Whereas more frequent sex may allow you to see a not-so-great sexual experience as a temporary blip, and then allow you to have a more positive sexual experience soon after. But if sex is too frequent, it can feel like a burden. It’s therefore important to talk about the frequency of sex you both desire and what you both think would be good for your relationship at this point in time.


This post, as well as Part 1, has suggested a number of strategies to think about. But rather than be overwhelmed, perhaps you’d like to pick just one or two of the strategies mentioned and give them a try over the next week or so.

Warm regards,

Dr. Alice Hucker

Clinical Psychologist

 

 

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