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With a long hard winter that took far too long to end, it’s been easy to forget there’s a big world out there. Help is on its way, via a new book: Frommer’s/AARP Places for Passion: The 75 Most Romantic Destinations in the World—and Why Every Couple Needs to Get Away.

The subtitle says it all. The co-authors, Pepper Schwartz and Janet Lever, are PhDs and sex experts. They’ve put a huge amount of thought and research into a book crammed with irresistible ways to foster romance.

They list getaways to suit every taste—cities, natural beauty, beaches, and adventure; on every continent—well, maybe not Antarctica. A random sampling: the Great Barrier Reef, the Loire Valley, the Amalfi Coast, Marrakech, Bali, the Cotswolds. Detailed listings for each destination make planning that much easier.

The hardest part might be deciding where to go. Schwartz and Lever suggest having both partners list the three places they most long to see. With luck, the two lists will share at least one destination.

The authors acknowledge, “Keeping romance—and passion—alive over the long term isn’t impossible, but it isn’t easy, either. It’s complicated: We crave the security that comes with our committed relationship, but we also desire adventure and fresh discovery.” Traveling, including the planning and anticipation beforehand and the shared memories afterward, restores the excitement a relationship had when it was new.

Couples who share a long history are inevitably liable to “hedonic adaption”: getting so used to good things that they don’t feel good anymore. When traveling, couples encounter one surprise after another. Novelty makes the two more interesting to themselves and to each other. The authors write, “Research shows that the very best way for couples to refresh their love for one another is to do something, anything, novel together.”

Uninterrupted time away from day-to-day obligations means a chance to get to know a partner more deeply. Learning new skills, like kayaking or navigating an unfamiliar transit system, enhances mutual respect. According to the authors, a magnificent natural view “can ignite all four of the so-called love hormones: dopamine, which fosters feelings of love; oxytocin, which helps create trust and bonding, serotonin, which increases feelings of pleasure and well being; and norepinephrine, which gives us energy and is part of our sexual arousal.”

Inspired to start dreaming? Some promising websites are Travel.AARP.org, Frommers.com, PeterGreenberg.com, and SmarterTravel.com. AARP membership includes discounts for those 50 and older. Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel), a nonprofit, offers educational adventures all over (including Antarctica). The Golden Age Passport, for those 62 and up, gives lifetime free admission to all U.S. national parks for only $10. For those 50 and older who would like to try swapping housing with other travelers, there’s also Home Exchange 50 Plus.

But you don’t have to look across the world for new experiences to share. A day trip or a weekend trip can get you there—or even a trip to your bedroom!

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If you don’t already have that perfect gift for your significant other, don’t despair. There are other ways to show your love. The most important thing is to be thoughtful about choosing the way that you show it. Try to set aside the traditional idea of Valentine’s Day. When you wipe away all those images of roses, chocolate, and candlelight, what’s left? You and your beloved, alone for an evening.

You may think you know where I’m headed with this, but not so fast! Take a few minutes to consider what you know about your partner. You might be familiar with the concept of emotional love languages: words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Keep your partner’s love language in mind as you plan the evening.

Also think about what your partner enjoys. A recipe that you don’t normally make because it’s too much work (or you don’t like it yourself)? Make it for him. Ice fishing? Go with him (pack hot drinks and hand warmers!). A certain junk food? Buy it, put a big red bow on it—and let him enjoy it, guilt free. Whatever it is, give it with love.

If you want to take your gift to the next level (nope, not yet), look to your shared history. What did you enjoy doing together when you were first dating or right after you got married? Maybe you can find a way to revisit that interest. It could be as simple as putting together a play list of music that was popular when you were first together and dancing to it.

And yes, of course you can think of all of this as leading to intimacy. Valentine’s Day is a great time to be intentional about working on foreplay, which many of us need more at midlife, whether or not it was important to us before. You could be sensual with a scented massage oil (Just Love is an all-natural and organic addition to our collection) or playful with something like flavored body paint. Remember the lubricant to be sure you’re comfortable, and consider its frivolous possibilities, too (Just Love is formulated for both massage and “intimate glide”).

Maybe you just don’t have the energy for any of this. Maybe you and your partner have been “running on empty” for a while. If that’s the case, then try spending the evening asking each other these 36 questions, which can result in falling in love, according to one study. (And it seems to have worked for this woman.) Can it work for falling in love again? I don’t know, but what have you got to lose?

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Autumn can be a tremendously busy time of year when work ramps up and social obligations resume. Or it can herald a return to peaceful calm after summer frenzy.

Full disclosure: There’s nothing peaceful about autumn for me! My appointment calendar is booked solid. No fewer than three healthcare conferences are on MiddlesexMD’s schedule in the next five weeks. That’s almost a rockstar schedule! (Well, maybe an aging rock star.)

So, whether your summer is an interlude or a frenzy, autumn is nonetheless an opportunity to reevaluate your relationship, sexually speaking, and recalibrate your sizzle, if necessary.

Long-term relationships have two (at least) universal pitfalls. One is boredom; the other is neglect. Occasional boredom is the almost inevitable result of familiarity and routine. It’s the same-old, same-old. It’s our guy in oversized sweatpants with a three-day scruff; it’s us in our stained muumuu and uncombed hair. And it’s the sexual routine that is as exciting as day-old coffee.

Hard to recall those days when we could hardly wait to rip the clothes off each other, hey?

Add a stressful job, social obligations, aging parents, kids in high school or university, and the absolute last thing on our minds is sex. The first thing is sleep. So, maybe we don’t even know if we’re bored because our sex life is over there in the corner gathering dust.

“As therapists, we can vouch for the fact that when people get out of the habit of loving in a sexual way, it can be extraordinarily difficult to get back into it,” writes therapist Christine Webber and Dr. David Delvin in this article.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, for this autumn is to reinvigorate romance, and ultimately, your sexual relationship with this person who, once long ago, made your heart beat faster.

Notice that there’s a hint of obligation here. A robust sex life might begin with spontaneous combustion, but it requires regular and conscious refueling to keep the flame alive over the long haul.

So, the first step is to want to revive your sexual relationship badly enough to make the effort and to commit to tending the flame. Here are some tips to get started.

Anticipation is a powerful aphrodisiac, and it’s one of the first casualties of a long-term relationship. “…living together…can take the anticipation out of sex. And anticipation is not just utterly delicious in itself; it’s a useful tool for heightening your passion during the act—when you finally get to it,” write Webber and Dalvin.

You can heighten anticipation by:

  • Scheduling sex. Put it on your calendar—both of you. Then you can begin to prepare—and fantasize—in advance. What will you wear? What will you do? What senses will you pleasure: what tastes, scents, textures might you incorporate? Will there be surprises? Maybe new toys? Maybe you’ll discover a new position to experiment with?
  • Prepare for your date night. Take a fragrant bath. Shave. Moisturize. Scent. Clear your mind of distractions, stress, and worry.
  • Send sexy notes. Leave them in odd places. Describe what you’re going to do to him or her. Sext like the bad girls. Email. Keep sex on the brain during the ho-hum (or hectic) work day.

One woman writes: “My husband resisted getting a cell phone for years. After becoming a small business owner, he finally caved and bought one. …After I had sent him a couple of steamy texts, he came home and said, ‘Boy, I never thought I’d say this, but I sure love cell phones!’ ”

  • Become foreplay aficionados. Nothing builds anticipation like foreplay. And you need a lot more these days, anyway. So, take your time. Tease. Play. What’s the rush?
  • Abstain. Forbidden fruit is always sweetest; the anticipation makes it so. You can touch, kiss, pet, cuddle—but no intercourse until some agreed-upon future moment.

Play. You’re only limited by your imagination here. Your date night could involve a variety of role plays: Arrange a tryst at a local bar. Arrive separately and “meet” each other. He (or you) might have conveniently reserved a room nearby. Go to a romantic movie separately and meet in the back row—make out just like you used to.

Here’s a list of adult games for both spice and romance, and honestly, they sound like fun!

Do it his way. Focus totally on pleasuring your partner. Do exactly what he wants—even if it’s not your cup of tea. Your task is to lovingly provide unforgettably erotic experience. Plan to fill in the gaps in case your partner’s imagination runs dry.

Next time it’ll be your turn.

Change it up. Nothing beats boredom like a change of pace. Try different times—lovemaking in the morning, an afternoon delight. Do it in unfamiliar, maybe even [slightly] dangerous, places—on the floor in front of the fireplace, in your back yard at night, in the bathtub.

Get away—or stay at home. It’s always fun to make reservations for a weekend getaway—a nice hotel with an in-room Jacuzzi. Dinner by candlelight. A sexy, maybe erotic, film. Room service breakfast in bed.

But it can also be delicious to spend a weekend away—at home. Clear your calendar. Turn off the electronic gadgets. Get the cleaning and laundry done ahead of time. Stock up on luxurious and tasty treats that may also be known for their quality as aphrodisiacs.

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In the beginning, there was passion. Your feelings were almost painful. You wrote long letters and sent silly gifts and spent hours in whispered conversations on the phone. A lifetime ago. Remember?

Then came the long familiar years. You settled into a cozy, secure routine. You finished each other’s sentences; you knew the next move, the habits, the vulnerabilities, the quirks and preferences.

But what happened to the passion?

Psychotherapist Esther Perel has spent her career studying the sexual language of long-term, committed couples. She’s pondered the dynamics of the love/desire dialectic, and she’s identified the qualities that keep the sexual spark alive over the years. In a recent talk, she discussed her work with exceptional lucidity. You may intuitively know what Perel has to say, but few of us have articulated it so clearly. In any case, it’s good to be reminded—and challenged.

Desire and love are paradoxical. They’re mutually exclusive. Love, says Perel, is to have. It’s associated with security, with safety, with roots and foundations. To love is to know the beloved and to be known. But this contented intimacy isn’t a necessary component of good sex, “contrary to popular belief,” says Perel.

To desire, on the other hand, is to want. Desire craves adventure, novelty, risk. We desire mystery, the unattainable, the 50 Shades kind of guy.

Trouble is, we want both love and desire. We want security and passion. Intimacy and mystery. Safety and risk. So how can these opposing drives coexist in a marriage? How can we settle into the mature love of a long-term relationship without losing the hungry edge of desire that brought us together in the first place? How can we achieve the ideal of a “passionate marriage,” which fans the flame of desire within the intimacy of commitment?

As she studied couples around the world, Perel asked them when they found themselves most attracted to their partner. She heard variations of the same theme:

  1. When they reunite after an absence.
  2. When watching the other from a distance when the partner is completely engaged in an activity. “When I look at my partner, radiant and confident, [is] probably the biggest turn-on across the board,” says Perel.
  3. When there are no demands and no needs.  “Caretaking is mightily loving,” says Perel. But, “it’s a powerful anti-aphrodisiac.”
  4. When there is some novelty or newness. “When he’s in his tux,” said one person. Substitute cowboy boots, or a toolbelt, or motorcycle leather.

In these situations, there is a shift in perspective from the familiar to a sense of separation and distance. It’s the Proustian “voyage of discovery [that] consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Desire is a dialog we have with committed love. It’s a duet, a dance. The dynamic may be paradoxical, but both are necessary if a long-term relationship is to remain vital. It’s the language of poetry and mystery rather than of process and technique. Desire is more complex than bedroom gymnastics.

From her experience in studying and counseling couples, Perel has distilled several qualities that erotic couples seem to have in common. These aren’t on many “how-to” lists; they have more to do with essence than with activities. They may not be easy to incorporate because they’re not as straightforward as establishing a “date night.” But the concepts she delineates are worth some thought.

  1. Give each other some erotic privacy. Maybe this is the space that preserves mystery. It allows the other some personal freedom to explore. It acknowledges that you aren’t joined at the hip; that there is difference and distance. “Erotic privacy may mean different things to different people,” writes Pamela Madsen, author of Shameless. “It may mean the privacy to look at pornography and not share some desires with our partners. It may mean the possibility of exploring ourselves within agreed upon boundaries without our partners.”
  2. Foreplay isn’t optional. It isn’t a five-minute, pre-sex duty. “Foreplay pretty much starts at the end of the previous orgasm,” says Perel. These relationships cultivate a sense of erotic anticipation.
  3. Check the “good girl” at the door. Desire is selfish. You aren’t responsible for organizing or orchestrating. “Responsibility and desire just butt heads,” says Perel.
  4. Passion has seasons. Like the moon, it waxes and wanes. It will return, but keep on having sex in the meantime. “Willful, non-spontaneous sex,” says Madsen.

“Committed sex is premeditated sex,” says Perel. “It’s willful. It’s intentional. It’s focus and presence.”

To hear Perel’s talk in its entirety, visit the TED website here. This twenty minutes may be the best gift you could give your relationship today.

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A Sexy Start to the New Year

I don’t know about you, but celebrating New Year’s Eve has become as exciting as a dirty sock under the bed. What happened to the crazy parties with friends? What happened to Auld Lang Syne and champagne and… other stuff?

I’ll tell you what happened. Life and maturity happened. At some point, we decided it was silly to party like it’s 1999 and wake up with the baby at 6 a.m. And now I’m betting that a good number of us won’t even make it ‘til the ball drops. And really, that’s not so bad, is it?

So maybe you’re staring down a quiet evening at home. Or maybe you’ve chosen to welcome the New Year with a quiet evening at home. So why not make it special? Just the two of you.

Here are some ideas:

  • Have a pajama party. Dress in cozy nightwear. (No, not your raggedy footies. Get some nice but comfy nightwear.) Play board games—Scrabble or Monopoly. Have some yummy but healthy snacks ready. Dark chocolate is a must. Wine. Fruit. Here’s a list of foods with aphrodisiac qualities.
  • Brew up some special cocktails for the occasion. Maybe you have a drink you both love, but here are some romantic nightcaps if you want to try something new. Very rich hot buttered rum, anyone?
  • Have a romantic movie night. Cuddle. Make popcorn and hot chocolate. My favorite gottahaveit movie snack? Peanut M&Ms. Have a favorite? Here’s a great list to get you started. Others might include Gone With the Wind, An Officer and a Gentleman, Ghost, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Casablanca, Doctor Zhivago, or West Side Story.
  • Rent (or borrow) a cabin in the woods. Celebrate the New Year under a canopy of stars in the deep quiet of a snowy forest in front of a roaring fire. Naked. Make magic happen.
  • Go bubbly. If you have a jacuzzi (or even if you don’t), fill the bathroom with candles, incense, soft music, champagne, and a warm bubble bath for two.
  • Don’t stop at New Year’s Eve. Make a resolution to romance your honey all year long. This is the best list I’ve encountered for sincere, creative ways to let your partner know you love him or her.

Happy, Sexy New Year!

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A young woman I know went to the hospital to have a baby. She packed all the things she thought she needed to keep her comfortable during labor—a big ball to sit on; small balls for back pain, power bars and snacks for energy. She also loaded her iPod with a playlist of her favorite music.

I was expecting Vivaldi, maybe Bach, or some soothing Tchaikovsky. But what filled the room as she puffed her way through contractions was a mélange of rock tunes she had found comforting on the subway when she was nauseated “and everything else I was into at the time.” These included bands like Cat Power and Sun Volt.

Yeah, I’ve never heard of them, either.

We may associate certain music with a happy time of life—French songs we heard in Paris or the Latin beat of Havana. We may like the music we listened to in our youth. Or, we may have cultivated a taste for one genre or another later in life—jazz or opera, for example.

I vividly remember the first time I heard Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring in college. That began my love affair with classical music, which continues to this day.

One thing is certain—music is powerful. Just listening to it—and it doesn’t have to be the favs on our playlist—can trigger emotion, such as patriotism, sadness, joy, excitement; it can relieve pain and depression; it causes the release of various chemicals such as testosterone, oxytocin, and those feel-good endorphins, such as dopamine, according to this Time magazine article. In fact, music taps into the same neurochemicals as sex, according to a recent study in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Since we humans seem hard-wired to respond to music, doesn’t it make sense to invite this powerful ally into the bedroom?

As we mentioned in previous posts about engaging all our senses during sex, music can help us “get out of our heads.” This is valuable all by itself. But music can also help us get in the mood. Music that has shared associations can make us feel close to our partner. Or, like Ravel’s Bolero (that quintessential piece to have sex by), it might track the crescendo of the action.

Ideally, your partner likes the same music as you do, but maybe you’ll have to stretch a bit to include his or her favorites. Or maybe you can recall special tunes that are significant to both of you.

Don’t use this as an opportunity to broaden your taste in music, however—this might not be the time to sample that heavy metal band your son told you about. What you want is music that’s familiar, whether it’s soothing, romantic, or energizing. What you don’t want is an unexpected clash of cymbals at an inopportune moment. You want to avoid jarring changes in tempo or volume. The music should either sound similar or transition gradually. You might also consider keeping the remote close at hand to click to the next song or turn the music off altogether if it gets too distracting.

The Internet is full of lists of sexy music. Amazon also sells downloadable and unadorned Music for Sex. (A little more nuance might be nice.) But in this sphere, the best music is your own, drawn from shared memories and personal taste. Whether it’s Aaron Copland or Buena Vista Social Club, country, R&B, or classic rock, make it yours.

So maybe sit down together tonight and compile your playlist of music to make love by. Let us know how it goes—and be sure to share with us what works for you.

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The editor of the MiddlesexMD newsletter, who somehow knows these things, tells me that August is Romance Awareness Month.

Who knew?

According to an online poll by Zoosk, which calls itself a “romantic social network,” couples enjoy more romance than single people. Without getting too fussy about the details, according to the Zoosk survey, 79 percent of people in couples say that their partner is romantic while only 41 percent of single people say the same (presumably of their current interest?).

And even though the vast majority (78 percent) of those polled consider romance important in a relationship, only 20 percent of single people are happy with the romance in their lives compared to 59 percent of the coupled folks.

(Just to be clear, neither single people nor couples considered taking out the garbage romantic—so don’t try to make that count.)

In honor of Romance Awareness Month, maybe it’s time to take stock of the romance in your life. Are you stuck in a rut? A little rusty when it comes to new ways to woo your honey? Or maybe you haven’t thought about romance in a long, long time.

Romance might be considered a nuisance and a bother by some long-term couples. Romance is for newlyweds. What’s the point? He (or she) knows I love him (or her).

Maybe. But we frail human creatures still need reassurance from time to time. And saying the words out loud keeps our own emotional machinery in good working order, too. I’m betting that couples who manage to stay sexy and in love over the years are very good at romance. You know the couples I’m talking about. They hold hands; they enjoy being together; they touch; they make eye contact.

Romance can be as simple as a little squeeze or an “I love you” before bed. In fact, couples in the Zoosk survey actually preferred a hug and a kiss to dinner by candlelight (41 to 39 percent), while the singles prefer the dinner to the kiss (44 to 32 percent).

The tricky thing about romance is that it requires you to really know your partner in order to anticipate the unique things that will please him or her. Roses and chocolate might completely miss the mark while fresh coffee in the morning might be the most sensitive, loving and, yes, romantic, gesture imaginable. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to romance.

Romance is all about acts of thoughtfulness and caring that is uniquely targeted toward the person you love. It’s about going a little out of your way for no reason at all, except that you care.

Done right, romance communicates to your partner that he or she is uniquely loved, and that leads to a sense of intimacy and caring in return. (And maybe to sex.)

This is the stuff that keeps a relationship tender and vital. While romance can be sexy, it isn’t about sex; it’s about expressing your love without ulterior motive or expectation of return in a manner that that only your partner will appreciate.

August may be Romance Awareness Month, but there are eleven more months to practice in.

Let’s get started!

 

 

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