But there’s a sentiment that sex therapists often stress: Foreplay begins days before you have sex. In other words, while keeping things fresh in the bedroom is worthwhile and a part of a healthy relationship, it’s the listening, the laughing, the cuddling, the confiding, the complimenting, the connecting that precede sex that lay the groundwork.
“I call it ‘anticipatory eroticism.’ It’s made of time, attention, affection, and then sex” says Dr. Tammy Nelson, Ph.D., director of the Integrative Sex Therapy Institute and author of several books on sexuality and relationships, including When You’re the One Who Cheats and the recent Open Monogamy: A Guide to Co-Creating Your Ideal Relationship Agreement. “Those are the four things you put into the build-up towards connecting to your partner that are going to make the difference to how you’re actually going to end up in bed together.”
Dr. Nelson points out that there’s an important distinction to be made about arousal versus desire. Arousal is something that happens in your body, while desire is something that happens in your head. “I think that’s a misunderstanding about how attraction works and how desire works and that many times arousal can come before desire,” she says. “And if you want to have sex with someone on Saturday, I always joke that you probably have to start on Wednesday.”
While we all tend to differ in terms of our need for sex, research confirms that an important factor for both men and women is the desire to, well, feel desired. A 2019 study published in the journal Sex and Marital Therapy, for instance, surveyed 662 straight women to determine what makes them feel sexual desire. The researchers landed on a trio of traits: intimacy (moments of closeness and affection), celebrated otherness (being seen — and celebrated for — being different from their partner), and object-of-desire affirmation (simply enough, wanting to be wanted). While research has been slow to look into men’s need for desire, a smaller 2021 survey published in the same journal reported that 95 percent of men said feeling desired was an important part of sex, with 88 percent noting that their partners could do more to help them feel this way.
It’s always important to show affection toward and spend time with your partner. But Dr. Nelson stresses that couples can also set aside designated times to really prioritize those elements, which can make up for stretches when you’ve been unable to connect. “Like if you said, ‘On Wednesday night, we’re going to have a date where we’re going to spend some time paying attention, being affectionate’ — those can often make up the difference,” she says.
So, study up on your foreplay techniques. Get excited about trying new toys and positions. That’s all well and good. But remember to also prioritize the little things that foster eroticism, emotional intimacy, confidence, and closeness. They’re the connective tissue of every relationship, and especially vital when you’re a parent and it can be difficult to find the time to feel sexy. Having a partner who helps remind you that you are is crucial.
To that end, here, in no particular order, are 37 small, nice things you can do to help create some closeness and intimacy. Will all of these work for you? Nah. But they’re good to remember and go a long way in building desire.
- Make out. Like you did when you were first dating, and the anticipation could make you burst. Reminding yourselves of who you were then and how much you looked forward to putting your mouth on their mouth is a magic kind of time travel. Plus, the experience triggers the release of oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin, all of which make you feel more connected and attracted to your partner.
- Say “Thank you.” And be specific. As in, “Thanks for so calmly helping the kids get their jackets on this morning. I was about to lose it.” True appreciation is saying “I noticed this, and I don’t want to keep it to myself.” And genuine showings of it help foster feelings of emotional closeness.
- React to their little victories. Did they make some great art with the kids? Have a small breakthrough at work? Stay calm at the playground when dealing with another parent? No, you don’t have to overdo it. But be excited for them.
- Prioritize eye contact. It’s been proven to foster intimacy and trust among couples.
- Listen as your partner talks about something they’re super passionate about. Even better, encourage them to talk about their passions. Knowing your partner wants to be a part of what you love is incredibly validating, and validation is an enormous part of building emotional safety and intimacy.
- Give them a hug. For at least 10 seconds, which is the ideal length of time to release the feel-good hormone oxytocin, according to research from Goldsmiths University in London.
- Cook together. Play good music. Have a glass of wine. Feed one another bites if that’s your thing. Get into a rhythm. Goof around. Studies show that the sensory experience of cooking fosters teamwork and can eliminate stress, so long as you work as a team and don’t get all territorial.
- Flirt. Find ways to touch them softly when they’re speaking. Raise your eyebrows when you see them. Make lingering eye contact. Say, “Going my way?” when you pull into the driveway and see them. Whatever it is that makes them know that they still got it and you still want it.
- Give them a massage. And make it a sex-free one. You don’t have to go all-in on lotions and supplies. Just rub their neck while you’re watching TV or their back while you’re cuddling. It’s stress-relieving and sensual.
- Make them laugh. Tell them a joke. Or a funny story. Say, “I can’t wait to tell you what happened to Dave…” Knowing someone’s sense of humor and making a point to appeal to it says a lot.
- Tell them what they do that you think is sexy.Maybe it’s the way they wrinkle their nose when they laugh. Maybe it’s the confident way they handle their work calls. Don’t beat around the bush. Tell them. And tell them often. Say, “It’s so sexy when…”
- Make plans. For date night. For dinner. For a long weekend six months down the road. Anticipation and variety are key components of a healthy relationship.
- Ask them about their dreams for the future. Talk about ways to make it happen. It’s encouraging, and therapists often stress the importance of bringing up a positive future.
- Sext. Have some fun with it. Send more than just a string of eggplant emojis. They’re exciting to send and receive, and a great break from the string of normal “Can you grab more diapers on your way home?” conversations. Plus, it gives you space to feel like a sexual being.
- Do the activity your partner loves but you don’t care for. Watch that show or do the yoga without grumbling. Spend time together doing their thing. Find time for yours, too.
- Listen to them vent about whatever is bothering them. Set aside 15 minutes a day for them to unleash, or whatever kind of agreement works for you. Don’t offer solutions. Just listen and validate. Besides the fact that it’s nearly impossible to feel sexy when you’re stressed, being able to vent without worry helps develop emotional safety.
- Keep them motivated. However and whenever you can, be their biggest supporter. In fact, studies have shown that encouragement from a partner makes achieving a goal more likely. Besides, who doesn’t want to be rooted for?
- Give one another space. Carve it out. Put it on the schedule. Do a you-have-the-kids-for-an-hour now, I-have-the-kids-for-an-hour here tradeoff or whatever system works for you. Time alone to feel like yourself is vital to feeling sexy.
- Plan a fancy date night. Pull out all the stops. Dress up. Wear something you know they love. (Yup, even that shirt.) Have cocktails. Order the dessert in advance. Can’t go to a restaurant? Dress up in your house. Just do your best to make them feel worthy of special treatment.
- Was someone checking them out at the store?Tell them. It’s nice to know that you’re turning heads.
- Remind them of past wild times. “Remember when we did it in the back of that bar?” Walking someone down erotic memory lane (at the right time) helps us reacquaint with our wilder sides and makes it clear to your partner that you still find them sexy.
- Compliment them. About their intellect. About their sense of humor. About their patience. About how dewy their skin looks. Make it specific and organic. And not just about their body. It’s about making it known that you see and appreciate all side of them.
- Don’t care about who’s watching. That is, embrace your version of PDA. Put an arm around them. Passionately kiss them. Do so with no care about who is around you.
- Gush about them around their — and your — friends and family. Say something specific and sweet about how thoughtful they are or what a good parent they are.
- Take their side. Not all the time, but when it’s necessary. Issues with the in-laws? Argument with another parent on the playground? Have their back. To know that you are a united front is simply a wonderful feeling.
- Touch them. In a nonsexual way. A hand on the lower back. A hug from behind. A squeeze of the knee in the car.