Twenty ways to make your relationship more lasting, loving and lustful

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Don’t lose hope if difficulties arise. There is a lot we can do to keep love vibrant and most of it is within our control

As the Ed Sheeran song goes, “people fall in love in mysterious ways”, but staying in love is a continuous, practical challenge. Don’t lose hope when things get difficult. There is a lot we can do to keep love vibrant and most of that is within our own capacity. Instead of putting off tackling things in the hope that they will get better with time, take the risk of engaging early and saving yourselves a lot of suffering.

Know what ‘love’ means

Seeking relationships and being in enjoyable relationships is not only good for us but is a survival skill. Being in a long-term relationship is linked to longer life and better health. We come from ancestors who were very successful at social living and we are structured to be communal in nature. It is hard to clarify what the term “love” means as we usually feel it when we are in the throes of infatuation, but we realise that it is not the real deal until later and the person who has been lusted after is really liked and admired. In his book The Science of Happily Ever After Ty Tashiro says that most Americans describe “liking and lust” as the two ingredients of a lasting romantic relationship. The “liking”’ part of this includes kindness, loyalty and fairness. — TM

Practise small acts of kindness

Kindness is consistently rated as a huge factor in relationships. In a recent survey of enduring love, 4,494 UK participants said saying “thank you” and thoughtful gestures were prized most highly by all participants. Recognition of the time and effort required to complete the everyday mundane tasks that underpin relationships and the smooth running of a household was also important. Surprise gifts and small acts of kindness were valued highly, with a “cup of tea” being singled out as a significant sign of their partner’s appreciation. Bouquets of flowers and boxes of chocolates were seen as less important than the thoughtfulness behind the gesture. Kindness is located in the smallest of couple exchanges, a turn of the head, a mumbled comment or a focused eye glaze. Being responsive to your partner in the smallest of ways seems to have a huge influence on the relationship. This is in stark contrast to the belief that couples need a lot of time to work on the relationship. — TM

Maintain your sense of self

In long-term relationships, it can be easy to become so accustomed to the idea of “we” that you can forget the “I”: your individual needs, desires, interests and sexual identities. Narratives that declare that couples must always live, sleep, socialise and holiday together to prove their devotion can be damaging. This could involve different hobbies, taking the occasional separate holiday with friends, or trusting the relationship enough to spend time apart if it means cultivating your individual identities. It could mean taking temporary job opportunities away, travelling solo, or simply acknowledging when you need a day to yourself. As long as there is clear communication, respect and trust in a relationship, none of this should be seen as a threat to your connection. — RMcD


Respect each other as sexual beings

This respect and acknowledgement of each other as individuals also applies to your individual sexual identities. Being in a relationship does not mean that anyone needs to give up masturbating, fantasy, porn use, or other forms of personal sexual exploration and expression. These are normal parts of individual sexual existence that — barring any extreme behaviour that tangibly affects the relationship or breaks agreements around boundaries and fidelity — should be respected. — RMcD

Keep paying attention

Attention is key to relationships and in the early stages of a relationship, there is a huge focus on the loved person — every gesture, word, look is given enormous time and energy. But it can happen that when the relationship is solidified the spark can be lost and the relationship comes into question. There are practical ways of keeping the focus alive through text messages, conversation, demonstrating interest and voicing appreciation but at the core of it is giving attention fully to the other person even if that is only for a few minutes. Strangely, our work colleagues and customers often get more of our attention than those closest to us and then we are surprised to find that our relationships have deteriorated. — TM

Talk and listen to your partner

Kindness and attention require practical input in the form of communication, time and interest. To again quote from the Enduring Love survey:

  • Talking and listening were appreciated as one of the most effective means by which couples came to understand, reassure and comfort each other. Arguments and poor communication, notably around money issues, were frequently cited as one of the least liked aspects of relationship;
  • Being ‘best friends with your partner ranked very high among women and men, with the type of friendship being used to signify emotional closeness. Respect, encouragement and kindness were valued features of such relationships, together with a confidence that concerns and problems could be shared. — TM

Keep the lust alive

The extra ingredient in a romantic relationship is lust and without this, the relationship will struggle. Many people will have the experience of falling in love and cannot take their hands off each other for the first year or two, but discover that this ingredient has all but totally disappeared in later years. Many lament its demise but others take it as the normal track for relationships; rarely do both partners agree with the level of desire in the relationship. The familiar phrase “I love you but I’m not in love with you” will have reverberated through many a break-up. Can the initial stages of lust be kept throughout the long life of a relationship and how important is intimacy to a relationship? Very important it would seem from the conversations with many couples and individuals. —TM

Stay curious about your changing pleasure

One major issue with discourse around sex is the assumption that everyone already knows what they like and is comfortable asking for it. But not everyone understands their own pleasure — and it can change over time. Make an effort to connect with your body, your desires and your inner sense of eroticism. Remain curious about your pleasure, note where different things pique your excitement or curiosity and find safe and comfortable ways to explore new things. Stay curious about your partner’s evolving relationship with pleasure. Have ongoing conversations about your bodies, sex, kink, fantasy and eroticism. If you feel like your shared sex life has become routine, explore new ways of touching each other, trying sex toys, or exploring forms of expression that make you both feel desirable. Discuss what your ideal sex life would look like, allowing for the possibility of change. — RMcD

Express desire outside of sex

In a relationship, ensure that you and your partner maintain and enjoy a physical and intimate connection and affection that does not lead to sex and is enjoyed simply for its own pleasure. Sometimes in a long-term relationship, couples can neglect simple acts like giving compliments, kissing or cuddling — or unconsciously engage in them only as foreplay. This can cause problems if one person doesn’t want to have sex, as they will withdraw from all forms of physical affection to avoid an unwanted escalation. Intimacy, connection and gestures of affection aren’t just means to an end, they are valuable in and of themselves. — RMcD

Prioritise romance and schedule sex

Common representations of sex prioritise spontaneity, passion, overwhelming lust and a combination of seemingly boundless energy and a flexible schedule — which is not most people’s reality. The hectic nature of day-to-day life can result in sex and romance falling on the back burner. But we schedule time for work commitments, socialising or hobbies, and we consciously think about how to be good employees, bosses, parents and friends. We can similarly prioritise romance and sex in our lives, and consciously think about how to be a good partner. Regular dates, romantic activities, new experiences and quality time together is vital to keeping your connection alive. Scheduling sex isn’t a death knell to spontaneity or demand that anyone have sex when they don’t want to; it is simply carving out time to connect. — RMcD

Discuss what monogamy means to you

Every couple will hold different ideas of what constitutes fidelity, loyalty and respect in a relationship, and it’s important to discuss your expectations, comfort levels and boundaries in an ongoing way. New situations may open up different facets of those conversations — such as what you both consider respectful behaviour when it comes to socialising or emotional intimacy with other people; your relationship with exes; flirting, or interacting with sexual media. Unspoken rules only set people up for disappointment and failure, so have ongoing conversations — and allow your ideas about monogamy and fidelity to evolve. — RMcD

Jealous? Think your way out of it

Jealousy can make misery of life. At its core is a sense of low self-esteem. It begins with comparison: the other person is getting more credit than me; my partner will be drawn to someone more attractive than me; my friend has a bigger house, fancier car and more beautiful body; the list is endless. There is a saying, “blinded by jealousy”. When we are emotionally flooded by jealousy and rage, our intelligence cannot work. The first step to dealing with this is self-awareness: usually, the jealous behaviour will be pointed out by people who love or care for you. Be grateful to the person for pointing it out. Then take time to sit with the difficult feelings. Once they have calmed down, focus outwards and hook your intelligence on what is actually happening. If hurt or damage has been caused to others, apologise, forgive yourself and completely let it go. Jealousy is a tough feeling to overcome; take it one step at a time. — TM

If your partner’s in a dark place ...

Being in a relationship with someone with mental health difficulties it can be a long and lonely experience. The sufferer may be unable to stretch themselves outside of their own world or give any attention to their partner. The partner may feel unable to help. It is important that the well person is up and functioning; they need people in their circle that are upbeat and cheerful. It can be guilt-inducing to head out for a good night or have a frivolous time when a partner is suffering but it is very important. It is equally important to manage the guilt. The smart thing is to have three people in the relationship — the couple and a mental health professional such as a GP or counsellor — so that the couple can share the burden. This way everyone can get rest and recovery, helping to ensure the longevity of the relationship. — TM

Allow for times of sexual incompatibility

There will be periods in long-term relationships when libidos do not perfectly align, or when sex is not possible or the priority. Parenthood, illness, stress and mental health issues are all common reasons that your shared sex life may falter. Remember that this is natural and common. The key is remaining open to navigating these periods, communicating clearly and trying to bring each other pleasure, intimacy and connection in other ways. — RMcD

Learn to decline sex respectfully

There will always be times when one partner wants to have sex and the other doesn’t. But shame, resentment, pressure, entitlement, or ineffective communication can often turn these inevitable moments into sites of vulnerability. You can turn down a partner’s sexual advance and still be warm, acknowledging the attempt to connect. You can offer sex and be turned down without taking it as a rejection of you, your desirability, or your connection, acknowledging it simply as a rejection of that particular sexual act in that particular moment. Talk about how you would like to handle these moments so that everyone feels as safe, respected and appreciated as possible. — RMcD

Challenge rude behaviour

Loyalty is another quality that is crucial to relationships. In romantic relationships, this includes fidelity or loyalty to the partner. Many people say that they take fidelity as a given, even in long-distance relationships. Honest conversations and inquiry about what loyalty and fidelity mean are hugely important as we can assume a certain immovable moral code only to find that our assumptions are incorrect. If our partner is being rude or obnoxious, loyalty requires that we stand by them, but love gives us permission to challenge the behaviour as we know that our beloved can be a better person than this. In fact, trusting that the other person has your back can allow all kinds of disagreements and differences to be tolerated and challenged. — TM

Play it fair

Fairness and reciprocity are central to the maintenance of any relationship. This is often felt in long-distance relationships where one person is left carrying the family load while the other person lives a single life abroad or where one person feels they are carrying the financial burden but is unappreciated. Unfairness in daily activities can also point to underlying difficulties or inequalities in the relationship. For example, couples can fight over who does what in terms of housework but often they are checking out the underlying principles the relationship sits on. Rows over who does the dishwasher often signal that one person feels less important. Regular conversations about meeting the needs of both people are imperative. — TM

Your relationship is not a monolith

Instead, think of it as a series of relationships with the same person; relationships that may have different needs, priorities and focuses. We change and evolve over time, both as people and as partners, and tensions can arise when one person wants to grow or change the terms of the relationship — and one person wants things to always remain the same. Committing to a long-term relationship means committing to remain curious about who your partner is in this moment, letting them grow, and letting your relationship evolve with you. — RMcD

Practice makes perfect — ish!

Like everything else in life, if you want to keep or develop something, it has to be practised. The initial attraction signalled that there was a chemistry that worked but if it is let slide it can be difficult to resurrect. The quest for enduring love in the 21st century is set amid the reality of huge relationship break-ups, separations and divorce. We have more knowledge now of what an enduring relationship can do for us as individuals, for children and for communities and yet it can elude even the most determined of people. If we can find and sustain enduring love, we are free to venture out into the world, take risks and experiment with life knowing that we can return and be accepted and loved wholly for who we are. It is a quest worth seeking. — TM

Not all relationships last forever

There’s damaging rhetoric that treats relationships that don’t end in marriage or lifelong commitment as somehow failures, or a waste of time. All relationships can teach you something about what is important to you, who you are, what you need moving forward — and, occasionally, what you will not tolerate. When a relationship is abusive or toxic, when it is not letting you feel fulfilled, or when a partner is a wonderful person but there are irreconcilable differences, you need to respect yourself enough to end the relationship. You can do so with respect, honouring what you had and speaking kindly of the person to new partners, remaining grateful for the positive memories and lessons learned. When ending a bad relationship, give yourself time to move through all the emotions you need to, to mourn the relationship you wanted but did not have, but also to think about what went wrong, and how to protect yourself while remaining open to love in the future. — RMcD

  • RMcD = Roe McDermott TM = Trish Murphy
Trish Murphy

Trish Murphy

Trish Murphy is a psychotherapist, teacher and trainer based at Trinity College Dublin

Roe McDermott

Roe McDermott

Roe McDermott, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes a weekly column in the Magazine answering readers' queries about sex and relationships