Keep the Spark Alive

husband and wife laughing under a comforter

"The passion is gone. We might as well be roommates." We've heard disappointed couples make similar statements countless times during our careers as sex therapists. And the statement is not without some truth. There's something fleeting about the excitement and passion of a new relationship. Before long, the daily pressures of life nudge out those giddy emotions, and the surge of "newness" brain chemicals slows to a trickle. Some couples are so busy raising children and dealing with stressful jobs that physical intimacy has simply slipped in their priorities — or at least in one of the spouses' priorities. Regardless of how much the flames have died down, couples can learn to revitalize their sexual relationship and build deeper passion over their lifetime.

The learning curve of the early years

Those couples who clarify their expectations and learn to talk openly about sex are better able to make the transition from the newness of their sexual relationship to more intimate, enduring passion.

We all come to marriage with expectations about sex. Newly married couples often have different ideas about how often a couple will have sex, who will initiate and which sexual activities between a husband and wife are OK.

Differing sexual expectations can cause confusion and conflict, but when the couple respectfully talks through those differences, they can create a plan that works for both of them, so each will have deepened love for the other.

What if one spouse wants to do something that makes the other uncomfortable? What are acceptable sexual behaviors between a husband and a wife? We offer some guiding principles:

  • The acceptable activity is an expression of love for the other, rather than self-serving.
  • It is mutual — as good for one as it is for the other. We love the paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 7:3-4 found in The Message: "The marriage bed must be a place of mutuality — the husband seeking to satisfy his wife, the wife seeking to satisfy her husband. Marriage is not a place to 'stand up for your rights.' Marriage is a decision to serve the other, whether in bed or out." 
  • Use the comfort level of the most conservative spouse as the threshold, but be willing to grow one small step at a time.
  • It is important that the activity draws spouses closer together; that it builds intimacy and oneness.
  • It does not interfere with either spouse's relationship with God or with biblical teaching.

As you and your spouse talk, you may notice that you have different levels of comfort with the sex topic. To help couples talk more freely, we encourage them to share their likes and dislikes, as well as acknowledge their apprehensions and discomforts. (It's not a good idea, however, to share complaints before, during or after sex.) Find time away from the bedroom to talk about and design the best conditions for sex for both spouses. The best conversations are those that are specific and work out any differences.

Building fulfillment during the middle years

The time between the first five years of marriage until the physical and hormonal changes of aging set in can be considered the "middle years." These are often hectic years with children in the home, job pressures and many other activities that drain a couple's energy supply, including energy for sexual desire and responsiveness. This is a time to determine priorities.

To keep passion alive during this time, it's vital that couples are intentional about staying connected and planning for intimate times together. This may be the stage of your marriage when scheduling becomes necessary. Couples who grow in passion during these years are those who make mutual decisions regarding their sexual times together rather than have sex by duty or demand. Demand, whether subtle or overt, stifles sexual desire. "Duty sex" kills passion for both spouses over time.

To keep passion alive through all stages of marriage, we encourage couples to practice our "Formula for Intimacy" (see below). Whether couples are in the early adjustment years of marriage or in those challenging middle years, the passion of a relationship can be savored or rekindled. Couples will be able to keep the spark alive by taking time for each other — time to talk, to have fun and to kiss. Daily passionate kissing keeps the pilot light on so the flames can easily be turned up. If you take time and make the commitment to work toward building deeper passion based on true intimacy, your marriage will grow and glow with greater vibrancy over your lifetime.

Dr. Clifford and Joyce Penner are authors of The Gift of Sex: A guide to sexual fulfillment and The Way to Love Your Wife: Creating greater love and passion in the bedroom. Learn more at

Formula for Intimacy

Connect 15 minutes a day
Emotionally: Look into each other's eyes; share a positive thought, feeling or affirmation of the other.
Spiritually: Share an inspirational reading and prayer.
Physically: Hug for 20 seconds; kiss passionately for 5 to 30 seconds without leading to sex.

One evening a week
Walk, date, caress with no demands.

One day a quarter
Make time for special fun and playing together without distractions; lead and teach enjoyable touch.

One weekend a year
Spend time alone together away or at home with no distractions.

This article first appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Focus on the Family's Thriving Family magazine and was originally titled "Sexpectations."

Copyright © 2013 by Dr. Clifford and Joyce Penner. From the Focus on the Family website at

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