In an amazing book titled The Normal Bar, authors Chrisanna Northrup, Pepper Schwartz, and James Witte conducted an online study with 70,000 people in 24 countries. They were curious about what might be different about couples who said that they had a great sex life, compared to couples who said that they had a bad sex life. Even with the limitations of self-report data, there are some fascinating implications of their results.

One thing that’s very interesting to me is how their findings compare to the advice Esther Perel gives in her book Mating in Captivity, and in her clinical work in general, in which she assists couples in improving their sex life. Perel tells couples not to cuddle. She also believes that emotional connection will stand in the way of good erotic connection. This brings me to a key finding from the Normal Bar study.

Fact: Couples who have a great sex life everywhere on the planet are doing the same set of things.

Additionally, couples who do not have a great sex life everywhere on the planet are not doing these things.

Inspired by the Normal Bar study, as well as by my own research studies on more than 3,000 couples over four decades, I’ve identified 13 things all couples do who have an amazing sex life.

  1. They say “I love you” every day and mean it
  2. They kiss one another passionately for no reason
  3. They give surprise romantic gifts
  4. They know what turns their partners on and off erotically
  5. They are physically affectionate, even in public
  6. They keep playing and having fun together
  7. They cuddle
  8. They make sex a priority, not the last item of a long to-do list
  9. They stay good friends
  10. They can talk comfortably about their sex life
  11. They have weekly dates
  12. They take romantic vacations
  13. They are mindful about turning toward

In short, they turn toward one another with love and affection to connect emotionally and physically. In the Normal Bar study, only 6% of non-cuddlers had a good sex life. So Perel’s intuition runs counter to international data. What is very clear from the Normal Bar study is that having a great sex life is not rocket science. It is not difficult.

Fact: Couples have a bad sex life everywhere on the planet.

The Sloan Center at UCLA studied 30 dual-career heterosexual couples in Los Angeles. These couples had young children. The researchers were like anthropologists – observing, tape-recording, and interviewing these couples. They discovered that most of these young couples:

  1. Spend very little time together during a typical week
  2. Become job-centered (him) and child-centered (her)
  3. Talk mostly about their huge to-do lists
  4. Seem to make everything else a priority other than their relationship
  5. Drift apart and lead parallel lives
  6. Are unintentional about turning toward one another

One researcher on this project told me it was his impression that these couples spent only about 35 minutes together every week in conversation, and most of their talk was about errands and tasks that they had to get done.

So, if we put these two studies together, what does it tell us? It says that couples should not avoid one another emotionally like Perel recommends, but instead follow the 13 very simple things that everyone on the planet does to make their sex lives great.

Emily Nagoski’s wonderful book Come as You Are talks about the dual process model of sex. In the model, each person has a sexual brake and a sexual accelerator. In some people the brake is more developed, and in some people the accelerator is more developed. It’s important to learn what for you and for your partner steps on that sex brake, that says, “No, I’m not in the mood for lovemaking.”

It’s also important to learn what for you and for your partner steps on that accelerator, that says, “Oh yes, I’m in the mood for lovemaking.” We have a mobile app designed for this purpose. It consists of over 100 questions to ask a woman about her brake and accelerator, and over 100 questions to ask a man about his brake and accelerator. Those questions are also available as one of seven exercises in The Art and Science of Lovemaking video program.

Great sex is not rocket science. By being good friends, by being affectionate (yes, even cuddling), and by talking openly about sex, couples can build a thriving relationship inside and outside of the bedroom.


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More in Sex & Intimacy
Building a Great Sex Life is Not Rocket Science
John Gottman, Ph.D.

World-renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, Dr. John Gottman has conducted 40 years of breakthrough research with thousands of couples. He is the author of over 200 published academic articles and author or co-author of more than 40 books, including The New York Times bestseller The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

  • Zaggner

    Yeah! Those specific aspects of Perel’s work that you mentioned really bugged me and never set right with me. I’m glad there’s a study that debunks that nonsense. Thank you Dr. Gottman for keeping it real. Marriages today NEED the truth for better a better marriage, not advice from “experts” that ultimately harm your marriage. Thank you for your work!

    • JCT

      Agree with Zaggner. Esther Perel is a charlatan and apologist for infidelity, and she takes blaming the victim to a new level. It irks me that her TED talk gets so much attention, as if all those viewers are looking for excuses to cheat. Dr. Gottman is the voice of logic and reason. I hope to enroll in a workshop this year.

  • Lola Jones

    Perel is a hack. I’m disgusted she’s so popular (says a lot about our culture, sadly).

  • Dylan Davies

    Interesting research and I love the nod to Emily Nagoski, but this is a gross oversimplification of Esther Perel’s perspective on eroticism. She doesn’t prescribe a moratorium on cuddling for all couples… only those who use cuddling as faux affection to avoid the work involved in keeping eroticism alive. I’m disappointed with Gottman’s pattern to be reductive in terms of sexuality. Perhaps his scientific background makes it difficult for him to conceive of the more enigmatic qualities of “lovemaking” (as he likes to put it).