Early on in my twenties I watched an HBO series called Sexual Healing with Dr. Laura Bergman (not to be confused with Dr. Laura Schlessinger- not a single similarity aside from Dr. title). Each episode featured one couple who was struggling in their relationship, and they had come to work with Dr. Laura for a week.
The majority of these couples were having sexual difficulties. One had been married for 20 years and the wife had never had an orgasm. Another couple had been close but then through the difficulties of raising a special needs child, had become like roommates. Yet another couple was having frequent sex so they thought everything was fine there, but they were fighting a lot outside of the bedroom. As it turns out, they were turning to sex to avoid communicating on the emotional and even practical level. Lots of sex, but no intimacy (remember: two different things!).
This couple’s homework was to spend time together without erotic touch, simply looking into each other’s eyes, talking, and being affectionate without being sexual. It was amazing to see how uncomfortable they were with this. This was a couple that was beyond familiar with each other’s bodies and sexual preferences, but this territory of emotional connection scared them and made this exercise very challenging.
One couple was in sexual decline, as the wife struggled to find desire for her husband. She loved him as a friend, but no matter how she tried, could not experience sexual arousal with him. The doctor, sensing that the wife needed to feel more respect and admiration for her husband, gave them seemingly unrelated homework. She required them to go on a date, and the man was to plan every detail without including the woman at all. In fact, the woman had to wear a blindfold all the way until they reached the date destination so that she could not control his driving or directions.
The woman’s discomfort was palpable as the man picked out an outfit for her (she’s blindfolded, remember), her shoes, jewelry. Her obvious lack of trust in his competency was almost laughable as she tried to backseat drive while blindfolded.
They ended up at dinner, she looked beautiful, the food was great, and then he took her dancing- another activity requiring him to take the lead. By now she had started to see him in a new light and was allowing herself to surrender control and enjoy herself.
Long story short, the next day in therapy they reported having had their best night together in years- decades even. She had had no difficulty desiring him by the time they got back to the hotel.
The main lesson I learned from this show, seen at a time when I was just starting to think about what I wanted my own marriage to be like (still 10 years away), helped form a foundation from which to view sex in marriage. The lesson was that often, problems that show up in the bedroom often have solutions found outside the bedroom, and problems outside the bedroom can find solutions inside it. Sex isn’t an act, it’s an environment.
Sexuality is a global part of life. Society has flooded us with sexual imagery and reduced it to a single act, but it’s something we all carry around that informs many parts of our relationships whether we are engaging in that act or not.
I love what Esther Perel says about bombardment:
“Let’s not be fooled into thinking that this [saturation of sexual attitudes and exposure] reflects enlightened sexual attitudes. The blatant marketing of sexual images may be more excessive than progressive, and it has at its roots profit and the freedom of the market rather than freedom of thought...it’s more about opening your wallet than opening your mind.”
She goes on to describe the two extremes: Puritanism and Hedonism, and how approaching sex from either lens removes the importance of the other.
“Taboo-ridden sexuality and excess-driven sexuality converge in a troubling way. Both lead us to want to dissociate psychically [that’s psychic-ly] from the physical act of sex. A society that sees sex as soiled does not make sex go away. Instead, this kind of anxious atmosphere breeds guilt and shame in its more extreme version, or a generalized discomfort...Sex is divorced from emotional and social continuity. What is missing is a sexuality that is integrated, in which pleasure flourishes in a context of relatedness...the basic care and appreciation for another person.”
This is the third way, the way that allows us to care for our own sexuality while nurturing the emotional intimacy and care for the relationship. Not a sexual free for all, but also not a self-sacrificing, completely altruistic view of sex, either. When one or both partners aren’t getting what they need in the bedroom, tensions will eventually run high over dinner.
If a partner isn’t getting the help they need around the house, frustration can show up in the form of low erotic desire. If both parties are committed to their polarized realms, unwilling to enter into the others’ territory, blending the two worlds, the home will remain a battlefield rather than peaceful common ground.
Since we know that a significant predictor of a happy life is strong relationships, it makes sense that the human body runs at optimal speed when the mind and heart are included in the process. Sex on its own fills a need for the body, but only meeting physical needs will soon make for a depleted life, just as a relationship of constant mental input with no emotional support would be unsustainable.
Sex is an environment, not an act. Spend some time thinking about your environment and whether it’s welcoming to sexual intimacy. This includes your workload, the physical space around you and how inviting it is, the attitudes of those around you (and your own), hygiene, organization of time, smells, noise levels, obligations, technology’s role in the home, and the list goes on.
Everything in the life of a couple impacts sexual desire and intimacy, as annoying as that is to acknowledge. The good news? With just a little focus on what surrounds the intimate life of a couple, a few adjustments could be the difference between a familiar rut and a long lost spark.