Steps in Outsmarting the 'Sexless Marriage':
Part One: Roadmap to Finding Pleasure Amidst Kids and Work
Dr. Zoldbrod is the author of SexSmart: How Your Childhood Shaped Your Sexual Life and What to Do About It (1998) and Men, Women and Infertility (1993). Her newest book is Sex Talk: Uncensored Exercises for Exploring What Really Turns You On (with Lauren Dockett), New Harbinger, 2002. Dr. Zoldbrod is a Boston-based psychologist and an AASECT certified sex therapist in private practice in Lexington and also at the Lahey Center for Sexual Function, Peabody. You can email your comments and questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org or access her web site at www.sexsmart.com.
Well, folks, it must be true. What sex therapists have known for decades, Newsweek (June 30) made official. Its cover story "No Sex, Please, We're Married: Are Stress, Kids and Work Killing Romance" reported that lots of American couples are just not connecting and then not connecting in the sack.
As a psychologist and licensed and trained sex therapist, and author, I tried to get a contract to write a book about low sex marriages 15 years ago, but no agent or publisher wanted to publish a book about " bad news." Besides, they didn't believe me.
But I bet you believe me. You may be relieved by the current media blitz on sexless marriage: magazines, the Barry McCarthy and Michele Weiner-Davis books and an ABC-TV segment with the Drs. Laura and Jennifer Berman. It all attests to what is now generally being called the "sex starved marriage." You figure that you are not the only couple in the United States whose "to do" list intrudes into your every waking moment, leaving very little time for any sort of relaxation and rejuvenation. Maybe you both work outside the home, and your schedules never mesh. Maybe you're a married woman who feels furious at her husband for not being able to grasp his share of the details involved in running a home and family.
Newsweek's article describes a growing trend toward busy, but sexless lives. The ideas about other couples' lives we have gotten from Sex in the City, Cosmo, and Playboy are not the norm for many married couples in America today.
But just because there is a growing trend among couples toward foregoing sex doesn't mean that it's a good trend. Being sexual with a beloved partner has verified benefits for your health. These include the healing power of spiritual and emotional intimacy (and the ability of sharing the sex act to bond you to your partner), the health benefits of touch, stress reduction, increased blood flow to the rest of your body, anti-depressant benefits, lowered cholesterol, better sleep, and more.
But what good is it to state a problem and not provide some answers and suggestions.
In this segment of "Steps in Outsmarting the Sexless Marriage," we'll talk about the significant problems of couples with small children. According to a 2001 study in the Journal of Sex Research by Janet Hyde, Ph.D., former president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex, frequency of sex is determined more by satisfaction with spouse and job than by a dual earner lifestyle. But in her study, children in the home impacts couples' sexual lives even more than work schedules. According to Dr. Hyde's study, young married couples without kids have sex two to three times a week, compared with once or twice a week for couples with small children.
"Not Tonight, Dear:" The Female Side of the Equation: Women Parenting Young Children Experience Their Bodies as Not Their Own
Unfortunately for men, women, and marriage as an institution, pregnancy and parenting of small children-- which research shows is usually primarily the responsibility of women-- profoundly changes women's experience of touch. When partners first fall in love, they most often experience intense physical cravings for each other, and their active sexual bond is a natural outgrowth of real longing to touch each other. Touch is electric, and sexual merging is just what each of them has been aching for. The touch cements their attachment.
An irony awaits, however. Partners who love each other often have a deep urge to parent a child together. But, lo and behold, the act of becoming a mother can drain off all of the woman's urge to be touched! Parenting small kids is an intensely physical experience. Babies and small children need to be nursed, rocked, picked up, cuddled, jiggled, hugged, swung around, and coddled. A mother's typical, moment to moment life with a small child is the experience of being sucked on, being held on to, being jumped on, picking the child up, putting the child down, getting up to get the child juice, bending down to wipe up the self same spilled juice, and going to the refrigerator to try the juice project again. It's the experience of being tied down, not even being able to go to the bathroom by yourself. Whew! It is exhausting. You can't get around it.
The pressure on the mother to devote body and soul to the child is primitive and relentless. Each child's emotional, physical, spiritual, (and ultimately sexual) development depends on a mother LENDING her body to the child. Mothers of small kids literally experience feeling USED UP. When the kids are asleep, many women just want some time to feel that their body is their own.
Steve and Sara: After 20 minutes of Touching, She Finally Relaxes, But They Don't Connect
Consider a young couple I treated. Let's call them Steve and Sara. They have one child, a very darling but demanding three-year old daughter, Greta. Steve is a banker, Sara is a dancer. Steve does lots of banking these days, probably working a 60 hour workweek, but Sara isn't doing much dancing. She's busy taking care of Greta. Greta is high maintenance, physically and emotionally, and Sara gets to the end of each day physically depleted.
One typical day, Steve decides that he wants to make love. So after they put Greta in bed, and Greta is asleep, he suggests to Sara that he give her a massage. They go into the bedroom, and Steve does a very good job of massaging her. He's very generous, he's very loving; in fact, he does a great job. But a funny thing happens...nothing!
As Steve tells it, " Well, I was massaging Sara, and massaging Sara, and massaging Sara, and nothing was happening, so I stopped."
Sara's side of the story is this: " Well, Steve was touching me, and it was really wonderful. I was really getting into it. The cares of the world were disappearing, and I was thinking, 'Wow, I really do HAVE A BODY!'.. And just as I was feeling really good, Steve stopped touching me.
What an amazing missed communication. The problem was fixed by having this discussion in therapy. Steve discovered it would take longer than 20 minutes to get Sara inerested in sex. Sara realized that when Steve was doing his wonderful massaging she needed to provide verbal feedback on how nice it felt which would encourage him to keep going.
Children's Lack of Boundaries with Mother is Natural, But Harmful to the Couple's Pair-Bond
The child's needs merge with the mother's life so completely that the mother often doesn't even recognize how completely her sense of self has been absorbed and her personal boundaries changed.
Consider this scenario:
At a dinner party where a number of sleep deprived young mothers were being entertained, two young mothers were sitting next to each other and chatting, while they were eating. One of them unconsciously picked up a fork and knife, cut a piece of meat from the other woman's plate, and ate it herself. The second young mother didn't even blink an eye! When the first woman caught herself and apologized for her bizarre behavior, the second woman commented that she was so used to this scene with her own children that she literally hadn't noticed that anything weird or unusual had occurred.
What does this have to do with a couples' sexuality, you ask? The moral of this story is that women, who have primary responsibility for young children, get so absorbed and depleted by the task of supervising and parenting that they literally lose touch with themselves and with the experience of owning their own body. The motivation to merge physically with a partner, even a beloved partner, is lost until the time where the woman again feels herself to be a differentiated human being.
When kids are young, to be a responsible parent, moms need to lend themselves and their bodies to their children. This is a special stage of life. (Later on, there is more choice of how involved and exhausted you choose to be. You can choose not to sign your children up for four lessons and sports a week each, for example.) The only choice couples have when kids are little is whether to ignore the stresses of this phase of life and to become emotionally estranged, or to admit the realities of this stage of life to themselves and find a way to get relief.
To Outsmart the Sexless Marriage, couples with small children need to remember that mom needs to re-experience her body as her own before she will be able to engage in a pleasurable mutual sexual encounter. The daily solution may be some alone time, listening to music, meditating, taking a nap, or going to the gym. Dads who jump in (after an exhausting day at work themselves) and pick up, rock, cuddle, bathe, carry, swing, and dance with small children create enormous good will in their wives and lifelong positive memories for their children.
Best case scenario in day-to-day life, to really help your wife feel sexual pleasure, pitch in with the kids, and pace your wooing. You have to set aside enough time to get her to the point of saying what Sara said, "Wow, I do have a body." If you do these things, your marriage will stay emotionally and physically close, even in the midst of the tremendous demands of parenting small kids.
Patty and Joel: Sex Therapist Helps Young Parents Learn the Value of Prioritizing "We" Time
Take the case of Patty and Joel. Patty is 29 and Joel is 31, married with kids, aged 3 and 4. They live in a Boston suburb. Joel has a great job, but making enough money to support four people means working a 70-your week. Their sex life, which used to be fabulous six years ago, had come to a dead stop. They love each other and are devoted to the kids, but after the birth of their first child, their sex life took a spiral down and they couldn't recover without outside help.
Neither of them was prepared for the stresses of parenthood. Neither had family nearby. Just taking care of the kids wore Patty out, and she was so angry at Joel for not participating more at home that the no-sex pattern began out of her exhaustion and anger.
Joel dragged them into therapy because he felt that even though he loved Patty, if he didn't do something about the absence of sex, he would be vulnerable to having an affair at work. Sex therapy centered around couples' issues: the need to forgive, communication, and open expression of appreciation by each to the other for the hard work each was doing. Most importantly, therapy centered on helping them understand that they HAD to spend some of their precious money on baby-sitters in order to have periods of time when they could be lovers, not just parents.
Although they don't love what it does to their budget, they find that getting the baby-sitting help they need has allowed them to reconnect emotionally and sexually. They found a baby-sitting service they like and have at least one overnight a month away from the kids. Patty has gotten to the point that she remembers what sexual pleasure feels like and she anticipates having fun when they go away. And now, they don't have to spend money on sex or couples therapy!
For a Really Special Time, You Need to Set Aside Special Time (Duh!) Sex Night for Parents: An Exercise for People with Small Kids
---from Sex Talk: Uncensored Exercises for Exploring What Really Turns You On*, Zoldbrod and Dockett, 2002, p. 96-97
OK, lets say that you're a couple with small kids, and you don't have any close relatives or friends who can give you some time to break out of the mommy and daddy role. And you don't have the disposable money of Patty and Joel to hire baby-sitters. What then? You still have to deal with the current reality somehow. Staying connected sexually takes work and planning. The truth is that if you don't have a decent amount of time together, the mom won't be able to click out of her mommy role and remember that she is a sexual being. And you also have to get a good night's sleep in order to be able to be a decent parent in the morning. What can you do?
Well, here's a suggestion:
Even if you are a very social couple, make a joint decision that sometimes the two of you will forego "social night with other people" for "really good sex night" with each other. Most couples really cannot have both these fun activities in the same night.. Ahead of time, take out your calendars and mark off one or two weekend nights a month where you will not make plans with other people. No family obligations, no dinners with friends. Make a plan for the day of the date night that includes:
- Plan time for either one or both of you to take naps during the day while the other watches the kids, including feeding the kids outside of the house.
- No cooking or cleaning up of the evening meal. Get takeout or heat something up.
- Feed the kids and get them to bed early.
- Eat dinner early yourselves. Again, do not fuss with cleaning or cooking.
- Do not answer the phone after six o'clock.
- Have a home movie or something fun to watch at home while you wait for the kids to settle down and go to sleep. Whatever this is, make sure you do the activity together.
- No doing mail, email, bills, work, or other parallel activities.
You will have digested your food and gotten your children to sleep by nine o'clock. You will now have at least two hours to reconnect, to talk, to lie together and enjoy each other's bodies, to massage each other, and/or to have leisurely sex. All this, and you still will be able to get to sleep early enough to enjoy being a parent the next day.
In planning ahead for that date, it's a good idea to plan ahead and factor in when you are going to get your period and when in your cycle you are most aroused.
Just the fact that you planned for this time together is a meta message to yourselves that you are prioritizing your emotional and physical intimacy, even in the middle of the stresses of parenting and work. Chances of having good sex together improve still more if you acknowledge the differences between the way men and women function sexually.
Men and Women as Microwaves versus Crockpots
There is a lot of truth to an analogy about men and women's sexuality. When it comes to heating up, men are microwaves, women are crockpots. That is, men heat up in a flash, women need to slowly simmer. This difference causes a lot of upset feelings, irritation, and experiences of rejection among couples.
Rod and Betty: Even if You Love Her, Don't Mess with the Cook!
Women who are harried can sometimes reject what their husbands consider very tender and spontaneous expressions of love and sexual attraction. Consider this episode:
Rod and Betty have been married 10 years and have two boys, age 4 and 6. Betty and Rod both work outside the home. As you can imagine, dinnertime can be a little hectic.
Betty is making dinner at the stove, doing a stir-fry, cooking furiously. The kids are watching TV. Rod comes into the kitchen, feels affectionately towards Betty, and spontaneously comes behind her while she is cooking and reaches around and cups her breasts and kisses her neck. To his astonishment, Betty gets very irritated.
What's going on here? In his mind, Rod is giving Betty a gift. In her internal image and mindset, what just happened is the equivalent of his wrestling her to the ground while she is holding on to a vat of boiling oil!!
Good thing is, Betty has a great sense of humor. So she tries to get Rod to feel some empathy for her sense of the situation by asking him to imagine that he is working with a chain saw, and in the midst of it, she gives him a big hug! Well, he does get the picture.
Rod's feelings are a little hurt, but he tries to remember Betty's image of how he would feel if she grabbed him while he was handling a bucking chain saw. He decides not to take it personally, and to just make a mental note that while his wife is engaged in KP for the family, the most romantic thing he could do might be to offer to help the kids set the table.
Recognizing the Problem of Women's Sexual Distractibility: Getting to Orgasm is Like Taking a Great Dane for a Walk
---Adapted from Sex Talk, Zoldbrod and Dockett, p. 92-92, 2002)
One way in which men and women just can't understand each other is that many men find sex "relaxing." But it may be that the reason that most men think sex is so relaxing is that for most of them, sex = orgasm. Men have what is called the "point of ejaculatory inevitability," which means that if they get aroused enough, they are pretty certain to climax. So sex is kind of a done deal. Initiate sex, and pleasure is sure to follow, goes men's reasoning. Women are more distractible, and orgasms are not a given in female sexuality. For women, sexual pleasure takes work and intention.
It can sometimes be more work for women than men to become aroused in the first place (think of the crockpot image), and it is certainly more difficult for women to stay aroused. There is no point of inevitable orgasm for women. Instead, women can get distracted and lose their arousal at any point in the sexual encounter. Once arousal is lost, women need to start to build their arousal all over again from the beginning, if they want to have an orgasm and, often, women don't have the energy or desire to rebuild that huge edifice again.
This is why I always encourage women to think of pursuing their own arousal and orgasm as if they are taking a Great Dane dog for a walk. You know how dogs always want to wander off the path, sniffing something exciting, getting lost in their own worlds? Well, if orgasm is your goal, you have to take control of your sexuality and your thoughts and not let your unconscious wander. You need to be talking sex to yourself and nothing else. You need to control that dog and yank it back on the path just as you need to yank your thoughts back to the sexual pleasure path.
Here's how to use this image to help you have an orgasm. Give yourself permission to be selfish in sex, and if you want to have an orgasm, work on asking for what you need from your partner in the sexual encounter.
Start out by imagining that you are the one making love, and you are in control of your own thoughts. So imagine you are with your partner, and you find that your attention is wandering, say to the brownies you have to bake for your son's first grade class, or the curtains you have to pick up for the living room or some other distraction. Now picture yourself CONSCIOUSLY STOPPING your extraneous thoughts. Yank that Great Dane onto the path. Now imagine asking your partner to do something to your body that will re-direct you into pleasurable feelings. If you practice this exercise in your imagery before you are in bed, it will be easier to do it when you are making love.
I think the Newsweek article missed the point about women's sexuality in saying that "in reality, no one is too busy to have sex, because the sex act itself doesn't take very long"( p.45, June 30th 2003). Women who are harried, distracted, depleted, and out of touch with their bodies cannot be physically PRESENT or get pleasure if the sex act is brief and routinized, and getting to a climax at the end of a busy day may take time and effort.
Aim for Connection, not Perfection.
That being said, another way to Outsmart the Sexless Marriage is to aim for connection, not perfection. Set time aside for some kind of emotional and physical connection, and wait to see what happens, being open to many possibilities. Not every interlude in a couple's life has to look like a perfect sexual response cycle.
One couple I know who have small kids told me a story of how they set aside time, intending to make love. They put on some jazz, scratched each other's backs, and then fell dead asleep in each other's arms. But for each of them, this interlude was tender and memorable. The more you avoid being tender and physical with each other and get caught up in goals of sexual perfection, the more daunting making the connection becomes.
So just do it! (July 2003)