This is not your standard Hallmark “Happy Valentine’s Day” newsletter. This is a personal disclosure about sex and relationships. Because there are common realities that all of us face sexually, I often use my own relationship as a petri-dish for key clinical interventions.
In an effort to juggle work, two small kids under age five, exercise, and write a book, my life had become very full. And sex, had become very stagnant. I was still having sex, a bit. But I was initiating or saying yes to an invitation as a “gift.” This is not the worst thing in the world as I actually encourage this with my clients. Basically, the “gift” intervention is to help clients make the shift from obligation sex into something more neutral and eventually more pleasurable. We take old thoughts, such as, “It’s been a month and I know my partner is so sex-starved; I’m going to have to say yes soon or we are doomed.” Then replace that with thoughts like, “It’s been a month and I know my partner needs sex to feel connected; I can initiate or say yes soon as a gift and investment in our relationship health.”
The problem was that all sex was gift sex. I had become lazy and depended on my husband, Daniel, to do all the heavy lifting. I wasn’t doing anything to bolster my own arousal and desire. I was saying yes because I loved him, but not doing much to encourage my own body to wake up and get into it. I wasn’t exactly a dead fish, but I was soon approaching that stage.
Why though? My profession is sex therapy and I deeply love my work. I could tell you lots of excuses, like I’m a busy mother, running a business and writing a book. Those are excuses. I can work, write and mother, and have a vibrant sex life. I was choosing not to. I was choosing to let my busyness be in the driver seat. I was not slowing down to be in my body and ask myself what deeply turned me on.
Let me say that Desire is about turning on the brain, and Arousal is about turning on the body. Because desire for women is responsive, not typically spontaneous, I usually enter into sex from a place of growing arousal, let the pleasure hijack my brain, and then eventually stop thinking of everything else I always think about all day. All those thoughts that are not sexy and don’t just stop and leave because I’m naked and about to have sex. If I could make a pill that told the brain to stop thinking in the blink of an eye, and now be excited for sex, I would be a billionaire. But that’s not quite how we work. Unless…we choose to.
Here I was, swiftly approaching my dead fish stage, when Daniel said to me, “I’d like to offer some feedback. To me, it feels like a long time since you have taken personal responsibility for your arousal. Does that feel accurate to you?”
Ouch! Yes, it’s accurate. But they are not called growing pains for nothing. So, as two married therapists do, we processed. I was accumulating too much negative energy from clients. I was relaxing for one hour, once a month. I was half-engaging in my hobbies. I was collapsing into bed and hoping I did not have to work very hard to get my arousal kicking.
So, I made some changes. I implemented stronger and more intentional energetic boundaries with clients to support their healing, yet not take home their narratives. I did a short and sweet morning meditation-yoga blend immediately upon waking up, and before going to bed. It’s not a ton of relaxing, but a few minutes a day is better than none. I substituted maintenance exercise with swimming and dancing—two hobbies I am exceedingly passionate about! And then, I took a risk. Rather than collapsing into bed, I stayed standing. I took the passion from my hobbies and circulated it through my body. I did a few kegels to help my own blood flow. I put on some fun and sensual music, took a deep breath, and started dancing. I’m a closet Michael Jackson fan, and there is nothing like a little Dirty Diana to get me motivated. This also felt risky. Daniel doesn’t love MJ music, and I feared he would think I was avoiding sex to have a dance party. But I needed to have a dance party. It was the ticket into my passion and arousal. I was having fun, and through that fun, I found myself. I found my hibernating sensual goddess and woke her the F up! Daniel hardly minded the MJ music, or the subsequent Nina Simone, Etta James, and Marvin Gaye. I blasted through my block and learned some very important lessons.
One, I am equally responsible for my arousal.
Two, the fire of arousal feeds off other life passions.
Three, relaxation allows for brain and body alignment, and thus also desire and arousal alignment.
Four, I may need to take a risk to find what moves me (in my case, literally).
Five, I can use my breath and kegels to circulate energy and blood-flow in my body.
Six, gift sex is a useful and needed tool, but it can’t be the only one I ever use.
Point six may be the most important point here. Ironically, in the office I advocate for gift sex all the time. My goal as a sex therapist is to help clients find the pleasure in sex. But first I may need to move them away from feeling resentful and obligated.
The shift from obligationto giftis subtle, but significant. After clients have made that mental shift, then we work on shifting the body. However, arousal can be quite elusive for many women. I sometimes joke with my female clients that their arousal may be down the hall, or even in the next state. In contrast, a partner’s high arousal—more likely fed by testosterone—lives in the body all day, everyday.
If we have said yes to sex or even initiated a gift, yet our arousal is still dormant, we need to trust that our desire and arousal will eventually wake up. Female desire and arousal is often responsive (not spontaneous), and as we positively respond to a sexy stimuli, both desire and arousal start increase.
A common problem many women experience is feeling guilty for lagging behind the libido of the more highly aroused partner. This doesn’t mean we are taking too long, nor do we need to rush the process. Yet for me, I wasn’t doing anything to help this along. I was laying back and depending on Daniel to press all the magic buttons. In my stagnation, my gift became an empty obligation.
Let’s return to point one and two above. I am equally responsible for my own arousal, and, this fire gets fed by my own passions. If we passionately engage with our hobbies, we can utilize this contagious effect for sex. Other common passions may include making art, being in nature, enjoying a decadent meal, reading a book, or doing a martial art or yoga. The secret is to creatively find the sensual side of your passion and incorporate that into an erotic encounter. The foodie may go on dinner date then have a sensual dessert in the bedroom. The yogini could do creative postures for foreplay. The artist could make art on the body. The reader could write or read erotic literature. The martial artist could have a playful wrestling session. The nature lover could make love outside or create an inside ambiance of similar quality. The dancer could make the bedroom her stage!
Not every erotic encounter will be a passion-fueled session with fireworks. But I have to be responsible for my part. I do not feel obligated by this responsibility. I feel empowered. I can actually control my destiny and take matters into my own hands, and body. And when we feel empowered, we can also feel turned on.
Looking for more tools to empower your relationship both emotionally and erotically? Join our Couples Retreat, relocated to Boulder, CO – this spring!