Transforming Ordinary into Extraordinary Marriages
Keeping Love and Romance Alive
Couples marry hoping to stay in love forever and wanting to ex-press that love for a lifetime. One of the biggest disappointments for couples is losing those loving feelings. Dr. Barry McCarthy, marriage/sex therapist and author, says that one in five married couples are no-sex or low-sex couples, that is, making love fewer than 10 times per year.
When we interviewed Dr. McCarthy for this newsletter, he insisted that "if couples are not proactive about putting energy into the romantic side of their relationship, it will fade out. Couples can actually train themselves to avoid sex." Don't leave these important areas of your marriage, love and sex, to chance when there is much you can do to grow more intimate over time.
Creating Positive Expectations about Marital Sexuality
In spite of sex education becoming more common in school, parent based sex education occurs in only 10% of US homes, a statistic unchanged in the 50 years sex researchers have been asking people how they learned about sex. Even parents who do talk about sex stop talking when they finish diagramming the plumbing. Parents fail miserably in being able to discuss questions kids are really interested in like: How do you know when you are in love? Why wait for sex until marriage?
Most of us learn about sex from movies, TV, friends, and our own fumbling around. Media can give us unrealistic, perfectionistic expectations about marital sex leading to disappointment when those expectations are not met. McCarthy says that human beings only occasionally have movie sex: the kind where passion is high, the clothes just melt away, no one speaks, and everyone reaches total ecstasy preferably at the same moment. The reality of marital sex is usually not Oscar winning material. Functional, happy couples report mutually satisfying sex 40- 50% of the time, unsatisfying sex around 5-10%, and satisfying for one partner but not the other or just alright sex the rest of the time. Lucky couples may have movie sex a few times of the year.
If you are normal you will have occasional problems with desire differences, difficulty in arousal or orgasm, or simply miscommunication about who is doing what to whom. The key is to expect the range of the human sexual experience and not hold yourselves up to the Hollywood mirror. If you expect the good, the bad, and the ugly in sex you will not be disappointed.
Recommendation: Accept the reality of the different levels of satisfaction that are normal for couples. Create positive anticipation while maintaining the flexibility to chalk up a low satisfaction experience as just one experience out of many. Marriage is not just a one night stand but a lifetime of experiences. Ask yourselves: "What would it take to make our intimate time exciting and special?''
Shifting Your Way to Better Love Making
One of McCarthy's most intriguing concepts is how couples need to learn to use all the "gears" available in the love-making repertoire. The gears describe the progression of steps from flirting to intercourse. He says that most couples quickly get into routines of going from Gear 1 to Gear 5 skipping the fun and satisfaction of a fuller experience that comes from using different gears at different times. We have added another step before the gears begin. Each gear below has a list of options that can occur at that gear.
Starting Up the Engine: spending fun time in mutually enjoyable activities, talking, sharing a meal, setting a romantic atmosphere.
Gear 1: clothes-on affection like kissing, holding hands, hugging.
Gear 2: Non-genital touch like showers together, cuddling, massages.
Gear 3: Playful touch, clothed, semi-nude, or nude.
Gear 4: Erotic touch, high arousal.
Gear 5: More erotic touch which may lead to genital touch, possibly intercourse, and orgasm.
Recommendation: To increase your chances of having good sexual experiences, experiment with the range of gears at different times. Of course in order to do so, you will need to talk to each other about your sexual preferences.
Communicating Well: Foundation of a Great Sexual Relationship
The same skills that you need to deal with the other areas of your lives, "I" statements, active listening, feedback, problem solving and conflict management are the skills needed for a good sex life in marriage.
- McCarthy has these suggestions for how to talk more easily about sex:
- Give feedback outside of the bedroom;
- Own your preferences;
- Listen non-defensively;
- Make requests instead of complaints.
- Discuss how to create time and space for your favorite sexual scenarios.
Crossing the Bridge to Sexual Desire
Sex researcher, Dr. Joseph LoPiccolo, said tongue-in-cheek that most of the easy-to-fix sexual dysfunctions such as erectile and orgasmic dysfunctions disappeared in the 1980's and 90's with the advent of the educational talk shows like Donahue and Oprah leaving only the most difficult dysfunction to treat, desire problems. Actually many people still do struggle with those "easy" dysfunctions but the array of helpful treatment techniques available to qualified sex therapists and their clients is abundant.
Low desire or desire differences are a frequent source of conflict between partners and a challenge to therapists because desire problems often represent the tip of the iceberg of other problems.
McCarthy says that when sex is satisfying it accounts for about 15% of a couple's marital happiness but when things are not working, the problems account for 75% of the unhappiness.
Desire problems are often multi-determined by a variety of causes ranging from medical and hormonal reasons to resentments and poor communication skills. A thorough assessment with a professional is often needed to untangle the mystery.
More often though, desire problems are related to couples being unaware of what sets up the right atmosphere for their best responsiveness to take place, what McCarthy calls knowing your "bridges to sexual desire." Here are some ideas for bridging from your busy lives to those quiet romantic, erotic moments every couple wants:
- Discard the myth of spontaneity where you sit around expecting the passion to rise and the clothes to melt away. Instead, make affection a part of your daily life so that the natural good feelings of touch prime the pump for a fuller response later when you carve out intimate time.
- If you have children, buy privacy by teaching your children to respect grownup time and space.
- Celebrate your love and make it a place of retreat by arranging a romantic/sexual holiday away from your normal busy lives.
Connecting Souls: The Best Sex Ever
The feelings of being in love will last a lifetime if, when the excitement of infatuation wears off in a year or two, it can be replaced by the intimacy of two people unafraid to laugh, cry, and pray together. Take the risk to share your hopes, dreams, fears, and disappointments. The real courage of marital sexuality lies in revealing your souls not your bodies.
Our audiotape series, Secrets of Extraordinary Marriages, covers marital sexuality.
- For more tips and exercises:
- McCarthy & McCarthy. Sexual Awareness: Couple Sexuality for the 21st Century.
- McCarthy & McCarthy. Rekindling Desire: A Step-by-Step Program to Help Low-Sex and No-Sex Marriages.(February 2003)
Copyright 2002 Drs. Susan & Philip Robison. Feel free to copy and reproduce as long as you print with contact information: