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Your Sexiest Self — Get It Back!
By Amanda Robb
Good Housekeeping Magazine February 2010
The bills are piling up, the kids are in the next room, and your libido’s gone bye-bye. Now what?
There was a time, back during the Reagan Administration, when I had a recurring thought: If I could just stop thinking about sex, I could get so much done. The Lord indeed moves in mysterious ways: Exactly when sex became abundantly available to me-in the form of the man who became my husband, a man on constant alert for all possibilities sexual-my libido went the way of General Motors, a might, purring engine coughing, then sputtering, until it needed a stimulus package.
At first the decline was barely perceptible. By the time I was 30 and a newlywed, I was no longer victimized by the incessant invasion of musings such as, “I wonder if that company vice president has ever pictured me in a black bikini on a hot beach…” or “Oooh, that UPS guy’s lips are perfect!” I didn’t bother pondering what had short-circuited my fantasies. The absoluteness of marriage? The fact that in seven years of dating, my husband and I had explored every sexual scenario that popped into our heads? Whatever. Who cared? I worked at work; I was a lover with my lover. All was right with the world…until we had a baby. That day, apparently, my libido committed suicide.
OK, maybe that overstates the situation. But instead of being a constant companion, sex became a to-do item for me-one listed right after “water the ficus.” Both plant and man lived, though my husband, who was used to more robust attention, was obviously confused and hurt.
“Do you need me to get up more often with the baby?” he asked. Then, “Can a woman have postpartum depression for the better part of a decade?” He took up cooking. For me, all the glazes and reductions were hardly a bad thing. But sometimes I have to admit that Andrew looks very sad as he oh-so-tenderly poaches pears.
If I had to testify in court about what sent my desire into exile, I’d swear it was a conspiracy between fat and irritation. Fat because I’m still 10 pounds heavier than I was when I had my baby, um, nine years ago. Irritation because my husband-whom, let me say for the record, I have madly adored since the day I met him 22 years ago-is an abstract painter. He makes blobs for a living. So while I get yelled at by editors all day (OK, they don’t really yell, but sometimes they speak sternly), he swirls around pretty colors, just the way our fourth grade daughter does during Friday Fun Time at school. Then he comes home and complains sometimes about how painful his profession is. Often his biggest gripe is that it usually pays so little, and cash flow has been a bit of a family problem ever since we added the expense of a child to our lives.
I am not a psychological idiot; I know that when my husband comes home complaining, he’s looking for comfort. But sometimes my primary feeling at that moment is irritation. As if it wouldn’t be easier for me if he had a job that came with a regular paycheck and a 401(k)! Financial insecurity is not exactly an aphrodisiac.
“The way we grow sexually is the same way we grow personally-two steps forward and one step back, a constantly adjusting mix of self-assertion and courage”
At least I’m not alone with my limp libido. Experts say that about 43 percent of women and 31 percent of men between ages 18 and 59 suffer from sexual problems; for women, low desire leads the list. Common causes include fatigue, stress, hormonal changes (childbirth and menopause for women, falling testosterone levels for men), weight gain, and the use of alcohol and certain drugs (both prescription and illicit), as well as anxiety, depression, and illness. Last year the New York Times reported that an estimated 15 percent of married couples had not made love during the previous six to 12 months.
I guess my good news is that Andrew and I, officially in midlife at ages 49 and 43, remain very functional. Our sexual frequency comes in right around the self-reported national average: 68.5 times a year. I could be content having sex less often. But I know that making love regularly is hugely important to my husband, and the truth is, within a few minutes, I get into it-like a dead engine given a jump start.
One afternoon after a jump start, rumble, and cool down-when our daughter was at a playdate and my husband and I had what felt like a scandalous amount of time alone-we stayed in bed and channel surfed onto The King and I. Andrew wasn’t that into the movie, but I kept saying, “Wait, wait. The sexiest moment in all of film is coming!” Anna has told the King of Siam that in England, women and men dance together. He takes this news as a personal challenge and decides to give the polka a try. He and Anna join hands and spin at arm’s length. The king points out that the Europeans he’s recently seen didn’t dance this way. Flustered, Anna concedes that indeed, their arms were around each other. The king hesitates, slides his fingers against Anna’s waist, and wraps them around the small of her back. He stares deep into her eyes. She is breathing so heavily it looks as if her breasts are going to heave right out of her silvery gown.
Me, I am suddenly weeping. Sure, being low on desire has its upside. I get so much more done than I did in my early 20s. But I feel bereft without it-the slow bubble of lust, the intrusive fantasies, and, yes, almost painful bolts of want. They’re like gorgeous old movie moments and naughty friends I had growing up…the ones who introduced me to spirits and jazz and boys. I miss them.
After a few days at my desk feeling old-too old to polka, too old to fantasize about wearing a hoopskirt for Yul Brynner, who is dead anyway-I get a moment of deep personal insight. It is brought to me by my procrastination drug of choice, Google. It goes like this: I am not too old! I am too young-too young to never, ever be driven wild with want again. I fire up the search engine.
There are about a million sexperts willing to fix your libido. I choose licensed clinical psychologists David Schnarch, Ph.D., author of Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love & Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships and Intimacy & Desire: Awaking the Passion in your Relationship. I pick him for three reasons: He does not suggest rekindling the home fires using what I consider completely unerotic activities such as assuming contortionist positions or wearing embarrassing costumes. He says that in every couple there is a low-desire partner and a high-desire partner; he considers this normal and inevitable, and therefore he refrains from labeling low-desire people as abnormal or ill-as, say, “sexual anorexics,” a popular term in sexology, but one without medical or psychiatric warrant. Most intriguing to me is Schnarch’s paradoxical take on intimacy: “We must learn to maintain a sense of ourselves as distinct from our partner in order to become closer to him/her,” the psychologist writes on his Web site. And “sexual encounters provide perfect opportunities to differentiate and develop the strength to love deeply.”
I find that comment particularly intriguing. Though Andrew and I have separate professions, interests, and friends, in our more than two decades together-more than half of my life-I think we have, in some subtle though intense way, merged. Sometimes I don’t know if I want something because I want it or if I want it because I think he wants it. Sometimes I don’t know if I don’t want something because I really don’t want it or because I’m afraid that my wanting it will upset him. Sometimes this kind of closeness is sublime. And sometimes it is maddening.
Schnarch, who for 17 years was an associate professor of psychology in the department of psychiatry at Louisiana State University School of Medicine, agrees to come to our apartment for a supersession (one three-hour meeting) while he’s in New York City promoting a second edition of Passionate Marriage. He arrives right on time. His toothy smile reminds me of motivational guru Tony “You can have whatever you want!” Robbins.
He settles into our Swedish club chair; Andrew and I sit down on our couch. We all smile. Schnarch suggests we work on the two things I identified during our phone pre-session as inhibiting my sex drive. When I fail to say a word, the psychologist prompts, “Body image?”
Oh, yeah. I used to love looking at tabloids, I say, comparing myself with cover stories like “Best Beach Bodies.” But now “Celebrity Cellulite” – well, it’s not funny. Then, suddenly, I’m growling, “Really, it’s all my husband’s fault I don’t feel good about my body!”
“Go on,” Schnarch says.
I tell him (and my sucker punched-looking husband) that shortly after I had my daughter, I read an article that said if you’re at a healthy weight, which I am, losing 10 pounds does not, as some unnamed publications would have you believe, require only a bit of fast walking and cutting out a dessert here and there. It demands a total lifestyle change-working out every day, no cookie-dough snack every night. So, the article asked, is a number on a scale worth that? Duh, I thought, and told Andrew that I was going to accept myself as is. “And you know what he said?” I snarl at Schnarch. “He said, ‘Aw, don’t give up!’”
“I didn’t mean—’’ my husband sputters. “I was trying to be supportive.”
“Your choice was, be a male chauvinistic pig or be unsupportive,” Schnarch tells him with way too much brotherly support in his voice.
“Explain that, please,” I say.
“If Andrew had told you to accept yourself the way you are, he would have been undermining your efforts,” Schnarch says. “If he had encouraged you to diet, he would have bought into the culture’s really sick ideas of feminine beauty.” Then the therapist annoys me even more by going on what seems to be a psychobabble tangent. “Most people think of intimacy as ‘other validated.’ ”
I request English. Please.
“One person discloses (‘I feel fat!’), and the other person says, ‘Oh, you’re wonderful. Don’t feel so bad. And here, let me show you my garbage, too: I’m afraid my penis is small.’ You trade garbage. That’s what everybody wants. That’s what everyone gets married for.”
I think this is a very dim view of matrimony, but OK, yes, I want my husband to “other validate” me, even my garbage, which apparently includes saying, and believing, that I look awesome at 138 pounds.
“So what’s the problem with that?” I ask.
“It makes you vulnerable to other people’s whims.”
“My husband’s opinion!” I correct. Schnarch wonders in what other ways I need Andrew’s approval.
Andrew leaps to my rescue, declaring me a paragon of feminine strength: I went back to work two days after our daughter was born. I make most of the family income. I’m wonderfully supportive of his artistic ambitions.
Schnarch leans toward us. “Tell me about your fights,” he says.
“Very rare,” Andrew says proudly.
I jump in. “Of course, we have issues,” I say. Sometimes I feel overburdened and sometimes Andrew feels underappreciated, I tell Schnarch. But when we have those feelings, we express them, and the other person—well, the other person “other validates.” Andrew expresses chagrin and disappointment that he doesn’t earn more money, then does everything from mopping to grocery shopping to gourmet cooking in an attempt to unburden me. I apologize for being under-attentive, then listen assiduously as he vents his fears and frustrations, usually about his career.
Schnarch asks what happens next.
“Nothing,” we both say.
The psychologist diagnoses us with “emotional gridlock.” If it’s any comfort, he says that’s the “plain-vanilla, most common cause of low sexual desire in couples.” He describes emotional gridlock as the place where no amount of improved communication or better listening or massage classes (or, for another kind of couple, screaming matches) will ever fix things. A husband wants another child; a wife doesn’t. He loves oral sex; it revolts her. I want less financial responsibility; Andrew wants to be an artist.
“Those don’t have anything to do with sex,” I say.
“In marriage, all roads lead to sex,” Schnarch says. “Especially those things you can’t just ‘agree to disagree’ about. Your problem is certainly not caused by lack of communication,” the therapist continues. “You accommodate each other, you compromise and negotiate, which is all supposed to be a virtue. But what about integrity? Amanda is at the point where she feels like, ‘I’m compromising and negotiating myself away’ because Andrew’s helping with the mopping and groceries and his feeding her fabulous food are not satisfying solutions. Amanda feels like Andrew is holding out on her by not earning more money, so she holds out on him—in bed.”
The psychologist has grabbed the edge of something lurking in my marriage that I’ve been sensing for a while. But, as in a game of pick-up sticks, I’m afraid if he even touches one piece of it, he’ll bring everything else crashing down. So I babble. “I’m trying to be nice. A supportive wife.”
“But you’re losing respect for him, and for yourself, in the process. And that—not how overworked you feel, or how crappy you feel about your body—is killing your sexual desire.”
“Oh,” I say.
“Oh,” my husband says.
We quickly discern that Schnarch is not what you’d call a romantic. Whereas most therapists believe that intimacy grows through things such as mutual trust, acceptance, empathy, validation, and reciprocal disclosure, he claims that instead, “intimacy grows through conflict, unilateral disclosure, and self-validation.” Or, in other words, he says, growing up.
He spends the next two and a half hours trying to coach my husband and me into a kind of time-lapse maturation, which, in a nutshell, simply requires saying what we really think, want, and need.
Schnarch tells us to practice on the conflict we should be best at. We look at him blankly. “The subject that bothers you both every day.”
My husband bravely makes the first move. He tells me, as he often does, that he sometimes feels low about his career as an artist. But, with Schnarch’s help, I don’t respond the way I usually do. I don’t “other validate” Andrew by telling him many things I believe deeply are true: He’s great, the creative process is brutal and not for sissies, the economy stinks, and very few artists’ careers are going like gangbusters, so he shouldn’t be so hard on himself.
Instead, I swallow and do what Schnarch calls unilateral disclosure or self-validation, which is to say the other things, the secret things, I also believe deeply. “If painting is that painful for you, then I want you to do something else. Because it’s no fun for me to be married to someone who is regularly glum about his work. And, frankly, if you made more money, I could work less, which would really make me happy.”
I expect Andrew to look more sucker punched than he did when I said it was his fault that I didn’t feel good about my body. Or extremely angry. He does look angry, but sort of awestruck, too.
Schnarch says it’s now my turn. I complain about feeling overworked.
With stunning speed—as if it’s all been piling up on the tip of his tongue—Andrew self-validates/unilaterally discloses. “That’s too bad,” he says. “But you have exactly the career you always dreamed of. And I paid for your graduate school to make it happen, and right now my income, little as it is, still pays for all our housing expenses. Maybe there was a time and an economy in which women didn’t work full-time, demanding jobs. But these days, most do. And if you really can’t stand working so much, you should say so straight out. Then we could at least try to come up with options. But when you’re like, ‘Oooh, it’s cool you mop or buy groceries or poach pears,’ that makes it seem like you’re OK with the status quo.”
I flop into the couch’s back cushions, thrown by an emotional blitz. I’m enraged (I am heroic, damn it!) and wowed (that was an impressive show of temper). And, yes, deep in my loins, I feel a flicker. I’m turned on, and I say so.
“You’re aroused because you’re each being authentic,” Schnarch says. “And a solid sense of self—someone who will say ‘I want this’ and ‘I desire that’—is the essence of eroticism, particularly sustained eroticism, for everyone. If you ask men what really turns them on, the sane ones will not say a nubile body or a 20-year-old’s skin or a number on a scale. They’ll say, ‘A women who really shows what she wants and likes.’ ”
“Ditto for men,” I mutter.
Schnarch smiles his Tony Robbins smile. “Bottom line: If you are not able to effectively tell each other what you really mean, need, and want with your clothes on, how are you ever going to do it naked?
What Schnarch is saying feels true. But I know a lot of extremely useful facts: If I spend less than I earn, I will not be anxious about money; if I exercise regularly, I will have more energy; if I eat only healthy food, I will lose weight. I don’t consistently manage any of them. And having to add sex to my “to do better” list feels dismaying, disappointing, and hugely daunting. Really, imagine the words coming out of your mouth: I think you are selfish. I need you to make more money. I want you to go down on me and make me whimper.
“It is terrifying,” Schnarch says. “And impossible to do perfectly. The way we grow sexually is the same way we grow personally—two steps forward and one step back, a constantly adjusting mix of courage to risk leaving one’s comfort zone and retreat to its edges. And just as every journey to selfhood has a unique path, every couple must work their own way through emotional gridlock.”
“Don’t you have any easier prescription?” I ask. “A new position? A sex toy? A Brazilian bikini wax? The Secret for hotness?”
Schnarch’s Tony Robbins intensity softens. “I can tell you that libido, impersonal hormonal drive, is not what people want,” he says. “No one wants to feel that you’re having sex with him or her just because you’re horny. Men and women want to feel chosen. They want to feel as if you are saying, ‘I want to have sex with you because you make me hot.’ ” I point out that Andrew and I have already chosen each other.
“But do you express that every time you have sex?” Schnarch asks. Reminding us that sexual growth, like personal growth, is a process—sometimes a long one, but always a fascinating one very much worth attending to—Schnarch gives Andrew and me an activity to try: hugging. Every week or so, we’re to hug standing up for five minutes straight. He swears that the hugs will give us a very accurate picture of the state of our union, as well as information we need to repair whatever is going wrong and adversely affecting our sex life. And like the Cat in the Hat, who spends a day tearing apart a home and then returns it to outward normalcy in moments, Schnarch gets up, shakes our hands, and disappears out the front door.
In the days that follow, sex is far too overwhelming to even attempt. But one night, Andrew and I decide to try our homework: We hug. The first thing we learn is how unbelievably long five minutes is. The second thing we learn is that a long hug is an amazing relationship diagnostic. I often think of myself as “holding everything up” in our marriage, but in our hug, I quickly go limp and clingy. Andrew stays strong as an oak. Literally, he holds me up. He is also totally into the hug, stroking and kissing. But I keep getting distracted. There are pigeons in the window. The dog whines. I wonder how long we have left. “Come back. Stay here,” my husband keeps saying. “Be with me.”
Afterward, we lie down to watch the rest of The King and I, which I had recorded. Andrew rewinds to my favorite scene. All of a sudden, I understand its true meaning. Anna is telling the king what arouses her. The king is bewitched by her candor. She is seduced by his willingness, his eagerness, to leave his cultural comfort zone. Duh. I want to be Anna. I want Andrew to be the king. I stop the movie. As if on cue, my husband says, “Shall we dance?”