SCHEDULING SEX

Image

Do you remember when you first found out that Santa Claus is not real? I do, and it is not a pleasant memory! I remember how it was announced to me casually by my parents, but it felt like a hole was blown in my stomach and I was expected to act as though it were only a bruise. It was just one moment in time when my admittedly narrow child’s worldview would be abruptly expanded, challenged, or shifted by reality. Moments like these are about more than just giving up beliefs, they sometimes require a whole identity adjustment. 

And yet once I knew that Santa Claus was fictional, I could not go back to “believing” in him. Granted, it is fun to continue “pretending” that he is coming, but harmless play like that never overrides a less-exciting reality, it just makes it more bearable! We accept new truths, an expanded worldview, and move on with our lives from this broader perspective of self and world. 

Why then do so many refuse to let go of the mythology surrounding romance? 

The mythology I am specifically referring to is the belief that sex in a relationship should retain the spontaneity of the courting stage–that it should happen “organically”, or else partners have lost interest in each other. Attached to this mythology is the belief that scheduling sex is unnatural, shameful, and unsexy

The reality that I help my couples clients to experience is that the above is not true, and that scheduling sex can become something that you look forward to and enjoy! 

PASSION FADES: If we are in good physical shape when we start a relationship and want to stay that way, we don’t assume that, now that we are coupled, we no longer have to exercise. In fact, we would expect to lose muscle mass or gain weight if we stopped exercising. For many people, keeping themselves fit in a relationship or marriage is respectful to themselves and their partners, and sexy to boot! We continue to exercise if we want to stay in shape because we know that there is no other way to remain fit.

When it comes to romance, passion, and sex, we often throw the above logic out the window. A relationship that starts out with hot sex is often expected to continue along the same path, because if we love someone then surely we will keep wanting to have sex with them. If only this were the case, but it often is not. Sexual attraction, from a biological standpoint, was always intended for the short-term to foster pair bonding and procreation. 

You might be shocked to know that sex was never meant to keep a relationship together long-term, and that when our eyes wander to others, that may be a biological message telling us to bond and procreate with another (This is not a justification for infidelity, just a scientific way to understand it). There are so many more obstacles that “get in the way” of sex in the long run, with increased intimacy being one of them, since intimacy and passion are fueled by opposing elements. 

This is why it is important in a long-term relationship to be intentional about sex

(For a great read on why passion fades and how to get it back, please check out Esther Perel’s excellent book, Mating In Captivity.) 

We have been fed a myth about sex–that it should happen spontaneously and organically if we love someone. This does sometimes happen, especially in the courtship stage, but as time goes on, desire can fade for a variety of reasons. In the same way that we need to exercise to stay in shape, we need to take action if we want to maintain an active sex life with our partner. 

One of the best courses of action to take is setting aside time for sex.

SCHEDULING SEX IS SEXY: When we make a reservation to go out to dinner, we don’t expect to sit down at the restaurant and have our food immediately appear for our consumption. Usually, we take time to read the menu, noticing what looks good in the moment–what we might like to try. Then we often order appetizers and/or drinks to start, knowing that we will enjoy our meal much more once our appetite is whetted and we feel relaxed. 

Couples can use a similar approach when it comes to ensuring that they have regular sex. If you think about the dinner scenario I mention above, what is it that makes one look forward to dining at a restaurant? Knowing that we will be served, that we won’t be rushed, and that we can “set aside” current concerns in order to enjoly the meal. Sex can provide similar anticipation, but not if we treat it like a task that needs to be checked off of a list. 

What if you and your partner(s) chose to look at having sex as a respite rather than a requirement? What if you saw it as a reward to be enjoyed together rather than something to do for the other person? Remember what made sex so exciting when you were first getting to know one another: discovery, risk, mystery, interest, curiosity, exploration. Believe it or not, these elements can continue to drive sex with a regular partner even after many years–IF we are willing to see them as a changing, complex, and influential individual. 

What is sexy about scheduling sex is looking at the scheduling as a strength of your relationship rather than a weakness–you are doing something to ensure you are physically intimate with the one you most love. It is a sexy intention because it is saying to one another: “This means something to me, I love doing it with you, and I want to make sure it happens.” Scheduling intimate time together can be sexy in the same way that we love when our partner plans a romantic anniversary getaway, or decides to take up a training program to get in better shape. Scheduling sex is a form of leaning in to the relationship, saying to each other that this is too important to leave to chance. 

HOW TO START/SET ASIDE TIME TO CONNECT: The biggest challenges I hear about for couples scheduling sex are the following:

  • Anxiety about being in the mood when the time comes.
  • When one partner is struggling with not feeling desirable, sexy, or attracted to their partner.
  • Feeling tired, stressed, anxious, or depressed.
  • When sex is painful.
  • Not feeling connected to the partner.
  • Unrealistic expectations. 

Fortunately, the way around any of these issues is conversation. The exception is when sex is painful. In this case, sex must not proceed, and a doctor or urologist’s assistance needs to be sought out. Sometimes painful sex can be resolved through simple education, as when a post-menopausal woman is not aware that lubricant is needed, but I always want to rule out a medical condition first. 

For the rest of the issues, my job is to help partners talk about them. These conversations can actually lessen the problem, because when done well, they foster trust, safety, understanding, and connection–all of which are vital to a healthy sex life! A well-trained couples therapist can be essential in helping a couple have these talks. 

For the purposes of this article, however, I want to focus on the best approach to scheduling sex: Don’t schedule sex! Instead, schedule uninterrupted time together. When you schedule sex, anxiety can ramp up because there is an expectation for performance and desire. Strong performance and natural desire are most likely to show up when partners are relaxed, not stressed or anxious, so by removing the expectation for sex, you keep the nervous system calm and allow the body to respond to stimulation. 

Here is how it can look:

  1. Set aside an uninterrupted block of time–no kids, no phones, no emails, no television.
  2. Establish consent to be with each other, as well as the right to reject what another is doing. (True consent is not only about saying “yes”, but also being able to say “no”.)
  3. Spend some time connecting either through casual conversation, eye-gazing, light touch or massage, sensate focus touch, sharing a bath or shower, spooning one another, dancing, or feeding each other fresh strawberries–your imagination can come up with what works for the two of you. 
  4. Take intercourse or penetration off the table as a desired outcome–instead shoot for the connection, and trust what comes out of that. Note: it may not be intercourse, and that’s okay! 
  5. Be willing to be influenced by your partner–by their body, their touch, their playfulness–join with them as a teammate to play the game of arousal. (A great way to prepare for this beforehand is to have a conversation about “What turns you on?” and “What turns you off?”)
  6. TRUST THE PROCESS. I have said this before, and it allows couples to be more present in the moment with each other instead of in a hoped-for or dreaded future outcome (anxiety), and it also lets the right brain (the feeling brain) take the wheel, which is essential for erotic connection. You may move toward intercourse or penetration, or you may not–trusting the process lets you find the sweet spot for that particular time period. Intercourse ideally comes not from clenched jaw determination, but from moving up the levels of arousal together through exploration, discovery, and play. 

(Read how to use Sensate Focus Touching to kindle sexual arousal in one another.) 

It used to be that men wanted sex all the time and women needed to be aroused before wanting it. But this is not the case anymore, because general anxiety is higher for both sexes, and that can drastically impair sex drive–resulting in neither partner initiating. So the way “into sex” is not through sex drive, but through arousal, for both partners. Arousal comes from a state of relaxation and connection. Mind you, that connection does not have to start with your partner–it can be a connection to your own eroticism via porn or fantasy. But if you want to have regular sex (whatever that is for you), then you are going to need to allow time to relax together and connect first. 

In order to allow that time for your relationship, set aside time together, allow yourself to breathe, be present, move your body and touch each other in a way that fits the moment. You will discover that scheduling sex is not really about sex at all–it is about so much more, and one of the best actions you can do for long-term relationship satisfaction. 

ROMANCE IS THE ICING, NOT THE CAKE!

 

Valentine’s Day is a celebration associated with romance, but it is often fraught with anxiety. Why is that? Why is a day that celebrates love sometimes problematic? As a narrative couples therapist, I look to the discourses and stories in the culture that contribute to how things are thought about and defined. When it comes to the discourses about love, I could be unpacking these all day and not even scratch the surface!

The odd thing is that even though love is complicated, it is not nearly as complicated as we make it. The problem is that, culturally, we have taken the icing and made it the cake. What I mean by this is that we have decided that romance, a prominent feature of infatuation (what we call falling “in love”), is the lead actor in the play, rather than an important, but only supporting, character. 

So how do we correct this particular troublesome narrative? We don’t want to get rid of the icing–I like icing! The value of deconstructing a discourse is in concluding that not all of it needs to go. The component parts can be examined and an evaluation made regarding their current value toward living a better life. 

So that’s what I want to do in this essay–examine our current story about romance, its relationship to love, and sift through what is troublesome and what is not. 

ROMANCE IS NOT LOVE: When I was a young man, I lived, like many others, for the thrill of romance. I looked around every corner for this feeling, knowing that an encounter with it would lift my day from the ordinary to the extraordinary. What I did not realize at the time was that I needed romance in order to feel good about myself–that without it I felt more or less flawed and unlovable. 

This was not true of me, of course, any more than it is true for any other person, but this is one of the ways that romance has turned into a “drug” of sorts–making the trip down a difficult path so much easier. The problem is that romance doesn’t really move us down the path. It creates the illusion of movement, but eventually we wake up at the same starting point. 

“Real love” is what gets us down the path of personal development, not romance. Romance is just one of the many doorways into real love. So why do we linger in the doorway instead of going all the way in? Well, because moving toward real love is not always fun–it can require hard work and a degree of vulnerability that feels unfamiliar. The main reason for the strong emphasis on romance in the narrative of love is because it feels so good.

But it is not love. Romance, clinically speaking, is more accurately described as bonding, an important and powerful part of the process of two people coming together, and it often leads to, and is strengthened by, sex. When we meet someone we are attracted to, our brains work overtime to build a connection with them because we are hard-wired to do so. As mammals, we thrive as social creatures who seek the company of others for safety and security, and pair-bonds are one way to not only achieve that, but also a way to build families. Romance is not the only draw toward this goal, but in modern times it has emerged as the dominant motivator. 

(Watch “Your Brain Wants You To Have Sex. Here’s How That Works”)

REAL LOVE IS ABOUT THE PERSON, NOT AN IDEAL: Let’s talk more about real love, shall we? Why should we work hard to achieve it when romance is such a great “quick fix”? Well, as great as romance is, it does not and cannot last. Our bodies could not handle eternal infatuation, because when we are in it our brain is in somewhat of a psychotic state! The chemicals that are required to feel infatuation are not sustainable in the body, in the same way that we would rapidly break down physically if we were angry all the time–the chemical process is meant for short bursts, not long term! 

Additionally, though romance is not love itself, it can be an effect of love. Without love, romance is about the person feeling it, not the person triggering it. Real love, by contrast, is about the person receiving it, and this is why it takes time to develop–we have to know about another’s inner emotional life before we can truly care about them. Real love grows out of empathy for another’s vulnerabilities–that is what connects us to them emotionally, not just physically. This ability to empathize also helps real love last over time, because it can override surface changes in a person that we might not like or agree with.

(Read “Marriage Isn’t For You”.)

Real love is a smooth calm feeling, not anxious or urgent. It is the feeling of caring for someone’s welfare and well-being–we feel sad when they are sad because there is an empathetic connection, not just sexual attraction. Real love takes time because it is sparked by vulnerability and pain–human elements, not ideals, that are not usually shown in the beginning of a dating experience (we only want to show our strengths!). 

REAL LOVE CAN INCLUDE ROMANCE: There is a myth about long-term relationships that romance and sex “die” over time; the day-to-day familiarity of being around each other stamps out the mystery and excitement that are the basis of romantic feelings. While this certainly can happen, it is not a given! Familiarity can interfere with seeing your partner romantically or sexually, but we can choose actions that re-introduce mystery and excitement if that is important to us. 

The problem is that most couples don’t know that it requires choosing these actions. We have been led to believe that “love is enough” and that romance should happen organically and spontaneously, and that if effort is required then it is not longer romantic. I push back against this way of thinking. I often tell couples that what they considered to be spontaneous romance during courtship was in fact the result of hours of preparation!

Anything worth maintaining requires some effort to do so, whether it is your physical fitness, your home, your career, or your friendships. The effort to maintain the things that are important to us is not always “fun”, but it is also not necessarily painful. It is just effort. Sometimes it is as simple as “setting the stage” for romance: dimming the lights, clearing the calendar, putting on soft music, making sure the kids are asleep. Sometimes it means doing little things for each other throughout the day, every day. If scheduling romantic or sexual time feels unnatural to you, then just schedule “time together” and see what happens once you set the stage. That is the organic part, and the preparation makes it possible for “spontaneous” romance to happen within a scheduled time period. 

(Watch “The Secret To Desire In A Long-Term Relationship”, by Esther Perel) 

When romance is a part of real love, it has a different quality to it than early infatuation. It is both more secure and more liberating, because there is trust established–something that is still forming in the beginning of a relationship. It can also be more playful and more erotic, because you know enough about each other’s boundaries and triggers that you can experiment with confidence. Most of all, it can feel joyful, more complete, and more creative, because it allows room for both or all partners compared to the individual self-focus of the infatuation stage.  

***

Most of us love the excitement of romance–our bodies and brains feel like they are firing all cylinders. In today’s challenging world, who can blame someone for wanting that feeling? My goal in the work I do with individuals and couples is to make sure that the feeling of romance, or the desire to have it, does not end in malnourishment–that an understanding of how romance operates in the brain will open up a more mindful enjoyment of the experience, recognizing that it is the icing, not the cake. 

It can be liberating to know that there are many different ways to “do” a long-term relationship, and that you can both take advantage of the science that is available concerning love, and allow yourself to make it up as you go along. There is much to be said for developing romance without the usual anxiety, so if that is something that you strive for in your relationship, learn what it is, and what it is not. Then go in the kitchen and bake your cake!

ROMANCE THAT WORKS

February is a month that one either dreads or dreads more, from what I hear–and yet it does not have to be so! I notice that the dread affects both those who are in relationships and those who are not–with just slight differences:

    • dread for those in relationship can include anxiety
    • dread for those who are single can include depression

The source of this dread just one day in the month–you guessed it–February 14th, Valentine’s Day. What is currently an opportunity to celebrate love and romance has turned into a day where love is often tested and romance is bought.

But it does not have to be this way.

The power we have as humans is the ability to make choices that align with our values–regardless of what others are doing! This includes our choices about love, sex, dating, and romance.

In this Special February Issue, we will take a look specifically at romance, and how to make choices about it that work–meaning less dread, anxiety, and depression–leaving you to experience more fun and love.

THE BITTER TRUTH ABOUT ROMANCE: Here is what needs to be understood about romance: it was never intended to be mixed up with love. There are many theories of where romantic love began. In Medieval times, for example, it was something of a social ritual that bolstered the public status of those involved–who most often were not in an actual relationship with each other! Romantic love was more of an ideal to pursue for personal and social gain, not something to actually achieve–it was a motivational tool of sorts!

Over time, as marriage became an act of choice for many, “dating” began and romance became the primary fuel for relationship building. This would have been fine except for one problematic influence from previous times: people equated feelings of romance with actual love. Rather than differentiating passion, or sexual chemistry, from real love, modern dating culture fused them, resulting in a misunderstanding of what we feel towards our object(s) of desire.

THE BIGGEST MISTAKE: Have you ever eaten a slice of chocolate cake? If you have, and you liked it, then you will remember how you were able to enjoy it even while knowing that it had nearly zero nutritional value. And yet despite this ability to reason intelligently about what we enjoy, we regularly abandon reason to experience infatuation with someone, thinking we are “in love”. Just as chocolate cake is not broccoli, infatuation is not love!

The distinction between initial passion and time-developed love does not have to be bad news. Just as you can enjoy chocolate cake while recognizing it has zero nutritional value, you can enjoy infatuation (and the romantic feelings that come with it) without thinking that it is love (yet). In fact, if you do so, you may enjoy it more because there will be less anxiety about it.

So why isn’t romance love? Because it is based on an ideal rather than a reality. Romance is about the one feeling it–how it makes them feel interesting, sexy, young, and alive. It is about perfection and fantasy. It is not about the other person–the other is just the catalyst for feelings that make us feel better about ourselves.

On the other hand, real love is about the other person, not about you! Romance during infatuation is about bonding and attachment–real processes that brings people together–but they are not love. Love takes time to form because it cannot happen until there is an empathetic and caring understanding of the other person and an interest in their inner emotional world.

The biggest mistake one can make when seeking love is to assume that if you feel romantic toward someone, you are “in” love. This assumption will actually prevent you from moving toward real love, because romance has you see the other as you want them to be, instead of as they are. Preferably, romance is an ingredient of loving relationships, not the container. So how do you make it work well?

HOW TO MAKE ROMANCE WORK: Let’s go back to the chocolate cake for a minute. Remember that there is nothing wrong with enjoying cake, as long as you don’t kid yourself into thinking you are eating broccoli. This is how you make romance work for your relationships. You enjoy it for what it is, and not for what it isn’t. 

Many people think that romance is something you either feel or don’t feel–but actually it is something that we can (and often do) choose to feel toward another. Just because you choose to feel it does not mean that it is not authentic. And in relationships of a year or more, choosing romance is a smart decision because the closer you get intimately, the less romantic you may feel towards each other–the elements that fuel intimacy and romance are oppositional.

So you make romance work by choosing it and then allowing the brain and body to follow your intention. Why do so many suggestions for building romance include soft lighting, sexy music, and candles? Because that helps put us in a romantic mood–you are setting the stage for romance! This seemed to be the idea behind Valentine’s Day at one time, but somewhere along the way romance became an expectation of love rather than a desired and chosen effect of it.  Romance is an element of love, not the proof of love.

***

Just as you would never dream of eating only chocolate cake (or would you?), you would not want a relationship to only be romance–that won’t get you very far. At some point, all our partners will “let us down”–they’ll get sick or have a blemish, they get impatient with us or become depressed. This is all part of life, and it is not very romantic. But as a team you can both choose romance whenever you want to experience it together, in the same way you can choose to have a slice of cake when you desire something sweet.

It’s great when romance comes “naturally”, but when it doesn’t, chosen romance is still romantic. Why not take advantage of both options?