The physical strength cultivated through marriage is reflected in many facets. Sharing responsibility for the physicality of raising toddlers, for example, is just one of many ways to physically foster the relationship. However, the ultimate physical communication of the marriage is intimacy. Truthfully, sex is the distinguishing factor that separates an intimate relationship from a friendship. Inevitably without sex (or when there is a lack of sex), the relationship feels troubled regardless of how the relationship functions on a day to day basis. This isn’t about gimmicks, trying new techniques, or toys. This is about real love expressed in real life.
Several generations ago, sex wasn’t so much a problem of desire. Sex was more of an economic happening that allowed for families to be large and secure labor to continue family businesses. Women also had very little say in the matters of sex and a woman’s desire was of little concern. A shift toward desire and love have expanded the meaningful nature of marriage; however, the intimate relationship has borne a few troubles of modern society.
Modern Challenges to Keeping the Flame Alive
Renowned sex therapist, Esther Perel, sheds light on some of these challenges in her book “Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence”. While we once relied on a vast network of people to offer security and stability, Perel notes now “We live miles away from our families, no longer know our childhood friends, and are regularly uprooted and transplanted. We bring to our romantic relationships an almost unbearable existential vulnerability.” Furthermore, she notes, this “has created a situation in which we turn to one person for the protection and emotional connections that a multitude of social networks used to provide.” Because of this vulnerability, we exercise great effort to control and stabilize our love relationship to make it feel predictable and certain.
The challenge when it comes to intimacy is that all the stability and predictability we attempt to create in our relationship heightens love but diminishes eros. The erotic mind, as experts agree, thrives in mystery, uncertainty, and a degree of separateness. How do we solve this modern problem of desire in a relationship that still feels like home?
The Pull of Parenting Culture
Another challenge is the modern standards of parenting. Perel points out that “Childhood has been sanctified so that it no longer seems ridiculous for one adult to sacrifice herself entirely in order to foster the flawless and painless development of her offspring – a one-person, round-the-clock child rearing machine.” Even if you don’t subscribe to the modern standard, the pressure is there and the chat around the water cooler reflects the exhausted nature of today’s parenting standards.
“Ours is a culture that equates maternal devotion with selflessness: self-sacrifice, self-abnegation, self-denial.” – Ester Perel
Mastery Concepts in the Physical Relationship
But instead of self-denial, what about self-awareness? What about intention behind the decision? What about evaluating the goals of the family and how those translate into daily life? These are all components of self-mastery that play out in the marriage and family dynamic. More to the point, how do the techniques of self-mastery apply to the specific need to experience the marriage in a physical way?
As Dr. Stephen Snyder notes in his book, “Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship”, for many dips in desire, the first step is to breathe. Breathe! Taking a deep breath is step one to getting back into our own body. Americans spend most of every day taking short, shallow breaths – staying outside of ourselves nearly all the time. Dr. Snyder recommends a “Two-Step” process where partners lie next to each other and “focus on your breathing. Let everything get as still as possible. Feel the weight of your body on the mattress. Inhale the scent of your bodies in bed.” Breathing is a constant tool to bring us back to ourselves, in all realms. Use breath as a tool to cultivate desire and determine how you even feel about being intimate. Start with breath.
Another tool for building our intimate relationship is to build awareness. Awareness requires both a personal awareness as well as the awareness of our partner. Self-awareness is a reflective, internal process, but awareness of our partner requires communication. Opening up conversations about intimacy can be awkward if we are unsure of where the problem lies. Also, both Perel and Snyder make note that our sexual self is much different – nearly opposite in fact – than our expressed self, making it harder to pinpoint our needs and desires. Fortunately tools such as Dr. John Gottman’s quiz on gottsex.com offer starting points for opening the conversation and helping identify differences in experience and desires.
The Gottman Institute also has resources on Building Love Maps which allow us to see our partner with new eyes and for who they truly are. Seeing our partner in new light also helps cultivate some of the mystery and separateness that eros thrives in.
Create Space for Experience
Each of these experts notes that our current mindset of goal oriented sex is taking us off course. Achieving orgasm has become the sole focus instead of everything that leads up to it. When we make space in the day to experience each other – a deep breath to inhale each other in an embrace, for instance – we embark on the road to sex in a much more meaningful and enjoyable way. Dr. Snyder calls it “simmering”. “Simmering means taking a quick moment to feel excited with your partner, even under conditions where sex in not going to be practical.” He suggests, “instead of kissing your partner goodbye in the morning, why not simmer goodbye. Hold them close for a bit longer than usual. There’s a moment that won’t come again.”
Cultivating our intimate relationship using these simple tools allows us to regain the desire that brought us together. When the day has been filled with work or running with the kids, sex can feel like another item on the “to-do list.” But sex is not only healthy for the relationship, it is healthy for us as individuals too. Allow for moments of simmering. Lay together with no expectations, just breathe deeply and connect back to yourself. What transpires can be a true expression of love instead of a means to an end. The physical intimacy of marriage is a gift, not a job.