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"It" Doesn't Just Happen

A lifetime prescription for sizzling sex
"It" Doesn't Just Happen

Do you remember the anticipation of going on a date with your future spouse and how desperately you desired one another? And how the sexual tension seemed to mount as you moved toward marriage? Today you may be wondering, "Where's our energy and desire for sex now?"

After 20 years as sex therapists, we're convinced that good sex in marriage doesn't "just happen." Couples who keep the sexual spark glowing through the changing stages of marriage are those who are deliberate about their sexual relationship.

Early Years

Setting the Stage

Vibrant married sex depends in part on getting off to a good start. Newlyweds must compare and work through their conflicting expectations. The most common surprises couples face are differences regarding how often they have sex and who initiates it. If couples discuss and negotiate their differences, they can avoid a good deal of frustration and confusion.

A few possible solutions to differences in desire are: compromise on frequency; the husband brings his wife pleasure with or without release, even if he doesn't feel the need himself; the two can cuddle while the husband or wife bring him release; increase the amount of nonerotic cuddling; or enjoying sexual intimacy without intercourse or orgasm.

Surprisingly, couples often think they are arguing about frequency when the real issue relates to who initiates sex. In therapy, when we ask spouses how often each of them initiates sex, a common response is that the husband initiates sex 90 percent of the time and the wife 10 percent. And yet when we ask the same couple how often they each desire sex, he answers three to four times a week, and she says two to three times a week. Frequency isn't the issue, so what's going on?

Men and women differ in how they initiate sex. The wife, for example, might snuggle with her husband and give him a few kisses. If he takes her overture one step further, he seems like the one who is initiating sex since he has become more direct. Over time, this pattern leads a couple to believe the husband is always the pursuer and the wife is never the initiator. Better communication and reversal of roles can help break this negative pattern, as was the case with Jim and Jenny.

Jim feared that if he left it up to Jenny, they would never have sex. However, he was surprised to learn that she actually enjoyed preparing for and initiating time with him once she gave herself permission to overtly express her desire and he gave her the space to do so.

For some couples, expectations aren't the problem area. Instead, they must work through past sexual experiences that have a way of creeping into their relationship and destroying the joy of new discoveries and unique experiences, as Tony and Beverly learned.

Naturally shy, Tony didn't date much in college. The few relationships he did have involved limited physical contact because of his Christian values. Then he met Beverly. She was everything he wanted in a wife—except she wasn't a virgin. Knowing that Beverly had been sexually active with several serious boyfriends left Tony caught between his attraction to her and his desire to enter marriage as a virgin and marry a virgin.

The intensity of his dismay over Beverly's past didn't hit Tony until a month after he proposed to her. After they married, he continually let her know how disgusted he was with her. He asked detailed questions about her previous boyfriends, then used that information to shame her. Their sex life continued to deteriorate, and finally they sought help.

The first step we recommended was for both Tony and Beverly to experience God's forgiveness. We helped Tony realize that Beverly's actions were not an intentional violation of him as her current husband. He needed to acknowledge that she had been spiritually washed clean before God and could now be considered his virginal bride.

Next, he had to stop asking questions about his wife's past and then learn to distract his mind from any mental images of her previous involvements. We further recommended that they temporarily stop having intercourse and learn to delight in each other by working through a step-by-step retraining program. This process would eventually lead them to re-consummate their marriage based on a foundation of mutual trust and desire.

Finally, many couples have difficulty transferring their premarital passion into their marriages because they have false assumptions about married sex. Jamie had been raised in a warm, nurturing home, but much of her knowledge about sex came from movies and television—especially daytime soap operas. Curtis, on the other hand, had grown up seeing playful flirting and open physical affection between his father and stepmother. Jamie was devastated when Curtis would come up behind her and start fondling her. She was convinced that a satisfying and delightful sex life should be like what is portrayed on the "soaps." She envisioned the powerful pull of desire and the wooing of a new or "illicit" sexual relationship. Her tears of disappointment left Curtis befuddled, and eventually his frustration over not being able to please her led to outbursts of anger.

To develop a mutually satisfying and delightful love life, couples have to make the shift from the newness of passion to the intimacy of deeply sharing themselves with each other for the joy of companionship and the pleasure of each other's bodies. Jamie needed to counter her myth that passion just happens with the knowledge that she and Curtis were responsible for making great sex happen.

The Middle Years

Making Time, Finding Energy

During marriage's middle years, you may feel as though you are merely surviving sexually. The demands of life use up your energy, and your primary desire is often for sleep, not sex.

Jerry and Elaine, married for 13 years, know firsthand that with three kids, two careers and other commitments, finding the time and energy for sex is a challenge. However, another issue complicates their love life. Jerry clings to the false assumption that Elaine should be available to him sexually whenever he desires. The reality is that marriage is a license to freedom without demand; not a license to possess and control a spouse.

Couples in the second stage of marriage will find their sex life stymied if they continue to believe certain myths about sex. For instance, if Jerry believes that sex has to be spontaneous to be wonderful, he and Elaine won't be having a whole lot of sex. And when they do have sex, it will come at the end of the day when they are both fatigued—something neither of them would prefer.

Another common myth is that spouses must wait for sexual desire before they initiate lovemaking. If they follow that principle, couples can expect to do a lot of waiting and not much acting. Activities and jobs are not the only distractions. At this stage, the privacy necessary for sexual freedom must be protected. For the sexual relationship to survive the challenges of these middle years, private, uninterrupted time for the two of you must be planned into your schedule.

You must keep the pilot light of your sexual relationship lit—even if you don't have the time and energy to turn the flames up as high as you used to. But how do you do that?

Keep kissing, passionately, every day. Kissing is the barometer of the state of your sexual relationship.

Keep open by sharing every day. Also, plan regular times to talk about sex. Talk about what you like and don't like. Share your dreams and desires. Negotiate your differences. Don't give up.

Keep committed to sex, in spite of all the distractions. Your marriage and sexual relationship must continue to be high priorities. Be cautious of commitments that rob you of time for one another.

Keep physically fit. Rather than watch TV, take a walk together or go bicycle riding. In fact, the best thing you can do for your sex life is to put the TV in the garage!

Keep well-groomed. Maintaining proper care of your body and practicing good hygiene show that you care about and respect your spouse.

Keep your sexual feelings turned toward home. Fantasize being with each other. If sexual feelings are triggered in response to someone other than your mate, immediately put your spouse in the picture and bring the spark home!

Keep scheduled. Just as you need to schedule quality time with your family or individual time with a child, you need to schedule time for your sexual relationship.

Keep sex positive. Your sexual times will be most satisfying if they are free of demand and anxiety and full of care, warmth, physical pleasure and fun.

Keep learning about your own body and your mate's body. Read books on sexual enhancement out loud together. Experiment with new ideas.

Keep coming up with surprises to keep sex from becoming boring. Leave a love note on your spouse's pillow, light a candle, buy new sheets or change your position in bed.

The Later Years

Saving the Best for Last

With children out on their own, personal distractions reduced and work pressures lessened, marriage's later years can be the most delightful, relaxed years of a couples' sexual life. When our last child left for college three years ago, she wondered if we'd get bored. Far from it! We can spontaneously have a candlelight dinner by the fireplace and make love anytime, anywhere. We're once again enjoying the freedom we had in the early years of our marriage, a freedom that we gladly relinquished during the 26 years we had children at home.

In a society that worships youth and disregards the elderly, it is not uncommon to encounter the attitude that sexual activity among the "older set" is suspect or strange. Since sex is so highly connected with the virility of youth, it is no wonder that some people assume sexuality disappears as the skin wrinkles and the hair turns gray. But couples who remain sexually active to the end are likely to be healthier and happier as well as more agile and virile. In fact, the oldest couple we've ever counseled was an 85-year-old man and his 84-year-old wife. They just needed a few sessions for some "mid-course" adaptation!

Certain physical changes are to be expected as the body ages, and those changes naturally affect sexual functioning. However, knowing what to expect can eliminate some of the stress you may experience as you adjust to the changes.

The production of estrogen and progesterone decrease when a woman reaches menopause. Physical and emotional symptoms accompany the hormonal changes. Hot flashes, general aches and pains and weight gain are common. Emotional reactions such as depression, anxiety or erratic mood swings can affect the sexual relationship. The physical changes that most affect sex are a thinning of the vaginal wall, a lessening of vaginal lubrication and a sluggishness of the vaginal muscle. Hormonal replacement therapy, a vaginal lubricant, regular exercise, exercise of the vaginal muscle and good nutrition with a vitamin-mineral supplement can increase a woman's sense of well-being and sexual pleasure.

Men must also adapt to the changes that come as a result of lower testosterone levels. A husband may experience less urgent, and possibly less frequent, sexual desire. He will likely require direct penile stimulation to get aroused rather than responding to visual stimulation. His erections may not be as firm as they once were, but will still be sufficient for entry. He may not need to ejaculate with each experience, and his ejaculations will be less intense. But neither of these changes should detract from his satisfaction.

At any stage of life, an illness or accident may interfere with typical sexual patterns, but this is more likely true with aging. Touch and the intimacy of closeness are even more important when dealing with physical limitations. Pleasure does not need to stop; it may only need to change. New positions, such as lying side by side, may actually add a new spark. Sex in the morning or after a nap when both of you are well rested may be better.

There is something beautiful about two people enjoying physical intimacy in their fading years just as they did in their blooming years. Older couples can do most anything the young can do—it just may take them longer.

A married life of greater love, passion and intimacy begins with a husband who adores and affirms his wife, and a wife who invites her husband to share in all her sexual intensity. And that can only happen when couples commit time and energy to creating a rewarding, healthy sex life—from the honeymoon night right through to their golden years.

Clinical psychologist Clifford Penner, Ph.D., and Joyce Penner, a clinical nurse specialist, practice in Pasadena, California. They are co-authors of Getting Your Sex Life Off to a Great Start (Word), Restoring the Pleasure(Word) and Men and Sex (Thomas Nelson).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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