Life As Foreplay
A Couples Sexual Journey For The 21st Century
Kate Feldman MSW LCSW and Joel Feldman PCC
Some people refer to us as “the Kate and Joel show” when we are leading a couples workshop or retreat. We’re not exactly sure why, but we think it might be because we have so much fun being a couple. We are not afraid to reveal ourselves and we are not ashamed of our imperfections, sexual, psychological, emotional, and physical. We also laugh at ourselves a lot. But we’re a couple like every other couple: with power struggles, individual dreams and longings, and many differences that we must work out between us.
Our secret is that we consider ourselves an intimate team, and approach our marriage with the attitude that each of us is as important as the other. We let our clients know what we are going through, we teach by example; sometimes we even “fight” in front of our workshop groups. We also have a sexy, juicy, sometimes frustrating, deep, and often, hilarious sex life.
However, different from many couples, we have been therapist and coach to thousands of couples over thirty years. We have been privileged to participate in, and witness every one of these relationships close up and personally. These courageous couples have allowed us into the most intimate details of their lives, and they have taught us, moved us, and deepened us as people and as a couple.
The Passion of Sex
(Or, perhaps, the lack of passion)
In the last five years, we have been moved by the anguish couples express to us about the lack of passion, sensuality, sex and physical intimacy they experience in their partnership. This is across the spectrums of age, gender, and length of commitment.
Complaints range from physiological (erectile dysfunction, painful intercourse, illness, exhaustion, just to name a few), to extreme desire differences, boredom and a host of other libido killers that are likely to stress a couples’ capacity to connect sexually. These include “not just emotional or psychological trauma, but also stress, relationship problems, depression, weight gain, body image issues, anger, tiredness, infidelity, childbirth, power issues, past abuse—not to mention the routine and ennui that can come with long-term relationships” (David M. Buss, PhD, and Cindy M. Meston, PhD, sex researchers, University of Texas at Austin).
Currently in our culture, “15-20% of couples experience little to no sexual activity in a year. 25% of all Americans (a third of women and a fifth of men) suffer from a condition known as hypoactive sexual desire (HSD), which is defined as a persistent or recurring deficiency or absence of sexual fantasies or thoughts, or a lack of interest in sex or being sexual”. — Psychology Today. This results in overall marital and relationship unhappiness for most of these couples. Dr. Barry McCarthy, sex therapist and professor at George Washington University, found that “When couples are happy enough with their sex life, it only accounts for 15 percent of how happy they are in their relationship. However, when either person is unhappy with their sex life it can account for 85 percent of their relationship happiness.”
There is no one explanation for these problems, and you can see from the statistics, there is no particular demographic suffering more or less. There are many theories and many wise sex therapists, coaches, self help gurus, tantra practitioners, and researchers who weigh in on how and why so many American couples have become so bereft of sexual and physical intimacy. At this writing, we have been invited to speak at one of the biggest Sexuality and Relationship conferences ever presented over the Internet. The number of speakers and presenters is astonishing. Evidently our culture is craving something different about sex and sexuality!
We are not researchers. We are a couple, and we spend many hours a day, every day with couples. We listen to stories of people whose lives are so busy, so technologically loaded, so stressed, that they have no time to play with their children, let alone sit quietly with each other. Even if they wanted to be self-introspective about their relationship, their minds and bodies are moving so fast that nothing inside them is available for inner awareness or contemplation.
We suspect that the fast pace, technological demands, economic pressures, loss of contact with the natural world, and reduced human to human connection of the 21st century, is wreaking havoc on our ability as sensual humans to connect with one another through our bodies. Sex becomes another thing on the TO DO list because the experts say, “just do it”. If you don’t you’ll lose your capacity, and desire, and it will be very hard to get it back.
Long ago in the 1970s, 80s and 90s we co –founded and were part of a yoga and holistic health center. Early on it was an “ashram”, a place of introspection, and service where we practiced yoga, meditation, and mindfulness formally and informally all day. Our focus was learning to be present in our bodies, our minds, our hearts, and our spirits. During this time, we had a profound experience of the benefit of slowing down and “being here now”. Little did we know how, many years later, this would inform our work with couples and their sexual struggles.
Our Sexual Journey
Of course it was hot and spicy at the beginning. We were excited at keeping our love affair secret for a long time. We had great sex in amazing places. We got married and still had great sex in amazing places. We were healthy, had good energy, high desire, and felt free and happy about being a “terrific couple”.
The first thing that happened was Kate got bladder infections. OUCH. No more intercourse. Ok. We can live with this. But then after the infection healed, we noticed we weren’t having as much sex.
Then, about three years into our marriage, Kate’s brother was killed in a car accident. Talk about stress. Grief, tears, exhaustion, and emotional rawness killed her libido. Our intimate life became about supporting her and her family through a very challenging year. We cuddled a lot, and cried. But we didn’t make love very often.
After that we balanced out again and thought no more about it. We made love when we were on vacation, and not as much when we were at home working and raising our son. We noticed some breaks in the action, but never talked about it, never acknowledged our individual feelings or troubles. We started having sex, not so much making love. It was always pleasurable but it was becoming routine.
After awhile, we got into power struggles. We butt heads. Not about sex so much (because we weren’t talking about it), but about all the stuff couples argue about: Child rearing, household chores, schedules, vacations, in laws, money. We had less sex. It wasn’t fun.
The good news was that by that time, we were already counselors and had begun training as Imago Relationship Therapists. This was a turning point in our relationship as well as our work, because we learned quickly how to dialogue with one another about EVERYTHING. We dug deeply into our hearts and learned that intimacy is about self revealing, talking things through, opening to the world of the other, making space for differences, and allowing change.
However, as we grew emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, we also got busier and busier in our work life, and our sexual encounters became less and less. When we made love, we noticed less satisfaction, more performance anxiety and shame. So, we got out our dialogue skills and started talking about our feelings. This was another layer of inner work: exploring our beliefs, needs, desires, fears, and fantasies about sex. WOW. We had no idea what would emerge. We felt closer, but more vulnerable. No one had ever mentioned that talking about sex, before, during and after would have a profound impact on our intimate life!
During this time, we each continued doing yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices. We worked on being healthy; we enjoyed exercising and vacationing out of doors. We loved the natural world and spent a lot of time running, hiking, biking, boating, and skiing. Our lives seemed to be balanced, but it’s clear looking back, that we had not made a conscious connection between our sensual/sexual life and our practices.
Menopause changed everything. Low libido, painful intercourse, insomnia, fatigue, pressures of a busy work life, teenager in the house, financial worries… And Kate became the “problem”. We both agreed she just needed to get through this, get over her tiredness, get over her worries, get over her guilt. Joel was fine. He had desire, willingness, but now… frustration. We talked, we were patient, we created romantic scenarios, Kate got help for hormones, energy, sleep…but we were polarized and we were colluding with a non-workable belief: that one person in the couple can be the problem, which if “fixed” will fix the couples sex life.
This is not true. You will kill your sex life if you are a couple who has an agreement that one person is the problem.
Sexual AH HA
Amidst this journey to “fix Kate’s problem” we got some good help. We realized we had to become an intimate team and approach our sexual and sensual life together as any team would to solve a problem or reach a goal.
This was the beginning of the transformation of our sexual and sensual life. The TEAM approach made it clear that any problem regarding lovemaking was a problem we had to solve together. After all, as Barry McCarthy says, “sex is a team sport; you win or lose together” (Rekindling Desire). Not only did we understand that our problems were WE problems, we gradually came to realize that we had sexual expectations about which we were not communicating. This resulted
in goal orientation about number of times per week, about who has an orgasm how often, about making sure we always had intercourse. You can imagine the pressure on both of us and of course, the disappointment and resentment.
So we TALKED about all this. And we returned to TOUCHING. We came home to what we have always loved: affectionate, playful, sensual and erotic touch in our every day life. The AH HA that life is foreplay. Every interaction, every thought of one another during the day has the potential to be a bridge to sensual and sexual desire.
It was during this time that we gave up all agendas, and all goal orientation of our lovemaking. We let go of the goal of intercourse; we let go of the goal of orgasm. We let go of how often, for how long we made love. We let go and we relaxed.
We began to make what we now call the Non-Demand Sensual Touch Date. We knew we had to set aside time, but we understood that anything could happen or nothing could happen. We snuggled, we talked, we massaged. We kissed, we got aroused, we had orgasms, and we didn’t have orgasms. We discovered how to pass the giver and receiver role back and forth between us. We asked each other for what we wanted; sometimes we got it sometimes we didn’t. We experimented, and we laughed. We laughed so hard, we cried.
Mostly though, we slowed down. Way down. We started practicing the yoga of lovemaking. We breathed together… and separately. We paid exquisite attention to our own and each other’s bodies. We listened to the needs of one another. We practiced giving what the other wanted. We also practiced saying “I can’t do that right now” or “not like that, please touch me this way…” No goals. No agendas: Just the intention to connect, by being present moment to moment in our bodies. Together. We were finally a sexual and sensual team.
And then we were asked to lead a program at Kripalu Center … the Kate and Joel version of a sex program for couples. Thus emerged, Sex Pleasure and Intimacy, a retreat for couples born out of our spiritual practices, our personal journey, our clinical training, and the many couples who have bravely revealed themselves to us along the way.
A Healthy Sex Life – Conventional Wisdom
Ultimately a healthy sex life involves your whole person: body, mind, emotions and spirit. We don’t believe there is any one formula a couple should follow to guarantee satisfying lovemaking. There are, however, some principles, which can help guide you as an individual. You and your partner should bring these into your discussions about your sexual life together. These include:
• Experiencing your own body as pleasurable.
• Being able to receive touch and enjoy it.
• Knowing what kind of touch you like and don’t like.
• Experiencing the act of love-making as pleasurable most of the time… and
• Ecstatically inspiring and moving some of the time.
• Being honest about whether you are fulfilled or not because you listen to and trust yourself.
• Choosing a partner or partners with whom you can find fulfillment
• Enjoying yourself alone and/or with a partner.
• Using your sexual energy for creativity in your life as well as sexual expression.
Life Is Foreplay!
Moving Toward A More Fulfilled Sexual Life With Your Partner
“But how?” our couples sigh. “Why can’t it be better”? “Why are we so stuck?”
Sex, like everything in a relationship, takes attention, time and energy. You cannot have a magical, juicy fulfilling relationship at any level unless you nourish and grow it. If you complain and don’t do anything about it nothing will change.
There is no pill you can take (really!) that will increase the passion between you. There are pills to help physiologically but the biggest and best sex organ is right between your ears: Your brain. And you have to learn to use it with regularity, and even discipline.
We have created a systematic method to train and support couples to deepen their desire, unlock sensual and sexual intimacy, and create a passionate love life no matter what age in the life cycle. The practices must be learned and put in place over time.
1. Presence: Learn to be with each pleasurable sensation moment to moment. Let go of all goals and agendas; follow your bodies as the sensual dance unfolds.
2. Life is foreplay: Use every interaction and every circumstance to build bridges to desire. The way you connect all through the day is key to enhancing your sexual life.
3. Touch each other frequently in and outside the bedroom without the agenda of it “going somewhere”. Again, practice being present to the pleasurable experience of the moment.
4. Become an intimate Team: Sex is a team sport. You win or lose together. Remember, any trouble your sex life has, must be solved together, as a team.
5. Talk about your needs, desires, and preferences. Learn to be vulnerable, take risks, experiment. Learn the art of deep listening and make sure you do not shame or criticize one another when talking about any aspect of sex.
Each one of these principles includes practices for increasing the sensual flow between you. They are not new but what we know from personal and professional experience is that partners have to WANT something different and take time, resources, energy, and make the choice to move toward one another differently. When you begin to practice, something different will happen between you.
Surely, we all have barriers to increasing the intimacy between us.
We come to our partners with beliefs and experiences which form our ability to love, be loved, share our bodies, experience pleasure, and open ourselves to another. Some of us were traumatized, some of us never learned to enjoy our bodies. Some of us feel happy and delighted with ourselves sexually and want our partners to feel the same. Sex is complicated because human beings are complex, and amazing beings. Our struggle is normal and expected.
GO FOR IT
If you are a couple who has been together for a while, you probably experience some of what we, and many other couples in our culture go through. You are not alone, and you don’t have to figure it out by yourselves. If you find yourself stuck or offended or shut down or dissatisfied in your sexual life together, consider the possibility of education, inspiration, training, and a new approach. It could not only transform your sex life, but your relationship, as well as your experience of yourself as a sensual and sexual person.
You deserve to love and be loved. Being a couple can be one of the most rewarding growth experiences you’ll ever have. But you have to understand that’s what it’s about: Growing into the most magnificent being you can be. Let your sex life be the vehicle for being fully expressed – body, mind, heart and spirit. You could have a lot of fun in the process!
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