As a counselor, I get a lot of clients who are worried about intimacy and sex. Romance books are a lovely escape from reality, and can help reduce your stress from daily frustrations. And, you can even learn a few tricks to enhance your relationship. The danger comes in if you begin to believe in the fantasy, compare your real-life partner to a fictional character, and become dissatisfied and feel unfulfilled. One of the attractive things about romance heroes is that they do all the work, but in a real-life relationship with a real man, you probably have to get the ball rolling and let him know what you want.
Our culture is saturated with unrealistic depictions of love, relationship and family. From celebrity debacles to overblown movie romances, as well as highly exaggerated depictions and expectations about beauty, romance and sex, the media is bombarding us with images and ideas that are the exact opposite of what works in marriage. Look around at the “beautiful people”-how long do their marriages last, and how happy do they really seem?
When people’s expectations for what marriage entails are overblown, they get disappointed and discouraged. Successfully married couples have a more realistic idea that marriage won’t be ideal, and partnership and mutual love are things that you need to work on, to build over a number of years. If you are loving and caring of each other, you have a better chance of success in your relationship.
Most couples who come to my counseling practice because of relationship problems report that their marriage lost its romance long ago. It’s easy to feel romantic when you live separately and date each other because every moment spent together is special. From the moment you begin to live together, such romantic moments are no longer automatic. Instead, much of your time together is spent on more mundane things: doing laundry, washing dishes, paying bills, or going to work. Although this can be new, exciting and fun at first, as soon as the initial newness of living together wears off, such everyday things cease to feel exciting and romantic, and you may find yourself feeling worried that your partner no longer cares as much or is as excited to be with you.
Enjoyable sex is an important part of marital life, which helps to create a strong bond that is the most reliable way to safeguard your connection. Fighting happens more often in marriages in which intimacy and bonding aren’t working. Intimacy is the art of making your partner feel understood and accepted. When this feeling is created, barriers fall. Gentle touch, eye contact a gentle sense of humor and the right words all create the atmosphere. Commenting positively on your partner’s looks or the day’s activities will also help. To reconnect, be sure you are listening to each other and understanding your partner’s needs and wants. The most powerful thing you can do to keep a marriage strong forms a partnership, a team, where both parties feel respected, cared about and needed. If you really want to restore the marriage, begin not by complaining about your needs that aren’t being met, but by focusing on your mate’s needs. Once your good connection is restored, you can begin to work out the issues.
Here are some ways to bring intimacy back:
Guidelines for increasing intimacy
• Make recreation, play and fun a priority. Put more energy into making your partner laugh, and you’ll find a playful approach will motivate both you and your spouse to want to be close. Pleasure, humor, leisure activities, and silliness are ways we recharge, renew our energy, restore our hope and positive outlook, and connect with each other. Don’t allow too much of your time to be absorbed by TV, e-mail, computer games, or other people who are not important.
• Don’t let your expectations get out of line. Fun and intimacy do not depend on spending money or going to extremes; they don’t depend on a particular setting or activity, and they don’t have to take a lot of time. Enjoying yourselves is an internal process. You can be close sitting still and talking about interesting or enjoyable things, working together in your garden, playing with the kids or the dog, or doing a puzzle. Singing, dancing, playing a sport or a board game may be what you need to feel close. Through play, we re-connect with our hearts, our childlike selves, and the intuitive, spontaneous responses that lead to sexual connections.
Yes, you can create intimacy with special occasions, something that requires a bit of advance planning; but when you look back on your most intimate experiences, they are more likely to have been spontaneous and simple rather than elaborate and expensive.
• Don’t get unrealistically focused on appearances. Growing old together means we will eventually show our age. Focus on how you feel about your partner, not on baldness, weight issues, lack of performance ability. You can happily have sex with each other into your dotage if you learn to accept the changes that come with age. You may no longer be beautiful people, but you can have a lot more love, sex and fun than they do if you are comfortable with your inevitable changes. Don’t let our youth-obsessed culture rob you of the pleasures you can still have.
• Develop “signals” that work. A special light in the bedroom (when it’s lit, at least one of you is interested) bringing home flowers, dressing up, a certain touch or phrase.
• Be careful that your desire for intimacy is always a request and not a demand-the difference is that a request can take “no” for an answer. A demand is oppressive; a request is complementary. Demands push you apart; requests invite the other person to come closer.
• Once you have established some transitions that work, try some surprises. A surprise means you haven’t consulted each other, so with all surprises, give your partner time to respond, and be prepared to change the details if necessary. You could be showered, scented, and dressed in something you know your mate will like when he or she comes home from work, and make your move. Observe your mate’s response, and be prepared to back off if you’ve picked a bad time. Your sense of humor works well here. When they work well, surprises can add some excitement and energy to your sexual relationship; but only if done infrequently.
• Make reservations at a romantic spot, and give them to your lover inside a sexy or romantic card during a quiet dinner out. Because it’s a surprise, build some flexibility into the plan, and make sure the plans would feel good to your partner, not just to you. That is if he likes to golf, and you want romance, pick a romantic spot with a nearby golf course. If she likes the ocean, and you like watching sports on TV, pick a seaside hotel with a sports bar. During the getaway, share activities as much as possible.
• Sex is a physical form of communication, and like all other communication, it requires some time. Give yourselves transition time before getting sexual. Don’t expect to be able to jump into bed and “get it on”. Allow time for quiet conversation, sensual touch, etc. A “quickie” can be lots of fun, but the fun disappears if it becomes your only option.
• For most of us (especially most women), “romance” is important to some degree in encouraging a sexual mood. The relaxed anticipation produced by the right music, soft lights and sweet words makes an ideal atmosphere for intimacy, which leads to verbal and physical affection. Keep in mind that what feels romantic or sexy differs for men and women, so include cues that work for both of you. Many couples find that watching erotic or romantic movies helps set the mood.
• Intimacy is only possible when there is also sufficient personal space. Allow a little distance, regularly. “How can I miss you if you don’t go away?” is a humorous way to put it. You need some separate activities, friends and interests to keep your desire for each other fresh. It’s great for your relationship when you have something interesting to tell your spouse about when you come home.
• When you’re married and living together, it is too easy to let romance slide. Don’t forget to bring home flowers, send cards, create or buy silly little gifts for each other. Write poetry, silly notes, or songs, clip a magazine cartoon, or simply speak the positive things you feel. Take an extra few minutes to set a scene when you have quiet time together, set the table a little nicer when you’re home alone for dinner. If you know your spouse finds some aspect of a movie sexy or romantic, mimic it: bring your wife the same kind of flowers, or show up in the bedroom in a similar slip to the one your husband admired on the lead actress. If the romantic couple in the movie takes a long, romantic walk in the woods, try walking together in a local park.
• Revisit memories of your early days together. Visit places that have meaning to you: the restaurant where you had your first date, the park where you met, the romantic hideaway spot where you camped out. Play your favorite love songs; rent an old, romantic movie and eat popcorn; do a crossword puzzle; go golfing; cook your favorite foods together. Reliving your early dates can rekindle the early feelings.
Mutual Trust Creates Romance
Culturally, women have more permission for romance than men do, but it has been said many times that men are the true romantics. Many romantic poems, song lyrics, movies and plays are written by men. Don’t worry about your “image”; be willing to risk feeling a little silly from time to time. It’s a great tonic for your relationship. Men, the major reward for you is more and better sex. Women, your reward is feeling loved and desired. You’ll both have a great time, and enjoy it.
Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. is a licensed psychotherapist in S. California since 1978 with over 40 years’ experience in counseling individuals and couples and author of 15 books in 17 languages, including Dr. Romance’s Guide to Finding Love Today; It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction; The Ten Smartest Decisions a Woman Can Make After Forty, Dr. Tessina appears frequently on radio, TV, video and podcasts. She tweets @tinatessina