Sex Ed 2.0: Bring Back the Romance

What is going on outside the bedroom has a direct impact on what is not going on inside the bedroom

Laura snapped big-time during the gloomy guest list negotiations. She and Stephen (names have been changed) were planning their 30th anniversary party. They had been pretending for half of that milestone that their marriage, which yielded four thriving college graduates and a payday for the insurance business they built together in suburban Toronto, was a happy one,

The unthinkable came flying out of her mouth: “Why don’t you invite your little web cam whores?” She says she had never uttered the W word aloud before. And she hadn’t told a soul about the paid assignations she found cached on her husband’s hard drive. They never talked about sex because they would have to admit that neither one could remember the last time they had it.

But Laura’s outburst last year proved a watershed, and both parties agreed to and are in the process of relationship and sex therapy. On the Internet, you can custom order the body of your choice: pliable and willing – and it never talks back (unless and until you want it to). There are no dishes in the sink, and the virtual playmate has never seen you curled up over the toilet with stomach flu.

“Porn can seem like the easy way out,” says Dr. Marion Goertz (who, as they say in the tabloids, does not treat Stephen and Laura). The 62-year-old is now 15 years into her third career as a registered sex therapist in Toronto (she previously worked in the adoption field and then ran her own marketing agency). But easy access has made it just the latest self-soothing mechanism mucking up our love lives: “When we don’t feel connected, loved and accepted, we can fill the void with porn, gambling, drinking, overeating and even shopping.”

With any of these overindulgences, she says, the partner “is going to feel left out, as if the mate is having an affair. Sex therapy involves candid, respectful conversations around expectations, disappointments, dreams, fear. And deciding how to celebrate what was meaningful for a couple and being creative about what can yet be.”

Sexual issues can be rooted in emotional, interactional and physical causes or a mash-up of the three, says Dr. Bianca Rucker, a Vancouver-based sex therapist with a roster of patients aged 20 through 80-plus. She has a background in nursing and a PhD in counselling psychology and is also a registered marriage and family therapist. She teases out the threads of causation and assembles a multidisciplinary team (gynecologists, urologists) to get lovers back to rolling under the covers.

“The stigma that used to exist in seeking help for something so private is eroding in this era of Viagra. Everything is more out in the open,” she says of the trend over her 27 years in practice. “Getting into the office is half the battle. When sex disappears, awkwardness takes its place.

“Big messes can happen at any age,” she says of our sexual landscapes. “We can be stuck on old issues or we can find fresh ways to hurt each other.” says nearly half of the North American population has an unsatisfactory sex life (the site also says one in five marriages is sexless – that would be in the 40 million range).

Many factors can be at play: sleep deprivation, family crises, relationship crises, betrayals of monogamy and money worries. Then there are hormonal changes (menopause, andropause and low testosterone levels) and other health concerns (heart disease wreaks havoc on blood flow as does diabetes), poor diet and weight gain and lack of exercise, not to mention depression (and, even more cruelly, libido-sucking antidepressants).

But the most common spark killer in a long-term relationship is taking each other for granted, says Rucker. “You need to redeploy the imagination, bring back the adventure and play and excitement.” In other words: what is going on outside the bedroom has a direct impact on what is not going on inside the bedroom.

Behavioural therapy (as in nocturnal homework) can retrain the neural pathways into new patterns and associations, Rucker says. “It is the obvious, simple stuff, that we just can’t see on our own, that can reawaken desire. Open your eyes and connect with your partner during lovemaking. Bring back foreplay. It is amazing to see the results when you ask couples to describe what they used to with each other.”

Goertz suggests adult play dates and weekends away. And day to day, “make a conscious effort through such things as safe and playful texts, emails and phone messages. Tender touch – massage, naked cuddles, wearing sensual fabrics like silk and cashmere – escalates as the couple begins to re-ignite some of the passion: brain chemistry adrenaline, dopamine, oxytocin.”

A new relationship with the same old person is possible. As for Stephen and Laura, they report that they have not yet been ringing each other’s bells but they are enjoying a new climate of affection. They put that anniversary party on hold in the hopes that they will celebrate their 31st with an even bigger bang.