In a recent session with Alan and Patty (not real names), Alan asked me how do they begin to be intimate again. Married 23 years, empty nesters, and he travels every week; they have become roommates. Life got in the way and marriage took a back seat.
To make sure we were all on the same page, I asked Alan to define “intimate.” He immediately said, “connection, not sex.” Patty agreed. But they both agreed they want the sexual aspect of their marriage to improve as well. The past 10 years have not been good for their marriage. Though Alan has always traveled, they have gradually moved away from each other both emotionally and physically. Conversations are very “superficial” even when they do talk, but most of the time, they just don’t talk. They also have not slept together in years and the topic of sex is taboo. Sexual avoidance drains intimacy and vitality from the marital bond.
“As beautiful as it is, intimacy doesn’t rebuild itself automatically. Fortunately, love does not require perfect people – just persistent ones.”
A loss of a love connection can happen at different stages of marriage. For Alan and Patty, it has been a slow moving away. They now wonder if they have what it takes to do the work to move towards each other again. Neither feels comfortable in making that first move. When an attempt is made, one or both feel awkward and uncomfortable.
So, what are the stepping stones to building/rebuilding intimacy? There are two aspects of their relationship that I addressed for them in putting the puzzle pieces together.
Sometimes, we just have to go back to the basics; back to the dating years. The years when talking was the easiest part of the relationship; when we couldn’t wait for date night, and compliments came naturally. For that, I introduce the “Magic 5 Hours A Week.” John and Julie Gottman have found that small positive actions, done frequently, make the biggest difference. They write about the "Magic 5 Hours a Week" as being an important intimacy-building tool. It begins with 20 minutes a day of face-to-face communication (no, texting does not count!)… 5 minutes a day of affection (yes an emoji counts)… 5 minutes a day of appreciation… and then a weekly scheduled date night (at least 2 hours). VOILA!!! 5 Hours a week. You can see the research on the benefit of date nights on my website.
Surprisingly, this is not as easy for some couples as you may think. This was true for Alan and Patty. Remember, they weren’t talking. The first couple of weeks it didn’t work at all. Alan would try to engage Patty, but she felt too uncomfortable, so their talking went back to “business”… work (check), kids (check), finances (check), and household chores (check). It was like checking off a list. They were discouraged, Alan especially. But I reminded them that the wall between them went up “brick by brick,” so it must come down the same way.
Patty suggested we wait until they began feeling more comfortable with each other before doing the “5 Hours a Week.” I hear that often. But research shows just the opposite happens; when you start committing to the process, your comfort level with each other improves. Back to the dating years; we were strangers when we first started dating, but with consistent talking, complimenting, and regular date nights, we actually fell in love with that stranger.
One other aspect I addressed with them… both Alan and Patty are 50, and midlife sexuality can change. I needed to broach this topic, even though it was a sensitive one for them. Both of their libido’s (sex drive) was low. The libido is affected by many factors, including hormones. When it comes to sex, Patty could take it or leave it…mostly she leaves it.
They both agreed to see their doctors for physicals and have blood lab tests on their hormones…mainly testosterone for Alan; Estradiol and testosterone for Patty. No surprise that both their lab work came back that Alan’s testosterone was low (Andropause), and Patty’s estradiol was almost non-existent (Menopause). Low estrogen can drain the life out of what used to be a satisfying sexual relationship. “And though we tend to think of testosterone as the male hormone, this hormone fuels the libido of both men and women,” states Dr. Alan Altman.
And finally, don’t forget, the most important sexual organ is the brain. Good communication absolutely enhances sex. If couples stop communicating… guess what else stops????
Alan and Patty are still working with me… meeting once a month. They feel hopeful for the first time in years, even though the wall is coming down slowly.