- Hillary Harvey
- Kyle Needham and Alexis Arvidson Needham in the family bed with Layla and Bowie.
"Sexuality is more than a metaphor for the relationship— it stands on its own as a parallel narrative." —Esther Perel
Cyndi Darnell likes to ask people straight out: "Why do you want to have sex?" They might be sitting on her couch during individual therapy, or peering at her on screen via Skype, or in a workshop like the one she's offering at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck this May ("Sacred Sexuality: Discover Deeper Connections & Enjoy True Intimacy," May 27 to 30). People might squirm and look at her funny, but Darnell won't look away. A sex educator and relationship counselor, she feels it's an important question—despite the fact that we're all taught about sex through the lens of reproduction, that's not why most people do it. In reality, Darnell knows that the two most common reasons that people have sex are for pleasure and connection. And most of the time, that doesn't involve swinging from a chandelier as we orgasm (preferably multiple times and preferably with a hot 25-year-old). But Darnell says, "If you keep pleasure and connection in the front of your mind, you are going to be much more open to a variety of experiences."
Sex in long-term monogamous relationships is rife with challenges. In a lifetime together, there are heated arguments and make-up sex, caustic tongues and apologies, wandering eyes, physical changes, and tangled private jokes.
According to Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic and a leading voice on what it takes to create satisfying partnerships, the two core components of a successful monogamous relationship are basically antithetical. Intimacy longs for closeness, familiarity, and time; desire needs space, freedom, and fantasy. It's the ultimate paradox. "Ironically," Perel writes, "what makes for good intimacy does not always make for good sex."
Desire requires mystery, but there's not much of that in a long-term union, especially one that's seen pregnancy and childbirth. "It is ironic that sex makes babies and then children spell erotic disaster for couples," Perel quips during her TED Talks. Parenting changes people. And so does time. A sex life that's been put on the back burner might not come alive again in the same way. Where parents once spent hours exploring each other's bodies, they are often pressed for a quickie before the kids interrupt. Traumatized by childbirth, overwhelmed by transitions in parenthood, inhibited by the presence of others, some couples don't have sex for months or years. In some long-term monogamous relationships, a baby isn't even needed for a sexual dry spell. But for most experts, like Perel and Darnell, the fact that sex and intimacy waxes and wanes is not the problem. The problem lies in our imaginations.
For Kyle Needham, an oyster caterer who lives in Kingston, it's about challenging yourself and your partner to find new ways to be intimate and redefine what it means to feel sexy. Not just with the birth of a baby, but as a regular practice within the partnership. When he met acupuncturist Alexis Arvidson, he was a regular at the bar she was tending during grad school. He consciously decided not to be the guy who asked the sexy bartender out. Instead, they built a flirtatious friendship until Arvidson Needham made a move. Eight years later, they're married with two kids. And Needham tries not to take anything for granted. That yearning courtship still sparkles between them as they pass their new baby, Needham complimenting Arvidson Needham's outfit changes, during our photo shoot. He points out, "You always have to try. You always have to be kind of active in the relationship." Complacency, to Needham, just propagates a slow separation from each other. He says, "To make a relationship last, you need to be honest about what your wants are and what your fears are and lay it all on the line for your partner."
- Hillary Harvey
"Talking about sex is fundamentally important to creating the kind of sex life that you want," Darnell says. She promotes conversations about what people would like to receive, even if it doesn't look like conventional sex. One of the most common complaints from women who have just had a baby is that they feel "touched out." A mother's body is the family body. She births, feeds, and lulls the children, and her body provides comfort and companionship to everyone in her nuclear family. The touch often comes with a sense of urgency (diaper changes, hunger, quickies), and sex can feel like just another thing she has to give. "That doesn't mean that she doesn't love her partner anymore," says Darnell. "That doesn't mean that she's not interested in sex anymore." To Darnell it means that the intercourse they've been having may be off the menu for a little while, but that just opens the door of possibility for other types of pleasure.
In her video series, Darnell enlightens people about the science of pleasure. "The truth is intercourse is really only one thing out of a hundred that you could do in any given situation."
In her workshops, she teaches that a deeper understanding of sexuality can actually help develop deeper connections with people in general. "Sex is about connection. Sex is about communion. Sex is about communication, and it's also about removing the space between us."
The Ripple Effect
Rebecca Wong, a relationship therapist in New Paltz, is full of ideas for intimacy that reach beyond the bedroom. Someone might be nursing the baby or playing on the floor with a child when partners hold each other's gaze across the room. "There are probably things that you did before the kids," Wong says. "You probably gazed at each other at a party. You probably found a few minutes while skiing or something, and just gave each other a nice long, lingering kiss. But now that you have kids, those moments are much more interrupted and your attention is more dispersed. The key is remembering to come back to one another." Wong and her husband enjoy prolonged kisses, even while their five- and seven-year-olds crawl between them. It's not overtly sexual; it's a moment to reconnect.
With training in postpartum mental health, infant loss, and sex and relationship therapy, Wong frames parenting, in some measure, as a time of grief. "Most of the time, parents are mourning a part of themselves that they've lost. When you go from being single to being married to being married with kids, there are pieces of your individuality that get lost in there, and that you forget how to get back. So grief is a big part of parenting."
Lately, intimacy in parenting relationships is becoming the focus of her work. She recently launched an eight-part blog series, called Reconnecting Parent Couples, to unpack the emotional issues around maintaining long-term intimacy: mindfulness over monotony; thriving rather than surviving. It dovetails with a new website, connectfulness.com, where Wong posts content driven by collaborations with other clinicians around the country. These growing resources, Wong hopes, will answer the question, how can you have a really intimate life with all the people who matter to you, and still be connected with yourself in the process?
It's not all roses on the bed. Wong says it can't be, if you're spending a lifetime together. And in modern unions, where people live longer, it's not uncommon for a marriage that lasts to do so for fifty or more years. Couples watch each other age, lose it, and evolve. "So the goal of the intimacy then changes and becomes a place to grow together," Wong explains. "That's what intimacy is: you are literally a mirror for the biggest trigger stuff. You're there to help each other grow and heal and make the most meaning out of each other's lives." Wong says it's about being comfortable in each other's vulnerabilities.
Over time, people develop new passions, work provides different avenues, midlife crises shift a person's focus. Wong feels it's an opportunity to see different connection points and to open to each other in new ways. "If we only think that our partner is who they were when we met them, then we're missing everyone they've become since we've known them."
When couples take up the couch in Wong's therapy office, it's often years after the problems have begun, and now they're noticing behavioral problems in their children. "So the way we treat everybody in our home is really significant because it sets the framework." Wong sees children as the ripple we send out into the world. "They start to bring those pieces of how they relate at home into their community." Just one shift in the family environment can transform things for everybody. Wong calls it relationship mindfulness.
"We often only look at betrayal when it happens in the bedroom, but betrayals happen every day all the time," Wong says. When we're too busy, too involved with others, joke at our partner's expense, those are betrayals. "So when those betrayals add up, over and over again, it creates an environment where that's the flavor, and that's the stuff that gets into the bedroom. It usually starts somewhere else; it doesn't start in bed." To help couples bring back intimacy, it takes an openness and a playfulness in other aspects of their lives. They have to feel safe with each other. That's where those non-sexual intimacy moments come in. It's what sex, intimacy, and relationship therapist Dr. Lily Zehner calls, non-sex sex, where intimacy happens without intercourse and the focus moves to sensuality.
"Foreplay is something that really lasts all day long," Wong says. "It's not something that happens in the 20 minutes before we jump into bed with each other. It's something that happens in how we treat each other in general in our lives. That's the stuff that turns us on."