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Focus on what gives you pleasure

Exhaustion and resentment can extinguish your sex life fast, but there are ways to reconnect with your own sexual drive by focusing on what gives you pleasure

Esther Perel by Christopher Lane

For many mothers, sex turns from an expression of love, intimacy and desire into an obligation. They lose track of their own desire, their own pleasure, their own motivations, and they feel like sex has become ‘just another thing that I have to do to take care of someone else’.  Women with young children are overwhelmed by care-giving responsibilities and sex simply becomes another source of resentment.

‘I knew we were in trouble when I couldn’t even think about having sex until all the toys were put away,’ my client Christina reluctantly admits. ‘And then there are the dishes, the laundry, the bills, the dog…  The list never ends. The chores always seem to win out, and getting intimate with Adam gets lost in the shuffle. If someone were to ask me, “What would you rather do – wash the laundry, or make love to your husband?” then of course I’d pick making love.

But in real life? I push Adam away.’ With a five-year-old and a two-year-old, she feels like she’s on mother duty 24/7. ‘If I have any time left, I want it for myself,’ Christina adds. And when her husband approaches her, it feels like one more person wanting something. ‘I know that’s not his intention,’ she says, ‘but it’s how I feel, I don’t have anything left to give.’ When I ask her if she misses the connection with her husband, she shrugs. ‘Not really. I keep thinking that it will come back, but I can’t say I miss it.’

Christina is a woman who’s so constantly involved in being a mother and caring for others that when  her husband  initiates sex, she confuses offer and demand. She fails to see his advances as an invitation and responds as if it is one more obligation. Instead of seeing a man, she reacts to him as if he is one more child who needs something from her. ‘I already have two children, I don’t need a third.’

When I work with women like Christina, I address their feelings of resentment, help them learn to ask for help, stop and notice how they are over-functioning. They often end up doing so much and feel like they have no choice. We talk about how they can give themselves permission to stop even when all the Lego pieces are not neatly put back in the box. I help them learn to stop and take care of themselves. We address their lost sense of ownership over their sexuality and sensuality and try to help them reconnect with who they are sensually, what they like sexually, and with their own sense of pleasure. I help them to understand that their husbands (usually) are ‘using’ sex as a path to feeling emotionally connected – not just ‘using’ their wives’ bodies to get their own pleasure. But here’s the snag. In the course of reclaiming themselves, they often have to learn to take care of themselves by saying ‘no’. They have to learn that they really can be their own separate person and that they won’t want to say yes until they allow themselves to say no.

Be in control

I like the idea of the ‘sex date’ to help couples break the habit of avoiding or simply not making time and space for intimacy, and to help them bring intentionality to connecting emotionally and physically. Because of the resentment cycle, mothers like Christina have almost always built a pattern of aversion to or avoidance of sex, and they need help with breaking that cycle.

‘Sex dates’, with the woman in charge, can give her a sense of control over the situation. It puts a break to the repeated dance where the man wants sex and her only sexual independence is to say no. Of course, this will only work as long as it gives her a real sense of control and doesn’t trigger the feeling of duty and responsibility, and again block her contact with her own sexual drive.

The suggestion I make to Christina and Adam is that he is not to initiate sex, only she can. And Christina needs to ask for exactly what she wants: cuddling, sharing a bottle of wine, a foot massage, a simple kiss. The smallest touches are fine.

Adam’s task is to step back, appreciate her gestures and not to put any pressure on her to go further. This is very important as Christina will often resist any contact for fear that this will lead to unwanted sex. Any time is fine; in fact, it’s better to avoid the night when all she wants is to be left alone. Instead of insisting, Adam can help her with ‘home and children’, monitor his frustrations and be kind. He can show he cares in multiple ways that don’t need to be rewarded with sex. It doesn’t directly connect Christina to her erotic self, nor make her interested in sex, but it goes a long way to reduce the resentment and the avoidance.

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Photograph: Christopher Lane

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