Just how important is sex to the life of a marriage?
It’s important enough to drive a variety of industries, ranging from pharmaceuticals to lingerie to self-help books and erotic fiction (all 50 shades, to be exact).
However, even with commercials ranging from the soapy (the self-deconstructing suburban homes and beachfront twin bathtubs of Cialis) to the ultra macho (Viagra’s vintage cars and motorcycles), most adults recognize it takes more than a pill to remedy “bed and bored” syndrome. Emotional intimacy and remembering how and why you fell in love with your spouse provide a canvas on which to apply the spice of life.
While all hallways lead to the bedroom (and other pleasure centers of the home, depending what you are into), intimacy and marriage experts also note that outside activities can place couples on the fast track to greater intimacy and a richer romantic life, especially for those post-age 55.
Marcy Druker and Sheara Cohn, the second- and third-generation operators of the area’s Mi-Lady Bra Boutique in Jenkintown (www.mi-ladycorset.com ), have helped countless couples find relationship nirvana the old-fashioned way via sexy lingerie that is supple enough for a man though made for a woman. While the store has focused on helping customers attain the perfect fitting underwear since 1943, Druker took Mi-Lady a step further in 1972 during the height of the sexual revolution by dedicating half of their Philadelphia store to the art of seduction.
“People who come here see us because they are committed to spicing up their sexual lives,” stated Druker. “When couples buy things connected to their sexual experience that fits properly, a simple look, word or color can bring back a romantic thought or feeling. This, in turn, is something they can carry over into their day, everywhere they go.”
From a man’s standpoint, she added, “it is exciting to see your partner getting dressed in the morning, and when you notice she has on under her clothes a really gorgeous bra and panty set, or a corset and garters, you realize that’s what you will be coming home to later on.
“You are going to look forward to that all day.”
“Sexy lingerie can work wonders in a variety of ways,” added daughter Sheara. “First, if a woman feels beautiful and sexy in the underwear she has on, it will transform her frame of mind and bring out a confidence that the husband’s going to notice. Confidence alone can be sexy, and if you feel great on the inside, that’s going to radiate out into your love life as well as other parts of your life. Your husband or partner will love the fact that you feel great about yourself.”
While Druker noted that some straight male customers have shaken things up in the boudoir by their being fitted for women’s lingerie, some experts noted that other areas of their lives need further exploration to keep married life both exciting and balanced.
Clinical psychologist Lana Liberto has participated (as speaker) in several sexuality programs organized by Doylestown Hospital and noted that intimacy issues will differ between couples in their 30s and 40s with young children around and older couples who are empty nesters. However, what her private client couples and program attendees have in common are issues that can be improved without reliance on a prescription pill.
"The first issue with regard to intimacy is the quality of the relationship,” Liberto stressed. “If you have a lousy relationship, you will have a lousy sex life. Emotional intimacy is what is expressed and achieved if the sex is good.”
Talk is not cheap: “Talking is also underrated when it comes to sex. People who have good sexual relationships talk about it with their partners, and succeed because they effectively communicate with each other.
“You also need a sense of humor. The more you can laugh at yourself, the better sex will be. Sex can be funny as well as fun as you allow yourself to see what’s going on and pay attention.”
An exercise Liberto assigns to her clients is planning a “surprise date.” While many couples have planned date nights, the surprise date can potentially deepen intimacy because it involves one partner creating an experience based on the other’s interests, needs and passions. The other partner is not aware that a surprise date is being planned, and what bolsters the intimacy is that the person creating the date really needs to tune in to the other person. She added that couples can switch who will plan the date (or intimate evening at home) every month.
As an author, lecturer and owner of a woman-friendly intimacy shop, Philadelphia “sexologist” Jill McDevitt said her business is meant to not only help women and couples outfit their homes for greater intimacy, but also provide guidance on how to maximize the outcome. She speaks from experience on many levels, given her B.A. in sexuality, marriage, and family; her M.Ed. in human sexuality; and her Ph.D. in human sexuality education.
In 2012, one hot-button topic that was omnipresent in McDevitt’s practice was the buzz created by the 50 Shades of Grey novels. While sex toys and props featured in the books’ scenarios flew off the shelves at McDevitt’s West Chester boutique, Feminique, she became very concerned that some women clients needed to be set straight on their sexual goals.
“I was astounded to find women writing that they wanted a partner like (50 Shades) Christian Grey on my blog,” she said. “As a responsible sexologist, I found myself doing all kinds of damage control to educate people on the difference between consensual and safe role play versus somebody like Christian who is controlling and potentially abusive. It makes me crazy when I hear about how misinformed some women are on how actual relationships work.”
With male clients, meanwhile, she said it takes a lot more than Viagra to remedy most intimacy issues. “Viagra is a quick fix for some men who do not want to take the time and patience to achieve intimacy,” she observed. “Fear of failure can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and can be made worse because of stress or alcohol usage.”
When there is fear, she added, “there is panic, embarrassment and disappointment that in the next sexual encounter they will get so worked up that the problem is bound to surface again.”
McDevitt advised that a man should tell himself that he will go into a sexual encounter with the intention of pleasing his partner through other activities such as kissing, caressing and having fun. With orgasm and erection not being the focal point, satisfaction will be more attainable because he’s not thinking about it. Furthermore, she said it creates a positive self-fulfilling prophecy of, “yes I can, and now I will.”
“When you are orgasm oriented and quickly run through the other parts of sexuality that are so important, such as kissing and caressing, you forget why you are doing it in the first place — to feel closer and learn new things about your partner, about what they like and fantasize about.”
Virginia-based author and sexuality counselor Eric Marlowe Garrison (www.ericmgarrison.com ), a frequent lecturer in Philadelphia with several local clients, is quite experienced. He noted that the medical establishment only recently started to understand how physical and mental health are connected, and where sex fits into the equation.
“A lot of people in general are working to build their stamina and spend more quality time with their spouse or partner,” he said. “Because of that, your body needs to be in good physical shape — not just your muscles but also your heart and lungs.”
He noted that “from a health perspective, meanwhile, you need to care for both your physical heart and emotional heart. With intimacy comes the release of oxytocin and other hormones, and that’s where the bonding between people comes in.”
While many work outs undeniably improve the appearance of the body, Garrison is big on tango lessons. While this form of dancing burns calories, it also helps couples sharpen other skills. The tango boosts intimacy “first through the act of dancing close to one another,” Garrison said. “From a physical standpoint, it is a very safe thing to do because it can be done in public, and is a skill that can be useful in other areas of your life. However, it also teaches rhythm and provides insight into how different bodies can adapt and move together. This is important, as rhythm can be an issue with couples, especially if the partners are of different heights, ages, abilities or weights.
“If they don’t mesh physically, the tango can help them optimize the physical contact between the two of them. It also allows a person to get into that mindset where the mind, and not necessarily the body, will take over.”
An important point about sex many people overlook is that it involves all five senses. Garrison mentioned that if one sense is impaired, such as hearing or sight, he will work with clients to help sharpen the others. That said, he encourages couples to engage in activities like tango dance classes that incorporate sensory aspects as well as the shared experience, as the more things a couple can do that are shared, he maintains, the more likely they will be able to feel closer. “Another activity couples can try is a visit to a local chocolate shop or wine shop for a tasting,” Garrison continued. This involves sharing and exchanging ideas about the sensual experience inherent in these foods.
He also recommended traveling. While there are vacation packages on the market with a specific focus on sex, he again emphasized that the trip should be planned to focus on shared experiences and the senses, as well as a change of scenery.
Some couples may also use a vacation as an opportunity to find creative ways to get out of their comfort zone, like sky diving or other adventure activities. The intention is for couples to shed their tightly held beliefs that they only do the same-old, same-old all the time.
Though New Yorker Lorne Caplan’s first career was biotech investment banking, and he later ventured into the eco-spa business, he ultimately found his fortune through improving customers’ romantic fortunes via the Couples Company (couplescompany.com). Though these tastefully designed websites proffer sex toys and “specialized” vacation packages, Caplan said his professional raison d’être originates from quantifiable scientific research.
“Feelings that are brought about by sex, romance and intimacy are the very things that can save a marriage, but to achieve this, it takes effort, and some people may not initially be willing to make that effort,” said Caplan. “People may joke about losing their mojo, but it is something that really happens as you get older.
“Hormones produced by our bodies that keep us sprightly and young during intimacy start dropping off significantly when women hit about 37, and men about 10 years later. As the levels drop off, so does our interest in our partners. Also, our fat composition increases so we have less energy.”
Caplan said his findings stem not only from personal experience and professional discussions with alternative therapy practitioners, but also a massive amount of research by various universities and medical institutions that show the increased excretion of specific hormones can lead to improving individual health as well as the health of a marriage.
“The pharmaceutical juggernaut is a tough thing to compete against,” Caplan admitted. “They have blocked messages about natural therapies — even for something as simple and accessible as ginseng, which improves metabolism and level of energy. My theory is that the pharmaceutical companies don’t want something natural they will not be able to patent competing with their developed drug.”
Though less publicized, there are items on the market available by prescription and over-the-counter directed at women, and while Caplan acknowledged these can help, the complications of women’s lives revolving around children, career and other issues in the marriage can hamper their ability to have an orgasm.
A simple way to start addressing the issue from the man’s end is to get to know your partner all over again, not just registering her passions and personal interests, but engaging her by acknowledging them. “Intimacy is not about having sex, it is about being close with each other and sharing each other’s physicality and mentality,” advised Caplan. “Women love to be listened to and know their men care about them.
“If men unselfishly engage a woman, it becomes another level of intimacy that will increase the potential for a better love life. Pick a topic, take her to a movie you know she’s interested in. That alone will get her interested and excited.”
Beyond his site’s offerings, Caplan recommended couples engage in cooking to stir up a little passion.
“This is why celebrity chefs have become sex symbols in their own right in our culture,” he mused. “They are promoting food porn, and it is called food porn for a reason. If you take certain herbs like fresh-cut basil and put it up to your nose and your partner’s nose, you both will immediately feel more amorous.”
Charlie Glickman, who holds a doctorate and serves as the program manager/staff sexologist of San Francisco-based Good Vibrations (www.goodvibes.com ), believes that there would be far fewer Viagra prescriptions written if people would take seriously the “lifestyle” sexual health factors from which no pharmaceutical company reaps any royalties. He advocated regular exercise, even light dancing or walking, which improves pelvic blood flow and heart health, increases bio-available testosterone in men, and can aid both parties in feeling more vital and “in the body.”
Glickman said that for a lot of people, sex (especially orgasm) can deepen bonding and connection, and that depth can be attained when couples make the efforts to retrain their bodies and their minds, as well as deepen the conversation about intimacy. While an orgasm produces the desired physiological effects that bonded you together to begin with, he said, the journey to get there can also build much-needed intimacy.
“A lot of long-term couples get stuck in routines, both sexual and otherwise,” concluded Glickman. “That’s especially true if they’re continuing to have sex in the same ways that they did 20 years ago.
“But our bodies change and our tastes change, so just as our food likes and dislikes can shift over time, our sexual preferences can grow.”
Elyse Glickman is a writer with an expertise in health and travel issues. This article originally apppeared in the special section, "The Good Life."