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How to restore your ‘sexual confidence’

In her new book, "The Sexually Confident Wife", author Shannon Ethridge shares ways to help women stay connected, emotionally and physically, with their husbands. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

Every woman deserves to enjoy great sex with her husband. However, issues such as body inhibition, shame or fear from past sexual abuse, guilt over past intimate relationships or lack of knowledge about male and female sexuality often hold women back from discovering unconditional sexual fulfillment. In her new book, "The Sexually Confident Wife", author Shannon Ethridge shares ways to help women stay connected, emotionally and physically, with their husbands. An excerpt.

Chapter one: Where did our confidence go?At one time, I was perhaps one of the most sexually confident women on the planet. I loved my body. I was willing to share it freely. I enjoyed sex.

What changed? I got married. And it took me longer than a decade (along with months of counseling) to return to the place where I loved my body, shared it freely, and enjoyed sex once again.

Some of you know what I’m talking about. As single women, sex was often a game that we liked to play, and some of us were very skilled at it. I’ve got it. You want it. But the price of admission into my private playground is a big dose of attention and affection. Make me feel really good about myself, and I’ll make you feel really good in exchange. But now that we’re sleeping next to the same man night after night, month after month, year after year, the challenge has worn off. The payoff is no longer clear. Hubby isn’t wooing and pursuing us like he used to, so our motivation wanes. Sex feels more like an obligation than a mutual thrill.

And maybe that mental list of previous sexual partners has begun to haunt you. You calculate all of the sexual favors you paid out in hopes of earning emotional interest, but now you feel sexually bankrupt. How could I have just given my body away like that? And how could my husband possibly love me and want to be with me after all I’ve done? you may wonder.

Or perhaps you weren’t skilled at all when you came into marriage. You assumed your husband was going to teach you everything you needed to know about sex, or that you’d figure it out together. Now that he’s so masterfully taught you that the round peg goes in the round hole for approximately 2.8 minutes, you’re left wondering, Is this all there is? Disappointed and disillusioned, you’ve come to see sex as something you’re expected to just dish out like a scoop of ice cream whenever he gets hungry, which makes you want to close the ice cream shop altogether most days.

Or maybe your sexual confidence has been robbed because while you’ve been dishing it out, he’s been salivating over other flavors. You notice him glance up and down another woman’s body as she walks by. You know where he keeps his pornography stash. You’ve gone to his most recent websites to see what he’s been looking at on his laptop. You catch him masturbating alone, most likely fantasizing about any woman except you.

Perhaps you, like millions of other ladies, have lost your sexual confidence as a result of past sexual abuse. Rather than associating sex with passion and pleasure, you’ve associated it with pain and degradation. You know in your head that it’s not your husband’s fault that you were abused, but you’ve insulated yourself from further pain with walls of anger, resentment, and fear of intimacy. You can’t imagine how you’ll ever get over what’s been done to you in the past.

Maybe you simply do not feel beautiful, especially when you compare your postpartum body (complete with stretch-marked hips, flabby tummy, and saggy boobs) to the airbrushed magazine models. Excess food becomes your drug of choice to medicate your emotional pain. Your husband asks why you’re eating turtle cheesecake if you already feel fat. You inhale a second piece just to spite him, and think, No sex for you again tonight, pal!

Or perhaps children clinging to your ankles all day prevent you from mustering enough energy to enjoy sex much anymore. Your idea of a blissfully indulgent evening is ordering takeout, throwing the paper plates away after dinner, and heading straight for bed at eight p.m. without having to tuck anyone in or take care of anyone else’s needs.

Oh, the many issues that we let rob us of our sexual confidence! No wonder more and more married people are claiming to be sexually frustrated. No wonder there are so many sexless marriages today. In 2005, Family Circle magazine published the results of a national survey in which they asked married women to reveal their innermost desires, needs, regrets, and joys. Consider these results and what they say about the quality of couples’ relationships:

  • Only 8 percent of married women consider their sex life “very hot.”
  • 21 percent call their sex life “routine and boring.”
  • 21 percent of respondents asked, “What sex life?”

Sound familiar? Maybe you’ve been thinking you were alone in your struggle to discover sexual fulfillment. Think again ...

Chapter two: Getting on the right track
Extra space was hard to come by in my first apartment. My couch, coffee table, and television ate up almost every square inch of my combination living room/kitchenette, and my bedroom was filled wall-to-wall with a queen- size bed, dresser, and two nightstands. With some determination, however, I managed to squeeze a treadmill into the corner of my bedroom near the closet door.

As I came home from work each day, eager to shuck my business suit and panty hose, my treadmill became less and less of a workout machine and more and more of a clothesline. Although my clothes remained relatively clean and wrinkle- free dangling from the handrails, my body remained relatively weak and flabby. I’d have been much better off taking the extra five seconds to hang the clothes in the closet, then using the treadmill for a good workout.

Any time we use something for a purpose other than which it was created, we don’t get the maximum benefits. I could use my car to store numerous boxes to keep them safe from the weather, but then I’d have no transportation for my family. I could use my laptop as a snack tray, but then I’d never write another book or send another e-mail. It’s only by using things according to the purpose for which they were created that we get the most benefit from them.

Our sexuality is very much the same way. We can use sex for a wide variety of reasons. We can manipulate and control our husbands, giving sexual favors as a reward for good behavior or withholding sex as a punishment for bad behavior. We’re able to appease our partners, giving in to an occasional quickie just to get his paws off us for a while. Or we can frustrate our husbands, creating expectations in our minds that he can never live up to. But none of these fulfill the purpose of sexual intimacy (although many women are using sex for these very reasons).

Of course, the sexual revolution of the 1960s and seventies taught us that sex was simply about feeling good. “If it feels good, do it!” the bumper stickers read. So many of us did it, and it felt good for a while, but the good feelings didn’t last. Younger women are beginning to echo the same sentiment. Many Generation Xers and Yers have found that “hooking up” and having “friends with benefits” hasn’t prepared them for a lifetime of marital bliss as much as a lifetime of marital stress. Could all of these sexual freedoms that women now enjoy actually be stunting our growth into mature, sexually confident women? I believe so. We’ve become so confused about the real purpose of sexuality that we’re wandering way off track rather than pursuing genuine intimacy and relational fulfillment. For example,

Today we have sex toys and vibrators of every size, shape, and color, but do we understand that sex isn’t just a game we play to achieve orgasm? Do we understand our most basic needs as sexual beings? Do we know how to get those needs met? We have female condoms, morning-after pills, and all sorts of birth control options, but do we have control over our own sexual identity? Do we know what we really want in order to feel intimately connected to another human being?We have pornography at the click of a mouse, steamy love stories on HBO, and wild romance novels on our bookshelves, but are we passionate about our own marriage relationship? Do we know how to keep the home fires burning?

If you aren’t sure how to answer these questions, perhaps you need to get on the right track toward sexual fulfillment and discover (or rediscover) the three purposes (or three Ps) of sexuality:

1. Procreation

2. Pleasure

3. Pair- bonding.

The three Ps of purposeful sexuality
Most of us are well aware of the procreation aspect. Those beautiful babies women give birth to? They are created through the act of sex. Hopefully that’s no news flash to you, so we won’t spend much time on this aspect. The upside of using sex for procreation is that we are able to produce sweet little bundles of joy that closely resemble two unique gene pools and are a constant reminder of our blissful (or once blissful) marital union. Children give us great cause for celebration, and more Kodak moments than we could ever completely capture in the thickest of Creative Memories scrapbooks. The downside, however, is that it can take only one sexual encounter to produce a child. If procreation is the only reason a wife engages in sex, she’s going to have one sex-starved relationship.

Which leads us to the next purpose of sexual intimacy: to provide pleasure. Hopefully you’ve experienced it — that erotic feeling of abandoning all inhibitions and just going with the sexual flow. That supernatural, euphoric feeling of slowly ascending to the highest peak of physical pleasure. That wave of complete satisfaction that suddenly washes over you — a wave that is absolutely impossible to verbalize, regardless of how creative your vocabulary may be. And the overwhelming joy of witnessing your partner’s eyes roll back in his head and the guttural sounds emitting from his mouth, indicating that he’s going over the top, and it’s you who is ushering him there. Of all the physical pleasures known to man and woman, none compares with sexual arousal and climax.

However, I believe there is something that sexual intimacy can provide that is even more precious and coveted by women than pretty babies and great orgasms. What might that be? Listen as these women try to explain their deepest desire.

  • “My husband wants to look at my body, but what I really want him to see is
  • “I don’t care about intercourse. I care about intimacy. If I had to choose between a roll in the sheets or a stroll in the park, I’d pick the park every time.”
  • “I don’t want an all-night sexual marathon, just one hour of his attention and affection.”

I’m tempted to send these comments to spammers that send out stupid e-mails like Take Viagra — she’ll love you for it! … Ejaculate like a porn star! … Add three inches overnight! … Fill her mouth completely! Doesn’t anyone get it? A woman isn’t as interested in having her tonsils tickled as having her soul touched. Her innermost need is for an emotional and spiritual bond with another human being — a need called “ pair- bonding,” which is actually the third purpose of sexuality. Every healthy woman longs to feel intimately connected — mind, body, heart, and soul — with her mate.

But for all those women who want the emotional connection instead of the physical connection, I have a revolutionary news flash:There is scientific evidence that proves you’d be spinning your wheelsto try to get one without the other.

Creating sexual balance
The secret to having the marriage of your dreams is understanding the need for “sexual balance” in the relationship. To help you understand this concept, let’s look at what I call the Seesaw of Sexuality. Our sexuality has four unique components: the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.

Keeping these components of our sexual relationship in balance is an art form and the goal of the sexually confident wife. If things get out of balance one way or another, either the husband or the wife can feel cheated and used. She can feel like nothing more than a piece of meat because he’s getting his physical needs met while she starves emotionally. Or he feels like her little lapdog: she’s getting lots of his time and attention, but he gets nothing more than a pat on the head to meet his physical needs.

A sexually confident wife not only will be able to maintain a balance between his needs and her needs, but will also recognize how they all work together to create synergy in the relationship. It’s no longer about keeping score or who’s getting his or her own way. It’s about how the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual are all combining to form a magical elixir that keeps them both intoxicated with passion for each other.

Understanding our sexual layers
When it comes to marital intimacy for a woman, these four components of sexuality can best be prioritized by visualizing them as multiple layers found beneath the earth’s surface, with the physical dimension being the most superficial and the spiritual dimension being the deepest, most fulfilling level of connection.

Again, for a woman, the most superficial of sexual connections is the physical. Don’t get me wrong. Sex feels great. But anyone can touch our bodies, and many men seem eager to do so. A mental connection is somewhat more fulfilling, as he sparks our imagination and stimulates us intellectually with deep conversations. An emotional connection is even better, as our heart is stirred and drawn in his direction because of his obvious care and compassion for us. But a spiritual connection is the ultimate sexual experience!

When our husband takes the time to look past the externals of what we look like, to look beyond what we can do for him, and to recognize who we are as a beautiful person created in the image of God, that is when we feel valued and cherished. The same is true in how a wife looks at a husband. He wants you to think he’s eye candy and he wants you to appreciate all that he does for you, but his greatest desire is for you to respect who he is in the core of his being. This type of pair- bond, coupled with a deep spiritual connection with the Creator of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality, creates indescribable euphoria in the depth of our soul. Even better than a mind- blowing orgasm is a mind- boggling soul-to-soul connection with another human being (which, serendipitously, most often leads to the best mind-blowing orgasms!). When we experience this kind of deep spiritual connection over and over within marriage, it fulfills us in a way that nothing and no one else possibly can.

However, just as we can’t get to the innermost layers of the earth without going through the surface, we can’t get to the innermost emotional and spiritual layers of our sexuality without first going through the physical and mental. In fact, there’s scientific evidence that humans need physical touch to feel fully connected to another human being. I call this scientific evidence “the big O!” — standing not for orgasm (which we’ll talk more about in Chapter 4) but rather for oxytocin.

The “Big O!” hormone
When we are tenderly touched by another human being, a wonderful hormone called oxytocin is released. Then what happens? We feel good about the person who touched us and we crave even more touch from the same person. It creates a powerful, relationship-building upward spiral. The more we’re touched, the more we want to be touched, and the more touching going on, the more oxytocin is being produced. It’s like a powerful magnet drawing us together with greater and greater force.

Oxytocin is exponentially more effective when coupled with estrogen (which women produce far more of than men), which explains why women form such a deep emotional bond with their sex partners and have a more difficult time “letting go and moving on” than men do when a relationship crumbles. This also explains why women place far more weight on the “emotional/spiritual” side of sexuality than on the “physical/mental” side. We simply fail to recognize that it’s the “physical” side that results in such a strong emotional connection in the first place.

Oxytocin can be triggered by emotional cues such as the glance of a lover or the sound of a loved one’s voice. These cues can create stars in our eyes, fireworks in our mind, and swarms of butterflies in our stomach. This hormone increases testosterone production in both men and women, which sends our sex drive into high gear, and oxytocin levels skyrocket to the highest levels when women experience orgasm. As our nipples and genitals are stimulated, even more oxytocin is produced, which creates an overwhelming desire for sexual intercourse and orgasmic response, which creates more oxytocin, and so on, and so on. If you want to reignite the flame of marital passion, oxytocin is just the fuel you need.

So the next time you feel as if you’re hitting a sexual wall and you can’t imagine “giving in” to his sexual advances, simply determine to climb over that wall instead. You may very well experience what many other sexually confident wives experience on the other side of that wall — absolute euphoria.

Also be aware that oxytocin production (or the lack thereof) can work against your sex drive. If this hormone isn’t being released in your system regularly, you may feel an overwhelming temptation to withdraw emotionally and physically, creating a downward spiral in the relationship. Perhaps you or your husband is not satisfied with how often you experience “the big O” (orgasm) or how often you desire to engage in any sort of sexual activity, but the real culprit may be that you don’t get enough of the “big O!” hormone (oxytocin). If a woman isn’t touched regularly enough outside the bedroom, she may find that she is violently opposed to being touched inside the bedroom. A vicious cycle is created, as she is no longer open to the very touch she needs. The remedy for not feeling like you want to touch or be touched by your husband, therefore, is to touch anyway. Go through the actions, and your feelings quickly catch up. Oxytocin production ensures this will be the case.

I would never be so cold as to say to a woman struggling with her sexuality, “Get over it, and get naked!” But I’ll let you do the math. One naked, oxytocin-producing man plus one naked, oxytocin-producing woman equals one intimately connected couple. If you need a second opinion, here’s what Paul and Lori Byerly (authors of The Generous Husband and The Generous Wife) have to say:

The fact that sex increases oxytocin levels can be helpful for women who complain they “never feel like sex.” Having sex, even when you don’t have a drive to do so, will actually affect you in ways that will result in a greater sex drive. This also explains, at least in part, why many women fi nd that the more sex they have, the more they want, and the less sex they have, the less they want.

Many women mistakenly assume that they only need sex when they are horny. But a woman’s horny radar often reads “Zero-Zip-Zilch-Nada.” However, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t need to feel pair-bonded with her husband. In our house, we have numerous kinds of sex rather than just “I’m horny” sex. We have make-up sex to bring closure to disagreements, celebration sex to share joy over an accomplishment, comfort sex when our skies are feeling a little gray, connection sex whenever one of us is about to leave town, and so on.

Maybe you are thinking, But I’m too stressed out to have sex. Good news! Oxytocin also serves as a stress reducer. Even just holding hands, playing footsie, or giving/getting a massage releases oxytocin into your system, creating a sense of attachment and the desire to cuddle up close. Not only that, but studies involving both celibate women and sexually active women reveal that oxytocin production (through regular orgasmic experiences) can also help prevent cancer, so sex doesn’t just feel good — it’s also good for your health!

So when you experience even an inkling of those warm, fuzzy feelings, don’t pull away or busy yourself with something else. There’s nothing more important than feeling this special connection with your special guy. In doing so, you are fulfilling the main purpose of our sexuality — to strongly pair-bond us.

Getting sticky again
I wish I had known what a powerful glue oxytocin is much earlier in life. It could have helped me connect more intimately with my husband much earlier in our marriage. It also could have helped prevent me from “pair-bonding” so deeply with many other men beforehand. Little did I know that sexual intimacy is like a clear strip of sticky packing tape, bonding us tightly to each other. When that bond is broken, we lose physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual fragments of our being to that person. We are stuck with similar fragments of the other person, creating “baggage” we carry around internally until we manage to sever those soul ties (which we’ll talk about in Chapter 5). It becomes harder and harder to stay connected with another human being because we are so accustomed to breaking that bond over and over such that our “tape” is no longer sticky.

But becoming a sexually confident wife is all about restoring the stickiness of your tape. It’s about learning to connect intimately with your husband, not just physically but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually as well. It’s about getting on the right track toward genuine intimacy and fulfi llment, and rediscovering the true purpose of sexuality — to create a powerful bond between husband and wife that fuels our deepest passions and satisfies our very souls.

Excerpted from "The Sexually Confident Wife". Copyright (c) 2008 by Shannon Ethridge. Reprinted with permission from Broadway Books.