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In the February issue of Prevention, Amy Spencer profiles couples desperately seeking a boost to their libidos. The couples were put in contact with educators, therapists and doctors from around the country who coached them on how to make practical improvements for a fun, thrilling charge to their sex lives. Rosemary Ellis, editorial director of Prevention, visited “Today” to discuss the article. Here's an excerpt:
Sex Drive Makeovers
Prevention sent four couples to the country’s top sex experts to recharge their libidos — in a week.
It’s a cliché that hot sex always cools down, especially in the marriage bed. Unfortunately, it’s often true. “Low sexual desire is the most common sexual complaint among couples, affecting 30 percent of American women,” says Laura Berman, PhD, founder of the Berman Center in Chicago, a clinic devoted to women’s sexual issues. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up on sex — or your libido. And for your health’s sake, you shouldn’t, because the health benefits of physical closeness are real (see “How Love Keeps You Healthy,” p. 164). So if you’re among the one-third of U.S. couples suffering from low sexual drive or desire — yours or his — read on. Prevention put the country’s top sex experts to the ultimate challenge: Help four cooled-off couples rekindle their sex lives — in a week. Did they succeed? Indeed. These couples are all reporting more action in the bedroom and working on greater intimacy. See what worked for them; then, do try this at home.
Cara Birrittieri, 46, and Jackson Smith, 37
Medfield, MA Married 7 years; 2 children, ages 1-1/2 and 6
The problem “We used to have a great sex life,” says Cara, a media consultant who married Jackson in 1999 and gave birth to their first child, a son, at the age of 41. But a year later, when they decided to try for their second child, infertility got in the way. Jackson’s job as the chief mate on an oil exploration ship meant he was away two weeks a month; he wanted to come home and make love when the mood hit him. “But romance was not my priority,” says Cara, who later wrote “What Every Woman Should Know About Fertility and Her Biological Clock.” And Jackson knew it. “Sex had become like a circus act,” he says, “and I was the dancing bear.” Says Cara: “He’d tell me sex felt like a job. Then I’d cry and tell him he didn’t love me.” The couple finally had a daughter, using a donated egg in 2004, but Jackson has never recovered from trying to perform on demand. “We’re emotionally distraught,” says Cara. “We really want our sex life back,” adds her husband.
Their “sexpert” Laura Berman, PhD, founder of the Berman Center.
Sex Rx “Cara and Jackson’s fertility struggles made sex a means to an end,” says Berman. “It became a source of frustration and argument.” Berman also diagnosed low testosterone in Cara. “She had all the signs: low genital sensation, difficulty responding sexually, and low libido.” She measured Cara’s hormone levels and suggested she try hormone therapy.
Meanwhile — though it may sound counterintuitive, given the couple’s history — Berman advised them to schedule sex. “Cara and Jackson have two kids and days that are jam-packed,” says the doc. “Time with each other is the first thing to go.” Once they’d made time, Berman recommended the “sensate focus” technique, which involves giving each other pleasure — without intercourse. “I wanted them to rediscover each other and get back in touch with their sensuality.”
Sex-cess “When Dr. Berman recommended scheduling sex, we were like, ‘Aargh!’ ” says Jackson. “We wanted sex to feel more spontaneous — not less.” Their compromise was to plan dates, not sex, but have the babysitter come at 5 pm. “We knew this way we’d get home early — with plenty of energy left over.”
They wanted to hear live music one night, but at the last minute, Jackson suggested dinner instead. “It had been so long since we’d had time to ourselves, it seemed a waste to spend it listening to music.” Having a long period to talk was a good start. “We unloaded about kids and work, which led to a real sense of togetherness,” says Cara. “That’s when those sexual thoughts rolled in,” says Jackson. “I remember thinking — then saying — I’d rather be home in the sack.”
As for the sensate focus technique: “We loved it!” says Cara. “We could enjoy each other more when we weren’t focused on the home run.” Adds Jackson, “It wasn’t ‘Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.’ It had the intimacy we’d lost.”
Cara still plans to try hormone therapy, but for now, she says she feels more aroused simply thinking about sex all the time. “I’ll look at him and know he’s thinking about it, too. It’s nice to share a secret like that again.”
Alyson Browett, 31, and John Ralph, 33
Purcellville, VA Married 3 years
The problem Although Alyson is attracted to John, he isn’t giving her the kind of attention that makes her desire him. “I feel like he just wants me for my body, and that doesn’t turn me on.” That’s part of the reason why, for the past two years, Alyson and John say they’ve been having sex only about once a month, compared with at least once per week for their first six years together. For example: “While we’re cooking dinner, he’ll come up behind me and grab my butt or my boobs. That’s when I’ll say, ‘I’ve asked you not to do this 150,000 times.’ I want him to kiss my neck, not grab me as if he’s a drunk guy in a bar,” says Alyson. Says John, “I don’t mean to make her crazy. I’m just thinking we’re having a great time in the kitchen and it would be nice to have sex later, but she pushes me away. That’s when I enter my frustrated mode.” The lack of frequency makes him grumpy and depressed. Alyson says: “If it’s been a while since we’ve had sex, little tiny things will set him off. We want to stay together and work on this, but we don’t know how.”
David Taylor, MD, and Lana Holstein, MD, authors of “Your Long Erotic Weekend” and married cofounders of the couples sexuality program at Miraval, Life in Balance, a resort in Catalina, AZ.
Sex Rx “The reason Alyson feels tired and uninterested in sex is that her husband isn’t ‘lighting her up,’ ” says Holstein. Adds Taylor, “She wants him to be more loving, and many men don’t understand that sex is not the same as affection.”
Holstein and Taylor’s first assignment was for John to reintroduce himself to Alyson by putting down the newspaper in the evening and talking to her about things she’s interested in, such as politics, art, or work. After that, he can show his desire — not by demanding sex, but in ways that she finds appealing, such as a genuine smile, a gentle kiss on the neck, or a caress on the arm. Once she starts getting attention from him that seems more focused on her whole self, not just her body, she’ll feel more energized and will open up to him sexually. Responding to Alyson’s “love drive,” says Holstein, will increase her sex drive.
Next, Taylor suggested they do some “soul gazing”; that is, face each other, hold hands, and look into each other’s eyes for a minute or two while they coordinate their breathing. “Holding a loving gaze with your partner creates a circuit of energy that flows from the head to the heart to the genitals,” says Taylor, who notes that studies have shown that energy can be passed from one person to another. “The trick is to visualize energy traveling into your heart on the inhalation, and into your partner’s heart on the exhalation.”
The final assignment for Alyson and John: pleasure swapping. One night, John would turn Alyson on without her reciprocating; the next night, Alyson would do the same for John. “This will allow her to get his full attention without the underlying ‘Now I have to do him’ pressure at the end of it,” says Holstein.
Sex-cess “At first, we found the soul-gazing really awkward and amusing,” says Alyson. “But then we’d be in a store together and John would look at me intently. It gave me the fluttery feeling in my stomach that I used to get when we were first dating.” The more they soul-gazed, the more aroused Alyson felt. Still, the couple was nervous about the pleasure exchange. “That day, I had first-date jitters,” she says. “I came home and John had lit candles and turned the alarm clocks around” — for good reason. “Alyson’s a clock-watcher,” says John. “I didn’t want her to think about that.” He succeeded. “He was supposed to pleasure me for an hour and bring me to orgasm. When we checked, it had been 2 hours!” When Alyson was due to treat John, she had a bad cold but chose to do it anyway. “Afterward, I felt like I wasn’t even sick. It made me think about and regret all the other times that I was too tired for John. It’s like going to the gym — even if you don’t want to do it at first, it energizes you.”
When Alyson and John went out later that week, it reminded John of when they first met. “We were flirting and kissing in public,” he says.
“I feel like I’m getting the attention from him that I’d been wanting so badly,” she adds. “It’s like we’re in a whole new relationship.”
Jan, 48, and Robert Jamison, 50
Carbondale, CO Married 7 years
The problem Although Jan and Robert have sex about once a week, that’s down about 80 percent. “We’re blessed to be having more sex than the average couple, but we used to do it six times a week, and we’re worried by how fast it’s gone downhill these last couple of years,” says Jan. “He’s the only man I’ve had multiple orgasms with, but we’re not as motivated as we were.” The reason: They’re completely focused on building their dream home. Living in a trailer while their home is built fuels a lot of extra aggravation. “We thought we’d be in here a year, and it’s been four,” says Jan. “We’re tripping over each other all the time. We complain more than we connect.” Jan feels that the division of housework also puts a damper on the relationship. “If I always have to do the dishes, then I’m not interested in messing around. I want him to do his share around the house.”
Their “sexpert” Michele Weiner Davis, a marriage counselor in Woodstock, IL, and author of “The Sex Starved Marriage.”
Sex Rx “Like so many couples, Jan and Robert have allowed the stress that comes with working hard and trying to keep up — or, in their case, build the ideal home — to come between them.” But rather than focusing on solving the household issues, Davis advised the pair to spend more time together out of the house, doing things they’ve always loved, like dining at restaurants, hiking, or taking a drive through the mountains. She says getting out together will put the house project in perspective. Once the bickering about the house stops, they’ll be able to open up sexually.
Next, Jan and Robert should recognize that, as they get older, they need to be more creative about wooing each other. “Luckily, they have a healthy sexual foundation and a zest for life,” Davis says. “Just getting them talking about what they used to do together can help trigger their desire.” She recommended they write down their top five nights of passion and share their lists.
Sex-cess Jan and Robert’s first try at Davis’s advice was a hit. “We haven’t had a real date in six months,” says Jan. “We usually go to a local restaurant, but we run into people we know and forget to talk to each other. That night, we dressed up and sat in the dining room — just us.” They had a blast sharing their top sex memories. “We talked about the time we had sex under the stairwell at the VA hospital,” says Jan. Adds Robert, “And when we borrowed your brother’s Suburban and pulled off the road, and that time in the hayloft at your family’s barn.” Did it work? “You bet,” says Jan. “This last week we had sex four times.” Jokes Robert, “And a half!”
And their rediscovered friendship has, in fact, lifted the stress at home. “The other day, I told Robert I’d appreciate it if he’d put the dishes away, and when I woke up the next morning, it was done,” says Jan. “Then he needed a hand, so I pitched in. A few hours later, he said, ‘Hey, honey ...’ and I decided, ‘Yeah, good idea,’ and we had sex.” As for the house project, they’re trying to look at it as another adventure — not a chore. In the meantime, they’ll continue to spend as much time outside as possible. “We plan to go skiing soon so we can go back into the pine trees and have sex,” says Robert. “Exercise leads to sexercise!”
Candy, 35, and Dean Vinovich, 48
Myrtle Beach, SC Married 10 years; 2 children, ages 10 and 12
For the past few years, Candy and Dean had been having sex once a month at most. Describing the quality, Dean says, “Distant. Both physically and communication-wise.” Why? “For the first five years, everything was fine,” says Candy. “But Dean lost his job and became very depressed.” Dean had a video gaming company with about 200 employees, but when the government changed a gambling regulation in 2000, he lost his entire business. “I was devastated,” says Dean. “It took me 15 years to build it, and six months to go back to zero. I felt like a failure. I had no interest in sex. I was too distracted thinking about how we were going to survive.” Dean eventually formed his current company, which does large-scale cleanups (like post-Katrina tree removal in Mississippi). But the couple’s sexual problems persist. Now, when the kids are asleep, Candy will initiate sex, “but Dean will say, ‘I’m not in the mood.’ And after a while, you just get burned enough times that you don’t touch the stove anymore. I feel rejected. Even though I love Dean and want to stay together, it would be hard to accept if the rest of my life is like this.”
The lack of sex is hard on both of them. “Depending on her mood, I either think she’s disappointed in me or that she feels sorry for me,” Dean says. Candy has her own fears: “I feel more sexual than ever. I want to be much more appealing to him, and I want to know what the problem is.”
Gerald R. Weeks, PhD, chair of the department of marriage, family, and community counseling at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a sex and marital therapist in Las Vegas.
Sex Rx Weeks thinks the biggest block in this couple’s path is dealing with the loss of Dean’s business because “depression kills desire.” Dean agrees. “It’s still an issue,” he says. “And I think it will continue to be until I can provide for my family like I used to.” Dean told Weeks that following his company loss, he took the antidepressant Effexor. “Many antidepressants tend to cause delayed orgasm or ejaculation in men, and also reduce desire,” says Weeks. Though Dean stopped seeing a psychiatrist and taking the antidepressant after a year of treatment, Weeks suggested that he consider consulting one again and inquire about the antidepressant Wellbutrin, which is less likely to cause sexual side effects.
Weeks also picked up on an issue the couple hadn’t considered but affects them daily: the stress of the household. “Dean’s perception is that Candy’s always nagging him about doing things around the house and helping with the kids,” says Weeks. “Although he sees her as physically attractive and wants to get close to her, her pestering is a turnoff.” The solution? “I suggested they write down a who’s-going-to-do-what-when list,” says Weeks. “He’s not happy being told what to do, and she’s not happy asking. If they create a system to eliminate that stress, they’ll be able to work on being closer.”
And working on that closeness is his last recommendation: “They need to start trying to be more affectionate with each other by kissing and hugging during the day, and by giving each other back rubs at night.” Weeks expects Candy and Dean might need to spend six months to a year rebuilding their intimacy, unlike the other couples, who responded more quickly because their issues were fairly straightforward. “The more factors there are, the longer it takes,” says Weeks.
Sex-cess “We had sex twice in the first week,” says Dean. One simple thing that’s made him more receptive is that Candy nags him less about chores (Dean prefers having the to-do list). They also followed Weeks’s instruction to have more physical contact. “This week we made sure to kiss each other hello and good-bye and to sit next to each other on the couch to be closer more often,” says Candy. Those small efforts helped them ease back into sex. They didn’t plan a big night for it, says Candy, “but it was like an unspoken understanding that first day that the hugging and touching was going to lead to more.” Says Dean, “Those things paved the way so it wasn’t awkward. And it was longer and more passionate than it had been. It made us realize how far we’d drifted apart.”
Though Dean and Candy admit they have a long road ahead, “I’m looking forward to practicing what Dr. Weeks taught us,” says Dean. “If I still need an antidepressant after that, I’ll consider it.” Candy also feels hopeful. “We’re already regaining some of that closeness we used to share. We’re breaking down the wall and seeing each other as friends again. Friends is good, but lovers is better. And I think that’s attainable.”
Remake your libido by tonight
Try as many of these tips as you like — the more, the merrier your lovemaking.
Take a walk at lunch In a study of women ages 45 to 55, sexual satisfaction correlated directly to fitness. “The less exercise they got, the lower their desire and sexual satisfaction,” says study author Judith R. Gerber, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. For Prevention’s specially designed libido-enhancing fitness routine, see p. 107.
Read something kinky
Erotic literature “can quickly jump-start arousal,” says Carol Queen, PhD, a sexologist who works at Good Vibrations, a woman-owned sex shop in San Francisco. She recommends the Herotica series, written by women, and “The Diary of Anais Nin.” “Perfect for anyone who’s not ready to get into bold four-letter words,” says Queen.
Flex your muscle
Flexing your pelvic floor muscles — the ones that stop the flow of urine — instantly increases desire and sexual sensation because you’re mimicking the contractions of orgasm, says sex educator Patti Britton, PhD. For more instruction, see “The (Private) Move You Need Daily,” p. 108.
Have a massage “The skin-on-skin contact stimulates the sex hormone oxytocin,” says Ian Kerner, PhD, author of “She Comes First.” “The more oxytocin released, the more desire a woman will feel.”
Slip into something sexy Putting on a pair of black stilettos or a sheer cami invigorates you sexually because it makes you feel more daring, says Kerner. “It stokes your sexual imagination so you can play a role, like a good girl letting her sexy side out.”
Steal his Viagra
Ask your doctor about taking one of those little blue pills. You may be ready to go in an hour, says Laura Berman, PhD, founder of the Berman Center. Why? It increases blood flow to the genital area — something women need for arousal just as much as men do. Though the FDA hasn’t approved the pill for women, doctors can prescribe it.
Take a shower — together
“Being clean makes you feel sexier and more open to receiving oral sex,” says Kerner. “And you’re also more likely to want to reciprocate with a clean partner as well.”
Buy a battery-operated buddy “Vibrators bring the circulatory system into play right away and can greatly speed up your arousal time,” says Queen, who adds that pleasuring yourself won’t curb your desire for your partner.
Use a lubricant “Clitoral touch feels better faster with lubrication,” says Queen. (Try Astroglide, $12, at drugstores.)
Applying a testosterone cream formulated for you (available by prescription) on your inner thigh will turn up your sex drive. Just be prepared: It can trigger unwanted hair growth. Be patient while researchers continue trying to get your sex drive up while keeping your hair growth down!
Amy Spencer has written about sex and relationships for Glamour and Maxim.
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Excerpted from “Sex Drive Makeovers: Prevention sent 4 couples to the country’s top sex experts to recharge their libidos — in a week,” by Amy Spencer. Copyright © 2006, Rodale Inc. All rights reserved. Published by . No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.