After telling my daughter, Sylvie, one more exciting tale of my youth—in which I play with a large, unsupervised gang of children in a vacant lot—I finally get her to sleep. Then I (quietly) clap my hands together. It is time for my Mom Party.
Your basic Mom Party lasts roughly an hour before the celebrant slumps forward in a dead sleep. It has a few general components. One is food, which should be either sugary or salty (or in the case of salted caramel brownies, both). Add any sort of calming beverage—a glass or three of wine, a mug of decaf tea. Garnish with your choice of mindless entertainment: blogs that obsessively compare moisturizers, a trashy reality-TV marathon.
Humming, I head for the kitchen, extract a bag of chips from the pantry, and take out the magazine I swiped from the gym on the “Worst Celebrity Beach Bodies.” That is the moment that my husband Tom picks to approach me and give me a back rub. There is no such thing as an agenda-free back rub. Weary from Sylvie’s bedtime ritual, I ask for a rain check and hurry off to bed, while Tom glumly wanders into the living room to play computer chess.
It is not the first night that this scenario has occurred. We have fallen into a pattern in which he tries to capitalize on a moment when we are finally alone, and I, after a long session of tending to a child, shut him down, viewing sex as just one more thing I have to do for someone.
While it can be tough to summon up the energy, Hilda Hutcherson, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University, says it’s critical to just do it. She lists the reasons why: Sex releases endorphins, the feel-good hormones with a similar structure to morphine, as well as oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” that promotes feelings of devotion and trust.
Tom and I, enmeshed in our fast-moving lives, will sometimes let weeks go by. And I find the usual advice doled out to be embarrassing, not to mention unrealistic. I don’t want to “send him a racy text that’s not safe for work!” If I did, Tom would quickly write back, “Hi, hon, your account was hacked.” Or: “Are you having a stroke?”
So I canvass friends for more realistic strategies. Then I do something more difficult: I bring up the subject with Tom.
“Have you noticed we don’t have sex very often?” I ask Tom.
He is reading a book. “I have,” he says.
“Would you like to have sex more often?” I ask. His eyes do not leave the page. “I would,” he says.
I press on, asking him if he’d like to try the challenge issued in Sexperiment: 7 Days to Lasting Intimacy with Your Spouse, by the Reverend Ed Young and his wife, Lisa ($3;amazon.com). Perhaps unsurprisingly, he is game. As it happens, having sex once a week is the ideal for maximum well-being, according to a study of over 30,000 adults. If people had more, their happiness actually leveled off.
The Sexperiment: Night 1
Couples therapist Esther Perel asserts that desire needs distance to thrive. She finds that people are most drawn to their partners when they are away—and then reunite. “This is rooted also in absence and in longing,” she says, “which is a major component of desire.” On the five days prior to our Sexperiment, Tom is away. I play music that reminds me of our early days together and look at my favorite picture of him. With the all-important distance, I am able to simulate a kind of mild crush, which lasts until his return. Aaand…action!
“You can’t force desire, but you can create an atmosphere where desire might unfurl,” says Perel. “I suggest that people consciously create an erotic space, a space to be, not to do, to enjoy each other, to cultivate pleasure—a space not where sex must happen, but certainly can happen.” That evening, Tom transforms into the Australian bowerbird, who attempts to lure females to his bachelor pad by creating a lavish courtship site, decorating it with colorful shells, berries, and leaves. When a female arrives, the bird does a touchingly elaborate leaping and posturing dance in hopes of sealing the deal.
Tom dims the lights, brandishes a bottle of scented oil, and offers to give me a massage —not the usual stilted, two-minute Husband Shoulder Scrunch, but a 20-minute rubdown. If something happens in our consciously created erotic space, great. If it doesn’t, he says, he is willing to walk away. He does not have to walk away.
Many women I know get tense when sex is attempted late. My friend Avery says, “I’m immediately doing time calculations, like, ‘It’s 11, we’ll finish up by 11:45. I won’t fall asleep for a while afterward, so I’m looking at midnight earliest. I have to be up at 6. So, no.”
I tell Tom I sometimes have similar thoughts, so he puts Sylvie to bed earlier. Voilà: a free half hour. Which is plenty, according to a Penn State survey of sex researchers, who agreed that after foreplay, the optimal stretch for intercourse is not a Tantric marathon but 7 to 13 minutes.
The stereotypically male definition of sex, says Perel, is that foreplay is the introduction to the “real” thing, but often, for women, it is the real thing. I try a technique recommended by a friend: Make out for 15 minutes, with no obligation to do anything further. Yes, it is the most obvious reverse psychology in the world, but more often than not, the slow buildup, emotional connection, rich concentration of nerve receptors in our lips, and aura of the suddenly forbidden result in action. As is the case with us.
Perel tells me that “probably the biggest turn-on across the board” is when people see their partners holding court at a party, or doing something they’re passionate about—anytime that they are presenting their best selves to the world. “They don’t need you, and hence you don’t have to take care of them, emotionally or psychologically.”
So that night, at a party, I don’t go near him all night, and instead watch other women flirt with him. I see him as others do: tall, handsome, fit. After the party: success.
Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, PhD, says that women are more aroused than men by words—and that there is an evolutionary basis for this. Men derive intimacy from doing things side by side. “For millions of years, to do their daily job, men sat behind a bush together to look out over the grasslands and see where the animals were,” says Fisher. “If they swiveled to talk to each other, they wouldn’t be able to do their job. So you’ll see two men on a Sunday watching a football game in absolute silence. That is intimacy to men.”
Women, by contrast, find intimacy in words. “For millions of years, words have been women’s tools,” she tells me. “Everywhere in the world, women spend much more time holding their baby, literally in front of their face, talking to it. And women, as a result, get intimacy from talking.”
I think of Fisher’s remarks as we repair to our bed. I ask Tom if we could just lie together while he gives me compliments. Tom is a bit rusty at first. “You’re…a great mother,” he says, awkwardly stroking my hair.
I sit up quickly. “You know what? That may not necessarily be the best way to, you know…”
He nods, embarrassed. “Right. Right.” But when he hits upon some praise that is slightly more romantic, I realize that sweet words are my gateway: The method that relaxes and unlocks you, takes you away, elicits a physical response. Everyone has one, or many, even if they’re long buried.
We keep up the action for 10 straight nights. Soon we revert to a “sweet spot” of once a week. Sometimes the sex is spontaneous, sometimes planned, but we’re always mindful that it’s critical to maintaining our connection.