Resurrecting Sex (2002) is a guidebook for couples struggling to connect intimately and emotionally due to sexual dysfunction. It offers a holistic approach to addressing these issues – and to exploring the erotic potential of your relationship.
An intimacy-based approach to resurrecting sex in your relationship.
Are the sexual issues in your relationship becoming too dire to ignore? If so, there’s some good news. Confronting sexual problems can be a catalyst for growth as a couple. It can also help you have the most intense sex of your lives!
Half of all people in the United States report sexual desire issues. That’s because sex isn’t just about sex. Even when there are underlying physical or medical causes to sexual problems, your emotional connection with your partner can make or break your sexual experience.
In these blinks, you’ll learn how to navigate the complicated emotional terrain of intimacy, lean into your partner’s touch, optimize your ability to give and receive stimulation – and offer your relationship a second chance at sex.
In these summary, you’ll learn
- how to move your relationship from a comfort-safety cycle to a growth cycle;
- why shared fantasies can bring you closer to your partner; and
- how anxiety interferes with orgasm.
A holistic, intimacy-based approach is the key to solving sexual problems.
If you’ve run into sexual difficulties in your relationship, you’re not alone. In fact, sexual problems in otherwise healthy relationships are so common that they’re a sign of normality. But just because it’s normal doesn’t mean you can’t do something about it.
Many of the author’s patients emerged from treatment and went on to have the most intense sex of their lives. And you can revolutionize sex in your relationship, too – if you’re ready to proceed with hope.
Keep in mind that the journey toward resurrecting sex may shatter some of your illusions about relationships. There’s no panacea for sexual dysfunction; it’s as complex as human beings are. To forge a deep sexual union and find true and meaningful peace within your relationship, you must be willing to be vulnerable and put your best foot forward.
The key message here is: A holistic, intimacy-based approach is the key to solving sexual problems.
The author’s approach is different from that of other well-known sex researchers, who tend to target sensation and individual pleasure. Instead, this method focuses on intimacy with your partner, based on a framework the author developed called the Quantum Model.
What makes the Quantum Model different? Well, it investigates the causes of sexual function rather than dysfunction. This may sound simple; in fact, it’s anything but. A myriad of factors compose human sexuality – from health and physical stimulation to desire and love.
Your body has two sexual response thresholds – one trigger point for initial sexual arousal via genital response, and another for orgasm. The three components of total stimulation are: receiving sensory stimulation, your body’s ability to respond, and your subjective emotions about what you’re feeling. If your total stimulation doesn’t reach – or drops below – your arousal or orgasm threshold, sexual dysfunction occurs. This is a totally normal feature of sexual functioning, not a sign that you’re defective.
Many people develop a sex routine that produces just enough total stimulation to bring them to orgasm. But this is a precarious position. If any small change is introduced into the three components of stimulation, you suddenly have sexual dysfunction. Instead, aim to explore your sexual potential and greatly exceed your thresholds. That way, your sexual relationship will be more resilient to minor changes in stimulation.
Our sexual experiences have been greatly affected by their emotional contexts ever since the evolution of the neocortex half a million years ago. That was the point at which humans began to sexually desire specific partners – and when meaning and intimacy became a part of sex.
Tackle sexual problems by disrupting your relationship’s comfort-safety cycle.
To the outside world, Peter and Judy had the ideal relationship. They got along well and never argued. But they had a secret: their sex life was practically nonexistent.
This wasn’t something new; even at the beginning of their relationship, sex had been a problem. Judy had arousal difficulties, and Peter didn’t try to encourage her – he preferred not to disrupt the peace.
Then, one day, after he and Judy hadn’t been intimate in months, Peter tried to initiate sex. Judy shook him off – and Peter surprised them both when, instead of retreating, he plainly stated the truth. He said, “I don’t know how much longer I can go on like this.” Instead of withdrawing, Judy acknowledged that they had a problem – and together, they discussed their options.
Here’s the key message: Tackle sexual problems by disrupting your relationship’s comfort-safety cycle.
Peter and Judy, like many partners in emotionally committed relationships, regulated their anxiety in two ways. One was through the comfort-safety cycle, in which partners use their relationship to feel valued, wanted, and safe. This manifested itself in their avoidance of conflict and tendency toward accommodation.
The other thing that soothed their anxiety was their reflected sense of self within the relationship. That meant they depended on each other to confirm their identities and assure themselves of their self-worth. Most people are dependent on their partners to make them feel good about themselves – but then they resent the control their partners have over their sense of self.
While these dynamics might have worked to stabilize Peter and Judy’s relationship, they weren’t conducive to long-term growth. Peter and Judy were confronted with a two-choice dilemma, which arises when we want two things at the same time but can have only one. Judy didn’t like having sex their normal way because she was never really aroused, but she was also wary of anything unfamiliar. Eventually, the pair hit emotional gridlock – meaning both partners arrived at a point at which accommodating one another didn’t reduce their respective anxieties.
Analyzing the state of your relationship is a necessary part of resolving sexual issues. That means tolerating anxiety in the short term and fostering a growth cycle – which is what Peter and Judy entered into after Peter finally spoke up. In this stage of a relationship, the anxiety-regulating dynamics are in flux, and both partners feel insecure. But it’s a necessary part of pursuing long-term relationship stability.
Rather than seeking emotional support from your partner, find validation by holding on to yourself.
For years, Judy depended on Peter to accept that she didn’t want to have sex; her reflected sense of self remained that of a loving wife. Peter depended on Judy’s support, so he usually held back from proposing anything that might upset her. If Peter made a sexual advance toward Judy, she’d dismiss him, saying, “All you ever think about is sex!” This challenged his sense of self-worth. He told himself that if he were patient, things would improve.
But the situation didn’t change. He could no longer ignore the fact that by giving in to Judy, he was compromising his own selfhood. That’s when Peter broke their emotional gridlock by holding on to himself. You hold on to yourself when you confront who you are and then do what you think is right – even if it’s uncomfortable or if you have doubts.
The key message is this: Rather than seeking emotional support from your partner, find validation by holding on to yourself.
As Peter realized, the best way to confront your partner is to confront yourself. This is the first aspect of holding on to yourself. If one person in a relationship expects accommodation, the other will feel the change in dynamic – and then you can work to build a collaborative alliance.
Indeed, Judy was taken aback by Peter’s new attitude, and it elicited a completely different response from her. A few days later, she initiated sex. She found that Peter’s display of integrity actually inspired more sexual excitement in her. While their sex wasn’t mind-blowing that night, it was better than it had been in a long time – and from there, they began to build a new sexual relationship.
Tolerating initial discomfort in the pursuit of relationship growth is the second aspect of holding on to yourself. The third is learning how to self-soothe. The more we need our partners to validate and calm us, the less likely it is that they’ll be able to do it – as they’ll be busy managing their own anxieties.
Finally, hold on to yourself by remaining nonreactive in the face of your partner’s anxiety or provocation. Regulating your emotions will help stabilize your relationship better than emotional exclusion or eruption, which prevent collaborative alliance. And when your intentions are coming from the best in you, doubt will help you take mindful, appropriate action – and you’ll learn from your mistakes.
Solve arousal issues by making a plan of action and opening yourself to your partner.
Vivian had been married for two years when her arousal problems started. Sex was suddenly incredibly painful – and her doctor couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Still, Vivian’s husband demanded intercourse, so Vivian suffered through the pain in an attempt to save her marriage. This caused her to develop a condition called vaginismus – when the muscles of the vagina squeeze or spasm tightly, preventing anything from entering it. Then her husband started having affairs.
They divorced, and later, Vivian finally received an accurate diagnosis: inflammation in the gland ducts of her labia. She underwent laser surgery to correct the pain, but the vaginismus persisted. When she started dating Armand, she nervously disclosed the truth about her condition. But Armand was happy to patiently work through the problem with her.
The key message here is: Solve arousal issues by making a plan of action and opening yourself to your partner.
Armand agreed to touch only the outside of Vivian’s genitals at the beginning. As he played with her pubic hair, she grew more aroused and released her anxiety. Later, when they approached intercourse for the first time, Armand had already earned Vivian’s trust. Vivian controlled Armand’s pace as he inserted his penis, and she was able to relax and stop anticipating pain. Eventually, her vagina stopped tightening, and she experienced real sexual pleasure.
To solve any arousal problem, you must first be active in identifying your problem and its causes. Besides pain or physical difficulty, there are two other categories of arousal problems: insufficient stimulation, and emotions or thoughts that impede enjoyment.
After you’ve identified the issue, develop and implement a treatment plan – and don’t limit yourself. While improving one dimension of your problem might be enough to raise your arousal threshold, you’re more likely to succeed if you approach the problem from multiple angles.
Get a medical checkup for peace of mind; many different treatment options are available for sexual pain, for instance. But keep in mind that even if you do get rid of pain, you may still experience pain sensitivity. This is a negative feedback loop of anticipating pain, which lingers even after the pain-causing conditions are gone. Vivian avoided this by developing an active coping strategy with the goal of building positive anticipation for sex with Armand.
Your issue may also be the quality of physical stimulation you’re giving or receiving. Keep in mind that optimizing stimulation isn’t just about rubbing harder or longer. When you are emotionally detached from your partner, you may tune out and feel awkward receiving that person’s touch. Connecting physically requires the willingness to connect with your partner emotionally.
Orgasm problems most often stem from anxiety.
By the time Jack and Brenda landed in the author’s office, Brenda was furious. It had taken her 20 years to muster the courage to ask Jack to seek help about his premature orgasm – and then it took him another 20 years to actually do it.
Jack apologized for his insensitivity but acted as though his orgasm problem wasn’t that big of a deal. The author then asked Brenda to put herself in Jack’s shoes – to imagine spending 40 years disappointing the person you love most, feeling too humiliated and ashamed to get help. He asked Jack if he’d described the experience accurately, and Jack confirmed.
Brenda was moved by Jack’s vulnerability. After their revelatory session, Jack felt calmer. He made intimate contact with Brenda that night – and he lasted longer.
Here’s the key message: Orgasm problems most often stem from anxiety.
Before you can solve your orgasm problem, you must first investigate its subtleties – and then you can customize your approach. Anxiety is the most common cause of orgasm interference, and it manifests in two ways. The first is that it can add to your stimulation – making you orgasm prematurely. Premature, or rapid, orgasm is the most common orgasm dysfunction for men.
Normally, Jack’s mind was riddled with anxiety during sex. In an effort to delay his orgasm, he refused foreplay, attempted to ignore the feeling of Brenda’s vagina, and resisted feelings of nervousness that compounded in a feedback loop of anxiety. Brenda’s anxiety also contributed to their problem, as the couple was emotionally fused – a state in which feelings flow between partners through their emotional connection.
Another way anxiety interferes with orgasm is by preventing you from reaching your orgasm threshold. People who’ve never had an orgasm are frequently young and middle-aged women whom therapists call “pre-orgasmic” because their probability of eventually achieving orgasm is so high – with some extra reassurance and information, and better stimulation.
Other people have intermittent difficulty due to partner-related anxiety, which manifests as feelings of inadequacy or causes them to fake orgasms to prop up their partners’ reflected sense of self. Some people are great at achieving orgasm through masturbation, but have stimulation-based anxiety during intercourse. This can happen if you have a high orgasm threshold, or because you have trouble creating an erotic mindset with your partner. Perhaps your highly erotic fantasies simply can’t be replicated with your partner present, or you use a stimulation method you’re embarrassed to share.
Your sexual functioning has a lot to do with what’s going on in your head.
When Cindy and Boyd had sex, Cindy didn’t enjoy herself much. She took a long time to orgasm, and Boyd’s hands or mouth would get tired. In order to orgasm faster, Cindy would have to break her emotional connection with Boyd and access a trigger fantasy.
On top of this, Cindy was keeping a secret. She didn’t think Boyd would approve of her erotic fantasies, so she retreated to the internet for sexual satisfaction – browsing porn sites and exchanging erotic messages with strangers.
One night, Boyd tried to spice things up by suggesting they share their masturbation fantasies. Cindy revealed that in hers, she was nude in a room full of wealthy older men, with whom she would have sex one at a time, in private. Boyd found the fantasy deeply disturbing, and he ended the conversation.
The key message is this: Your sexual functioning has a lot to do with what’s going on in your head.
But Cindy hadn’t shared everything. She’d been rightfully fearful of Boyd’s reaction, so she left out the part where she’d dance and masturbate in front of the men. She thought this was proof that she was really messed up.
Fantasies can enhance intimacy and total stimulation during sex. But what if, like Cindy, your fantasies seem to deepen the gulf between you and your partner?
Try analyzing and interrogating your inner fantasy world. One way you can do this is by talking to the people in your head. What do they know and think about you? How do you behave around them? When Cindy tried this, she discovered that the men were considerate. They knew her secret – she liked sex – and they applauded her for it. Cindy realized that her fantasies weren’t deranged; they were about intimacy and validation.
Meanwhile, Boyd worked through his fears of Cindy’s sexuality. Cindy’s desire for him increased, and their sexual connection improved. One night, she even danced and masturbated for Boyd. In awe, he watched Cindy bring herself to orgasm. She felt truly accepted.
With overly rapid orgasm, the mind is similarly out of sync with what’s happening in the moment. Although it might seem counterintuitive, the solution is to increase your tolerance for stimulation – not mitigate it. Your goal is to break the connection in your mind between reaching your orgasm threshold and feeling inadequate.
Start by opening yourself to your partner. Pay attention to what brings you to orgasm, and teach your partner the best way to stimulate you. You may reach orgasm more quickly in the short term, but eventually your tolerance will increase.
The success of any medical treatments for sexual problems ultimately depends on your relationship.
Today, there are many safe and effective treatments for sexual dysfunction. But many people turn to new medical technology in order to avoid confronting the underlying emotional problems in their relationships or within themselves.
As we’ve learned, resurrecting sex requires a multidimensional approach that takes a couple’s mental framework into account. No pill or device can remedy emotional problems. In fact, many people expecting a quick fix discover that pills and sex toys actually cause hidden problems to surface in their relationship.
There’s a common two-choice dilemma that emerges for many people after their partners seek treatment. They’ve long blamed their partners’ difficulties for the relationship’s lack of sex – but the truth is, they’re no longer sexually interested in their partners. And yet, they don’t want to break up.
The key message here is: The success of any medical treatments for sexual problems ultimately depends on your relationship.
If both partners are coming from the best in themselves, however, sexual devices like water-based personal lubricants, vibrators, and dildos can help couples relax and play during sex. Partners must be able to hold on to themselves and not let their self-worth be threatened by these things. For example, many women needlessly suffer through dry, painful sex; they fear that reaching for the lube bottle will damage their partners’ reflected sense of self.
There are also various surgical options and medications to consider. Surgeries most often focus on erection problems – but they’re rarely performed now. Today, Viagra is the most common treatment for erectile dysfunction.
Despite how commonly prescribed it is, there are many misconceptions about Viagra. It doesn’t improve your performance if you have normal sexual functioning, and it doesn’t make erections last longer if you orgasm prematurely. It also doesn’t directly produce an erection in the way injection therapy and insertable drugs do – although those are more inconvenient and can kill the mood. Instead, Viagra produces a series of nitric oxide-related events in your genitals that facilitate erection.
In clinical trials, 64 to 72 percent of men achieved erection with Viagra, compared to 23 percent who took a placebo. The percentage of men for whom the placebo was successful shows how men’s expectations and visions of reality have a huge impact on sexual function. Likewise, anxiety, distracting thoughts, and emotions can interfere with Viagra’s effectiveness.
Don’t let your fears and insecurities about your sexual performance drive you to turn your bedroom into a laboratory. Instead, hold on to yourself when introducing these assets into your sex life. Think about them as tools to enhance intimacy, rather than as compensation for something lacking.
The key message in these summary:
When confronting your sexual problems, remember to hold on to yourself and open yourself to your partner. Tolerating initial discomfort and anxiety is necessary in order to build long-term relationship stability. Arousal and orgasm difficulties are normal parts of sexual functioning, and they can be resolved with a multidimensional approach that’s centered on building emotional intimacy.
Make repair attempts.
In order to build a collaborative alliance during a growth cycle, you may have to make about six repair attempts before your partner responds positively. If your relationship has been in trouble for a while, double that. You can make repair attempts by apologizing when you lose control of yourself, referring to meaningful moments in which you pulled through together, or easing tension with a light joke. Most importantly, don’t turn away from your partner when things get tough.
About the Author
Dr. David Schnarch is a licensed clinical psychologist, Board Certified in Couple and Family Psychology (ABBP), and recipient of the 2013 Award for Distinguished Contributions to Independent Practice from the American Psychological Association.
David is a long-time Clinical Member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and recipient of the 2011 AAMFT Award for Distinguished Contributions to Marriage and Family Therapy.
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