Joel and Marissa are very nice people. They care for each other and plan to spend their lives together. Each of them has very little sexual experience, however, and they’re having trouble getting into any sort of intimate rhythm together.
They’ve come to me while grappling with a perfect storm: very little sexual experience, very little knowledge about sex and bodies, and a lot of anxiety about sexual activity and competence. This would be enough to make sex difficult for anyone.
Predictably, she’s nervous about sex hurting, and on the few times that they’ve tried intercourse, it’s been very uncomfortable for her. He feels clumsy about this, and doesn’t know quite what to do. Even if they asked each other a lot of questions (which neither of them feels comfortable doing), they couldn’t provide all the answers the other one needs.
They don’t talk during sex—not “Hey, slow down a bit” or “Move your fingers just a little to the left” or “Yes, that feels good, keep doing it.” They don’t look at each other during sex—they feel self-conscious, can’t relax, and are afraid to see the anxiety in each other’s face.
So when they have sex, they feel miles apart from each other.
And so they hardly ever do it. For the same reasons, they hardly ever cuddle. Or kiss.
Marissa’s gynecologist sent them to me. “He said there’s nothing wrong with me physically,” she said. “He says I need to learn to relax during sex, which he said is your expertise.”
So the couple wants “techniques,” “specific suggestions,” “proven methods.”
“We’ll do whatever you suggest,” Marissa said warmly. Well, no one ever does “whatever I suggest.” Because inevitably I come up with things that people find challenging. Everyone who walks into therapy has already done whatever is comfortable.
We started by talking about their vision of sexuality. It was lovely in a simple way, but unrealistic—effortless, pleasant, predictable. No communication or planning necessary. Mostly, “no problems.” Passion was beyond their simple ambitions. To make things more complicated, Marissa wanted the sex to be “romantic” and “spontaneous.”
“We’re not looking for amazing, crazy sex,” she assured me, thinking that the less they wanted, the easier it should be. I agreed that “amazing, crazy sex” was not our goal.
But whatever I encouraged them to do, they didn’t like it.
Each week I proposed simple, everyday activities: brush her hair after she showered. Hug him when you come home from work, and look at him for 3 seconds afterwards. Select her earrings when you go out to dinner Saturday night. Stroke his arm at four different speeds, and ask which one he likes best.
“These things are all too artificial,” Joel said. “It feels like doing homework.” Well yes, it was homework. But we had discussed making such activities pleasant. What could they do to relax while doing these, and to make them enjoyable? That was actually a central part of the assignment. Repeatedly, they couldn’t quite figure that out.
Besides, she said during one session, “this isn’t sex. We’re here to have more sex. At this rate we’ll never get to sex.” Well, that was true in one sense—if they couldn’t figure out how to relax and enjoy touching an arm, changing into pajamas in front of each other, or discussing birth control, it’s unlikely that they’d progress to “sex,” whatever “sex” means.
We talked a little about their bodies. I used simple phrases like “when she touches your penis” and “when your vagina gets wet” and “when you feel really excited.” Their bodies stiffened a bit. “Do you know whether or not she has had an orgasm with you?” I gently asked him.
“You know, we don’t use words like this,” he said. “Fine,” I said agreeably. “What words are you more comfortable with?” “Is it really necessary to talk about it in this cold, clinical way?” she asked.
“Well, what way would you like to talk about it?” They were silent. “I guess we don’t talk about these things,” she said, looking at the floor. “Yes,” he agreed, fussing with a button on his shirt, “we don’t, um, discuss our bodies. It’s a little yucky, don’t you think?”
So they didn’t want exercises, didn’t want to talk about sex or their bodies, didn’t want to deliberately touch each other while relaxing and enjoying it.
That wouldn’t be a problem if they already knew how to relax and enjoy sex. But they didn’t. And the only way they felt comfortable talking about their situation was in the most general (and therefore unhelpful) sense.
I had asked what they enjoyed doing together, and they talked about hiking and biking. Great. And what about in the evenings? They didn’t watch TV together, because they liked different shows. They ate dinner together most evenings, but apparently that typically involved looking at their phones when they ran out of conversation, usually about 10 minutes through the meal.
I thought about this for a moment, imagining their lives as a couple—coexisting rather than entwined. In a friendly way, I shared my image of them. They were curious about what I meant and what this implied, so I explained: “The phrase in the child development literature is “parallel play.”
This is an accomplishment at roughly two-and-a-half or three years old, when kids can play alongside each other but not interact very much. They’re watching and sometimes copying each other; they’re listening and sometimes adjusting to each other. They don’t communicate directly with each other, but they’re not ignoring each other at all.
They easily agreed that that describes their relationship, although it hadn’t occurred to them that this was negative. “It isn’t negative,” I said, “but there’s a limit to how much two 3-year-olds can cooperate, or manage conflict, or share. Adult relationships at this level have the same difficulties—for example, they have trouble creating what some people call “romance,” because they haven’t developed enough empathy, and don’t imagine or pursue interactivity.”
Romance had been something Marissa really wanted (without understanding how it’s usually contexted in other things, like communication and cooperation). They both had also rejected sex or intimacy “dates,” saying they were too artificial. They wanted sexual “spontaneity,” even though they didn’t do anything else spontaneously, and certainly not together.
“In a relationship based on parallel play,” I said, ““sexual spontaneity” is almost impossible because again, it requires that people think in terms of cooperation, and that they see the possibility of actively leading each other or initiating a joint activity.”
Being professional tech people, they liked this systems analysis, and could see how this model (parallel play) could actually predict their difficulties. Joel himself said, “When adults act like three-year-olds, they shouldn’t expect to get adult rewards, right?” Of course I agreed with him, as did Marissa.
“So I guess you would say that solving our sex problem involves things besides sex?” she said. “Absolutely,” I replied. “I do like working with smart people!”
And so instead of trying to solve their “sex problems,” we worked on getting them more involved in each other’s lives. That involved learning to ask each other more questions; imagining ordinary features of each other’s day, like what they had for lunch; taking responsibility for some of their free time each week and proposing a joint activity; periodically envisioning and discussing their future together; and definitely having dinner without any digital devices at the table.
I gradually introduced some touching exercises into their homework. They felt awkward, skipped them too often, did them too earnestly…and eventually were able to talk with each other about them. One day they reported, to their own surprise, enjoying them. That was a grand day for us all.
And “romance”? “Spontaneity?” We didn’t get there the way they thought we would. But we did get to places they hadn’t anticipated, which they liked quite a bit: Intimacy. Communication. Honesty. Pleasure.
They even made a “play date” together last week. “It wasn’t spontaneous,” Marissa laughed, “but we did spend time together undressed and playful—with a light on, and without phones!” Yes, they’re on their way.
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If you enjoyed this, I bet you’ll enjoy my recent piece entitled “The Sex Lives of Engineers–and Other Humans.”