Can sex survive monogamy? Yes, once you understand how sexual emotions really work.
This award-winning, paradigm-shifting guide turns traditional sex therapy inside-out to reveal the hidden rules for great sex. Gentle, compassionate, and filled with compelling stories from Dr. Stephen Snyder’s thirty years as a sex therapist working with over 1,500 individuals and couples, Love Worth Making is essential reading for anyone hoping to keep sexual inspiration alive in a committed relationship.
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|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.90(d)|
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Rules of the Heart
The rules of desire are rules of the heart.
"Sex is emotion in motion."
— MAE WEST
It's a hot summer afternoon on the New York subway. I'm bringing my children and a few of their friends back to Manhattan on the B train after a long day at Brighton Beach.
There's a young couple standing near the exit door sharing an iPod headset — tethered together, each with an earpiece in one ear. She's leaning against the wall, sweat-soaked in a T-shirt and shorts. He's a few inches shorter, wearing sandals, beach clothes, and long hair. His hands are resting lightly on her hips. Her arms are draped over his shoulders.
They seem entirely absorbed in the music, the motion of the subway car, and each other. Their eyes, half shut, are out of focus, dreamy. They're both wearing goofy, crooked smiles — as if sharing some silly secret. They look as if they might easily miss their stop.
Amid the noise of the children and the rocking and bouncing of the subway car, it would be easy for this couple to pass unnoticed. But there is something about them that holds my attention. A certain aura.
It's sex, of course.
Their goofy smiles, their dreamy manner. Definitely sex.
They're fully clothed, standing up, and doing nothing obviously improper, but definitely enjoying a long moment of arousal on the way home from the beach.
Turning away self-consciously, I realize I'm not the only one watching this couple. The young children are oblivious, of course. But the adults in the car are all clearly aware of what's going on. Everyone is stealing glances at them, transfixed by the same sexual vibration.
Their aura is now general throughout the subway car. I fear we will all miss our stops.
* * *
Sexual arousal, if all goes according to nature's plan, makes us dumb and happy, absorbed and distracted. We arrive somewhere far uptown, having missed all our stops — deeply pleasured but with no idea where we are.
Most of us learn that to succeed in a fast-paced world we don't really have time for arousal. Many modern couples hurry through sex without letting themselves get very aroused — then wonder where their sexual magic has gone. Others do their best to hold on to the inspiration that brought them together, but lose it amid the distractions and responsibilities of ordinary adult life.
Eros seems more designed to get you into a relationship than to keep you happy once you're already there. This young couple quietly rocking near the exit door — if they stay together, what will their lovemaking be like years from now, when they're the ones lugging kids' swim toys back from the beach?
Looking around the subway car, I find myself wondering about the sex lives of my fellow passengers. Who's having good sex, and who isn't? Who's faking it, and whose bedroom is still a sanctuary of delight?
Our intimate lives are conducted almost entirely in secret. No one except you and your partner really know what your erotic life is like — unless one of you tells, of course. And even then, things often get lost in translation.
Some people know intuitively how to cultivate a vibrant erotic relationship. But many don't. Which is unfortunate, since it's actually not that hard — once you know what you're doing.
A Funny Story
One day in sixth grade, my daughter came home from school with a funny story. Her teacher had been going around the room asking each student what her parents did for a living.
When it came my daughter's turn to tell about me, she said I was a psychiatrist. Whereupon her best friend seated behind her shouted, "He's a sex therapist!"
The class went wild.
A few minutes later, when all the shouting and excitement had died down, one classmate whispered aloud the inevitable question ...
"What does he ... DO?"
There was much wonderment, horror, and giggling.
It's a good question, really. Since 1978, when the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT) prohibited nudity and physical touch in the office, it's assumed that all we do is talk. For the most part that's true.
We talk about sex, of course. But we talk even more about feelings. Spend enough time as a sex therapist, and before long you're either doing psychotherapy or you haven't been paying attention.
Sometimes when I'm asked "What does a sex therapist do?" I'm tempted to give a much simpler answer. One that I'm sure would have been both a relief and a disappointment to my daughters' classmates:
Mostly I listen to people tell me about bad sex.
In my thirty years of practice, I've heard about more bad sex than you can possibly imagine. In fact, by now I feel I can without exaggeration claim to be one of the world's foremost experts on bad sex.
I know that sounds like a dubious honor. But being an expert on bad sex can be really useful. Listening to people tell me about bad sex for so many years has left me with a deeper understanding about what makes for good sex — and even great sex.
The Rules of Desire
Good sex follows certain rules. The same is true for great sex.
Some people know these rules intuitively, but many don't. I know this for a fact because every day in my office I see couples who have no idea such rules even exist.
Most therapists don't know these rules either. For example, I'll sometimes hear a colleague remark that sex is simply "friction plus fantasy." Sexual excitement, they say, happens when you combine the right kind of physical stimulation with the right kind of mental activity.
This tells me right away that my colleague is unaware of the rules.
I have nothing against friction and fantasy. But if that's all you're getting, then you've been short-changed.
Good friction is nice — and certainly better than bad friction. But friction doesn't really do the trick — as anyone who's ever had really boring sex with a really skilled partner can tell you.
Think back to the most memorable sexual experience of your life. (If you've never yet had a really memorable sexual experience, relax. You're in good company.) What you remember probably isn't how wonderful the friction was.
The rules I have in mind don't involve sexual friction.
How about the fantasy part of the "friction plus fantasy" equation? There's very little that happens to us humans without our automatically adding to it from our store of memories, dreams, and associations. So of course we fantasize during sex as well.
We may or may not go so far as to imagine alternate partners in bed, but one would have to search hard for examples of sex where fantasy was entirely absent.
The power of fantasy tends to be fleeting though. The mind is a restless consumer, always looking for something new and wondering, "Is that all there is?"
The rules I have in mind don't involve sexual fantasy either.
A Hidden Realm
Somewhere beyond "friction plus fantasy" is a realm where sexuality connects us to each other and to the deepest parts of ourselves. It's a place where sex feeds and is fed by love.
This is the most personal aspect of sex. In all the many books that have been written on lovemaking, you'll find precious little written about it.
It's no mystery why. This aspect of sex is not an easy subject. But this "sex of the heart" is an essential subject if you want to understand lovemaking.
It's in this realm of sex of the heart that we'll find the hidden rules we're seeking.
Most of us feel this more personal erotic feeling somewhere in our chests. Hence, by tradition, "heart." A more precise term, though lacking in physical resonance, might be "sex of the self."
Unlike friction and fantasy, this part of sex can't be bought, sold, marketed, or packaged as a commodity. It is simply a gift to be received. Its proper accompanying emotion is not really desire, or lust — but rather simply gratitude, or perhaps awe.
This kind of sex can't be produced simply by following a recipe. So it's no accident that few how-to books on sex concern themselves much with it.
Sex becomes truly special either of its own volition, or not at all. But we can help nurture the conditions for it to flourish, once we know what those conditions are.
Some Open Secrets About Sexual Arousal
In the late 1950s, William Masters and Virginia Johnson became the first scientists to examine the physical aspects of human sexual response in any detail. But many of these physical signs had already been closely observed — less scientifically but no less intensely — by millions of sexual couples since the dawn of human self-awareness.
Most couples study the male partner's erections and the female partner's state of lubrication carefully, for information about whether the other person is "really aroused." Urban legends rise and fall concerning other supposed indicators (see "nipple erection," "pupil dilation"). But this is all still limited to physical arousal.
The psychological aspects of arousal are more important. But they've yet to find their Masters and Johnson.
Fortunately, your own feelings can be a quite accurate guide to how excited you are — if you know what to look for.
Here's my short list of the most important psychological changes that happen when you get aroused.
When you're aroused, sex grabs your attention. You stop thinking about bills, worries, responsibilities — your entire portfolio of ordinary concerns. Your time sense may get a little messed up. (Sexually aroused people tend to arrive late to meetings.)
If someone gave you an IQ test during peak arousal, you wouldn't do too well on it. The tester might have a hard time getting you to pay attention to the questions. Good sex definitely makes you dumber. And great sex can make you downright stupid.
Sexual excitement puts you into a more primitive and selfish state of mind. It makes you less patient, less forgiving. You don't tolerate frustration very well. You become somewhat immature. (Okay, sometimes a lot immature!)
If the phone rings during lovemaking, you don't care who's calling, or what they want. You may feel very close to your partner, but it's a selfish kind of closeness. You're not really interested in listening to the details of how their day went. You just want them to give you their complete attention, and to tell you how wonderful you are.
Arousal feels special. Validating. Good sex makes us feel good about ourselves. That's how we know it's good sex.
With good lovemaking, we have a feeling of "Yes, that's me. Here I am. You found me." We feel in touch with our deepest, most authentic selves.
It's a grateful feeling. "Yes, you found me. The me of me. Thank you for finding me. Thank you for bringing me home to where I really live."
When couples come to my office, I always try to find out whether they've been really getting aroused. Not just hard, or lubricated. But really aroused. Captivated. Absorbed. Self-absorbed. Goofy. I like to hear a few giggles.
How to Use This Book
You'll find the rules I've been referring to at the beginning of every chapter, in italics. At the top of Chapter 2, for instance: The sexual self is very honest, but its vocabulary is limited.
Occasionally you'll find them other places in the text as well.
If you skim a few of them, you'll notice they're less like rules of conduct and more like the law of gravity. They're not so much to be followed as to be understood.
Feel free to go ahead and break them. But if you do, please write me and tell me how you did it.
This is not a conventional "how-to" book. It contains no exercises, and it has few formulas saying "first do this, then do that."
This is intentional. As we'll see later, eros doesn't like to be told what to do. If you set a goal, your sexual mind will be happy to reject it. It's kind of childish and brilliant that way.
You also won't find much about sexual biology or neurochemistry on these pages. Sex books these days tend to be full of advice for "boosting your dopamine" — or your oxytocin, or some other such nonsense. In all my thirty years as a sex therapist, I've yet to see a dopamine molecule walk into my office.
We'll stick with things you can see and feel yourself, without needing a laboratory.
I'll also spare you the body diagrams. You already know what a penis and vagina look like, right? And we won't discuss how many neurons are concentrated in your clitoris. It's an impressive number, but who really cares?
There are a few great sex books already out there, and I'll point them out to you as we go along. But reading most of the others is like gnawing on dry bones. As my friend and colleague Paul Joannides, the author of Guide to Getting It On (one of the aforementioned great ones), has accurately noted, "the trouble with most books on sex is they don't get anyone hard or wet."
This book is not intended to get you hard or wet. But it's meant not to get in your way either. The chapters are short, so you can read them even if you get a little distracted. Hey, I hope you get a little distracted.
There are no lists to memorize, and there won't be a test afterward. We're dealing with a part of the human mind that hasn't gone to school yet, and never will.
Okay, let's get started ...
The Sexual Self in Action
Your sexual self is very honest, but its vocabulary is limited.
"Go to your bosom;
— SHAKESPEARE, MEASURE FOR MEASURE
A young woman is in my office, telling me she doesn't feel anything during sex. Her name is Carmen. She and her husband, Scott, are recently married, and she is deeply distressed.
If you've ever not felt anything during sex with your spouse, then you know how worrying that can be. Have I made a mistake? Do we have to get divorced? Maybe there's something wrong with him, or with me, or with us?
It must have taken considerable courage for her to come see me. I wonder if her husband knows she's here, and what she's told him.
"I'm pretty sure there's something wrong with me sexually," she says, twirling a strand of hair around her finger.
"That's got to be a scary thought."
She nods and lets go of the strand of hair. She can't seem to find a comfortable position on my sofa.
"Is there any time you do feel something with him?" I try to seem as unthreatening as possible.
"Oh, yes." Big smile. Pure and open. "I love it when Scott and I kiss, on the couch in the living room," she says.
Thank God, I think to myself. There's life here.
She senses my relief. We both relax a little.
I try to make sure we're speaking about the same thing (always a tricky matter in this business). I ask, "When the two of you kiss, does it make you feel kind of dumb and happy? A little silly and distracted?"
"Yeah, I never thought about it, but I guess it does. I'm really pretty crazy about Scott. But then I start thinking about what's going to happen next."
"He's going to take me into the bedroom, and it's going to be a disaster. When we go into the bedroom, that's when I don't feel anything."
In Search of the Sexual Self
Many years ago two pioneers in the field of sex therapy, both medical doctors, lived on Manhattan's Upper East Side near the Cornell University School of Medicine, where they were both on the faculty.
The first, Helen Kaplan, was for a time one of the most famous sex therapists in the world. She had earned a PhD as a research psychologist before becoming a sex expert. Her book The New Sex Therapy became the authoritative guide to treatment for a whole generation of mental health practitioners. We'll have more to say about her later on.
The second, Avodah Offit, seemed a bit out of place in the medical field. Whereas Kaplan had trained as a scientist, Offit had originally intended to become a writer. Her work had a whimsical, philosophical style that was distinctly her own.
Offit's first book, The Sexual Self, was a pioneering attempt to show how sexual experience could vary according to the diversity of human character. It was widely read, and translated into several languages.
Today The Sexual Self is largely forgotten. Offit died in 2015, and no one ever continued her project of mapping sexual experience onto human personality.
Excerpted from "Love Worth Making"
Copyright © 2018 Stephen Snyder.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsIntroduction: Your Wife is Not a Lawn Mower
PART I: YOUR SEXUAL SELF
1. Rules of the Heart
2. The Sexual Self in Action
3. Be My Baby
4. Selfishly Yours
5. The Art of the Easy
Getting Practical: Sexual Arousal for Its Own Sake
6. Two Roads to Orgasm
PART II: WOMEN AND MEN
7. The Woman in the Mirror
8. Men at Work
9. The Mysteries of Intercourse
Getting Practical: Intercourse, Outercourse, and "Lazy Sex"
10. Why Women Lose Interest in Sex
11. Why Men Go Missing in Bed
12. Standing Your Ground
PART III: SEX FOR LIFE
13. Eros and Faith
14. Becoming a Couple
15. Can Sex Survive Monogamy?
16. Mindfulness, Heartfulness, and Prayer
Getting Practical: Sex Tune-Ups for Couples
17. Care of the Sexual Soul
18. Childhood's End
Appendix: Eleven Classic Sex-Knots, and How to Untie Them