Stuart: Hi there, and welcome to The Couples Expert Podcast. This is Stuart Fensterheim, The Couples Expert. I have with me today, Jim Thomas. Jim was on my show and he and I were just talking about ‘time flies when you’re having fun’, and I have more fun doing these podcasts than anything. I get to meet some incredible people like Jim.
Jim and I were talking the other day, and we said, “You know, we really have to do this again.” And what we wanted to do is really spice it up a little bit and maybe talk a little bit about sexuality, how sexual issues impact a connection in a relationship, and more importantly, the changes that occur for folks through the timeline.
So, Jim, I want to just really thank you for coming back on, and welcome to the show.
Jim: Well, thanks for having me. I’m glad to be here. We had a good, enlivening discussion in August and I’m looking forward to chatting more and, hopefully, sharing some things that will be helpful, illuminating, and since we’re talking about sex, hopefully stimulating to couples that are listening.
Stuart: Yeah, I like stimulating, especially if we’re talking about sex. But, you know, maybe that’s the first question: How do we differentiate between stimulating and passionate?
Stimulation vs. Passion
Jim: Hmm, yeah. Out in the sexology field, we might look at it and say ‘stimulating’ could really boil down to, “What is this physically feeling like for me in this moment? Is this interesting to me? Is this stimulating my interest in sexual contact or sexual experience?” ‘Passion’ starts to imply another person being involved, because I can have a very stimulating sex life on my own, and unfortunately, this is a problem we’ll probably come back to at some point, which is the problem of pornography, Internet pornography now.
Jim: Men to a greater extent, but men and women, gay and straight, they’re going towards the Internet and pornography because I can have a stimulating experience and it’s not as complicated, and ‘you’ don’t have needs. There’s not this other person on the other side. The problem with that is it lacks passion because passion involves two people.
And I love that you asked that question. I’m thinking of some recent couples where this has come up. When asked to think of sex, sexual intimacy is this place where we get to mix emotional intimacy, a spiritual connection between two people, if they experience life that way, with this sexual touch and play and exploration, and it’s a magic place for people. And you can create a passion between two people that involves stimulation, it involves orgasm, it involves arousal, but arousal and stimulation and the orgasm aren’t first and foremost.
What’s first and foremost is an expression, and a receiving and a giving of expression, and coming together and saying, “Look at this way that we can be intimate with each other,” that we’re perhaps assuming a monogamous couple, “We’re not intimate in this way with anyone else.” So, to have that true passion requires two people. Two people, now we get into the stuff Sue Johnson talks about, that human relationships are complicated.
Jim: We go from Teddy bear to porcupine, to exciting to dangerous very quickly, and so, real sexual intimacy can be a tricky place to get for some couples, and to stay in.
Stuart: Because one of the things that it does, at least for me when I think of it, it involves risk-taking, risk-taking both emotionally and for some, including physical risk-taking.
Stuart: When we start talking about, and one of the things in the Hold Me Tight programs that I’ve been doing, one of the things under the sexuality issue that I’ve started to do, is talk about the whole concept of what we used to say for so long, was that if the relationship outside the bedroom was fine, inside the bedroom would pretty much take care of itself.
Where Eroticism Comes Into Play
But I think I saw recently, a talk about eroticism, and what the person was saying was that unless couples begin to have the language to talk about what’s erotic for one isn’t necessarily erotic for the other, even if you have a great, close-knit, emotionally connected relationship, that’s not always so easy. So, I think we have to put eroticism into the whole category here, about how do you go from being vulnerable and then now talking about what’s erotic to you as opposed to what’s erotic to someone else.
Jim: Well, yeah, it can be a very vulnerable thing just to share with another person. My partner, early in our relationship, you know, since most couples now are sexual with each other before, say, marriage…
Stuart: Sometimes after they say hello.
Jim: After they say hello, right! Yes.
Stuart: I mean, it’s true!
Jim: More freedom to everyone! You know, I think shaming people for sex, and their sexuality and sexual expression is not helpful. I’m a sex positive person, meaning I share, like with the American Association of Sexuality educators and counselors and therapists, that if my sexual expression isn’t harming another person, a child, an animal or something, let’s try to de-shame and demystify the facts. So, for any couple listening, if you have a particular fantasy, for example, “I have a fantasy I’d like to share with my partner,” doesn’t mean I want to act out that fantasy out in the real world, but maybe with my partner I’ve always had a fantasy of, “I’d like you to pick me up at a bar.” This is a fairly simple one to talk about. We’ll keep it PG13, right?
Jim: I’d like to arrive at the bar 10 minutes before you, then you come in, and I want you to come onto me like I’m a stranger. We’re going to go up to the hotel and do it like we were strangers. Maybe I’m very confident in myself in this way, I feel safe with you and I present it to you, and even if you say, “Oh my God, I’d never do that,” I’m okay. But for a lot of people, that would be a very vulnerable thing to share. If my partner laughs at me, if my partner says, “What does that mean? Does that mean you secretly want strangers to pick you up?” all of sudden we’re going into a landmine of what does my fantasy trigger in you?
More Than Physical Closeness Matters
Jim: Does it trigger excitement and arousal, and I want to come close to you and play? Or does it trigger some sort of, “Oh, that’s weird for me,” or, “I’m threatened by it.” I see a lot of talk about eroticism and I think I would stand close to where Sue Johnson, the author of “Love Sense” and “Hold Me Tight”, stands on this. Sometimes, unfortunately, the solution a lot of people are getting from Ted talks and things, is what you need is to start with eroticism and come at each other, and that’s how you’re going to create a more juicy, vibrant relationship. And I think it’s more of a both/and. As we become closer, we share more experiences and I feel safer with you. I start to feel safer to share something about eroticism for me or about what I never want to do. I never want to have anal sex with you. You can wish for that the rest of our life together, you’re not putting that thing there, and that’s just the way it is!
Stuart: Because it hurts.
Jim: Yeah, it hurts, and I don’t like it, and it doesn’t… You know, boundaries are hard too, to be able to say, “My body doesn’t like this, I don’t want to go there.” The way I look at it is a bit like, an intimate couple can say things to each other like, “Lately I’ve been feeling lonely and I wish you would come closer to me. I don’t want to feel lonely. I’ve been scared lately in our relationship about this pattern we’re stuck in and I’ve been worried lately that you’re going to reject me. Please come reassure me.”
A very similar pattern of opening up, expressing and sharing around sex, and when we anchor that simply to eroticism and this notion out there that some people, I say Esther Perel’s a leader of this, maybe David Schnarch, it’s really in talking about our erotic differences and bringing novelty into the relationship that all the passion exists. And I think that’s just a part of it for most couples. That can be a very exciting part of it and a fun adventure, and wow, let’s explore things, but when we put that first, I think we’re putting the cart before the horse.
Stuart: The eroticism first, you’re talking about.
Stuart: That we need to have the connection and then we can get erotic.
Jim: And it’s a little bit of a both/and because when we get connection, we can up the ante on, I can be a little bit more vulnerable and I’ve always wanted someone to say this to me while I’m having sex. I want you to say that I have the best shoulders on the planet, and would you please tell me I have great shoulders. You know?
Drawing Together through Play
Stuart: Right. You know, the other piece of it to me is, and I say this all the time to my couples, which is that your sexuality is just an extension of your playfulness. And when I think about, like when I was little, we didn’t have the Internet and all those things, we used to play tag. And we’d play tag a little bit, then as we got to know each other, we’d play different kinds of tag. We’d then freeze-tag, and then we might go to cops and robbers, and then we might go to this, and we might go to that. We upped the ante as we got comfortable with it. It’s really the same thing sexually.
Jim: I think so.
Stuart: And the connection allows you to just be more spontaneous.
Jim: Yeah. I want to say one more thing about that. I think when we put eroticism first, eroticism I mean in terms of novelty, it’s a scary thing for me to share with you that maybe I’d like to do a different position, I’d like to role play, I’d like to whatever that is, I’d like to use a sex toy. I think sometimes the more basic things that are vulnerable are just letting a partner know that this sort of touch at this time, you know, you’re being too rough here or I wish you would put some lotion on your hands and clip your nails, I don’t really like whiskers, you know, your whiskers when you go down on me, these kinds of things are really the so vulnerable to share, and it’s almost easier to pop up into, let’s read “Fifty Shades of Grey”.
Stuart: Let’s tie each other up or do something like that.
Jim: Practice tying each other, in a way. I don’t want to dismiss that, but I think the deepest eroticism that’s available for couples and the deepest passion that’s available for couples is the heartfelt expression of the importance of this emotional bond I have with you while I’m opening up and you’re opening up, we are rubbing our bodies together, we are touching each other, we are kissing each other, we are gazing at each other. The most erotic things possible is to have your partner holding you and saying, “My God, I need you! My God, I miss this!” And sex gives us an embodiment of that.
Some of the best scenes in novels and movies is, “We haven’t seen each other!” and they embrace, and “God, I missed you! You were at the war, you were away from me, you couldn’t do this.” That’s the deeper eroticism I see couples getting. When I do good emotionally focused couples therapy, they get into bonding events and they take it that step deeper to, we’re now learning to have intimacy while being intimate. So, we think of intimate in the old sexual, you know, we’re intimate. Intimacy, when you mix those two together, that’s a rich elixir. Now add some eroticism to it and you’re, hey, your friends are going to want to know what’s happened to you.
Jim: You’ve lost ten years, there’s a skip to your step, what is it?
Stuart: And what that reminds me of, also, sort of the expression of “I can’t get enough of you.”
Jim: Yeah, there’s a great example.
A Private Kind of Specialness
Stuart: It’s like a very intimate moment, and if you’re sitting there nude with your partner and you’re holding each other, whether you’re doing something or just holding each other, and you start talking about, “I want to just have all of you. I want to have that something so incredibly special, and that when we start touching each other, what changes for me is the feeling of a specialness with you.”
Jim: That’s it, specialness.
Stuart: And that there’s nothing that has me feeling more important than having you in my life and knowing that I am sharing something that no one gets to get all of you but me.
Jim: What you’re talking about, a specialness, nobody gets this but you, etc., there’s some research that, I won’t be able to quote the source, it’s been five, six years, but looking at couples that are happier and feel closer together often have little nicknames for their private parts that they use with each other and they would never tell anyone else.
Jim: What I call your vagina or your breasts, or your penis or your butt, or something, and that specialness of when I know that I have this play with you. And I’ve been working on writing this up. It’s something that I’ve been talking about with couples, and especially men that are learning to slow down with sexuality. I mean, male sexuality tends, I mean this is not 100%, there’s a lot of differences within the genders, but men tend to have a more reactive sexual response and women a more responsive, so women often needing more of a buildup and connection, and something leading up to, and so, going towards intercourse being the culmination of an experience.
What Comes Before Foreplay?
And men, especially when they’re younger, they just want to hop, skip and jump as quickly as possible to intercourse. “I have an erection, I’m aroused, what are we doing? Why are we wasting time here?” And then I feel rejected and frustrated physically when I’m younger and you say, “No, not right now,” and we start getting into a cycle where maybe I didn’t hear the “not right now”. And what I’ve been coining is to think about, if we know about the sex part, where we’re getting really into touching, getting very intimate, that’s play. And we know about foreplay, you know, build up, slow down. I think about beforeplay.
Stuart: Beforeplay, yeah.
Jim: Beforeplay, before even foreplay, is the intimate, connected relationship where you’re communicating these things in words. I sometimes say to guys in heterosexual relationships, I say, “Well, some of the most romantic things you can do is just, if you’re really enjoying being at the baseball game with her, bloody hell, turn and tell her! Don’t say, ‘Yeah, it’s great to be at the baseball game,’ say ‘I’m really glad to be at the game with you,’ and use her name.”
Jim: That’s beforeplay. That’s saying, “You’re special to me.” And women too, this goes both ways. I had a couple recently where she has really been upset for a long time. “You don’t tell me I’m beautiful enough. You don’t tell me I’m beautiful enough.” He finally broke down. He said, “We’ve been together 32 years and you’ve never once told me you thought I was handsome.” He just started sobbing. You know, it goes both ways. I don’t want to make this sound like it’s just men.
Stuart: You know the show “Fiddler on the Roof”, Jim?
Stuart: There’s a song that they sing to each other, and it’s “Do You Love Me?”
Jim: “Do You Love Me?”
Stuart: (singing) “Do you love me? For 30 years, I’ve da-na-na, da-na-na…” And the whole concept is, “I wouldn’t have done all these things for so many years…” “But do you love me?” Unless I hear it, unless I really know it overtly, it makes a difference.
The Emotional Shyness of Men
Jim: Can I tell you another example just while we’re on this and thinking about it, is I think too, for men and women, but especially if you’re the person in the relationship who really feels and longs for that deeper emotional connection, or you’re the person who, let’s go to the other side, I don’t tend to be as emotionally open and stuff, I just like having fun, I like spending time together, and for me sex is an easier route to intimacy. You know, we get to touch and be together, and it’s exciting and comforting at the same time. For simplicity, I’ll just say it’s a heterosexual relationship and the guy is in that position, sex for me is socially acceptable, for me to want you that way. It’s socially acceptable for me to tell you you’re good-looking, etc., just say I want to do it with you. I don’t know how to emotionally open up to you. But maybe, in therapy, if Jim asks or Stuart asks, and I say, “Well, yes, it’s very intimate. I feel so close to her.
Jim: And these guys will be puzzled by, as they do good therapy or they read “Hold Me Tight” or they go to one of your workshops, they’ve been hearing for maybe 20 years, “Don’t tell me I have a nice butt. Don’t tell me how pretty I am and all that because you just want sex.” They get bonded, they get more secure, and then one day they look at her and they go, “You know, I’ve got to tell you, honey, I know you don’t like it, but you’ve got the nicest ass.” And she’s like, “I love it!”
Stuart: “I have been waiting years for you to tell me that!”
Jim: Precisely. “But I don’t get it! I don’t get it!” And I said, “Well, it’s way different for me to tell you something about your physical appearance when I know you love all of me.”
Jim: I can take that in a different way that’s very stimulating, erotic, passionate and intimate at the same time, versus if I’m not sure all you want, dude, is to F, to screw, to do it, to get your rocks off, so you can relax and fall asleep, and tomorrow you’re going to get up and forget it ever happened and not help me with the kids and run off to golf, and now you tell me I have a nice ass, that’s a different meaning.
Jim: I know I’m special to you and this becomes part of the specialness.
Am I Enough for You?
Stuart: And I think that’s where things like sex toys get a bad rap, is that what I hear from a lot of couples, particularly the women with whom the guys say they want to do this, that or the other, what it becomes is, “Am I good enough? Am I enough just being me?” And if you have that solidly in the relationship, then everything opens up, and that’s really the point you’re making.
Jim: Yeah, I think it’s the same thing that happens with what you brought up about sex toys, happens with pornography. If I find out my partner’s watching younger people, people with bigger this or thinner that or larger this, and then I wonder, “Is it me? What do I not offer here? This is very hard for me. I don’t understand why you’re going outside the relationship to get that stimulation, and what are you saying about me?”
Better with Age
Stuart: You know, this sort of leads to our next sort of chapter in this, which is, through the lifespan, and one of the comments that I always laugh about is I hear quite often, recently, from women, I think more women talk about this, saying, “You know, as my husband (or partner) has gotten older, he’s become a much better lover.” And I go, “What are you talking about?” “Well, now it takes him longer to get aroused, so we take time with each other now.”
Stuart: “So now that he has to have the emotions associated with the physical relationship, he’s a much better lover.” It’s really humorous, but not.
Jim: I haven’t run this by my wife to share, but I’m going to take a risk. I think she’ll be okay with this, because usually I’m a very transparent trainer and I have to like, “Is it okay to share?” But, I was very blessed at a younger time. My wife read a novel or something and it had to do with, it was in Japan, and in the context of the time, in the novel, a couple of the women were teaching their men to slow down, teaching their men about beforeplay, foreplay and play.
Jim: And, you know, I’m this 30-year-old and I’m rushing in, man, ready to go, and she one day said to me, “I want you to learn how to be more Japanese in your approach,” and started teaching me this, and it was a blessing to, let’s learn from each other. You know, sometimes a quickie is just the thing to do. I often say to couples, “Don’t make this so complicated either.” There’s all of a sudden pressure that sex has to be perfect. It has to be this perfect buildup and we have to have simultaneous orgasms and we must, you know. Sometimes, you just do a quickie because you remind each other you can play and it’s just fun to do that too.
Jim: But also, yes, learning to slow down. And I don’t think men have to wait until they’re in their 50s or something to slow down. Like, anticipation.
Stuart: Teasing, the teasing kind of thing.
Jim: Well, Pooh, Pooh’s not an expert on sex, as far as I know. I can’t teach “Sex on Pooh Corner”, but there’s a scene where Christopher Robin in one of the books says, “Pooh, what’s your favorite thing?” and Pooh says, “Honey.” And then he thinks about it for a moment and he says, “Actually, Christopher, there’s a moment before you eat the honey that’s even better.”
Stuart: Yeah, the anticipation of the honey.
Jim: Yeah, and then he says, “Actually, the best thing is, it’s a sunny day and I’m walking over to your house, and Piglet, to have lunch, and the birds are singing to me.” And I say to men, “You want this. We rush. Our reactive sexuality rushes us to the conclusion.” And rather than, “Look what it’s doing, it’s opening us up,” the oxytocin excitement of, “Look, I have a partner, she’s attracted to me, I’m attracted to her,” opens us up as men. Every guy listening knows this.
When you’re really stimulated by your wife, or if you’re gay and into your male partner, if you’re a lesbian and your partner comes towards you, if your partner comes towards you and they’re being both affectionate and amorous, and they’re smiling, it’s very hard to resist that. It opens our hearts up.
The Way to the Parts is through the Heart
So, one of the other phrases I use is, you know, often if we’re struggling in our relationship and we think there’s not enough sex for the person in that place, you may find that the way to your partner’s parts is through their heart. What are you doing in the heart relationship if your partner is saying, “I don’t want to do this so often. It’s always on your terms. You push for it. I feel pressured. I don’t feel valued afterwards.” If you want to get access to their parts, go through their heart. Now, you can’t do that in a game-playing way, I mean in a sincere way.
Stuart: Right, it has to be very sincere. And I think people experience that more often in the repairing of relationships when they’ve been triggered and now they’re getting to the point where they have to fix what just happened. And if you really can be present with your partner and begin sort of the make-up kiss, it’s an incredible experience when you’ve been vulnerable in that repair.
Jim: You know, I’m glad you brought up kissing, vulnerability and repair.
Stuart: Let me be clear to my listeners, I’m not talking about make-up sex, I’m talking about a make-up kiss.
Jim: I think make-up sex is a big myth.
Jim: I don’t think there’s a lot of couples that get really angry at each other and then have sex because they’re angry. It’s like a weird, some… But yes, you’re talking about kissing.
I want to go back and reiterate one point. What I’m suggesting to couples and partners is it may be that nature, that sexual stimulation for humans, and it being able to be more extended, and us being able to have powerful orgasms, females being able to have more than one orgasm in an encounter, and the powerful endorphins and chemicals being released, serve a social emotional bonding function above and beyond just the eroticism of getting off. This is where porn’s a danger because it pulls us away from getting this through human contact.
What Could Be More Intimate than Sex?
If you start to pay attention to when you’re feeling stimulated by your partner, you’re feeling aroused, you’ll feel your heart opens up. The chemicals don’t only just want you to get hard or get wet, it’s opening your heart up too. And when we put these two together, that’s the elixir, that’s the passionate elixir. And it’s going to come and go, it’s going to come and go.
But, I think a really clear example of something that’s lacking in so many couples, and I started asking this question a couple years ago with my new couples and you can borrow it, in my first session I’ll say, “How often do you kiss?” And I mean, “How often do you kiss intimately, not a peck on the lips, not a grandma hasn’t seen you in a year kiss, but you kiss and it’s intimately. You maybe hug for 30 seconds or so.” If one of you is shorter, I love it, a lot of couples discover the stairwell. One of you stands on the stairs so it’s a little more even. And you make some eye contact and you just talk about nothing or you just say, “How was your day? I’m so glad to be home,” and you kiss. Or, you sit on the couch, and you know, with baby boomers it was ‘necking’, you called it ‘necking’.
If you were going to touch and go to erotic stimulation of various erogenous zones, making out, lips, neck, licking in the ears, whispering, nibbling, this kind of intimate contact and just having it sort of naturally woven into your life is sending a message that intimacy with you matters to me, it comforts me and arouses me, even when we’re not going to intercourse or oral sex, we’re not heading to orgasm. So a lot of people, scientists, sexologists, writers will say, that that kind of kissing may be more intimate than intercourse.
Stuart: I think I read a research study a while back that talked about the chemicals that get released in that kind of situation are different kinds of chemicals than any other time. Sort of like with tears, there’s a different release because it’s intimate. It’s the intimacy that happens.
Jim: I had a couple recently that was recovering from an affair, and what really got him was he said, “Okay, but did you kiss the way we kiss?” And when she said, “Yes, we started to do that towards the end,” he was like, “Oh my God!” Oh, wow, that was…
Stuart: That was the pain.
Jim: That was the pain, like, “At least I had that with you.”
Jim: So, I’m a big proponent of learning to kiss, and you have to give feedback to each other. Kissing is a very reciprocal activity. There’s a lot of exchange of information, and the variety in your kissing life can be rich. This is a great beforeplay/foreplay, fuzzy boundary. It’s like I’m just saying to you as I come home from work, or we get up in the morning or something, I have an intimate bond with you, I want to exchange these chemicals, I want to have this with you. I want to make eye contact. Gazing is another one that’s missing. So many of my couples, I’m like, “When’s the last time you just gazed at each other at dinner or something?” “We don’t.”
Stuart: Or looked across the room and had a special moment, just eye-to-eye, and no one else knew it.
Jim: Yeah, we’re at the Italian or Mexican restaurant, and we’re gazing at each other for a moment, and I’m just listening to you talk as I look, you know, the Arab culture, as saying the eyes are the window to the soul. I had a friend who would travel a lot in the Middle East and he said when you go there, these are old cultures, and he said, “People will look at you and once you become their friend and haven’t seen them for a few days, they look into your eyes.”
Stuart: Like you were saying earlier, windows to the soul.
Jim: Yeah. We look at eyes.
Jim: Try gazing into your partner’s eyes. There’s an intimacy there that can be very vulnerable and make people, you know?
Jim: When we cut off kissing, when we cut off gazing, we cut off when you talk about cuddling a little bit just laying in bed, we cut out making out, we cut out holding hands as we’re walking, we cut out a little secret code for when we want to leave the party, (I say to you, “Hey, did you let the dogs out?” if I want to go, and if you want to go too, you say, “No, I forgot,” if I want to stay I say, “You know, I did let them out,”) when we lose these intimacies that lead towards this special play, then the play itself starts to take on too much energy. You know, if we’re not doing it, and a pressure, a pressure, and roles start getting entrenched, and I start to have a role in this. I’m the one who always asks, you’re the one who always says no, and I feel rejected, you feel abandoned. And then, our sex life becomes like any other negative spiral that couples get caught up in.
Stuart: It’s another cycle.
Jim: Yeah, maybe bring back some of these things to listeners.
Jim: When is the last time that you held hands when you’re walking in the mall?
When the Fledglings Have Flown the Nest
Stuart: And I think what this brings up for me is what we were talking about a moment ago about the lifespan, and if you’re in a relationship with someone where you have older children who are about to leave the nest, sort of the whole empty-nester, and you haven’t had any of those kinds of experiences that you and I were just talking about, the emptiness that then comes when all of your emotional energy has been with the children and now you’re really alone, and all you’ve got is your partner and you don’t even have any concept about their emotional life, how do you now have a good sex life with that?
Jim: Right, right. Well, the wonderful opportunity, and I say to people who are facing an empty nest, that statistically, by far, people end up happier six months or so after they realize they’re empty-nesters. There’s a grief process that often happens where they miss the kids, the last kid’s gone, but the reality is, having kids in the home is tiring and tough, and you have to make a lot of choices for your kids. Maybe you won’t be going to soccer practice again, but if your kid wasn’t in soccer and it wasn’t your turn to carpool, you might take a walk with your partner, you might go see a play, you might go work out together, you might kiss, you might sit on the couch and talk about how great…
Stuart: Work on kissing.
Jim: Work on kissing, yeah, practice kissing. “We’re not really kissing, honey, we’re just practicing.”
Stuart: We’re only practicing.
Before the Fledglings Have Flown the Nest
Jim: So, one of the things I say to couples before the empty nest, especially the cue I take is when the kid gets to about ninth grade, tenth grade, and you’re not already doing this, start taking advantage of every opportunity where nobody happens to be home in today’s sleepover world. You know, there’s no kids home, say, “Wow, what do you want to do?” and treat it like you’re getting to play hooky from school, where you’re getting to go to the baseball game for the business person’s Wednesday afternoon game and you’d say, “What can we do that we don’t do because kids are around, and let’s go do it.” And don’t take a weekend away from the kids to catch up on all your chores. Do your chores when your kids are around. Make them help.
Jim: Right? So, start acting as if you’re in an empty nest three or four years before it’s empty. This is one of the best things you can do.
Stuart: And I think the other piece that goes with that is you also ask yourself a question, which is what I started telling people right around that same time. So you know your child’s about to leave, what’s the experience going to be like for you when it’s just the two of you, and if it’s not something other than missing your child that you’re excited about, you need to start talking about that right now and begin to do some of the things that you were talking earlier about, playfulness, and heart to body, and really going through the emotion, and that experience.
Jim: If in that conversation what starts to come up is things like, one or both of you say things like, “Well, you know, I’m not responsible for your happiness…”
Stuart: You know you’re in trouble. That’s big trouble.
Jim: Big trouble. Or, “Well, just because the kids leave doesn’t mean I want to change my lifestyle. I still like golfing on the weekends.” If what happens is it starts to solidify, legitimize a distance you already feel with your partner, then go to a Hold Me Tight weekend with Stuart, or go see a good EFT, emotionally focused couples’ therapist, read “Love Sense” by Sue Johnson, because what I think Stuart and I have in common is we want to say to you, “If you’ve been with your partner and you were attracted to them and you bonded with them and you’ve raised kids with them, you are meant to emotionally depend on each other.”
Jim: Yes, yes. And the illusion is out there in psychology. So Stuart just said “interdependency”, there is an illusion, a myth that humans go from dependent to interdependent. We do not. The science indicates that we go from dependent to dependent to dependent to dependent, to death. And we just have a choice. The choice we have is, are we in an effective dependence with our partner, a dependence where we rely on each other, we take turns being the stronger one, we take turns, so we go back to sexuality, we take turns in that.
When I look back at my sexual experiences in my life, we took turns being the initiator, we took turns being the one bringing something like an erotic idea into the relationship, we took turns being the vulnerable one who was maybe feeling rejected or feeling a bit abandoned, we took turns building up the other person’s self-esteem when they admitted “I always thought this part of my body was lacking” or something. We co-celebrated, co-burdened and co-stimulated and co-regulated each other in our sex life.
And I think the empty nest brings people into this weird place when we live in an individualistic culture that says independence is autonomy, by now you should have arrived. With the empty nest, I’m going to go enjoy the bridge club and my volunteer work and take on a second job, and you’re going to golf more and get on a board because we’re independent now, is pushing against what’s really happening in our hearts. As the kids start their own lives, the question of “Are you there for me? Are you emotionally accessible and responsive to me, and engaged?” or “Do you accept me and respect me and still enjoy me?” are actually, inside, pressing questions, and if you don’t have a language of closeness, then you need Stuart’s Hold Me Tight weekend with him, read “Love Sense”. I do intensives, “Come Here”. To hell with the empty nest thing. I do two-day intensives with couples. They fly from all over the country and Canada.
Stuart: Do something, is what you’re saying.
Jim: Do something, don’t just sit there and have this roundabout conversation where you’re feeling more and more distant and you’re putting it off until tomorrow. That’s what I think you’re saying. Ask the question now, don’t put it off until tomorrow.
Stuart: And also the recognition that, you know, we hope our children will come back and visit and do those things, but if you define your life, your love, about what they do, they’re independent, they a lot of times will do something you don’t want them to do. Now you have less control, and you begin to see your world as dismal. And for me, the exciting thing at 40, 50 years old when kids leave, and with today’s day and age, your lifespan goes lots and lots of years. There’s no reason you can’t have the best love life that you’ve ever had in your entire life now.
Understanding the Physical Changes through Life
Jim: Well, we do the developmental thing too. I think you were talking about some men to do that and to recognize body’s change and things, and females can go through perimenopause and menopause, and I highly recommend that women, you know, if you’re a younger woman in a lesbian relationship or just women in general, learning about menopause, men learning about menopause. Don’t expect your wife to teach you about it. There’s a lot of books you can go read about menopause and to understand that their sexuality is going to change. It doesn’t mean it goes away, but things change. Your wife at 60, maybe 65, can’t maybe do it as hard when you’re having intercourse.
Stuart: Or as often.
Jim: Or as often, but she may want it just as much. If you’re responsive, you can find another eroticism in that experience.
Now look, the erectile dysfunction mythology of the Viagra and Cialis companies, where they want to make it sound like there’s this whole army of men that routinely cannot get an erection, I mean they created a disease to sell a pill. And, there are men listening, there are men out there who truly do experience problems that may be organic, you need to go rule out things like high blood pressure, circulatory problems, etc.. But a lot, the vast majority, and I think most of my sexology colleagues would agree, of what we would call erectile dysfunction is a combination of, one, I am getting older and my sexuality isn’t as reactive as it was. You know, when I was 20, I remember walking around Ohio State sometimes and being like, “I gotta stop, man.” I’m just walking around with all these other co-eds, I just, “God!”
Stuart: I’m going to share something that’s so funny. I remember having an erection in one of my classes and having to keep the book around my penis when it was time to leave because the last thing I wanted is to have this stiff erection as I’m leaving this class.
Jim: And so now you’re maybe 52 or something and for the first time your partner is coming on to you and the erection isn’t there right away, it doesn’t mean you have erectile dysfunction and you have to go get Viagra, but also it could and go rule out medical causes.
But often, what’s happening is men’s sexuality is changing and they’re not embracing it. They don’t embrace the slowing down, they don’t know to turn towards, “I know, my heart now is starting to take the lead, my heart wants stimulation too. I want to know that I matter to you too.”
Jung used to talk about that in midlife, women’s masculine energy starts to come to the fore and men’s feminine energy starts to come to the fore, and men moving towards more of a maybe, “I want to say ‘I love you’ during sex. I want to cuddle more. I want to know that I actually matter.” And it changes for us, and so women learning about male sexuality changing and men in heterosexual relationships learning that female sexuality changes, and embracing this as an opportunity.
My wife and I joke about having different spouses now. She’s been through like 12 Jims and I’ve been through 16 Patrices.
Jim: This time we go through a major developmental change and maybe do the hair different, and it’s like Spouse 16. Nowadays, it’s like Version 3.0 you would say, right?
Jim: I have Patrice Version 16.0 and I can tell you, every version is better because every version I’m closer to her, and our sexual intimacy becomes more and more a part of our larger emotional, mental, spiritual intimacy. It becomes a playground for that, a place to do that.
Stuart: And a place to truly have an intimate relationship. You know, you see 80-, 90-year-old couples that are fortunate to still have each other, walking down the street holding their hands and people ask, “How did they do it?” They do it by being authentic and vulnerable, and talking about the things that really matter to them.
Jim: Well, I’ll tell you… Maybe we’re probably coming towards the end of our time…
Stuart: Yeah, we are.
A Love Story
Jim: I had a death in my family recently and it resulted in, you know, sadly sometimes we talk to family members over tragedy, but I ended up talking to an older cousin who told me a story about my Aunt Elsie and Uncle Ralph that I never knew. By the time I come into conscious awareness, Elsie and Ralph were in their early 60s, and some of the relatives would hug me when I saw them, and I literally thought when I was about 8 years old that when you get wrinkles you get to initiate hugs because only older people initiated hugs. “I can’t wait until I have wrinkles!” right?
Stuart: Yup! Right.
Jim: And I didn’t know this love story, that when they were younger, Ralph asked my Aunt Elsie to marry him and she said, “No, I’m going to go be a nurse and I need to go to Detroit and study. I’m going to be a nurse, and I know what happens if you get married. You have babies and I’m not ready for babies.”
Well, she went, she became a nurse, she lived in Detroit for a while, and her mother got ill and she moved back home. And they’d been living together, like, 15 years. She was in her 30s, I think, late 30s, and they needed a renter in order to keep the house, and she puts an ad in the local paper.
Ralph knocks on the door the next day, “I’m Ralph.” “Oh my God, I remember you.” “Well, Elsie, I went to Florida and I started a farm and I was successful, and I sold the farm and I moved back, and not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about you and wanted to be close to you. I understand that maybe you don’t want to marry and I respect that. If I could just rent a room from you for a year or two, and just be able to be in your orbit, to just hear you talk, that would make me a happy man.”
Stuart: That’s beautiful.
Jim: Well, he rents a room and they fall in love and they get married. Now, here’s the beautiful part.
My cousin goes, they’re going to tear the house down after they both had passed away, and she goes to dig up these irises that her grandmother, you know, the mother that she had to take care of, that were from Germany, and they’re digging up these irises so they can take them back and keep growing them, and this woman from next door comes running out and goes, “What are you doing with Elsie’s irises? What are you doing?” And she said, “Well, we’re going to take them. Do you want some?” “Well,” she says, “I have to tell you a story. It’s embarrassing and don’t report me to the police.
“If you can see, our kitchens are backed up to each other and sometimes at night around 9:00 or so, we would hear loud big band music playing and we knew we were going to have a very special night. We would turn the lights off in our kitchen and their lights would come on, and they would be getting done doing the dishes, and they would start to dance.
“Ralph would twirl her around and she would be so happy, and the dancing would go on for about a half-hour, maybe 45 minutes or an hour, and then the lights would turn down, they’d turn off the music, and the lights would go on in the bedroom. And that part, we always gave them privacy and went to the living room.”
This was when they were 60, 70 years old. This was an affair of the heart. Ultimately, our human sexuality, the best part of it, the richest part of it, is when we bring it together and use it as part of the mixing together of two human hearts into a shared experience, each heart having a little unique perspective on that experience, but two people blending and melding together in that way.
And then, couples have that experience of, here we are in intercourse, and the line between you and me is blurred, I really do feel as one for a moment with the most important person in my life. That’s the passion we started this conversation about, right, intimacy while being intimate, beforeplay, foreplay and play, a special play, specialness, you used that word, risk-taking between equals, a shared experience when we take turns being the leader, we take turns bringing things to the relationship, it gets comforting and then we add something new and it gets exciting, and then maybe we get into a rut and we have to rediscover each other, but it’s a lifelong journey between two people.
The Love in Emotionally Focused Therapy
Stuart: You know, you just really did such a wonderful job, Jim, in really describing, and I wish I could bottle it, that emotion that goes into emotionally focused therapy and why.
Stuart: If people could just understand this, that what we have to offer them is love, true love.
Jim: It’s love, yeah.
Stuart: And, I mean, it’s not complicated. It’s not easy, but it’s not complicated, and if you let someone in, that’s the experience you can have.
Jim: Yes, and loving in the sense of the great scene in the movie “Marvin’s Room”, Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep, where Diane Keaton is a sister and Meryl Streep’s a sister, and Meryl Streep’s the bad seed who went to the big city, called back by Diane Keaton’s character, and there’s this scene where she realizes that her sister’s dying, and they’re talking about love, and Diane Keaton says, “I’ve had so much love in my life.” And her sister says, “You’re right, you have. Momma loved you and Daddy loves you, my crazy son even loves you, and our aunt loves you, and I love you.” And she says, “Oh no, sweetie, I had a lot of love in my life. I love Momma, and I love Daddy, and I love our crazy aunt and your son, and I love you. But sexuality is this place where we get to both be loved and love in the same moment. We get to express love and see love, and take turns with one person that’s so special to us.”
And I would say, what you said about love, I know that EFT therapists will listen to this, this is one of the biggest things, is opening our heart up to love the couples we work with in a professional way. (I know Freud pooped on that party. That’s for the therapists out there. Couples, don’t worry.) But, to really take them into our hearts and realize they’re sharing a precious place. We’ve come to you for help because we can’t quite make this intimacy thing work, and if you can’t talk about orgasms and penises and vaginas, and things like this, how the heck do you think we are?
Stuart: That’s right.
Jim: And if we don’t know whether you love the full expression of human sexuality and you’re sex positive, we don’t know if you’re going to moralistically come at us with something and we’re not going to open up to you. And often, if you’re a therapist, if you don’t bring up sex with your clients, they won’t bring it up. It doesn’t mean they don’t have issues and concerns, and desires and longings, it means I don’t know whether you’re a therapist that can talk about this stuff.
Stuart: And can I be real with you if I can’t.
Jim: Exactly, because now I’ve just cut off a huge part of what you said, sexuality is a huge part of human expression and what makes us unique.
Well, Stuart, I want to thank you. I want to be the one to say thank you first. It’s a joy to talk. I hope we get to do this sooner rather than nine, ten months or whatever.
Jim: I’m really so happy you put these podcasts out for couples. Anything we can do to demystify and normalize going out and getting help, finding resources, being a couple in today’s modern age is both a wonderful, wonderful opportunity and it’s fraught with complications and landmines and messages from the mass media that do not support the intimacy that couples need.
Stuart: Thank you, Jim, for those really kind words and I think the two of us, both, are on a similar mission, and I really do see it as a mission to really change the nature of love, relationships, and more importantly, people to people really caring genuinely about one another.
Jim: Well, as I often say, empathy is what will save us. Without empathy, as humans, if I can’t see me in you, we’re capable of hurting each other and treating each other so poorly. But when I see that you are like me, then we’ll give our kidney, we’ll take a bullet, we’ll dive into the pond to save a person we never met.
Jim: This is the possibility of love.
Stuart: Thank you, Jim.
Jim: Thank you, Stuart.
Stuart: And we’ll see you all next time. And, everyone, be like Pooh!
Jim: Yes! Yes!
Stuart: How’s that for a closing?
Jim: There we go.
End of Transcription