Sex therapist Esther Perel delivered an incredible talk at December’s New York Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Conference. That talk, entitled “Mating in Captivity: Reconciling Intimacy, Sexuality and Erotic Desire in Couples,” inspired today’s blog. Esther Perel is one of the most progressive thinkers on human sexuality, and if you haven’t checked out her TED talk, you really should.
Now, on to sex. Many of us have experienced our sex lives wax and wane at one time or another, sometimes even within the same day. When it waxes, we tend to speak in terms of “turn-ons”; when it wanes, “turn-offs.” Statements like these will probably sound familiar:
“He turns me on when he takes an interest in what I’m saying.”
“She turns me on when she wears that dress.”
“He turns me on when he surprises me with a stay-in dinner and movie night.”
“It’s a big turn on when she smells nice.”
On the flip side, there are the turn-offs:
“It’s a huge turn-off when she lectures me.”
“It turns me off when he’s rude to my friends.”
“It turns me off when she hasn’t shaved her legs.”
“It turns me off when he doesn’t get out of his PJs all day.”
Each person’s turn-ons and turn-offs may be different, but the conversation is generally the same: “he turns me on when ____/she turns me off when_____.” While all of these statements may be true, there is a fundamental piece missing: You.
Esther Perel observes that our language places a lot of responsibility for our sexual desire and passion outside of ourselves, particularly on our partners. We can find all of our turn-on conditions met, our partner is not committing any turn-offs, and yet in some instances we still feel no spark. So what are we missing? We are missing one of the most important influences on our sexual desire: our role in turning ourselves on and off.
Let’s use an example: Your spouse goes all-out to make you your favorite dinner, queue up your favorite movie, dim the lights, don a sexy outfit, and chill your favorite bottle of wine just in time for you to get home from work.
So, let’s say you had a good day at work, you felt productive and clocked out with a sense of accomplishment, you had a nice chat with co-workers on the carpool ride home, and the bathroom scale this morning said you finally hit your goal. How do you think these things will affect how turned on you are?
Now let’s say your day was cruddy. Your boss ripped you a new one in front of a room full of your co-workers, you ate a half pound burrito to make yourself feel better but now you’re just bloated, and you couldn’t concentrate for the rest of the work day because you were so humiliated. You got little done and are paranoid you’ll be lectured tomorrow because of it. At this point, your spouse could jump through flaming hoops and simultaneously transform into your celebrity crush, and it may do little to “put you in the mood”.
Esther Perel’s recommendation for improving your sex life is actually beautifully simple. First, ask yourself a similar, but vitally different question: “How do I turn myself on? How do I turn myself off?” In a free association exercise, just start with “I turn myself on when ______.” You can set a timer for a minute, just go until you run out, or – if you want to do this as a couples exercise – alternate with your partner. Then do the turn-offs: “I turn myself off when _____.”
Some examples from the conference were:
“I turn myself on when I go to the gym in the morning.”
“I turn myself on when I feel confident at work.”
“I turn myself on when I go for a morning walk and listen to my music.”
“I turn myself on when I think I look good.”
“I turn myself off when I’m running late and my whole morning gets rushed.”
“I turn myself off when I’ve gone too long without a haircut and I get self-conscious.”
“I turn myself off when I’m anxious.”
“I turn myself off when I have too many things on my mind. I get preoccupied.”
Once you have your own list, not only will you have a better understanding of the ingredients to your own sexual desire, you can also start acting on or changing the items on the list. Start doing some of the turn-ons (how long has it been since you last took a morning walk with music?), and start to eliminate some of the turn-offs (how can you tweak your morning schedule so that you don’t run late and feel rushed?). You may not be able to change all of them, but you may be able to change some. You and your partner will notice a difference.