This blog post contains excerpts from Chapter 10 of my book, The ReWired Brain
Human sexual desire is the most complex form of sexual motivation among all living things. It’s a combination of genetic programming and variables of life experience, producing the utmost sophisticated nuance and variety of sex on the face of the planet. David Schnarch, The Passionate Marriage
In the 2012 movie Hope Springs, Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) have been married for thirty-one years. They live a safe, monotonous, routine-driven life. Each morning Kay dutifully cooks Arnold the same breakfast he’s had for the past three decades, one sunny-side-up egg and a piece of bacon, while he reads the paper. After chowing down his grub, Arnold leaves for work, and Kay does the same. Day after day this marriage cycles around work, sleep, meals, and watching the Golf Channel. Spontaneity, intimacy, passion, and sex do not exist in their world. Although Arnold loves his wife, he is clearly oblivious of this fact, hypnotized and quite content with his quiet though bland life. In contrast, Kay desperately desires change. Deep within, she is a passionate woman who longs for a marriage bursting with intimacy and steamy sex.
In one of the first scenes, Kay is disappointed when Arnold leaves for work without acknowledging their thirty-first wedding anniversary. She expresses this sentiment to a co-worker later that morning, asking if change in a marriage absent of intimacy, affection, and passion is even possible.
Her co-worker doesn’t offer much hope. “Change your marriage? What do you mean? Like you mostly eat in on Fridays then you eat out, or you’re at each other’s throats then suddenly you’re Cinderella and Prince Charming. . . . No, you marry who you marry, you are who you are. . . . Why would that change? . . . For that to happen it would have to be so bad that somebody was willing to risk everything just to shake things up, but then it might not come down your way. . . . Nah, marriages don’t change.”
Determined to create a better marriage, Kay ignores these cynical words. She dips into her savings account and books a week of intensive marriage counseling with a renowned therapist, Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell), in the sleepy New England town of Great Hope Springs.
After a very difficult and often hostile first session, Dr. Feld says to the couple, “You two have come here to try to restore intimacy to your marriage . . . to find ways to communicate your needs to one another . . . to cultivate intimacy and to develop the tools to sustain that intimacy going forward.
“The first step in rebuilding a marriage is tearing away some of the scar tissue that has built up over the years. . . . It can be very painful, but it’s worth it. I like to think of . . . the metaphor of when you have a deviated septum, and you can’t breathe . . . you have to break the nose in order to fix it.”
I love this movie and believe every couple, especially ones that are experiencing difficulty, should watch it. It is inspiring to watch Kay, who for years has played the role of a shrinking violet, reach the point where she is no longer willing to live the rest of her life sacrificing intimacy and sex for the sake of a comfortable and safe marriage.
What Is Possible with Intimacy and Sex
I believe sex and intimacy within a committed and covenant relationship are two of God’s greatest gifts to humanity. We all know what sex is, the physical offering of ourselves to one another. Intimacy is a bit more complex. It is being emotionally close to your partner, being able to completely share your inner world, who you really are, with that person. It is about being vulnerable and connecting honestly and in-depth in all areas of your life. Intimacy can include sensual expression; sharing thoughts, feelings, and ideas; and being aware of who you and your partner are as individuals. It is possible to have sex without intimacy, but a central premise of this chapter is that sex without intimacy is problematic. When two people are united in a committed relationship, they create a deeply passionate and transformational encounter that has the capacity to bring about closeness and maturation in a relationship like no other human experience.
In my new book, The Rewired Brain, I talk about how we humans essentially have two minds in one brain. The first is our more primitive mind and it resides in the mid to lower portion of our brains. This part of our brain is responsible for fast, automatic, and effortless thinking and it is called System 1 thinking. What we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch become electrical signals that travel through the primitive portions of our brains and trigger emotions, impressions, and intuitions. On the positive side, System 1 thinking is responsible for spontaneity as well as key aspects of social popularity and creativity. Our second mind (called System 2) emerges from our much more sophisticate front brain called the neocortex. System 2 is responsible for conscious thought and reasoning and is also responsible for imagination, fantasy, and diversity in experiences.
You may at this point be asking what does all this System 1 and System 2 stuff have to do with intimacy and sex? Well at its best, sex and intimacy blend the best parts of System 1 and System 2 emotions and behaviors in a mystical manner that powerfully transitions our intimate relationships from mundane to extraordinary. When System 1 instincts such as sexual desire, spontaneity, creativity, and longing for connection dynamically merge with System 2 qualities such as imagination, fantasy, and diversity, two mature individuals have the powerful capacity to transcend space and time.
This type of intimacy with another person is what makes us truly unique and human.
In profoundly spiritual acts of bonding, your commitment to your partner is conveyed through actions, not just words. You enter a capsule of sexual space, and time stops. Here you and your partner can experience deep connection and transformational joy and love.
You come alive by every heightened sensation, not just in your body but also in your mind. The climax of orgasm is almost secondary because the connection is so profound. And with increasing intimacy over time, this communion grows stronger, even outside the bedroom, as you begin to relate to each other in new ways.
You experience exciting, new adventures while laughing and playing together like carefree children running through a beautiful meadow.
Some of you may be frustrated at this point, rolling your eyes and saying, “Okay, okay, Dr. Ski. This world of mountaintop or romantic-novel-type sex may be the goal, but my marriage looks nothing like what you are describing. I’m stuck on the ground floor with Kay and Arnold.”
Next time in part 2, I will talk about getting unstuck and especially for those of us over 50 years of age….cliff hanger!