Forever Young: Keeping Passionate Intimacy and Sex Alive (Part 1)

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!

 

Body Health How to Rewire Relationships/Sex Uncategorized

Forever Young: Rewired Aging

As we approach this exciting New Year, my New Year’s resolution is to end the year younger than I started it. I know that sounds crazy and as a scientist who studies the impact of the aging process on health, I know that with the passing of time, we all age. I also believe that every decade we reach is a milestone to be celebrated. So I’m going to tell you a secret. I am 59 years old! This is the only time I will ever mention it to you again because I don’t feel or act 59. I know 60 is just right around the corner for me, but I’m actually excited about entering this new decade of life because I know that I am going to “kick butt” in this decade. In the next three weeks, I am going to write three blogs (starting with this one) about what I believe to be the keys to staying forever young.

Your Thoughts

In my new book, The Rewired BrainI emphasize the incredibly power of our thoughts—and that includes our thoughts about aging. So how “old” we are depends probably more than anything else on how old we think we areI like to say, “our thoughts become our actions, our actions become habits, and ultimately our habits become our destiny.” In the picture associated with this blog post, I am climbing the 42 foot mast of our sailboat to untangle a sail. I have also attached a link to some dives I did last year in a video associated with the launch of my book https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emkJphKFNqc&t=89s . Now, there is no way in this world that I could do these activities at my age unless I truly believed (thought) that I could do them. It is the power of my thoughts, not my athletic ability, not anything else that allows me to do these things.

So if you want to be and stay sexy and youthful, you must push yourself to regularly act in vigorous, energetic ways that support this lifestyle. If you start down that path, over time you will begin to find a fountain of youth. If you tell yourself, “I’m getting old and I must act like an old person,” I promise you that rapid aging will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is clear that for the vast majority of us, we become the type of people our thoughts tell us to be.

But have you ever noticed that at a certain point, a lot of people stop celebrating and start lamenting?

Well, I’m here to fight the notion that turning 50, 60, 70, 80, or even 90 is all gloom and doom. I truly believe that the journey of aging can be amazing. It can be sexy. It can be fun, joyful, and fantastic in so many ways! Really, it’s all about how we approach the idea of aging.

Fortunately, with life expectancies increasing and people living longer than ever, stereotypes about aging have changed for the better. According to a poll conducted by AARP in 2014, 69 percent of people in their 60s said that problems with their physical health did not hold them back from doing what they wanted, and 59 percent thought that growing older has been easier than they anticipated. Fifty-four percent of 60+-year-olds also responded that they had more energy than they expected they would at their age.

Additionally, when asked what age they considered to be the beginning of “old age,” people in their 50s said age 68, and people in their 60s responded 73. So it appears that as we get older, our perception of what we think is “old” really changes! (In fact, one 90-year-old woman said that a woman isn’t old until she hits 95!)1

These thoughts and stereotypes about aging affect much more than our attitudes. They affect how we physically age, too. One study found that people who held negative thoughts about aging actually had a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Compared to more positive-minded people, participants in their 40s who held negative stereotypes ended up having significantly greater loss of hippocampus volume and larger accumulations of plaques and tangles (all hallmark signs of Alzheimer’s) 25 years later.2

The same researcher who headed up this study concluded in another study that older adults who had positive age-related thoughts lived seven and a half years longer than their negative-minded peers.3

So it’s clear we need to approach aging in a positive light if we want to live life to the fullest. We have no control over the passage of time, but we have full control over how we think about aging. Here are some ways to make the most of these years:

  • Find new purpose. Many people choose to retire in their 60s. If you enjoy working and it gives your life meaning, don’t retire! More and more businesses these days appreciate the unique experience and value that older workers bring to the table. So if you feel fulfilled going to work every day, there is no need to stop. If you do decide to retire, you may wonder what to do with all your extra time. Find a new purpose, perhaps something you’ve always wanted to do and new ways to have fun.
  • Take risks. In her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bonnie Ware beautifully documents the primary regrets and disappointments of hospice patients. When asked what they would have done differently, almost all said they wished they had had the courage to live true to themselves, not what others expected of them. Well my friends, now is the time! Were you too embarrassed or afraid in your 30s, 40s, or 50s to take belly dancing classes, or try your hand at stand-up comedy, or write a book, or go skydiving, or hundreds of other crazy activities? This is the period of life when it’s time to take chances.
  • Laugh a lot. There are countless health benefits to laughter, including increased immunity, better blood pressure, and lower depression. Not only that, smiling and laughing makes you look and feel
  • Stay active. Jog, hike, swim, dance, do yoga, or take up karate or even Crossfit! The science is clear—if you stop moving, you will get old and die. Consequently, being physically active is a key to maintaining your health as you get older. I am going to devote my entire next article to this topic.

 

References:

  1. http://pubs.aarp.org/aarptm/20140203_PR?folio=40#pg42
  2. Levy BR, et al. Psychol Aging. 2016 Feb;31(1):82-8.
  3. Levy BR, et al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2002 Aug;83(2):261-70.

 

Body Health How to Rewire Mind Relationships/Sex Soul Uncategorized

Understand God’s Role in Your Tragedy

Understand God’s Role in Your Tragedy

Reframing loss, illness, or grief is a journey from exile. Consciously and unconsciously, we feel tremendous anger, despair, depression, and resentment. Waves of emotion overwhelm our minds. Reframing is not about minimizing, fighting, or ignoring what we have been through; it is about returning from a destination where we feel displaced, disconnected, or depressed. Although we cannot change what happened, we can change our thoughts, our perspective, and our approach to move forward in life.

In my new book The Rewired Brain, I point out that one of the most important things we can do when tragedy strikes is to come to peace with our beliefs about the cause(s) of tragedy

I am always blown away by the foolish things people say to someone going through heartbreak or tragedy. A few years ago, I attended a funeral service of a teenager who had committed suicide. As I stood in line waiting to speak with his parents, I struggled with what to say. Words did not come easily. I knew spouting a monologue or offering advice would be pointless. So I just told this couple who had endured an unthinkable loss how sorry I was and then hugged them tight. What else was there to say?

Unfortunately, I have heard perhaps well-intentioned but misguided people respond in these circumstances with phrases and clichés that only enhance the sufferer’s pain or spotlight a disturbing theological perspective.

If your husband has left you for another woman, if your child has a fatal disease and is in the hospital for the tenth time, if you are dealing with a debilitating physical or mental illness, the last thing you want or need to hear is:

“This is God’s will, and you have to accept it.”

“God never gives us more than we can handle.”

“God has selected you for this burden because he knows how strong you are.”

Perhaps one of the most horrible statements I have heard was when someone approached a couple who had just suffered the loss of their only child. This person said, “I’m sorry you’re sad. But God obviously needed your baby as an angel in heaven more than you did.” I can say with confidence that was not, nor ever will be, the case.

In his book The Will of God, English theologian Leslie Weatherhead tells the profound story of being in India with a friend who had lost his young son in a cholera epidemic. Weatherhead walked beside his friend, who paced up and down the veranda of his home only a few feet away from his sleeping daughter, his only surviving child. The bereaved man turned to the great theologian and said, “Well, padre, it is the will of God. That’s all there is to it. It is the will of God.”

Weatherhead gently disagreed. He loved his friend and knew him well enough to reply with the following words: “Suppose someone crept up the steps of the veranda tonight, while you all slept, and deliberately put a wad of cotton soaked in cholera germ culture over the little girl’s mouth as she lay in that cot on the veranda, what would you think about that?” The father was horrified and replied by saying he would kill the intruder and then asked why he would even suggest such a cruel thing.

Weatherhead quietly explained to his friend that that was what he had done when he had characterized his son’s death as God’s will.

“Call your little boy’s death the result of mass ignorance, call it mass folly, call it mass sin, if you like, call it bad drains or communal carelessness, but don’t call it the will of God.”

What you attribute your tragedy to will make a huge difference in your capacity to reframe it. Whatever you have been through or are going through as you read these words, do not blame God for your suffering.

I love the words of Rabbi Harold Kushner in hid classic book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, “ The God I believe in doesn’t send us the problem; He gives us the strength to cope with the problem.”

 

 

 

Body Fear Health How to Rewire Mind Relationships/Sex Resources Soul Uncategorized

When People Show You Who They Are, Believe Them the First Time

I am amazed how wise people who love and want the best for us usually have the capacity to analyze our relationships much better than we do. I can’t tell you how much easier my life would have been had I heeded my mother’s advice on relational issues. I have a counselor who often says, “Wisdom is our ability to live what we tell others.” Oh, I can sit down with most folks for an hour and listen to them talk about their lives and relationships and at the end of that hour, identify most of the emotional dysfunctions and toxic relationships in their lives and even suggest potential solutions. The real question for me has always been why can’t I do the same thing for myself.
One of my favorite stories related to this same issue is about the advice Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Maya Angelou gave Oprah Winfrey during a heart-to-heart about the talk show host’s unhealthy relationship at the time. Oprah opened up about how she felt constantly let down by the man she was dating. Angelou responded, “Why are you blaming the other person? He showed you who he was. . . . Why must you be shown twenty-nine times before you can see who they really are?” These words stuck with Oprah, who, over the years, amended this wise advice to say,

“When people show you who they are, believe them the first time!”

In my new book, The Rewired Brain, I explain how the primitive parts of our brain responsible for unconscious feelings of attraction and loneliness perpetuate this “love is blind” phenomenon. This part of our brain tries to insist on feelings and reactions such as: “he/she can change,” “things will get better,” “maybe I need to try harder,” or ‘I just don’t want to be alone,” especially when we have experienced certain childhood traumas or neglect. A few years back, I had a provoking conversation with a female acquaintance. She told me that after her husband’s third affair, she was so exasperated that she screamed at him, “Who are you?” He looked at her with eyes cold as ice and for the first time told the truth. He answered,

“I am who I’ve always been.”

This was the man he had always shown himself to be, but she was simply unable/ unwilling to see it. Habits are what people do without thinking. When you observe consistent habit patterns in another, it is unlikely they will change unless they have a deep desire to do so. However, we do have the capacity override the unconscious feelings of attraction and loneliness, and actually believe a man the first time he tells you he doesn’t want a serious relationship or believe a woman the first time she treats you like she doesn’t care.

In other, non-intimate relationships, your conscious mind has the capacity to believe the family member, the colleague, or the friend when their actions speak louder than words. You can see the true colors of a sibling who always tries to borrow money without any intention of paying it back. You can see the true colors of a co-worker who constantly tries to pawn off work on you. You can see the true colors of a friend who is always too busy when you need a listening ear.

In my new book, I focus a great deal on how we can enhance our capacity to make these critical evaluations. This ability depends on several factors. First and foremost, it is critical that we feel worthy, precious and loveable, and know that we do not deserve abusive behavior! For me, a critical part of this process is to understand God’s grace and embrace how precious He believes me to be. Addressing childhood traumas is also critical to addressing emotional dysfunctions and our perception of worth.

All of these are critical tools for all of us to recognize the character of people and believe people the first time when they show us who they truly are.

(Cover photo for this blog post is credited to Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN))

Mind Relationships/Sex Uncategorized

Three Misconceptions Hollywood Teaches Us About Sex

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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.

When we exchange vows and say yes to a marriage of forever, part of that commitment includes saying yes to developing and growing in every facet of life, including intimacy and sexual desire. If you want to have powerful intimacy and sex with your partner, you must discard your Hollywood movie views and expectations of romance and love and develop a new model centered on a more differentiated Self. Think through these three misconceptions that serve as roadblocks for many.

  1. Sex is natural, and, consequently, great sex should come without much effort.

It just happens, right? Wrong! Sexual desire is extraordinarily complex, especially as couples move from dating to a long-term relationship.

Great sex, especially in a long-term relationship, is far from easy. In fact, it may be easier to coordinate all the systems on the space shuttle. I would quickly add, however, it is worth it!

  1. Women are less interested in sex than men.

This is a common myth that is simply unsupported by data. Helen Fisher examined ninety-three societies and found that men and women had roughly equal sex drives in seventy-two of them.

In his book Intimacy and Desire, David Schnarch offers that if the sex is good, women are often more interested in it than men. He also points out that wives are typically more sexually knowledgeable than their husbands.

If you are a woman and feel insecure about not having a strong sex drive, know it is likely in you. I believe God intended sexuality to be a natural and meaningful expression of your Self.

  1. Sex is reserved for the young.

I can’t tell you the number of depressing articles I have read that told me my sexual prime as a male peaked at the age of eighteen. If this is true, then for me at the ripe age of fifty-eight, the party’s been long over.

The original data establishing sexual peaks was determined by sexual hormone level measurements. In men, testosterone levels topped out around the age of eighteen, and women’s estrogen levels reached their apex when women hit their mid to late twenties. These hormonal mileposts have been called “genital prime” because they occur when our genitals respond most urgently to arousal. Don’t let this discourage you. Genital prime has little to do with sexual prime. It is well documented that the greatest, most enjoyable, and most effective sex organ is the human mind.

Don’t believe me? Look at some of the statistics. More than 50 percent of older adults say sex gets better with age. Men between the ages of fifty and sixty-nine are the most confident with themselves and their capacity to perform sexually. An article on sexuality in older adults in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine showed that 54 percent of sexually active persons (ages seventy-five to eighty-five) reported having sex at least two to three times per month; 23 percent reported having sex once a week or more. These statistics astound me. Taken together, they reveal that your golden years, sexually speaking, may very well be ahead of you.

Love is not a state of being or merely a strong feeling but a series of determined decisions and actions. Maintaining intimacy to continue on a journey of sexual development past the initial stage of romantic love and leftovers takes courage and work.

Relationships/Sex Uncategorized

How Intimacy Can Lead to Emotional Growth (Part 2)

Okay in the last post, I ended on a cliff hanger. I had written my 1000 words for the post and only covered what I believe passionate sex in a committed relationship has the capacity to be, and how the process of sexual development can not only be fun and exciting, but emotionally develop us in ways that we could never imagine.

So now I want to provide how I believe you can begin this exciting, beautiful journey! I want to again emphasize that I am not a sex counselor (but a scientist) and so much of my experience comes from 58 years of living and studying the teachings of experts such as Dr. David Schnarch and his landmark books The Passionate Marriage and Intimacy and Desire. I also want to start by giving you a homework assignment. Find the movie Hope Springs with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones before or during this process. It will make you laugh and give you great hope.

So let’s begin with two critical questions:

  • Are you ready to go on an intimate and sexual journey with your partner in life?
  • Can you enter into an alliance with your partner in which you both want to expand your intimacy and sexual variety and at the same time commit to honor and trust each other? Again, this type of alliance is for couples who love each other and not individuals in physically or emotionally abusive relationships.

If you answer yes to these two questions, I believe you have taken the first step to an exploration of desire that can truly lead to emotional and even spiritual growth.

Portrait of a happy couple holding hands and walking in the forest

For those of you who have committed to a willing and loving fellow adventurer who desires to climb this mountain with you, communication (in ways that you may not be accustomed) will be the single most important factor in determining the success of this journey.

Begin stoking the fires of intimacy by gaining a better understanding of what makes your partner who they are (their hopes, dreams, fears, wants). Take some alone time to talk with each other, but not about children and mundane conversations about paying bills, taking out the garbage, or little Johnny’s soccer schedule. Set a time on a weekly basis if your lives are really busy. Either over a single conversation or a period of talks, steer the conversation toward issues of sex and intimacy (desires, fantasies, what hinders you).

It’s important to do this without judging the other…this is a judge-free zone.  For this to work, we must feel free to express our Self. Don’t worry, you don’t have to agree with your partner and you are not yet committing to anything but to respectfully listen.

Hold hands during this process to initiate an environment of love and safety. Once this happens over a period of time and each person has felt the security of the other’s embrace, sexual desire will begin to naturally arise.

Next, you and your partner must be open to suggestions, new ideas, requests and even offerings. Here is your chance to explore! Couples can move bit by bit through a whole spectrum of sexual activities ranging from simply touching to tender love making to hot erotic sex and back again. Remember to take this journey one step at a time. You may need to take it slow at first.  If you are a year or even more into a sexual dry spell in your marriage, give your Self and your partner much grace. You are not expected to light fires under your sheets this afternoon. This will take time and patience. But it will come if you work for it together.

It is important to emphasize that because you both bring baggage (“leftovers”) to the process, you will reach difficult impasses. 

This is a completely natural and necessary part of the journey and in fact this is the part of the journey that is helping you develop emotionally. You may be in the mood to share a fantasy and feel rejected when your partner is not excited to hear about it. Or, you may have certain expectations of exploring a new sexual desire that falls short when it actually happens. Oftentimes, moving past sexual boredom requires the creation of sexual novelty.

Someone has to initiate the conversation, which takes great courage. Being this open may frighten you. I understand. “What if my husband (wife) thinks I’m weird or a pervert.” It is true that the new proposal may not receive instant validation and may fall outside of the others’ comfort zone because by definition it sits separate from “the leftover” zone. Remember from the last post, “the leftovers” are the repertoire of acceptable sexual practices that each partner bring from the past that each  are willing to do according to their own sexual development. It is easy to see how this kind of intimacy and vulnerability is a high risk/high reward activity but can lead to tremendous emotional growth.

When gridlock occurs, maintain a stable and flexible Self. Don’t let setbacks discourage you. Respectfully work through issues together, whether on your own as a couple or guided by resources like a counselor, books, or workshops. It’s important to keep the momentum alive!

One of the most important tools to develop is the ability to stay calm and Self-soothe one’s own hurts and desires instead of lashing out at your partner. Stay cool, don’t overreact, and at the same time don’t punish your other by running away or creating distance that damages the relationship. Simply communicate and move on to another opportunity for exploration.

Rewiring your mind in the areas of intimacy and sex will likely be the hardest, most frightening and at the same time most exciting journey you will share with another in life. How you and your partner move through the journey will likely have great ramifications for your relationship and emotional growth.  Through this process, you and your partner can find love, connection, intimacy, and sexual desire in unimaginable ways.

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Relationships/Sex Uncategorized