I never opened it, just casually observed a bookmark that moved from the first page to the middle, and finally the end, with Fred becoming more desperate in his attempts to initiate physical intimacy day after day; the harder he pushed, the less contact I wanted with him. After a while, he stopped trying altogether.
The closest we got to a conversation about it centered on one question, his: “What did I do wrong?” I told him “nothing,” because it was true, and I didn’t know how else to explain my behavior. I hardly recognized I was doing anything hurtful.
Now, a disinterest in sex hardly necessitates an explanation, but I’d like to provide some context for my situation thanks to the advantage of hindsight. To start, we were crazy for each other from the second we met in college, and perhaps that’s what made this new reality so much more difficult. But graduating and getting married at the beginning of the Great Recession took its toll on us both. With few job prospects, I’d turned to law school and then a masters program in fine arts. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, only that we were hemorrhaging money and had rent to pay. We were tired. Unhappy. Gaining weight. The final blow was the loss of a non-profit job I loved.
This spanned a handful of years.
At some point as I wallowed in self-pity, Fred renewed his efforts to kickstart the physical side of our relationship. Inspired by a GQ article called “Put Me In, Coach!” that used every sports metaphor known to man to sell the services of a professional sex therapist, he responded to the author’s request for guinea pigs, sharing our story and volunteering us for a session. The subject line of his email was, “Why a shameless 26-year-old NEEDS a sex coach.” They quickly wrote back: “We felt your submission was the most deserving.” We were in.
Fred told me what he’d been orchestrating with GQ and the therapist, Eric Aramanth, over dinner one night and a week’s worth of internal back-and-forth. Newly-aware (and hurt) by my inability to see the extent of his misery, I agreed. I was also mortified.
So, what happens when you talk to a sex coach?
We connected with Eric via Skype, which was a relief, since I couldn’t imagine having the kind of conversations I envisioned in the physical presence of another man. Fred and I dressed in our best date night attire — we didn’t want to look like the kind of people who didn’t have sex — got settled on the couch, and dialed. We quickly went around and did introductions, then launched right into it: how long we’d been together, how long we’d been physically intimate, and how it had changed since we first started seeing one another. Finally, Eric wanted to know what we hoped to achieve from our session. (All pretty typical questions for any kind of therapy, based on my experience.)
The difference, since I’d only ever been to therapy by myself, was the eye-opening addition of a partner’s perspective. I was surprised and embarrassed by how much Fred had actually picked up on. He pinpointed things I hadn’t even voiced to myself: a friendship that was waning, disappointment from an injury that kept me from physical activity. In other words, Fred knew and acknowledged there was a lot going on in my head, and he occupied about 1/10th of the space he had when we first started seeing one another.
We talked through it all with Eric, who was incredibly open to hearing these things, but was most interested in discussing the deficiencies we had when it came to the physical side of our relationship. We answered questions like, “Does he please you? Do you please him? Does it go on too long? Too short? Is he big enough? Have you thought about doing it with the lights off? Are you up for role playing?”
They were provocative questions, and although we instinctively knew the answers from experience, we’d never really talked through them out loud. That kind of concrete awareness was helpful, and 20 minutes into it, we forgot Eric was there; speaking to one another about our needs became comfortable. After a successful first session, we all concluded that many of our issues were of a more cerebral nature — we’d have to keep working through those on our own. But we were off to a great start.
We thanked Eric and went to hang up, but not before he made one final pitch to consider some toys for the bedroom. He held up a dildo and a pair of handcuffs. “I think we’re pretty well covered with those,” Fred said. “What else do you have?”
So what did we learn from all this? If you’re even the slightest bit curious about trying it, you should talk to a sex coach. What do you have to lose? And because many offer their services digitally, you can do it comfortably and confidently from your own home. Bonus: if you get to an uncomfortable point, you can always get up and walk outside the camera’s sightline or lower the screen so you don’t feel like you’re being stared at.
Here are a few other takeaways:
#1 Put aside your pride. It’s hard to admit you might not be connecting with your partner 100% and it’s even harder to do it in front of a stranger. But think about it as an investment in your relationship; a little vulnerability now will go a long way if it means discovering how you can both get to a happier, more intimate place again (or for the first time).
#2 If you’re at the table, you’re closer than you think. The fact that you’ve arrived at this crossroads, that you’re starting to have conversations, to think about ways to adapt together, means you both want this. And though the kind of intimacy you’re imaging might seem just out of reach, you’re well on your way. Keep going.
#3 A new perspective can make all the difference. I like to solve my own problems, and had for a long time considered myself fairly introspective. This experience demonstrated how wrong I was. Letting go and letting someone else tell you what they see can be, well, eye-opening.
#4 Talking to a sex coach might be the kind of shared experience you can laugh about over drinks. (Drinks! See, you’re already on a date.) I guarantee you will have at least one occasion to give one another the side eye while your sex coach is talking. (Ours was during a very brief conversation about cock rings.) For us, laughter was one of the more simple pathways back to intimacy. Our physical relationship was rekindled from there.
#5 If all else fails … “Have you tried doing it standing up, in the middle of your bed? That could be interesting.”
Kate Smith is a content producer for a beloved Minnesota retailer, wife to Fred and mother to Samson (7) and Naomi (5). With her allotted 30 seconds of daily free time, Kate likes to make a frozen Tom Collins, grab her new Romance Writer’s Phrase Book and pretend she can’t hear her family knocking on the other side of the bathroom door.
BY Kate Smith - February 22, 2017
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Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.
This was so thoughtful and vulnerable! Thank you for sharing this story. There’s so much we miss out on our relationship when we’re avoiding sex (whether intentionally or unintentionally).
Thank you, Libby! As I’ve chatted with friends about it (most have only wanted to chat off-line) it’s been refreshing to find out that this is not necessarily a unique experience or situation for partners of all kinds. So glad you appreciated it!
This was a wonderful read, it is surprising how common sexual issues are in a marriage, but no one talks about it! It always makes people feel less alone to know that other people are going through it and you aren’t a freak.
Thank you for your words, Kate.
Definitely, DEFINITELY not a freak issue! So happy it resonated, Hannah!
Love this! I don’t think it is talked about enough, and openly. I am actually going to school to be a sex therapist and marriage/relationship counselor. I love that people are voicing these vulnerabilities and taking action!
Oh Kendra! What an important career path; I’m always so interested to hear about how people go in to that kind of work. It really is more important than a lot of folks are willing to admit. Good for you! <3