Marsha Ellentuck is a family, couple and sex therapist in Carmiel.
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A reader comments:
Traditionalist Jew, Ramat Gan, Israel:
You wrote, "It's true that life would be much simpler if we had a book of rules about everything, including when to kiss, when to have sex and when to know you can trust someone, but, alas, there ain't no such rules.
Please note that the Torah and millenium-old traditions provide all of these answers. One only has to pursue the issues at a yeshiva to get these and many other relevant answers. See, for instance, Aish HaTorah's website.
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Q: How is it that the act which represents the highest and deepest connection between man and woman, and in our Torah is considered a holy act, is something that people are able, willing and desperate to perform with strangers? What is the logic behind this?
A: "The act" has many different meanings to men and women. It could be the highest and deepest connection and a holy act, but it could also be the opposite as well. People give meanings to their life experiences. For some, sex is a way of showing the most intimate parts of oneself to the other, while to others it's a way of feeling wanted, or powerful, or loved.
People do it from obligation, for money, for the fun of it. People think of it as sacred and profane and everything in between. Is all this logical? I often ask people, when they come for therapy, why they have sex. The answers are often surprising. Often people lose sight of meaningful aspects of sex for themselves in their quest to "perform better." What keeps me interested in people's sex lives is being able to "see" them, to understand them, to look into them using the mini-world of their sex lives as the vehicle. Perhaps the way people relate to the "act" has logic, because it defines who they are.
Q: I am jealous of an intimate relation that my wife had before our marriage with a man who she didn't know well. We talked about it and I asked her to forget it, she agreed, and we married. She now remembers it as a good relationship. And that it was good for her. I ask her if I am not giving her something. We have sex four times a week with great intensity, I am very affectionate, romantic and give her a lot of attention. What is the problem? Is it mine? Is it hers? What can I do? I can't hear about her old relationship. Please help me
A: Your letter poses many interesting questions.Why, if you have such a good intimate relationship with your wife, are you concerned about her having a brief (but good) relationship that was over before you married?
You write that she now remembers it as a good one, as if she hadn't remembered it in quite the same way before. I wonder what's making her bring it up now? It's rather easy to think about the past in a way that serves our own needs in the present. Why would your wife be doing this right now, knowing how much it bothers you? Is she trying to let you know something? Why not ask her in a direct way about these things? If she says she's just reminiscing, you might want to look at your own issues of insecurity.
It seems to me that if your wife had a good relationship with someone prior to your relationship, you should feel even better about your own relationship with her, because she's with you now, not him. If she had a bad relationship with him, you could feel that she settled for you on the rebound. It boils down to the same issue of feeling good about yourself, from a strong sense of yourself and not from dependency on your wife's memories.
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Q:How sensible is the three-date rule?
A: The decision of when to start having sex in a relationship is a tricky one. I don't think that general advice, such as the three-date rule, is helpful to everyone.
Each person has an opportunity to develop their own values and base their behavior on those values. For one person, sleeping with someone on the third date will feel like they have held out for a long time, while another person might feel like they should have waited for a more meaningful relationship before having sex. There are no guarantees involved.
Some couples who have sex on the first date continue seeing each other, others never want to look at each other again.
In my opinion, the greatest deciding factor is how will I feel about myself no matter what the other person does after having sex.
I cannot ignore the problem of the double standard in our society. Even in these so-called sexually liberated times, women are the ones who are usually grappling with these questions, not men.
It is harder for women to feel good about themselves if they feel they have been sued sexually. Women often feel like they have given a part of themselves to a man and expect, in return, to continue to build the relationship. Often this expectation is not voiced for fear of scaring the guy away.
The woman has to contend with the uncomfortable feeling of talking about what a sexual relationship means to her, or risk being disappointed.
Of course there is always a risk, because, again, no one has any guarantees about people's honesty.
In the end we can only rely on ourselves to try to be the best we can be and develop our own abilities to know what's in our own best interests, or be able to calm ourselves down.
It's true that life would be much simpler if we had a book of rules about everything, including when to kiss, when to have sex and when to know you can trust someone, but, alas, there ain't no such rules.
Instead we have the incredible capacity to develop our own sense of trust in ourselves in order to guide us through the decisions in our lives.
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Q: I understand Masters and Johnson developed a technique in which couples with sexual dysfunction/relationship problems spend a period of time lying next to each other in bed, first clothed and then unclothed and over days or weeks progress towards having sex. In what way is this similar to the Jewish tradition of taharat hamishapaha (the laws regarding family purity) and do you think that this tradition makes sense, even when there is absolutely no touching involved during times of separation. Does it not isolate each member of the couple from the other during times of nidda?
A: Masters and Johnson, the founders of modern sex therapy, developed a technique to help couples cope with anxiety due to intimacy and sexual problems. Their technique is called Sensate Focus (focusing on sensations), and is used for a variety of sexual problems, including erectile dysfunction, vaginismus (pain do to contraction of the vaginal muscles at the beginning of penetration) and lack of sexual desire. The object of the exercise is to not let disturbing or distracting thoughts interfere with the pleasure of touch.
One of the basic tennets of Sensate Focus is that the couple is advised not to have sexual intercourse at least for the first few weeks of practising the technique, which will hopefully lower the tensions around the sexual problem. Even if both partners feel that they would like to have sex, it is discouraged, so that the couple can get used to have positive feelings of anticipation towards sex.
The couple is instructed to set aside an hour of undisturbed time together at least twice a week. During the first half hour, one person is "the giver" and the other "the receiver." The receiver lies on his/her stomach and is encouraged to concentrate exclusively on his partner's touch, letting distracting thoughts drift in and out of consciousness.
The exercise is carried out in a few stages. And at the beginning stage, depending on the couple, they may be partially clothed, especially if this will further lower the anxiety levels. The giver proceeds to touch his partner very slowly, with a gentle stroke, from the feet to the top of the head. Again, the stroke is very slow, so that it will take at least five to 10 minutes from the feet to the head.
More "erotic" parts of the body are skipped over at the beginning. When the giver has reached the top of his partner's head, the receiver then turns over onto her back and and the process is started again from foot to head. Both partners are encouraged to be fully into the touch from both sides: as giver and as receiver.
Couples who have been together for years are encouraged to find places in their partner's body that they have never touched, or have neglected in the past, such as the scalp, face, inside knees and elbows, etc, discovering new textures of the skin.
At the beginning the receiver is to take notice of his reactions, sensitivities, difficulties, etc. After both partners have their turn as both giver and receiver, they are to talk to each other about what they experienced, noting what was especially pleasurable and what was uncomfortable.
Each time the couple does the exercise, they can increase the intensity of the intimacy by lightly touching each other on the more erotic areas of the body, also using their mouths for touch and kissing, and slowly building up their knowledge of their partner's body and how to sexually stimulate each other in a non-demanding manner.
About the relationship between Sensate Focus and taharat hamishpaha and nidda: First of all, I am not an expert on Jewish Law and customs. In my opinion, there is certainly no direct relationship between Jewish Law and the Sensate Focus exercise, but some people who observe the nidda practice have reported that they feel that the weeks that they are not allowed to touch give them a chance to renew themselves and to anticipate the pleasure they will have when they come together again.
Of course, if it is not a pleasure to come togther, then the two weeks of nidda will be considered a vacation, at least for one for the partners!
Because a couple is not allowed to touch each other, it certainly does not mean they have to feel isolated from one another. They can take this opportunity to develop other means towards intimacy than those involving physical touch.
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Q: One of the major sources of tension between my husband and myself is my lowered desire for sex. What can I do about it?
A: Sexual desire problems are the most common sexual difficulty in the Western world. They are complicated to treat and can have a myriad of causes such as illness, medication, fatigue, gender issues and a multitude of feelings towards oneself and ones partner, including the question of whether or not the sex one is having is worthwhile.
The most common cause of sexual problems is the development of the relationship itself. Desire issues are inevitable in the course of a committed, monogamous relationship. There is a curious rule of thumb that no one can get around, even though it might sound strange: The one who wants sex the least has the control over it.
Your partner can make you have sex either by physical or emotional means, but he or she cannot make you want him or her.
I would ask you to pay attention to the phrasing here I am talking about having desire for someone, not desire for sex, a delineation that is often overlooked.
One of the ramifications of these ideas is: "Do I want to want [my husband]?"
When I have discussed this question with many of my "lower desire" clients (low desire and high desire are always comparative terms, by the way), they often reveal mitigating factors which make it a challenge to them to really want their partner.
For instance, one woman was expecting her body to respond to her husband's advances even though her mind was light years away from the business at hand. She was thinking about many other things, including her resentment towards him for his insensitivity to her distracted state of mind.
"Doesn't he know I'm not getting turned on?"
"How can he do this so automatically?"
"What's wrong with me? Why can't I do this?"
These are just some of this woman's internal thoughts that are hardly conducive to getting turned on.
When she figured out if it was in her own interest to want to want her husband, she could work on getting her mind in gear, which is one of the most important components in any kind of sexual difficulty.
Your lower desire could be looked at as a challenge to your personal development within the relationship, working on your willingness to face your own contributiuon to the problem, or to face the truth of how you really feel about your relationship.
Q: How do medications and sickness affect sex?
<> Both illnesses themselves and many types of medicine can affect various aspects of sexual response. They can make it harder for the body to get the stimulation needed to function sexually. If you are having a problem with any aspect of sex, including changes in sexual desire, you should examine the kind of medication you are taking.
For example, drugs that can help with depression can also cause lowered sexual desire. Certain antihistamines can sometimes cause erection problems. Nowadays there are many good alternatives to medications that interfere with sexual response, so it would be wise to consult your physician.
Illness can have a physical impact on sex, as well as a psychological one. It is rare however, that sexual activity becomes an impossiblity. The most important influence on sex is the way we choose to deal with all the challenges it presents to us.
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