IMAGO Director, Tim Atkinson interviews YourTango Expert & Sexologist, Tammy Nelson for her thoughts
“Is it just a natural part of getting older together that our sex life is going the way of the Dodo?” asked Brenda and Simon. “We really care for each other, but on the rare times it happens, sex is pretty dull.”
Tammy Nelson made quite a stir in 2008 with her book Getting the Sex You Want in which she applied Imago Relationship Therapy to restoring the love lives of couples like Simon and Brenda. “Sometimes couples wonder if their marriage is simply past its expiration date” she told me. “They are asking whether it’s time to trade in their partner for a new model.”
Simon doesn’t want to be unfaithful, but makes up for lack of action in the bedroom with internet porn. That leaves Brenda worrying that it might not just be the sex that’s wrong, but that the whole relationship is fading away. “We don’t even really know how to talk about it” they shared with Tammy.
Not knowing how to talk about sex is extremely common in relationships, and Tammy’s response is to use Imago Relationship Therapy to get Brenda and Simon talking about the deeper things that really matter.
Step 1 – Talk about what it is you are missing in a positive way
Shortly before my last marriage ended, my wife would say to me things like “get some help with your sex technique.” Other days she might complain, “You don’t find me attractive anymore.” From Tammy I learned that these comments are painfully common, and are just as effective as saying nothing and silently seething. Instead, it’s important to find a way to share your concerns in a positive way. “I’m feeling distant from you” might be one way, or “I’m missing those wonderful times we had together.”
Step 2 – Talk about what sex means to you
“Usually at least one partner feels guilty and anxious about the lack of sex” explained Tammy “So it’s helpful to start connecting around sex in a way that looks at the deeper needs, rather than the physical details.” Tammy coached Simon and Brenda in a way of talking called the Imago Dialogue. She would ask each partner to share what sex means for them. One might say “Sex for me is about being emotionally connected”, and then the other would mirror that back, repeating what they heard. The mirroring process helps build connection, because each partner feels really heard. Mirroring becomes more important the deeper the conversations go.
Step 3 – Appreciate your partner
When couples talk about what is going wrong, things go more wrong. For example, men tend to avoid sex altogether if there is any suggestion of dysfunction. It’s easy in these conversations to shift the blame on other things, like too much stress at work. Soon discussions about sex get blocked, waiting for the external world to change. And it rarely does.
Instead, turn the conversation around. Tell your partner “One thing I really appreciate about you sexually is…” This will be even more effective if you can both use the mirroring process described in step 2. You can add “One thing I really like about our sex life is…”
Tammy encouraged Simon and Brenda to talk more about the whole sexual experience. “It’s not all about the finish line” she says “but finding the delight in each moment couples share together.”
Step 4 – The weekly sex date
I was quite taken aback when Tammy told me that her advice for a couple wanting to resuscitate their sex-life is to set aside a regular time for sex. “Same time, same day of the week, whether you feel like it or not.” she prescribed. “Even if you are angry or tired!”
I always thought that sex should be spontaneous, but Tammy changed that. “Marking a regular date in the calendar sets up some anticipation, and helps couples begin to look forward to it. Simon and Brenda were resistant, but willing to at least try it. They found, like many, it worked well for them for a few weeks, and started to get the sizzle back.” She explained.
But after about six weeks many couples hit a wall. That’s when it might be time for some good “nuts and bolts” type conversations about what happens in the bedroom, and maybe get a little specialist advice.
Step 5 – Get exciting
Now is the time to start using the Imago Dialogue to explore more about what you really want sexually. Stay in the positive, telling your partner “Something sexual I enjoyed in the past…” and then expand into what you would like more of in the future.
At this stage Tammy starts coaching couples to share fantasies. “These aren’t necessarily things that couples are really going to do” explains Tammy “it’s more important for their partner to understand what these fantasies mean to their partner emotionally.” Tammy calls it sexual empathy.
One example may be a partner who wants to be blindfolded, but her partner didn’t want to do this because he felt it was degrading to her. Through Imago Dialogue he learned that his partner felt that being blindfolded would free her from insecurity about her body, and enable her to be more fully engage in pure sensation. It became a new point of connection.
Tammy’s work is deeply rooted in Imago Relationship Therapy, where creating deeper connection is all important. She believes that eroticism is an important part of that connection, bringing a fresh energy into the relationship. As sex becomes a world of new adventure and discovery, Brenda and Simon can fall deeper in love than ever before.