Dr. Laura Berman is in the business of improving sex lives, but she usually works in the confines of an office. Not this time. The Oprah Show is sending Dr. Berman into the trenches to see where it all goes down—or doesn't—for couples in need of help.
Shayna and her husband, Dan, have been married for eight years. "There was a lot of chemistry when we first got together," Shayna says. "We couldn't get our hands off each other."
Since getting married, though, Dan says the sex has dwindled. "In the beginning, we'd probably have sex a couple, or a few times a week," he says. "Then that week turned into weeks and two weeks turned into probably two, three times a month."
One of the biggest obstacles in Shayne and Dan's sex life is that Shayna doesn't like kissing, she says. "It makes me feel repulsed," she says. "It makes me feel disgusted, and it makes my skin crawl."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Dan has started to take this personally. "It makes me wonder sometimes if it is me—if she's just not into me, or if she's not turned on by me anymore or if I'm lacking somewhere," Dan says. "Foreplay consists of Shayna having her vibrator and me sitting there pretty much waiting till she's ready to have sex."
Since Shayna doesn't particularly like having sex, she says she'll barter for it. "If I give her a massage, she'll have sex," Dan says. Shayna says she also trades household chores—making their three children's sandwiches, filling the gas tank—for sex. "It's like, if I have to do a chore, then you have to do a chore."
Dan says his wife's attitude makes him question himself. "I don't know if it's my looks or something I did to her," he says.
Shayna hasn't always hated kissing, she says. "I remember that person that I used to be, that couple we used to be, and I really didn't understand what had happened over the years," she says. "I was angry with myself because I didn't understand why I couldn't do it anymore. It was just physically impossible for me."
At first Shayna claimed that it was just the wetness she didn't like, but after Dr. Berman took Shayna's sexual history, some deeper issues emerged. "I grew up with just my mom and my sister, so there was no man in the house at all," she says. "I was 14 at the time I remember her meeting her husband now, and it was very difficult because I just remember them going on dates or her even just laughing with someone else, and I felt betrayed. ... I felt like it was disgusting. I didn't want to think about it. I was angry."
All these years later, Shayna says she doesn't know how to integrate both being a mother and a sexual being. "I feel like I would destroy their worlds. Like they would think that's disgusting or gross," she says. "I don't want to be responsible for them ever feeling mad."
Though Shayna was scared her kids would feel they were losing her if she had a sexual relationship with her husband, Dr. Berman says the opposite is true. "I'm not saying that any child should see their parents having sex or know the details of their sex life, but the best family structures, the best relationships that children experience, is the balance," she says. "You're their model of what a loving, intimate relationship is. So, you don't want them knowing the details of your sex life, but to have a sense of the sensual and sexual chemistry between their parents is important."
To start the work of getting intimate again, Dr. Berman assigned Dan and Shayna homework: to spend 15 minutes kissing. "It was a big failure," Shayna says. "I was supposed to initiate the kiss when I was ready. He was holding me and right away I started to feel pressure because I felt out of control. I had this flood of emotion. I started to think about all of the things riding on this moment."
Shayna says feeling out of control sparks her to take the reigns where she can. "The way I soothe myself is I try to find things that I can control, so the only thing I can control is being a good mom, because that's the story in my mind of who I am. That's where I feel safe. ... I thought about my kids, and then I felt disgusted and I couldn't even lift my face up to his."
Shayna and Dan's second homework assignment was to take a field trip with Dr. Berman. "When I walked in and saw the rock wall and realized I was going to be climbing it, I thought I was going to faint," Shayna says.
Already afraid of heights, Shayna couldn't even look at the wall at first. Eventually, she got in the harness and gave it a go, putting her trust in her husband.
Eventually, Shayna surprised herself and conquered the wall. "It's just not as hard as I thought it would feel," she says. "It makes me really trust him, and I feel like I let go and he was there and he didn't let me fall. It was very freeing."
Dr. Berman says relinquishing control was the most important thing for Shayna. "She had to put her trust in Dan, and he didn't let her fall and she actually let go. That is huge," she says.
Shayna says the rock climbing trip changed everything for her. "It literally felt like a spiritual awakening. I had not been able to let go for so long, and physically letting go, I was able to see what was on the other side, and it felt like freedom," she says.
Dan and Shayna felt so freed after the rock climbing wall that not only did they kiss, they even had sex. "I stopped seeing things through the eyes of my children. I think I finally realized that I am allowed to be Shayna outside of [being a] mother. I'm allowed to be a wife," Shayna says. "It doesn't mean I don't love my children, and it doesn't mean I'm not going to be there for them. Just that physical release of control to me felt so empowering that I was able to let go. ... I was able to say: 'This doesn't make a bad person. I can be Shayna. This is part of who I am.'"
Part of reconnecting to her sexual side was for Shayna to learn to stop worrying about other people's opinions. "I was always afraid of what other people were thinking about me," Shayna says. "Dr. Berman helped me realize that those are fears that I had about myself. So I just turned that finger around."
Dan and Shayna's work didn't start and stop on the rock climbing wall. They did a lot of talk therapy as well, Dr. Berman says. "Their work is just beginning because they made this huge breakthrough, but now it's about keeping the momentum going, especially now that they're back in their regular lives and she's back in mommy mode. That's when the real work begins."