Dr. Laura Berman
Photo: Ben Rose
Q: What are some things my husband and I can talk about to build intimacy without having sex?

A: Here are some ideas that I find work really well: You can discuss a vacation that you'd love to go on. Ask, "Where do you see yourself in 10 years?" Even if you've been with that person for 30 years, you may not have had that conversation since you were in your 20s. You could ask: "What are five things I do that make you feel loved? What are five things that you love about me?" Don't discuss the logistics of your life; don't bring up the kids. It might be awkward at first, but you can do a kissing exercise where you say, "I'm going to kiss you the way I most love to be kissed for a few minutes, and then you can kiss me the way you most love to be kissed." You'll learn something new about each other. Once that pressure to have sex is off the table, it makes room for the sensual energy to build.

Q: I have a husband who's quite good at oral sex, but I've had some uncomfortable experiences with it in my past. How can I be less nervous when he's down there?

A: I've done national research on genital self-image in women because this is such a huge issue. If you have negative genital self-image—concerns about odor, appearance and things like that—you're 6 to 10 times less likely to be able to reach orgasm or enjoy sex. The most significant predictor for that is some jerky partner in the past, who said something ridiculous. So one reason we're uncomfortable is that we're worried it's unpleasant for him or her when they're down there.

Another problem is that women have a really hard time lying back and receiving without doing something in return. Oral sex is the ultimate receiving. You start to worry, "It's taking a long time," and then it takes even longer because you're anxious about it. The reason he's pressuring you to do it is because he wants to give you a gift; this is a way that he's trying to express his love to you. When you're lying there and starting to have those negative thoughts, I encourage you to remember that he's there because he wants to be.

Q: I definitely want sex, but I am having problems being inspired by my spouse and wanting it from him. What can I do?

A: You know what you want, but you're not open to receiving it from him. Sometimes that's an issue with the delivery—he can't or won't give you what you want—but sometimes that's about something inside yourself that's closed to him. This isn't about sex. This is about something that's larger and outside the bedroom and keeping you from being open. That's a couple's issue that takes some soul-searching, some exploring and maybe some therapy to figure out. It certainly can be repaired, but until you feel that connection, you're not going to be open to receiving.

Next: Dr. Laura Berman's advice on marriage counseling
Q: I suggested to my husband that we go to marriage counseling to figure out how to deal with some problems with my mother-in-law. He was very much against it, but he went. When we got there, boy, did we talk about other things besides my mother-in-law, and our marriage is better now than ever. What advice would you give to people about going to counseling when they don't think they need it?

A: I've been doing this for over 20 years, and in the beginning people came to see me when their relationship was in major crisis. That still sometimes happens, but I am seeing a trend where, now that a lot of the societal taboo has been lifted, many couples want to build better intimacy before things get too hard. You were getting ahead of the problem. Maintaining a healthy relationship is the hardest job there is. Anyone who tells you a relationship shouldn't be work is an idiot. You have to nurture it like a living, breathing thing. You don't have to see a therapist constantly like Woody Allen, but if you go for a specific problem or goal, it can be extremely powerful. None of us come with a manual on how to communicate, how to get our needs met, how to deal with conflict. We just do what we saw growing up, which isn't necessarily the most functional or healthy thing. Therapy is a tool to learn how to be in a relationship.

Q: How do you deal with things like fertility drugs or hormones, which affect your relationship but which you don't have a lot of control over?

A: Every relationship is filled with your issues that affect your quality of life, your sexual intimacy and your emotional intimacy. You can't avoid them, but it's about how you navigate through them. Getting the right support as you're going through it is so important. It's similar to affairs. I don't endorse affairs, but I absolutely believe you can repair a relationship after one. More often than not, if you both are willing to do the work on your relationship when an affair has happened, you will come out the other end with a significantly better relationship than you would have had if that affair had never happened. The Chinese word for "crisis" is "opportunity" for a reason: All of these horrible, annoying things that can negatively affect you physically and emotionally in your life together and individually are all opportunities for a growth experience.

Next: Should you share your passwords with your significant other?
Q: My partner and I have agreed to open communication, including having pass codes to each other's phones and emails. He doesn't understand the texts I send to my best friend about him or other things going on in my life. Is this something that can actually work?

A: I'm of the opinion that if you're in a monogamous relationship, all your passwords to all your accounts should be an open book. But that does not mean you check them constantly or check them at all. It's like a nanny-cam—even if you have an amazing babysitter, if you watch the nanny-cam long enough, you're going to see something you're not happy about. The problem is not that you're sharing each other's passwords, it's that there's a level of suspicion or uncertainty that's making him check too much. That's a larger trust issue in the relationship.

Q: I'm a 50-year-old empty nester, and I'm also single. What advice do you have for me?

A: What you're talking about is an opportunity to totally redefine your life. You have an empty nest, so you don't have to worry about kids at home. You have an empty bed that you can fill with whomever you want. You have a chance to redefine who you are as a sexual being—and we all have that chance. We don't have to believe the story of our lives that we've been told. You're not the same person you were when you first had sex and not the same person today that you're going to be five years down the line. There's always the opportunity to reinvent yourself, rediscover yourself and redefine who you want to be as a sexual person. All it requires is the bravery to be fearless, to open your heart, to let go of the judgments you've internalized.

Q: How do we raise sexually healthy daughters?

A: From a very early age, you want to teach both boys and girls to feel comfortable about their bodies. Show them: "This is your elbow. This is your nose. This is your vulva." It's not a va-jay-jay. You have to use the correct terminology. It's an ongoing conversation. Find teachable moments: Use the media, watch their favorite television shows with them and ask them questions and get their opinions. What you have to do as a parent is think, "I don't want my kid to have sex any time soon, but if I could design the ideal first sexual experience for them, who would it be with and what would it be like?" Then that can become the context for all of your conversations with them. Whatever your opinions for what that experience looks like, you can teach them that sex is a beautiful, magical, fulfilling gift—the first time and every time—and it's about deciding who deserves that gift.

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