Staring down low desire and infrequent sex, the couples who see Ottawa clinical psychologist Peggy Kleinplatz are often swirling down a “sexual relationship death spiral,” as the doctor has dubbed it.
Many of them hold popular beliefs about sex that are strikingly unforgiving: That good sex ends when youth ends, or shortly after the honeymoon phase. That marrieds should be grateful for any sex after harried professional lives, children and domesticity take over. That partners who turn away from intimacy are dysfunctional – even if the sex has become empty and routine. That lovers either have it or they don’t in bed.
For more than two decades, Kleinplatz has been asking couples to shift their thinking and aim higher. Fifteen years ago, she and Dr. Dana Ménard, a University of Windsor clinical psychologist, began interviewing people with gratifying sex lives. They’ve distilled their knowledge in a new book, Magnificent Sex: Lessons from Extraordinary Lovers.
Young and old, married and not, heterosexual and LGBTQ, kinky and vanilla, these “extraordinary lovers” invested time, energy and conscious effort in their sexuality, much like one would any other pursuit in life. Though varied, their sexual experiences revolved around mutual pleasure, openness, vulnerability and trust. Their intimate lives bore no resemblance to the performance-driven feats of online porn, or the obligatory maintenance sex so many long-term partners engage in, trying to keep their relationships afloat. The authors hope their insights will give dispirited couples a blueprint for sex worth wanting: “Disappointing sex lives can change,” they write.
The book also proposes a complete reimagining of sex therapy, away from pathologizing people as sexually dysfunctional. To that end, Kleinplatz, Ménard and their colleagues launched a group couples’ therapy that centres on “optimal sexual experiences,” the kinds their extraordinary lovers described. After eight weeks in therapy, couples described more intense sexual arousal, frequency, initiation, receptiveness, play and fun – including some partners who’d not had sex in more than a decade – according to a study published in February in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. The Ottawa team has now trained therapists in at least a dozen cities, including New York, Seattle, Stratford and Thunder Bay.
Kleinplatz, a professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa, spoke with The Globe and Mail.
You believe sex therapists are aiming too low with their attitude toward the sex lives of long-married couples. Why?
There are so many people who come to believe the myth that once you’re married or in a long-term relationship, once you’ve got kids and a mortgage and a car and two jobs, lower your expectations.
The sad fact about my field is that very often we’re telling people to play it safe. The sex therapists we interviewed seemed to uphold a mentality that said, “Any sex is better than no sex.” I would dispute that. When people engage in sex just for the sake of being able to say, “Well, we did it, we can get along now,” a lot of this sex is literally dread-full.
Nobody is attending to the quality of the sex that these couples might rightfully find unappealing. I want their sex to be filled with anticipation that builds, rather than dread that creates a downward spiral. What we’ve learned by studying extraordinary lovers is they’ve actually increased their aspirations over time. They are less willing to settle for the mundane.
Much of the cultural focus around sex is on technique, performance and orgasm. The people you interviewed were more concerned with pleasure.
Very often, particularly in heterosexual couples, I’ll hear the husband talk about finding a formula to bring his wife to orgasm as quickly as possible. Having found the formula, he repeats the same set of manoeuvres. Eventually, she says it’s not working: “What does she want?” he asks. Nothing kills sexual desire faster than doing what works – relentlessly.
Magnificent lovers aren’t about performing the same series of steps to bring about the same predictable, reliable, consistent outcome. They’re continually exploring each other over time as the moment changes, as life experience changes you.
There’s something erotic about the idea of two people – or more, as the case may be – in a relationship that grows over time because the people continue to invest in one another’s growth.
The reality is that if you want your sex life to be deeply fulfilling – if you want to glow in the dark – it’s going to require empathic communication, time, energy. Not work, but surely effort.
Why do people recoil from the notion that good sex might take effort?
In the early phases of a relationship, people describe sex as natural and spontaneous. They say, “It used to be easy then. Why does it seem like work now?”
It’s a very cleverly staged illusion. Early on in new relationships, you didn’t just hop into bed. You’d shower, groom, put on your favourite scent. You’d take off the underwear with the fraying elastic you wore at the gym and put on clothes that make you feel appealing. You’d take the laundry that’s lying all over your floor and hide it. You’d do a million little things. And you also put a lot of effort into getting to know new partners as human beings.
After 20 years together, people often forget how much concerted effort they put into making it all look effortless.
Another myth is that sex is for young people. Many of those you spoke to were actually older adults who’d cultivated sexual knowledge over a lifetime.
At some point in their 40s and 50s, these older people confronted the fact that their sex lives left them wanting. The question was whether to rock the boat and seek more, or go through the motions for the rest of their lives. They had enough life experience, maturity and self-knowledge to say, “I want more.”
Your older interviewees were mature around making the occasional mistake in bed. Why is that a good thing?
Extraordinary lovers were able to laugh at themselves and learn from each mistake. Several people said they learned from everyone; even the bad experiences taught them how to change it up for the next time. It’s quite the opposite of aiming for some perfect performance or formula.
Some will find the study of “magnificent sex” frivolous. Why do you think it’s worthy of pursuit?
Sex is a crucial part of selfhood, an expression of the self at the most fundamental and exalted levels, a form of communication and a way of affirming life. What could be better than being alive in one another’s embrace?
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Keep up to date with the weekly Health & Wellness newsletter. Sign up today.