5 Ways to Create Intimacy Without Taking Your Clothes off

While it’s the rare marriage that thrives without sex, she says there are many ways to be intimate without it.

By the time your kids are asleep, your mood is exhausted, not erotic. In theory, you want to connect with your partner. In reality, you’re too tired to make the effort. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone.
It is totally normal for your sex life to take a dive when you have kids, says Dr. Jenni Skyler, certified sex therapist and director of The Intimacy Institute. But that doesn’t mean you can’t – or shouldn’t – seek intimacy in other ways. According to Dr. Skyler, the definition of intimacy is quality connection and it is essential to a healthy relationship. And while it’s the rare marriage that thrives without sex, she says there are many ways to be intimate without it. In fact, Dr. Skyler co-created a model that identifies eight different spheres in which couples foster intimacy – and only one of those spheres is sexual.
Opportunities for intimacy might be less scarce than they seem – if you know where to look.

1 | Talking

Experts and couples agree uninterrupted conversation is an excellent way to create intimacy. While the first step is finding a sitter, putting the kids to bed, or scheduling a lunch date while the kids are at school, the second step is just as important: Put away your phones. “We’re so busy replying to texts or checking social media that we hardly hear the one we’re with. This is toxic to relationships,” says marriage therapist Jill Whitney, LMFT.
Once you create a distraction-free space for a conversation, you might be surprised where that conversation leads. Sarah Protzman Howlett, a mom of four-year-old twins describes a simple ritual she and her husband share. He says, “So tell me things,” and from there, they might discuss anything from work to travel plans to politics well into the night. Relationship expert Lucinda Loveland says research confirms, “couples who share with each other more, like each other more.”

2 | Kissing

Kissing (with all your clothes on) is something you can do virtually anytime, anywhere – even in front of the kids – and it’s incredibly intimate. I’m not talking about the chaste kisses Mike and Carol Brady exchanged before bed. I’m talking prolonged kissing with tongue. Skyler recommends what she calls a “kissing date,” in which kissing is not a means to sex, but rather the main event. Kelly Burch is a strong proponent of kissing. Though she and her husband have always enjoyed it, now as parents of a three-year-old and working opposite shifts, it has become much more important to them. Burch explains,“Kissing only takes a minute and builds that connection and intimacy.” As Natalie Rotelli recalls, she grew up thinking kissing was “first base” or just something to cover on the way to “home plate.” Now married with two children, she finds kissing is in fact, “the most intimate thing [my husband and I] could do.”

3 | Touching

The power of touch is huge. “Whether it’s a kiss hello or goodbye or holding hands, even non-sexual touching builds connection between partners,” says therapist Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW.
David Bennett, a certified counselor and relationship expert, explains this phenomenon in terms of neuroscience: “Any form of longer-duration cuddling and touching causes a release of oxytocin in the brain. This is the chemical that bonds couples together. So, any type of cuddling or hand-holding (just make it longer than 20 seconds) will build intimacy.” While Bennett maintains nothing beats intercourse when it comes to releasing oxytocin, touching is the next best thing.
Rhonda Milrad, LCSW, relationship therapist and founder of Relationup, agrees that while touch is no replacement for sex, it’s incredibly valuable. While many new parents are plain old tired, there is limited privacy with little eyes and ears at home. This is why Milrad recommends foot and hand massages as a way to connect: “Being touched and nurtured is sensual and connecting and can feel like the two of you are sneaking a guilty pleasure.”
Some couples just have a habit of touching. Chase McCann, the mother of a 17-year-old says she and her partner have a habit of holding hands whenever they’re out. “We hold hands on the street or in parking lots (also sometimes in the mall, if he’s afraid I’ll wander off). Sure, in our case it’s a practical thing, but it also means that even on days when we’re busy and not thinking about intimacy, we’re maintaining that touch connection.”
Marc and Stephanie Trachtenberg swear by the extended hug. With two sons, their home is busy, but there’s always time for a hug, whether it’s in the morning, after work, or any random moment. What matters is that the embrace lasts “at least seven seconds” according to Marc. (Stephanie estimated their hugs last a minimum of 10 seconds).

4 | Engaging your senses

If you’re not in the mood to be touched, or if physical affection just isn’t your love language, Skyler reminds us that the five senses include not just touch, but also sight, hearing, smell, and taste. She says sharing a sensual experience is an excellent way to connect. This could be listening to music together, enjoying a meal together, or looking at something beautiful. When a couple sits outside to watch the sunset together, all kinds of good things happen. “Stress decreases, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, neurotransmitters are released and your mood becomes calmer,” says Rhonda Milrad, LCSW. “Consequently, you both are more open to connection and communication.”
It doesn’t take much to create a sensual experience in your home. Relationship expert Lucinda Loveland encourages couples to use dim lighting, candles, and music. According to Loveland, “This is a great way to create a warm and romantic environment without doing anything physical.” Many couples I talked to enjoy sharing a meal after their kids are in bed. Amy Bailey, a mom of three, says she and her husband of 16 years look forward to their “date nights in.” Whether dinner is a meat and cheese plate or a steak dinner, they savor the food and each other’s company.

5 | Sharing a hobby

As parents stretched in many different directions and with a “scarcity of resources” as my husband is fond of saying, it’s easy to forget what attracted you and your partner to each other in the first place. Doing a hobby together can be an excellent reminder.
Especially when time together as a couple is at a premium, “sharing something novel helps keep your relationship from getting stagnant,” says Jill Whitney, LMFT. Julie Burton can attest to this. With two daughters, now ages 11 and eight, Julie felt that she and her husband Scott were moving in separate directions, until they started fishing together. Living in Kansas, it’s never inexpensive or convenient, but “it’s always like falling in love again.”
A hobby doesn’t have to be novel or exotic to create intimacy, though. Jacob Brier and his wife have a young son and a shared passion for fitness. For the Briers, working out together equals “heart rate up, sweaty, out of breath … clothes on. Plus, you’re helping to stay healthy together.”
Natalie and Matt Rotelli have a nightly ritual of doing the Sunday New York Times crossword together. “He knows all things mythological, vocab, history (US and world), locations and cute little plays on words,” she says. “I generally figure out the algorithm for the long answers associated with the theme of the crossword and all things pop culture.” Natalie says their mutual admiration for each other’s skills is a source of connection.
Intimacy encompasses so much more than sex. It’s about connection – whether it’s a game of tennis, a conversation, or a hug. It’s natural for kids to put a damper on your sex life, at least for a period of time. And while you can expect your kids to ruin certain things, (e.g., your sleep), your connection with your partner doesn’t have to be one of them.

A Straightforward Approach to Teaching My Kids About Sex

I made a conscious decision early on to be open and honest with my kids and to incorporate sexuality and sexual education naturally into their lives.

The week before my 13th birthday, my mother, a registered nurse, handed me the small booklet called “A Doctor Talks to 9-to-12-Year-Olds.” That and occasional reminders to “be a good girl” and to “save myself for marriage” were the extent of my sexual education at home.
In seventh grade, after my mother hesitantly agreed to sign a paper allowing me to participate in the public school’s sexual education program, I remember thinking finally some real information might be shared. Mrs. Trent’s classroom was covered with posters of Voyager and Spacelab with planet mobiles made by students hanging from the ceiling. She encouraged questions and went into great detail in her answers.
But the fertilization part was exactly like in the doctor’s book. It wasn’t until the last day of our chapter on sexuality that it looked like we might finally be getting to the truth about exactly what sex is. I don’t recall what was shared and don’t remember asking any questions, but clearly, I still didn’t get it. My journal at the time states in big bold letters: “Today Mrs. Trent told us all about SEXUAL INTERSECTION!”
With my lack of information in mind, I made a conscious decision early on to be open and honest with my own children and to incorporate sexuality and sexual education naturally into their lives. The only problem was, with no experience talking as a child or with a child about the subject, I wasn’t confident in my own knowledge. I felt awkward and uncomfortable, and I didn’t know what to say or how to say it.
So I bought books. Peter Mayle and Arthur Robins’ “Where Did I Come From” and Robie Harris and Michael Emberley’s “It’s So Amazing” had a place on my children’s bookshelf before they could read. Sometimes I’d find them looking at the pictures like any other book. Every once in a while, I’d pick one up and casually read a few pages to them just as I did “Frog and Toad” or “Winnie the Pooh”.
Despite my deeply ingrained Catholic guilt and my lack of role models for valuable communication, I gradually became more relaxed about addressing the basics. I learned things no one ever told me about. The vas deferens and clitoris never made an appearance in Mrs. Trent’s basic diagram. I was using words that I’d never heard spoken out loud and certainly never said myself. Vagina became common vernacular.
From the start, I attempted to be straight-forward and factual with my children about puberty and sex. Even as a little dude, my son knew about menstruation. When he was five and found a tampon on the bathroom counter and questioned whether I smoked cigars, I gave him the basic details about periods.
My description must have included some facts about gestation because, over a year later, when he and his older sister were playing LIFE, they had gone around the board twice and my daughter had two cars full of children. I overheard my son say to his sister, “Hey, you haven’t had a period in five years!”
At first, I was thinking, “The kid is a math whiz!” and then I realized that he was no more than seven and actually grasped the fetal-growth concept I had shared so far back that I barely remembered the conversation. Point is, the kids seemed to be listening, and they seemed to be willing to share and ask questions.
During the summers, when we had some time on our hands and my children were each around 11, I made them sit with me and read through “It’s So Amazing”. My son hated it, but I told him that it was my responsibility as his mother to give him this information. Did he know how much I wanted to be a good mother? Yes? Well then, dude, you have to help me out, here.
When the subject came up in seventh-grade health, he told me he was glad he’d already heard all that information and more, and he wasn’t as uncomfortable as many of his friends clearly were.
Those early talks helped set the stage for the more difficult conversations as my children have moved through their teenage years. We’ve talked about blow jobs and masturbation, reproductive health and orgasms, hook-ups and body image, sexual orientation, identity, and sexual pressure.
We’ve talked about asserting needs, desires and limits, and a girl’s right to pleasure. When a subject gets tricky and I don’t know how to address it, I’ll check out sites like More Than Sex-Ed or Peggy Orenstein’s book “Girls and Sex” for tips.
I’ve had frank conversations with my children about the easy access to pornography and how watching it might shape ideas of what sex is or should be. I’ve shared that, when I was young, about the only access to such images were in the magazines I found at one of the houses where I babysat and how the videos were far less graphic and only available at XXX stores or if friends passed the contraband around.
Music wasn’t as graphic either. Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” was scandalous (at least in my house), and the first time I ever saw sex was when I had it myself. Now people can watch it on their phones.
I am not like my mother. I don’t say “Just Say No” without giving explanations. Just as we talk about what alcohol and drugs do to your body and when and why you might not want to make that choice, we also talk about how the images in pornography may stay in your mind and become an expectation of how you or your partners should feel, act, or pretend to act. We talk about how those videos aren’t real life.
I tell them how I hope that, when the time is right, they will have more authentic experiences. We talk about respect, for themselves and others. We talk about the emotions that go into the decision to have intercourse.
I was the first person my daughter told after she had sex for the first time. I would never have told my mother, who tried, awkwardly, when I was 29 to return to the conversation we didn’t have when I was 13, asking if I felt comfortable choosing a white wedding dress as we prepared for my wedding.
I had conversations with my own daughter for several months as she considered whether her long-term boyfriend should be her first lover. Of course, we talked about safe sex. And we talked about protecting the heart.
She still calls me from college and shares anecdotes of her relationships. Sometimes she asks for guidance, and I promise no judgment. All indications are that she is confident in her sexuality. She’s taking care of herself and has healthy attitudes about what she wants and how she should be treated. That is what I was hoping for when we first opened up “Where Did I Come From?” when she was tiny.
My children came from a safe place where they could talk about anything, and still can.

What This Magic Ratio Says About Your Relationship

For every negative interaction during conflict, a stable and happy marriage has five (or more) positive interactions.

Whether it’s about not having enough sex, the dirty laundry, or spending too much money, conflict is inevitable in every marriage.
To understand the difference between happy and unhappy couples, Dr. Gottman and Robert Levenson began doing longitudinal studies of couples in the 1970s. They asked couples to solve a conflict in their relationship in 15 minutes, then sat back and watched. After carefully reviewing the tapes and following up with them nine years later, they were able to predict which couples would stay together and which would divorce with over 90 percent accuracy.
Their discovery was simple. The difference between happy and unhappy couples is the balance between positive and negative interactions during conflict. There is a very specific ratio that makes love last.
That “magic ratio” is 5 to 1. This means that for every negative interaction during conflict, a stable and happy marriage has five (or more) positive interactions.
“When the masters of marriage are talking about something important,” Dr. Gottman says, “they may be arguing, but they are also laughing and teasing and there are signs of affection because they have made emotional connections.”
On the other hand, unhappy couples tend to engage in fewer positive interactions to compensate for their escalating negativity. If the positive-to-negative ratio during conflict is 1-to-1 or less, that’s unhealthy, and indicates a couple teetering on the edge of divorce.
So what’s considered a negative interaction?

The one negative interaction

Examples of negative interactions include another predictor of divorce, The Four Horsemen, as well as feelings of loneliness and isolation. While anger is certainly a negative interaction and a natural reaction during conflict, it isn’t necessarily damaging to a marriage. Dr. Gottman explains in “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail” that “anger only has negative effects in marriage if it is expressed along with criticism or contempt, or if it is defensive.”
Negative interactions during conflict include being emotionally dismissive or critical, or becoming defensive. Body language such as eye-rolling can be a powerful negative interaction, and it is important to remember that negativity holds a great deal of emotional power, which is why it takes five positive interactions to overcome any one negative interaction.
Negative interactions happen in healthy marriages, too, but they are quickly repaired and replaced with validation and empathy.

The five positive interactions

Couples who flourish engage in conflict differently than those who eventually break up. Not only do the masters of marriage start conflict more gently, but they also make repairs in both minor and major ways that highlight the positivity in their relationship. Below is a list of interactions that stable couples regularly use to maintain positivity and closeness.

Be interested

When your partner complains about something, do you listen? Are you curious about why he or she is so mad? Displaying interest includes asking open-ended questions, as well as more subtle signals such as nods, making eye contact, and timely “uh-huhs” that show how closely you are listening.

Express affection

Do you hold hands with your partner, offer a romantic kiss, or embrace your partner when greeting them at the end of the day? Expressions of affection can happen in small ways both within and outside of conflict.
Within conflict, displays of physical and verbal affection reduce stress. If you’re having a difficult conversation and your partner takes your hand and says, “Gosh, this is hard to talk about. I really love you and I know we can figure this out together,” you will likely feel better because their display of affection is bound to reduce tension and bring you closer together.

Demonstrate they matter

Our motto for making marriage last is “small things often.” The small acts that demonstrate you care are powerful ways to enhance the positivity in your marriage.
Bringing up something that is important to your partner, even when you disagree, demonstrates that you are putting their interests on par with yours and shows your partner that you care about them. How you treat each other outside of conflict influences how well you’ll handle your inevitable disagreements.
For example, if your partner has a bad day and you stop to pick up dinner on the way home, you’re showing him that he is on your mind. Those small gestures accumulate over time and will provide a buffer of positivity in your marriage so that when you do enter a conflict, it will be easier to engage in positive interactions that outweigh the negative.

Intentional appreciation

How you think about your partner influences how you treat them. By focusing on the positives of your marriage such as the good moments from your past and your partner’s admirable traits, you put positive energy into your relationship.
Negativity is bound to enter your thoughts, especially during conflict. Intentionally focusing on the positive will counterbalance any of the moments when you struggle to find something good about your partner.
Now turn your thoughts into action: every time you express your positive thinking and give your partner a verbal compliment, no matter how small, you are strengthening your marriage.

Find opportunities for agreement

When couples fight, they focus on the negative parts of the conflict and miss the opportunities for what they agree on. When you seek opportunities for agreement and express yourself accordingly, you are showing that you see your spouse’s viewpoint as valid and that you care about them. An alliance in conflict, even minor, can fundamentally shift how couples fight.

Empathize and apologize

Empathy is one of the deepest forms of human connection. When you empathize with your spouse, you show that you understand and feel what your partner is feeling, even if you express empathy nonverbally through a facial expression or a physical gesture.
Saying things like, “It makes sense to me that you feel…” will help your partner see that you are on their team. Empathy is a profound connecting skill that all romantic partners can and should improve, and there is no limit to the amount of empathy you can express.
If your partner is upset with something you said or did, simply apologize. If you can find a moment during conflict to say, “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings. That makes me sad,” you will provide a positive and empathetic interaction that reinforces your bond.

Accept your partner’s perspective

An approach that drastically improves conflict is understanding that each of your perspectives are valid, even if they are opposed to each other.
While you may not agree with your partner’s perspective, letting them know that their perspective makes sense will show them that you respect them. One of the best ways to do this is to summarize your spouse’s experience during a conflict, even if you disagree. Remember that validation doesn’t mean agreement, but it does signal respect.

Make jokes

Playful teasing, silliness, and finding moments to laugh together can ease tension in a heated conflict. Most couples have inside jokes they only share with each other. This highlights the exclusivity a couple has.
However, a word of caution: remember to find a way to joke around that maintains respect and appreciation for your spouse and that serves to bring you both closer together.

Test your ratio

Is your relationship unbalanced? Observe how you and your partner interact. For every negative interaction that happens, are there more positive interactions? If not, take it upon yourself to create more positive interactions in your relationship, and also try to notice the small moments of positivity that currently exist there, and that you may have been missing.
Keep a journal for one week that notes the positive interactions, however small, in your marriage. As Dr. Gottman’s research has revealed, the more positive actions and feelings you can create in your marriage, the happier and more stable your marriage will be.
Remember to maintain the Magic Ratio in your marriage with our 5:1 Tumbler.
This post was originally published on The Gottman Institute blog.

The Snip: 7 Things We Didn’t Expect From a Vasectomy

My husband’s vasectomy was a relatively straightforward process, but there were still some things we hadn’t expected.

A long time before we were ready for children (possibly before we were married) my husband and I agreed that after three kids, he would have a vasectomy. This was an assumption that we both simply carried through our married life, and when our youngest daughter was a few months old, he went to our family doctor and asked for a referral. What followed was a relatively straightforward process, but there were still some things we hadn’t expected.

1 | We didn’t expect questions about why

For many people, the assumption that the final child is followed by a vasectomy isn’t a given, and when it came up in casual conversation my mother-in-law asked what prompted the decision for him to have the operation rather than me. There are, of course, many reasons: it’s more effective, less risky, a much shorter recovery time, and generally just simpler for the male to be the one to take care of permanent birth control. It never even occurred to me that he might object to this plan and ask me to undergo major surgery instead.
“Gabi did the pregnancies and births three times, so it only seemed fair that I do this,” replied Andrew, my husband.
Fair is a bit of an understatement – I would have gone for “the least he could do” – but it was a sufficient answer for my mother-in-law.

2 | I expected questions about our family that he didn’t get

Andrew made the appointment for the initial consultation and went to see the doctor. Aside from some general health questions, it was as straightforward as signing a consent form and booking in the surgery for three weeks later. The doctor did ask how many children we had, but Andrew tells me it was more small talk than something the doctor might have had an opinion about – we also have a friend who had the operation in order to remain happily childless. But I had been prepared for him to ask about our kids’ ages, our ages, whether I was on board with this decision or not. Nope. The doctor treated Andrew as a man who had total autonomy over his body and his relationships.

3 | We didn’t expect recovery to be so quick

The appointment was made for a Friday morning, which was usual practice for the surgeon. He explained that this was so that his patients could take Friday off and return to work on the Monday. The doctor said there would be no need for prescription strength pain medications, just paracetamol (Tylenol) or ibuprofen would be fine.

4 | We didn’t expect the operation itself to be so quick

The whole thing was over and done with in less than an hour. I drove him home, but the doctor did say that some of his patients drive themselves. If you’re a man worried about having surgery, let this be a reassurance that a vasectomy performed by an experienced surgeon really is quite simple. And maybe skip the next paragraph …

5 | We didn’t expect recovery to take so long!

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. On the Friday morning, we arrived earlier than needed and pulled up to a cafe near the surgery. As soon as I opened the car door, our three-year-old vomited on the pavement. And as it turned out, she spent the rest of the day vomiting. That evening, our five-year-old son started. And in the middle of the night, my poor husband stumbled to the toilet, the feeling of being kicked in the balls compounded by an untimely dose of gastro (or stomach flu, as it’s sometimes called). So in the end, he wasn’t back at work on Monday as the surgeon had anticipated. And every male who has heard this story since has winced in sympathy.

6 | He didn’t expect the little things (but should have)

Things like shaving his pubic hair beforehand. The awkwardness of a female nurse applying numbing cream before the anaesthetic. The itching as the hair grew back, which by the end of the week was more irritating than any residual pain from the operation itself. The three to four months of continued condom use before he could take a semen sample back to check if the surgery had worked. Having to abstain for at least four days before producing this sample. These were the things that made sense, but he simply hadn’t thought about beforehand.

7 | I expected a change to his hormones and libido that didn’t happen

It’s not that I expected a permanent adjustment, mind you. But you’d think if there’s any time the phenomenon of morning wood might take a break, it would be the morning immediately after a vasectomy and a gastro bug. Nope. While Andrew himself wasn’t ready for sex for a week or two after the operation, his hormones continued exactly as normal. This probably added to his discomfort a bit, but it might be reassuring to know that you can expect your sex life to bounce back pretty quick. Certainly quicker than after having another baby!

A Good Reason for My Sleepless Nights

I have a motherhood confession. There is a child (or two or three) sleeping in my bed more nights than not.

I have a motherhood confession.
There is a child (or two or three) sleeping in my bed more nights than not. With four total, and all of them still relatively young enough to wake up in the middle of the night sick or scared or wet or thirsty or just alone, it’s a nightly event that at least one and sometimes more pad into my room, holding a blanket or a stuffed something that has seen better days.
I roll over and look at the clock. Inevitably, there’s a moment where my stomach sinks at the math of how much more sleep I might get if I am lucky. But I always make them some space.
I know it’s a controversial subject, and I know (and respect) that it’s not for everyone. I know the parenting magazines would probably frown on it. Perhaps more importantly, I know the lack of sleep has likely taken years off my life or, at the very least, made me look like it has.
And yes, I’ve read the sleep training books and talked to the doctors and let myself fantasize about what it would be like to just once sleep wholly through the night and let me tell you: the prospect is absolutely lovely.
But I feel like this is something I need to do, and there is a good reason. It’s this:
When I was 16, I stopped eating.
It wasn’t that simple, and it wasn’t all at once or even a conscious decision. Not at first. But I was no longer a kid, and me and my life were both getting big fast, and I knew I needed to do something to try to make us small again because the bigness felt too new and frankly a little bit scary.
But pretty soon, as these things do, the not eating itself got too big – bigger than I could easily handle myself. I lost more weight than I ever meant to, although somehow it still wasn’t enough. The anxiety problem that had been a manageable hum in the background of my life before became a loud and constant scream that I couldn’t ignore.
Nighttime was the worst because I stopped sleeping. I would toss and turn for hours, trying to convince myself I wasn’t hungry and I wasn’t sick and I wasn’t falling quickly into a hole that was too big for me to pull myself out of alone.
My mother and I were not in the best place then. Neither of us was healthy independently, and together, we were worse than the sum of our parts. But I knew she saw what was happening to me and I knew she was worried as well.
One night, when it all got to be too much, I did something out of desperation that I hadn’t done since I was maybe six and scared of thunder: I crept into her room and climbed into her bed.
She didn’t say anything, and I assumed she was asleep. But I pulled the covers up and settled my head on her pillow and closed my eyes. And then I felt it, so light I thought I imagined it at first: her hand resting on my back. I’m sure it was the first time we had touched in months. Maybe years.
Sometimes I think that hand saved my life. Or it was the bridge that got me into the next day, which got me into recovery, eventually. At the very least, I know I fell instantly asleep.
For a short while, it became a routine of sorts, one that we never spoke about in the daylight. I don’t know if she appreciated those small moments of togetherness we had there like I did or if she just tolerated them because she knew I was sick. She’s gone now, so I can’t ask. When she died and I found myself unable to sleep again, I was grateful for the memory. I was also grateful for its lesson.
You see, most days I’m not a great mother – not like the ones you see on TV or read about in those same parenting magazines that say my babies should learn to self soothe. My temper is shorter than I’d like, and I make more boxed mac and cheese than anyone should ever admit to.
I am terrible at braiding hair or remembering to sign the thousands of papers that come home every day stuffed into four different backpacks. I’m much too distracted and I’m tired and I make so many mistakes daily that I usually lose count before lunchtime.
But at night, this is still something I can do, what my own mother did for me all those years ago. I can make space. I can let them in, rest my hand lightly on their backs, feel their soft breath as they settle next to me, and – if only just for that moment – help them rest easier in the knowledge that they don’t have to be alone.
I know it’s not forever, and their need – big now with little-kid troubles, night terrors, bed wetting, things under the bed – will evolve into bigger-kid need and likely then into the not needing at all. It’s a prospect that both gets me through my tired days and terrifies me.
But for now, I know this: For as long as I can, I will help them sleep, even if it means that, tonight, I don’t.
This post originally appeared here on the author’s website.

My 7-Year-Old's Top Concern After Getting "The Talk"

All that research and preparation goes out the window when you’re face-to-face with your kid about to have “The Talk.”

So my seven-year-old son has been asking that infamous question, “How do babies get in Mommy’s stomach?” Ugh!

My wife and I previously agreed that I would talk to our son about sex and, when the time came around, she would talk to our daughter about it (Thank God). Now the time has come for “The Talk.”

Last night he was telling me about a certain girl at his school that likes him, and he obviously likes her too. He told me how she likes to hug him on the playground. He’s seven years old, dear God it can’t be time for that already! That’s what I was thinking but nonetheless, the time was upon us. What do I do? How do I begin? What questions will he ask? Do I prepare a powerpoint presentation?

I believe I was more nervous than he was, so I took a few minutes to prepare myself. I’d done my research on best practices and tips for having the sex talk with seven-year-old boys. So I felt I was ready for anything. Yeah, right. I actually tried to sneak upstairs to my home studio but he heard me and yelled out, “Are you ready to have that man-to-man talk, Dad?” He obviously wasn’t going to let me back out.

With a deep breath I yelled back, “Yep, come on up to the Man Cave.” He zoomed upstairs and jumped in the chair across from me.

I started by reminding him that the conversation we were about to have was for his ears only, and not to run back and share with his classmates. Once he agreed, we began. I asked the question, “Have you ever heard the word ‘sex’ before.”

He laughed and said, “Dad, only in grown-up movies.”

I asked him what he knew about it and he responded, “Nothing.”

Judging by the smirk on his face, he knew something but he wasn’t going to share it. I proceeded to go over the miracle of life with him from conception to birth. I talked a little about puberty and the changes he’d experience in his body so that he would know that he is normal. I can remember being a little boy and wondering what in the world was going on with my body and why certain things changed and grew for no reason (usually right before the teacher asks you to come to board to write an answer). To bring it all full circle, I brought in this young girl that likes him and hugs him. I didn’t want him to be caught off-guard if he felt a “change” in his body when she came around.

After all the “icky” sex talk and miracle of birth animated video, he had one major concern. To my surprise it wasn’t the fact that a baby comes out of a vagina, nor was it that a man actually puts his penis in that very same vagina. It wasn’t even the fact that his body will start to change. His main concern was sperm coming out of his penis. To him this seemed like a very scary thing. To have little living tadpole-looking things inside him just didn’t sit well in his mind. He wanted to know everything about these little creatures and I calmly explained to him that it doesn’t hurt when they come out and that when he finds the young lady that he wants to spend the rest of his life with, he’ll love it.

Lastly, I asked if he had any further questions. He seemed completely unbothered by load of information I had just dropped on him, while I, on the other hand, was still trying to keep myself from running out the room and hiding in the bathroom until bedtime. Before he headed down the stairs to continue playing, he did drop one last bombshell question on me. On his way out the door, he looked back at me and asked, “So Dad, do you and Mom have sex?”

I was not ready for that. My natural response was to laugh and say, “More than you want to know, buddy.”

Ironically, he laughed too and kept walking. Whew!

Case in point, all that research and preparation goes out the window when you’re face-to-face with your kid about to have “The Talk.” The good thing is that now the door is open, he will hopefully feel comfortable with asking me anything. I’d rather he hear it from me than from a classmate or, worse, learn by experimentation. I’m so glad I don’t have to do this with my daughter. I’m sure that conversation would’ve started out with a stork bringing the baby in a blanket. Ah, the joys of parenting.

The Silly Sex Dream That Woke Me Up

After I stopped laughing at him, I started to reflect. Why would he be dreaming about bad sex with 80s icons? It had to be our lame sex life, right?

14 years of marriage is like two seven-year itches combined into one giant wool sweater. Even extra-strength balms like wine and frosting don’t offer much relief anymore. At this stage of life, the stressors are real and the responsibilities are not sexy. We used to be so into each other. Now, any person-in-person action is strictly for prostate health.
Recently, my barely sexually-maintained husband told me about a sex dream he had. Apparently he’d been hoping to get some when he came to bed that night and as usual, I had not. I guess I had homelessness or the plight of sea turtles or something equally depressing on my mind, so we talked tragedy until we fell asleep. Still, somehow, he managed to have a sex dream.
It wasn’t just any sex dream. It featured Beverly D’Angelo, in her prime. He kept saying “in her prime” as if it were crucial for me to know he was referring to the version of her from the “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” poster, in which she rocked a gold bodysuit while clinging to the meaty calf of Chevy Chase. I mean, anyone who grew up in the 80s and who has seen the deleted scenes from “High Fidelity” has a healthy appreciation for Ms. D’Angelo in all her eras, but it’s not like we have the poster above our marital bed or anything.
Yet.
The worst/best part of his dream was that he could tell Beverly D’Angelo wasn’t really into it. She wasn’t comfortable in the position they were in and kept trying to change it up and it just didn’t go well.
So he woke up, unsatisfied, having not satisfied Beverly D’Angelo in her prime.
After I stopped pointing and laughing at him, I started to reflect. Why would he be dreaming about bad sex with 80s icons? It had to be our lame sex life, right?
There’s not a lot of intercourse happening at this stage of marriage. When there is a miraculous hour that the children are asleep in their assigned beds and the adults are awake in ours, the pressure is just too great for me. I find myself reaching for my phone to read the news or wander Facebook and before I know it, I’m mired in the world’s pain and disgusted by whatever it is they put into chicken nuggets. My poor husband just wants some good, good loving and I’m crying, yelling, and wiring money to chickens.
I remember when we were more hot than tired. Now there are big bills, kids to maintain, endless meals to prepare, and Louis CK shows to watch. These all trump intercourse.
Having kids took over everything, especially for me. I was their comfort, their food, their Elvis. It was intoxicating but also exhausting. That level of need, plus a full-time job outside the house, left no energy for intimacy. We used to want each other. These days, a million other priorities pull us in every direction, and I just want to be left alone.
It’s taken me several years to realize that I need to put some of me back together again. I am still gaga for my kids, but I think I have finally learned that I truly cannot give them more than I have. I need to hold some back for me, and maybe for my husband, too. Besides, even if I do try to give my kids everything I have, they will just take it and spill nachos all over it. They will take it and still complain. They will take it and call it a “diaper head.” Sigh. I’m learning this lesson slowly.
Somehow, despite all this, he still wants to have sex with me. And Beverly D’Angelo, in her prime. But mostly me.
While the details of his dream were endlessly amusing to me, I was not surprised that he is having dreams about being sexually unfulfilled. My lack of interest in sex seems to be hurting his feelings, and that’s not good. I want him to be confident and feel wanted.
In an effort to reward him for sharing that wonderful, terrible dream, and to rekindle at least some of our early enthusiasm for each other, I began making an effort to be kinder and more affectionate. I tried so hard not to interrupt foreplay with stories about what I found on the bottom of one of the children’s feet. (Feces. It’s always feces). I found opportunities to do fun things we used to enjoy, just the two of us, to try to feel light and free again – like playing Cribbage, which is a real panty-dropper math card game. We began getting away on dates more, even if they were just to Ikea.
“Just to Ikea.” Ha! Who am I kidding? There’s chocolate and coffee and mattresses and organization units at Ikea. It’s like a self-help aphrodisiac. Say “Hemnes desk with add-on unit in the white stain” again. Yessssss.
At night, I’ve committed to putting away my phone so that the miseries of the world won’t join us in bed. And most importantly, I’m working on the hard task of finding myself in the midst of motherhood. If I’m confidently me, maybe I’ll confidently want to shag. That’s the plan, anyway.
Overall, he’s glad he shared the dream with me, because it opened up a lot of dialogue and opportunity for growth in our relationship.
Though I do think he wishes I wouldn’t insist on calling him “Sparky” now.
We don’t always get what we want.
This article was originally published at Together Magazine.

13 Key Elements That Keep Your Sex Life Hopping

Great sex is not rocket science. In fact, many happy couples have these 13 things in common.

In an amazing book titled “The Normal Bar,” authors Chrisanna Northrup, Pepper Schwartz, and James Witte conducted an online study with 70,000 people in 24 countries. They were curious about what might be different about couples who said that they had a great sex life, compared to couples who said that they had a bad sex life. Even with the limitations of self-report data, there are some fascinating implications of their results.
One thing that’s very interesting to me is how their findings compare to the advice Esther Perel gives in her book “Mating in Captivity,” and in her clinical work in general, in which she assists couples in improving their sex life. Perel tells couples not to cuddle. She also believes that emotional connection will stand in the way of good erotic connection. This brings me to a key finding from the Normal Bar study.

Fact: Couples who have a great sex life everywhere on the planet are doing the same set of things.

Additionally, couples who do not have a great sex life everywhere on the planet are not doing these things.
Inspired by the Normal Bar study, as well as by my own research studies on more than 3,000 couples over four decades, I’ve identified 13 things all couples do who have an amazing sex life.

  • They say “I love you” every day and mean it
  • They kiss one another passionately for no reason
  • They give surprise romantic gifts
  • They know what turns their partners on and off erotically
  • They are physically affectionate, even in public
  • They keep playing and having fun together
  • They cuddle
  • They make sex a priority, not the last item of a long to-do list
  • They stay good friends
  • They can talk comfortably about their sex life
  • They have weekly dates
  • They take romantic vacations
  • They are mindful about turning toward

In short, they turn toward one another with love and affection to connect emotionally and physically. In the Normal Bar study, only six percent of non-cuddlers had a good sex life. So Perel’s intuition runs counter to international data. What is very clear from the Normal Bar study is that having a great sex life is not rocket science. It is not difficult.

Fact: Couples have a bad sex life everywhere on the planet.

The Sloan Center at UCLA studied 30 dual-career heterosexual couples in Los Angeles. These couples had young children. The researchers were like anthropologists – observing, tape-recording, and interviewing these couples. They discovered that most of these young couples:

  • Spend very little time together during a typical week
  • Become job-centered (him) and child-centered (her)
  • Talk mostly about their huge to-do lists
  • Seem to make everything else a priority other than their relationship
  • Drift apart and lead parallel lives
  • Are unintentional about turning toward one another

One researcher on this project told me it was his impression that these couples spent only about 35 minutes together every week in conversation, and most of their talk was about errands and tasks that they had to get done.
So, if we put these two studies together, what does it tell us? It says that couples should not avoid one another emotionally like Perel recommends, but instead follow the 13 very simple things that everyone on the planet does to make their sex lives great.
Emily Nagoski’s wonderful book “Come as You Are” talks about the dual process model of sex. In the model, each person has a sexual brake and a sexual accelerator. In some people the brake is more developed, and in some people the accelerator is more developed. It’s important to learn what for you and for your partner steps on that sex brake that says, “No, I’m not in the mood for lovemaking.”
It’s also important to learn what for you and for your partner steps on that accelerator, that says, “Oh yes, I’m in the mood for lovemaking.” We have a mobile app designed for this purpose. It consists of over 100 questions to ask a woman about her brake and accelerator, and over 100 questions to ask a man about his brake and accelerator. Those questions are also available as one of seven exercises in The Art and Science of Lovemaking video program.
Great sex is not rocket science. By being good friends, by being affectionate (yes, even cuddling), and by talking openly about sex, couples can build a thriving relationship inside and outside of the bedroom.
This article was originally published on the Gottman Relationship Blog. Over 40 years of research on thousands of couples has proven as simple fact: small things often can create big changes over time. Got a minute? Sign up for their Marriage Minute here

6 Simplicity Hacks for Parents Who Would Rather Spend Time Doing Than Planning

Here are some strategies you can use to minimize decision-making and maximize time and energy for the pursuits that bring you joy.

“How’s it going?”
“Busy. Good, but busy.”
We’ve all had this conversation. However you feel about busy-ness – whether it’s a badge of honor, something to be avoided altogether, or just an inevitable part of life – most of us do not enjoy managing the minutiae of the busy life. I know I’d rather spend my time tickling my kids, reading something without pictures after they go bed, or checking out the new yoga studio down the street than figure out how and when I’m going to actually do all that stuff.
I spent my childhood longing for the sweet freedom that adulthood promised. Now that I have it, I find I’m actually happier when I go out of my way to limit the number of choices required of me. That experience, it turns out, is not unusual. According to psychologist Barry Schwartz, less is more when it comes to options. People tend to be happier when they have fewer choices.
Enter routines. We know they’re good for kids but they might be better for adults than we give them credit for. By creating “rules” for what, how, and when we are going to do things, routines limit or even eliminate the pesky choices that drain our time and energy, leaving us with more room to engage with the people and things that matter to us.
Creating routines takes some up-front investment, but once you have them dialed in they’re worth the hassle. Here are some strategies you can use to minimize decision-making and maximize time and energy for the pursuits that bring you joy.

1| Divide and conquer

My husband and I have a deal: Until 7 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday I am free to “sleep in” or work out while he gets our kids dressed and fed. Monday and Wednesdays, we switch roles. This has been our agreement ever since I got the green light to exercise after our first child was born.
Kate Darby and Marc Neff, who are professors, parents of two, and avid runners, have a unique way of making sure they both get their miles in. On weekends, one parent drives the kids to the park and the parent runs to meet them. On the way home, whoever ran to the park drives the kids home, and their spouse runs home solo.
Katie and Daniel Westreich, parents of two, take the concept a step further. Every week, they grant each other an entire day off from parent duties of any kind, including even seeing their two children. Westreich jokes they have trademarked the arrangement “20 percent divorced.”

2| Schedule all the things

Savvy parents take the time to schedule all the things in advance. Jessica Ziegler, the co-author of Science of Parenthood, relies on phone alarms for everything: “One for Get The Kids Up, one for 10-Minute Warning/Brush Your Teeth, one for GTFO.” What did we ever do before phone alarms with customizable labels!?
Joy Jackson, a stay at home mom of three, has a phone alarm scheduled to ding three times a week at 9:45 p.m. after her kids are tucked in for the night. “It’s the sex alarm,” says Jackson. “It says, ‘Hey, reminder, you guys like each other, but have your busy days made you forget?’”
Lorin Oliker Allan is a stay at home mom who relies on a weekly delivery from a local farm for her family’s eggs, milk, and produce.
Elyana Funk’s two daughters have piano lessons every Thursday afternoon, which means Thursday is always pizza day. Says Funk, a non-profit administrator, “I order it earlier in the day and schedule it so that it arrives when we do.”

3| …And use a shared electronic calendar app to do it

My husband and I started using a shared Google calendar when our first child was born over five years ago. My husband had been trying to bring me over the dark (read: electronic) side for years, but as a paper lover at heart, I wouldn’t budge – until we had a child and I had to make sure someone was watching our kid every time I went to work on a Saturday, worked out, or met a friend. Now, I’m never surprised when my husband “invites” me to happy hours with men I don’t know, and he’s come to expect “invitations” to girls’ night.
Galit Breen is a mother of three and author of “Kindness Wins,” a guide for teaching your child to be kind online . Breen has had her kids enter their own events on the family’s iCalendar since her two older kids were 10 and eight. “We’re all on the same page,” says Breen. “They don’t need reminders from me because they’re the ones who put them there, they see double-booking instantly so that we can take care of it in advance, and it’s so much less busy work for me!”

4| Simplify your meals

Melissa Proia is a stay at home mom of three kids under the ages of six. She has egg frittatas every morning for breakfast. It may sound elaborate but it’s actually far simpler than even cereal or instant oatmeal. Once a week, she mixes up a nine eggs, a pound of ground turkey, and veggies, bakes them in a casserole dish, cuts and wraps them into nine squares, and all she has to do is grab one and heat it up each morning.
On Sundays, Sam Watts – a busy stay at home mom who juggles five part-time jobs – plans her family’s meals for the week, puts all the ingredients on her shopping list, and does her weekly shopping. Having this system dialed in means she never has to take extra time to think about dinner.
Amy Muller is a mom and project manager who volunteers for her local Boulder, Colo. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America chapter and hits ballet classes in her spare time. Muller takes it a step further with a weekly dinner schedule featuring chicken Monday, taco Tuesday, and pizza Friday, that rarely, if ever, varies.

5| Batch process

Never do something one at a time when you’re going to need to do it every day, every week, or every month. Stay at home mom Meryl Hertz Junick does all her school lunch prepping at once. This way, she says, “I just need to refresh the containers in the insulated totes each night or morning.”
I make a double batch of just about every time I bake muffins or prep a meal in the slow cooker. Those items freeze well and my future self always thanks me.
With two children in elementary school, Elyana Funk says it feels like her family attends two birthday parties every weekend. She saves time by stockpiling birthday presents.

6| Do it the night before

I am the worst procrastinator. The more deadlines I have, the cleaner my house is. But even I swear by doing as much as I can the night before. I make my kids’ lunches while I make dinner.
Elyana Funk has her coffee pot prepped and ready to go before she goes to sleep.
Brittany Bouchard, a bank manager and mom of two girls, makes getting her kids dressed a breeze by putting entire outfits together on a hanger. So instead of helping her children choose a top, a bottom, socks, and underwear, each outfit is pre-planned and ready to wear. All her kids have to do is grab a hanger and go.
Jess Allen – the popular online trainer and fitness blogger at Blonde Ponytail – even preps her kids’ breakfast the night before to make mornings smoother.
When I was a kid, all I wanted was the freedom to be an adult and do whatever I wanted. Now that I’m an adult, that freedom can feel overwhelming and I find myself longing for some of the constraints I had as a child. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the occasional Netflix binge, third glass of wine, or extra helping of dessert. But I am happier when I can put some of my adult responsibilities on auto-pilot and devote my limited mental energy to the areas of my life where it matters.

4 Ways to Encourage Happiness in our Kids

Let’s face it, we all strive to reach the elusive state of happiness, and from time to time wonder, how do we get there?

Let’s face it, we all strive to reach the elusive state of happiness, and from time to time wonder, how do we get there? We tell our children to be happy. But how do you become happier?
Much is written on the subject of happiness, with motivational websites offering all kinds of tips and secrets. How can you know what really works, and what you should do?
Research by neuroscientists has now confirmed there are four things you can do:

1 | Ask yourself an important question

There are times when worry and anxiety take over. Our brain insists on worrying about something or being anxious. According to neuroscience, when we worry or are anxious, the brain responds because we are actually doing something.
Dr. Alex Korb, author of “The Upward Spiral” says:
In fact, worrying can help calm the limbic system by increasing activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and decreasing activity in the amygdala. That might seem counterintuitive, but it just goes to show that if you’re feeling anxiety, doing something about it — even worrying — is better than doing nothing.
But worry and anxiety are ultimately unpleasant long-term solutions to our problem. So what do scientists suggest we do?
Ask “What am I grateful for?”
Apparently, gratitude is awesome on more than a purely language level. It seems that thinking about things one is grateful for increases dopamine levels (feel-good hormone).
Again, Alex Korb:
The benefits of gratitude start with the dopamine system, because feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine. Additionally, gratitude toward others increases activity in social dopamine circuits, which makes social interactions more enjoyable…
It might seem like there’s nothing to be grateful for. Some days can be that awful. Rest assured, it is the searching for something to be grateful for that activates the response you are after, even if you cannot think of a single thing that inspires gratitude.
How about thinking of, not what, but who you are grateful for? The act of telling someone you are grateful is as good as searching for something to be grateful for.
Remember, children learn by example; start telling them you are grateful they are in your life, and they will soon reciprocate.

2 | Label negative feelings

Sometimes kids feel yuck, but they cannot say what is wrong (some adults have the same problem). Work on trying to get them to label their feelings. Explain the different feelings, including, sadness, anxiousness, and so on. Understanding and putting a label on their feelings will help make them feel better.
Sound silly? It isn’t.
Alex Korb:
…in one MRI study, appropriately titled “Putting Feelings into Words”, participants viewed pictures of people with emotional facial expressions. Predictably, each participant’s amygdala activated to the emotions in the picture. But when they were asked to name the emotion, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activated and reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity. In other words, consciously recognizing the emotions reduced their impact.
Being mindful is about being in touch with your feelings, which includes labeling them. Once children are able to label emotions, they will feel better. It might take a bit of work, particularly for younger children, but it will work. Start today.

3 | Make a decision

You might remember wrestling over a problem for hours and hours, and once you made a decision, you instantly felt better. Apparently, this is no coincidence. Making decisions reduces anxiety and worry.
Research supports this:
Making decisions includes creating intentions and setting goals — all three are part of the same neural circuitry and engage the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, reducing worry and anxiety. Making decisions also helps overcome striatum activity, which usually pulls you toward negative impulses and routines. Finally, making decisions changes your perception of the world — finding solutions to your problems and calming the limbic system.
But what kind of decision do you make? A good enough decision is all that we should aim for. If you aim for perfection, you will only stress and overwhelm your brain, which is not what you want. Settle for the best decision and you will instantly reap the benefits.
Further benefits on decision making include a feeling of empowerment. Once we feel empowered, we feel good and happy.

4 | Touch someone you care about

Physical contact is important. Make sure you give your kids a hug, pat them on the back, or wrap your arms around them. Interactions with peers can also be more personal. There’s nothing wrong with giving your friends a pat on the back or a hug.
When you touch someone, you increase levels of oxytocin, a feel good hormone. It does not have to be full-on hugging. Shaking another person’s hand or a light touch on the shoulder are enough to produce the effect.
Don’t underestimate the power of touch. It is not given enough credit. Obviously, children need to be wary of being touched by strangers or in inappropriate ways by any adults. However, teaching about the importance of touch can also be an effective tool in setting boundaries and explaining about inappropriate touching.
The brain thrives on relationships. Exclusion from relationships has a negative effect on the brain and our happiness levels. It pays to teach our children to try and be kind to others around them and include them in their play.
What are you waiting for? Hug someone today. Remember eight hugs a day keep the blues away.