By Dr. Aline Zoldbrod
It's almost Valentine's Day — and all the messages out there say that if you're in a relationship, it's time for the perfect sexual experience.
But as a sex and couples therapist, I'm going to suggest an alternative: a somewhat obscure model of sexuality and sexual pleasure that I think can provide a blueprint for a really wonderful (but maybe not perfect) sensual/sexual connection with each other on Valentine’s Day.
Added bonus: these suggestions can form the scaffolding for a loving, freeing, warm sensual/sexual bond way beyond Feb. 14 — even if you're one of those long-married couples who have kids, logistics and technology standing in your way.
First, a bit of academic theory as background:
You may be familiar with the Masters and Johnson sexual response cycle: Human sexual response is made up of the excitement phase, then the plateau phase, followed by the orgasmic phase, and finally the resolution phase.
Not to diss Masters and Johnson’s work, because it was groundbreaking, but I’m just saying… this model has caused a lot of performance anxiety in and of itself.
My brilliant colleague, Dr. Leonore Tiefer, has criticized the Masters and Johnson model of sex because it’s so linear, so physiological, and so focused on intercourse.
My personal mantra for good sex is “connection, not perfection.” The Masters and Johnson’s model sets up an expectation that everything has to be “perfect” for sex to be good. Perfect erections in men, perfect arousal in women (stemming from who knows what? Just springing out of the air and the joy of folding laundry?), and perfect orgasms all around.
For many of us, that’s like the pressure of trying to find a perfect gift for someone we love: just fraught with trepidation.
In 1998, psychiatrist David Reed proposed a different model, one that is much more psychologically and relationally oriented. He calls it the Erotic Stimulus Pathway Theory. I’m going to adapt it here a bit in hopes that this experiment could help you have a better Valentine’s Day.
To begin with, Reed’s first phase is the seduction phase. In this phase each of you focuses on what you have learned about what makes you attractive to your partner. So go down memory lane on your own, and think about some of the best times you have had together as a couple. There will be some clues in your memories and your imagery. Take some time to do this. It’s a lot of fun. You fell in love. You had those lust chemicals in your body. Those chemicals were great, and they were free, and they had no bad long term side effects. You were crazy. You thought this relationship was going to fix your whole life. It was nice to be that insanely optimistic about love.
So, fearlessly, allow yourself to revisit those feelings. If you’re still young, enjoy it! If you’re older, it can be fun to remember being younger. See what comes up for you. If this makes you sad, then stay in touch with your feelings, and keep reading, and if you get more sad, stop reading and be nice to yourself. Talk to one of your friends about being blue. Don’t feel this sad alone. And listen, if you still love your partner, maybe this is a wakeup call to do some work on your relationship,
2. Get Rid Of The Noise
So, onward. If you’re still with me, here are some more instructions. Go somewhere quiet, put your work and other distractions away, turn on some music that reminds you of good times with your partner, and just float in your good memories. Try to use all of your senses as you are recalling the early stages of your excitement with each other. And then, write some notes down. And as you go to sleep, re-remind yourself of what you wrote, and let your unconscious marinate in it overnight as you sleep. I expect that you might come up with some tender and romantic ideas.
I’m not as wondrous as your unconscious, but here are some pedestrian suggestions: If your partner likes you in a certain color, or with a particular level of grooming, plan to do that. If there was a restaurant around here that you went to when you were falling in love and feeling lust, you might get yourself a reservation there if they still have space (Guys: babysitter….)
If there is something your beloved loves to do, that you used to do while courting, see if you can arrange to make that activity happen. Please don’t get caught up in thinking that this is a financially expensive proposition. It doesn’t have to be. There is a meta-message to yourselves in recreating those old magical times together. Sharing a puzzle and a glass of wine in a quiet place can be a thrill.
3. Memory Lane
See if you can remember the ways you talked to each other, and talk to your partner in that way. And think about your own sexual self image, about what makes you feel sexually attractive to yourself. What do you need to do to get back to that place? Do a very pared down version of this, if you aren’t in such good shape. But try to find some clothes to wear that make you feel attractive. Play around with perfume and cologne. Turn on music. Dance to music that you liked back then.
4. No Logistics
If both of you follow this plan, these days leading up to Valentine’s Day could start to take on a somewhat different feel. If you have kids, I would like you to minimize your conversations about the kids and their schedules until after Valentine’s Day. I’d like you to spend more time talking about how each of you is these days, what’s going on with you? Take the time for some eyeball-to-eyeball contact. Share any amusing stories. If you have children, don’t let them constantly interrupt. Note the enormous difference this makes in your feelings of emotional intimacy, which was one of the things that seduced you into being together back in the beginning.
5. Feeling Groovy
Reed’s second phase is the Sensations Phase. Different senses enhance pleasure, as we all know. But the part that could make Valentine’s Day sex special would have to do with creating the psychological sense of the time and space to really enjoy all of your senses.
Your senses. Yes. Let me refresh your memory: Touch. Vision. Hearing. Smell. Taste.
It’s cold and dark here in February. What can you do to make it warm and magical? One simple thing I find people forget to do is to buy a space heater to get the room warm enough to lounge around in.
I honestly think that for many couples, two sweet-smelling, clean bodies plus an hour in a well heated, pleasant space with a clean bed, uninterrupted, with all phones and computers and ipads turned off, just kissing and hugging can feel very romantic.
6. Cupid Arrives
On Valentine’s Day, then, if you’re going to be literally sexual, how about making it a gourmet feast for all your senses? And if intercourse is not easy or preferred by either of you for some reason, skip it and give yourself permission to be sexual in some other wonderful ways. There is still time to read books to give you inspiration about how to do this.
If you are a low or no-sex couple, you might be this sensual already, which would be wonderful. So just do that in an extra-special way. If you aren’t this sensual, then just follow this plan to this point.
Don’t let Valentine’s Day bum you out.
7. Climax Time (Maybe)
Reed’s third state is Surrender: orgasm. You didn’t think he’d leave it out, did you? But don’t get hung up about it. And don’t make your partner feel hung up about it either.
8. Was It Good For You?
Reed’s fourth stage is another one I love: the Reflection phase. This is a phase where you reflect on what the experience has been like. If it’s been very pleasant, you might be inspired to repeat it more often. The pleasure will create motivation for the future. Everyone likes to be appreciated. Reflect on what your partner did that made you feel cherished.
I hope that this is a plan that is helpful for many couples this Valentine’s Day. Even if you just do stages
one and two and skip to four, you have a plan for a no-risk sensual/sexual Valentine’s Day.
It would be a treat to hear from readers (anonymously, to be sure) who just went up to this point in the exercise and wound up with a very special experience. And I’m sure others of you will be furious at me for laying this on you. And that’s okay, too.
If you are reading this and I have bummed you out, please just remember, Valentine’s Day is just one day. It will be over soon.
Aline Zoldbrod, Ph.D., is a Boston-based sex therapist and the author of SexSmart: How Your Childhood Shaped Your Sexual Life and What to Do About It. You can find her at SexSmart.com.