Dr. Joy chooses a few new items for this section every month from among those her readers submit. If you have a burning question, feel free to email us.
Although Dr. Joy can’t respond individually to questions for this column, when you become a member of our L4 Club you will receive a personalized answer as part of your subscription, plus many other incredible benefits. So, visit the Member Center and join us today.
Harmless Secrets: An Oxymoron?
How Sexy is Too Sexy in Front of the Kids?
Mothers and Daughters: Can’t They Just Get Along?
He Can Pump But He Can’t Pop
Money & Sex: A Perplexing Pair
Does Attraction Make a Marriage?
How To Get A Little “Me Time”
Passionately Pregnant: When is Sex OK With Baby On Board?
Weekend Lovers: Can It Be Enough?
Therapist, Heal Thyself
Q I’m having a secret platonic relationship with an old girlfriend. It’s secret because my wife is opposed to my having any contact with her whatsoever. However, my ex and I are both lawyers, and I greatly value her friendship and advice. I’m not interested in anything physical; my previous relationship with my ex made it clear that we’re sexually incompatible. Is it okay to keep harmless secrets from my wife?
Dr. Joy’s Answer
“Harmless secrets” rank among the world’s most underappreciated relationship wreckers. Sure, there are a few harmless secrets, just like there really is “airline cuisine,” but not too many.
Here are a few examples of what I’d consider genuinely harmless secrets:
* You watch the Spike channel when your wife isn’t home.
* You bought take-out and didn’t come out and say it wasn’t your cooking.
* You sometimes flirt (harmlessly) with the cute little blonde who runs the latte stand in your office buildings lobby.
Look . . . I’m all for platonic relationships between men and women—even exes—but a secret relationship with an ex is about as harmless as a pet scorpion, especially in the face of your wife’s antipathy toward the scorpion—um, I mean ex-girlfriend. My question to you is: Does your wife have any reason to worry based on your past behavior? When you were with the ex, did you play the two of them against each other? If you were triangulating the gals in your past, I have some news for you: you’re still doing it.
Seems to me that your only ethical recourse is to either drop the ex or have a talk with your wife about her fears, as well as your wish to maintain a friendship with your ex. Her feelings don’t exist in a vacuum; you can still acknowledge them even if you dispute her conclusions. No, you don’t have to tell her exactly what you’ve been up to so far, but do stop the chitchat with the ex until this is resolved.
If your motives are pure and you truly want your ex in your life as a friend, she should belong in both of your lives to keep competition and hidden agendas at bay. Invite her home for dinner—one that you prepare while the women get cozy. Mentoring a genuine friendship between the two of them is the best way to keep priorities in balance and give this story a happy ending.
Q Most parents I know hide their sex lives from their children. My wife and I would like to be more open with our 2-year-old daughter without causing her harm. How much physical attention is appropriate to demonstrate in front of a 2-year-old?
Dr. Joy’s Answer
As a parent, one of your principal tasks is creating healthy boundaries between yourself and your child. Sexually speaking, this translates into making sure that the sexual natures of both adults and children are respected, but not intertwined. You breach that boundary when you expose your bright, aware 2-year-old to sexual intimacies between you and your wife.
Children are sexual creatures dating from infancy; consider how they regularly explore their own bodies, even if they are not knowledgeable about what they’re doing. So think of your daughter as someone eager to learn about the fascinating world of pleasurable sensations. You’ll be teaching her by example when you or your wife talk to her (she will absorb your tone of voice and your anxiety level), when you dress her, show her affection, play with her, and tell her the names of the parts of her body. In fact, on an almost daily basis you will be deliberately or inadvertently demonstrating something new and profoundly important about love, sexuality and marriage, and she’ll be eating up every word and gesture with a spoon. That’s a heavy responsibility. To carry it well, accept that an excess of openness can be harmful, and lines must be drawn. Keeping your displays limited to kissing and affectionate caressing in a nonsexual manner is a great way to model grown-up love while respecting privacy—yours and your daughter’s.
The meaning of “privacy” is something that you’ll have to introduce to your daughter soon enough anyway, when she starts spontaneously exploring her own pleasure zones (if she hasn’t already). For instance, you and your wife will be the ones to show her that there’s a better place than the front steps of your house or the middle of a supermarket aisle to do the “happy wiggle.” If you haven’t created private space for your own intimate acts, how can she be expected to grasp that concept when you try to explain how it applies to her?
For more guidance on this complex subject, visit the Sexuality, Education and Information Council of the United States at www.siecus.org, or read From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide To Raising Sexually Healthy Children by Debra W. Haffner.
Q My mom is always finding fault with me, and we’re always bickering …sometime over the stupidest things. She’ll come over to my house, poke her head in the fridge and sniff the milk just to see if it has gone sour. When I have a date she’ll call up to check what I’m wearing so I don’t “give the wrong impression”. I want to be close, but she drives me nuts. I usually jump down her throat and then we’re off and running. Any advice?
Dr. Joy’s Answer
You mom is certainly no shrinking violet; but neither are you. In fact, you can probably credit her with teaching you to fight for yourself. The downside is that you may see criticisms where none are intended, or overreact to every irritating nudge, which makes getting close to her (and maybe other people?) a battle of its own. I think you’re also letting her force you to doubt yourself, and that makes the need to fight for your point of view much stronger, even over the little things. To be close to your mom, you need to first believe in yourself and your choices. Recognize that her opinions are nothing more than that—opinion, or maybe even her way of trying to protect you, annoying as that maybe.
If you can stop your own hair-trigger reactions to your mom, you’ll have a chance to connect without bickering. Try this: imagine you and she are holding the opposite ends of a rope in a game of tug-o-war. As long as you both pull, the game goes on. Now, picture yourself simply dropping your end of the rope. What happens? Your opponent loses her balance, and you remain standing calmly upright. That’s exactly what you can do each time you’re faced with one of Mom’s critiques. When she pushes your hot button, flash on the tug-o-war image and let go of your end of the rope. No more hotheaded retorts, no more bickering. It really does take two.
Q Sometimes, no matter how turned on I am, I can’t ejaculate, although getting and maintaining an erection is not a problem. My girlfriend and I even rented adult videos to help boost the mood, but no go. What can I do? Are there surgical options?
Dr. Joy’s Answer
Ask yourself: what else distinguishes climactic episodes from the others? Consider the role of recreational drugs, anxiety, moods, fantasies, and feelings or thoughts about your girlfriend. Any of these can affect both your level of arousal and your willingness to give yourself over to the intensity of a climax. Rarely is “delayed ejaculation” a strictly medical matter. Let’s look at common contributing factors:
Prescription Drugs: Don’t confuse a steady erection with strong arousal. Orgasm demands escalating excitement. Just because you can stand up doesn’t mean you can pole vault, right? Antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications and blood-pressure pills can all interfere with sexual function, and even those little blue pills can prep you for your event without guaranteeing a big finish.
A Distinctive Solo-Style: Some men’s strokes are so fast or forceful that penetration seems almost ho-hum. Try switching hands when you solo and see if you have trouble coming—a dead giveaway that adaptation to high intensity or a very particular type of stimulation is at least part of the issue. Then cut out your “alone time” until you’ve reset your physical/neurological circuitry to lighter stimulation.
Qualms About Sex Or Relationships: Delayed ejaculation often occurs among men who come from strict religious backgrounds where sex is viewed as sinful. Anger or resentment toward a partner can also impede orgasm, as can fears about sexually transmitted diseases or causing pregnancy. Since orgasm is partly about letting go of control, anything that compels you to hang on tight can get in the way. Sex therapy can be especially helpful in these situations.
An Extended Sexual-Response Cycle: Some men simply take longer to peak than others. And that’s perfectly fine, since there’s no need to rush. In fact, the longer you take, the more pleasure you can feel—that is, if you aren’t distracted from your sensations by watching the clock. Misunderstanding your body’s rhythms produces pressure to “achieve” an ejaculation, and pressure is the antithesis of pleasure.
Measuring Up to Porn: Avoid using adult entertainment as a measure of the typical time frame to orgasm. (Or, pretty much anything else, either.) Film scenes are edited (shortened) to fit into the time allotted for each sequence. In real life, we don’t leave strips of experience on the cutting-room floor.
Q I am 48 years old and divorced with no children. I finally found someone who really loves me and we are planning to move in together and eventually get married. The only problem I can see in the future is money. How do you ask, “How should we share the expenses?” I have been independent for over 20 years and when I was married we were both university students so money was never an issue. How do dual-income couples at my age deal with finances?
Dr. Joy’s Answer
The fact that at age 48 you don’t know how to bring up serious matters with a potential life partner worries me more than how you and your honey will actually slice your bread. I wonder if you talk more easily about sex. Do you tell each other what kind of nips and nuzzles emulsify you on contact and which leave you cold as clay? If you do, use the same approach in discussing finances. If not, learn to become adept at juggling both topics, since they’re the two most perplexing and potentially divisive among couples.
Saying something like, “Love of My Life, let’s talk about how we want to share expenses,” is a simple, direct way to launch the conversation. Just be aware that it will take many discussions about spending, saving and decision-making to create a starter plan. Some couples in your situation retain separate bank accounts and agree to go 50/50 on household bills. Others divvy up accounts based upon proportionate incomes, so the one who makes 70% of the money, pays 70% of the tab. Some blend all their funds in one account, others only a portion. How you make these choices depends on your incomes, preferences, and money management “styles”. For example, if he’s a hoarder and you’re a spender, you’ll want to keep your margarita and manicure money safely at your fingertips.
For further thoughts, pick up Suze Orman’s book, The Courage to Be Rich; she has a savvy section on how to marry your money. Or try, Couples and Money by Victoria Collins, Ph.D., which neatly tackles the messy “how to” of money talk.
Q I’m 39 and have had many relationships, the best of which have been with women whom I find physically attractive. I’ve vowed to only marry a woman who turns me on. My friends scoff at this, claiming that the importance of sex diminishes with age. If that’s the case, why do so many older men leave their wives for younger women? Am I off base in believing that the more attracted I am to my wife, the better the marriage will be?
Dr. Joy’s Answer
Your bros are way off the mark. In a survey of 1,300 Americans age 60 or older, what do you think 39 percent said they wanted more of? You guessed it. Nookie.
Maybe it’s time to hang out with a more optimistic gang. Or perhaps your friends could better appreciate the role of physical attraction if they viewed the idea from an evolutionary perspective. Research involving everything from sweaty T-shirts to facial symmetry suggests that our attraction detectors are most likely to bleep when we run across the person whose genes are procreatively appealing. Beauty may actually be in the eyes of the breeders, and chasing “chemistry” may merely be a social expression of the biological drive toward evolutionary fitness. So feel free—in fact, feel biologically compelled—to indulge your tastes. But don’t mistake attraction, lust, ear-popping sex or even an all-consuming love affair for the signpost of a great marriage. A lasting bond is cut from different wood.
At the University of Washington’s “love lab,” John Gottman, Ph.D., and his associates have videotaped hundreds of couples over two decades to discern the keys to marital success or failure. Gottman found that the ratio of a couple’s positive to negative interactions is most revealing of their satisfaction. Happy couples maintain a 5-1 ratio, that is, their relationships work because they are nice to each other. They turn toward each other in the face of conflict to try to resolve problems; they accept influence from one another; and they make a crusade of nurturing fondness and admiration.
So while initial attraction may give you electricity, the way partners treat each other day-to-day gives a marriage substance and longevity. To learn more, read Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
Q When is it time for me? I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a
coworker, a friend, an aunt, a tutor and more. Sometimes it’s hard being
pulled every which way. My husband is supportive, but he likes to accompany me everywhere. I adore my 6-year-old son; he’s bright, smart, but he clings to me. . Am I wrong in wanting time to myself not just once in a while, but often?
Dr. Joy’s Answer:
You’re facing a universal female dilemma. We feel guilty when we don’t give 100% to others, but by giving our all to them and saving so little for ourselves, we deplete the loving, creative energies that would otherwise flow freely.
It’s already time for you–well past time. However, claiming that
time will mean erasing layers of guilt (or at least ignoring them and forging
ahead anyway); it will mean learning to say no to each demand that has been ringing an automatic “yes” from you; and it will mean asking for help without apology. A tall order for change, indeed, thankfully made up of baby-steps, taken as you slowly formulate new intentions.
Consider: do you want time to cozy up with a book, meditate, exercise,
garden, have lunch with girlfriends, or just daydream? Make a list of your
desires, of who can help you reach them, and of what they’ll need to do.
Then elicit their cooperation, one by one. Your husband is undoubtedly a key player here—you’ll be asking him to adjust his expectations and accept an upheaval in the status quo of his marriage. So sit him down, gently explain how overwhelmed you feel, describe the changes you’d like to make in your life, and ask him how he might envision assisting you. By inviting his participation in this process you’ll allow him to help fix the creaky hinges of your life (and we all know how much men love to fix things), so that he’ll feel empowered, involved and motivated to stand by you.
Q My wife is six months pregnant and still very interested in sex. Until when
in a pregnancy is it safe to make love to her? And which positions are best, since the missionary style becomes awkward the larger her belly gets?
Dr. Joy’s Answer
So long as your wife and her doctor are agreeable, you’re good to go right up until she says, “Honey, it’s time to put those Lamaze sessions to use!” In fact, some folks believe that the energies of a happy mom are transmitted in some inexplicable fashion to her on-board passenger. If plenty of loving embraces and rippling orgasms make your wife smile, so much the better for the tyke awaiting a grand entrance into the world.
You’ll want to pace yourselves and adjust your lovemaking to accommodate some of the uncomfortable physical changes your wife will experience—especially during her third trimester. Intercourse in this phase might be best accomplished in the “scissors” position, or with both of you on your sides, tucked together like spoons, with your wife’s knees bent. In fact, this is often the best posture for sleeping while pregnant as well, with pillows between your wife’s knees for support. However, there’s no law against experimenting with the whole Kama Sutra to see what works for you both. Every woman’s experience of pregnancy is unique, and successive pregnancies can be quite different for the same woman. Exploration and conversation are your strongest allies.
If you have a pattern of speaking honestly about your sexual feelings, and if you’ve already added plenty of non-intercourse lovemaking options to your repertoire—oral, manual, sex toys, sensual massage—these practices will keep your erotic spirits aloft as D-day approaches. If you haven’t gone there yet, this would be a great time to begin.
Q I’m in a relationship that is hurting me. There are very good parts: socially, physically and sexually it is magnificent. My friend tells me I am his only intimate partner, but I don’t believe him. We only see each other on weekends because he lives 30 miles away. He tells me he has a problem with commitment now and in the past; he also tells me he loves me.
My problem is that our sexual life together knows no boundaries, yet my upbringing tells me that I have to be in a committed relationship to go so far. We are both 64 and very active. Am I asking too much in today’s world?
Dr. Joy’s Answer
This isn’t about “today’s world” or even the world in which you were raised. This is about your intimate world; the world you choose to create for your own pleasures. You are 64 years old. You rule. There is no one from the past or the present who ought to be regulating the boundaries of your happiness except yourself.
You say that this relationship is hurting you … yet I’m not sure how. You sound thrilled with your experiences, your lover sounds clear in his feelings for you and honest about his own limitations. And you are thoroughly gratified in so many ways. So I have to ask, is your hesitation and doubt really about his commitment or is it about your own guilt over coloring outside the lines? Are moralistic poltergeists wreaking havoc in your house, frightening you away from the joy you feel?
Granted, you may be emotionally unable to handle an open-ended relationship no matter how glorious your weekends. If you’re struggling with an authentic need for a solid commitment, respect your own needs. If you give up this relationship, you’ll miss the festivities but you’ll feel stronger for honoring yourself. However, if you can learn to tolerate the uncertainty, consider ousting those annoying, repressive ghosts and treasure the largess of your life. Age should never be a barrier to creating a new paradigm for pleasure; in fact, it ought to be an invitation.
Q I’m a therapist for the Army. I’ve been married 21 years and it’s unraveling; basically, my wife and I don’t cherish one another like we should. I see us in a downward spiral. I have tried to tell her that unless her behavior toward me changes, it will be over, but she appears to not care. I just want someone who needs me and loves me, and I feel I don’t have that now.
Today I had a session with a woman about problems with her husband, and as she described what was going on I had to steel myself to maintain professionalism because her story reminded me so much of my own situation. I don’t think she caught it, but I don’t know how I’m going to handle cases like this, given how I feel.
Dr. Joy’s Answer
I’m glad you can see how your own circumstances have become a barrier to doing good work with your patients. We’ve all been there at some point; what matters is learning from those lapses.
Now, here’s the message that leapt out at me from your letter: you wrote, “we do not cherish each other,” yet you go on to say that you’ve threatened to leave if your wife’s behavior doesn’t change. A bit of a contradiction, isn’t it? I suggest you focus for now on the “we” element. Try cherishing her “as you feel you should” rather than merely casting blame. Then, give yourself the advice you’d undoubtedly offer anyone else in your predicament: get some joint counseling. This recommendation is as obvious as a forehead pimple, yet we in the mental health professions are often the last to realize when it’s time to seek help ourselves. A lot of knowledge coupled with a little self-delusion can indeed be a dangerous thing. As practicing therapists, these traits are particularly ominous because we owe our patients our full attention and at least a reasonable degree of objectivity. If you continue to have difficulty with your cases, seek consultation with a clinical supervisor either within or outside your agency.
All my readers can benefit from this letter, too, even if they’re not professional counselors. How many of you give wise, savvy advice to friends in trouble, but somehow manage to “forget” all you know to be true about life when it comes to your own wobbly circumstances? It’s sure amazing how “dumb” we can be in the midst of an emotional dilemma. There’s no shame in that…only a reminder that sometimes we need to go above our own heads for guidance, especially when our good judgment is compromised by confusing and careening emotions.