Two years ago I was in the hospital recovering from a serious car accident. I had four pelvic fractures and was unable to turn over or even lay on my side. My only option was flat on my back.
During my hospital stay the hospital massage therapist came to my room and offered to give me a back massage. “I would love a massage—but I can’t turn over.”
“No problem,” she said. “I can slip my hand under your back and give you a massage almost as good as if you were lying on your stomach.”
True to her words, Debra found the sore and tender places in my spine as if her hands had radar, then proceeded to knead the pain into silence. “I so believe in the profound healing power of touch,” I said as I relaxed and breathed deeply. “I learned how important touch was when my husband and I stopped touching after he became impotent from prostate cancer. It was touch, loving touch that saved our marriage,” I said as I let out a long sigh of appreciation.
The therapist immediately stopped the massage and moved to my bedside. “Tell me more,” she said as she leaned close. “My husband isn’t able to achieve an erection either.” Initially I spoke in generalities talking about ‘taking time, being patient, setting the mode,’ until Debra abruptly interrupted me. “I need to know specifically what you did that saved your marriage,” she pressed.
While I recognized the urgency in Debra’s voice I couldn’t give her ‘the specifics’ she asked for. It wasn’t because I was shy; if that were the case I would never have written our book. No, it was the word “specifics” that halted me.
For months afterward I was troubled by not being able to clearly explain exactly what Keith and I did that made our lovemaking without intercourse so satisfying. Did we know of secret erotic zones no one else had discovered? Did we have especially sensitive fingers or genitalia? I thought not.
Eventually I found myself expressing my frustration to my editor about my inability to answer Debra’s pleas. “She wanted specifics,” I said, “but I couldn’t give her any. The truth is I could no more tell a couple exactly how to engage in ‘loving touch’ sex than I could tell a couple exactly how to engage in intercourse sex.”
Just like that, the nuance was clear. Keith and I hadn’t discovered a unique, sexy, way of embracing, cuddling, or fondling that guaranteed arousal. Nor had we created some novel manner of stimulation that increased desire.
What we had discovered was the crucial combination of touch and talk.
Because intercourse was no longer an option, Keith and I had to talk in order to continue to enjoy sex without intercourse. We had to shed embarrassment, abandon shame, and speak honestly in order to discover where and how to touch each other. We had to create a safe space to allow for experimentation and exploration. And we had to give each other permission to change our minds about what we wanted. Healing meant being vulnerable, bearing our fears, and exposing our nakedness—physically and mentally. Trust was essential, as well as empathy and compassion.
We often hear one partner in a relationship which has been impacted sexually due to a medical condition say, “I don’t want to bring it up because I don’t want to embarrass him/her.” Even without a medical cause, partners often avoid talking about the changes we all experience, especially as we age, such as reduced libido, vaginal dryness, decreased energy, stiff and sore joints—the list is extensive. The changes can be subtle and slothfully slow in appearance. They can creep into a couple’s bedroom as silently as months pass on a calendar, gradually causing sexual pleasure to decline or even cease prematurely.
Keith and I were not different before these changes happened to us. We didn’t talk about ‘how’ we made love either, until we nearly lost our intimacy altogether.
I now believe talking, motivated by the sole intention of wanting to continue to please and pleasure each other, will enable Keith and me to make love until one of us dies. Because we will always touch—and talk—intimately.