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Tell her about it

Tell her about it

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How do you stay close, stay hot, and keep bed death away from your door? Try this secret weapon: Tell the truth.

As a young lesbian I was notoriously afraid of bed death. My experience taught me that desire between two monogamous people was doomed to die a slow death by boredom. My intuition, however, told me otherwise. There had to be a way to reconcile lasting love and hot sex.

Of course, in the sexual celebration that was Paris in the early 1970s, monogamy didn't stand a chance. During my promiscuous years I rarely admitted to myself that something was amiss. My affairs were a great sexual education, but they often turned out to be frustrating, and the sexual excitement was short-lived. I ended up convinced that the forever sexually attractive and engaging woman of my dreams did not exist.

Therefore, when I seriously fell in love again, I was still suspicious--in spite of my delight. I moved to Berkeley, Calif., to be with this woman. But I was determined not to stay a day longer than my sexual passion would last. Today, 20 years later, I can say that my early intuition has been confirmed: Passion and intimacy can coexist--if lovers share interests, remain attracted to and curious about each other, and, most important, risk honesty with each other. There is a lot of talk about the value of honesty in a relationship. But who ever thought that honesty could be an aphrodisiac?

I remember the morning after my first love night with Kim, my American in Paris. My apartment was composed of three tiny chambres de bonnes, maids' rooms, on top of an old building. It overlooked a courtyard with a chestnut tree, then miles of gray slate roofs and brick-colored chimney pots until the eye bumped against the Eiffel Tower at the horizon.

I sneaked out early while Kim was still asleep and got fresh croissants and strawberries down the street. When she woke up I kissed and teased her, offering a strawberry I held between my lips, not letting go when she went after it. The game of feeding, fighting, giving in piece by piece was a particular turn-on to me.

We repeated this game many times afterward, with cherries, chocolates, and other morsels of food. Every time we played it we were transported straight back to my little abode with a mattress on the floor, light streaming through an almost-floor-to-ceiling window, and desire streaming through our elated bodies.

But sometime down the road the game disappeared from our menu. We quite forgot about it--at least I did, only to notice one day that it had gone missing. Now, when I tried to bring it back, Kim was not in the mood to play it anymore. Something had changed. I was dismayed. And it dawned on me that I too was depriving Kim of erotic treats that she had once cherished. Was the specter of bed death raising its scary head?

I suppose all couples who have survived the stages of falling in love recognize the situation. As a counselor I also heard a lot from my clients about these changing erotic moods. A pattern of desire typically shows up in a relationship:

Stage 1: Falling in Love

This stage is our major cultural reference point. We have been primed for it from the very beginning with fairy tales, princes and princesses falling in love at first sight and, mysteriously, living happily ever after. We see this stage so often that we assume that love is falling in love. We do not fully realize that falling in love is like a drug trip, an extreme high. The verb falling gives it away: We are swept off our feet, falling out of our usual balance. Everything we do is measured anxiously on the scale of Are we getting closer?

Stage 2: Honeymoon

The sexual force of this stage tears open all our boundaries. Ecstasy, angst, and desire turn us into adventurers, discoverers of unknown continents of body and soul. We make love. We break out of our usual inhibitions. We dance naked in front of the mirror. We soar. We are young again. We are finally living fully, with passion--and we will never, ever stop.

Stage 3: Getting Familiar

We develop shared habits, patterns, routines. We bump up against our differences but are often willing to overlook them. We make life plans. We cross oceans and continents to move together. We are in love, busily building our nest.

Many couples take for granted what they accomplish in terms of team-building at this early stage. Kim and I didn't know it, but in this humming post-honeymoon stage of intimacy, we were building the foundation for the house with many rooms that would be our relationship.

Stage 4: Differentiation

The honeymoon phase is definitely over. The picture we present to the world--and to ourselves--shows cracks. We struggle with competition, envy, jealousy. Getting intimate seems to have opened a Pandora's box. We stand there naked and are suddenly shocked about what we see. We fight the realization, and we fight each other. For moments, we seem to have fallen out of love completely, and our chances of staying together seem dim. Why did we ever mistake this person for our ideal lover, "the only one"?

Some couples split up over the frequent discord and disenchantment of this phase. Others outlast the turmoil because their sex life seems magically heightened by those hot-cold energies of fighting and making up. For Kim and me moments of sexual bliss brought back the memory of our beginnings and reminded us of our relationship vision. But coming from a family where loud emotions were never expressed, our moments of passionate anger seemed intolerable to me--until the day my therapist asked me: "What's wrong with yelling?"

Stage 5: Accommodation and Resignation

Many couples progress from the pivotal stage 4 to a sneaking sense of caving in to "reality" and making do with less than they had hoped for. This is usually when we notice that sexuality has begun to fade away. We are tired of conflict by now and scared to lose the relationship if we ask for "too much," which typically entails the notion of "too much sex," and sex, of course, is the deepest, most intimate part of our lovers' commitment. To use my example, I could have quietly renounced the strawberries--and kept a secret grudge. In Western culture women are raised to think that if we enjoy cuddling, we may do quite well without all that troublesome sex. I have known couples who seemed content with this conclusion. But more typically, the sacrifice of sex leads to more turmoil.

Stage 6: Rebellion and Temptation

At this stage one partner usually expresses the sexual frustration of the couple and starts asking for change. This used to be my inevitable role in my past relationships. If change--more frequent sex, better sex, more romantic sex, etc.--cannot be worked out, one partner tends to push the big relationship buttons. Nagging criticism, serious fights, flirting with strangers, and starting an affair are the classical ways of breaking out of the cage of a sex-starved relationship.

If a couple doesn't get help at this latest stage of conflict, the most common solution is to call it quits.

Stage 7: Separation

One partner has newly fallen in love, or both partners are exhausted and heartbroken. They split up so that each of them can set out to begin the whole cycle all over again with someone else.

When I looked back at my unsatisfying relationships, it struck me that, each time, essential truths had not been spoken. These truths always had to do with shame--of feeling, of needing, of telling. Even if we could still be best pals, with the absence of truth some secret resentment would remain and spread under the covers. The feeling would eat away at my desire until there was no sexual appetite left. My relationship would slide down from stage 4 to the unavoidable stage 7 of "Goodbye, baby."

By now I felt like the Sherlock Holmes of lesbian bed death. If dishonesty was the culprit and if honesty had such an impact, wouldn't we get the opposite result if we let that embarrassing truth out of the closet?

This is exactly what I found. In the first years of my relationship with Kim, for example, we were troubled by certain sexual incompatibilities. One of my ways of getting turned on is particularly tender touches. Kim is just the opposite. She likes stormy initiations. As women, we usually assume that what our own body loves will also be a treat for our lover--a tricky assumption, to say the least. It took some courage to finally spell it out to each other--but once it was out in the open, we found ways to adjust and forgive each other for our frustration. The best part of our forgiveness was playfully naming the unwelcome approaches and turning them into a teasing, erotic game. Not too surprisingly, our erotic disenchantment soon dissolved like fog when the sun comes through.

Every big or small disappointment between lovers brings back the same old challenge: I'd rather die than tell her. "We dance round in a ring and suppose / But the Secret sits in the middle and knows," wrote the poet Robert Frost. Whatever the secret we feel stuck with, telling the truth to a lover who knows what we are risking--and who is taking the same risk herself--reverses the course of events. "Telling the truth is an adventure, a loosening of control in order to do something daring," I say in True Secrets of Lesbian Desire. "This is the first element truth has in common with good sex." With every truth well-told and well-received, the relief can be as refreshing as a great orgasm. Our heart opens, our body opens. We fall in love again.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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