Chapter One: More Than Sex
In my first solo episode of The Radical Intimacy Podcast, I read the first Chapter of my upcoming book, Radical Intimacy: Cultivate the Deeply Connected Relationships You Desire and Deserve. In this first chapter, "More Than Sex," I share my perspective of intimacy by drawing two important distinctions: 1. That intimacy is much more complex and dimensional than just sex. Of course, sex is one part of intimacy, but there's more. 2. That our limited understanding of intimacy has the achievement of it dependent on someone or something outside of ourselves. In actuality, the nature of intimacy is vast and readily accessible to each and every one of us individually. I also talk about my own sexless ten year marriage in my 20s, and how that set me on a lifelong exploration and understanding of all kinds of intimacy on all levels. If you like what you hear in this episode, there are thirteen more chapters and a collection of exercises and practices which will help you create the deeply connected life you desire and deserve.
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So this is my first solo episode. I decided to come and share with you chapter one of my book, Radical Intimacy: Cultivate the Deeply Connected Relationships You Desire and Deserve, which is published by Hachette Go and available wherever you buy books. There's a link in the show notes that you can click through. But basically, you can go to any website or physical bookstore, and they should have it.
In this first chapter, which is Called More than Sex, it sets the book up basically to understand my view on intimacy. I've been coaching for many years. Over the years, I've sort of taken my own personal experience and practices and my education and infinite number of workshops and classes and courses and books and reading. Kind of all combined it and woven it together into a bit of a methodology for navigating our relationships and cultivating deep connection.
In this chapter, I talk about my own sexless marriage when I was in my 20s. In case you are concerned, before I published the book, I ran this chapter by my ex-husband, with whom I shared the sexless marriage. God, His blessing, it was really actually quite a lovely healing moment for us. We remain close. We are like brother and sister, and we have a daughter who is now an adult. She is getting her PhD in Biology and planning to go do field research for several months later this year. So she'll come on the podcast and talk about that when she gets back.
Vic, as a matter of fact, my ex, has also agreed to come on the podcast and talk about our relationship and co-parenting and after divorce. Maybe we'll talk about our sexless marriage. I don't know. We'll see. But for now, here is chapter one of the book, More than Sex.
Surely, you’ve read it in a novel or seen it in the movies, or maybe it lives solely in your fantasy life. Maybe you’ve actually experienced a moment of mind-blowing, soul-stirring, earth-shattering intimacy. Your partner looks deeply in your eyes, takes your head in their hands, and kisses you like they are caressing your very soul with their mouth. Your whole nervous system unwinds with a felt sense of comfort, like coming home. Your body melts; your insecurities fall away; your inhibitions vanish. As your flesh hungers to blur the lines of separation, a tidal wave of desire crashes through you—desire to consume each other, desire to feel yourself, desire to merge with the universe in an explosion of effervescent stardust and love juice. There’s no room for thought in this madness, no need for interpretation or meaning. This communion exists beyond the masks we wear, the personalities we inhabit, the stories we tell. It’s pure, it’s primal, and it’s delicious.
If you ask everyone you know what intimacy means to them, half will describe this scene or something like it. The other half will tell you about a road trip or a spa day with their bestie, rife with deep conversation and confessions of tightly held secrets. They’ll describe the experience of being seen for who they really are—warts and all—and being loved and accepted anyway. In mutuality, this honest sharing of selves offers validation and acceptance, while cultivating trust and self-esteem. When we see ourselves in others, it gives context to and normalizes our own experience. In this sense, intimacy is the antidote to shame, the belief that we are so bad or broken that we are unworthy of love and belonging—two things that are essential to our general well-being, if not survival. As nourishing as intimacy is, it remains one of the most confounding of all human experiences. We long for, look for, and even chase it. We also fear, resist, and run from it. Most of us can point to an idea or occurrence of what we would call intimacy in our lives, but few of us truly grasp its full expression. What exactly are we craving, and why does it make us so anxious? Intimacy is risky. It can feel like we are putting ourselves out there to be evaluated and judged, which, depending on your tolerance for vulnerability, can be exciting or excruciating. Here’s the thing . . . our limited understanding of intimacy has the achievement of it dependent on someone or something outside of ourselves. In actuality, the nature of intimacy is vast and readily accessible to each and every one of us individually.
How intimate are you with yourself? Ponder that for a moment. When was the last time you sat still for a few minutes, put down all the devices, and just listened to the sound of your own breath? Do you have a working knowledge of your internal organs and where they are located in your body? Do you bring your full awareness to the experience of eating your food and drinking your coffee, or are you distracted by your busy mind trying to figure out the details of your life? Let’s go even deeper. Are you intimate with your emotional landscape and which skills you use to navigate the (sometimes) stormy skies? What feelings arise when you look at the sunset, and where do you feel that in your body? And when was the last time you looked at your own genitals in the mirror with love and appreciation? All these are facets of intimacy. The fact is, we can meet each other only to the extent that we can meet ourselves. The rules of the game remain the same whether there is another person involved or we are flying solo. Some things look really good and some things not so much. We can’t be selectively intimate and experience only the pleasant parts; it doesn’t work that way. You’re either in or you’re out. Intimacy takes courage, and, when approached skillfully, the rewards are worth it. And, as my client Sarah will tell you, the alternative can be devastating.
Sarah hardly recognizes herself. Her puffy eyes stare back at her in the bathroom mirror as she processes the inevitability of where she finds herself. After seventeen years of marriage and two kids—now teenagers—her husband has disclosed that he is leaving the marriage to be with the woman he has secretly been having an affair with for three months. Sarah had no idea. She didn’t recognize any clues that her husband’s time and presence were somehow unaccounted for. She is shocked yet somehow not entirely surprised. In the past ten years, their sex life had become essentially nonexistent, and their relationship began to feel more like that of siblings or roommates. Somewhere in the trenches of living life, she’s lost her sense of self. She feels unseen, unappreciated, and misunderstood, not only by her husband but by her own self. Gazing at her reflection, she wonders where her formerly vibrant self has gone when she wasn’t paying attention.
Where was her focus? On running a household, volunteering at school, on the board of directors of a nonprofit, supporting her husband’s big career, regular workouts to stave off hereditary type 2 diabetes and the ravages of aging, and mothering her children in a way that only she could do. Like with so many couples, there never seemed a good time to have an uncomfortable conversation. Sarah and Jack’s responsibilities were stacked so high and their resources stretched so thin, they could hardly afford the disruption of looking at the parts of their life that weren’t working. They lacked the structure and energy to excavate all the relational microtraumas of unmet needs, missed opportunities for connection, dashed expectations, and shifting identities. Instead, they held it together the best they could on the surface with a good measure of what I call the trifecta of anti-intimacy: denial, deflection, and distraction. Perhaps intuitively they sensed that once they had all the artifacts unearthed to examine in broad daylight, they would be facing the inevitable and overwhelming work of repair and restoration. Jack was compelled instead to start fresh with someone new, leaving Sarah to do the postmortem on her own.
Culturally, we are masters of distraction. Our ethos of busy-to-the-point-of-depletion is one way we avoid the emotional undercurrent and blunted consciousness of our existence. If we don’t have time to look at our inner world or the larger context, it doesn’t exist, right? Wrong. And then there’s technology. So much of our relating is experienced through our electronic devices. The recent pandemic has taken online interaction to an extreme, where it promises to stay for some time, as we establish and learn how to navigate a new normal. Though there are many benefits to a digitally connected life, heavy mobile device use gets in the way of intimacy both directly and indirectly. Several studies show we receive an average of nearly 50 daily push notifications and check our mobile devices more than 250 times a day. A survey conducted by RootMetrics found that 23 percent of us reach for our phones within sixty seconds of waking, with another 34 percent waiting five to ten minutes. Brace yourself: one study by Harris Interactive shows 20 percent of people ages eighteen to thirty-four admit to checking their phones during sex. Ironically, in all of this connectivity, a vague sense of isolation and alienation inevitably creeps in. By collectively opting to go down the rabbit hole of technology-to-the-point-of-distraction, we decrease sensitivity to the nuance of gesture and expression. We numb to the subtle communication that happens in the spaces between words. Our attention span shortens with the manifestation of what neuroscience now calls “screen fatigue.” We consume headlines rather than books, watch videos rather than read, get our news on TikTok, get same-day delivery of just about anything. We have grown easily impatient, distracted, and bored. You know those filters we apply to our posted photos to make them feel dreamy and flawless? They are a metaphor for the lens through which we see our lives. In short, our sense of the world, the people in it, and ourselves is distorted, which is problematic because by definition, seeing clearly what is in front of us is an essential aspect of intimacy. I’ve had my own firsthand experience with the triple threat of denial, deflection, and distraction. I survived my own ten-year sexless marriage when I was in my twenties.
I met Vic the year after I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. I was back home in New York treating my childhood best friend to a beer and live music for her birthday. The minute I saw Vic walk through the door with a guitar slung over his shoulder, I recognized him. I had never seen him before, but I felt like I’d looked in those eyes for a thousand years. I can’t say it was love at first sight—I hardly believe in such notions—but I felt instantly connected to this man in some distinct and indescribable way. Unlike anyone I’d ever been involved with, he was a musician living for his art. He had the energy of a rock star and the lifestyle of a starving artist. He was charming, funny, affectionate, and resourceful. Two and a half years later, we were married at a restaurant on the banks of the Hudson River.
By the time the alarm on my biological clock was clanging nearly a decade later, we had been living in Los Angeles for five years. The band we had formed, with me as lead singer, had had considerable local success, but no record contract. We had just bought a house in the Hollywood Hills with the help of my parents for a down payment. I booked a trip to Hawaii for our seventh wedding anniversary. We had never been on a trip of this kind. We had spent the past decade committing every resource to the success of the band—first Vic’s band when we lived in New York and then our band when we moved to Los Angeles—the rehearsal space, the equipment, the recordings, the custom-made silver leather outfits . . . this list goes on. There was never anything left for such a vacation.
Within the first few weeks of getting to know Vic, he had said to me, “One day, I am going to have a daughter named Rachel. If that’s a deal breaker, you should walk away now.” At twenty-two years old, I found it minorly interesting that a twenty-five-year-old man already had a relationship with his future daughter. It was irrelevant to me, but I liked the name, and motherhood was part of my long-range vision. Nearly ten years later, I found myself booking a pilgrimage to Kona to conceive Rachel.
The Big Island was breathtaking. I read voraciously about Hawaiian cultural history and spirituality. We drove around the youngest of the Hawaiian Islands looking to tap into the mana of the land, the lava, the wildlife, and the history. We were on a mission to channel that energy into the creation of our child. We had about eight days to make this happen. After about four days of stalling, Vic turned and said to me, “If you want to get pregnant, you’re actually going to have to fuck me,” thereby summing up the dirty little secret about our marriage.
For what was essentially the duration of our ten years together, I was completely shut down, sexually. It must have been good at the beginning, or we wouldn’t have been drawn to each other, but by the time we were living together and engaged to be married, there was a noticeable issue. On the eve of our wedding, he was deeply conflicted about the state of our sex life and considering his options. I barely remember the conversation we had about it, but we did go ahead with the wedding and I believe I must have agreed to sleep with him more often. It wasn’t his fault. He was a good and generous lover. It wasn’t that I had never been sexual; I had freely explored my sexuality in high school and college. I had been masturbating since I was three, for crying out loud. I loved sex! Whatever was going on with me was specific to my marriage or my health. I had a beautiful man, whom I genuinely loved, dying to make love to me, and it made my skin crawl to even think about it. I was convinced something was wrong with me.
Soon after our wedding, I urged my gynecologist to run a blood panel to determine my obvious hormonal imbalance. She gently, but pointedly, told me that I was a healthy young woman and it’s been her overwhelming experience that when a woman is shut down in her marriage, it is because of a dynamic in the relationship. I was adamantly opposed to this possible scenario and awaited the test results with bated breath. In fact, her suspicion was confirmed. My blood work was perfect. There was no easy cure for my lack of libido, no magic pill that would provide an easy solution. I was racked with guilt. I felt broken, ashamed, and betrayed by my body. Add to that a growing pattern of request, rejection, and resentment with my husband, and I was paralyzed inside the cycle, unable to acknowledge or address the issue or my husband’s pain. I pretended it wasn’t really happening, that everything was fine: denial. When Vic did bring it up, I found a way to make him wrong: deflection. And I immersed myself in my work, our dogs, and eventually my obsession with getting pregnant: distraction. The fact that I was trying to get pregnant with a man I resisted having sex with for a decade is some sort of triple axel of evasive coping mechanisms. Well, we did actually conceive Rachel on that island during the one time we managed to consummate our intention, and we would never have sex again.
I had an easy pregnancy and enjoyed every minute of it. Rachel was born without incidence. She was healthy and adorable. The first several weeks postpartum were a whirlwind. I had a lot of feelings! Highest highs and lowest lows. In many ways I was rocking it, but emotionally I was struggling. The oddest thing in the mix . . . since the moment I gave birth, I was hornier than I’d ever been! I hadn’t been turned on like that since before I met Vic. I was sure something had happened physically or hormonally in the laboring process that resulted in my insatiable craving for sex. By the time my six-week checkup came around and the doctor cleared me for takeoff, I was climbing out of my skin with desire. Relieved to feel that way after so many years, I rushed home to satisfy my hunger with my husband, who I imagined would be astonished and thrilled. As I walked through the door, he came to greet me.
“How did it go?” he asked eagerly, knowing where I’d been.
And then in that moment—the moment I imagined I would be tearing my clothes off and throwing my naked body at him—I stood there unable to respond. Not just with words, but with desire. I took one look at him and shut down. It was as if someone pulled the plug and drained every ounce of desire right out of me. I was crushed. Stunned, too, actually. There I was, standing in the undeniable truth. There was nothing wrong with me. My body burned with desire: to feel my lover’s skin on my skin as our limbs tangled in the attempt to consume each other, to writhe in the ecstasy of taking him into my body, feeling him inside me, filling me up, drilling me until we both exploded, and then collapsing in the afterglow. Those six weeks had shown me that I could feel that again. Just not for my husband. I was horrified. Reality was hitting me right in the face. There was nowhere to hide. I found myself a wonderful therapist, and after ten years of not being able to love Vic the way he deserved to be loved, I left him. Our daughter was four months old.
A couple of years in therapy helped me understand a great deal about myself, my marriage, my childhood, and the symbiotic nature of all of it—standard therapy stuff. I grew to understand how I was repeating a certain dynamic with my mother in the way I was relating to my husband. I now sum it up decades later by saying in choosing Vic, I married my mother. That’s true to some extent for everyone; our childhood informs the ways in which we conduct our romantic partnerships. We are taught early on what it looks like to give and receive love. Without even being aware of it, we show up to adult relationships with a set of perceptions, feelings, and expectations. I was preloaded with an operating system that required a certain set of conditions for me to give and receive love in a way that felt native to me. Vic filled that role. Vic was the polar opposite of my mother in terms of personality, but he gave and received love in a way that felt incredibly familiar. It’s part of the reason we remain close even beyond coparenting our, now adult, daughter. We feel like brother and sister.
What was missing for me, where therapy fell short, was that I gained no understanding of how my emotional relationship with Vic affected my physical relationship with him. I was still left wondering how a healthy, educated, self-aware young woman who loved her husband had inexplicably lost her sex drive. That I had no one to turn to, no one who could help me understand what I was experiencing, set me on a lifelong path and purpose of exploring and discovering the true nature of sexuality. It’s only now that I am able to look back and see the micro and the macro of Vic and my relationship, in and out of bed, and recognize the dynamics that I have since become so familiar with. If I knew then what I know now, would we have had a different outcome? Who knows—but one thing is certain: skillful navigation of our sexual relationship would have spared us both a decade of suffering inside what was otherwise a loving and respectful partnership.
With Sarah’s situation as well as my own, it’s easy to look at sex as the reason for the end of the marriage. Most couples who deal with issues in the bedroom try to fix the sex, not realizing that it’s merely a symptom of a more fundamental issue, never really solving the problem and, in the process, compounding the relational rupture. What lies beneath the surface could be a million different things and is specific to the individuals and the relationship they’ve built. Each couple has a different and unique set of challenges. The thing that’s universal is a need for intimate connection with themselves and then with each other.
The importance of intimacy doesn’t exist solely in the context of relationship. In fact, the practice of Radical Intimacy starts with us. We are available to connect with others only to the extent that we can connect to ourselves. This goes for lovers, friends, relatives, colleagues, and even the barista at the local coffeehouse. In order to share the most tender parts of ourselves, we have to know what it is we are sharing. And to fully see someone else, we have to be able to recognize our own experience in theirs. For all the times you ever wondered if this is all there is, if you’ve longed for something that you can’t quite name or grab hold of, it’s ultimately intimacy with yourself that you are craving. Most of us have not learned to be with ourselves fully, either by example, by osmosis, or by school of some kind. In fact, we’ve been conditioned to place authority outside ourselves in the form of the media, advertising industry, religion, and family culture. It’s no wonder we lose our sense of self as we get more and more entrenched in the complexities of life over time. We become increasingly distracted from our own inner knowing. With intimacy as the foundational principle of our existence, we can build a life based on what we truly need—not what we think we need, have been told we need, or think we should need. This kind of sovereignty is liberating, and it feels like coming home to yourself.