Let's talk about sex.
One of the most beautiful ways we love our spouses is through sexuality. It's also one of the most emotionally complicated.
Popular culture portrays it as simple, spontaneous and very uncomplicated, but I assure you most couples experience it differently.
Sex is actually one of the top three issues for which couples seek counseling. And the military lifestyle of chaotic schedules and long durations of separation doesn't help.
Despite your best intentions of picking up right where you left off, if you struggle with all of those interruptions to your sex life, you're in no way alone.
I recently sat down for a candid interview with Dr. Michael Sytsma, a clinician and certified sex therapist, for my Lifegiver Podcast. (Important note: This episode is for mature audiences only.)
The interview originally aired for InDependent's 2016 Military Spouse Wellness Summit, but I was able to run an extended version of our conversation. Dr. Sytsma is based out of Atlanta and serves post-affair couples as well as those experiencing sexual difficulty at his Institute, Building Intimate Marriages. I asked Dr. Sytsma about specific intimacy challenges that military couples face at home and during deployments.
Dr. Mike, as he's known, explained that couples sexually "imprint" on each other. If that concept gives you flashbacks to Jacob in the Twilight series, it may not be that far from the truth.
During sex, oxytocin, known as the connective hormone, releases in the body. It is actually the same hormone released during nursing that bonds a mother to her baby. He clarified that when your spouse is gone for long periods of time, you go through what's called "skin hunger," when the body is longing for the touch and the oxytocin to which it is accustomed. That concept explains why during deployment your skin can almost feel like it crawling for something as simple as a safe hug.
Other forms of connection, though, have also been found to release oxytocin, including looking into each other's eyes, holding each other and even hearing the other person's voice.
Dr. Mike encourages military couples to tap into some of these healthy habits that support connections during separations. Although you may not be able to hold hands, associating the sound of your spouse's voice with intimacy and safety will release some oxytocin, even though your body is still going through that skin hunger. Doing that also helps during reintegration when you are getting your groove back.
On the other extreme, Dr. Mike mentioned that he and those in his field have found an opposite result with non-connective habits like pornography. Pornography associates the release of oxytocin with false images and story lines rather than your spouse. Ultimately, this imprinting can interfere with sexual performance with your spouse, especially when life isn't playing out like a fantasy.
The bottom line is this: Be careful and mindful what you choose to imprint on. Aim for good communication, curiosity and intentionality, and you will be on a path to great and meaningful sex.
There is no doubt that healthy sexuality in marriage is a complicated venture. But I like to think that it is supposed to be. Something this vulnerable requires a heart to serve, permission to be selfish, willingness to forgive, a sense of humor and communication. Healthy sexuality is a balancing act that forces you to be vulnerable in order to stay connected.
If you are struggling in this area of your marriage, there is hope and plenty of resources that can help guide, bring healing and direction. Begin by listening to Dr. Mike's interview. All of the resources he mentions can be found here. The Lifegiver App is also free and has interviews from leading marriage experts, stories of success and marriage curriculum that can help you get started today.
Maybe now is a time to be proactive. Begin healthy conversations in your relationship if you need them. Look for a counselor or sex therapist to help you wade through the complicated waters of intimacy. Seek out the healing or forgiveness you need to be vulnerable again.