"So when you say 'no sex' for 30 days, what does that mean, exactly?"
I'm on the phone with Ian Kerner, Ph.D., author of Sex Detox, which suggests stepping away from the hot stuff for a month to revive a sex life that's grown yawn-inducing or otherwise "toxic."
I wouldn't call the sex I have with my boyfriend, Fred, "toxic": We've had a healthy amount with lots of texture (from start-the-week-off-right sex to the Wednesday-night reconnectors to a few all-day Saturday sessions). But after a year-and-a-half, even a good thing can feel routine. Why not try something that promises to make sex better — even if it means not having it at all?
In his nearly 10 years of counseling bedroom-challenged couples, Kerner has found that taking sex off the table helps couples focus on aspects of the relationship they never paid attention to before. "Most things that happen — or don't happen — during sex have nothing to do with sex," he says.
I mention the detox to Fred. He wipes the tear from his right eye after 90 seconds of hooting laughter and says there's no way I can go a month without sex. I guess I always have been the randier of the two of us, partly because I use sex as a security blanket — to confirm that I'm attractive and loved. Secretly, I wonder, too, if I can go without.
DAY 1: Instead of sex, I get to do homework?
I think about what 30 days of no sex will do to us. Will Fred start looking at other women? Will we get bored? We've gone 30 days without sex before — we were in a long-distance relationship at one time, after all. But then we couldn't have sex. Now, I'm choosing not to.
Along with saying no to sex, the detox requires you to do homework every day: Quizzes that get at how affectionate your family was and writing exercises that force you to think back on your first sexual experiences.
I take a multiple-choice test designed to diagnose the toxicity of your sexual relationship, including questions about what you suspect your partner would think about your fantasies. Fred knows mine — intimately — so I assume we'll ace this. The healthiest couples score 60 to 75. I tally mine — 59. Huh. We have decent sex. We communicate about it. How is that a 59?
DAY 2: Dangling and denying
Today's exercise makes me focus on my relationship with sex, which at times I'd describe as abusive: I use sex. I think everybody does to some extent. But ever since I was 15 and realized that I had something men wanted, I've wielded the power sex gives me: I've dangled it, I've withheld it. With Fred, I use sex as a barometer for our relationship. If we go three or four days without it, I start to feel less emotionally connected to him.
That evening when we're out, Fred's more attentive than usual, and I suspect he's testing my detox resolve. It feels naughty. But the spell breaks when we get home and I have to deny him. Now I feel like a tease. I'm lonely even though he's right next to me.
DAY 3: Stuffing and divulging
I stuff my sexiest lingerie in the bottom of the drawer so Fred won't think I'm tempting him.
Then I talk to Kerner and admit Fred and I have been in a rut. I blame Fred for getting lazy about foreplay, even though I've asked for it. Kerner says the detox is working if you make a new observation every day, but figuring out I'm pissed off at my boyfriend doesn't feel like progress. Worse, I can't complain to Fred, because the detox is about self-discovery — no help from your mate. If we weren't toxic before, I'm sure we're about to be now.
DAY 4: How abstinence works
We're making breakfast Saturday morning, and Fred starts kissing me and does that thing where he presses his body full against mine, as if he can't get close enough. Later, he asks me to come to the bedroom to help him pick out a shirt. I fall for it. He pounces on me. I resist for about 15 minutes. OK...maybe five.
DAY 5: I'll take denial, thanks
It's morning and we slept naked, so...we do it again. Seriously, we already broke the diet, so what's one more piece of cake? Besides, it was amazing: attentive, varied, hungry.
Later, I wonder whether I wanted to break the detox because I needed to feel loved by Fred. Is sex the only thing holding us together? The detox is beginning to scare me. I'm concerned it's going to shake stuff loose that I didn't know was there.
DAY 6: Confession, absolution. But do I trust the priest?
I had to come clean to Kerner. He responds that we're not the first couple to have amazing sex while on the detox. But I'm beginning to think the big secret is just the thrill of the "you can't have me" game. Kerner swears there's more to it than that, and if I see it through, there will be lots more sex like that in my life.
DAY 10: Taking it like a man
I think back to (jerk) exes who would have been irritated if I had withheld sex for any amount of time — and would have flirted with other women in front of me, as if to say, "Well, you're not giving me any." But Fred is a grown-up, and I'm relieved he isn't giving me any of that blue-balls crap.
DAY 11: Just the four of us
Tonight in bed, Fred and I cuddle, but I draw the line when it goes too far. It's like a boxing match — nothing below the waist, buddy. I wonder if my sexuality will atrophy from disuse. Is this what happens to people with kids? Is the next step mom jeans?
I start reading a book, and Fred follows suit. It's the first night I don't feel guilty for not having sex. Nor do I feel unattractive or rejected. I feel comfortable. And I recognize that we're silently connecting — without sex.
DAY 15: So deep, it hurts
It has always surprised me that Fred is affectionate, since he didn't grow up in that kind of environment. I tell this to Kerner, hoping to get Fred some extra credit.
"It's great, but it's interesting that he skips foreplay," he says. "It's possible that 'aboveground,' he's making an effort to be loving, but 'underground,' there are fears of the emotional intimacy that comes with sex." I panic: Am I in a relationship with someone who can't connect? Then I remember how good I felt when we were just reading in bed.
DAY 18: Memo to self: Get the Entourage box set
We still get into long discussions over dinner, snuggle while watching our Netflix, and laugh at each other's goofy antics. I feel like something is absent, though — and I think it's that extra intimacy you only get from sex.
That, and I'm apparently missing getting off, too. I haven't shaved my legs in weeks or heard the whirr of a vibrator, and it's putting me on edge. When a friend and I watch an Entourage marathon, she's unfazed when Johnny Drama seduces a French blonde on the beach. When his shorts are around his ankles, I can't look away. Am I in high school?
When Fred and I get home from dinner later, he doesn't stand a chance. Our bedroom looks like a crime scene.
DAY 23: Are crotchless panties returnable?
I wore cotton undies and a T-shirt to bed last night. Fred sidled up to me, saying, "You look so good." I thought he would miss the lacy bras and peekaboo sets that I stuffed in the bottom of my drawer 20 days ago. He didn't need them, and neither did I.
DAY 26: Bringing it back
Today, I take a true/false relationship quiz and fall in love with Fred all over again. Completely alien statements like, "I feel like my partner doesn't really know me" and "we are bored with each other" make me realize how healthy our relationship is. If that's a 59, I'm OK with that.
DAY 30: The truth about sex
OK, I wasn't a perfect candidate for abstinence. Fred was right; I couldn't last a month. I learned that my issues are just that — my issues. Fred doesn't love me any more or less if we don't have sex for a while.
What else did I discover? A good relationship fosters good sex, but good sex doesn't necessarily foster a good relationship. Whether that required a few weeks on the wagon to figure out, I'm not sure. I'll let you know...as soon as we get out of bed.