With apologies to a certain athletic footwear company, Michele Weiner-Davis has three words of advice for married couples with an unsatisfying sex life: Just do it.
That's not exactly conventional wisdom. Therapists usually like to talk about feelings, relationship issues, lines of communication, and that sort of touchy-feely stuff before they urge couples to concentrate on the physical.
But Weiner-Davis, author of The Sex-Starved Marriage (Simon & Schuster, 2003), thinks mismatched sexual desire is probably the leading cause of marital strife and not merely a symptom of a troubled relationship. And her solution -- to encourage couples to get a little more intimate, so to speak -- has put her at the vanguard of a popular new approach to couples therapy.
"Sometimes, it's better to get couples to address their physical needs first. Just try being mad after great lovemaking," says Weiner-Davis, a marriage therapist with a practice in suburban Chicago. "People ask me, 'Michele, are you saying that people should have sex if they are not in the mood?' My definitive answer is -- yes."
The Sex-Starved Marriage is just one of a slew of recent books addressing the apparent satisfaction-gap in the marital bed. Studies suggest that between one-quarter to one-third of married people find their sex life unsatisfying, but it's not a number that seems to have gone dramatically up or down in recent years.
Rather, the sudden interest in the topic seems to reflect a new willingness to explore sex more freely -- a kind of post-Oprah lack of inhibition in the culture. And Weiner-Davis' central theme -- that sex gets better when you do it more often -- may have struck a chord.
"The way I think about it is that women often don't have that built-in desire they think they need to have for the sexual cycle to start," says Shirley Glass, a Baltimore psychologist and author. "For women, desire isn't necessarily the place to start. Desire can follow arousal."
Glass and others admit that sex usually isn't a problem for couples in the first year of marriage when passions are high. But the flames of desire dwindle over time, and for a variety of reasons.
First, of course, are physical changes -- aging, childbirth, changes in hormone levels, particularly testosterone, or medications like antidepressants or birth control pills that can diminish desire. So, too, can other factors like fatigue or stress.
But then, it can get complicated. A spouse who wants to have sex more often may feel angry, betrayed or rejected when he or she is refused. The partner with less interest may feel pressured or annoyed by the other person's frequent advances.
The result is an escalation in the problem, a vicious circle of repeated injuries and misunderstanding. Couples will argue over seemingly unrelated matters, be short-tempered with their children, insensitive to their partners, more open to infidelities.
"Having mismatched levels of sexual desire isn't the issue. Ultimately, the issue is whether a couple is willing or unwilling to address that problem," says Weiner-Davis.
Weiner-Davis says her point of view is reinforced by the recent work of Dr. Rosemary Basson, a British Columbia researcher and expert in human sexuality who found that the urge to become sexual in women often follows, rather than precedes, feeling aroused.
Dr. Valerie Davis Raskin, a Chicago-based psychiatrist, thinks that conclusion has merit. And from her own practice, she has found that women are more likely to experience a lower sexual drive than their husbands by a 4-to-1 margin.
"What often happens is that people get out of the habit of having sex," says Raskin, author of Great Sex for Moms (Fireside, 2002). "More sex is what leads to more sex. Having sex releases more of the chemicals that make you want sex."
Agree to be affectionate
Still, Raskin and others realize their message could be misinterpreted. They are not suggesting that a wife submit to her husband when-ever he gets a twinkle in his eye.
But they also don't want the decision to have sex to be entirely in the hands of the person with the lowest sex drive. "Some women believe there's something wrong with having sex simply because your partner wants it, and that's a problem," Raskin says.
Glass, author of Not Just Friends (Simon & Schuster), which explores marital infidelity, says it would be a mistake "to see Michele's work as going back to the days when women had a 'wifely duty.' " Even in this post-feminist period, women still have to have the option of saying no, she says.
"Sometimes, women are reluctant to begin any kind of sexual intimacy because their partner will take it as a commitment to go all the way," says Glass. "We need to get couples to agree to get affectionate, to snuggle and touch and fondle. Sometimes that will lead to a full sexual experience and sometimes it won't."
There is no ideal amount of sex in a marriage, she adds. There's only too little when one or both partners are dissatisfied with its frequency.
Weiner-Davis says she's seen her approach work many times, including with her own marriage. Often, when sexual problems are addressed, other marital conflicts fade away. In her book's final chapter, she describes how her husband, real estate developer Jim Davis, wanted to have sex more often and how she didn't understand how hurt he was when she declined.
"I vowed to myself that I would do whatever I had to do to refocus my energies and make sexuality a more significant priority in our lives -- not just for Jim, but for us," the 50-year-old mother of two grown children writes.
Once he saw that "I was devoted to bringing back the passion in our lives," they could become more loving with each other.
"You'd think we'd just met each other," says Weiner-Davis, who has been married 26 years. "I made a change and it produced wonderful results. Our kids are always embarrassed."
The five steps toward better married sex
1. Don't stick your head in the sand. If you aren't happy with your sex life, seek help. Read a book, talk to a doctor.
2. If you are the more highly sexed spouse, talk to your partner about the f-word -- feelings. Don't shut down and go into a cave or just get angry and resentful. Anger and isolation aren't very good aphrodisiacs.
3. Tune into your spouse's turn-ons. Men may like videos and lingerie, but their wives may be into something else entirely -- like a little help around the house. Maybe what she really needs is a chance to sleep in or for someone else to fold the laundry.
4. If you are the less sexual person, consider having sex more often. You'll feel more sexual pleasure and you'll get the spouse of your dreams in return.
5. Find the right resource to boost your sexuality if desire is still a problem. There are sex therapists and treatments that can be effective.
-- From Michele Weiner-Davis, author of The Sex-Starved Marriage: A Couple's Guide to Boosting Their Marriage Libido (Simon & Schuster 2003)