Saturday, February 18, 2017

Are You Having Enough Sex?

By Kira M. Newman 

Recent research sheds light on a question that obsesses many people.

When it comes to sex, we’re quick to gobble up statistics that tell us how much the average person has. Since it’s too taboo to ask anyone in real life, this is the next best way to find out: How does my sex life stack up against everyone else’s?
But these statistics paint a crude picture at best, obscuring much of what’s going on below the surface. If couples have sex an average of twice a week, some are dragging down the average with chastity while others are pumping it up with daily shagging. In addition, the averages tell you nothing about quality, or causality, pointing to a chicken-and-egg problem: Does positive feeling lead to more and better sex, or does the influence go the other way?
As much as the general public is obsessed with sex and what constitutes enough of it, researchers, too, are actively exploring these areas. They, however, are not shy—and they’ll ask anyone and everyone how often they’re doing it, where, and in what positions.
The upshot of their findings? There’s no question that what happens in the bedroom is intimately linked to a couple’s happiness. But our obsession with quantity might get in the way of the things that really matter—how issues around affection, unhappiness, and communication can drive our desire for more sex. Understanding where our desire (or lack thereof) comes from is the first step toward a better sex life for everyone involved.

Who has more sex?

If you aspire to a more active sex life, you probably have a vision of something steamier, more intimate, or otherwise just better than the status quo. But how does that vision line up with the research?
A February 2017 study, for example, surveyed more than 100 young couples several times during their first 15 years of marriage. On a given day, the more husbands engaged in positive behaviors—saying “I love you,” offering compliments, being affectionate—the more likely the couple was to have sex.
“Husbands may engage in more affectionate or positive behaviors to ‘earn’ sexual access to their wives,” the researchers speculate. Wives don’t tend to do this, it seems—wives’ positive behaviors didn’t predict the likelihood of sex that day.
But sex isn’t always good—a fact that we perhaps forget when we fantasize of having more. An April 2016 study by Brian Joseph Gillespie of Sonoma State University drove this point home, dividing participants into four groups: a group with high-frequency and high-satisfaction sex (35 percent), high frequency and low satisfaction (10 percent), low frequency and high satisfaction (12 percent), and low frequency and low satisfaction (44 percent). (In this case, low frequency meant less than “once or twice a week.”) Among the more than 9,000 older adults surveyed (ages 50-85), in other words, there was a sizable group who had lots of sex but didn’t particularly enjoy it.
Respondents with active and satisfying sex lives did exhibit certain patterns, though. They tended to be in sync with their partners (in how lustful they were and what kinds of activities they wanted to do) and had more variety in the bedroom—everything from going on romantic getaways and giving massages to using sex toys and talking about fantasies. 
Participants in Gillespie’s study had the opportunity to free-write about their sex life, and what they shared was revealing. In the high frequency-high satisfaction group, people had similar attitudes toward sex as their partners: They agreed that sex should be prioritized, takes work and negotiation, and benefits from an atmosphere of love and affection. Such partners communicated well around sex, expressing their desires and needs.
“I love our sex life. We are able to be open about preferences and new things. We are able to say what makes us uncomfortable. We are able to say what we like,” said one woman. “At this stage in our life, we are able to have quick sex or long, passionate sex with love, kindness, and no hurt feelings.”
Meanwhile, the high-frequency-low satisfaction group had sex often, but found it boring and routine, lacking in intimacy and romance. Often one partner didn’t seem to be interested in sex, but the couple didn’t communicate to resolve these issues.
“My wife and I are 180 degrees out of phase when it comes to sex,” one man said. “Our sex life is very basic and not spontaneous. It lacks variety.”
These couples had all been together for more than one year, offering a snapshot that may not reflect all stages of a relationship. While couples do tend to have less sex the longer they’re together, there are conflicting findings about whether sexual satisfaction tends to improve or decline over time—and little to suggest that there’s some “ideal frequency” of sex at any given age.
Let’s say you do decide to have sex more regularly, hoping to end up in the high frequency-high satisfaction group. What kind of benefits can you expect from all that extra lovin’?

What happens when you have more sex?

It turns out that this question is difficult to answer, simply because few experiments actually ask participants to have sex more regularly and then report back. In one such study, couples actually doubled their lovemaking over three months but decreased in happiness and sexual enjoyment. That same study also found no improvements in marital quality. 
Several other studies have echoed this finding, debunking the commonplace notion that frequent sex will make your marriage better. In a January 2016 study, researchers followed over 200 couples—mostly white, mid-20s partners in Ohio and Tennessee—during the first five years of their marriage. About every six months, the couples answered survey questions about their marital satisfaction, sexual satisfaction, and number of times they had sex in the past half-year, so researchers could observe changes over time.
According to their analysis, couples who had more sex tended to be more satisfied with the sex a half-year later. (Practice makes perfect?) But they didn’t become more satisfied with their marriages. And another February 2017 study found that more frequent canoodlers only had happier marriages when they were also more satisfied with the sex. When sex isn’t satisfying, unsurprisingly, more of it doesn’t really benefit the relationship as a whole.
“Good sex appears to outshine plentiful sex,” the researchers conclude.
Another April 2016 study complicates this story a bit. Here, researchers followed 56 newlywed couples (again, mostly white and mid-20s) over three years. Their goal was to see whether having more sex might predict a different measure of marital satisfaction—a more implicit one, outside of couples’ conscious awareness.
“Some individuals may desire to believe, and thus conclude, that their relationship is healthy despite infrequent sex,” the researchers write, which might explain why frequent sex doesn’t seem to make marriages more satisfying. But deep down, couples might actually feel differently, given how primal sexual desire is and how adaptive it would be (reproductively speaking) to want lots of sex.
At the beginning and end of the study period, the couples answered questions about their marriage and came into the lab for a computerized test. The researchers flashed a photo of their partner on the screen before displaying words (e.g., vacation, poison), which the participants had to classify as positive or negative. The photo essentially primes the brain for a certain response, so the faster participants were in identifying positive words (and the slower for negative words), the more positive they implicitly felt about their partners.
In the end, couples who had more sex at the beginning of the study didn’t ultimately report higher marital satisfaction in surveys, but they did score higher on the “automatic partner evaluation” task. In other words, frequent intimate relations seemed to influence their unconscious attitudes about their partner—and unconscious attitudes can “leak out” when we don’t have the cognitive energy to override them, explains lead author Lindsey Hicks.
“If one spouse is stressed, tired, overworked, or distracted, he or she may be unable to act in ways that are consistent with their positive relationship beliefs/ideals, making them more likely to behave in negative ways…being rude to the partner, losing their temper,” she says. 
Obviously, science doesn’t have a perfect idea of what happens when you have more sex. All of these studies mainly focused on opposite-sex couples in committed partnerships, which leaves out quite a few people whose experiences might help shape the big picture, from singles to same-sex couples to those in polyamorous relationships. There’s some evidence to suggest that more sex might make you feel better about your sex life, though not necessarily your relationship, but even those patterns aren’t totally consistent.
So what’s the bottom line?

Should you have more sex?

To figure out how much sex is enough for you, the best you can do, perhaps, is combine the scattered research with a bit of self-awareness.
First of all, do you actually want more sex? The helpful four-part framework above revealed that about 10 percent of older adults don’t have sex very frequently, but are quite satisfied with the sex itself. Their busy schedules sometimes get in the way of more action, but overall the sexual encounters they manage to have are fulfilling.
“We may not have the same quantity of sex as we used to, but the quality is so much more!” wrote one woman in the survey.
However, some members of this group did report that they are hesitant to initiate sex with their partners, who they fear are uninterested—which of course contributes to a less active sex life. “[Some] men and women reported that poor communication about sexual desire indirectly influenced the frequency of their sexual activity but not the quality,” the researchers explain. Working on communication could allow such couples to have their high-quality sex more often.
Thus, if you aren’t having a lot of sex (or as much as you want), it’s helpful to explore why.
In that January 2016 study, where researchers followed up with newlyweds every half year, frequent sex seemed to be a consequence of certain factors: being very satisfied with your sex life or, counterintuitively, being in an unhappy marriage. Their interpretation? Sometimes we’re driven to get naked because we enjoy it a lot; other times, couples turn to sex to fix their issues. If you’re having less sex, then, it could be because it’s unfulfilling—or simply because you’re content with your current relationship. The trick is to understand which condition best describes you.
There’s no sense having more sex if it isn’t going to be enjoyable, though, so quality might be the issue to address before quantity. The research above offers some tips for doing that.
  • Focus on your relationship: In one study, couples who had higher marital satisfaction were more satisfied with sex down the road. “Sexual and relationship satisfaction are intricately intertwined,” the researchers write. If the sex isn’t great but you’re not sure what to do about it, turning your attention to the non-sexual aspects of your relationship could help. 
  • Increase your positivity ratio: One way to work on your marriage is to create more positive interactions—physical affection, compliments, saying “I love you”—and fewer negative ones—anger, impatience, pushing buttons. Another study found that when one spouse is more positive, the other is more satisfied with sex; but in a negative environment, everyone’s enjoyment of sex is dampened.
  • Set the mood: Gillespie’s study found that the high-satisfaction groups (whether they had sex frequently or not) were more likely to report setting the mood for sex, e.g., lighting candles, putting on background music.
  • Aim for variety: Gillespie also linked satisfaction to a greater variety of sexual behaviors, such as gentle and deep kissing mixed with manual stimulation.
  • Make it good for your partner: When wives are more satisfied with sex, husbands end up more satisfied down the road—plus, sex happens more often, one study found.
  • Foster emotional agility: Another study revealed that the more prone to negative emotions you are, the less you enjoy sex (perhaps unsurprisingly). Cultivating a more positive and resilient mental state will benefit your sex life, too.
Once the quality is good, then you might still decide to increase the quantity—and be more confident that you’ll reap rewards.
“The frequency [of] sexual intercourse and the extent to which sex is gratifying are believed to reflect the depth of a couple’s entire physical and emotional bond,” researchers observe. Rather than looking outward to compare ourselves to an average, we’d probably find more fulfillment looking inward to our own needs and desires, and our partner’s.

What You Can Learn from Polyamory

By Elisabeth Sheff

A 20-year study of consensually non-monogamous adults reveals seven lessons for anyone who wants to keep love alive.

Do you hope to love one person for the rest of your life?
As romantic as that goal may sound, not everyone shares it. With economic, social, and health changes leading to much longer lifespans—and more control over fertility and childbearing—our attitudes towards monogamy have changed significantly. Divorce has become commonplace, and many people have embraced serial monogamy, forming one relationship at a time, falling in love and splitting up, and then doing it all over again.
But there’s an alternative: polyamory, a form of consensual non-monogamy that emphasizes emotional and sexual intimacy with multiple partners simultaneously, ideally with the knowledge of all parties involved.
I studied polyamorous families with children for a period of 20 years, and I discovered their relationships can be intense, complicated—and fulfilling.
I also found that polyamorists have developed a set of relationship practices that can serve as lessons to people in monogamous relationships. Divorced parents and others in blended families may find them especially relevant, because they offer insights into dealing with challenging family communication among multiple adults and co-parents.
Polyamory isn’t for everyone, but here are seven lessons from polyamorous families that anyone might find helpful.

1. Spread needs around

Expecting one person to meet all of your needs—companionship, support, co-parent, best friend, lover, therapist, housekeeper, paycheck, whatever—puts a tremendous amount of pressure on that relationship.
In their quest to maintain sexual and emotional fidelity, some monogamous relationships prioritize the couple ahead of other social connections. When this focus reduces other sources of support, it can lead to isolation—and the resulting demands can be too much for many relationships to bear.
By and large, that’s not the case for polyamorous people. Indeed, my study participants mentioned this as one of the primary benefits of being polyamorous: being able to get more of their needs met by spreading them out among multiple people. Sometimes they were lovers, or sometimes friends, family members, and ex-partners. The important thing is not the sexual connection, but the ability to seek and establish mutually supportive relationships beyond your partner. Allowing partners to form a range of relationships with friends and support circles can make life much easier for everyone.
This process can also be good for children. “It gives my children a sense of community,” said Emmanuella Ruiz, one of my study participants. She continues:
They don’t have cousins or the typical biological extended family. But they have a big, happy, productive, healthy family nonetheless, and it is a chosen family. They know each person’s relationship to them the same way they would know if they were first or second cousins, aunts, or uncles.

2. Don’t leave too soon

In serious relationships, giving up without trying hard to work things out can mean prematurely ending a good relationship that is simply having a difficult period. This is true for people in monogamous and serial-monogamous relationships, of course, which are more likely to last when both people put a lot of effort into the maintenance and sustenance of the relationship.
But polyamorous relationship require even more of this kind of work, because of their complexity. My participants report developing the skill to stay with a difficult conversation, even if it is uncomfortable. As one study participant, Morgan Majek, told me about moving from monogamy to polyamory with her husband, Carl:
It really opened up communication between us. Because we’ve been together for nine years and that was my biggest complaint about him was you don’t talk to me… So it created pain, but it really just helped us to learn how to be completely honest and communicate. And so it benefited us.
People in polyamorous relationships are also more likely to seek support from others, something that could benefit and sustain serial monogamous relationships as well. When things get rocky, we’re prone to hide the trouble from friends and family. Polyamorists suggest an alternative: reach out to friends and community members for sympathy, support, and advice. Getting professional counseling or relationship coaching can be tremendously helpful in dealing with concrete issues and establishing patterns for communication that can help deal with other matters that arise over time. 

3. Don’t stay too long

In what can be a delicate balancing act, polyamorous people find that it is important not to drag things out until the bitter end, when partners have been so awful to each other that they simply must run away.
Instead, polyamorists suggest that it is better to recognize and accept when people have grown apart or are not working well together, and then change—not necessarily end—the relationship. “I am not best buddies with all my exes,” said study participant Gabrielle. But she doesn’t think of many of her “former lovers” as exes at all.
We were lovers and now we’re friends, and ex just seems kind of a weird way to think of someone I’m close to and care about. The real difference here, I think, is that the changes in relationship tended to have a much more gentle evolution rather than “official” breakups.
As a group, polyamorists don’t see families as “broken” or “failed” because the adults changed the nature of their relationship. People can choose to view their relationships as good for the time. When needs change and so does the relationship, it does not have to be seen as a failure, and no one has to bear blame. From this perspective, gracefully ending or transitioning to a different kind of relationship can be a celebration of a new phase instead of a catastrophe. 

4. Be flexible and allow for change

Polyamorous people sustain their relationships through these changes in part by being willing to try new things. (This may also be because there are so few role models for consensually non-monogamous relationships that polyamorous people are usually making it up as they go along.) If the relationship isn’t working, then trying something else can be quite effective for both polyamorous and monogamous people.
This can mean shifting expectations and letting go of former patterns, which can be both invigorating and frightening. Adjusting in response to changing circumstances allows families to be resilient, and polyamorous families must routinely adapt to new familial and emotional configurations as they accommodate multiple partners. To manage their unconventional family lives, polyamorous families try new things, reconfigure their relationships or interactions, and remain open to alternatives.
“I guess I’m not necessarily what you would call normal, but who cares?” said Mina Amore, the teenage child of one couple I interviewed. “Normal is boring.”
With their many well-established roles and ingrained traditional expectations, people in monogamous relationships can find it more difficult to challenge entrenched patterns and do something completely different. Polyamorists often get help negotiating the changes by reaching out to trusted friends, a counselor, relationship coach, or even a mediator—change is easier when you have a team.

5. Support personal growth

Polyamory is emotionally challenging, no question. Jealousy, insecurity, and other negative emotions are all a part of any romantic relationship. Instead of trying to avoid painful emotions, however, polyamorists try to face them head on.
People in long-term polyamorous relationships say that a combination of introspection and candid communication is the route to managing potentially challenging or painful feelings. Having to face their self-doubts, question their own motives, and consider their own boundaries often forces poly people to either get to know themselves—or to quit polyamory.
Encouraging—or even allowing—a partner to explore personal growth can be difficult and frightening. What if they change so much in their growth that they no longer want to be in the relationship? That’s a possibility polyamorists try to face. “One of the main advantages is knowing you have choices,” says Marcus Amore, Mina’s dad. Polyamorous people often emphasize the important role that choice plays in their relationships, and explain how they continually woo and lavish their long-term partners with affection and attention to foster the kind of loving environment that they choose to stay in, year after year.
Suppressing a partner to keep them from outgrowing their current relationship does not tend to work well as a long-term strategy because it fosters resentment and rebellion. That’s a lesson for monogamous people—to allow their mates to grow, and to pursue their own path.

6. De-emphasize sexuality

Even though most people associate polyamorous relationships with sex, polyamorists frequently de-emphasize sexuality to help reconfigure and cope with change.
Emotional attachment is the glue that holds families together anyway, and while sex is good and helps people feel connected, it is not enough by itself to sustain a long-term relationship. Polyamory emphasizes that the end of sex does not have to mean end of relationship. Remaining friends is a real choice, and especially important when people have had children together. Children do not care if their parents have sex, and in fact would much rather not hear about it or think of their parents as sexual beings.
Instead, de-emphasizing sexuality can allow family members to focus on cooperative co-parenting and remaining on positive terms. When people have treated each other with respect and allowed themselves to change, or leave a relationship that is no longer working before they do terrible things to each other, it makes it much more reasonable to actually co-parent or even be cordial to each other. 
Another important element of de-emphasizing sexuality is the tremendous importance polyamorous folks often attach to their friendships and chosen-family relationships. Emotional connections with intimates do not rely on physical sexuality. Monogamous people can also establish deep friendships that provide support, emotional intimacy, and meet needs.

7. Communicate honestly and often

Polyamorous people put a lot of emphasis on communication as a way to build intimacy, explore boundaries, negotiate agreements, and share feelings. Telling the truth is paramount to this process, as honesty forms the basis for trust. Trust helps people feel safe, which in turn builds intimacy, and (ideally) communication creates a positive feedback loop within the relationship.
Monogamous relationships have many social rules that structure the way partners are supposed to interact. Some of these rules encourage people to tell each other small lies to smooth over possibly difficult or hurtful situations. While diplomatic phrasing and empathy are important for compassionate relationships, these small lies that start out protecting feelings sometimes grow into much larger or more systemic patterns of deception. Both deceit and attack are corrosive to intimacy, because they undermine trust and feelings of closeness and safety.
If you want to be close to your partner, tell the truth and create a compassionate emotional environment that is safe for them to tell you the truth as well. Gentle honesty may break well-established monogamous rules about hiding things from a spouse, but the outcomes of greater trust and intimacy can be well worth it!

Inspirational Quote – February 18, 2017

“You have to love yourself because no amount of love from others is sufficient to fill the yearning that your soul requires from you.”

Very true. If we don’t love ourselves and don’t value what makes and shapes us and our beliefs, then why should anybody else? Like a little pot plant where we are the seed, the root, the stem growing upwards, we are nourished in the earth (love) surrounding us so we push upwards, growing and striving towards the light. Our self-love continues to nourish and encourage us so we sprout leaves and branches representing the people, the situations, the choices we make, in life. This all stemmed from, and also only became possible, by the nourishment of earth/love for ourselves. How powerful are we?

In the Midst of Winter an Invincible Summer

"In spite of all of our care and precaution, life is unpredictable and subject to change. Our sense of security and control is mostly an illusion. No matter how hard we try to be safe and achieve and become someone in this world, life is uncertainty, and we are wavering creatures. There will be unexpected changes at the last moment. There will be loss." And, yet, in these times of loss, author Tracy Cochran discovers we can find moments of illumination when we are: "being attentive, being willing to go on seeing and keeping our hearts open not just for our sake but for the sake of others. We make ourselves available to life, opening our hearts to the passing flow of it, knowing we will blunder and get it wrong but sometimes right. We do this even knowing that those hearts will inevitably break because life is uncertainty and change and loss. But sometimes when we are open, light floods the darkest chamber."

Friday, February 17, 2017

Why You Need More Nature in Your Life

By Jill Suttie

Research suggests that spending too little time in nature deprives us of benefits to our health, happiness, and creativity.

I’m a nature lover—there’s no doubt about it. Hiking is one of the great joys of my life and a surefire way to make me feel calmer and happier.
But I’m not spending as much time outside as I’d like to, and I’m probably not alone in this.
Since 2008, more than half of the world’s population has been living in urban settings; and, according to a Pew Research Center report, Internet use is way up, with almost 21 percent of Americans saying they spend time online “almost constantly.” These factors probably contribute to “nature deficit disorder” in me and other urban dwellers; but should I be worried?
According to journalist Florence Williams, the answer is a definitive yes. In her new book, The Nature Fix, she chronicles the research showing our intricate connection to the natural world and nature’s impact on our health, creativity, and happiness. She makes a strong case for incorporating more green spaces into our lives in order to improve personal and societal well-being.
Williams’s book is part travelogue, as she travels the world to interview scientists and policymakers taking a serious look at nature’s restorative powers. She talks with people studying “forest bathing” in Japan—a custom where people spend deliberate time in forests to reduce stress and improve cardiovascular health—and in South Korea, where researchers are treating young video game addicts with trips to the forest to help them feel happier, less anxious, and more optimistic. She looks at forest kindergartens in Germany, therapeutic wilderness experiences in the United States, and nature initiatives in Singapore to find out how these programs began as well as how they are being studied.
Time and again, scientists are finding out that being in nature has positive effects well beyond the expected.

Nature’s way of helping us

Beyond chronicling how nature provides positive benefits, though, Williams tries to answer the question of why that is. She interviews researchers studying the relationship between personal well-being and experiencing quiet (or low levels of noise), aromatic compounds in trees, and visual complexity in natural scenery. Each area of research provides some interesting insights, for sure. But one can’t help but feel like the scientists looking into these factors might be missing the forest for the trees.
Eventually, Williams comes to agree and starts to question the strategy of studying each separate aspect of nature on its own, like experiments where participants’ brains are monitored while looking at videos of nature and urban scenes, or where participants rate different recordings of bird songs for their restorative potential. She writes, “The intellectual compulsion to break apart the pieces of nature and examine them one by one” is “both interesting and troubling.”
In other words, there may be something about the holistic experience of nature that is restorative, beyond the sum of its individual parts. “We’re full sensory beings, or at least we were once built to be,” she writes. “Isn’t it possible that it’s only when you open all the doors—literally and figuratively—that the real magic happens?”
This insight leads Williams to focus on those researchers studying full-immersion experiences in nature rather than within a lab. For example, researchers in Finland found that even short walks in an urban park or wild forest were significantly more beneficial to stress relief than walks in an urban setting. And researchers at Stanford found that walks in a natural setting led to better moods, improved performance on memory tasks, and decreased rumination when compared to urban walks.
Similarly, having nature nearby seems to benefit our health. Researchers in England analyzed data from 40 million people and found that residents who lived in a neighborhood with nearby open, undeveloped land tended to develop fewer diseases and were less likely to die before age 65. Most significantly, this finding was not related to income levels, suggesting that green spaces may buffer against poverty-related stress. And nature experiences have been used to treat mental disorders, like PTSD and drug addiction, with some level of success.
Williams’s book is chock-full of interesting studies showing the benefits of immersion in nature—in particular, walking through it. This is music to the ears of hikers like me, who’ve long intuited a connection between walking in nature and clearer thinking, creativity, and resilience. Some studies in Williams’s book have been reported on before—for example, studies showing how nature restores our attention networks and produces feelings of awe that result in more kind and helpful behavior. But, to her credit, she provides details that are likely to entertain as well as placate skeptics, herself included.
Williams’s hope is that the book and the research it recounts may lead more people to get outside and get their “nature fix.” Similar to Michael Pollan’s three rules for eating, Williams distills what she’s learned into a simple prescription: “Go outside, often, sometimes in wild places. Bring friends or not. Breathe.”
I, for one, plan to take that advice to heart.