Even though it is more than a decade into the 21st Century, many people still have difficulties talking about sex. That is where Dr. Laura Berman, host of OWN TV’s “In the Bedroom With Dr. Laura Berman,” comes in. The renowned sex educator and therapist uncovers what’s really going on between the sheets, as she helps real-life couples build stronger relationships and improve their sex lives.
And, boy, is she ever qualified to do that! Dr. Berman is an assistant clinical professor of OBGYN and Psychiatry at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, holds a Master’s Degree in clinical social work, a Doctorate in health education specializing in human sexuality from New York University, and completed a fellowship in Sexual Therapy with the Department of Psychiatry, New York University Medical Center.
“In The Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman” returns Tuesday, December 4 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, but first Dr. Berman answered questions from eHarmony readers about what to do when the lights go out — or stay on!
eH: What is the biggest difference between how men and women approach sex?
Dr. Berman: I think it’s not so much how we approach sex because, I think, that’s evolving and changing. If we’re talking about eHarmony’s demographic of singles, there’s not the same gender gap in terms of the sense of permission, the lack of judgment and the openness to having a sexual relationship with the right person at the right time. I think if there are differences, it’s about the role that sex plays in the relationship and the impact that sex has on the dating process and the emotional process.
For instance, what I think a lot of people don’t realize is that when you have good sex and an orgasm occurs, the brain gets washed in oxytocin, which is that feel-good bonding chemical that breastfeeding mothers release that bonds them to their baby. In the case of men, scientists believe that men have enough testosterone so that testosterone counteracts the effects of oxytocin.
In a woman’s case, it means that even if you’re having sex with someone that you don’t necessarily want to pursue a serious relationship with, you will likely get accidentally emotionally attached on some level to them even if you don’t want to. So that’s one place, where there’s a difference between men and women.
In part because of that, in terms of relationships, men can more easily and successfully have casual sex. It’s not that women aren’t capable of it — and I don’t mean to imply that women shouldn’t have casual sex or there is some judgment there — but it just means that things are likely to get more complicated for women with casual sex than they will for men.
We’re taking out of the equation STDs and things like that. We’re just talking about the emotional aspect.
eH: Any reasons besides oxytocin that women get more attached to men after becoming intimate with them?
Dr. Berman: I think we’re more likely to get attached because of that chemical issue I mentioned, but also societally, we tend to feel connected and sex is much more – it’s not that it’s not tied to emotions for men. It’s that for women, sex is inspired. Sexual feelings are often inspired or the desire to have sex is inspired by a sense of emotional closeness to their mate. And for men, that emotional closeness comes in large part from having sex.
eH: How do you handle it if your partner wants you to take part in an activity you are not comfortable with?
Dr. Berman: It depends on what it is. I think there’s two steps to this process. The first is: What’s the behavior and why are you uncomfortable? Let’s take a really good look at it — and this is an exercise I think is really helpful. We all, regardless of when we think the right time to have sex is or who the right person to have sex with is, want to have a fulfilling, vibrant, lifelong, exciting sex life with someone close to us.
I think it’s an exercise that everyone, especially women who tend to be more susceptible to this, should do. Write down all the messages that you’ve received: spoken and unspoken messages about the shoulds around sex. What nice girls should and shouldn’t do. Some of us have an extensively long list, some of us not so long, but it has to do with the messages you got growing up. Whether it was from your mother, the teacher at your parochial school, the neighbor, some boyfriend or girlfriend, whatever it was, write down all those messages in one column, whether it’d be about the positions that are okay, role plays, circumstances that are okay, times that are okay, and activities that are okay or not okay.
Then in the second column, write down where that message came from. Then, put on the lenses of the adult woman or man you are right now and look at that list and decide which of those really resonate with you as the person you are today, not the person you were 10 or 20 years ago. That really becomes your template because I find that people often are uncomfortable with things not because they are just grossed out with the idea, or literally opposed to that idea, but because it’s just not something that nice girls do. So that’s, I think, a valuable exercise in general.
Then if you still feel uncomfortable with it, let’s say your partner wants to have sex in a public place and there’s not an exhibitionist bone in your body and there’s no way that that would be comfortable; you find a happy medium. Look at the essence of what that person is looking for: They’re looking for adventure and excitement. So are there other things you could do together sexually, places you could have sex, or sexual acts you could engage in that would create that sense of excitement.
eH: What are the biggest myths you hear about men, women and sex?
Dr. Berman: I think it’s that men always want it and women don’t. I think that is a myth and we’re seeing, in fact, one in five men in this country have low desire. And it’s not as spoken about as common because of that myth. People feel like they’re embarrassed, or there’s something weird about them if that’s the case. And women really do want sex and want vibrant, healthy, fun sex lives and they don’t always have a headache.
eH: That’s interesting that you mention that one in five men have low desire. One of our readers wrote in and asked: “I met my husband 5 years ago and we are very much in love. The problem is, I can count on one hand how many times we have been intimate. He just has no interest. I got him to see a doctor. He has very low testosterone. He was getting hormone injections but nothing changed. He has given up. Any suggestions?”
Dr. Berman: There are three or four main reasons that I find men have low libido and it’s usually a combination. So the first would be hormonal, which she’s talking about. Men do experience low testosterone, especially as they move into their mid to late 40s and beyond.
Second is medications they’re on. SSRIs [Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors which are used to treat depression] can affect their libido. If they’re having problems with their sexual response, then they’re going to avoid sex and avoid anything that goes in the bucket of sex as far as they’re concerned, which typically includes hand-holding, kissing, cuddling, any physical contact because there’s this embarrassment and shame and they’re afraid that they’re going to fail, so they’ll shut down from sex completely if there is any kind of sexual function issues.
The third reason is specifically financial or work-related stress. For other kinds of stress, sex can be a stress-reliever. But when it comes to financial or work-related stress, which really hits home with their sense of masculinity and who they are as a man, if there are troubles there, their libido will plummet.
And finally, and this may be relevant to this woman as well, there’s a syndrome that I call the Alpha Woman Syndrome, which happens very often in couples, especially once they have children, where she’s in control of absolutely everything and ruling the roost to the extent where she has become an unwitting nagging mother, and where he can’t do anything right. She’s frustrated with him all the time and, in part, the frustration may grow out of feeling undesired and sexually frustrated. She’s telling him what to do and telling him he did a bad job doing it. ”Load the dishwasher, let me just redo it. You did it wrong.” Or, “Give the kids a bath. Why are you washing their feet before their hair?”
So she starts to see him as a misbehaved little boy and he starts to see her as a nagging, critical mother and no one wants to have sex with a nagging, critical mother. I find that dynamic is extremely common, especially because women get really stressed when they have kids and they want everything to be perfect and they get a little bit too controlling.
eH: So what can she do?
Dr. Berman: I would say first of all, go back to the doctor to make sure. Just because he’s taking testosterone and it hasn’t changed, he shouldn’t stop. He should be taking it and monitoring his testosterone levels to make sure that they’re coming back up. Just taking it isn’t enough. You have to make sure that the levels are at a therapeutic range at this point. So that’s like the simple No. 1 thing.
No. 2 is to really look into if any or all of those variables that I mentioned are at play. Is he experiencing financial or work-related stress? Is that part of it? Is he having any problem with sexual function? And if it’s the latter, then he definitely wants to talk to his doctor about that. There is a website called Sex Health Matters [sexhealthmatters.org]. That is the site for the International Society for Sexual Medicine. You can find a neurologist there that specializes in male sexual health.
It’s always good to have a full check-up if you’re having any sexual function complaint. And if she feels like maybe it’s the alpha woman thing, it’s about really focusing on appreciation. All men really want in a relationship is to feel like they’re doing a good job and we don’t realize that when we’re complaining all the time. Even if it’s about the fact that the plumber didn’t show up or the backyard needs to be mowed, they internalize that as being their fault.
So start focusing on giving to him: Try for two weeks to give him five genuine appreciations a day for things he’s doing right, try not to criticize, and go on a surrender date where you give up all control. Let him make every decision from where you go, to what you wear, what you order, and how you get there. You give up the control even if it’s just for one night. You may find that he steps up in quite a glorious way, I think.
eH: Is it true that no one should make a decision to commit to a relationship after less than three months of regular dating?
Dr. Berman: I think that’s a general rule of thumb. I think it depends on what level of commitment you’re talking about, and how often you’re seeing each other and spending time together. But I think three months of spending time together regularly, gives you a sense of each other’s lives beyond your relationship: How you handle stress, how you handle money and life, and your attitudes and values. You can usually have a good sense of that within three months at a minimum. But if you have a long-distance relationship, you may need longer.
The main thing you’re looking for, if we had to boil it down, is what the ingredients of a good relationship are: Definitely chemistry is one, but also shared values, morals, and communication — the ability to communicate effectively through bumpy spots, and openness to learning, meaning that you’re open to being wrong. You’re open to growing and changing as a person and seeing your partner’s point of view. Usually within three months in a real-life, day-to-day scenario, you’re going to get a sense of that. It doesn’t mean you want to jump into marriage after that.
eH: What are your thoughts about how soon to have sex with a new partner after going through a divorce?
Dr. Berman: It depends what you’re looking for, right? In my opinion, and this is just my opinion based on counseling however many people through this, if you are looking for a monogamous, long-term relationship, you should not be having sex with someone until you are both clear — you’re not going to necessarily be committed to each other for life — but until you’re both clear that you’re only going to be with each other. You’re only going to be having sex with each other until further notice, right? It’s a commitment to be monogamous and, if we change our minds, we have to be honest about that and discuss that. I think that is the way to go if you’re looking for a monogamous relationship.
eH: Why do some women start to lose their sex drive after being with their partner for a lengthy amount of time?
Dr. Berman: The novelty wears off for sure and that can be big…newness is always a libido enhancer. But, I think, part of it is that for many women, they were never raised in a way that they ever owned their sexuality for its own sake. They came of age understanding, learning, and believing that sex is a means to an end. It’s a way to get the guy. It’s a way to seduce the guy. It’s a way to keep the guy. It’s something outside themselves and, I think, that is honestly in epidemic proportions in our country. I see it all the time. Then once they have the commitment, there’s no internal motivation to be sexual anymore.
eH: So you don’t think it’s a hormonal thing?
Dr. Berman: Yes. The novelty wears off and there are things: There are dirty socks. He’s not making as much of an effort to seduce. Things get a little boring. All of that is definitely true. But for the most part, if it’s a healthy relationship, where you’re both putting an effort in, the most common reason is that.
eH: How can one become more comfortable talking about sex with their partner?
Dr. Berman: Go back to exercise No. 1, where you’re really looking at your own values and what’s inhibiting your personal comfort level, what stories you have: “I’m going to freak him out. That’s not something nice girls do. I have no idea how to start,” all of those.
And then, I think, it’s really having a conversation where you both agree not to judge each other. I’ve had people write it down first and give it to each other in writing if they can’t say the words out loud. But for the most part, I think once people get over the initial hump, no pun intended, of talking about it with their partner and they see that this guy doesn’t fall on them and their partner doesn’t laugh in their face and it’s an honest, useful conversation, then it’s much easier from there.
eH: A huge debate on our site is about who should pay for dates, men or women? Do you have an opinion on that?
Dr. Berman: I think whoever does the asking at first. Whether we like it or not — I consider myself a feminist, but I’m also someone who highly values chivalry — and, I think, if you’re talking about yin and yang and sexual energy, women really are internal. [It's in our] evolutionary history. We really want to feel seduced and romanced. That’s a big part of what inspires our sexual connection and our love interest in someone.
So if he can’t afford it or his finances don’t allow it, then certainly that’s another story and it should be dutch or whatever. But if he can afford it, then I think it’s probably a good idea — at least in the beginning. Then once you’re sort of established, I think things change. It doesn’t mean that he has to pay for every single thing for six months.
eH: What if she makes a lot more money than him?
Dr. Berman: If she makes more money than him, then I think that’s rough, but that’s a whole different dynamic. Then it’s about finding affordable places to go on dates, where he can pay so he doesn’t feel emasculated all the time.
eH: What is your best advice for someone who has been looking for love but having no success?
Dr. Berman: Boy, that’s such a huge question because there are a million and one reasons why you wouldn’t be having success. But if we’re talking about an online dating venue, it could be that you [need to] take that list of 50 characteristics a romantic partner must have and cut it down to five. There really shouldn’t be more than five things on your must-have list. You can have lots of things on your would-like list. I think it’s about giving people a chance, a second chance and a third chance.
Also making sure that you’re really and truly looking and open because I find that a lot of people go on date after date after date and they always find something wrong with the person, or they always do something to turn a person off, because really inside they’re not ready. They’re scared they’re going to be hurt. They don’t really trust their own judgment.
Also, I think, sometimes that happens because there’s no more unattractive perfume than a sense of desperation. People smell it a mile away and run the other direction. So if you are feeling desperate for love, for your biological clock, for whatever it is that’s driving you, you really have to be blissfully single alone if you’re going to really find someone who’s going to be a real long-lasting love for yourself.
Don’t play hard-to-get. You are hard-to-get as soon as you really have your own life, then you’re going to attract someone into your life who is really at the same place.
Remember: “In The Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman” returns with all-new episodes Tuesday, December 4 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network.