I was surprised to read that in this doomsday economy, we're having more sex than ever. USA Today says condom sales are booming. Ditto for sex toys, massage oils, and lubricants. (Even Walgreens now sells them on its website.) A Consumer Reports survey last month of 1,000 adults said their financial situation isn't affecting their sex lives, and 40 percent of readers of Cosmopolitan magazine say they use sex to take their minds off the financial crisis. Perhaps some of them are checking out the "casual encounters" section of Craigslist, which has seen a recent spike in those looking for hookups.
Still, I wondered, does this apply only to singles on the prowl? Are married folks also using sex to blow off their recession worries?
"I haven't seen it pan out that way," says psychologist Ian Kerner, a New York City-based sex therapist and author of Love in the Time of Colic: The New Parents' Guide to Getting It On Again. "I'm seeing a lot more couples with mismatched libidos, often guys who are unemployed or stressed about their job security and experiencing low-level depression, which has a deleterious effect on their desire." And wives are left feeling, well, undesired.
That's not good for the health of a marriage—or for health in general. A new study out today from the University of Utah shows that while men and women both feel depressed from strained relationships marked by fighting, hostility, and negativity, it's only women who experience poor health consequences in the form of higher cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and blood sugar. "Couples I'm seeing are engaging each other in more anxious conversations, using their partners to vent their negativity and uncertainty, which really can be a turnoff sexually," says Kerner, who, with a full practice, has been making three times as many new client referrals to other therapists in recent months.
While having a good sex life can't solve all marriage problems, it certainly goes a long way towards easing the tensions. Here's what Kerner recommends:
Invest in your relationship. "Everyone is penny-pinching to save money," Kerner says, "and one of the first things cut is date night out to movies, restaurants, and plays." That, he adds, is a huge mistake because couples need a way to escape their financial worries. Better to give up manicures or opt for the cheaper brands of paper towels and toilet paper.
Pick up those proverbial pom poms. Having belief and confidence in your partner can do wonders for his self-esteem—and ditto for him having belief in you. "For a husband who's lost his job, saying things like 'You'll rock the interview like you always do' or 'I've seen you at the top of your game and know you'll get back there' can really help him feel better about himself," points out Kerner. That, in turn, will help fuel his desire for you, and you for him.
Think five parts positive for every one part negative. Sometimes criticism is unavoidable, but make sure to balance one critical interaction with five positive ones. Studies have shown that couples in the happiest marriages employ this lopsided ratio. Positive interactions can be small things like a thank you for loading the dishwasher or agreeing with him that the movie he rented was a good one. Just be wary of those empty positive statements—it's not a big deal that we lost half our savings in the market and half the value of our house. You both need to face those financial fears together.
Hug it out. A 20- to 60-second hug stimulates the release of oxytocin, a bonding hormone that facilitates a sense of emotional connection to your partner. Plus, "physical intimacy that happens outside the bedroom—hand-holding, kissing, sidling up next to each other on the couch—is important for creating the anticipation of sex," says Kerner.
Tell him about your sex dreams. Your brain is your most important sex organ. "When couples fall in a rut, it's not usually the sex itself but the lack of fresh mental stimulation," says Kerner. Don't feel comfortable acting out a fantasy or role-playing? Even recounting a sexy dream can be erotic. Or remembering a great night on a recent vacation. Or anything else that initiates a sexy conversation.
Make sex a top priority. This seems glaringly obvious, but Kerner says he hears more and more from couples who say they're too tired for sex when they get into bed in the wee hours. "It turns out they're staying up late on social networking sites like Facebook, conversing with people they knew in first grade instead of with their partners."
Appreciate the economic value of sex. It's free, it's fun, and it's a great stress reliever—perfect in this economy. "The main thing I try to do is to restore a couple's sense of exuberance and optimism," says Kerner. "They have to realize they're going to be hanging out together at the bottom for a while but that they can use sex to restore that intimacy and sense of rejuvenation, a way to make their bond much stronger."