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Book Review: Sex Comes First by Joel D. Block, Ph.D. and Kimberly Dawn Neumann

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You probably know couples who complain about "not getting any". Well, do you want to prevent your marriage or committed partnership from becoming low-sex-no-sex ? You can.

As a marital therapist for decades, I know that couples often sow the subtle seeds for broken emotional and sexual intimacy long before they feel their relationship breakdown. If you want to build a plan to preserve and strengthen healthy emotional and sexual closeness or regain lost affection and action between the sheets, consider reading Sex Comes First, 15 Ways to Save Your Relationship…Without Leaving Your Bedroom, by Joel D. Block, Ph.D. and Kimberly Dawn Neumann.

In the beginning of most relationships, physical attraction and newness fuel the romantic and sexual fire in couples. But that fire naturally shifts as relationships continue and couples deal with the everyday routines and normal life struggles. An alternate source for that romantic and sexual fire must come from within the relationship itself. The authors of Sex Comes First identify ways that, simultaneously, sexual intimacy can strengthen emotional intimacy, which can strengthen sexual intimacy, which can strengthen emotional intimacy…and so on — in a mutually reinforcing pattern.

Professionally speaking, clients frequently report to me how one person needs emotional intimacy first before desiring sexual intimacy and the reverse pattern holds true for the other partner. Unless both areas of closeness are worked on together as the authors suggest, couples can become stalemated in their search for intimacy with each other.

Block and Neumann tackle the tough subject of sex directly. At the conclusion of each chapter of their book, they offer sexually oriented exercises — called "Sexual Solution(s)" —  to restore or maintain a healthy sex life between committed partners. Many of the exercises are sexually explicit, while others are discussion-oriented, sensual, relationship building, and clarifying.

This is a self-help book. As a therapist and life coach, I offer caution about what will likely not be helpful. While the information presented is insightful and practical, the exercises may not be appropriate and could present a high-level risk for persons with unresolved sexual abuse or trauma, mental health problems, and/or sexual health issues. And under all circumstances, any exercise selected must have the full agreement and acceptance of both partners. Any pressure for participation in a specific exercise from one partner to the other will wipe out or at least reduce the possibility of being helpful — and could introduce a level of harm to the relationship or individual.

With consideration for the above cautions, possibly low-risk exercises might include: The Quickie, Tech Sex, Sexual Grab Bag, and the Sexual Fears discussion. As with any self-help effort, couples must decide on the risk level of participation for them and choose to act accordingly.

In my two fave chapters, Chapter 1, Anger Gets in the Way, and Chapter 2, We Have Trust Issues, authors Block and Neumann explain clearly how mismanaged anger and trust subtly, but surely, erode the intimate connection over time. I frequently witness that loss of closeness between couples who, although still in love and motivated, struggle to reconnect emotionally and sexually.

In Chapter 4, the authors present key concepts for preserving the intimacy connection: openness, agreement, understanding, judgment, and approval. They explain how these concepts can work for couples to remain equal partners and lovers, and avoid developing a parental/child relationship, where one may feel like the parent, while the other begins to feel like the child. This type of imbalanced relationship is a real sexual attraction killer.

Gender socialization directed at how boys and girls express emotions can also create roadblocks to good communication and good connection. The authors recommend that to shrink the gender communication gap, men need to reveal more frequently how they feel about a situation and women need to be more succinct in their emotional expressiveness and both must move on together toward what can be done to solve the issue.

The authors acknowledge that most committed partners want sex in their relationships, but sexual preferences vary and difficulties can occur as a result.

"So here's the thing — when it comes to sex, of course everyone has their own personal preference. Some like it hard, some soft, some romantic, some violent, some frequent, some only on special occasions, some… well, you get the picture. And these preferences may not only change from year to year but quite possibly from day to day and even minute to minute. So expecting your partner to want sex your way all the time is not only unrealistic, it's sheer fantasy! Sex is about compromise. Well, at least a mutually satisfying sex life is."Compromise is an important relationship skill and couples can learn to practice it in the bedroom as well as in all routine every day life areas.

So when you think about how to keep satisfying sex and closeness in your relationship, consider my favorite zingers in this book.

• "… anger may corrode a couple's intimate connection faster than acid." (Page 14)
• …you need openness in a relationship not only for a solid foundation as a couple, but also if you want your sex life to stay electric." (Page 57)
• "One of the first things to disappear in a troubled relationship is politeness. As laughter and validation disappear, nitpicking and pain tend to surface… nothing will squash romance faster than the ego blows that result from continual criticism." (Page 167)
• "Essentially, the desire for feeling affection with one's partner during sex goes back to the need for love trust and love within the relationship… if outside the bedroom demonstrations of affection are in full swing, correspondingly a couple's sex life is more likely to be full as well." (Page 191)
• "… a major feature in relationships suffering from a lack of intimacy is not a discernible lack of attraction between the partners but more likely a deficiency in their communication skills." (Page 202)

Excitement and newness combined with a good attraction to each other leads to good sex in the beginning. But as a relationship continues, it is the growth and development of a good relationship that keeps good sex alive and satisfying between partners. Conversely, good sex is always respectful of the need for nurturing a good relationship.

Emotional and sexual closeness are mutual reinforcers. Couples who respect this linkage will keep a relationship in which emotional and physical/sexual connection are solidly satisfying. While sex may not always come first, as the authors suggest, for many couples, sex is a necessary part of a fulfilling marriage or committed relationship equation — alongside emotional intimacy.

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