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A Reawakening in the Bedroom : * Counselor helps 2-career couples find time--and energy--for sex.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You have to be very sure of yourself to give your mate a darkly humorous greeting card that pictures a 30ish couple in business clothes, sitting stiffly on a couch with a zoned-out look in their eyes and a box of pizza balanced on their knees.

It’s obviously the end of the workday, and you can easily imagine what isn’t going to happen after they finish their pizza and beer. The card, which parodies a movie poster, reads: “Welcome to the . . . Night of the 2-Career Couple, the terrifying true-life tale of two people who had everything . . . except a life!”

At the bottom of the card is this line, “Coming all too soon: Dawn of the Dead-Tired, PG-1, Possibility of good sex once in a blue moon.”

There should also be a note of caution: Your sex-starved mate may not see the humor in this unless the card is presented along with a generous display of passion.

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If it’s any consolation, you’re not the only stressed-out, two-career couple harboring the knowledge that one of the least-talked about side effects of urbanization in Orange County is marital celibacy.

Twelve-hour workdays and two-hour commutes on freeways jammed with impatient, often hostile drivers aren’t likely to send people home in the mood for love. Being bombarded at the door with demands from kids who are hungry for attention doesn’t help, either.

Yet, many couples assume that they’re the only ones who, night after night, end up snoozing instead of seducing.

Not true, says Mary Pat Kelly, a counselor with the Center for Personal Development in Irvine who recently led a workshop titled, “Reawakening Passion in Your Sexual Relationship.”

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Many of those who attended her workshop admitted one of their biggest problems was finding time--and energy--for sex.

“We live in a crisis-oriented way. Whichever pot is boiling is the one to which we attend,” Kelly observes. “Making time for sex means taking time away from something more pressing. If sex isn’t made a conscious priority, it won’t move up the list.”

If you’re too busy for sex, it’s time to change your life, Kelly says.

“I don’t mean quit your job and wear a negligee all day,” she adds. She suggests taking small steps that can have dramatic effects, such as “scheduling a weekly date and getting to know each other instead of just groping around in the dark.”

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Jackie Singer, an Irvine psychotherapist, says she has counseled a number of weary couples who work long hours during the week, spend weekends running around with their kids and seldom find time for each other. She has her own acronym for them: DILS (Double Income, Little Sex) or DINS (Double Income, No Sex).

“Most couples say they don’t get enough time together. They look at each other at the end of the day and just sigh,” Singer says.

That sounds all too familiar to Brenda, a 33-year-old working mother who attended Kelly’s recent workshop without her husband, Phil, because they couldn’t find a baby-sitter for their 2-year-old.

Brenda, who requested anonymity, says both she and Phil recognize that they need to work at reviving the passion that has been missing from their sexual relationship since their daughter was born: “It’s very easy for a child to take over the extra time you used to have for each other.”

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Phil begins his daily commute to Los Angeles at 5:30 a.m., and Brenda leaves for work at 8. They arrive home at about 6 p.m.--unless one or the other has a night meeting or is away on a business trip--and spend evenings taking care of their daughter.

“After 9 at night, we both want to pass out,” Brenda says. “It’s hard to find the time and energy for sex.”

However, she adds, she picked up a few ideas at Kelly’s workshop that have already helped.

For example, when she and her husband awoke in the middle of the night recently, instead of turning over and going back to sleep, they put on some romantic music and made love. Brenda says the workshop helped them realize that they had to make sex a higher priority and embrace such moments.

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Next, in spite of the great distance between their workplaces, they plan to arrange a midday rendezvous. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Brenda says firmly.

They’re also trying to make the most of even brief opportunities to be close, following Kelly’s suggestion that busy couples “pepper their life with sexual moments.”

“You get into the habit of just pecking your husband,” Brenda says. “Whatever happened to good, old-fashioned kissing?”

Rediscovering the joy of kissing is one step Kelly has in mind when she urges couples to expand their definition of sexual contact. It’s easier to find time for sex if you can stop at first or second base--and not feel like a loser if you don’t hit a home run every time.

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“You should be able to kiss passionately for five minutes on the couch before going off to a PTA meeting, without worrying that your mate is going to wonder why you’re leaving. It shouldn’t have to be all or nothing,” Kelly explains.

She also tries to get couples to be more creative about where and when they have sex. But she says many have a hard time finding the middle ground between their normal routine and their wildest fantasies.

“They can imagine being in Tahiti on a sailboat, but they don’t think about being in the kitchen or the den because their routine is so compelling,” she says. “They shoot for sky’s-the-limit instead of more realistic creativity.”

Maureen, who brought her husband to Kelly’s workshop at the recommendation of a marriage counselor, says she learned that, with a bit of effort and ingenuity, there are a surprising number of simple ways couples can “break the monotony” in their sex life.

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“We’ve fallen into the routine of doing it the same way all the time,” she says.

But she and Rod, who are in their early 20s and have been married for three years, are among the couples who can’t solve their sexual problems just by being more creative. Kelly’s advice--"Strive for playfulness; there should be limited rules and an openness to experiment"--isn’t enough for them because their sexual difficulties are a symptom of deeper problems in their relationship.

Maureen says the fact that they married so young underlies many of their difficulties. She suspects they weren’t ready for marriage and should have waited until they knew more about what they wanted out of life. But they’re trying, through counseling, to make it work.

Attending Kelly’s workshop reminded them of how important it is to be able to talk openly about their sexual problems.

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“My sexual appetite is a lot less than Rod’s,” Maureen admits.

Rod says he’s trying to be more understanding of differences in their appetites and to make lovemaking more romantic for his wife, and she’s trying to be more responsive to his need for sexual excitement.

They’re also talking more comfortably about sex, using some of the exercises Kelly recommended. For example, one night they held hands, looked into each other’s eyes and took turns telling each other what they most enjoy and what they’d like to change about their sex life.

“It helps,” Maureen says, “because you’re uplifting each other while explaining what you don’t like.”

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Timing is crucial when talking about how to make sex more satisfying, Rod stresses. He recently brought up the subject just as his wife was leaving for work, and they ended up fighting out of frustration because there wasn’t time to finish the conversation.

“Knowing when to bring it up and when not to is hard,” Rod says. “Whether you come off on the attack or with concern makes a difference, too.”

Kelly says many couples are not only too busy to talk about sex, but reluctant to bring up the subject because “no one wants to be the one who’s worried or insecure about it.”

She suggests couples plan to discuss sex regularly so that the burden of initiating talk doesn’t fall on either partner. “Otherwise, to bring it up means something is wrong,” Kelly says.

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She also urges couples to take time to remind themselves of what initially attracted them to each other. It’s as easy for couples to lose sight of what keeps them together as it is for homeowners to take a spectacular ocean view for granted because it’s there everyday, she notes.

“Don’t expect a relationship to self-maintain. Because we’re so busy, we have to do conscious maintenance,” Kelly stresses. “It’s a myth that sex has its own energy and takes care of itself.”


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