Episode 155: Founders in the Bedroom

Sherry talks about the challenge of maintaining a healthy, happy sexual connection in the midst of the founder life. It is easier said than done. Much of sex is about psychology–the activities of your brain rather than the action in your pants. Sherry describes some recent science about the dual control model of sexual response. She also gives listeners suggestions and tools to help have important conversations about what is happening in the bedroom.

In today’s episode: Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski, PhD

Episode Transcript

Sherry Walling:Hey, guys, it’s Sherry here. I’m going solo this week. Rob is in San Francisco at Sasser, so I am holding down the fort at home and on the podcast. One of the things that I’d like to talk about this week, I guess somewhat ironically because my husband’s out of town, is to talk a little bit about sex and the role that it plays, the important role that it plays in the life of a couple. I’d like to talk about some of the challenges that I’ve talked about with founders and their significant others, specifically related to this part of their life.
 This is not, by any means, a graphic conversation, but it is an adult conversation so if you’re listening with munchkins or kiddos in the car or around you, you might wanna table this for a time when you can think grown up thoughts. Before we get started, a couple of announcements. The book launch is scheduled for February 21, so, those of you who are on the prelaunch list, you’re gonna get a series of emails reminding you about that date, inviting you to some early discounted prices and letting you know all about our new book, the Entrepreneurs Guide to Keeping your Bleep Together: How to Run your Business Without Letting it Run You.
 So if you are interested in what’s happening with the book, or thinking about picking up a copy, definitely hop over to ZenFounder.com and get on the mailing list so you can get some of the perks and discounts and stuff that will go along with our virtual launch party. I also wanted to let folks know that I will be speaking at Word Camp Miami, in Miami, in the middle of March. March 16 to 18. I’ll be part of a business track on Sunday morning that looks like it’s going to be really fantastic, so if you are in the Miami are or are a WordPress fan, it would be fun to see you there. Similarly, I will be in Sacramento on April 21 for the Elevate Leaders conference. This is a conference that’s all about mental health and well being for entrepreneurs and founders for really business leaders of all kinds. If you are interested in attending that event, or if you are in the Sacramento area, email me and I have some generous discount codes. Get in touch with me, Sherry@ZenFounder.com and I will be happy to pass those along to you, Zen Founder listeners.
Sherry Walling:Okay, so, Valentine’s day is just around the corner and whether or not this is an important romantic event in your particular couple hood, it seems like a good time to talk about some relationship related topics. Last week, Rob and I talked about the essential question of relationships, “Will you be there when I need you?” We talked a little bit about attachment and interdependence and some of the things that both studies and relationship experience show can be absolutely essential in making sure you maintain a strong connection. So, if you missed that one, go back, listen to it.
 Today I want to talk a little bit about sex as part of something that connects you to your significant other. I think this is particularly relevant for founders and their significant others because I hear over and over and over, when I talk to people about their relationships, I often ask, it’s a standard psychological question to ask a couple, “How’s it going in the bedroom? How is sex going for you these days?” Obviously a lot of us are having a great time and doing this well, but there are also seasons in all of our lives, in the life of any healthy, happy couple where, the conversation about sex or sexual practices become tricky for a variety of reasons.
 One of the culprits that makes attention to sex difficult, is of course, busy schedules. A lot of founders that I talk to, feel like they are under pressure all the time to get more done. To get things done quickly and to get as many things as can possibly be done in a day accomplished, to push their business forward. That can, of course, have some negative consequences for your sexual connection to your partner because like all important things in life, whether it’s working out or eating well, having a great sex life, having a great sexual connection with the person that you love, does require some time. I think the other piece of this that makes it an important conversation for founders is that founders brains are particularly busy, so the schedule is busy, but the brain is also busy. The mind is full. It is easy for those of us who are running our businesses, who are launching our business, who are launching a new product, who are thinking about marketing, to have our minds be relatively consumed with the to do list or our ideas. This isn’t always negative.
 It’s not that it’s just anxiety, it’s that we’re excited and our minds are full of the possibilities and the work to be done. So, again, this can be great for the business, but not so great for the bedroom. One of the things that is most important to having happy, fun sex, is the ability to focus and be fully present with what’s going on in that moment with our partners. So founders have busy schedules and busy brains, which can certainly get in the way of a consistent, satisfying sexual experience. I think the other thing that made me really want to talk about this topic, today, is that a lot of us aren’t talking about it. For a variety of reasons, a lot of us find it really difficult to have open conversations about sex. Even with the person who we most need to have those conversations with, which is our significant other.
 I think that there are a lot of social and cultural pressures to be awesome at sex and intuitively be able to read what your partners wants and what they’re thinking and also be super in touch with your own body and super confident and functional and be able to function like a porn star, just naturally and automatically. That, of course, is absolutely not true. Not the way that our minds work and not the way that our bodies work. A strong, happy sex life, that is mutually pleasurable and playful and interesting takes time to cultivate. It takes focus. And it takes conversation.
 Part of what I’d like to happen with this particular podcast, is that it gives you some tools to have important conversations with your significant other about what’s happening in the bedroom and what’s happening between you when it comes to sex. I’ve been reading a book lately called, “Come As You Are” by a psychologist named Emily Nagoski. She is a researcher on human sexuality and also spends a lot of time teaching and talking with people about sex. About how sex works, about the psychology of sex. In her book, one of the things that I have found to be really interesting, is her conversation about the research that’s been done on the dual control model of sexuality. I know, you thought this was going to be a really sexy conversation but, sadly, I’m a scientist, so I have to at least think about science, some of it.
 This concept of the dual control model is research developed out of the Kinsey Institute, which I think is at IU, Indiana University. It talks about our sexual experience being really a product of two parts of our physiological experience. One is the sexual excitation system. This is kind of the accelerator of sex. This is the experience of being turned on. This is the experience of feeling our emotional, mental, and physical self is all saying, “Let’s go for this, this is fun, sex is great. All systems go.” Of course, the things that turn people on are different for everyone and for every couple. Those are things that we work out together in our intimate relationships. Thus, the importance of open conversation. The things that activate the sexual excitation system are largely a product of our environment, the things that we hear, or smell or touch or taste or imagine, those are the things that kinda trigger, “All systems go, let’s get it on.”
 The things that facilitate that excitement, are what we learn about our partners over the course of an attuned, connected sexual relationship. We learn about each other, the kind of care taking and foreplay. Whether that’s a massage or whether that’s erotic content. Over the course of life together, we have the privilege of trying to figure out how our partner works in this way. What helps facilitate sex for them. I think when we think about sexual functioning, that’s usually the part of the process that we think about. Dr. Nigoski describes this as the accelerator of sex, if you think about sex as a car. But the other piece of this dual control model, is the parts of our brain and our body that trigger, “Stop.” That trigger, “This isn’t safe.” Or, “This doesn’t feel good or feel right.” This is the sexual inhibition system, sort of like the brake in that car model.
 I think this is super important to understand, because we tend to think about how to turn our partner on, but I think an equally important and lesser asked question is, “What are the things that are turning them off? What is inhibiting a sexual experience from going well?” This inhibition system is really important, because it is designed of protect us. It’s the part of us that’s like, “Whoa, brakes are on.” When we hear our kids’ feet pattering down the hallway, suddenly it’s like … You’re scrambling for your clothes. It protects us from being vulnerable and in the middle of a sensual, sexual experience, at a time when that’s inappropriate or dangerous. The other piece of the inhibition system that I think is super important, especially in conversations with founders is that low-grade worry or anxiety. That busy brain.
 That part of us keeps our foot on the sexual brake, so to speak. When we are … Even somewhere in the recesses back of our mind, thinking about things that bring us stress or anxiety, it’s very hard for our brain to signal to our body that it is okay to be vulnerable, it is okay to let go, it’s okay to engage in sex and be all in and fully present and fully focused. So, in your conversations with your partner, I think it’s obviously important to have the conversation to ask, “Hey, what feels good to you right now? What helps you to feel connected? What helps you to feel aroused?” But it’s also really important to ask the question, “What’s getting in the way? What are the thoughts in your head that are kind of cycling through that make sex sound not that appealing or not that interesting?” Those thoughts can be this anxious distraction, but it can also be thoughts that are self critical about one’s own body, about one’s own sexual performance. All manner of negative thoughts or anxious thoughts, can get in the way of a couple feeling deeply connected in the bedroom.
 Regardless of how pretty and fancy your underwear is, or how much great wine you’ve had, or the quality of the great back rub you just gave your significant other. Another important conversation to have with your partner is to also talk through how easy is sexual excitement. How active is that sexual excitation system and how active is that inhibition system. These systems exist on a continuum, a little bit like introversion and extroversion. No one is fully in one category. The extent to which we are sensitive to sexual excitement and the extent to which we’re sensitive to the no queues, the inhibition queues, vary from person to person. It’s a good idea to know that about both yourself and your partner. If that’s a conversation that you wanna have, I really recommend this book, “Come As You Are”. I told you this was an adult conversation.
 Dr. Nagoski walks you through lots of questions you can ask yourself and ask your partner to get a sense of how each of your are functioning in these two parts of this dual control model. So beyond understanding what turns you on and what turns you off, I think it’s also really important to understand how sex functions in your relationship. The worst case scenario … Well, maybe not the worst case scenario. But maybe a common negative scenario is that sex becomes another chore, another job to get done, another thing that you have to do to keep your life happy, to keep your partner satisfied and it can become boring, and it can become wrote. I think that’s really a tragedy on multiple levels, but how important it is for us to have this deep connection with this most important person I our life and to be able to share with them something that is intimate and powerful and also really enjoyable. Who doesn’t want to do that well? I think sex can be one of the channels through which, even in the context of a very long term relationship, you’re continually discovering and learning more about the mystery of who your partner is.
 Sex is never static, it’s not the same every time, every day. If we’re awake to it, there’s always an element of discovery or newness to each sexual encounter when we bring with us that attitude of curiosity and, “Hey, how are you going to respond to this particular type of touch today?” Or, “What is this gonna feel like during this specific sexual encounter?” I think the other really important role that sex can play in the context of a long term, committed relationship, is that it’s an escape together. I know many of you out there have lives that are kind of like Rob and I, we have two professionals, two business owners, three kids, chores to do, dishes to do, lots of responsibilities. One thing that sex offers is the ability to, through that connection with your partner, let all of … Let some of those responsibilities go for a little while. Let yourselves take a break from the day to day patterns that you live in. This really is the domain of adult play, where you get the chance to maybe not be in charge of everything and let your partner be in charge, or you get the chance to ask for exactly what you want, which is a significant departure from your day to day life, where you have to deal with lots of things that are outside of your control.
 Esther Perel is a psychotherapist in New York and she’s written a couple of books, one called “Mating in Captivity” that I think is really great summary of the challenges of having exciting, novel, interesting sex, over the course of a very long term relationship. A lot of the material in her book is about how to let sex be this very separate and alive part of your life with your significant other. One of the things that she says in her book, is that, “Deprived of enigma, intimacy becomes cruel when it excludes any possibility of discovery.” This concept of discovery and exploration and escape, if we get lazy, to be quite honest, can all go out the window in the context of a relationship that lasts for 20 plus years.
 That commitment, and focus, and time, and effort towards creating a sexual life that is connecting and enjoyable, fun and novel, is this other entrepreneurial endeavor. We talk a lot on the podcast about how entrepreneurship is, in essence, your decision to make your livelihood on the basis of your creativity, on the basis of you ingenuity. So how do you carry that ingenuity and creativity into the bedroom and find ways to both listen and communicate with the person that you love, so that you can, together, create this part of your life that is important and a glue that holds you together. Not to mention, hopefully fun.
 But great sex happens in the context of some safety. Of people being able to talk about what turns them on and people being able to talk about what turns them off and people feeling loved and accepted by their partner, so that there is this foundation of security, sort of like we talked about last week, but from that foundation, from that sense of, “I trust you, you trust me.” All manner of fun and exploration becomes possible. For those of you, who, like us, are in the grind of work and professional life, and raising children, please don’t give up on your sex life. Please don’t give up on this really important, powerful connection. Know that practice makes perfect. Know that open, vulnerable, sometimes really hard conversations are a worthy investment in making sure that you get to really enjoy this part of being in a couple, of being in a long term relationship.
 So, conversation points to have with your partner: What’s arousing these days? What gets in the way? What’s preoccupying in your mind? What are the no signals that seem to get in the way of us connecting sexually? Then carve out some time. Maybe you commit to having sex every day for a week, if that’s not your pattern, to give it some practice. To give each other feedback. To take some notes. Take risks to ask for what you want. Take risks to really listen to what your partner is wanting, and see where it goes.
 Again, whether you are breaking out the roses and champagne for Valentine’s day or not, I hope that this is a good reminder to at least give some time, energy, and focus toward working with your partner to have a great sexual experience. Have fun out there.
 If you would like more tools to think about this topic and other topics related to the well being of your relationship, Rob and I are working on a date night bootcamp course, and we are in the process of putting the finishing touches on it. We don’t even have a release date or a landing page, but if that’s something that you want to stay in the loop about, definitely sign up for the Zen Founder newsletter, because I’m sure we’ll be talking it up there. Thanks so much for listening.