(RealSimple.com) -- A lack of intimacy caused their relationship to stagnate -- until a sex therapist helped them reconnect, both physically and emotionally.
Elke Govertsen and Paul Donaldson
Married seven years
Sex with Paul had stopped being fun, says Elke, 35. "In the middle of it, I'd make to-do lists in my head or interrupt to ask, 'Did you let the dog out?'"
Five years after their 2004 marriage, Elke and Paul found they could go weeks without being intimate -- something the couple, who had been inseparable since meeting in their 20s as camp counselors, would have once found unimaginable. For a time, they even joked to close friends that Elke wished she could read a book during intercourse.
Around the middle of 2009, the situation stopped being funny, says Elke: "We became too lazy to be romantic." Their conversations "were strictly utilitarian," she says. "'Can you pick up the kids?' 'Did you pay that bill?' 'I need to be out of town on Saturday.'"
At first Elke blamed her husband's job for their eroded connection. His event-staging business requires him to travel extensively every summer to set up concert stages for popular musicians. During that time, Paul was home for only a few days every two weeks, leaving Elke to juggle her job as the publisher of a regional women's magazine and caring for their two sons, Boone, eight, and Dimitri, six.
Elke felt lonesome when Paul was gone and resentful when he returned. Paul was equally miserable. "All the hard work and late nights I was putting in were for nothing," he says. "What good is success if you're unhappy?"
Knowing how much her sons missed their father, Elke encouraged Paul to spend what time he had at home with the boys. He often fell asleep on their bunk bed while reading stories and would stay there until morning, prompting the children to refer to the master bed as "Mommy's bed."
Finally, during one late-night call in July 2009, Elke blurted out, "This isn't working." Paul felt the same way. But when Elke suggested they consider a separation, he balked. "I couldn't imagine finding someone else who has Elke's rare blend of brains, grace, and beauty," says Paul. "We had spent such a large portion of our lives growing and changing together." But he admitted to feeling out of sync with her, too.
The couple batted around the idea of seeing a therapist but dithered for months over finding one. Then, this past March, Elke's magazine held a contest for local business owners, and a clinical sexologist was chosen as the winner. "I called to congratulate her -- and immediately made an appointment," says Elke.
During that first session, the sex therapist pointed out that the pair had fallen into a trap common to many couples with young children. "We kept waiting to feel less busy or less tired before we had sex, but that physical connection was the crucial thing we were missing," says Elke.
Their therapist suggested they stop taking sex so seriously and try to flirt with each other again. Following her advice, Elke and Paul went separately to a local pub and pretended to meet for the first time. "We felt ridiculous, but it was fun," says Elke. "The role-playing got Paul and me laughing again."
They also changed their routine at home. To turn off her "work brain," Elke moved her laptop out of the bedroom and into a home office. Instead of zoning out in front of the TV, the couple insisted on spending every night together from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. And when Elke complained that she still sometimes just wanted to sleep when she got into bed? The sexologist told her, "Well, have sex somewhere else then."
Elke and Paul saw the therapist five more times over the next few months. "Speaking candidly about our sex life was awkward, but it turned out to be essential," says Paul, 34. "Sex really is a barometer of how much fun a couple can have together."
Once he and Elke began to relax and tease each other again, their physical relationship improved, and so did their emotional bond. By late spring, says Elke, "we had become that couple who hold hands at parties."
Last summer, when Paul came home between concerts, Elke didn't foist him off on the kids. "I need Paul's attention, too," she says. "He and I have seen what it's like to have nearly separate lives, and it's important to us that we don't go back to being strangers."
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