Way #5


Eroticizing Tenderness:
Reframing Desire

Synchrony sex is when
emotional openness and responsiveness,
tender touch, and erotic exploration all come together.
This is the sex that fulfills, satisfies and connects.
— Dr. Sue Johnson, Hold Me Tight

You need to tell him which of his touches say “tenderness,”
“closeness,” “ connectedness.”
— Michele Weiner Davis, The Sex-Starved Marriage

Delicate pleasuring, tenderly prolonged.
Here is my heart, singing your song.
— Cheryl and Bob


If you skipped ahead to this chapter (as one of us probably would have done), you have missed the first four “Ways” to sweeten and deepen your closeness – ways that contribute essential parts of the foundation for eroticizing tenderness.  

For you and other readers as well, we’ll do a quick review.  Please do go back after reading this chapter (or preferably now – it’s a quick read: 15 to 20 minutes per chapter) and get the full flavor and substance of these important steps for couples wanting to “live tenderly together.”


In Way #1: Honoring Feelings: Becoming Fully Known and Deeply Loved, we cover the key element in treating each other tenderly – having a caring sensitivity to each other’s feelings, and to our own.  We also describe the reward of a deeply satisfying and heart-tingling closeness. 

In Way #2: Taming Criticism, Anger and Blame: Gentling Our Communication, we cover ways to manage our anger gently and constructively, and to scrub blame from our communication – creating the trust and safety necessary to nurture growth in intimacy (emotional and sexual).

In Way #3: Resolving Conflict Tenderly, we cover our own four-step S.A.V.E. Process for turning conflict into closeness by honoring each other’s feelings and fully respecting each other’s point of view.

In Way #4: Celebrating Our Love: Embracing Romance, we cover ways that we have found to romantically reconnect often, including a “daily dance” to a sweet and tender love song (not actually daily but often).  We list some favorite love songs, including one composed and sung by Erin Bode with lyrics by Bob (a love poem to Cheryl): “The Moon Is Ours Tonight.”  (see our BLOG section for the story)

Hopefully this brief review gives you a sense of how each of these steps contributes to Way #5: Eroticizing Tenderness: Reframing Desire.  Together they can create a deep trust in each other’s tender intentions.  The steps create a sweet and tender closeness that allows us to share prolonged exquisite tenderness as lifetime lovers who have a high priority for each other’s pleasure and happiness.


As Dr. Sue Johnson puts it in Love Sense, “It makes perfect sense that our basic comfort with closeness and vulnerability affects how we express and experience sex.  We are wired to put safety first.” (our emphasis) She further states, “Many studies now attest to the fact that because secure partners feel safely connected to their lovers, they can access the full richness of their sexuality.”

Dr. Johnson asks us to “Think about it.  If you trust that your partner is there for you, then you can relax and let go without fear of embarrassment or rejection.  Safety fosters a willingness to experiment, take risks, and be fully immersed in the sexual encounter.”  (our emphasis)


A feeling of safety also affects our desire, according to Dr. Johnson: “One of the heretofore unrecognized requisites for feeling desire, new research suggests, is feeling safe.” (our emphasis)  We have found that consistent tenderness creates deep trust, which leads to safety.  It therefore follows that tenderness has a role in creating desire, especially in a long-term relationship.  We’ve been convinced of that for many years.


Desire in a long-term relationship is a topic that we addressed in our workshop called “Tenderness and Desire,” presented at a national marriage enrichment conference many years ago.  Yes, we were brave enough to present at a marriage enrichment conference on the subject of “Tenderness and Desire,” even though we are not experts on the subject but mainly students.  We’re still students, and we continue to learn ways to cultivate a fulfilling and intimate sexual relationship. 

There are experts on the subject, and they tend to agree on certain observations and recommendations.  Some of their advice deserves repeating, especially for those of us who grew up assuming that it will all “come naturally” and we shouldn’t overthink this topic.  Or that planning “isn’t romantic” (except that planning can be romantic, if we let it be).  Or that talking about this subject in any detail is too uncomfortable.

We don’t plan to cover the range of possible topics of interest on this subject.  Others have done it very well, especially the Gottmans.  In addition to the comprehensive chapter in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, the website of The Gottman Institute has resources for couples that include “The Art and Science of Lovemaking” – containing 9 video modules and 115 pages of printed materials with exercises.

When you search on the Gottman Institute website for “The Art and Science of Lovemaking,” it not only brings that up but also a Blog entry called “Building a Great Sex Life Is Not Rocket Science,” which contains John Gottman’s list of “13 things all couples do who have an amazing sex life.”  There is more to that Blog entry than the “13 things,” so we encourage you to go there.  

The list of 13 things all these couples do is based on decades of research studies, and deserves repeating here: “(1) They say “I love you” every day and mean it; (2) They kiss one another passionately for no reason; (3) They give surprise romantic gifts; (4) They know what turns their partners on and off erotically; (5) They are physically affectionate, even in public; (6) They keep playing and having fun together; (7) They cuddle; (8) They make sex a priority, not the last item of a long to-do list; (9) They stay good friends; (10) They can talk comfortably about their sex life; (11) They have weekly dates; (12) They take romantic vacations; and (13) They are mindful about turning toward.”

We love this list.  You may remember from an earlier chapter our kiss on an escalator and the young girl who called out “Get a room” from an opposite escalator.  You may also recall our kisses when seeing hearts in nature and when first seeing the moon.  And then there’s our “daily dance” and the long kiss it sometimes includes.  We think kissing is not only fun but an important way to stay connected or to reconnect.

During Covid, our romantic dinners out have become occasional take outs and special dinners we plan at home.  Our dates have focused more on streaming romantic movies and planning and anticipating our romantic and sexy times together.


Our primary focus here will be on the processes of reframing desire and eroticizing tenderness, both of which continue to evolve as we accumulate more years of learning how to live tenderly together.

The message we want to share is that tenderness can be eroticized and desire reframed — away from culturally conditioned “sexiness” and toward experiencing closeness exquisitely.  We say “toward” rather than “to” because it is a process, due to the extent of the conditioning we have absorbed and continue to experience.

It Is Your Tenderness

It’s not your sexy dress
It is your tenderness
And so I must confess
I crave your happiness


As we mentioned, we’re still learning, and one of the topics that we’ve learned more about from our readings is the difference between spontaneous desire and responsive desire.  The distinction is an important one for many couples who aren’t familiar with the difference.

The “issue” is that spontaneous desire is widely thought to be the only definition of sexual desire, and it is the one usually portrayed in movies, many romance novels and elsewhere in our culture.  Passionate and urgent, the clothes can’t come off fast enough.  Many people have experienced this at some time in their lives and then experienced a waning of that desire in a long-term relationship.

Often what happens with couples is that spontaneous desire softens into responsive desire over time.  The newness of each other’s bodies evolves to the familiarity and the comfort of each other’s bodies.  Instead of sparking from a meaningful look across a room, responsive desire is more likely kindled by a thoughtfully created mood and tender touch.  

When spontaneous desire wanes, many people experience that as a disappointment — even as a deprivation.  While our culture continues to highlight the thrill of spontaneous attraction and passion, some can feel stuck in the wallflower corner at a dance called “What Used to Be.”  The dancers look more attractive and animated than one’s partner, and some even decide to risk their relationship to find that thrill again.


In her widely praised bestselling book, Come As You Are: Revised and Updated: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, Emily Nagoski, Ph. D., describes conversations with various women clients who have only felt spontaneous desire in new or “bad” relationships, but not in their stable, more comfortable ones.  Some women in those circumstances have described themselves to her as “broken” or “sexually dead.”  

Nagoski’s first message to those women is that they are not broken or deadened.  They are experiencing the norm, especially for women.  Context-free spontaneous desire is something more often experienced by men.  Women experience it far less often.  She advises women: “Don’t use somebody else’s standard to measure the quality of your sex life.”

Her suggestion has been to “start loving responsive desire.”  “Figure out what contexts give you a fantastic relationship and hot sex.”  


According to Nagoski, “… if we ignore context, then anyone who finds sex unfun or whose desire diminishes may be tempted to conclude she’s broken or just doesn’t like sex . . . when really all she needs is a better context.”  She describes context as “your external circumstances and your internal state.”  She also says that a positive context may be different for different women and for the same woman at different times.

In Come As You Are, Nagoski includes an exercise for discovering how context contributed to positive sexual experiences and not-so-great sexual experiences from the past.  She lists a number of aspects of the experience to choose from, including health, mood, emotional connection, setting, body image, and more.  She also addresses ways to make those aspects more positive in creating future favorable contexts.

In general terms, she describes a favorable context as “a safe, comfortable environment.”  She also writes, “For most people, the best context for sex is low stress + highly affectionate + explicitly erotic.”


There are some context elements that have worked well for us over the years to promote relaxation and safety.  You will likely recognize these and probably have others you have adopted successfully.  One of the most important to us has been to regularly set aside an extended period of uninterrupted time (easier now that we are retired).  It helps to know that we share a goal of predictable regularity, semi-often, and either of us can put it on the calendar.

We have found it helpful for planning and anticipating our lovemaking date to occasionally explore readings and view movies that are sexy and/or educational to give us new ideas to enhance our experience.

We prepare ourselves by washing up, and often also by adding body scents that we like, and we prepare the room with some soft lighting.  We start a favorite playlist of sweet and tender love songs from the many we have collected over the years. 

Usually we then connect with some sweet conversation.  Or we may read a romantic poem or recall a romantic setting from our travels together.  This helps our hearts get in sync before we begin getting physical.  And one of our favorite ways to begin getting physical is to dance to a sweet and tender love song.  The lyrics also help us connect romantically.

Another way to begin getting physical is an extended facial caress.  In our “Tenderness and Desire” workshop, we had couples take turns doing a three-minute facial caress to the song, “You Are So Beautiful,” by Captain and Tennille.  We had the room lights lowered to enhance their comfort level.  As you might imagine, it can be a powerful experience, both physically and emotionally.  We also had the couples dance to “He Talks to Me,” by Lorrie Morgan, to lyrics that spell out what she needs the most after lovemaking.

The time after lovemaking is an opportunity to prolong the afterglow with some sweet kissing and cuddling, and also some whispered “sweet somethings.”  Eventually we both nap, usually Cheryl first — which Bob loves, knowing she is relaxed and safe enough in his arms to drift off.


On the subject of desire, Nagoski addresses the two general schools of thought on “strategies for sustaining desire in a long-term monogamous relationship.”  She frames them as the Esther Perel school and the John Gottman school for shorthand.  She quotes Perel from Mating in Captivity and from her TEDx talk, and Gottman from The Science of Trust.  

“As Perel puts it, ‘In desire, we want a bridge to cross.’  This means intentionally adding distance that creates an edgy instability or uncertainty, a slight and enjoyable dissatisfaction.”  Gottman, on the other hand, says that the problem is “… lack of deepening intimacy.  From this point of view, intimate conversation, affection, and friendship are central to the erotic life of a long-term relationship.” 

Nagoski describes Perel’s desire as “… wanting.  Longing.  Seeking.  Craving,” and Gottman’s as “… liking. Holding. Savoring. Allowing.  Exploring this moment together, noticing what it is like, and liking it.”  “In the Perel style, you come to your partner with your desire already stoked.  In the Gottman style, you stoke each other’s fire.”

Both styles have a lot to offer, according to Nagoski, but her personal preference is Gottman’s, “… more a celebration of sensation in context, a celebration of togetherness.”  However, to illustrate how easy it is to find an advocate of Perel’s viewpoint, even Emily Nagoski’s twin sister disagrees with her: “Why would closeness ever make anyone want more closeness?  Space!

Nagoski says our culture generally values Perel’s style higher than Gottman’s.  Perel’s is “… higher adrenaline; it’s inherently exciting.  We relish this kind of perpetual itch-scratch-relief-itch cycle.  We like to want, so much that we can’t always separate the experience of wanting from the experience of liking.  It’s a good fit for the existing narrative that says spontaneous desire is the right way to experience desire.”


Hopefully, dear reader, you can easily tell what our preference is on this subject.  It’s in our subtitle: Loving Tenderly: Six Ways to Sweeten and Deepen Our Closeness.  It’s in the title of the following poem: 

Closeness is the Heart’s Ambrosia

Closeness is the heart’s ambrosia.
Loving, tender, trusting, safe,
Caring and open hearted.
Exquisite and precious.

Closeness is our goal, and when it is combined with exquisite pleasure, it marvelously sweetens and deepens our closeness.

Emily Nagoski advises, “To have more and better sex, give yourself a compelling reason to have sex, something important to move toward,” and she gives the example of sex that brings you closer to your partner.


Tender, connected sex.  Who doesn’t want that?

Actually, many people don’t, because most of us have been conditioned to find something else erotic.  


So, what is erotic?  It depends on who you ask.

There are seven major categories of sexual fantasies, according to Justin J. Lehmiller, the author of Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life.  A Research Fellow and Faculty Affiliate of the Kinsey Institute, Lehmiller recently concluded the largest scientific survey of Americans’ sexual fantasies ever undertaken.

Among the seven categories, such as threesomes (the most popular), “power, control, and rough sex” (second) and forbidden sex (fourth), the sixth most popular one is called, “passion and romance.”  

It would seem that “tender connected sex” isn’t what most people think of as erotic.  Thanks to the typical Hollywood treatment, the usual image of erotic sex is likely to be very action oriented.  The slower pace of tender connected sex could seem less than exciting, unless you have experienced it before and are able to identify with it.


Imagine that your lover, your closest and dearest friend in the world, has her (his) heart set on giving you exquisite pleasure, tenderly prolonged, as a message from her (his) heart to yours.

How erotic is that?

We think it’s hot.  Extremely erotic, in our opinion.


But it wasn’t always so for either of us.  We were raised in a culture of sexiness based on physical attractiveness as a primary ingredient.  This inevitably leads to the creation of many “genetic celebrities,” as Georgia Noble called them in a workshop we attended years ago.  Certain individuals are admired and often richly rewarded primarily for their genetically-determined physical features.

We can each identify with being attracted to people because of their looks.  We’ve also met individuals who remind us of the saying, “beauty is only skin deep.”  

Over the years our consciousness has changed about how objectifying it is to think of a person, including ourselves, as sexy due to appearance.  


Some years ago we attended a presentation by Jean Kilbourne that included her video, “Killing Us Softly.”  The video showed a wide variety of sexualized images of women from advertisements, many of which the audience recognized from ads in magazines and elsewhere.  She made the point that such images contributed to the objectification of women, and in some cases, to violence against women.  After absorbing an hour or more of such images, it was hard to view similar ads without thinking of their potential harm.  


Images in advertising and elsewhere have an effect on people’s perceptions of what “beauty” is.  In turn, those perceptions have an effect on our sexual wellbeing.  In Come As You Are, Emily Nagoski says, “There is a direct trade-off between sexual wellbeing and self-critical thoughts about your body.”  She cites a review of fifty-seven studies that found “important links” between body image and “arousal, desire, orgasm, frequency of sex, number of partners, sexual self-assertiveness, sexual self-esteem” and more.

One of the ways that we like to think about nurturing body positivity is that the idealized images we have been bombarded with over the years have been created by industries who profit from those images.  This can help us distance ourselves from their “standards.”  Another way of nurturing body-positivity is to shift away from the idealized images to an appreciation of all the wonderful things our bodies do for us. 

As author Ursula K. Le Guin put it, “Beauty always has rules.  It’s a game.  I resent the beauty game when I see it controlled by people who grab fortunes from it and don’t care who they hurt.  I hate it when I see it making people so self-dissatisfied that they starve and deform and poison themselves.”

Gary R. Brooks, Ph. D., is a psychologist who specializes in therapy with men.  In The Centerfold Syndrome: How Men Can Overcome Objectification and Achieve Intimacy with Women, Brooks wrote: “Young men’s . . . evaluations of women’s bodies are enhanced by a culture that celebrates them and by profiteers who use women’s bodies to tantalize and titillate.”  


Erotic is what we think is erotic.  This becomes clearer the more we eliminate the baggage we accumulated over the years – of exposure to “sexy” images.  This also becomes clearer the more we embrace the shift from spontaneous desire to responsive desire.

What is erotic to you?  We think it’s up to us.  We can choose.  You can choose.


We think each of our other Ways of Loving Tenderly can create erotic energy: 

  • Sharing our hearts intimately
  • Gentling our communication in order to create maximum trust and safety
  • Respectfully and generously resolving conflict together
  • Celebrating romantically
  • Experiencing growth together

The elements of Loving Tenderly are the nourishment – the sun, water and fertilizer – of our closeness.  Closeness, especially the rock solid, deeply satisfying and heart tingling kind, is erotic.  It has become our favorite aphrodisiac.


Our favorite version of erotic is exquisitely pleasurable touch and extraordinary closeness, tenderly prolonged — cradled by the trust and safety that allows us to feel our lover’s love fully.  

We like to think of each other as our lover — the one who wants to give us tender pleasure, leading to closeness that is exquisite.

When tenderness is at the core of our intimate connection, our lover becomes our erotic muse.  No fantasy lover could compete with our exquisitely tender partner, whose heart is in every touch.


What if we think of “lover” as an aspect of our identity?  Most of us don’t usually think of ourselves that way.  What if we nurture the lover in ourselves more?  

What is the lover in me like?  Romantic?  Tender?  Affectionate?  Seeking closeness?  Dependable?  Finding ways to give more pleasure?

How about naming your lover within?  What name would you like?


It’s really about how to please each other, which we’d say is a large part of why we’re together.  Contributing to each other’s happiness is a very high priority for both of us.

Among our opportunities to help each other be happy, it’s easy to see lovemaking as a special one.  We can give each other and receive from each other exquisite pleasure, tenderly prolonged.

We can do all of this better if we are able to talk openly about our preferences, ideally in some detail.

This is difficult for most of us.  That’s understandable, based on the undercurrent of prohibition about this subject.  Is it OK to talk about giving and receiving pleasure?  Are we allowed to focus on our own pleasure?  Sexual pleasure?

Here’s an altruistic motive also, so that it’s not all about you.  Your openness is a gift to your lover, because it encourages them to be open about feelings and preferences, which enhances the experience for both of you.

So how do we get over the discomfort hump?

We recommend the book, Sex Talks: The Five Conversations That Will Transform Your Love Life, by Vanessa Marin and Xander Marin.  The authors, a sex therapist and her husband, write very engagingly about their own lives and also about the advice she gives her clients.  We believe that reading this book would benefit every couple’s sex life and enrich their relationship.

We should note that in the “The Fifth Conversation: Exploration,” the authors mention a wide range of sexual activity.  As they frame it, “You already know the best antidote for sexual boredom: trying new things.”  However, they also say “… your likes and wants in the bedroom don’t need to be elaborate at all.”  “You don’t get a higher grade for being willing to try pain play or participate in an orgy.”

The two of us sometimes have to remind ourselves not to judge things we’re not comfortable exploring.  We encourage ourselves and you to keep an open mind and, as the authors also advise, choose only what works for both of you.


 Most couples have sexual dry spells, and we are no exception.  Health conditions can be especially disruptive to the normal flow of everyday life.  Cheryl experienced vaginal dryness issues for a while prior to using prescription estrogen.  Bob went through successful prostate surgery.  Fortunately we came through those challenges, but there were periods when our respective libidos went missing or at least hid around the corner.

When libidos go into hiding, it’s important to go looking for them.  Keeping in touch, both physically and emotionally, is a welcome and essential priority at such times.  Sometimes dry spells can stretch into long periods, especially if couples don’t talk about it.

The February/March, 2023 issue of the AARP Magazine has a feature about couples experiencing a loss of sexual intimacy as they get older.  One quoted gynecologist “calls the sex drought an epidemic among folks 50 and older.”

A 2018 National Poll on Healthy Aging sponsored by AARP and the University of Michigan is cited.  It found that among men and women ages 65 to 80 who were in relationships, only 54 percent were still having sex.

One reason mentioned for the drought is erection challenges, and several remedies are referred to.  Urologist Abraham Morgentaler, M.D., author of The Truth About Men and Sex, is quoted: “Erections may not be as strong, but we still have the ability to have orgasms without one.  A majority of men don’t know this.”

It is also noted that most older women “experience vaginal dryness that can make sexual intercourse painful.”  The feature’s author describes a medically prescribed estrogen cream and an over the counter lubricant as “game changers.”

The April, 2023 issue of the Harvard Women’s Health Watch features a front page article called “When Sex Hurts.”  After covering many reasons why women can experience pain during intercourse, the recommended remedies include lubricants, vaginal moisturizers and vaginal estrogen.

Many women may avoid prescription estrogen because of fear of potential side effects associated with hormone therapy.  However, the article dispels that fear with regard to vaginal estrogen.  According to Dr. Jan Shifrin, director of the Midlife Women’s Health Center at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, vaginal estrogens “are considered extremely safe.  They don’t raise blood estrogen levels, skirting potential health risks of higher-dose, systemic hormone therapy used to treat hot flashes and other menopause symptoms.”

The safety of vaginal estrogen is good news that many women may not be aware of, which is why we are highlighting it here.

Of course, we should also note that there are many ways to share sexual pleasure that do not involve intercourse, including some with superior pleasure potential.  We refer you to the books in the ABOUT TECHNIQUE section at the end of this chapter.


This seems like a good place for a poem.


“Sexy” to me
Shifts gradually
Away from the curve of the flesh

To someone I know
Committed to grow
And keeping togetherness fresh

A curious mind
A heart that is kind
A soul with a passion for bliss

Combines with a goal
Of learning the whole
Of how tenderly we can kiss

The light in your eyes
Can conjure up sighs
And set a romantic direction

Our hearts hold the fire
That kindles desire
For the sweet ecstasy of connection


There are many aspects of sexuality that we have not addressed here, because our focus is on reframing desire and eroticizing tenderness, sweetening and deepening our closeness.  This is our particular slice of the pie.  We hope you find it appetizing and filling.  We wish you exquisite pleasure and extraordinary closeness, tenderly prolonged.



Imagine why there needs to be
A patient lover fantasy
I’d trade it in a 1-2-3
For sensitive reality

For one who’s slow enough to please
Who’ll lick your lips, then pause to tease
And sensing every breath you take
Will tenderly procrastinate

Whose touch is playful, warm and gentle
Knowing that it’s largely mental
Wanting you to feel the daring
Waves of pleasure, mixed with caring

Wherefore art thou, attuned lover?
Next to me, under the cover



Explore how tenderly you can kiss each other on the lips with multiple kisses.  Let time disappear as you enjoy your exploration.

Explore how tenderly you can touch each other, all over your bodies.


We have deliberately not addressed technique in any detail, because there are other authors who cover it well.  The four books below are ones that we like.  The two books by Ian Kerner deserve a comment: The author’s style is seemingly directive at times.  We encourage you to view his technique descriptions as suggestions and take from them whatever you find helpful or whatever they inspire within you.

She Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman, by Ian Kerner, Ph.D.

Passionista: The Empowered Woman’s Guide to Pleasuring a Man, by Ian Kerner, Ph.D.

Come As You Are: Revised and Updated: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.  (See the two Appendices: “Therapeutic Masturbation” and “Extended Orgasm.”)

Enabling Romance: A Guide to Love, Sex, and Relationships for the Disabled (and the people who care about them), by Ken Kroll and Erica Levy Klein
(We ALSO recommend the movie, “The Sessions,” starring Helen Hunt.)