In the last installment of Sex Talk, Dr. Hilda and Dr. Pat touched on the health benefits of sexual pleasure. Here, they go into the topic in more detail, and talk about sex as a source of strength in difficult times.

Dr. Hilda: You know, these days there are many women and couples who are having trouble expressing themselves intimately because the burdens of their lives are very great. Say your husband’s been out of work for a year and a half and you’re scraping the bottom of your retirement fund. The question is, how do you look at sex as a source of refreshment and renewal rather than just another thing that you have to do?

Dr. Pat: I believe that it’s easy to be great in good times, but the true measure of a person’s character comes during the bad times. We all know about the unusual economic stressors in most people’s lives now. We also know about the difficulty of being the ones managing aging parents, giving support to young adult children and perhaps grandchildren, while fulfilling the emotional and physical roles of a life partner. It’s important to keep the bedroom clear of this increasing noise. Deal with issues with kindness and clarity, and keep these emotionally deadening situations away from sexual intimacy.

None of us can ignore the pain of everyday life, but we can agree with our partners to keep sex separate—to save it for the renewal of the relationship and improvement of the mood and spirit of each partner.

It is important to remember that sex costs nothing. And it’s really one of those things that a coupled relationship has that other people don’t have. You know, they don’t have to take each other out to dinner. They just have to be kind, and they have to agree, perhaps in a daytime conversation that, “After 6 o’clock, let’s not talk about the fact that we might lose the house, might have to rent an apartment.” In his book Should You Leave? A Psychiatrist Explores Intimacy and Autonomy—and the Nature of Advice, Peter Kramer said something that I found so important: that couples who survive learn to put emotional capital into the other person’s bank account throughout the years, so that when they need to write a big check, there is something in that bank account.

I think it’s a good lesson for our readers who are in their 40s—to recognize that each of them and their partners should be conscious of putting some capital into the other’s emotional bank account.  I recommend the book to patients who are getting maried and to couples who are going through a bad patch. A woman told me that she and her husband had read this book out loud shortly after they were married, and it was a great help to them. She told me, “We make jokes about depositing a big check in the other one’s  emotional bank account.”

It’s a really good thing to have that emotional capital in the bank account so that when one partner needs to ‘write a check”, there is capital in there to cover it. It is another way to emphasize  that intimacy and loving each other are for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in our American way of seeing marriage. This is really where the conscious decision to prepare in advance for the hard times comes in.

Dr. Hilda: I think that when someone is worried about how they’re going to take care of the family and pay the bills, that kind of stress can totally rob you of libido and desire for sex. That’s the last thing on your mind sometimes. I’ve even known men who before the difficult times wanted sex every day, or sometimes twice a day, but under these hard times lost their libido completely.

What I do when I’m counseling these couples is to remind them that you want to keep that relationship together, especially if you have children. You want that relationship to survive these hard times. And when you’re intimate and having intercourse, there are chemicals that are released, like oxytocin, which bond couples together. You need to keep those chemicals high so that you stay together, because all these outside forces can place a great stress on the relationship. And you want that relationship to survive the hard times.

In addition to being pleasurable, I view sex as a health issue. When you’re sexually active, it can actually decrease stress, decrease depression, and make you feel better in general.

Dr. Pat: And make you feel as though, well, maybe things are not so bad after all.

Dr. Hilda (nodding): Not so bad after all. It even helps you sleep.

Dr. Pat: Always nice to think “Somebody finds me hot.” It could be worse.

Dr. Hilda: Exactly. It helps you sleep. It decreases hypertension. It strengthens your heart and boosts your immune system. So sex has health benefits as well.

Dr. Pat: I’ll tell you what else it does: it makes a woman look great. One of the things that a woman should consider doing before going out to a big event is having sex—having an orgasm, with her partner or on her own. So when she walks into the room—

Dr. Hilda: She glows.

Dr. Pat: —and she looks fabulous. And people say to her, “What have you done?”  And she’ll say, “Well, you know, not everything is for the public record.” Having an orgasm before going out makes your complexion glow, and your husband very attentive. (Laughs) And that’s a great thing.

Dr. Hilda: Oh, yes! It’s a great thing.

Dr. Pat:  This is something a woman can do to look great, feel great and doesn’t break the bank!

Dr. Hilda: I also think that having sex and being sexually active prolongs life.

Dr. Pat: If you have a relationship with somebody who finds you amusing, who wants to have some kind of an intimate, touching relationship with you, it’s great.

Dr. Hilda: But even if you’re having sex by yourself, it strengthens the heart and boosts the immune system. And people tend to live longer when they’re sexually active. So if you view sex as a health issue, especially during the hard times, you will feel stronger and live a longer, happier life.