My recent song fix lately* is John Legend’s All of Me. One of my sons had me buy him the piano music so he could learn to play it after he heard it at Legend’s local concert appearance, and I have found myself humming it several times throughout the day. The lyrics of the emotionally evocative ballad capture what I believe most couples want from each other: All of me loves all of you, love your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections. Give your all to me, I’ll give my all to you, you’re my end and my beginning, even when I lose I’m winning, ‘cause I give you all of me, and you give me all of you. The words imply complete security in a relationship. In a nutshell, we all want to be understood and accepted for who we are, even if we are imperfect, and that kind of safety provides fertile ground for complete intimacy.
Complete intimacy is a merging of physical, emotional, and spiritual intimacy. Marriage therapist and sex researcher Gina Ogden found that most people see their sexual relationship as one infused with meaning and spirituality, and it is far more than simple physical sexual response. There is no sex position, toy or technique that will enhance a couple’s sexual relationship if the individuals don’t feel accepted and safe enough to want to be close. The foundation for high quality sex is emotional connection. In the words of world famous marriage clinician, Dr. Sue Johnson, “Emotional connection creates great sex, and great sex creates deeper emotional connection. When partners are emotionally accessible, responsive, and engaged, sex becomes intimate play, a safe adventure. Secure partners feel free and confident to surrender to sensation in each other’s arms, explore and fulfill their sexual needs, and share their deepest joys, longings, and vulnerabilities. Then, lovemaking is truly making love,” (p. 186).
This kind of accessibility, responsiveness and engagement was illustrated in a not atypical case of one couple who had come to therapy initially because the wife had been unable to achieve orgasm with her husband. Complicating the situation and escalating her anxiety was the fact that she had previously been sexually active, and had been able to achieve orgasm with other men before she got married. As I questioned her about her sexual history, she broke down sobbing and disclosed that she felt ashamed and embarrassed about her past and that she viewed her husband as somehow better than she was, and that she somehow didn’t deserve to have a good sexual relationship with him. She was worried that he would figure this out and get rid of her. When I encouraged her to talk to him directly in session about her fear and shame, her husband responded by saying, “I married you because I loved you. I knew about your past, and it didn’t matter to me. I just want you.” He continued to share that he was having difficult emotions because he worried that he was undesirable to her. He was afraid his performance was lacking, and that he didn’t have the ability to “turn her on.” They clearly both had doubts and fears about being accepted by the other person, and when they shared their emotional vulnerabilities and received comfort and compassion from each other, they felt safer. While I don’t think it’s often helpful to be sexually performance-oriented in therapy, it was no surprise to me when they came back to the next session reporting that she had in fact achieved orgasm, and they felt closer than ever. By disclosing their mutual fears and uncertainties, they had created the “safe adventure,” of which Sue Johnson wrote, and could experiment with techniques for her to achieve orgasm.
Sex as a Litmus Test
As a couples therapist, I have come to think of sex as something of a litmus test in marriage. When couples present with “communication problems,” or ongoing cycles of conflict or distance, it is usually only a matter of time before they reveal that their physical intimacy is suffering. Rarely do I see a couple who report that the sex is “great,” when they aren’t getting along outside the bedroom (although it has happened). It’s not uncommon for me to hear that the couple isn’t sharing a bed, or hasn’t had any physical intimacy, including physical affection, for months or even years. On occasion, couples will present with sexual connection difficulties up front, and questioning almost always reveals that one partner doesn’t feel emotionally safe in the hands of their partner. The act of physical intimacy is literally the closest you can allow someone into your personal space, and it becomes very symbolic in marriages. When the marriage doesn’t feel safe in other areas, it can seem almost dangerous to get that close to a partner.
Although our culture perpetuates rigid gender stereotypes of a husband wanting sex, regardless of emotional connection, it is my experience that husbands actually usually want the same kind of emotional engagement during physical intimacy that their wives want. One of the differences is that men are socialized out of identifying and expressing vulnerable emotional need, so often the way they get those needs met is through sexual expression. In the words of one male client, “If she will have sex with me, I know I’m okay with her, that she still wants me.” It’s often a way men seek soothing and comfort, when they don’t have the know-how or comfort level to seek closeness in other ways. In sexless marriages, I observe that men sometimes become seemingly numb to emotional needs, because their only way of gaining some kind of reassurance has been erased, and they emotionally disconnect to keep from feeling rejection. The emotional disconnection makes the possibility for sex even less likely, because their wives don’t feel emotional responsiveness, and the cycle continues, downward spiral fashion.
When Safety is Threatened
Because acceptance and emotional engagement are so integral to a quality sexual relationship, any perceived criticism can absolutely kill the desire of either partner to get close physically. In one case, a wife was complaining that her husband didn’t pursue her sexually, and she worried that he was viewing pornography. He had repeatedly denied pornography use, but explained to me that every time he became intimate with his wife, she began directing him about what and what not to do. While it’s an excellent idea for couples to dialogue about what they want their physical relationship to be like, and to help each other understand sexual preferences, in this case, the husband felt like he was on stage and always “getting it wrong,” and finally gave up wanting to connect at all. On one occasion, he was having difficulty with performance, and while it’s common for men of a certain age to have some difficulty maintaining an erection due to cardiovascular or other health-related challenges, his wife became very emotional about it, and accused him of viewing pornography. The situation was very anxiety-provoking and shaming for him, and he became avoidant of further physical contact, unwilling to risk feeling those emotions again. His wife hadn’t realized she had had such an impact on him, and was blind to the fact that her fear had felt like criticism and blame to him, shutting him down.
The pornography use of a partner can also endanger safety in a sexual relationship. Women whose husbands have a history of viewing pornography struggle with many barriers to getting physically close. They worry incessantly that their bodies aren’t matching up to the computer generated images; they worry about the images playing out in their husbands’ minds; they don’t know how to discern normal patterns of sexual behavior and worry that any sexual requests are a result of viewing pornography. I had one female client concerned that her husband wanted her to wear lingerie. She didn’t know if this was normal or if it was because he had a history of viewing pornography. When I told her it was not uncommon for men to respond to visual cues, and that back in 1989 when I started doing couples therapy, before internet pornography was available, there were indeed husbands who had a preference for their wives to wear lingerie, she felt a little more comfortable with the idea. She did not, however, want to be objectified like the women in pornography, and she a very difficult time engaging in such a physically vulnerable way with someone who had been viewing images of other women. It took a lot of her emotionally risking sharing her doubts and fears and receiving reassurance from him, while he was also abstaining from pornography use for a while, before she could risk engaging with him sexually.
Amidst the incessant noise surrounding sexuality in our culture, it is more important than ever for spouses to create a safe place. Like any adventure, you want to know that your partner will be there to catch you if you fall, and sexuality is no exception.
Questions for couples:
- When have you felt sexually safe with your partner?
- When have you been able to be vulnerable with your partner?
- What does your partner not understand about what sometimes makes it difficult to engage sexually?
- What would safety with your partner look like?
Johnson, Sue (2008). Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, New York: Little, Brown & Company.
Ogden, Gina (2013). Expanding the Practice of Sex Therapy: An Integrative Model for Exploring Desire and Intimacy, New York: Routledge.
*This was originally published on an earlier blog of mine, Monogamy and Bliss