Couples, marriage

Intimacy: The Safe Adventure

webheartsunsetMy 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

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:

  1. When have you felt sexually safe with your partner?
  2. When have you been able to be vulnerable with your partner?
  3. What does your partner not understand about what sometimes makes it difficult to engage sexually?
  4. 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

Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage, Romance

Kissing Like you Mean it: The Benefits of Lighting Fireworks in your Marriage


As I was explaining to my husband that I was trying to write a blog post about kissing in marriage, he threw his arms open and offered enthusiastically, “And you want to practice?”  “No,” I answered, “But I admire your optimism and thanks for giving me my opening sentence.”

For most couples, kissing is a natural part of relationship development, particularly as they move toward higher levels of commitment.  Researchers confirm that kissing can be a strong reinforcer for mate assessment and attachment. In other words, if you think you like someone and the kissing goes well, commitment is likely to increase, while the reverse is true for couples who just aren’t “feeling it.”   As people form attachments, prolonged kissing behavior generally increases in romantic relationships.

However, I’ve noticed that really great make-out sessions diminish over time for lots of married couples.  Even couples who maintain frequency in sexual relations sometimes bypass the benefits of quality kissing in a rush toward goal-oriented orgasm in sexual behavior.

In our sex-centric society, kissing is often underrated.  This is unfortunate because there are multiple reported benefits from kissing in committed romantic relationships.  Some highlights are:

  1. Prolonged kissing decreases stress responses by reducing blood pressure, cortisol levels, and increasing skin temperature.
  2. Individuals assigned to increase physical affection in their relationships reported increased positive mood the following day.
  3. Individuals assigned to increase physical affection over six weeks reported increased relationship satisfaction.
  4. Individuals assigned to increase kissing over a period of six weeks had decreased total cholesterol levels.
  5. Engaging in prolonged kissing can increase sexual arousal for some women who don’t experience arousal prior to physical engagement.

Importantly, most of the research about kissing in romantic relationships is with “positively valenced,” relationships, meaning that the people generally like each other and are willing to kiss.  They experience positive emotions about each other.  That will skew the research.

Kissing can be one of the first casualties of emotional disconnection or unmanageable marital conflict.  Some couples report that an intimate kissing session can feel too vulnerable.  I have had many people say that if they feel disconnected, it is easier to actually participate in sexual intercourse than to spend time attuning to their spouses in mouth-to-mouth contact.  Kissing may just not feel safe, and if that’s the case, it can have a negative impact.

Even for people in good relationships, kissing can be a casualty of daily stressors and demands simply because it takes time.  For those people, intentional kissing is a tangible, measurable way to strengthen and enhance bonds.

Here are some ideas for increasing the mouth-to-mouth ratio in your marriage:

  1. Focus on kissing process rather than outcome.  Decide that you are going to have a really great make-out session as your goal.
  2. Incorporate kissing as ritual. Kissing can be a meaningful exchange after time apart, which communicates, “I missed you.  You matter to me.”
  3. Identify a regular kissing spot. My husband decided right after we were married that every time we passed by a certain location, he needed to kiss me.  Almost thirty years later, he still pulls me toward him for a smooch every time we walk through it.  He never forgets.
  4. Re-enact a first kiss or another meaningful kiss from earlier in the relationship.  My husband and I disagree about the particulars here.  He is tall, so I was standing two steps above him.  We were talking and as I recall, he pulled me so I fell into him.  His story is that I “attacked” him.  Highly unlikely, given our relationship history, but if it makes him feel better, I’ll let him think that.
  5. Look for novel opportunities to kiss. Once I saw a street on a map named with my first and middle names.  On a whim, I suggested that we needed to park and kiss on that street (don’t worry, residents—nothing illegal occurred). Silly, I know, but we haven’t forgotten it, either.
  6. Try a kiss of the month club. I once bought a book with different types of kisses and instigated a “kiss of the month,” program.  FYI, Trader Joe’s has a unique Fireworks chocolate bar, which is an excellent kissing accessory for July.

Since marriage provides great potentiality for close physical contact, it makes sense to intentionally maximize kissing benefits.

I have a pillow that says, “A kiss a day keeps the marriage counselor away.”  For low-distress marriages, I believe there is truth in that statement.

I was told as a beginning student in a marriage and family therapy program almost thirty years ago that I should never try to be my spouse’s marriage therapist, and I have followed that advice for the most part.  However, when it comes to the “romantic kissing intervention,” I completely have my husband’s support.  And NOW it’s time to go practice.


Burleson, M. H., Roberts, N. A., Vincelette, T. M., Xin, G., & Newman, M. L. (2013). Marriage, Affectionate Touch, and Health. In Health and social relationships: The good, the bad and the complicated, (pp. 67-93), Washington D.C., US: American Psychological Association 

Burleson, M. H., Trevathan, W. R., Todd, M. (2007). In the Mood for Love or Vice Versa?  Exploring the relations among sexual activity, physical affection, affect, and stress in the daily lives of mid-aged women.  Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36, 357-368.

Floyd, K., Boren, J. P., Hannawa, A. F., Hesse, C., McEwan, B., & Veksler, A. E. (2009). Kissing in marital and cohabitating relationships: Effects on blood lipids, stress, and relationship satisfaction. Western Journal of Communication, 73(2), 113-133.

Wlodarski, R. & Dunbar, R. I. M. (2013). Examining the possible functions of kissing in romantic relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42,1415-1423. DOI 10.1007/s10508-013-0190-1

Attachment, Couples Therapy, marriage

Just a Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Divorce Rate go Down

Holly.couple kissing baby making face.SalmonI walked out to the waiting room the other night to witness a somewhat rare event in my practice: a couple holding hands!  I immediately felt just a little…..happier?  More hopeful?  Less burdened?  I’m not quite sure, but the gesture sent a non-verbal message that things were good, at least for that moment.  As an observer, it just made me feel better.

With the preponderance of sexual messages surrounding us, it is unfortunate that we don’t learn more about healthy, non-sexual, affectionate touch;  it is such a powerful form of connection, yet so often underutilized, often because couples just get busy with competing demands and drift apart.  Sometimes I think if we understood the power of warm, affectionate, non-sexual touch, we would promote its expression as readily as physical exercise, and its benefits might mitigate many common marital challenges.

On many occasions, when partners are distressed and I have asked them what they thought they needed in such circumstances, they have replied, “just a hug.”  If the other partner responds in kind, the couple leaves the session feeling more bonded and connected.  Every time.

Recent research around human touch is demonstrating that safe, warm touch in a close, pair-bonded relationship like marriage has particular health advantages and is actually influenced by the quality of the relationship.

In one study, women were exposed to pain stimuli alone and when their partners took their hands, if they were in happy relationships, the hand-holding decreased their stress responses in the brain as measured on an fmri.  The effect was drug-like.  In another study, married couples were taught to engage in warm, supportive touch, and the activity had beneficial effects on physiological responses like blood pressure and stress hormones.  Some researchers speculate that this kind of touch in marriage has advantages over being massaged by a stranger, because there is some evidence showing, for example, that the benefits of oxytocin only increase significantly when the touch is repetitive over a period of days, as with a secure attachment partner.

Bottom line: there is something uniquely beneficial about warm, supportive touch in the context of a stable, high quality marital relationship.  For couples who have high quality relationships and don’t take the time to hold hands, hug, or generally express physical affection, this seems like wasted marital capital.

Easy Ways to Increase Warm, Supportive Touch:

  1.  Take a walk and hold hands.
  2. Look into your partner’s eyes and touch his/her face like you might have when you were dating (it has to be authentic–don’t make it weird).
  3. Sit on your partner’s lap.
  4. Find excuses to hug your partner.
  5. Rub your partner’s back.
  6. Sit with your arm around him/her.
  7. Give your partner a shoulder massage.
  8. Play footsie under the table or in bed.
  9. Draw words in your partner’s palm and have him/her guess what it is.
  10. Whisper something affectionate to your partner, and linger in the close distance whispering requires.

On several occasions, I have had husbands in front of me in the therapy room in tears, explaining that their wives “never touch,” them at all in affectionate ways, and that they are envious of husbands whose wives touch them, just by holding hands or rubbing their backs, etc. I suspect this is because of a pattern that develops in which women start avoiding touch because they’re afraid it will lead to sex, but the pattern is nevertheless harmful and rejecting.

Most importantly, I’m going to propose that perhaps the greatest beneficiaries of a couple’s consistent engagement in warm, supportive touch are not the couple themselves, but their kids. 

Couples who hold hands, hug and touch in a warm supportive way model positive behaviors, and convey a sense that things are going well in the marriage and family.  Children are absolutely affected by their parents’ marital quality.  They garner a felt sense of security from parents who display marital happiness.

Remember how I said when I saw the couple in the waiting room holding hands, I just felt better?  I’m not even related to those people.  Can you imagine the impact viewing that behavior would have on the couple’s children?  To demonstrate this point when I make presentations, I will show audiences pictures of marital couples seemingly getting along, and seemingly arguing, and ask them to just yell out their their emotional responses.  It’s an easy way to see how much we are influenced by these displays.

“Get a room!” has become and oft-repeated cliché by my children whenever my husband and I display any kind of physical affection in front of them.  If I didn’t have a lot of confidence in those moments, I might be tempted to withdraw.  However, knowing what I know, I shoot back with, “I’m contributing to your mental well-being, so you should be thanking me.”

Then, they say something like, “Stop talking to me like a therapist,” and walk out….but then at least we are alone…..

If you are interested in a few of the studies to which I am referring, I will add a few links.

For a study about safe touch and decreased response to threat, see Jim Coan’s explanation here.

The link to his study is: here.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad headed up a study demonstrating how upregulating warm touch in marriage can have a beneficial influence on stress response.  It can be found here.

And now, go hug your spouse!