Practicing Safe Sex
From foreplay to cuddling, few experiences in life are as satisfying as sex with the person you most deeply care about. This is because sex elevates intimacy to its heights as a moment where total vulnerability coexists with loving acceptance. When a relationship is going well, the dance of playful exploration with a partner can be as intoxicating as it is exhilarating.
When things aren’t going well, sex is often the first thing to suffer. Sometimes this means sex feels less passionate, more robotic, or just happens less frequently. Other times sex may just feel like a tool to distract from deep issues in the relationship, or it may be the one place a partner actually feels affection. In particularly dire scenarios, it may be the last “good” thing keeping the relationship going.
Being Needy Isn’t Childish, It’s Human
Clinical psychologist Sue Johnson is a world-renowned researcher on relationships and developer of Emotion-Focused Therapy, which is the gold standard of treatment for most issues couples bring to therapy. In her book “Hold Me Tight,” she delineates three categories sex typically falls into: sealed-off, solace, and synchrony.
Much of her research builds on the Attachment Styles that develop between children and their caregivers depending on the responsiveness and attunement of the caregiver to the child’s needs. These styles, which range from secure to insecure, or ambivalent and disorganized in extreme cases, were discovered by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby to be the bedrock of healthy psychological development.
Johnson, however, demonstrates that those same attachment needs remain essential well into adulthood for cognitive, emotional, and physical stability. These needs are transferred to our primary partner in a relationship but often remain unrecognized because we believe we have outgrown them. Aside from infidelity and addiction, this misunderstanding accounts for most of the problems couples present with in therapy…but that’s another blog.
From the vantage of emotional engagement and vulnerability, Johnson describes Sealed-Off Sex as the most transactional. This kind of sex is solely physical and is often devoid of foreplay, cuddling, and sometimes even eye contact. Individuals who engage in this kind of sex tend to be men seeking merely sexual gratification or an improvement in their social standing (via popularity or others’ perception of their virility). Both women and men may also engage in this type of sex following a sexually traumatic experience in their history, where sex may become a feel-good distraction from their internal chaos.
Women tend to be those most likely to engage in Solace Sex, as sex is oftentimes an experience where they feel most closely attended to, seen, and loved. As emotional and vulnerable needs may have been rejected elsewhere, either in previous relationships or the current one, these individuals are often willing to “trade” themselves in the hopes of having their intimacy needs met. And since the person being offered sex is getting something out of the deal, this can feel like a much less risky request for affection than alternatives. Interestingly, many men may seek this kind of sex because it is the one place they feel able to seek closeness to their partner in a way that doesn’t violate their masculine self-image. This certainly makes sense in light of the cultural perspective that emotional neediness is believed to be a feminine characteristic.
According to Johnson, the healthiest kind of sex occurs when both partners feel safe enough to freely explore and be with the other in total vulnerability. Both partners are able to articulate their intimacy needs and have come to trust that their partner will move to meet them. An important distinction from the previous two approaches in Synchrony Sex is that prior to even foreplay, both partners are already emotionally attuned to the other. Neither the security of the relationship nor either partner’s love and acceptance of the other are in doubt. This kind of intimacy is only possible by forging a bond of commitment, trust, and the hard-won knowledge that whatever storms may come you will persevere for your partner.
Depending on where you and your partner are on this continuum, some of the following tips may be helpful for improving the sexual dimension of your relationship.
- First, try to resolve any ruptures in your relationship before trying to initiate sex. This can be as simple as offering an apology for your role in an argument earlier that day, or acknowledging that you feel far from your partner and have a desire to be closer. It will not always be possible to settle disputes, but an honest effort goes a long way to letting your partner know you care for them and want to be on good terms, whether you have sex that evening or not.
- Second, be sure to cultivate moments of emotional connection that aren’t sex-seeking. Making sex the most reliable method of connection risks it merely becoming a solace-seeking activity. Every few minutes after work is an opportunity to ask your partner about their day and understand how various experiences that day made them feel. This creates a space to receive from their partner whatever may have been lacking in interactions throughout their day (such as consolation for a presentation that went poorly or comfort for feeling misunderstood by coworkers), or to celebrate little joys that were meaningful to them. Either way, you will feel more connected to someone who has taken an interest in your day and listened attentively to you decompress.
- Finally, and this cannot be stressed enough, TALK ABOUT SEX. Because sex is an inherently vulnerable experience, talking about it is especially fraught and thus most couples naturally avoid it. As grave harm can occur in these conversations, in proportion to their inherent vulnerability, both partners need to ensure that these conversations are navigated very cautiously and gently. A poorly phrased comment or mis-timed joke here could have devastating and long-lasting consequences, so proceed slowly and choose every word with care. Despite this danger, we must ultimately force ourselves to help our partners understand both our preferences and insecurities. Only then can they use this knowledge to make sex a more pleasurable experience or reassure us when fears arise.
When these tips aren’t enough, it may be time to consider seeing a professional who can help you sift through deeper wounds. Whatever you may decide, know that the key to great sex has nothing to do with role-play, new positions, or toys; it has everything instead to do with how deep your friendship is and how secure you feel with your partner. In a word, making love is only as good as how much you’ve already got.