The latest conversations about healthy connection has brought up the topic of sex and intimacy for Arian and Mark. Not surprising, their needs, expectations, hopes and fears differ widely in this area. They have never really known how to talk it out.
From connection to intimacy and sex: it’s not always a smooth ride
The increased capacity to be present for each other and the honesty they are learning to bring into their relationship has made a difference to how they feel about being close to each other, for sure. Yet, often when Mark initiates sexual interactions Arian either pretends to not notice or tells him she is too tired to bother. Mark, feeling repeatedly rebuffed and a little hurt in these moments, has eventually reduced his approaches more and more.
Arian sometimes misses having sex with Mark but has no idea how to initiate it. By now they are in an entrenched pattern that doesn’t really work for either of them. But they don’t know how to break out of that space. One evening, when Mark advances one of his rare initiating moves, Arian suggests that instead of having ‘wordless sex’ as they sometimes do when there is some sort of alignment, they should talk about their experiences.
Let’s talk about sex. But how??
The idea is great but leads to both feeling hurt. Arian ‘discovers’ that Mark wants sex because it makes him feel loved (or so she understands what he tells her). And Mark hears that Arian is giving him sex when she feels he needs it. Paradoxically, even though Mark kind of feels loved when they have sex, he resents the idea of getting it as some sort of appeasing gesture. He doesn’t understand Arian’s lack of need around this. Arian, in turn, continues to get trapped in the thought of sex being another duty to fulfil toward Mark to keep him happy. Yet, she feels hurt that he actually enjoys the experience and indeed, feels more loved when they have sex.
Frustrated and disturbed by their conversation, they decide to broach the topic in their next counselling session.
There, the exploration of this topic takes on a different shape. Mark and Arian get to talk about a lot more than the current experiences with each other. They look at how they were physically loved by each of their parents and, of course, come across Arian’s attachment wound again.
Here, too, Arian learned that touch and cuddles are not freely available. They can only be received when certain conditions have been fulfilled. Her father needed to be in a particularly ‘good place’ to be able to give Arian a genuinely caring cuddle after her mother had passed away. Consequently, Arian learned to fulfill requirements to get what she wanted.
Once her father’s new partner came into the picture, she felt that she had lost the right to ask for them. Instead, what was left with her is the sense that sex and intimacy is something she provides to her partner as part of her duty to Mark so he stays around.
Mark received more physical contact from both his parents then Arian. He has less complicated experiences around giving and receiving touch. However, he can see how his experience of being lovable has been somewhat reduced to the arena of sex in his teenage years. At the time the conversations with his peers centered on the amount of sex they had ‘scored’. This was somehow linked to him being acceptable as a man and Mark never questioned it.
This type of negotiation is super important for a healthy relationship. We often assume that what our partner needs is what we would like. When we go there, however, we get rejected and cannot understand why! Communication, trial and error, openness and trust are part of this process of getting to know each other better and better along the way.
The counsellor introduces a new concept to the couple: Sex and Intimacy are a place to go to. Not a thing to do.
This idea from relationship therapist Esther Perel, opens up new possibilities. Moving away from the stereotypical idea of how to ‘do’ sex, it opens up the door for individual creation of this space for Mark and Arian. As a first exercise, they begin to explore their likes and dislikes around touch. Each partner offers their hand and arm in turn to the other. The touching partner in turn gives pleasure through different types of touch. They then use their partner’s hand to touch their own hand and arm and receive pleasure.
They are to talk about what kind of touch they found pleasant pr unpleasant. If they like it stronger, softer, faster, slower, more or less rhythmical or in changing spots. They are also to explore how easy it was to give and to take pleasure. To accept it and to ask for it as well as to offer it and to surrender to ‘being used’ for it. Only hand and arm are used in order to make these explorations and discover the felt experiences as well as the thought processes.
An exercise about sex and intimacy brings up the old patterns
Both, Mark and Arian, meet their entrenched thinking process during this exercise. Arian feels used, resentful, resigned, embarrassed and guilty. Mark feels rejected, ashamed, uncertain and resentful. After a while, however, they can move into more curiosity around other, more subtle experiences. Feelings of relaxation, curiosity, connection, gentleness and joy arise. Arian discovers a spot on her lower arm that is more sensitive than the rest of her arm. She finds it very soothing to be stroked firmly by Mark. She blushes and feels uncomfortable telling him. It is a first step to acknowledging pleasure and having a need. To her great surprise, Mark responds deeply positively to her sharing. He wants to know more about what he could do to make her feel good.
Mark on the other hand, experiences a great amount of joy out of Arian’s willingness to use her hand to stroke the inside of his palm. The experience is more sensual for him than he expected and he becomes aware of a love for tactile experiences. Again, the sharing of these experiences help both partners to increase the curiosity and stay more present in the moment.
It’s exploration time: Playful experimenting in save waters can build strong foundations
Mark and Arian are instructed to take this exercise into their bedroom without moving into sexual behaviour. At this point, it is important to keep the experience on an exploratory and expressive level. In the coming month they learn a lot about their bodies. They begin to get more used to talking about and expressing their likes and dislikes when it comes to touch.
In their next session, they will learn more about how to dismantle the power of entrenched thought patterns and expectations. Instead they begin to create the space of intimacy and sex they are longing to have.
If you need help with building a beautiful place of sex and intimacy in your relationship, book a free 45-minute check-in-session with Mattie now.