Written by Benjamin Deu, MA, LMHC
Dr. Sue Johnson– Hold Me Tight – Conversation 6: Bonding through sex and touch
Cuddling is the best. For real. If you have not tried it, get on that. Particularly if it’s raining and there’s something like a Jurassic Park marathon on TV.
Cuddling is the best because it’s a tactile manifestation of the security and affection lovers feel in relationships. In conversation six of Dr. Sue Johnson’s Hold Me Tight, she discusses the significance of physical intimacy in relationships and how dysfunction in the bedroom is often symptomatic of other relationships problems.
Cultural distortions of sex
It’s not news to anyone that Western culture is conflicted about human sexuality. Is emotional connection or sexual climax more important? Is monogamy or polyamory more fulfilling? According to Johnson, the former wins out in both contests. “…secure bonding and fully satisfying sexuality go hand in hand; they cue off and enhance each other. Emotional connection creates great sex, and great sex creates deeper emotional connection.” (186)
Johnson’s not alone in teaching this. In his book “Passionate Marriage” Dr. David Schnarch remarked on how you may have more energetic sex with less wait time between erections with a 17-year-old boy, but it’s unlikely he’ll look you in the eye during what can hardly be called “intimacy.” (76)
It may come as a surprise, but happy couples attribute little of the responsibility for their happiness to sexual satisfaction (15 to 20 percent according to a study cited on page 186). However, unhappy couples place the lion’s share of the blame in the bedroom, blaming 50 to 70 percent of their dissatisfaction on sexual dysfunction. Johnson argues this is not because physical hiccups lead to marital conflict, but the reverse. When couples don’t feel secure in their relationship it affects their ability to connect sexually. (187)
“What’s really happening is that a couple is losing connection; the partners don’t feel emotionally safe with each other. That in turn leads to slackening desire and less satisfying sex, which leads to less sex and more hurt feelings, which leads to still looser emotional connection, and around it goes. In shorthand: no safe bond, no sex; no sex, no bond.” (187)
Sex is not a sin
But it’s not just mainstream culture that’s confused about sex. Imagine, if you will, what it would look like if you broached the topic of physical intimacy at your next Bible study. Feeling a little red in the face, a little warm under the collar? For some reason, modern Christianity approaches talking about who shouldn’t have sex with all the reservation of discussing what they had for breakfast, but finds itself unable to put two words together when asked how sex should be practiced.
God designed sex. That males and females have to come together physically to carry out the whole “be fruitful and multiply” deal makes that very clear. But for some reason, Christians got into the habit of treating this pleasurable gift like an embarrassing burden (“lie back and think of England,” anyone?) While Johnson’s religious affiliation is uncertain, her argument that sex is most enjoyable when practiced in a loving, long-term wholeheartedly affirms God’s design for sex and marriage.
Sex in a vacuum
But, like most activities, people don’t always practice sex the way God intended. When couples have sex just to feel good about how they perform in the bedroom, Johnson calls it “sealed-off sex.” Participants focus on getting in and getting off with as much enjoyment and as little connection as possible. While this may work for one-night stands, it is toxic for relationships. A partner feels like their lover views them as a blow-up doll, not a person. (187) One of Johnson’s anecdotes in her book suggests people do this as a means of divorcing themselves from their problems. If a spouse just focuses on being good at sex, and just sees their partner as a vehicle for satisfaction, they don’t have to think about problems in their relationship. Sex becomes an escape.
This is particularly problematic for people who have trouble trusting others. Whether as a result of unhealthy past relationships or cultural conditioning, they seek sexual encounters that promise satisfaction with no emotional risks.
“For both men and women, emotional disengagement closes off the richer dimension of sexuality. Young people who stay emotionally distant have more sexual partners, but they don’t enjoy sex as much as those who are comfortable getting close to others… The experience is one-dimensional, and so continual novelty, in the form of new partners or new techniques, is necessary if the turn-on is to continue.” (189)
This kind of sex is selfish. Each partner is out to get the most for him or herself, and the only concern they have for the other’s pleasure is as a prideful reflection of their abilities as a lover. Christians may find it difficult to agree on many things, but it’s safe to say they can all agree selfishness is sinful regardless of how it’s manifested. “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Philippians 2:4 ESV God designed sex to be a team effort. It’s most enjoyable when each partner strives to please the other, not just him or herself.
Sex to feel better
On the flip side of “sealed-off sex” is “solace sex.” Rather than seeking sexual satisfaction, lovers pursue sex as a way of feeling emotionally close to someone. They’re so anxious that nobody loves them they use sex as a means of alleviating those attachment fears. These people usually prefer cuddling and affection to intercourse. (189) The problem here is that the anxious partner’s relationship security depends on their sexual relationship. “…partners can get caught in obsessively trying to perform to please or in being so demanding that it turns off sexual desire. When physical intimacy becomes all about tamping down attachment fears, it can drive lovers apart.” (190)
Johnson says “solace sex” happens when couples are struggling with negative cycles in their relationship and have fallen away from comforting each other with touch. A lack of simple physical gestures concerns Johnson more than almost anything else in a relationship. “Touch brings together two fundamental drives, sex and our need to be held and recognized by a special other.” (191) Johnson says men may be particularly prone to “solace sex” because cultural conditioning has taught them the only appropriate times for physical contact are in the sports area and in the bedroom. Husbands badger their wives for sex because they don’t know how to ask for a hug. But like emotionless sex, this is also unhealthy for relationships. When couples load all their emotional connection onto their sex life, it eventually collapses under the weight. (192)
Just as God didn’t design sex to be a vehicle for selfish gain, neither did he design it to be the only time when couples connected. Consider the Biblical answer to the Harlequin romance– Song of Solomon. The couple is not just (insert your favorite euphemism for intercourse here). They eat and cuddle and chase foxes out of the vineyard. (Chapter 2) A Christian couple is a pair of believers, and just like any other companionable believers, they are to encourage and care for one another. You have nonsexual ways of bolstering your Christians friends, don’t you? Consider implementing those in your marriage. “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Hebrews 10:25 ESV
But sometimes couples get it right. They cobble together emotional openness and responsiveness, tender touch, and erotic exploration to make the kind of sex you see in the movies. (193) (Maybe not that one Michael Fassbender* was just in, but you get the point.) This is why an emotional connection is so essential to fulfilling sexual relationships. You must be comfortable with someone outside the bedroom before you can be comfortable with them inside it. Establishing an atmosphere of security enables partners to assert themselves about their desires and preferences.
“Responsiveness outside the bedroom carries into it. Connected partners can reveal their sexual vulnerabilities and desires without fear of being rejected.” (193) Johnson uses the term “synchrony” to describe a couple’s “emotional harmony.” “Secure, loving partners can relax, let go, and immerse themselves in the pleasure of lovemaking. They can talk openly, without getting embarrassed or offended, about what turns them off or on.” (194)
One example of emotional openness is sexual fantasies. Just about everyone has them, and odds are, if you’re in a healthy, emotionally connected relationship, your partner would probably be open to trying yours. And it’s a lot less awkward to propose, “D’ya think we could pretend to be Batman and Catwoman Friday night?” to your supportive spouse of 20 years than someone you picked up at a bar 30 minutes ago.
But emotional connection isn’t just about asking for masks and latex. It also provides a safety net for when your lovemaking hits a snag. For example– husbands experiencing erectile dysfunction or wives experiencing lower libido. A couple that has worked to establish an emotional connection is more likely to approach these situations with a chuckle or a substitute cuddle session rather than an awkward look or ugly fight. Consider the example of Alex and Susan. They’ve been married for 15 years, but during the last several months he’s been having trouble maintaining an erection during sex. If this were a one-night-stand situation, Susan would probably react by awkwardly making an excuse, leaving Alex’s apartment, and not returning his phone calls. Imagine how awful he would feel. But because they’re in a loving, committed relationship, Susan finds ways to reaffirm her love for Alex. She doesn’t reject him or malign his “masculine failings,” rather she researches various treatments and finds other ways for them to connect physically.
This is why the Lord legislated sexual intimacy and marriage the way he did. As a relationship deepens and love grows, sex becomes more enjoyable. And when sexual problems arise, (like any other problems in relationships), the commitment between the spouses motivates them to get through them. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2 ESV Just as people are not likely to die for people they look down on, neither are they likely to struggle through hardship with people they don’t love (Romans 5). Western culture believes sex is ruined by monogamy because it’s doing monogamy wrong. It treats a lifelong relationship as a soul-sucking burden, not a life-enhancing blessing.
How to deal with sexual marriage problems
If you or your spouse is having trouble with physical or emotional connection, consider consulting a Christian marriage counselor. A Christian relationship therapist will be able to sit down with you and discuss what is going on in your relationship to cause these problems. A counseling session provides a safe, neutral place for couples to air their concerns about their relationships and receive helpful, informed feedback. Rather than struggling to find an appropriate time at home to talk about your problems, a counseling session offers a structured setting to discuss things that you or your partner may be too nervous to bring up at home.
*Author is referring to the 2012 film Shame wherein Fassbender portrays a miserable sex addict.
Images cc: freedigitalphotos.com -“Bride And Groom Walking Away On The Road” by Just2shutter
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