By Benjamin Deu, MA, LMHC, Seattle Christian Counseling
Part 3 of 3
Intimacy is intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. This series aims to help couples connect emotionally.
References “Passionate Marriage” by Dr. David Schnarch and “A Celebration of Sex” by Dr. Douglas Rosenau.
At the risk of sounding redundant, sexual dissonance is not so much caused by incompatibility as it is by problems in the relationship. If you are having marriage problems, you will have bedroom problems. However, rather than address emotional wounds or insecurities, many couples attempt to fix the problem by shoving a succession of different square pegs in the same round hole. Sexual problems are rarely rooted in something other than emotional friction, and no amount of new toys or positions will fix that. In the preceding article in this series, we talked about one of Schnarch’s exercises for dealing with emotional friction, “eyes-open kissing.” In this final article, we’ll talk about the next step, “eyes-open orgasm.”
Yes, keeping your eyes open during orgasm is something people actually do. In some cultures, it’s actually the norm. But, for those who aren’t used to it, it can be difficult to do. You are less attuned to physical sensations because you focus on “seeing.” And as you can’t hide behind you’re eyelids, vulnerability eclipses almost every other feeling. But Schnarch says it’s worth it:
“It’s difficult to convey the richness of eyes-open orgasm between Ruth and me. Every time it happens, it brings to mind how far our relationship and our love–and our personal development–have come. Looking into each other and climaxing can be electric, tender, forceful, and nurturing, all at once. It’s truly amazing how the human mind can integrate this cacophony of sensations, thoughts, and emotions into a cohesive–delicious–experience.” (Schnarch 231)
It bears repeating that just keeping your peepers open while kissing or climaxing is not what improves your sexual relationship. It is when you confront insecurities that make these approaches to sex so uncomfortable that you improve your relationship. Everyone has fears about their relationship. Baggage from past relationships and missteps in the present one make sure of that. You may fear you don’t measure up to your spouse’s past lovers, that your body isn’t sexy enough, or the ordinary anxiety of letting someone in to deep, private parts of you. But the more of yourself you withhold from your relationship, the less potential there is for passion.
Scripture is full of verses reminding us we will only get as much as we give. “There is one who scatters, yet increases more; and there is one who withholds more than is right, but it leads to poverty. (Prov. 11:24 NKJV) While this verse was describing charitable giving, it also applies to relationships. When people with wealth refuse to help the less fortunate, poverty abounds. It’s the same with relationships. If you and your partner insist on guarding secrets and keeping each other at arm’s length, it eventually damages the relationship. Ironically, vulnerability is what strengthens relationships. Each time you offer your partner an opportunity to reject you and they show you love instead, it makes your bond that much stronger.
While Schnarch’s section on eyes-open kissing focused more on actually seeing who you were kissing, his chapter on eyes-open orgasm focuses more on genuinely feeling who you’re having sex with. Yes, you are touching them, but you may not be “touching” them. Mechanically stroking their partners and avoiding the buzz of connection is one of the ways spouses avoid the vulnerability of intimacy.
When Schnarch taught at university, he did a class exercise where he invited two students up to the front and asked one to stroke the other’s hand. (He said he picked male students because their fears over turning gay by touching another guy’s hand would force them to touch without actually feeling one another) The toucher would “briskly, mechanically, and repetitively” rub the other’s hand in an effort to avoid actually feeling them. If the toucher slowed down to enough to actually “feel” the other, both immediately dropped hands. (Schnarch 217)
Schnarch says many couples approach sex with this same mentality. They touch, but avoid feeling or being felt. “Touching your partner while he or she is mentally “absent” is living proof that sex isn’t inherently intimate (or erotic).” (Schnarch 218)
Couples avoid “feeling” one another as a means of avoiding relationship briar patches. Schnarch says, in order to be able to look your partner in the eye, you need to be able to look yourself in the eye. And most people would rather not do that.
“If you go into sex focusing on sensations to bypass thorny relationship issues, your emotions and your sensations are more likely to go in opposite directions, requiring you to give up awareness or one for the other. To feel comfortable looking each other in the eye, you’ll probably have to confront conflicts you’ve swept under the carper, which is why some couples continue to have sex with eyes closed.” (Schnarch 227)
Sex is an emotion not a performance
“Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice with the wife of your youth. As a loving deer and a graceful doe, let her breasts satisfy you at all times; and always be enraptured with her love.” (Prov. 5:18-19 NKJV) Sexual climax is a powerful feeling. And, as this verse illustrates, it only gets stronger the closer you get emotionally. “Sex should never be just a physical rush, but a tender, passionate connection. Without the playful, loving companionship, sex becomes another buzz that loses its perspective and has increasingly diminishing returns… Sex is a relationship, not just a physical high.” (Roseau 6-7)
When partners aren’t “present” during sex, it saps sexual desire. (Schnarch 223) You have to want to let your partner feel you. And that’s why so many people have trouble with Step One. They speed through sex because they don’t want to let their partner in. They’re afraid of rejection, being vulnerable, or just cowed by how powerful intimacy is. Couples who struggle with this often “feel” each other best when they’re only half paying attention, such as stroking their spouse’s arm while watching TV. (Schnarch 225) But they definitely notice when the other tunes out. However, this feeling may also disappear when the spouses focus on it too much. They’re so overwhelmed by their insecurities about feeling and being felt that they can no longer “feel” their partner.
Opening your eyes while kissing or during foreplay almost always makes it worse for couples. You’re throwing something new into the mix and it distracts you from how you are used to sex playing out. It’s like when you’ve been learning to do something new and you realize you’ve been doing part of it wrong all along. It may set you back a couple steps to fix it, but eventually you master the correction and your performance is better off for it.
Couples who adopt Schnarch’s “eyes open” techniques find it so distracting at first they can’t feel much of anything other than “awkward” during intimacy. But being vulnerable is awkward– which is why so many couples avoid it by focusing on their sexual check-list rather than connecting to their partner.
“You have to get to the point of comfort where having your eyes open contributes to your arousal, rather than distracting you or creating pleasure-inducing anxiety… If you are emotionally distant during foreplay, the likelihood diminishes that you’ll want to open your eyes during sex–or enjoy it if you do. Conversely, emotional connection during foreplay makes you more eager to open your eyes and increases the likelihood it won’t be awkward.”
(Schnarch 226, 227)
It takes time
Climaxing while looking into your partner’s eyes does not happen overnight. It’s not like you’ll read this article, hop into bed, and suddenly all your marriage problems will be gone. “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” (Ecc. 9:11) As the author of Ecclesiastes concluded, good things don’t just happen because you have them coming to you. You have to work for them. Strengthening marital intimacy is no different.
“There is no replacement for what God intended sex to do for intimate marriages. It is the framework for expressing many powerful and exciting emotions such as joy, trust, and playfulness… Making love is an intimate connecting and a breaking down of walls so that ‘my lover is mine and I am his [hers]… Lovers are able to experience freedom and abandonment together based on love, trust, and commitment.” (Roseau 7-10)
Christian counseling about sexual intimacy
If you, (and possibly your spouse), would like to improve your sex life, consider finding a professional Christian counselor in Seattle. They will provide a safe, confidential place to talk about what holds both of you back sexually. Learning to be more vulnerable improves sex because it improves the relationship, and a professional Christian counselor can guide you to getting the most out of this double benefit.