Sex without emotion equates to sex in the physical sense but not necessarily more fulfilling sex. If you have sex with the TV on and you find yourself more in tune to the commercials than to your partner’s desire to meld with you, then you’re emotionally vacant. For fully functioning men, an orgasm is pretty much a sure thing. For women, not nearly so. Sex for the sake of sex, without a strong emotional commitment still constitutes sex, but in the end, one or both partners will start to suffer from an unfulfilled longing.
If we don’t engage with our lover on a deeper level and take the time to explore and understand each other’s needs and desires, then we’re missing an essential component in our relationship. Whispering compliments to one another before, after, and even during sex will help build trust and intimacy. For women, feelings of emotional intimacy in their relationship often advance their desire for sexual expression. Men view sex as a way to increase intimacy. Neither approach is wrong. Just different.
In Dr. Phil McGraw’s book, Love Smart, he points out how men and women are hormonally and neurologically different; how each sex has been socialized differently from birth, with men brought up to be less sensitive and emotional. I would extend this concept to say the converse holds true and that women tend to exhibit a stronger emotional freedom. It’s important to understand and appreciate the differences between men and woman as well as their similarities. “Romantic partners can also complement each other’s sexual, intellectual, and spiritual needs,” wrote clinical, social, and organizational psychologist Ayala Pines. “The more complementary the needs,” she contends, “the easier and more satisfying their gratification.”
Clearly, men and women express emotions in different ways. The emphasis should focus less on how we express emotions and more on the importance of continuing to express our emotions toward one another. In Daniel Beaver’s book, More than Just Sex, he describes how unexpressed emotions can inhibit our sexual desire. This includes withholding negative emotions as well as positive ones. Any time we keep emotions bottled up inside, either negative emotions like fear, jealousy, and anger, or positive emotions like love and empathy, we block our flow of emotional expression and deplete our sexual energy. As Beaver points out, you don’t have to agree with your partner’s emotional reality, but you have to accept the importance of their reality “if you want your lover to stay intimately close and turned on to you sexually.”
If you’re not emotionally committed, you’re doing yourself and your partner a disservice. Our emotions tie directly to the chemistry we feel. The stronger the romantic chemistry between two individuals in a romantic relationship, the more likely they will develop and sustain an emotional commitment. In Passionate Marriage, Dr. David Schnarch explains how emotional issues have a direct physiological impact on our sexual functioning. In his words, “The more unresolved issues that intrude during sex, the further away you are from your sexual potential. You might be able to reach orgasm, but your satisfaction is usually diminished.”
Daniel Beaver contends a positive emotional atmosphere outside the bedroom makes for a better quality sexual experience in the bedroom. To help achieve and sustain this positive emotional atmosphere, he promotes the following five requirements:
- “Constructive communication of emotions between partners, without emotional censorship,” (i.e., You don’t have to agree with your partner’s emotional state of mind, or even understand the logic behind it, but you should learn to accept it).
- “A high degree of vulnerability in which both partners are able to communicate information that could expose them to being hurt,” (i.e., Partners should not fear vulnerability but recognize the value of vulnerability in their intimate relations).
- “A strong sense of trust and commitment to the relationship,” (i.e., Accept the cyclical nature of trust and commitment, where a stronger commitment bears more trust and more trust builds a stronger commitment).
- “The ability of each person to listen effectively and acknowledge the other’s emotions verbally,” (i.e., Employ active listening, which I describe in more detail in Chapter IV).
- “An ability to resolve conflicts so that there is no unfinished emotional business between them when they go to bed at night,” (i.e., Leave the negative emotions at the door, and never go to bed angry at one another).
Meeting Your Partner’s Needs
As I wrote in Chapter II, the foundation of a meaningful and lasting romance involves an understanding of our own needs and desires as well as those of our partner. The importance of understanding our partner’s needs is an often understated point. In Chapter V, I’ll touch on several common high priority needs men and women seek from their romantic partners. But for now, from a purely sexual perspective, if something feels good, then tell your partner. If something feels wrong, then make it known, gently but firmly. Emotional intimacy is a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t make you clairvoyant. If vocalizing your needs makes you feel uncomfortable during sex, then take your partner’s hand and put it where you want it. Or signal with a kiss or gentle nudge. Eventually, we attune to one another and learn to express ourselves in the throes of passion without pausing to engage in a clinical discussion on sex.
Some people were born to be wild and crazy, able to cast their inhibitions aside at a moment’s notice without remorse or regret for their behavior. Other people take comfort with a drink in hand, standing at the back of the room quietly watching events unfold while they shy away from making eye contact or striking up a conversation with a stranger. We tend to label people with low inhibitions as loose or easy, or perhaps to some extreme, unconscionable. On the other hand, we’re also prone to label people with strong inhibitions as shy, reserved, timid, self-conscious, or God forbid, boring. Somewhere between unconscionable and boring lies a happy middle ground, where we learn to step out of our comfort zones and overcome our insecurities to the extent we are able to fully enjoy the sexual aspects of a meaningful and lasting romance.
Often, our inhibitions burrow themselves in fear; a fear of embarrassment from taking the dance floor and coming off like a goofball; a fear of public speaking, where we’d rather hide in the bathroom than stand in front of people and give a speech; a fear of rejection by believing we won’t live up to some preconceived standards we feel others will compare us against; or a fear of not knowing what will happen next if we brave the office party and connect with a colleague we’d previously ignored to heed some self-prescribed rule about not dating people from work. To some extent, certain anxieties are unavoidable, and often the act of avoiding anxiety stifles our genuine intimacy and ability to enjoy sex.
In general, as we age, we tend to take a more conservative approach to life. At twenty-one, the thought of skinny dipping in the pool might seem like an adventurous proposition. By middle age, the same intention seems less appropriate. For many of us, our increased inhibitions stem from religious beliefs, dating experiences or lack thereof, parenthood challenges, undeveloped social skills, or any number of other reasons. Some of us enjoy a life completely void of inhibitions, living moment to moment without worry.
Since the dawn of man, or at least it seems that long ago, men and women have indulged in alcohol to appease our inhibitions. But what alcohol giveth in the way of greasing the skids to the bedroom, it also taketh away in the common sense and good judgment departments. To shed our inhibitions is one thing, but to cast our ethics aside and sail off with a broken moral compass prompts more trouble than it’s worth. A little sauce goes a long way. Enjoy a drink in moderation to help relax, but don’t go overboard. If you don’t drink alcohol, no worries. Consider yourself one of the lucky few who can lower their inhibitions without it.
Confronting inhibitions involves learning to feel comfortable in our own skin. How? By learning to love ourselves. I’m not talking about promoting a narcissistic attitude, but rather, learning to define what we like about ourselves and promoting those grand qualities. For women, this might involve accentuating a voluptuous figure, a tone physique, gorgeous hair, brilliant eyes, a sexy walk, a sensual voice, or a movie star smile. Men tend to focus on their physiques, their cars, or various permutations of facial hair from beards and mustaches to short goatees or a fuzzy soul patch to accentuate a chiseled jaw line.
Promoting our positive qualities extends beyond our physical attributes. Engaging a sense of humor can serve as a powerful tool to lower our inhibitions. A strong intellect also works well for those who find comfort in a stimulating conversation. Some of us employ a certain charm or charisma to boost our confidence in the presence of the opposite sex. If you prefer the quiet sofa at Starbuck’s to a loud bar downtown, then seek like-minded people who prefer a laptop and a cup of java to blaring music and hordes of inebriated strangers. For all of us, no matter where we find ourselves along the spectrum from shy to gregarious, it’s important to support our admirable qualities and feel comfortable with ourselves. Women don’t need a perfect body to build confidence in themselves the way men don’t need bulging biceps or a thick head of hair to feel empowered and unconstrained. You start with what you have and what works for you.
We all have our faults, and while no good comes from dwelling on these, we should strive for incremental improvements where we can. If you’re out of shape, then exercise and adjust your eating habits. If you’re shy and yearn to be more outgoing, try some private dance lessons, go out with friends, join a club, join a bowling league, or give online dating a try. The opportunities for social interaction are endless. Take baby steps and make small adjustments day to day. Don’t expect an instant makeover or a total personality transformation. You are who you are, the way God intended you to be. Embrace yourself. Love yourself. And smile as often as you can. Smiling is a universal language that opens hearts and communicates love better than almost anything else. In fact, research shows smiling improves our physical and emotional well being by flooding our systems with positive neurochemicals like endorphins, serotonin, and oxytocin.
Learning to overcome our inhibitions involves learning to rejoice in who we are as individuals and promoting the constructive aspects of our lives. If you’re already at a state of readiness in terms of confidence in yourself, but you still feel inhibited in your sexual relations, I have a few suggestions. First, try standing in front of the mirror, alone, stark naked. Do this several times over several days or weeks until you feel comfortable staring at your own body. Over time, this will help you feel more comfortable undressing in front of your lover. Later, try leaving the lights on when you’re having sex. For some people, having sex with the lights on can be a scary proposition, but it can also help you overcome your inhibitions. Again, proceed with caution. Start with leaving the bathroom light on or a hallway light with the door ajar just enough to cast your naked shadow. Enjoying sex in a hotel provides another way to help overcome inhibitions. There’s something about taking a break from your day to day life and treating yourself to a night of passion at a random location away from home.
Communicate with your partner. A great way to take control of your inhibitions is to talk about them. Trust plays an essential part in this discussion. Start with sharing something small and build from there. Maybe you feel uncomfortable about sleeping naked. Maybe you wear a mouth guard to keep your teeth from grinding. Or maybe you don’t feel comfortable taking a shower together. Whatever it is that gives you pause about yourself, your partner, or your romantic relationship in general, it does no good to hold it in and not broach the subject. In fact, you might be surprised to discover your partner shares some of the same anxieties.
Years back, an older colleague of mine told me a story about an attractive woman who’d offered him super sex. As I listened with intrigue, I could only imagine what led up to the rousing proposition.
Were they long-time lovers or strangers swept away in the heat of passion? Were they inebriated or stone cold sober? What prompted her to extend the offer? Does she have a sister?
Seriously, the story was short-lived. My friend’s response? “I chose the soup.”
The moral of the story: if your lover offers you super sex and you choose the soup over sex, it might be time to reevaluate your relationship.
Our level of romantic interest begins with our desire to be with someone and connect with them in a sexual capacity. The more intense the attraction, the stronger the desire to be with that person. When the chemistry is on target, the desire takes care of itself, at least in the early stages of a new romantic relationship—the Obsessive Stage, as Gary Chapman defines it in his book, The Five Love Languages for Singles. But as time goes on and the “new and exciting” becomes “routine and familiar,” as the day-to-day realities of life set in with work and kids and bills to pay, our initial spark begins to fade and our desire starts to wane.
In the second stage of romantic love, or Covenant Stage, as Chapman defines it, our differences begin to surface and our illusions of perfection dissolve. Or do they? I venture to say, over time, our desire for one another becomes supersaturated the way salt water can become supersaturated. If we continue to add salt to a pot of boiling salt water, the water will continue to absorb the salt, causing the heated salt solution to reach a point of supersaturation. At this point, the water no longer appears to contain salt crystals, which have gradually been absorbed due to increasing temperature. The solution still contains the salt crystals, you just can’t see them. I find this analogous to desire and how over time our passion for one another can become supersaturated. Like the salt in my analogy, the passion is still there; it’s simply been consumed by other overriding issues in our lives.
Now take the same heated salt water solution and let it cool for a period of time. Add one single, tiny, salt crystal and watch what happens. The salt previously absorbed by the heated water will be released and fall like snow.
So how do we release our passion when we find it supersaturated by overwhelming issues or complacency in our lives?
Ironically, we can start by spending time apart—the cooling off in our experiment—and explore other interests for awhile. I’m not talking about a legal separation from marriage or building walls to become emotionally distant. I’m talking about taking the time to enjoy our independence by engaging in activities outside of our relationship. Do the things we need to do for ourselves. Read novels. Write poetry. Sing in the choir. Play tennis. Learn chess. Ride rollercoasters. Go jogging. Go fishing. Go shopping. Paint a mural. Paint the house. This is about fulfilling needs you can’t necessarily fulfill through your romantic relationship. The old saw about absence makes the heart grow fonder originated in some semblance of fact. By focusing on something other than your beloved for twenty-four hours a day, you will gain a new perspective on yourself and your romantic relationship. This in turn will help you rekindle your desire and heighten your sexual experience.
Don’t assume time apart should be measured in days or weeks. Sometimes a separation of hours can prime the power of anticipation and build desire. As Dr. Laura Berman writes in Loving Sex, one way to employ the power of anticipation is to set the mood for sex early in our day. Who says sexual thoughts have to enter our mind ten minutes before we go to bed? Enjoy a passionate kiss in the morning. Prance through your bedroom naked before you get dressed—anything to leave a lasting impression your partner will remember as the day goes on. The art of seduction can be drawn through technology as well. Send a sexy text message or an intimate voice mail. Better yet, send a provocative photo to your lover’s phone. The idea is to fill the day with sexual innuendo, so by the time you’re reunited, the thrill of anticipation will send you over the edge with sexual desire.
Good communication keeps the fire burning, but sometimes it’s best to listen more and talk less.
Guys, big hint: Don’t try to solve her problems. Listen. Empathize. Acknowledge what she has to say—without the PlayStation controller in your hand or your thoughts focused more on issues at work than giving your girlfriend or wife the attention she deserves. Make open, honest communication a habit, and desire will continue to flow. Sending a dozen roses for no reason can have a wonderful effect as well. Ditto for an elegant dinner out or tickets to see her favorite show.
If you’re too busy with other things in your life and you’re not making time for sex, your desire will devolve. Make sex a priority, not something you try to squeeze in between several chores. Dim the lights. Turn on some soft music. Fire up a scented candle. Take a bath together. Trade massages. Speaking of which, most of us are good at receiving massage and not so much on delivering. If you don’t know how, then pick up a book and learn. In the absence of knowledge, experiment with gentle touch and gradually explore each other’s bodies. Studies show that stroking and massage trigger the production of oxytocin and certain endorphins in the brain. This helps us relax and melt tensions away, allowing our feelings of desire to gradually displace our negative, stress-inducing emotions. Massage doesn’t have to be erotic, even with your clothes off. Human hands can do amazing things. And a little massage oil goes a long way.
When all else fails, use your imagination. Watch an erotic video together, or better yet, take advantage of video-chat technology when you and your lover are apart. Numerous applications, including Skype, Apple’s FaceTime, Google’s video chat, and Tango for Android make it effortless to engage in video-chat sex. According to one 2010 survey conducted by the Pew Institute, daily video-chat usage in the U.S. doubled from 2009 to 2010. That’s not to say exclusive usage for sexual purposes, but it indicates a growing trend in the popularity of this technology as a method for couples to engage in long-distance lust and cross the threshold of their own sexual comfort zones.
But desire doesn’t have to involve new technology. Often, a visit to an adult toy store together will do the trick. Blindfolds are cheap. So is experimenting with your favorite whipped topping, chocolate sauce, raspberry syrup, or whatever your sweet tooth craves. Try role-playing as a couple who have just met at a club. Pretend to hit on one another. Dance with one another. Seduce one another with your eyes. Convince one another to come home and have sex. You could dress up differently, act differently, anything to create the illusion of something brand new. You don’t have to be an actor to pretend to be someone you’re not, someone involved in a scintillating career, or maybe someone recently paroled or returning from a tour of duty at sea. Role-playing is not for everyone. But in the end, it’s not always about what you do or how you do it. It’s about making a conscious decision to keep sex a high priority in your life. Easier said than done with children in the picture. Ditto for demanding jobs, school, personal issues, or the plethora of challenges life throws your way. Life is full of time-gobblers. Don’t allow other aspects of your life to rob you of your time for sex. Remember, it’s not the “soup” in super sex you should crave.