Many couples struggle with sexual intimacy. It could be differences in desire, wounds from the past, fears of inadequacy, body image, emotional disconnection, among other matters. The good news is that couples can overcome these differences with the right guidance and support.
I invite my couples to start small as they begin to untangle the barriers to a mutually fulfilling sexual connection. An array of emotions even in anticipation of physical closeness can interfere with our desire for it. Anxiety, guilt, anger, shame, obsessions and other emotions can take control and cause us to shut down physically and emotionally. For some, experiences from the past can tell our bodies that something is wrong, even if everything in the moment is safe. For others, those emotions might elevate sexual desire and cause them to confuse desire for emotional connection, validation and acceptance with sexual desire.
Couples can have the most connective sexual experiences when they are at ease with one another and within themselves. Sue Johnson, the creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy, calls this “synchrony sex.” But sometimes it’s really difficult to get there. Here is a simple exercise that can help you to slow down, take it one step at a time. This is a mindfulness exercise. It is meant only to help you uncover some of the underlying feelings that cause sexual disconnect, to bring calmness and relaxation, acceptance and compassion for yourself and your partner. It is not meant to enhance pleasure and desire, though it’s okay if that happens, too.
Mindfulness is about awareness of this moment in time, purposefully and without judgement. When we take a mindful walk we notice the sensations and details around us – the temperature, cars, trees, the air, the sounds. I wrote earlier this year about a mindful moment with your 2 year old. The following steps are for a mindful intimate moment with your partner. Be sure to do this exercise when you have some time to relax and spend some slow, quality time together. And then follow the steps below:
- Set aside 45 minutes to an hour with your partner. It’s ideal to be at least semi-clothed in something basic. Set the environment to be comfortable, but not sensual. I recommend low lights, a comfortable temperature, no music, lotions, or candles. This is not meant to be sexual, but rather relaxing and comfortable.
- Each partner will take a turn being the toucher. For this exercise, the touching should be limited to non-sexual pleasure (genitals and breast are off limits). The person touching focuses on touching in a way that brings themselves pleasure (with concern for their partner’s comfort, but not pleasure – that can be another exercise at another time). The person being touched doesn’t give direction, but may redirect if something is uncomfortable.
- The toucher draws awareness to tactile sensations such as temperature, texture, and pressure. He/she also becomes aware, without judgement, of what’s happening for him/herself, including feelings of pleasure, relaxation, arousal, or any other positive or negative emotions. Don’t share them now, just become aware of them. When distractions arise the toucher brings their awareness back to the tactile sensations.
- The person being touched focuses also on touch sensations. The touchee also draws awareness to emotions and distractions. Hold space for them and then bring your focus back to the tactile sensations.
The toucher continues this long enough for the person to lean into the awareness and be fully present, but not so long that it becomes boring. Then he/she says “switch” and the exercise is repeated in reverse.
Take some time after the exercise is over, within 24 hours, to share your experiences with one another.
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*This exercise was adapted from Sensate Focus: The Problem of Pleasure, The Paradox of Presence, by Weiner and Clark.