S is for Sex
By Zach Brittle, LMHC
In their Gott Sex? Series, the Gottmans have suggested that the best sex tends to be a result of the strongest friendships. In preparing to write And Baby Makes Three, Dr. John Gottman and his research team interviewed couples about sex and intimacy shortly after they had their first baby. I was fortunate enough to be part of this team which ultimately confirmed the hypothesis that good sex is very much interrelated with intimate trust, friendship, and conversations that create emotional connection.
This doesn’t seem like earth shattering information, but it also doesn’t necessarily line up with the thousands of contrary messages we are receiving about sex each day. I don’t know about you, but my sex life doesn’t look anything like the stuff I see on HBO or even the commercials during the Seahawks game. I call that “sexy sex” and it’s too simple. Most of the actual sex I’m familiar with is complicated. It’s risky. But, ultimately, it’s more rewarding than anything on TV.
With apologies to any of you looking for advice about how to have more "sexy sex," here are some thoughts on actual, real life lovemaking.
Talking about sex is more intimate than having sex.
Turns out, the most important part of cultivating a healthy sex life is talking about a healthy sex life. Only 9% of couples who can’t comfortably talk about sex with one another say that they’re satisfied sexually.
But have you ever tried talking about your sexual preferences, your fears, your hopes? Have you ever told your partner your sexual story? Do you know your sexual story? Not the story of your triumphs. Rather, the story of how you learned about sex, how you became aware of your sexuality, how you experienced the pain and shame, but also the joy and beauty of sex.
It’s tough. It’s not typical dinner table conversation, especially if your kids are around. And it’s not something you can check off the list while running errands. I don’t recommend texting or instant messaging about these most intimate details. However, probably the worst time to attempt this kind of conversation is during sex. Talking about sex deserves an intimate time and space.
And it should be a priority. The Gottmans recommend creating Love Maps of your partner’s sexuality. If you’re new to this concept, start simple. You don’t have to go straight to questions of technique. Try this one:
There is an old saying that some partners want sex to feel close, but others only want sex when they already feel close. Does that fit us in any way? Do you think that’s true? Is it true of us? Is that a problem? If so, how can we make that better?
Do the work of cultivating intimacy in order to increase the quality of your intercourse. That said…
Intimacy is more important than intercourse.
There are seasons of life when capacity and tolerance for sex fluctuates. The mark of a healthy sex life cannot be measured by a number. If it were, then post-partum moms and men with erectile dysfunction (to name just two categories) would be in big trouble. Not to mention the depressed, the distracted, the deployed, etc. Even when sex (or orgasm) is impossible, intimacy is critical.
This is where talking about sex comes in handy. But not just that, hugging, holding hands, snuggling, kissing all foster intimacy. So does conflict and resolution. So does growing old together. A commitment to intimacy can yield more frequent and more satisfying sex, but even when it doesn’t, intimacy remains and ultimately trumps intercourse.
Impersonal sex is more fun than personal sex.
Wait. What did he say? I said, impersonal sex is more fun, but only in the way that a roller coaster is more fun than a hot-air balloon ride around the globe. (The latter may not seem like fun to you, but you get my meaning, I’m sure.) Impersonal sex, or, “erotic activity not founded on emotional connection and adoration of the partner” is always more fun. But, only because it doesn’t involve the hard work of intimacy building.
Much has been said about the perils of pornography, perhaps the most accessible example of impersonal sex. And there are no shortage of arguments against it: It promotes objectification of and violence towards women. It causes changes in the brain that lead to addiction. It’s immoral. It’s illegal. It’s pervasive. Whatever your objection, it seems to me that the biggest problem with pornography is that it has convinced men and women around the globe that sex is easy. That it’s “fun.”
By now you know, I don’t think fun is the point. The point - in committed relationships - is sharing both the body and the mind and, I dare say, the soul. That’s not fun. It’s difficult and risky and also better. Personal sex isn’t easy. It’s hard work. Learning how to initiate (and refuse) sex is work. Getting to know your partner’s dreams, preferences, and body is work. Overcoming resistance, fear, and shame is work. Improving your technique is work.
Personal sex is work. It’s harder. It’s messier. It’s riskier. But it’s better. And couples who are committed to improving their intimate, passionate, romantic, and sexual lives with one another don’t have to settle for fun sex.
So, back to the idea of me writing about sex. Believe it or not, it was pretty risky for me. I really wanted to write about Stonewalling, but I know that my ongoing sexual journey requires me to continue to do the work of leaning into intimacy and making personal sex a priority. Sometime this week, my wife will read this and shortly thereafter, I suspect we’ll be having a talk. But I’m ready, and looking forward to reaping the benefits of our hard work together.
This is Zach's 19th posting of his Relationship Alphabet column on The Gottman Relationship Blog. If you missed a posting or are reading for the first time, you can catch up on his column here. Zach is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Gottman Therapist in Seattle, WA specializing in couples therapy. You can learn more about Zach and inquire about availability at www.zachbrittle.com. Follow Zach on Twitter @kzbrittle.