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|Heart of the Matter - Page 2|
The Concept of Couple Sexual Styles
In more than 35 years of doing sex therapy, I've found that one of the most powerful interventions for couples like Jen and Rob is to help them develop a broader view of the kinds of intimate and erotic connections that couples can develop. Most couples in our society come to marriage with a media-determined, myth-laden idea of what their sex lives should be. R-rated movies present a romantic, seductive, unfailingly hot picture of what it takes: both partners are young, attractive, and totally turned-on before touching even begins. Kissing turns to passionate caressing and unbearable lust, which leads easily and without fumbling to thrilling intercourse and soul-stirring (and multiple for her) orgasms. This image sells a lot of movie tickets, but it's a profoundly misleading portrait of what happens with real-life, long-term couples. In fact, you almost never see married couples in movies, or hear about them in love songs or novels: when incredible sex is portrayed, it's always a new couple or an extramarital affair. The media message is that "hot sex" is new sex, with forbidden people and often in adventurous settings. Serious or married couples are just too boring.
So, what is a sexual style? It has to do with recognizing how different elements of a couple's sexual experience form a pattern—their way of initiating sex, how they pleasure each other and engage in erotic scenarios, the role of intercourse in their lovemaking, the afterplay scenarios they prefer, and the meaning sex has for them and its place in their relationship. The exploration of sexual styles focuses on two core dimensions. The first is how partners integrate intimacy and eroticism into their relationship. Intimacy is about safety, predictability, closeness, and warmth, while eroticism is about taking emotional and sexual risks, bringing mystery and creativity into sex, enjoying unpredictability, and being able to let go and savor sexuality for itself. Intimacy lets you feel secure in your sexual relationship. It usually involves touch that's affectionate (handholding, kissing, hugging) and sensual (cuddling, stroking, back rubs, nongenital pleasuring). Empathy for your partner's feelings and sharing experiences, sexual and nonsexual, are its core qualities. Most people consider intimacy essential to a mature sexual connection
Our culture takes a paradoxical approach to eroticism, however, which is just as essential to an ongoing sexual connection. On the one hand, it bombards us with magazines promising keys to erotic ecstasy and porn videos focused on sex that's "crazy, dirty, and exciting"; on the other hand, it makes us fear that eroticism will get out of control and lead to sex addictions, affairs, or fetishes. Nevertheless, eroticism is an integral part of us as individuals and as a couple: it can't be split off from relationships. Intimacy and pleasuring have great value, but they don't wholly substitute for erotic flow and orgasm.
The second core dimension of sexual style refers to balancing personal autonomy with emotional closeness. The challenge is how each partner can maintain a sense of individuality and at the same time experience a sense of being part of an intimate, erotic team—how each partner's "sexual voice" integrates with the other partner's feelings and preferences, so that both partners can experience sex in a comfortable, pleasurable, and emotionally and sexually satisfying manner.
Confronting differences in attitudes about sexuality forces couples to find their balance between their personal autonomy and respect for each partner's intrinsic separateness and their togetherness, or the ability to identify as "we." A crucial element of working with couples regarding their sexuality is helping them explore how close they want to feel and how much they value autonomy in their relationship. Their sexual style will be a window into how these aspects of their emotional lives are woven into their ongoing relationship.
Either extreme can interfere with sexual desire and satisfaction. When each partner is so intent on "doing sex" his or her way, both partners end up in a power struggle in which neither feels validated or satisfied. The other extreme is when both partners are so concerned with making sexual feelings mutual that sex itself becomes tentative, lacking in spontaneity and passion.
In working with couples who've arrived at a sexual impasse, I've found it helpful to consider the spectrum of sexual styles from which couples cobble together their particular approach to intimate and erotic connection—almost always without much discussion or conscious deliberation. To be sure, there isn't one right couple sexual style; each style has its strengths and pitfalls. Further, these styles aren't "pure," and they don't represent an exhaustive list of ways a couple may find sexual satisfaction, but they do offer an overview that affords a perspective on the couple's preferences and choices.