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At home later, Jen and Rob discussed their responses to the item most endorsed by traditional couple sexual style partners: "Foreplay is primarily for her; intercourse for him." Rob identified with this, but Jen felt it was unlike her. Rob felt that this showed he was a generous lover, but Jen felt that the rigidity of sex roles interfered with their being truly intimate. Both partners found this exploration valuable.
The most important learning, however, comes with integrating such insights into the developing experience of sexuality together. Over time, Rob came to accept that the concept of "pleasuring" is a process of giving and receiving touch, rather than thinking of "foreplay" as a "mission" to turn Jen on so she would be ready for intercourse.
Jen and Rob eventually chose to adopt the complementary couple sexual style as being the best fit for them. It allowed Jen to retain her "sexual voice" and validated the importance of sensual touch, playful touch, and erotic touch, in addition to intercourse. Rob accepted that it was normal for each partner to initiate intercourse and for each to be able to say no or offer a sensual or erotic alternative as a way to connect or reconnect. With this style, they could celebrate variable, flexible sexuality, rather than being stuck in an intercourse-or-nothing power struggle.
I typically emphasize to couples like Rob and Jen that the worst time to talk about sex is in bed (especially after a negative sexual experience) and that the best place is either in a therapist's office or the day before being sexual in some relaxed setting—over a glass of wine, or on a walk through the woods. Either a therapy session or a relaxed time and setting work best for sharing information about preferred ways to initiate lovemaking, favorite pleasuring and erotic scenarios, and most exciting intercourse positions. During the sexual encounter itself, most couples prefer to let their bodies do the talking, and giving verbal erotic directions is a turnoff.
In therapy and in private discussions with her husband, Jill made clear her preferred bridge to sexual desire (being sexual after a shower), her preferred pleasuring techniques (mutual, multiple stimulation), her favorite erotic scenario (receiving oral stimulation while stroking his chest and penis), her favorite intercourse position (woman on top) and type of thrusting (circular), and her favorite way of sharing afterplay (making a pot of tea and discussing hopes and dreams). Establishing these points proved empowering for her and increased Rob's receptivity to her sexual initiation.
Rob described his preferences, too. His bridge to desire was to be awakened by Jen stroking his penis; he valued mutual, multiple stimulation; his favorite erotic scenario was standing while she stimulated him manually and orally and he stroked her breasts; and during intercourse, he preferred being on top and making long, slow thrusts, which grew faster as he moved toward orgasm. His favorite afterplay scenario was lying with Jen and holding her, while they shared memories of trips they'd taken together.
By the end of treatment, Rob and Jen had found a way to negotiate their sexual differences, confront their fears, and shift the style of their lovemaking. I'm optimistic that, like them, the great majority of couples can choose a sexual style that facilitates desire, pleasure, and satisfaction and energizes their bond. However, this work offers no guarantees. Ultimately, despite their best intentions, some couples discover that their desires and preferences are incompatible. An example is when one partner wants a traditional, conflict-minimizing sexual style and the other demands the emotionally expressive sexual style. This disparity usually results in a sexual power struggle that subverts intimacy and desire, and eventually destroys the relationship.
When partners differ in their preferred sexual styles, the most usual outcome, especially among couples willing to seek therapy together, is to adopt the complementary style. It's congruent with both notions of personal autonomy (having your own sexual voice) and interpersonal cooperation (integrating intimacy and eroticism)—values that many couples favor in other areas of their shared lives. But whatever style they choose, helping them move beyond a fixation on the particulars of sexual behavior to the broader issue of sexual style is crucial to getting beyond a power struggle in the bedroom to the discovery of how to understand and develop the meaning that sexuality will have in their relationship.
Barry McCarthy, Ph.D., has a diplomate in clinical psychology and practices at the Washington Psychological Center. He's a professor of psychology at American University and the author of Men's Sexual Health and Discovering Your Couple Sexual Style. Contact: email@example.com. Tell us what you think about this article by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at www.psychotherapynetworker.org. Log in and you'll find the comment section on every page of the online Magazine section.
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