It’s long been the conventional wisdom among couples therapists that if couples fix the emotional issues in their relationship, their sexual lives will automatically improve. Nevertheless, many practitioners know that, in fact, while their clients may learn to fight less, get along better, and become better problem-solvers, they don’t necessarily change anything in the bedroom. Good intimacy doesn’t guarantee good sex. After years in the couples therapy trenches, I no longer see sexuality as a metaphor of the relationship—I see it as a parallel narrative.
Couples today are confronting a new frontier in the basic understanding of what marriage is all about. For most of Western history, we married and then had sex for the first time. Now, we marry and stop having sex with others. This shift has fundamentally changed the meaning of exclusiveness. Today’s partners are looking for a way to reconcile their need for commitment and long-term relationships with their need for freedom and individual fulfillment.
What does that mean for those of us who do couples therapy for a living? When I sit with a couple, I’ve learned to ask more probing questions. Instead of just asking, “Are you still having sex?” I say, “Talk to me about sexuality in your relationships. Is it very important to you? How has it changed? Has it become better as you’ve been together?” I certainly don’t presume that sex starts out good and only gets worse. Quite the contrary! I ask, “How has maturity, experience, and self-acceptance influenced the quality of your erotic connection with each other? How comfortable are you talking about your sexual preferences? Do you find your communication about sex satisfying, or is the topic a source of tension?”
Most importantly, I talk about sex not as something couples do, but more as a place they go, inside themselves and with another, or others. Once we go beyond whether people “do it” or not, we gain access to an entire world of erotic experiences—their fantasies, wishes, and preferences; their frustrations, unmet needs, and unfulfilled longings; their hurts, past and present; the quality of arousal and desire—everything that permeates their inner experiences of sexuality that they may never have spoken of with each other.
Most of us grow up in sexual silence. Often we even learn to associate pleasure with guilt and shame. I think that when adults carry sexual secrets, they’re only continuing what they learned as part of normative sexual socialization. Most parents don’t talk about sexuality with their children, and most partners talk about sex with other people far more than with the person that they’re having sex with. As a therapist, I provide a language and even a kind of aesthetic tone to counter the sense of degradation that’s often part of people’s experience of sex.
I also want people to recognize that love and desire relate, but can also conflict. And herein lies the mystery of eroticism. Our emotional needs and our erotic needs aren’t always neatly aligned. For some, love and desire are inseparable; but for others, they’re sometimes irretrievably disconnected. The care, worry, protection, and responsibility that nurture love can be antithetical to what ignites desire. In fact, for many people, sexual excitement flows from not feeling responsible or emotionally beholden. That unburdened experience is precisely what allows them to feel sexually free.
The idea that you can ask the same person to give you an anchor, safety, and predictability, and also give you mystery, awe, and novelty is relatively new in our culture. Many partners think to themselves, I have the family I always wanted, but this is the last place where I can imagine bringing my sexual self. For them, their sexual self is often associated with something freer, more transgressive, that doesn’t want to play it so safe, or be good and dutiful. Sometimes it’s the relationship itself that makes it difficult to reconcile security and adventure, but for some people, the blocks are internal. It’s like “I could never share my sexual musings with my spouse/partner. That’s not the mother I’ve been in this house. That’s not the woman who walks down the street with him.” It’s like they’re saying, metaphorically, “The red-light district shouldn’t be located anywhere near my home.”
I see many people who are creative in so many areas of their life but don’t bring that creativity into their bedrooms. Others feel that their partner isn’t coming to give them pleasure, but to take it from them. For them, it’s become a struggle to sexualize themselves in the presence of the other. They say, “It’s like I’m living with my brother. He looks at me and doesn’t see me as a woman.” Or “She doesn’t see me as a sexual being. She touches me like you touch a family member or a child.” These are often affectionate couples, but at the same time, that affectionate touch is a form of sexual appetite suppressor, leaving some feeling like cherished partners but famished lovers.
I’m currently working with a man who loves his partner dearly. There’s nothing about her hands, her touch, her smell, her presence he doesn’t like. But since he’s become more emotionally involved, something in his whole body freezes when she comes to him, as if he’s being invaded. He can’t make sense out of this. Then, he describes to me how last weekend, he made love to her and felt that he was only doing it to be “good.” He summed up his erotic block by saying, “When I love, I feel responsible for her, and it’s hard for me to feel my own pleasure, my own mounting excitement, while I’m in her presence. I don’t know how to be with her and with me at the same time. So if I’m there for her, I basically disconnect from myself.”
For some people, it’s the reverse: “I feel comfortable inside of me, but I don’t know how to be connected to him. So I’m much better at being sexual with someone with whom I don’t have to think about. Hence, I prefer porn, where I don’t have to feel responsible for pleasing my partner.”
In sex, the same behaviors can be either delicious and delightful or hurtful and violating. We need to be reassured that when we’re being assertive, it’s not in a hurtful way. When men tell me, “Nothing pleases me more than to see her/him turned on,” I hear it as “If my partner enjoys it, I know I’m not hurting anyone, hence I need not fear the predatory threat.” Conversely, women are socialized to be caretakers. To feel sexually free, they have to have the permission to think about themselves without feeling responsible for the well-being of the other. What turns her on is to be the turn-on, to have the permission to feel her own narcissism. Its only when some people have freedom from feeling responsible for the fragility of the other that they can really let go sexually.
Of course, it’s one thing to say all this and quite another to make it come alive in the therapy session. I often use an exercise that helps couples become more aware of the way each partner approaches the erotic experience. I start by having one partner take the other’s hand. “I want you to touch your partner’s hand all the way to the elbow. You can go fast, and you can go slow. You can go hard or soft. But while you’re stroking your partner’s hand, I want you to put your entire focus on your partner. ‘Does he like this? Does she like it? Does she know she has a little knuckle here? Would she prefer if I did it deeper?’”
There’s no feedback in this exercise. The whole emphasis is on giving touch, pleasing the other. Some people love to give touch, but some people become anxious or they fret. They may think, Am I doing this right? . . . I’m getting bored. . . . This is annoying. . . . Why do I have to do this? . . . It’s always me doing this. . . . I told you to shave it here.” As a result, they’re not really giving touch. In this one exercise, you can get a whole vista of a couple’s sexual relationship.
Then at some point, I say, “Now I want you to switch the focus. I want you to use your partner’s hand to please yourself. Switch from giving touch to taking touch. You go from I’m doing this for you to I’m doing this for me.” Many people feel a new freedom when their partner takes pleasure from them. Suddenly, they don’t have to feel responsible for the other person. They learn what it means to allow the other person to please themselves with their partner’s hand. They discover how to use their partner, in the good sense of the word. At the end of the exercise, you can ask them to look at their experience: “Look at what was easier, to give or to take, to please the other or yourself?” In this way, you begin to help people extend their awareness of their own eroticism.
I always tell people in my office that I’ve never seen a couple want more sex by discussing why they don’t want it. So I aim to create evocative conversations that help couples reconnect with their sexual selves and erotic energy. A big part of my work is making people rediscover their own sense of wanting.
Of course, sex isn’t separate from the rest of people’s relationship. There’s no reason their sex will improve if their capacity for curiosity about each other is exhausted in two-and-a-half seconds. I sometimes say, “Get out of the bedroom and go somewhere else. I want you to find three new ways to develop sustained interest in each other. Once you’ve done that, we can come back to the sex and see how it translates.”
Esther Perel, MA, LMFT, is author of the bestseller Mating in Captivity. Her TED talk has reached more than 5 million people.
Illustration © Adam Niklewicz