In today’s rushed world, erotic connection is often replaced with rushed sex without mental or emotional stimulation. Sex, it would seem, is biological and often easy to engage in without deep connections.
But is it satisfying?
During my time in private practice and prior to my appointment as Museum Director, I would see many couples struggling with their sex life. Common complaints were lack of arousal, lack of desire or lack of orgasm — and on occasion, describing these experiences as if “something is missing.”
Essentially, sexual satisfaction in couples often correlate with attachment patterns.
For example, some couples are securely attached and are confident in their partner’s love; whereas other couples are anxiously bound and are worried about being abandoned. Researchers have predicted that individuals whom were more anxiously attached would be happier in monogamous relationships. Additionally, those with such anxieties may find the prospect of their partner having other sexual relationships threatening.
Consistent with this idea, participants with moderate to high levels of attachment anxiety (i.e., people who feel relatively insecure in their relationships and fear that their partner may leave), are sexually monogamous and have higher levels of relationship satisfaction and commitment. In contrast, for individuals with low levels of attachment anxiety (i.e., people who were not afraid of being abandoned), sexual exclusivity had no association with relationship satisfaction or commitment.
As another example, let’s assume that I am working with a couple for whom non-monogamy isn’t an option. One potential problem with long-term monogamous couples might be the Coolidge Effect.
The Coolidge Effect has been documented in animals, as well as humans. In one study, male participants were either exposed to constant or varied sexual stimuli, while their level of sexual arousal was measured by a device that documents changes in penile circumference. The men who were repeatedly shown the same stimuli displayed less arousal over time (in other words, they demonstrated habituation); by contrast, men who were exposed to varied stimuli maintained higher levels of arousal.
What can a couple do to combat this potential decrease in sexual interest, if the Coolidge Effect is in play?
One option is Sensate Focus.
Developed by sex researchers, William Masters and Virginia Johnson, Sensate Focus emphasizes the physical sensations of touch. The technique starts with non-sexual touching and becomes more sexual as weeks go by. It is designed to foster trust, develop intimacy between partners, and reduce anxiety by focusing on mutual pleasure.
These stages of Sensate Focus can vary depending on the sex therapist and couple, but in general, the process goes like this:
· Stage 1. Partners take turns touching each other in non-sexual ways, focusing on areas like the hands, feet, face, and torso. Couples may be clothed or unclothed. They are free to explore each other’s bodies as much as they like, but are not allowed to touch the genitals or any other sexual areas, such as the breasts or nipples. Intercourse and penetration are not allowed.
· Stage 2. At this point, couples touch each other’s genitals as well as the other parts of the body touched during Stage 1, taking turns. The goal is to bring pleasure and become more aware of how the partner responds to certain types of touching. Again, intercourse and penetration are not allowed, even if the touching session becomes very arousing. Some couples try oral stimulation during this phase and some participants do reach orgasm, but that is not the end goal.
· Stage 3. During this phase, couples start mutual touching. They may also try gentle penetration, which may occur with a sex toy, finger, or penis. This might just involve inserting the tip of the penis into the vagina. The partner being penetrated controls the depth and force of penetration. Eventually, the couple may proceed to full intercourse.
Why Do Some Therapists Recommend Sensate Focus?
Sensate focus can provide couples with the opportunity to reconnect with each other. For some couples, making intercourse off-limits reduces the anxiety to perform. With this pressure lifted, couples can rediscover what they enjoy about intimacy.
Is Sensate Focus for Everyone?
Not necessarily. While sensate focus is helpful for many couples, others find other sex therapy strategies more beneficial. An experienced therapist can guide couples on the most effective techniques for them.
However, if you think sensate focus would be worthwhile for you and your partner, be sure to talk to your doctor, counselor, or sex therapist. Surrogate Partner Therapists may also be an option. He or she can help you tailor the technique for your situation.
Conley, T.D., Moors, A.C., Matsick, J.L., & Ziegler, A. (in press). The fewer the merrier? Assessing stigma surrounding non-normative romantic relationships. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy.
Mohr, J. J., Selterman, D., & Fassinger, R. E. (2013). Romantic attachment and relationship functioning in same-sex couples. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 60, 72-82.
O’Donohue, W. T., & Geer, J. H. (1985). The habituation of sexual arousal. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 14, 233-246.
University of Notre Dame Marital Therapy and Research Clinic
“Sensate Focus Exercise: Non-Sexual Intimacy”