It takes more than just showing up to renew and reclaim a good sexual relationship. Would you just show up on the dance floor to dance the tango together? Apart from the fact that you may have no interest in the tango – probably not. To really dance, you need a plan. When two people make a plan and share a goal to connect – it usually happens. Yes, at first your timing will be off, the pace may seem wrong and you will step on each others’ feet, but if you want to dance together you will hang in until it becomes smooth – until you know and trust each others’ moves as only partners can.
In our book, Healing Together, A Couple’s Guide to Coping with Trauma and Post-traumtic Stress, the title of the chapter on reclaiming sexual intimacy is “Dancing in the Dark” because we wanted to invite couples to reclaim, renew and even re-invent their intimacy as partners. The chronic stresses of daily life as well as the assault of unexpected trauma and loss can create enough stress and distrust to make partners feel like strangers. The touch, the trust, and intimate knowing that couples can share is an invaluable emotional and physical source of transforming, healing, and renewing.
How Do You Find A Way Back?
Too often couples feel that so much has happened, so much has been said or unsaid, so much time has passed that they give up on reclaiming intimacy. Some partners get stuck in the face of sudden changes and want to wait until it is the “way it was.” Many believe they have to “feel” the urge to even consider a plan.
It Is Only Too Late To Start If You Don’t Start. Often I ask people to consider that any intimate reconnection even just holding hands changes their feeling state and the state of the person they touch. It is the nonverbal validation of a connection. If they physically connect they will feel differently about who they are and the bond they share.
Embrace What Is New. In life and certainly in the aftermath of trauma, it is impossible for things to stay the same. To insist that things be the same is often to stay focused on what has been lost. It will keep you and your partner from taking the best of what you can into a new connection in the future.
Instead Of Waiting “To Feel” – Start Dancing And You Will Start Feeling. The relationship of thoughts, feelings and behaviors is complex and interrelated. Movement in one domain effects the other domains. Often we can feel so disorganized by grief or stress that we are trying to feel better before taking a step – sometimes the step is crucial to feeling better.
A real step toward intimacy is being present to each other in the moment and not letting the world in. There is something about “pillow talk” -side by side relaxing, confiding and sharing between two people in the dark that helps define them as intimates. This is not about having the perfect movie set – this could mean that he sits on the bed for a few minutes before she falls asleep, she stays in the room in the morning while he gets dressed, or they both fall down on the bed between car pools. Pillow Talk is about having something that is personal, predictable, and private in a way that you have with no one else.
In a study of what men and women desire in sexual relationships, Elaine Hatfield and her colleagues (1989) found that the top two desires for married men were for partners to initiate sex more and be more seductive. The top two desires for married women were for partners to talk lovingly more often and be more seductive. Clearly both men and women want their partners to be seductive – but in different ways. Neurophysiologically men’s desire for sex is physically driven, most prominently by visual cues; women’s sexual desire is motivated by the wish for intimacy and connection. Essentially they want to be with each other but they need different cues for desire and arousal.
How do we move to mutual desire? We accept the differences and work with them. In the broadest example – if he really likes skimpy underwear – buy him some and buy yourself something you will both love (humor is never a bad thing in sexual plans). If you want her to feel desirable and desirous in the bedroom, value and affirm how she looks and how she thinks and what she does in many other places in your lives.
What else should we consider?
For both men and women, feeling valued by their partner plays a major role in their sexual desire and receptivity. The fact that someone does not initiate a sexual overture does not mean they are uninterested or will be unreceptive. It just means that someone has to start. The most valuable factor in enhancing desire for both men and women is the memory of a mutually satisfying sexual experience.
Stephen Mitchell (2002) tells us that beyond biology, sexual connection is always partially an act of imagination. There was a line from a song by the Everly Brothers “You Never Close Your Eyes Anymore, When I Kiss Your Lips.” What that translates into is “You don’t love me enough to suspend reality. I am no longer a trigger of desire and imagination for you.” – This suspension of reality and triggering of desire is something very important in reclaiming intimacy.
Research suggests that 70% of American men and women fantasize while making love (Fisher 2004). What they fantasize about is less important than the capacity to do so because fantasy fosters the ability to trust and let go in a way that facilitates desire, arousal and orgasm. In the aftermath of trauma when illusion has been shattered and life has become frightening and painfully real, partners’ sexual relating can be jeopardized by the inability to relax and suspend vigilance. Reality has assaulted imagination and fantasy.
Recapture Fantasy Together
Reach back to the magic of your fantasy and dreams about each other as a way to recapture the capacity to access imagination.
What was your fantasy after your first date together – Take turns sharing. When do you fantasize most about your partner? Is it associated with a certain song, something he or she wears, a fragrance, a certain type of message sent or received? Let the other know. Play it, Wear it, Enjoy it. Share it. Laugh about it.
Have an Affair with your Partner – Take nothing for granted. Leave notes, Meet for the 10 minute cup of coffee, Steal a kiss in a public place. Notice what the other was wearing the day before. Plan the date. Don’t invite another couple. Go somewhere you’ve never been. Book the cheap motel.
Turn the volume up on the romance in small ways and you will turn the volume up on the desire, imagination and sexual connection.
If you are wondering : Will it make a difference? Will my partner take it seriously? Can we reclaim sexual intimacy even if there are days we don’t really like each other? Will it matter as long as we keep trying?
Consider: Does anyone learn the Tango in a day?
There is something uniquely special about Dancing in the Dark with someone you love.
For Further Reading:
Fisher, H. (2004) Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love . New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Hatfield, E. S., Sprecher, J. Traupmann Pillemer, D. Greenberger, and P. Wexler.1989. Gender differences in what is desired in the sexual relationship. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality 1 (2): 39-52.
Mitchell, S. A. 2002 Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance over Time. New York: W. W. Norton.