“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection…Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.”
This beautiful quote from Brené Brown summarizes the joy and the potential pain of relationships. The essence of secure attachment is felt when we are seen and truly resonate with another. For couples, this can be experienced in healthy sexual intimacy. Yet, sexuality is also an area which can be very problematic for couples. In even the strongest relationships, their sexual relationship ebbs and flows across time. I love the word “cultivate” from Brown’s quote above because it implies that connection can be grown within a relationship, with work and attention any aspect of a couple’s relationship can grow and thrive, including their sexual intimacy.
In our previous blog post, we examined the significance of “differentiation” and how an individual can navigate the tension which can exist between the desire to connect to others and also remain as an individual. This process is at the core of emotional connection.
When we speak specifically about sexual intimacy between two people and what it means to have a healthy sexual relationship, we again look toward the concepts of vulnerability, differentiation, and self-soothing. For couples, sexual issues often crop up at some point in their relationship. They are very common yet still difficult to navigate. We at times find it difficult to discuss issues related to our sexuality. Perhaps sex was not something that was spoken about in your home, perhaps you grew up in a church or home culture where all the negatives of sex were talked about but none of the positives, leading to the development of shame around sexual issues. It might be that you have sexual trauma in your past. Whatever the reason, issues related to sex can be challenging to openly talk about. It requires vulnerability and honesty. It requires the ability for a person to be able to hold onto themselves in the presence of another and appreciate the ability of their partner to do the same. When couples are able to do this, they are able to not only have a fulfilling and healthy sexual relationship but also able to navigate their relationship when they may be experiencing sexual difficulties.
Defining sexual health can be tricky as what impacts our sexual development and our sense of self is vast. I appreciate the World Health Organization’s definition stating, “Sexual health is a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.” (WHO, 2006a)
This definition includes the many aspects of our sexuality as well as the nature of sexual health. The concept of sexual health is deeply ingrained with an individual’s ability to hold onto themselves in the presence of another. To set appropriate boundaries yet enter into a space where they are able to let go and be with the other. Of course, as many couple’s therapists and those who have written extensively on the subject will tell you, sexuality is but one part of overall couple intimacy. In a recent discussion in the marital therapy course I teach, we discussed the many different aspects of intimacy such as emotional connection, conflict resolution, companionship and recreation, communication, intellectual intimacy, spiritual connection, and of course the couple’s sexual relationship. All are significant aspects to creating intimacy in a relationship and are intricately connected to one another. None of these exist in a vacuum. This is definitely true of a couple’s sexual relationship. Healthy sexuality exists within the totality of the couple’s overall intimacy in their relationship yet, it is also not guaranteed even when the couple is connected deeply to one another. Ester Perel, a Belgian psychotherapist and author who specializes in couples work and has researched and written on the concepts of erotic intelligence, sex, and relationships, has an excellent TedTalk discussing the complexity of keeping passion alive in a loving, committed relationship. The video, “The secret to desire in a long-term relationship” can be found here.
In the video, Perel talks specifically about the paradoxes which exist in long-term relationships which often make healthy sexuality difficult for couples. She discussed our innate need for both security and adventure, and connection and autonomy. These paradoxes naturally create tension for couples. Can we be deeply committed to the other while we remain deeply committed to our own sense of self, feelings, dreams, and goals? Can we learn to connect deeply through vulnerability and authenticity while also remaining independent and able to stand on our own two feet and self-soothe? Can we build a loving, stable, and dependable relationship while still experiencing the adventure and mystery in life? These questions are at the core and the couples who are able to navigate the tension inherent in these opposing desires are the couples who are able to navigate the issues facing them sexually. They know the ebb and flow of sexual connection and are able to continually come back to one another with both a deeply connected but also a deeply passionate sexuality.
Individuals who are able to navigate these innate paradoxes in long-term relationships are able to keep passion alive in their sex lives. All of this is dependent on a loving secure attachment bond as well as each individual’s ability to hold onto themselves within the relationship. This brings us back to the concept of “differentiation”. On her website, Perel states, "I want to speak to those of you who view commitment as a loss of self. The idea that we lose ourselves in the presence of our partner is deeply ingrained in the modern perception of love, particularly in the United States. As almost all of our communal institutions give way to a heightened sense of individualism, we look more frequently to our partner to provide the emotional and physical resources that a village or community used to provide. Is it any wonder that, tied up in relying on a partner for compassion, reassurance, sexual excitement, financial partnership, etc. that we end up looking to them for identity or, even worse, for self-worth?” This quote is at the heart of remaining connected to ourselves within a relationship. When we hold onto ourselves we are able to embrace another with more depth, quality, and availability. We are able to allow them to offer the same. It creates a beautiful space for each individual to grow as well as space for the relationship to thrive and grow, including the couple’s sexual relationship.
Dr. David Schnarch discusses how couples can navigate the difficult waters of sexual intimacy, individuality and connection, using the Four Points of Balance. Schnarch talks about two primary drives within us; the drive for autonomy and the drive for attachment. We desire both and we seek out both. Differentiation allows us to handle the balance between the two and to enter into relationships while still being able to hold onto ourselves. This is a key factor in the development of healthy sexuality. Explained here are what Schnarch refers to as the Four Points of Balance:
1. Solid Flexible Self- having a deep connection to who you are and your values and not requiring others to validate you
2. Quiet mind, Calm Heart- maintaining a healthy inner world, being able to emotionally regulate and self-soothe and understanding and listening to how your body is reacting
3. Grounded Responding- learning how to appropriately respond to others, not over-reacting or under-reacting
4. Meaningful Endurance- willingness to stick with the difficult, being willing to do what you do not want to and learning to deal with stress
For more information, click here.
When it comes down to it, the health of a couple’s sexual relationship is similar to other aspects of their relationship which requires attention, communication, openness, vulnerability, honesty, and a willingness to grow all which can be cultivated. It involves a commitment to each individual in the relationship as well as the relationship between them, ensuring a safe place for intimacy to develop within the relationship. Yes, there will be challenges but there is also the opportunity for deep connection and a place where a relationship can grow and thrive.
Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let go of who you think you are supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Schnarch, D. M. (1997). Passionate marriage: Love, sex, and intimacy in emotionally committed relationships. WW Norton & Company.
Perel, E. (2007). Mating in captivity: Unlocking erotic intelligence. New York, NY: Harper.