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How Do Couples Define Intimate Sex?

Sexual intimacy, for couples, is an expression of emotional intimacy.

Key points

  • Most couples know that there is, or can be, more to sex than sex.
  • For couples, sex can be as much if not more about emotional intimacy as pure physical pleasure.
  • You can enjoy the company of your significant other even without being sexual.
Shutterstock / Rawpixel
Source: Shutterstock / Rawpixel

Most couples know that there is, or can be, more to sex than sex. Typically, they know that sex can be as much if not more about emotional intimacy as pure physical pleasure. In fact, after nearly three decades as a therapist specializing in sex and related issues, I can assure you that the vast majority of couples I work with are longing not for hot sex but for emotionally intimate sex. Rather than seeking the intensity of wild and crazy sex, they want to feel emotionally connected while engaging in sexual acts (perhaps even wild and crazy sexual acts).

Ideally, when we partner up with someone, whether that partnering is meant to be short-term or long-lasting, we do feel an emotional connection, and we then use sex as an expression and extension of that bond. Consider a marriage of many decades where the couple is still enjoying great sex with one another—even though their body parts may be getting a little saggy and their sex action might not be as athletic as it once was.

Such couples experience this because of the emotional connection they have developed over the decades. Sure, maybe they watch a movie and find one of the performers objectively very hot, but they’d still probably rather have sex with their spouse because sex with their spouse is about much more than sexual intensity. There is also the pleasure of feeling safe, wanted, connected to, and unconditionally loved by a person they feel the same about. Ultimately, they crave that more than they crave a sexual adventure.

Unfortunately, for any number of reasons, often related to unresolved childhood trauma, some people find the emotional intimacy they truly want to be scary, so they either never develop this type of connection, or they develop it partially but find themselves turning to intensity (affairs, porn) as an emotional coping mechanism. Instead of turning to a loved one for emotional comfort, they’ll sneak off and (temporarily) self-soothe by escaping into the intensity of non-intimate sex.

Over time, many individuals learn to use sexual fantasies and non-intimate but incredibly intense sexual behaviors as their primary and sometimes only coping mechanism. Eventually, they reach a point where they can hardly even fathom other dimensions and rewards of sexuality. Whether they’re in a romantic relationship or not, they start to feel stuck and, if they’re lucky, they reach out for qualified help.

The good news is that intimate sexuality can be discussed in a therapeutic setting and explored as an adjunct to that therapy. The approach that I use focuses on six dimensions of healthy sexuality. Whether you are partnered or not, I encourage you to read through the information below and answer the questions posed for yourself. If you do this, you will have a much better understanding of what intimate sexuality means to you.

  1. Self-Nurture: This is the process of taking care of yourself and feeling better about yourself. Ask yourself: What activities, environments, and experiences enhance and nurture you? A possible answer might be: Taking a boxing class at my gym helps me to feel better physically, to feel better about how I look, and to socialize in a healthy way.
  2. Sensuousness: This involves developing body awareness and learning to stimulate all the senses. Ask yourself: What activities, behaviors, or environments add to your body awareness and stimulate your senses? A possible answer might be: Keeping fragrant cut flowers in the house creates pleasure through smell.
  3. Relationship Intimacy (General): This means enjoying the company of others without being sexual. Ask yourself: How can you enjoy being with others without being sexual? A possible answer might be: Asking my friends about their lives helps me to know them better and to care more about them.
  4. Partner Intimacy: This means enjoying the company of your significant other without being sexual. Ask yourself: How can I be with my partner without being sexually engaged? A possible answer might be: Sharing what I am feeling with my spouse, and not being rejected because of that, helps me to trust and rely upon him/her in new ways.
  5. Non-Genital Physical Touch: Giving and receiving physical pleasure without genital contact. Ask yourself: How can my partner and I physically please one another without genital contact? A possible answer might be: When I watch TV with my partner, we can hold hands and snuggle.
  6. Genital Sexuality: Enhancing, sustaining, and enriching genital sexuality. Ask yourself: How can the genital expression of my sexuality be enhanced, sustained, and enriched? A possible answer might be: I can look into my partner’s eyes and talk about how much I love them while we make love.

As you read through this list, you probably noticed that it starts (and ends) in very nonsexual ways. Only two of the six elements of intimate sexuality involve physical contact with your partner. As stated in the opening sentences of this post, there is more to sex than sex. Especially for committed couples.

More from Robert Weiss Ph.D., LCSW, CSAT
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