As a sex and relationship therapist, I’ve treated hundreds of couples complaining of various sexual dysfunctions or relationship challenges. While I can say that I have helped most of them overcome their hurdles, there is always the occasional client who, despite having met their primary goals, still feels like there is something more to be had. "What else can we do?" they usually ask me.
While I caution clients about striving for the kind of sex that is depicted in Hollywood, I know what they mean. They want that je nais se quoi, that zest, the passion they know they are capable of experiencing, yet lack the roadmap to attain.
For a long time, I thought “that thing” was an energy that couples simply have or do not have. I wasn’t sure how to define it, let alone teach it. I knew from my clinical experience that offering resources on spicing things up might help temporarily, but didn’t quite hit the mark on what they wanted to achieve.
Eventually I set out on a mission to discover what exactly constitutes extraordinary sex. I drew from principles of positive psychology to inform my model. I liked how the field of positive psychology focused, in part, on finding meaning despite life’s challenges. I also liked the emphasis on finding peak experiences. Was it possible that sex could constitute a peak experience for people?
I initiated a research study that examined how four qualities affect sexual satisfaction. The qualities I identified were sensuality, curiosity, imagination, and relationship attachment. I was specifically interested in whether being in touch with each of these qualities outside the bedroom yielded more intensity inside the bedroom.
My questionnaires asked things like: When walking, do you notice the sensations of your body moving? To what degree are your daydreams stimulating and rewarding? Do you actively seek new experiences?
After analyzing data from 195 participants, I found that in general, people who are more sensual, more curious, and utilize positive mental imagery were more sexually satisfied, but only if they had a secure attachment to their relationship partner. In other words, people might have scored high on the measures of sensuality, curiosity, and imagination, but if they had an unhealthy relationship, they were likely to report lower levels of sexual satisfaction.
The outcome of this study is exciting for several reasons. Studies have long held that sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction go hand in hand, and my study was no exception. Having a caring, supportive partner is a huge piece of the pie. But what makes this research interesting is that it tells us we can work towards deepening our sensuality, expanding our sense of curiosity, and opening our imagination in a non-sexual context to increase our ability to enjoy more intense sexual experiences.
What this means is that there are steps people can take whether or not they have a sexual partner to jumpstart the process of improving their sexual satisfaction. Simple things like learning to savor a cup of coffee, signing up for an online course, and learning to think outside the box will help set the stage for more intense sexual engagement.
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Jamea, E. (2020) The role of sensuality, curiosity, and imagination in high and optimal sexual satisfaction. The Journal of Sexual and Relationship Therapy. Published online.