What Makes Good Sex Good?

What makes a sexual encounter good? It’s all in the meaning we make of it.

Good sex isn’t the result of a particular sequence of events. Good sex is all about how the participants interpret that sequence of events. What might be a distressing and bad encounter for one person could be perfectly enjoyable for another, depending on how they attach meaning to the experience.

Imagine a sexual encounter in which neither partner achieves orgasm, but rather just wind down as they get tired. For one person, this might be seen as a failure. What’s wrong with us? Am I bad at sex? Does my partner not care about my pleasure?  For another, this might be a perfectly satisfactory and enjoyable experience. They could enjoy the sensation of being close to their partner, physically and emotionally, enjoying the shared intimacy of the moment.

Or imagine a very short sexual encounter. One person might think, What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I last longer? That was so embarrassing, while another might think, What a fun quickie. There are infinite possible variations of this idea. Think of anything that could “go wrong” in a sexual encounter, and you’ll see how much depends on how the participants interpret it.

Being attached to an overly rigid model of how a sexual interaction should unfold almost always becomes a problem sooner or later in a relationship, because our bodies are complicated and don’t always behave in the way we want. For that reason, if your measure of success for a sexual encounter is some particular activity, like penis-in-vagina (PIV) penetration to orgasm, at some point you will probably be disappointed. What meaning will you make out of that moment? If you’ve had this experience before, what meaning did you make then?

Consider this: what do you really want to get out of sex? Is it a particular kind of activity? Or is that activity a symbol for something more important–intimacy with your partner, trust, love, pleasure? How can you get what you REALLY want out of the interaction, and release attachment to a particular sequence of events?

3 Ways to Handle New Relationship Bliss That Support a Long-Term Healthy Relationship

This is the second post in a three-part series about sex and differentiation of self in relationships. If you missed the first post, about the phases relationships go through, and how that development can get stuck, check it out here.

Think about those exciting early days at the beginning of a relationship. All the hormones and novelty work together to ease much potential distress around sex. This is a stage where we don’t generally see our partner very clearly. We see all the things we agree about and love about them, based on quite limited experience from a few dates, or a few months together. Then we invent the other 98% to support the story that they are perfect for us. We see the best in one another, and see how much we can change ourselves to be as much alike as possible. This phase is called symbiosis. Over time, the new relationship energy starts to fade, time goes by, and at some point we look around and realize “they’re not who I thought they were”. We start to notice we have differences, and some of them are big. Some are huge. Who IS this person?? This is the beginning of a natural transition from symbiosis to differentiation.

You (or your client) can set yourself up for an easier transition from one stage to the next. If you know that in past relationships you’ve tended to lose yourself in your partner, setting aside your own interests or habits for theirs, and becoming dependent on their approval or attention, this is valuable information to take into future relationships. You can get better at holding on to what makes you a unique and separate person from your partner without losing the joy and intimacy of a loving partnership–in fact, that joy and intimacy will only be heightened, ultimately, by the vulnerability you can find in welcoming your partner into the truth of your innermost self. Here are a few important steps you can take to prevent getting stuck:  

  1. Don’t tell “kind untruths” like  “I always had an orgasm with you” or “I never use a vibrator” or “I only think of you when I fantasize”. Any kindly-meant bending or breaking of the truth will certainly come back to bite you later on, and when it does, it will seriously undermine or destroy your partner’s trust in you.  
  2. There is nothing wrong with seeking to grow as a person, but don’t give yourself up to your partner entirely. Grow to be more the person you want to be, not simply more the person you partner wants you to be.
  3. Don’t give up any parts of yourself that are a major part of the “juiciness” of your life, like independence, career aspirations, major life goals. The healthy business of the symbiotic stage of your relationship is to bond and stabilize, but if you take it too far and eliminate all of the things that are most important to you, you will find yourself without a sexual spark later on. Ask yourself (or your client):
    • When do I feel alive?
    • When do I experience joy?
    • If I stopped doing _____, would I miss it five years from now? Ten?

When you answer these questions you must go further than “when I’m with my partner”.  Get down to an answer that is just about you.

The things that make you feel alive are the things you must keep. In fact, they’re probably the things your partner was attracted to in the first place. Unless you want to feel flat in 5 years, prioritize those things. This creates a foundation for a relationship that has room for you to be happy!

In my next post, I’ll zero in on some reasons couples struggle when moving from symbiosis toward differentiation. I’ll talk about the Big Choice couples are faced with, between the path of differentiation (risk) and the path of assimilation (safety).

Sex and Differentiation of Self

This is the first post in a three-part series about sex and differentiation of self in relationships.

Sex is perhaps the area of human experience in which we feel the most vulnerable. In sex, we are exposed, naked before another human being, both literally and figuratively. With vulnerability often comes anxiety: how will my partner react to my body, my sexual preferences, my fantasies? How will they react to my discomfort, awkwardness and uncertainty? What if I don’t get hard or stay hard? Will I be able to figure out how to please them? What if they don’t reach orgasm, or if I don’t? What if I suggest something they think is gross?

Sex is a place where our deepest sense of desire and our deepest vulnerabilities meet. In this tender intersection, it can feel like the future of the relationship rests on whether our partner is pleased by us or, heaven forbid, turned off by us. We look for any sign of the latter so we can adapt, and quickly. “Oh, did you think I said vibrator? I didn’t say that, I would never say that! I absolutely agree with you, vibrators are gross!” or “Yeah, that was DEFINITELY an orgasm. Absolutely. Awesome.” There is a whole lot of nonverbal communication going on, as well as people working hard to accommodate one another before there is even a sign of distress. Before you know it, you have an entire narrative about who you and your partner are together sexually that is based on, in part, false assumptions and kindly-meant untruths.

Where did the connection go, to say nothing of the pleasure? How did sex become a performance, frequently ending in hurt feelings or tears? Why isn’t sex spontaneous any more? What happened to all that super hot desire?

Let’s just pause there for a minute; think about those questions. What is your theory about what happened? And how might you approach that as a relational therapist?

Helping couples work with questions such as these used to be VERY difficult for me, because the level of distress the partners were experiencing was hard to handle in therapy. How directive should I be? How can I join with everyone? How can I shift unrealistic expectations effectively? Also, what expectations were realistic? Where does psychoeducation fit in? And certainly, how can I get the partners to calm down sufficiently to hear one another, and me? Improving communication is a great goal, but not if nobody can hear.

Some days felt like a win, others most definitely felt like a loss. I researched couple therapy in every way I could. I knew I needed to get much more effective. I borrowed some ideas and techniques from others, and I developed some of my own. I knew deep down that differentiation of self had to be at the root of the solution, but most couple therapy modalities focused on attachment to the exclusion of differentiation.

That’s when I discovered the Developmental Model. The DM incorporates aspects of attachment, differentiation, and neuroscience. Not two opposing camps but one cohesive whole, informed by science. What’s not to love? I looked deeper. I took webinars and then training from Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson the developers of the model. I took every opportunity to learn from them, and I took pages of notes. I replayed webinars again and again. I memorized. I took very specific interventions to my clients, and right away, my life got easier. I collected those interventions like precious stones. The more I had, the better things got. Naturally, I applied what I learned to my own clientele, and noticed the difference in progress. Of course I wanted to train with Ellyn and Pete.

As I learned more about the Developmental Model, I came to understand that relationships progress through stages. There is a connection between getting stuck in a developmental stage and experiencing relational problems. This provided a road map of sorts for therapy, and a non-pathologizing one at that. As a relationship develops, the couple’s experience of sex changes, too–providing an opportunity for relational and personal growth.

So how can you or your clients build a healthy sexual relationship that doesn’t suffer when the new relationship energy dissipates?  In my next post, I’ll discuss the early, symbiotic phase of the relationship, and I’ll share some tips for setting up an easier transition into the differentiation phase.

Click here for the second post in this three-part series.