Great Sex Does Not Lead To Great Intimacy, Great Intimacy Leads to Great Sex – Dr. Sue Johson
Sex is often a place where couples connect and can be one of the first places where couples start to feel distant which in turn can cause a lack of intimacy. It can be like the chicken and the egg, where it is hard to know whether not having sex causes the lack of affection or whether it’s the other way around. In this article, I will take a look at how we might think about these issues, how to fix difficulties in the physical relationship, and what the effects are of a lack of emotional intimacy in relationships. At the end of the day, long-standing relationships cannot survive without physical and emotional intimacy, at least not in a fulfilling way that provides closeness, support and growth.
The End of the Honeymoon Phase
Sex at the beginning of relationships is legendary. Many couples describe the passion of the first phase, often coupled with long nights, and spending copious amounts of time together. There is often a sense of completeness and soul-matedness. Carl Jung said that when we fall in love, it is like having a seizure. Intimacy in relationships takes on many forms, and the initial phase is a kind of important blindness, as it helps us overcome fears of closeness and numbs out our worries about getting hurt. That is why individuals who might normally be riddled with fears of attachment can feel flooded with feelings of safety and hope, but unfortunately, the shoe always falls, and there is good reason for this and a great opportunity.
As the stakes get higher and relationships move into the next phase, which usually involves increased decisions such as moving in together, changing cities or countries, opening bank accounts, thinking about children, the brain and nervous system take in all of this increasing bondedness and evaluates the threat of losing it. This is why little disagreements can start to feel more powerful and also why the ease of conversation can take a real hit. When couples start to feel that they cannot easily talk to each other or make decisions, it can have the effect of causing one or both partners to worry about the future. This in turn can make the other partner feel physically unsafe in the sense that the body starts to protect itself by sending signals of anxiety, discomfort and other sensations; think of it like a fire alarm in the kitchen that keeps getting turned up in sensitivity.
What is the Role of Sex
Sex can often act as the glue. Especially if one or both partners has a difficult time putting their emotions into words, the physical rush of getting aroused can be a balm to the wounds of feeling distant. It sends powerful feelings of hope and connection that override the normal rumination of all of the problems and for a temporary period, all feels well. The issue of course is that there can be a repeated fall from grace, where the concerns and hurts rise to the surface after the endorphins wear off and this can start to feel very binary and exhausting. In fact, it can lead to even greater fighting in the way that somebody coming off of drugs might be panicking at the rushing in of pain and shame that was soothed by the flooding of important motivational chemicals to the body.
What you often hear from couples at this stage is that there is division. One partner will start to feel rejected and criticized for wanting to have sex more, while the other partner will pull away and describe that they cannot be sexual if they do not feel safe and loved. The whole relationship starts to feel nervous and it can be difficult to naturally enter into a state where libidinal energies flow and there is a mutual exchange of desire and comfort. If left alone, this can build into a rigid pattern that gets repeated and sets in, and then both partners start to feel exhausted by it in their own ways.
Tips to Get Out of This Dance and Have Long Term Intimacy
One of the first things to do is to recognize the level playing field. Take the time to slow down and realize that reaching for sex and pulling away from sex are two sides of the same coin. Both partners feel a sense of loneliness and if a couple can at least acknowledge that they are on the same page when it comes to wanting to resolve things, it can bring a lot of relief; it’s the feeling of being so far away that can be distressing. The next step is to try and take stock of issues that have been affecting the relationship that has led to their being a lack of closeness and safety. Of course, this is not easy to do, it often requires the help of a professional to slow the conversation down so the relationship does not enter into habitual responses.
What I have seen work magic in relationships is when each partner’s responses are really slowed down and the complexity of what each person is doing and saying is brought to light. The partner who is put into a box for always wanting sex is seen for actually wanting to get close, missing the intimacy and often struggling to articulate their fears in words. The partner who is pulling away and protecting themselves is seen as having important issues to discuss, perhaps having had bad experiences physically in the past and also desiring safety and soothing. When each person becomes three dimensional again, the learning can begin around how to touch the edges of what the other partner needs. My experience is that when this happens, sex comes back in a more conscious, deliberate and loving way and these tools can last a lifetime.