How your definition of sex is setting you up for disconnection

When it comes to sex therapy with couples, it’s essential for all involved to define and learn to redefine sex. Luckily, when couples come to see me for sex therapy (and frankly, it’s nearly impossible to practice comprehensive couples counseling without eventually exploring sexual dynamics), I often highlight how couples are set up for disconnection because of the linear sexual script they frequently follow. Instead, I teach them a circular model that expands their definitions of sex and eroticism.

We all have differing backgrounds when it comes to where, when and from whom we obtained sex education.. What I have found in my psychotherapy practice is that most of us have a very limited view (if not, ill informed understanding) of sex, sexuality, eroticism and what it means to be sexually intimate with a partner. When you take all the assumptions that each partner brings to the relationship you are bound to get tripped up. You believe sex includes a, b, c, and excludes x, y, z. But over the course of the initial few months of limerence (that highly sexually charged period where you’re so into each other) you create an implicit script for your sexual contact. You’re in a play with defined roles, where you know all of your lines, as well as those of your partner. And worst of all, the play always has the same ending.

A linear sexual script involves a series to events or steps that need to occur in order for the couple to engage sexually to reach a pre-determined goal. It may look something like this: glance at each other from across the room, hold hands, start kissing/making out, some heavy petting, followed by some manual stimulation of one or both partners, one or two preferred sexual positions for intercourse, a certain limited time allowed for pleasure and the sense of mission accomplished once one or both partners reach orgasm. Then… roll over and we’re done.

While anticipation of expected sexual moves and experiences may create a certain sense of safety, it can also set the couple for being thrown off-balance when things don’t go according to plan — not to mention eventual boredom.

Imagine that one of those steps does not go according to plan. Considering a multitude of variables can come up, you’re bound on occasion or for a period of time not to be able to follow your “role” in the sexual script you believe you created together. Let’s say stress is killing your mojo that month to the point that you cannot find a way to relax enough to connect with enjoyable sensations. Let’s say you’re having some health issues and you’re arousal response is hampered. That’s exactly when partners start creating all sorts of false narratives about themselves or their mate: “something’s wrong with me”; “something’s wrong with him/her”; “he/she must not desire me anymore”… Before long, you have two sexually frustrated partners. Sounds familiar? Then it’s time to go back to square one.

The only goal of sex with your partner is about pleasure and connection.

Repeat after me: pleasure …. and … connection. Sex as a couple is not about intercourse or orgasms or whatever else you may have been told to believe.

The circular model of sex is more like a Ferris wheel: the engine is the erotic connection your have with yourselves and each other. From that center extends many pods/gondolas that represent erotic ways to connect and experience pleasure: making out, masturbation, oral, sensual touching, sexual foreplay, and yes intercourse are only some of the many many ways you can be together to call it sex (as long as it is pleasurable and connection building). That means, you can make out and get things hot and heavy, get or not maintain an erection, orgasm or not, … it all counts. And in the end, it’s always a good time.

With a broader circular model, not only is your sexual encounter longer lasting, it’s also more varied, flexible, adaptable and devoid of unnecessary pressures.

I hope this quick overview gives you some food-for-thought as you think about the last time you had sex or the next time you want to be sexually intimate with your partner.

***If you’d like to improve your sexual dynamics, contact me to schedule an appointment in-person at my office in Westport, CT or online (I provide counseling throughout Connecticut and New York) ***

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Couples primarily come in to tackle many issues that they believe get in the way of feeling heard and connected in the relationship. These issues often range anywhere from finances, parenting, sex, in-laws, to the deep hurt resulting from uncovering a deceit or an affair.

In Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, what we are primarily listening for is HOW the couple talks about these issues, rather than WHAT they are talking about.

All relationships, whether they be intimate couples, family dynamics or friendships, are inherently a back and forth of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. In marriage counseling, these behaviors are really the primary defenses we use to express/convey/communicate our thoughts and feelings. In other words, “When I feel and perceive X, then I react by being defensive, critical/blaming, plaquating, walking away….”

It helps to picture an infinity loop of action and reaction tendencies that delineate the relationship. Meanwhile the content (i.e., the topic of discussion or argument) is simply the trigger that highlights this dysfunctional dance.

So let’s take an innocuous topic that starts the interaction: “Honey, can you pick up the dry cleaning on your way home?” Great! Simple enough: Partner A makes a request, Partner B picks up the dry cleaning, brings it home, Partner A says thank you, done. Well… not so fast.

Let’s say Partner B had a crazy day and forgot to pick up the dry cleaning (again!). Now what? B walks through the door and the spouse says in a frustrated tone “What happened to the dry cleaning?! I needed that shirt for tomorrow!” Now B is thinking “Oh ohhhh… I’m in trouble again” but instead says defensively with the hopes of not talking any further about the forgotten dry cleaning “Uh! I’m sorry ok!! You don’t have to make such a big deal about it!! It’s not like you always remember things I need!” And…they’re off to the races. Partner A is now really angry, feels dismissed, continues to berate; Partner B gets increasingly defensive and eventually walks away. What just happened here??!

This negative interaction is another brick on the wall that perpetuates this couple’s disconnection and emotional distance.

One goes back to his/her story that he/she doesn’t matter, while the other believes the narrative that he/she cannot get it right and is inadequate. This is a sad state of affairs and one that can be better understood when you slow it all wayyyyyy down.

The next time you find yourselves caught in your negative cycle start noticing the following elements:

  • How are you reacting? What are your defensive moves? Do you tend to criticize, blame, demand, get defensive, plaquate, walk away, or go for the kill by hitting that nerve you know will hurt most?

  • What are you thinking? What are your perceptions of your partner? Your perceptions of the relationship? And most importantly, your perceptions of yourself? In other words, how is this exchange fueling the story you’ve been telling yourself?

  • What are you feeling? Are you feeling hurt, sad, angry, disgusted, happy, scared?

Now connect the dots: “When I feel [insert emotions], I think [insert perceptions of I/You/We are…], so I do/say [insert action tendency].”

If you both identify your feelings, thoughts, actions then you will begin to see the automatic reaction that comes back to you in response and that you then in turn react to. And thus, your negative cycle.

Next time I will go over the different types of negative cycles. Stay tuned!


If you are interested in tracking your negative cycle, I provide in-person and online couples counseling in my Westport office. I’m available to all throughout Fairfield County, CT and New York.

****Contact me to scheduled your free 15 min consultation****

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