Three Intimacy-Enriching Lessons Every Person Deserves

Happy couple in pajamasMy practice is brimming with individuals and couples who wish for a return to the sex and intimacy they once enjoyed. Parents of young children, busy executives, and graduate students have a drive to get “it” back. There are also some very brave people who admit, “I really don’t want to,” and, “If I never have sex again, is that OK?”

In most cases, it’s safe to say sex is not the real issue. Real issues relate to the lack of emotional connection and subsequent anxiety and unmet needs. The people I work with in therapy may recognize the various “soapboxes” and tools I introduce in this article because nearly all of them receive the following information no matter their goals for their therapeutic work. The knowledge presented below will enhance intimacy and enrich relationships with ourselves and others.

  1. Emotion essentials education: When working with individuals and couples in my private practice, almost every person leaves my office with an emotion-word vocabulary list. The purpose of the list is to expand our emotional vocabulary, practice accurately identifying our emotions, and then express them verbally to others. I obtained this fantastic list from my clinical supervisor at the beginning of my career, and I have distributed countless copies personally and from my website. The headings on the vocabulary list are emotion words we may learn early in our lives (sometimes our learning stops there!) and include: happy, caring, lonely, and hurt. Below each heading word is a rich list of words to describe, for example “happy.” The list further divides each heading by mild, moderate, and strong adjectives for the header word. What if we had only the header words to identify and express our emotional experience? Arrested development in emotional vocabulary keeps us from accurately identifying, expressing, and feeling our emotions. It’s “easy” to be mad and express that with a slammed door or facial expression. By the way, these two emotional expressions will turn you and others away. By accessing the emotion-word list to identify and share your emotional experience AND by using “I” and “we” statements, you have a greater chance of drawing those near and dear to you closer. For more on the list and to print your own copy, click here.
  2. Introduction to adult attachment: People who come to therapy should have a basic understanding of attachment, both as children and in the context of adult relationships. In my explanation to adult clients who see me both as individuals and in relationships, I describe attachments, for most of us, as essential as food, water, and shelter. Upon birth, we quickly begin to have needs for safety, assurance, and trust since we must rely on others to attend to our survival. Our primary caregivers may or may not be responsive to our needs, and demonstrate varying degrees of accessibility, responsiveness, and engagement to us and our needs to survive. Fast forward to the complexity of an adult relationship, in which we choose, rather than are born to, our primary caregiver—spouse, partner, boyfriend, girlfriend, etc. That caregiver attends to our need for intimacy, sex, companionship, and belonging. Just as in infant-caregiver relationships, adults in romantic relationships may be deemed secure, anxious-resistant, or avoidant. Imagine the fear of a newborn baby not having someone respond to his or her cries of hunger or discomfort. Adults may demonstrate the same motivation systems with similar pleas to have their needs met. Adults in my practice learn to uncover their attachment needs, hear their partners’ needs, and realign their commitment to being the caregiver their partner needs to thrive.
  3. Learn to self-soothe and reduce anxiety: With some exception, it is our individual responsibility to learn to soothe our own anxiety. The benefits of learning to be self-soothing impact our relationships, our effect on others such as our children, as well as our sexuality, physical health, and emotional health. Learning how to self-soothe and reduce anxiety is important to sex and intimacy, for one, because this skill is an aspect of being a self-sufficient individual. Emotionally self-sufficient individuals allow us to be safer and more secure upon entering an intimate relationship and encounter. My clients with trauma histories begin their work with relaxation tools, grounding exercises, and learning to access their own “felt sense” to determine their personal physiological reactions to anxious thoughts and experiences. Those of us without a traumatic experience in our histories can benefit from these lessons as well. To start, learning how to breathe in a nourishing, complete way can trigger our parasympathetic nervous system. Deep, full, and slow inhalations that provide the sensation of filling our bellies, not just our lungs, trigger the parasympathetic nervous system to flood the body with endorphins, natural opiates, and other biochemicals that usher us into relaxation. We have 24/7 access to this effective relaxation tool. Practicing effective breathing is the first step to becoming effective in self-soothing and anxiety management.

No matter the presenting issue or goals of the people I met in therapy, this information is appropriate because we are all living within similar culture strains and stressors. It is essential that we take ownership of our accurate emotional expression, investigate the impact of our attachment needs as well as the needs of our partners, and be proactive in sharpening our self-soothing skills.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Denise C. Onofrey, MA, NCC, Sexuality / Sex Therapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • emily smith

    March 25th, 2013 at 11:20 AM

    My husband and I were that couple who totally turned our lives over to our children once we had them and the marriage suffered a great deal as a consequence.
    We stopped placing any value on our time together as a couple and instead focused only on our time with the children.
    That’s great, parents should do that.
    But we have learned after meeting a few times with a great counselor that the one thing that we did wrong was that we put our relationship on the back burner. We should have kept one another a priority and even though we thought that we were doing it all right, that led to us doing it all wrong.
    Slowly we are trying to regain that place as number one in the family, but it is hard for us and for the kids too. This is not something that we can solve overnight but we are working on it and I can already feel that it is making us stronger as a team and as partners.


    March 25th, 2013 at 1:11 PM

    Weird how few of us actually think these things through. And then we complain and wonder about what went wrong for that bump to enter our relationship. I have been victim to it in the past but not anymore. Learnt my lessons and my marriage was saved. But if you are struggling with something similar do not be afraid to seek help! It definitely helped save my marriage. And do follow the tips mentioned here – after all prevention is better than cure!

  • Lacey

    March 26th, 2013 at 3:53 AM

    Printing my emotion word vocab list right now!

  • allie

    March 27th, 2013 at 12:40 AM

    life events can change how we feel about and participate in various aspects of life – be it work or our relationships.

    now when something drastic happens there is every chance that it affects our participation in these aspects of life.

    the next thing that automatically happens is a feeling of degradation.and that can make one feel terrible. the aspect of life that has taken a backseat (often a relationship) will then seem like something that was good in the past but can never get back to those levels.

    Fact is that it can get back to and even surpass the previous good levels. effort and energy being out into one aspect of life is a direct predictor of how well it turns out. so devoting more time effort and energy to your relationship is bound to give results, no matter how slow.

    It is a persistence game and the longer we try the more of chances of success.

  • Denise Onofrey

    April 6th, 2013 at 8:31 AM

    Hello Allie – Thank you for your insight and interest in the topic. I agree, relationships are a persistence game and success can come with awareness, tools, desire for change and reinforcement of that change.

    Denise Onofrey

  • Denise Onofrey

    April 6th, 2013 at 8:32 AM

    Hi Lacey!

    Thanks for printing your emotion words list! I think it can change how we experience, express and impact our emotional experience. I would love to hear how you are using it. Feel free to tell me

    Denise Onofrey

  • Denise Onofrey

    April 6th, 2013 at 8:36 AM

    Hello Gramham-Cell!

    Congratulations on the work and the product of a saved marriage. I appreciate your endorsement of my article and its content.

    I often say to my relationship clients “THIS is what you actually vowed to fulfill when you committed to each other…attachment needs, emotional experiences of the past, and so on.”

    Thanks again and congratulations!
    Denise Onofrey

  • Denise Onofrey

    April 6th, 2013 at 8:38 AM

    Hello Emily Smith-

    Yup, the back burner. No better way to get burned. I appreciate your effort to seeking professional guidance in addition to *hearing* what that person had to say. A third party can have a surprisingly spot-on perspective.

    Congratulations on your progress. And, yes, it can’t happen overnight but in nearly all cases, if you *both* want it, you can both have it. Keep up the good work.

    Denise Onofrey

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