Sex and Playfulness: Remaining Connected in Monogamous Relationships

Young couple in kitchen. One partner bends back the other partner playfullyHow can a committed couple in a monogamous relationship have an active and fulfilling sex life? This topic comes up regularly with people I see in treatment. Couples in my office practice will tell me they’re bored with their sexual relationship or that they haven’t had sex in months, sometimes even years. Sex and playfulness are not equated with each other in their interactions. In fact, these couples may not display any playfulness toward one another at all.

When considering entering into a long-term committed relationship, or discussing sexual difficulties within an established relationship, it is common to question whether we can have a monogamous relationship with one person, be satisfied for the rest of our lives with this partner, and remain true to them. Some of us preparing to make such a long-term commitment may experience some level of anguish with regard to this question, both in terms of choosing to make the commitment and how we view ourselves in terms of ethics, morals, and our ability to keep our vows.

Consider the implications of not keeping vows, whether they are wedding vows or simply the informal commitment made when entering a monogamous relationship. Vows are generally not legal issues, in the United States. Rather, they are a commitment we make to ourselves and our partners to remain faithful. Some people may make the choice to be unfaithful when sex is not satisfying and/or their needs are not met in the partnership. But going outside the relationship to meet needs (when a couple is not practicing ethical non-monogamy) is a violation of vows that can easily destroy the love and trust between partners, causing deep hurt and damaging both individuals. But how, then, can a couple address issues of sexual needs not being met in a relationship?

What Happens When Sexual Needs Aren’t Being Met?

We know most romantic relationships may not be exciting or fulfilling without sex. In most cases (though there are exceptions), couples who are not getting their sexual needs met in a relationship are also not getting what they need emotionally.

A satisfying sexual relationship is often crucial to the success of a romantic relationship. How we perceive our needs and desires in the physical relationship cannot be answered in this one article, but I want to talk about the attitude shift, or the way we look at ourselves and our partners in terms of their ability to meet our needs in the sexual relationship. While there may be inherent differences when it comes to what each partner might bring emotionally to the sexual relationship, couples on the whole need the same thing from their sexual relationships—an emotional connection, a feeling of security that enables them to be vulnerable and express themselves sexually, and the physical manifestation of their emotions in the giving of themselves to their partners.

The common stereotype that men are strictly orgasm-centered during sex, that emotions don’t come into play for them, is a fallacy. I can tell you, from one man’s perspective, that nothing is further from the truth. When people define their love and emotions in a physical way, they give of themselves to their partners through the physical relationship. If a physical connection is not present in a relationship, either partner may feel unimportant, empty, or alone, especially when no mechanism to discuss this is in place.

Giving emotionally to our partners is extremely important. To share ourselves through sex means being emotionally vulnerable to the person in our world who is the most important to us, and couples thrive on the empathy and emotional response that occurs when they are fully present with one another during sexual intimacy.

Sue Johnson, developer of emotionally focused couples and family therapy (EFT) defines three types of sex:

  • Sealed-off sex: This kind of sex is defined as emotionless and concentrated on the physical act; anxiety and performance are at the center of this type of sexual coupling, but intimacy and true connection may be lacking.
  • Solace sex: This type of sex can be a way to connect with a partner when other aspects of the relationship, such as true intimacy, are not present. When a couple has solace sex, they may be seeking emotional fulfillment in the sexual context as a way to connect with each other.
  • Synchrony sex: In this type of sex, all aspects of the emotional and physical come together, defining a healthy and satisfying sexual relationship. Vulnerability, attachment, and positive feelings about giving each other what is needed sexually are all likely to be present in the moment.

Challenges Faced When Learning to Reconnect

When I counsel couples about coming back together intimately after sex has been absent from their interaction for some time, there are a number of unique hurdles to overcome. Each partner has specific needs and ways they need to express themselves sexually. I help them make sure they understand how to meet each other’s emotional needs in the relationship and learn what is needed from each partner for sex to be exciting and fulfilling for both. A deeper understanding of those needs can create a powerful sexual experience for both partners, who may then be better able to move toward a healthy and active sexual relationship. While there may be inherent differences when it comes to what each partner might bring emotionally to the sexual relationship, couples on the whole need the same thing from their sexual relationships—an emotional connection, a feeling of security that enables them to be vulnerable and express themselves sexually, and the physical manifestation of their emotions in the giving of themselves to their partners.

To shift our attitudes about our sexual relationship, we must learn to see sex as an extension of the playfulness we have as a couple. There are no limits or boundaries when it comes to this playfulness, other than those set together as a couple. This can make your sexual relationship incredibly powerful. The dialogue you have with your partner should always contain a discussion about sexual behavior you may or may not want to engage in. You and your partner can then expand your playfulness into sexual exploration, staying within the limits you set regarding behaviors you might not be comfortable with.

David Schnarch coined the term, “wall socket sex“ in his book Passionate Marriage, describing an emotional and sexual stimulation that can create an “electric” connection in sexual intimacy. Being present together and allowing sexual responses to be authentic and natural through the giving and receiving of pleasure can lead to an emotional and physical connection that brings with it an unrivaled eroticism. Being with someone you love sincerely, to whom you are deeply attached, creates a physical relationship where both of you recognize that your presence, your desires and stimulation, are all about your partner’s satisfaction. This can be a recipe for a powerful sexual and emotional connection.

Learning to Share Vulnerably

In couples counseling specifically, I’ve heard a lot of discussion surmising that when everything is going well in the relationship, the sexual relationship will naturally take care of itself. I have not found this to be accurate. What helps heal the sexual relationship is being able to be vulnerable with each other, to bring up fantasies and desires, to be able to feel safe in sharing needs and desires without fear of rejection. You have to know your partner loves you and that fantasies and desires will be at least heard, if not considered.

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When it comes to the particulars of sex in relationships, in a healthy partnership it should be possible to discuss and consider introducing new activities in the bedroom. Things like role play, sex toys, and other types of kink, or non-vanilla sex (what some might refer to as “abnormal” sexual behavior), can be openly discussed and considered. Having a dialogue about what you like, what turns you on, what drives you sexually, or what you’d like to experience is most likely to be possible—and productive—when both partners feel emotionally safe.

If one partner isn’t comfortable in any way, it’s essential to consider what they want and need. Anal sex is an example where a dialogue about wanting to engage in this form of sex play may be necessary. If one partner declines, does that create anger and resentment, or do you simply take it off the list? If you’re in a relationship where you feel secure about broaching any subject, you would simply cross it off and move on to consider the multitude of other sexual adventures you might have instead. If you struggle with these discussions, consider seeking the help of a qualified mental health professional. It can help to begin the conversation in a safe space free of judgment.

I believe monogamy is so sexy because two people can have whatever they desire together. Though it may be necessary to work through any issues that may arise, and perhaps commit to several conversations about certain topics, this can still lead to greater feelings of security and safety in the emotional and sexual aspects of the relationship. When we know our relationship is secure, that our partner is invested in making us happy and fulfilling us emotionally, physically, and sexually, just as we are committed to doing so for them, we are free to enjoy the sexual relationship to the fullest.

References: 

  1. Johnson, S. (2013). The three kinds of sex. Retrieved from http://www.drsuejohnson.com/the-three-kinds-of-sex
  2. Schnarch, D. (2009, April 27). Passionate marriage: Keeping love and intimacy alive in committed relationships. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

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

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  • Tessa

    Tessa

    June 9th, 2017 at 10:19 AM

    When you find that perfect person for you then over time you will end up having all different sorts of sex even though I think that most of us in the beginning of any relationship think that we are always going to be in perfect harmony from here on out.

    Of course we realize pretty quickly that this is not what real life is, but I do think that when you are with the one that you are supposed to be with then more times than not this isn’t about solace or isn’t about anything other than choosing to be in sync with one another and meeting each other’s emotional and physical needs.

  • Stuart Fensterheim,LCSW

    Stuart Fensterheim,LCSW

    June 29th, 2017 at 8:31 AM

    Thank you for your comment Tessa. It’s true! The closer and more connected you become, the more you are in synch with your partner.

  • lorna

    lorna

    June 12th, 2017 at 11:21 AM

    aww reading this helps me realize just how lucky I am all over again!

  • Stuart Fensterheim,LCSW

    Stuart Fensterheim,LCSW

    June 29th, 2017 at 8:42 AM

    Hi Lorna- If you and your partner have a playful and satisfying physcial relationship you are indeed lucky. It’s not just luck though. Keep doing what you’re doing to maintain that close connection and encourage that playfulness always!

  • Frank

    Frank

    June 13th, 2017 at 3:06 PM

    we both used to worry that others would see us more being silly
    now we just don’t really care what they think
    it makes us happy, and we are the only two people who have to worry about that

  • Stuart Fensterheim,LCSW

    Stuart Fensterheim,LCSW

    July 24th, 2017 at 5:11 PM

    You’re absolutely right Frank! It’s all about the two of you enjoying each other and being happy together. Thank you for the comment.

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