Recently, psychotherapist, sexpert, and Blisstree friend Dr. Julie Elledge has talked to us about a slew of subjects relating to relationships including sexless marriages, open marriages, and sex addiction, not to mention other fun stuff like lying, cheating, and infidelity. Today I have some questions for her on sex and intimacy in a committed, long-term relationship including the deal with acting out sexual fantasies, and whether the term “meaningful sex” is always a part of marriage — and how maybe it really shouldn’t be. And because the weekend is almost upon us, I hope you’ll have the opportunity to personally experiment with some of Julie’s suggestions in the privacy of your own bedroom — and sexual fantasyland.
How does a couple know when there isn’t enough of the right kind of intimacy in their relationship?
Intimacy is both emotional and sexual. Sexual intimacy is primarily a touching experience that conveys love for your partner, reaffirms acceptance and trust in the relationship, and offers comfort in times of stress and crisis. Too often, sex is intellectualized as a perk of commitment, instead of recognizing it as an integral part of emotional intimacy. When couples are feeling like there’s not enough of the right kind of intimacy in their relationship, they’re becoming disconnected.
According to the theory that my business partner and I developed, How Couples Develop an Intimate-Erotic Connection, couples suffer from two different kinds of disconnection. In an intimate disconnect, couples drift away from each other. They don’t spend enough time with each other confirming their love and commitment to each other, and one or both members of the couple feel like they are not being seen or heard. In a polarized disconnect, conflict prevails inside and outside the bedroom. One expression of the polarized disconnect is when one member of the couple wants more intimacy and the other bids for more eroticism. Sometimes one person even withdraws from the relationship sexually. Then both people can feel alienated, rejected, and sad.
What are the biggest barriers to achieving intimacy that most couples face?
The biggest barrier to intimacy that most couples face is trust. And trust needs constant care. It must be built, reaffirmed, healed, and maintained. Distrust can sneak into the relationship without a hint that it’s the root of the problem. For example, every couple faces sexual boredom at some point in their relationship, but they don’t have to. Couples do everything sexually that’s acceptable between them. After a while, it becomes a challenge to refresh the relationship with new sexual adventures.
The question is: Why wouldn’t a couple continue to revitalize their sexual relationship and feel their commitment between them renewed? Because it takes trust to let someone else into the most private spaces of your mind. It’s the place that you fantasize. What if your lover rejects or humiliates you because of your fantasies? What if you fail? The investment in the person is so great that risking what intimacy is there may be too great to ask for deeper intimacy. It takes tremendous trust to ask for something so intimate. Too often, we fail our partner when he/she exposes part of the very core of his/her brain without a second thought. We lose sight of the courage it took for our partner to share something so private in favor of our own personal likes and dislikes. Remember the polarized disconnect? One partner wanted more intimacy and the other eroticism? The act of eroticism may not seem intimate, but the asking for it is, and so is sharing the experience. This genuine exposure of your partner needs care and attention or you may squelch the very core of that person and the existing intimacy between you.
Is there such a thing as an inappropriate sexual fantasy?
A fantasy is anything that someone is imagining to enhance his/her experience of reality. People fantasize about all kinds of things that they may wish they could share with their partner, while others would rather just keep their fantasies private. Rather than judge fantasies as either appropriate or inappropriate, it’s better to think about whether they could provide a bridge to a connection between the couple, or whether they’re acting as a wall between the couple. But just because it’s private doesn’t make it a wall. What makes a fantasy a wall is a persistent pattern of preferring the fantasy over a connection with your partner. But the same fantasy that acts as a wall can be changed into a bridge if the couple can find a way to incorporate the fantasy into their sex life — either by sharing it or just using it privately as part of lovemaking.
But couples need to understand that their partners may not want to participate in all fantasies that are shared. This is normal. When the couple’s relationship is anchored in trust, then they can talk about their fantasies if they so desire, decide what they want to do, and what to leave off their menu of sexual practices. For couples, the key is to strive to make the best out of what’s on the menu instead of remaining preoccupied with any limitations of mutual pleasure.
When you’re married or in a committed, long-term relationship, how often should sex “mean something,” or can it always just be sex for the sake of having sex?
Dr. Hicks and I define two different kinds of sexual play — intimate sex and erotic sex. Intimate sex confirms the couple’s union. They feel closer to each other. Romance, tenderly touching each other, and gazing deeply into each other’s eyes all lead up to intimate sex, whereas erotic sex temporarily puts emotional distance between the couple. Enjoying erotica together, participating in role-play, or using sex toys are all ways of using each other’s bodies for pleasure without emphasizing your love. (But that doesn’t mean this kind of sexual play lacks love.) In some relationships, couples de-eroticize each other to create safety and predictability. Creating some temporary emotional distance through fantasies allows the couple to see each other as separate sexual beings and reintroduce mystery, excitement, and desire.
In terms of how much meaningful intimate sex should a couple have versus erotic sex for the sake of having sex, it depends on the couple. No two couples are exactly alike. Some couples will be mostly intimate, while others will be mostly erotic, with others in the middle. The more sexually versatile a couple can be (the ability to be sexually intimate and erotic with each other), the more security and satisfaction they’ll feel with their bond. Couples oscillate between intimate sex and erotic sex. What stimulates one person may not be the same as what arouses his/her partner. If the couple can oscillate between intimacy and eroticism, then they have a higher probability of finding mutual pleasure together.
Should partners tell each other everything they’re thinking about during sex with each other?
The answer lies within the couple. Culture, family norms, community influence, media, and education all are formative to an individual’s sexuality. When two people come together, they have to marry all of those influences into an emotional and sexual union. This unique connection will shape the trust that exists between them. The key is not in the action of telling a fantasy, but in the trust that they feel to expose their erotic mind to each other. If trust is tenuous and one or both fear rejection, humiliation, or failure, then it will eat away at the confidence in the bond that the couple shares.
Sometimes a couple lacks the vehicle to express the fantasies that might brighten their relationship. That is where the Videos for Lovers series comes in. This educational program reveals the emotional and sexual connection of 15 normal couples. They range from couples who prefer intimacy such as Matt and Tina and Felicia and James, to couples who have a predominately erotic relationship such as Annie and Eric and Michael and Karen. The rest of the couples fall somewhere in between. Reading our book Lovers Exploration Guide, Developing an Intimate-Erotic Connection along with watching these DVDs provides a vehicle for couples to open up dialogue together without feeling emotionally overexposed.
Dr. Julie Elledge has a Ph.D. in education, masters in clinical psychology and a bachelor of arts in psychology with a minor in communication arts. She is a psychotherapist and coaches couples and individuals to optimize their performance at work and in their personal lives. Using a variety of storytelling methods Julie helps clients to develop powerful self-stories that overcome past traumas and crisis to lead a happy fulfilling life.
Julie and her colleague Tom Hicks have penned the book Lovers Exploration Guide, Developing Your Intimate-Erotic Connection that works in combination with Videos for Lovers to lead the reader through a journey of self-discovery and an exploration of what their relationship is and could be emotionally and sexually.
Founded in the latest research and theory, Julie and Tom have also developed a theory, How Couples Develop an Intimate-Erotic Connection and a treatment model, Restoring Intimacy and Eroticism for mental health professionals. Professional training for mental health professionals is available through Academic Alley.