Why Emotional Safety is the Defining Feature of Good Sex

Susan Johnson on Infusing Sex with Emotion and Attachment

Susan Johnson • 7/27/2017 • Be the First to Comment

Passion is attachment longing—the longing for emotional connection twined with attunement and erotic exploration and play. Passion is about so much more than responding to novel stimuli or ramped-up lust. In the dance of sex, passion can be constantly renewed, not simply by finding more exotic sexual positions (although who can resist being intrigued by the positions in the new Joy of Sex, such as Wailing Monkey Climbing Tree) but by changing the level of our engagement in the moment and with our lover. If we really understand love, we can also understand how to shape lasting passion.

In today’s world, we’re surrounded by impersonal sex—to the point where young men are routinely seeking help because, having conditioned their brains every day since the age of 12 to respond to porn sex images, they can’t get an erection with their girlfriends. We’re also regularly told that sex in long-term relationships is almost always “vanilla,” bland. To be spicy at all, it just has to be ramped up with constant novel stimuli, new lovers, rougher sex, new toys. So let’s look at the difference between impersonal—what I call avoidantly attached sex—and sex that’s infused with emotion and attachment.

This focus on emotional safety may be a particularly crucial defining element in sex for women. If you expose men and women lying in brain-scan machines to explicit or subliminal sexy pictures, everybody’s brain lights up. But only in women does the cortex—the judgement/control center of the brain—light up. Women’s brains naturally pair up desire and safety concerns. Makes sense! Sexual intercourse is literally much riskier for women. So women most often need to check out the relationship context—to talk as part of foreplay before allowing themselves to descend into conscious, active desire. Women, in particular, may be physically aroused (their body registers a cue as sexually relevant) but may not necessarily translate this into explicit desire—wanting to have sex.

All the new evidence is that women are more sensitive to relational context—safety!—and so for them, desire often follows arousal, versus the classic model of sexuality, where desire comes first. Desire is in response to interactions with their partner. Note: this means that a woman can be totally healthy and normal and never experience spontaneous sexual desire. This research helps me explain to a husband that the fact his wife doesn’t come on to him or instantly respond to any sexual signal isn’t a sign that she doesn’t desire him—and that the emotional context he creates is key in moving her into a sexual space. The way he demands sex actually activates her sexual brakes—pushes her out of sexual and into safety/survival mode. He needs to get curious about what context cues activate her sexual accelerator.

Bonding science says that a loving relationship also offers us a secure base to go out from. What this says to me is that great sex is a “safe adventure.” Thousands of studies show that safe emotional connection fosters curiosity and confident exploration. Think of a zip line: the freedom, the exhilaration you feel comes precisely from knowing you’re on a line and you’re held. Would you be screaming, “Weeeeee!” if you weren’t sure that the line would hold?

Hundreds of attachment studies show that safe emotional connection is the opposite of deadening, in or out of bed. Security increases risk-taking and spontaneity. A secure base allows us to play, to learn, to explore each other’s bodies and minds. Thrilling sex is about being secure enough to surrender to the moment—to let go and see what happens.

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This blog is excerpted from "The Dance of Sex" by Susan Johnson. The full version is available in the May/June 2016 issue, Unexpected Gifts: Six Master Therapists Recall their Most Unforgettable Sessions.

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Photo © Craig Hudson

Topic: Attachment Theory | Couples | Sex & Sexuality

Tags: attachment | attachment disorders | Attachment Theory | bonding | emotional intimacy | love | love and relationships | secure attachment | Sex & Sexuality | sex life | sex therapist | sex therapy | Susan Johnson

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