“Sex” can be difficult to define. Most often, when we refer to sex in this society, we are talking about penetrative sexual intercourse. But sex can include other acts as well including oral sex and foreplay. Foreplay itself can range in definition, depending upon who you ask and can range from the kissing and touching of erogenous zones to laying around in bed together before, between, or after a sex act(s)— laughing, snacking, etc.
The science of attachment theory has shown us that there are three kinds of sex. Dr. Sue Johnson, in her book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, describes these kinds of sex and dispels some of the myths about sex—“good” sex—that many of us have come to believe. Myths like: sex is always best at the beginning of a relationship, it is always “good” and effortless between partners that really love one another, that “good” sex means both partners have an orgasm, and that sex happens between people who have a lot of love or a lot of chemistry. Maybe you can think of more!
Surveys have shown that people have reported their best sex when in a long-term relationship in which they speak openly and honestly about their sex life and are willing to do the work it can take to improve and build upon the sex they are having (or not having). These couples understand that sexual desire ebbs and flows over the course of a relationship, and they do not define the health or quality of their relationship by this natural cycle.
The following types of sex are common and “natural,” and we may have experienced one or all three at some point in our lives. These descriptors are not meant to be critical or judgmental of any one particular type—whatever kind of sex you are having, there are perfectly reasonable circumstances that have led you there. There is no “bad” or “good” type. However, in becoming aware of the kind of sex you are having, you may find that you would like to either continue having that kind of sex, or try and find a way to have a different kind. Therapy is one effective way of building upon that awareness and creating the change you want to see.
Solace Sex is a reassurance seeking sex. When a person is having this type of sex, they are hoping to be assured by their partner that they are desirable and valuable. The main emotion driving Solace Sex is anxiety. Dr. Johnson quotes a patient, Mandy, who says: “Sex with Frank is okay. But to be truthful, it’s the cuddling I really want. And the reassurance. It’s like sex is a test, and if he desires me, then I feel safe. Of course, if he ever isn’t horny, then I take it real personally and get scared.” If this sounds familiar to you, you may be engaging in this type of sex.
This kind of sex has the benefit of helping to keep a relationship secure (seemingly) for a while. A drawback is that it can feed into patterns of anxiety maintenance and exacerbation. The main object of this type of sex is to please your partner through your sexual performance so they can reassure you, through their sexual response, that you are loved and your relationship is good. Or it can show up in the form of becoming sexually demanding—requiring frequent or performative sex that can sometimes have the opposite of the desired effect and causing your partner to desire sex less or even avoid it.
Ironically, with this type of sex, a person is more susceptible to being hurt. If the partner does not feel in the mood for sex or perhaps doesn’t orgasm, for whatever reason, the anxious person is likely to take this as a personal rejection and/or a sign of something wrong (with him or herself or the relationship as a whole).
This type of sex is common among people who have never learned to trust another person enough to become emotionally close or among people who feel insecure in/about their relationship. The focus is on self-assurance through stellar sexual performance and achieving orgasm. Here, the person remains emotionally aloof while maintaining a singular aim of arousal and orgasm. Emotionally connective acts like kissing or cuddling are usually avoided. In long-term relationships, this sex can seem mechanical.
This kind of sex is perfectly fine for a one-night stand or brief tryst. However, this kind of sex is very damaging to a long-term romantic partnership. The partner may often wind up feeling used and, in fact, there may be many partners. In order to maintain distance and passion at the same time, the novelty of a new partner can become necessary.
This type of sex can occur when we are feeling emotionally safe enough to express our needs, communicate openly, be playful, curious, engaged, and relaxed during sex. It is during this type of sex that partners can be more in synch, being in tune with and responding to each other. These emotional traits also tend to exist outside of the sexual life as well.
This is not to say that partners who are having Synchrony Sex are always having “perfect” sex. Real-life sex can involve some awkwardness or a misalignment of desire, just like relationships outside of the bedroom can involve some disagreements.
Partners who feel secure emotionally with each other can feel safe enough to explore sexually and endure the differences and difficulties that arise over the course of a long-term relationship—again, both emotionally and sexually.
Movies and TV shows give the impression that sex is “easy” and that partners do not need to work at it or even talk about it. However, studies show that couples who speak openly and honestly about their needs and preferences have more engaged and satisfying sex. If you are looking to achieve (or regain) Synchronous Sex, which is most conducive for a long-term relationship, it will require some work. One way of getting help with that work is through therapy.
At North Brooklyn Marriage and Family Therapy, you will have the opportunity to work with licensed and certified therapists to explore what is working in your relationship. We can help you use those strengths to reinforce any areas that feel less secure so you can be on your way, together, to having the sex and love you desire.