Our culture does not recognize that feeling safe is a crucial ingredient to really good sex. In fact, with the porn model of sex, which is the prevailing way men (and women who want to please them) learn about sexual practices, the opposite is assumed: that good sex is risky and novel with a focus on genital functioning. Often these images of supposedly great sex remove the deep relational context and focus purely on the rush to oral sex and intercourse with orgasm as a fast and furious bullet train. Sometimes novelty can be enhancing; there are times in healthy connected relationships where we may try something new and enjoy the adrenal rush that expands possibilities with our partners. But when you see articles listing the top 10 ingredients for great sex, feeling safe does not usually make that list.
So what, you might ask, has feeling safe have to do with really wonderful sexual encounters? The kind of encounters I am referring to are the enhanced sexual experiences created by profound feelings that facilitate true emotional transparency with your partner. As it turns out, we need to feel safe to completely open up sexually, and this is especially true for women. The parasympathetic nervous system, which allows us to relax, promotes increased skin sensitivity and responsiveness to touch as well as genital arousal and orgasm. In Naomi Wolf’s new book, Vagina: A New Biography, the author presents a compelling case for the need for lovemaking to feel safe before a woman can relax enough to fully respond. So many men may think that their casual encounters with “hot sex” are equally as pleasurable to the female partner, but so often women have learned to behave as if they are very responsive when actually they are not able to get fully aroused before intercourse occurs.
In the past few years, I have become enamored with Sue Johnson’s therapy model called Emotionally Focused Therapy, or EFT. It is very effective for treating couples with sexual issues. Simply put, she proves that we are hard-wired for attachment: first, to our early caregivers as a very important survival mechanism, but later, as adults, we need mature attachment achieved through secure relationships. From these secure attachments we are able to explore our full range of transparent sexual expression because of the fact that we feel safe.
Dr. Stephen Porges presents what he calls the neural love code in his Polyvagal Theory. At a recent couples’ conference, he spoke of the importance of feeling safe as the first step to allowing physical contact, something he called “immobilizing without fear.” He referred to “the look of love” as the signal to the heart, which literally slows its rate to allow the body to relax. He called it the “face-heart connection.” He listed the love code steps as: 1) safety as communicated through eye gazing, facial expression and a soothing or lyrical voice, 2) coming closer and holding each other in a relaxed state and finally 3) bonding through touch and sexual interaction.
Sadly, many marriages and long-term committed relationships are locked in dysfunctional battles that destabilize the feeling of safety. These disconnected interactions are antithetical to good sex, yet many of these couples try to reconnect first through rote sexual interactions as a way to feel intimate. These encounters offer at the most a momentary feel good of an oxytocin release with orgasm, but they do not offer 90 percent of what great sex can really be. It is very difficult to shift from disconnection into good sex because we need to be vulnerable first, and that requires activating the neural love code. When we have been hostile or cold to a partner a few minutes before trying to have sex, we will need to spend quite some time with Porges’ step one, which includes all the cues that make us feel safe to come close.
One of the most important factors in creating a secure attachment is empathy. Without empathy, which can even help repair our emotional wounds from early childhood, we get stuck in endless loops of reactive hurt and defensiveness. In these high-conflict or disconnected relationships, moments of relaxed emotional connection, which requires both accessibility and responsiveness, are rare because disconnection has become the norm. The couples who are attempting to use sex to get connected often feel empty and return to their hurtful patterns rapidly.
Feeling safe in a relationship is a process, and couples will need to develop tools and ways of communicating, much of which is non-verbal, to return to the secure feelings once the inevitable flare ups occur. The good news is that our ability to rewire old patterns of relating is limitless and the skills can be practiced life-long. The scientific term is neuroplasticity, and it refers to the adaptability of the brain, heart and gut to build new pathways of responding. Interestingly, the same neurotransmitter receptors are in all three areas. My previous blogs refer to some great ways to change the dysfunctional patterns of relating as well as the truly awe inspiring benefits of transcendent sexual experiences. Yet, in many ways, the transformative power of feeling safe is the foundation and perhaps the gateway to all spiritual sex.