This post was written by Community Partner, Pleasure Coach & Sex Educator Andrea Bertoli
We often use the words sex and intimacy interchangeably in our daily life. But as a Sex Coach, I think it’s really important to differentiate between sex and intimacy, and to learn how to make space for each of these important components of your partnership. In this article I will share three important things you need to know about sex and intimacy, and how to cultivate an abundance of both in your relationship.
1. Sex and Intimacy are Different—But Equally Important
Sex can be any of the delicious, arousing activities we do with ourselves or with others in order to feel sensation, pleasure, and perhaps orgasm. Intimacy is the connective thread between people that makes space for sexual activity to happen.
Often when clients come to me to improve their sex life, the issue isn’t actually about sex—it’s often a problem of intimacy. I like to speak about ‘the ecosystem of intimacy’ in a relationship—that is, cultivating an environment within which you both feel connected, close, warm, safe, playful, and open. I believe that true intimacy is forged when we make space to care for each other in ways that are specifically non-sexual, including non-sexual touch practices. This is especially important for those of us that need to feel connected before we have sex (see more about that below).
Despite the importance of building this intimate container, it’s often a challenge for couples to maintain this consistent connection via non-sexual practices. For many of us, this type of connection is abundant and easy in early stages of the relationship. This might look like hours-long phone calls or late night chats, long dinners and revealing conversations, and constant sexual and non-sexual touch. And yet, as time marches on, this is lost from many relationships.
Sometimes this intimate connection fades because of time, stress, illness, changes to family dynamics (like having a child) or just because they become accustomed to each other over time. But when we no longer have non-sexual touch and connecting practices, we also lose the intimate connection. And when we lose intimate connection, we often lose sex (or at least sex worth having).
The problem with this is that many (if not most) people need to feel emotionally connected in order to have sex. For those of us wired this way, we need to have an emotionally intimate connection before we can think of getting naked with someone. And yet others are wired to want sex as a way to emotionally connect.
You can see the paradox here!
Those that need emotional connection before sex feel distant from our partner, and can’t figure out how to feel close. But those that need sex in order to feel emotionally connected are wondering why their partner doesn’t want to have sex and be close. Unless we’re aware of this paradox, it can leave us in a sexual stalemate, where no one gets what they want.
Learning how to build intimacy into a relationship is a practice, and below are some of the tools you can use to build connection on a daily basis.
2. Intimacy is a Practice
Now that you know some people need emotional connection to have sex, and others need sex to feel connected, think about your relationship. How do you like to engage with your partner? Are you and your partner wired the same, or different? Can you think of a time where these different approaches to sex were a problem in your relationship?
Those of us that need to feel connected before sex can really benefit from non-sexual intimacy practices to help foster the ‘ecosystem of intimacy’ in a relationship. Keeping the sparkle alive with playful, loving, non-sexual touch is really important, and will likely lead to better sexual outcomes (which is good for those of us that need sex to feel connected). If we think of sex and connection as a beautiful, unending circle, then we can approach intimacy practices as a way that speaks to our partner’s needs directly.
Here are some of my suggestions for deepening and expanding intimacy:
- Have real conversations: be clear and vulnerable and open. If you find yourself in a rut trying to create deeper, more meaningful conversations, try using some conversation card decks like The Skin Deep or Esther Perel’s card game. There are many to explore, and these cards can be really fun and open up so many lines of conversation.
- Play together! Playing is a great way to reconnect, and it’s a bonus if you have some non-sexual touch involved (taking a shower or bath together, swimming together, having a pillow fight or a play wrestling match).
- Explore non-sexual touch practices: learn to give a good massage, explore sensate practice, and touch each other with love and tenderness, without going over into sexual play. Learn to touch for the joy of sensation and connection. Our skin has slow-response nerve fibers that respond to slow, gentle touch and stimulates the release of oxytocin. This can be both connecting and anxiety-reducing.
- Explore Tantra practices: Some of my favorite ways to bring in Tantric wisdom are the most simple to explore. My favorite practices I teach coupes is a basic eye-gazing practice and synchronized breathing. These two practices are very simple but are so rich and powerfully sexy. Learning to build and hold sexual energy is a wonderful aspect of Tantra, and can help foster deeply pleasurable connection.
But here’s the most important thing to remember: as you build your ecosystem of intimacy, you need to prioritize play and massage and conversation and such… but KEEP IT NON-SEXUAL. Don’t agree to give a massage and then make it about sex; don’t assume one fun shower means your person is ready for sex. When we offer one thing and then make it about something else, it erodes trust. This behavior is toxic, and it will turn your partner away from ALL touch. And when we turn away from touch, our intimacy dies.
Learning to incorporate non-sexual touch in service of intimacy building is foundational to a deeply connected sex life, and if you’re invested in the longevity and joyful growth of your relationship, it behooves you to make the investment!
3. True Intimacy Requires Vulnerability
Learning to be in an intimate partnership with someone takes practice, and it also takes a willingness to be known. It can be hard to really open up emotionally and be truly vulnerable, and yet this vulnerability is a foundational component of deeply intimate connections.
One of the ways I encourage my clients to speak into this is to state it simply: “I feel vulnerable sharing this with you right now.” Speaking into our own feelings and addressing the inherent vulnerability in our statement or request can immediately connect us with the other person and open up their heart.
For example, earlier this week my client told me that she feels really nervous to share some specific requests with her new boyfriend. She wanted to add some restraints into their sexy time, but was feeling super shy about making the request. First, we want to give the other person the benefit of the doubt—let’s assume they want to know what we like, and that they want to help us find pleasure. Leading with that, I advised her to bring this request up in a way that acknowledged her nervousness: “I’m really nervous to bring this up with you, but I have something I’d like to try with you. Would you be open to talking about it?”
I’ve found this strategy to be really helpful with my clients, whether they are just dating or in long-term partnerships. When we lead with our own feelings, and when we can give others the space to react to the feelings, we create deep connections that can enhance our romantic and sexy adventures.
A huge part of being vulnerable is learning to ask for what we want. This includes learning to state our boundaries and edges, and learning to say no. So many of us—men and women alike—are self-described ‘people pleasers.’ We’re taught not to be ‘needy’ or to be selfish. However, we all have beautiful human needs, and to have deeply connected sexual experiences, we need to practice being selfish and asking for what we want—and stating what we don’t want. Even as a professional in this space, it’s still my work to learn to practice articulating my NO. Sometimes I have to walk myself through the process, and acknowledge that my NO is just as wanted and valuable as my YES, and sets me up for deeper connection overall.
All of these practices are those I incorporate into my own relationship, and into my client sessions. These proven tools for connection can be deeply healing and super fun to explore. I hope the information and tips here help you explore your intimate connection and in ways, and better understand your own emotional and intimate needs.
More About the Author: I help people build stronger relationships, create intimate communication, explore their desires, and practice sensual connection in a grounded, holistic way. My approach to coaching and teaching uses tools from Tantra, mindfulness, and yoga to help you find new ways of relating to yourself and others, and will create space for you to rethink sex and pleasure.
Andrea’s Upcoming Events:
- Wednesday Dec 13| Online
- Wednesday Dec 13| Kailua
- Wednesday Jan 17| Online
- Wednesday Jan 17| Kailua