Intimacy in Marriage: Is Sex Deepening Emotional Intimacy?

Intimacy in marriage

Say the word “sex” to twenty different people and you are likely to get twenty different reactions.

Why is that?

Sex is an emotionally-charged experience with few rivals—sex and sexuality are not neutral phenomena, devoid of meaning. In fact, it is the psychological/emotional meaning that sex is imbued with (a meaning shaped by unconscious beliefs and conflicts) that makes the experience of sex so transcendent and amazing for some, yet so complicated and fraught with anxiety for others.

For some, sexual desire (as well as the act of sex itself) is something that should be subdued and controlled, should be allowed expression only under certain circumstances where it is deemed acceptable; while for others, sex (and one’s sexuality) is seen as a vital part of their identity, inherent to being human and, as an extension of this belief, sex is seen as something to be celebrated as often as one desires (as long as all involved are consenting adults).

Intimacy in Marriage: When Sex Is Cut off from Emotional Intimacy

Despite the varied attitudes about sex, most couples desire a rewarding sex life. When it comes to sexual fulfillment, it’s important to note that there is no one universal standard for great sex. Too often, passionate sex is seen as the standard to reach for and anything that falls short is considered a letdown. But for many couples, fulfilling sex exists without fiery passion. Passion, in and of itself, is not a prerequisite for emotional bonding.

For many of the couples I work with, the expectation (whether spoken or not) is that sex will lead to greater emotional intimacy, a deeper and more fulfilling emotional connection that is the yardstick for a healthy relationship or marriage. And while the research shows that sex releases hormones in both men and women that enhance the experience of emotional bonding, biology is not necessarily destiny. There are many couples who have sex with little benefit of emotional intimacy and this is where, in my opinion, the psychological and emotional override the biological.

For sex to enrich emotional intimacy, it has to be an emotional experience (beyond the physical and sensory pleasures that are inherent to sex). And it’s no secret to couples counselors and sex therapists that committed couples can be emotionally closed off from each other for a variety of reasons and this emotional distance blocks the power that sex has to enhance emotional closeness.

Here are a few questions I frequently ask couples to think about when it comes to sex:

  • Does sex make you feel emotionally closer to each other? Think about all the ways in which sex enriches your relationship.
  • Are you able to fully express yourself sexually with your partner/spouse? If not, what seems to get in the way?
  • What is your vision of fulfilling sex?

It can feel like you’re trying to feed a bottomless pit when sex is devoid of the emotional threads that pull couples closer. There are different reasons why emotional intimacy might be lacking in the bedroom:

  • A fear of intimacy (you are uncomfortable with a certain level emotional closeness and vulnerability);
  • Unresolved relationship issues (issues that prevent you from being emotionally vulnerable during sex);
  • Poor communication (failure to effectively express your sexual and emotional needs);
  • You have conflicting feelings about sex and/or you remain cut off from your sexual-self (your sexual needs and desires are not seamlessly integrated with other aspects of your personality);
  • History of sexual trauma (sex triggers painful memories and you need to remain closed off emotionally to cope with these distressing feelings).

As many couples have shared with me, not all sex is designed to feed their emotional connection. Depending on circumstance and need, sex can serve different functions for couples, besides emotional bonding (pure pleasure; fun; abandon; stress relief; losing oneself; release of sexual tension, to name a few). As one husband shared, “Last night when we had sex, I disappeared into myself. It was like I found the solitude I needed even though my wife and I were connecting sexually.” This speaks to the changing roles that sex can have for people at different times.

With that said, if sex feels unfulfilling to you or you feel like something is missing, it may be that the emotional connection you seek is not being fed through sex. Understanding why this might be the case is an important step to creating a more satisfying sex life.

To discover powerful strategies to deepen emotional and sexual intimacy, check out my intimacy guide for couples.