Spice Up the Bedroom: Understanding the Meaning Behind Sex

Understanding Your Sexual Turn Ons

“The other night, I just wanted pure passion…sex for the sake of just having sex. I wanted to lose myself sexually without having to worry about anybody or anything. I need that every once in a while. That kind of sex helps me to mentally reset somehow so that I’m able to cope with all the stresses and responsibilities of life.” ~Philip, married fourteen years

  • When you read the above quote, what is your initial reaction to Philip?
  • Do you think he’s cold? Maybe someone with a long history of relationship issues, a guy who is probably incapable of genuine intimacy?

We’ll get back to Philip in a few minutes, but first, let’s talk a little about sex.

How to Spice Up the Bedroom: Understanding The Meaning Behind Sex

Not all sex is the same. What can lead one person to feel loved and cared for through a particular type of sexual experience/activity can make another person feel unseen and used. A sexually blissful joining for you might trigger anxiety in your partner, making him/her feel too exposed emotionally. Even within the same relationship, the meaning that sex has for a couple may change over time (as each partner evolves as a person).

Why is sex so layered with psychological and emotional meaning?

This occurs because the physical activity of sex is always filtered through the complexities of who we are psychologically, as well as the current circumstances of our life and relationship. Our mental filters infuse our sexual experiences with particular meanings (above and beyond the perception of whether the sex was good or not); and what makes this more challenging is that we might not always be immediately aware of what a particular sexual experience meant to us (for instance, we might feel uneasy with giving up control sexually without knowing the origin of this uneasiness).

This doesn’t mean that every sexual experience you and your partner engage in has to be emotionally complicated; but with that said, it doesn’t hurt to be more mindful of what you each might want and desire sexually (and to become more attuned to how different aspects of sex make you feel). And it’s important to note that your and your partner’s sexual needs and desires (as well as your emotional needs) may vary over time; and, just as important, it’s often the case that the non-sexual circumstances of your relationship are going to have a dramatic impact on what happens inside the bedroom. For instance, if one of you is feeling emotionally insecure about the future of the marriage/relationship, these insecurities are likely to negatively impact your sexual desire while also coloring the actual experience of sex.

Philip was looking for sexual abandon—he was hoping that sex would momentarily unshackle him from the daily pressures of life. On that particular day, he was feeling overwhelmed and anxious about work and he doubted his ability to support his wife Ilene and their three-year-old daughter. To be sexually attentive to his wife (which he often is) that day would have felt like one more responsibility piled upon a crushing wave of responsibilities.

So Philip was looking to have a qualitatively different experience from the sexual experiences that usually led to a deep emotional connection to his wife. Historically, sex allowed Philip to feel emotionally intimate and close to Ilene (an experience she cherished). And for Philip, this deeper emotional intimacy was accomplished through nurturing and pleasing Ilene sexually.

When Ilene was asked to describe what it was like to have sex with Philip on those occasions when he sought sexual abandon rather than emotional connection, she shared the following:

“I think I’m able to give Phil that as long as it doesn’t become the norm each and every time we have sex. I’ve come to learn that sex or the way we have sex is often a reflection of our moods. And from an outsider’s perspective there might not be any noticeable difference when Philip and I are having sex in order to connect emotionally versus using sex as a way to deal with stress. But I can obviously tell it’s a subtle shift in Philip. Less eye contact, less talking during sex, he’s a little less emotionally present but not totally gone emotionally. I’m glad I’ve come to understand what he needs depending on what he’s dealing with. And he’s usually so focused on my sexual needs that I’m glad to give him what he needs…”

The example of Philip and Ilene demonstrates the different meanings or functions sex can have for a person (in the case of Philip: how sex can function as a pathway to emotional closeness on some occasions yet have a very different function, one of abandon, in another instant).

Sexual Intimacy: What Does Sex Mean to You?

The couples I work with report that sex allows them:

  • To feel deeper emotional intimacy, a stronger bond or connection in their relationship;
  • To experience a physical release (a reduction of tension build-up; to address sexual arousal);
  • To elicit a particular feeling or emotional experience (for example, to feel excitement, joy, playful, enlivened, cared for, naughty, helpless, abandon; merger-oneness, powerful, in control, helpless, out of control, to name of few);
  • To escape from the stresses and pressures of life.

Do you know what meanings/functions sexual intimacy has for you and your partner?

Does this meaning remain constant or fluctuate depending on circumstance?

Don’t worry if you’ve never thought about these questions before (many couples haven’t). But to periodically ask this question will allow you to lift the veil of your sexual experiences and peek at the deeper meanings that may be shaping them.

Getting back to Philip, his relationship shows us that a dedicated, loving spouse can have multiple sexual needs, some that feel very pro-intimacy (wanting emotional connection), while also having needs that appear more self-serving (using his partner sexually to escape).

Featured (top) photo credit: “Couple, Dark, Love, Hug” by You Mee under CC By 2.0