Using Sex to Avoid Intimacy

Using sex to avoid intimacy

It isn’t a given that sex deepens emotional intimacy and connection. And, frankly, you may have sex at times and want little to do with emotional closeness. There is nothing wrong with sex for the sake of pure pleasure, occasional escapism or sexual abandon—a feeding of our more primitive selves. Sex may have different meanings and serve a variety of functions for you, in addition to being a pathway to connection with your spouse/partner.

For many of the couples I work with, sex in marriage (or a non-marital, committed relationship) is often about the expression of love—it is through the act of sex that a different type of intimacy is created (sexual intimacy), an intimacy infused with strong emotions and longings as well as intense physical and sensual pleasure.

And while sex is a powerful way for couples to connect on different levels, at times sex can also be used (whether consciously or unconsciously) as a way to avoid intimacy. How can this be?

Using Sex to Avoid Intimacy: Meet Gene

Gene has been married to his second wife, Shannon, for about three years. And while both describe their relationship as relatively strong, Shannon feels that they have failed to connect sexually; this has been a significant loss for her. Shannon has accused Gene of using sex as an escape and never as a means of deepening emotional intimacy. Gene seemed confused by his wife’s statements, but he did acknowledge that it was usually when he was having trouble coping with stress that he felt most compelled to have sex.

For Gene, sex has become a way to both escape from painful emotions and to self-soothe (after having orgasms, Gene becomes less emotionally tense. He feels calmer and better able to cope, at least momentarily, with the daily hassles of life. But as soon as he begins feeling tense again, Gene’s desire to have sex intensifies).

This pattern also occurs whenever there is marital conflict or Shannon is upset about something that is going on in the marriage. Rather than tolerate the feelings that arise from marital tensions and then make an effort to communicate and negotiate whatever issues are on the table, Gene becomes highly sexual and seeks to escape into a mindless sexual act. This pattern short-circuits communication and the potential resolution that comes with dealing with conflicting needs and emotions in a relationship. Emotional intimacy arises out of communication; it is the result of communicating and understanding each other’s needs and struggles. By jumping ship in these moments, Gene is preventing his wife from feeling listened to and understood. As a result, Shannon feels abandoned as Gene’s need for sex shuts down communication and prevents issues from being properly dealt with.

Mindful Sex Versus Mindless Sex

Gene isn’t alone (and while it might be easy and convenient to label him a sex addict, that is missing the point). At some point in our lives, we all try to manage intense or distressing emotions by relying on an activity that may give us a sense of relief. This might be exercising, meditating, engaging in a pleasurable or creative activity, having a glass of wine or two…you get the idea. Some of these we can label as “healthy” (going for a jog to unwind from a very stressful day), while others are clearly self-destructive (out-of-control gambling or using drugs to cope with difficult experiences or feelings).

Anything that is intensely pleasurable or that has the power to alter our normal state of consciousness can be used to alleviate our emotional pain or anxieties. Sex is no different—for some it offers a powerful distraction to the tedious, mundane or emotionally painful. Problems arise when that’s all sex offers, when you automatically and repeatedly fall back on sex as a means of avoiding the challenges that are a natural part of any relationship–then sex becomes your drug of choice, a mind-numbing activity rather than a mindful pathway to deeper intimacy with your loved one.

We can call this type of sex mindless sex: a form of sexual acting out that is often driven by fear; it is the urge or sense of urgency to have sex without any awareness of what is driving your behavior. And there may be little or no appreciation of what is being lost when sex is only used to bypass deeper relationship or personal issues.

How to Spice Up Your Relationship Through Self-Examination

Remember, there is nothing wrong with using sex periodically to escape from the stresses of your life. It’s when sex-as-an-escape becomes the norm and interferes with intimacy that it should be examined.

Here are a few questions to ponder:

  1. Over the last six months, what are the different motivations and reasons you wanted to have sex with your spouse/partner?
  2. Are you ever able to be emotionally present during sex? If not, what do you imagine prevents this?
  3. Does sex ever make you feel emotionally closer to your partner? If not, why do you think this is the case?
  4. Does it ever feel like you are using sex as a smokescreen to avoid deeper issues? If so, how can you and your partner bring these issues to the communication table where they can be looked at (without judgment) and dealt with?

(Top Image Credit: © Vojtechvlk | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images)