Want the simplest way to think about aaall the factors that play into great sex?
It’s called the ‘dual response model’ and Emily Nagoski is your researcher/author if you want to read more. Check out her, “Come As You Are.” This is probably my #1 recommended book to clients struggling to experience intimacy as mutually satisfying.
I’m going to give a suuuper brief summary that you can put to immediate use!
Our sexual circuitry is basically wired like a car: sexy cues and safety/relaxation = “accelerators,” and turn-offs and stress = “brakes.”
Because of our culture and socialization, in general it’s more likely that female bodies are like standard cars, with a shifter and handbrake, and males are typically more like an automatic.
Main take-away: you aren’t going anywhere if you smash the gas pedal down while the handbrake is engaged.
When new clients start counseling work with me to try to get their sex life back on track (or on a track really for the first time), it's not uncommon that one or more partners is feeling really bitter and resentful. Frequently, I find that this person feeling sooo rigid and unhappy has been having their accelerator repeatedly rammed on while the handbrake has been left engaged.
I can imagine that revving sound and it seems to match the emotional vibration quite well.
When things have gotten to this point in a relationship, we usually have to do what's called 'softening' in psychotherapy, or support clients to tune into their vulnerability and softer emotions beneath the anger and contempt. It's a big part of my job at first to do what Sue Johnson calls, "catching the bullet" for partners; if someone throws out some nasty, caustic language, I ask for permission to reframe and add some gentle tenderness and highlight the soft feelings at the root, almost like a translator, so the other partner/s can begin to HEAR the message beneath the pain.
Harsh criticism and resentment definitely act as brakes in this equation, by the way. Unless it's consensual and in the context of safe sexual play like BDSM, then it can actually hit the accelerator. But that's for another blog post.
Examples of “brakes” can be anything from bad breath to seeing a huge pile of laundry to kiddos knocking at the door, and even unresolved fights to early life Traumas that haven’t been processed and fully healed. Sometimes in couples counseling, we'll discover a forgotten sexual trauma from early life and suddenly all of the little brakes that seemed "crazy" or "weird" to clients make sense.
What are your brakes and accelerators? When do you think they got fine tuned? How about your partner/s?
Where I see a lot of relationships working harder not smarter to rev things up in their intimate life is that they do a great, creative job of adding accelerators, but forget the brakes! And people forget that every car’s brakes have a different sensitivity; that’s why talking about what makes us go and what shuts us down is essential for good sex—no one is exactly alike. Context is key!
Don’t let all your brilliant work with accelerators go to waste because there’s a handbrake on!
Tips for removing brakes:
- Make a list of your brakes and accelerators and share honestly with your partner. You may need to make some repairs if you learn that some of your go-to moves have actually been landing on the brakes! Invite some self-compassion. Maya Angelou: "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better."
- Book a hotel room or go somewhere that’s not your home, especially if it’s a messy season in the house. If you can't afford it, try a different room or the shower. Hell, change the direction you're laying in bed. With your amygdala, which is on the lookout for things like newness, danger, sparkles, there's kind of a "just right" amount of stimulation for everyone where you can feel safe and turned-on.
- Get a babysitter or a family member to watch the kids! As your little ones get older, you can also make family agreements around "private time," just make sure to plan for emergencies!
- If you have a new baby, it's natural for mom's body to keep her at higher alert for danger, so you may need to work a little harder to create a safe-feeling environment, or just hold off a bit longer if worry about a little one is getting in the way of experiencing each other how you'd like. Breathe out; you will have sex again.
- Do counseling work together to heal any old wounds that feel unfinished. I recommend someone who focuses on attachment bonds and understands how to work with Trauma.
- As we age, physical arousal can precede desire, so adding in some masturbation prior to a sexy rendezvous can ease off the brake! Look at foreplay not like an appetizer, but the real deal.
- Make better friends with your body! “Do I look fat?” is one of the most common brake-hitting thoughts clients tell me about. See an individual counselor if you need help! I also highly recommend reading/listening to Kristin Neff on self-compassion. If you're saying things to yourself inside that you wouldn't say to a good friend, make an intention to change that.
- Stress and relational distress can be held in your body, sometimes without your full realization. Many folks hold this tension in their pelvic floor, for instance, which accounts for a lot of undiagnosed chronic pelvic pain in sex. Working on self-care and grounding techniques invariably translates to positive gains in the bedroom!
- Adopt a breathing practice, even if it's 5 minutes a day where you're just breathing and noticing what's happening in your body. A brake that a lot of people don't realize is when you kind of start holding your breath and not really breathing out. If you practice breathing mindfully, it'll make it easier to keep it up in your next intimate experience.
- Intentionally remove "pressure" to perform that you can. Communicate overtly that the goal is just to get naked and be close; if erections and/or orgasms happen, great, and if not, also great. Abandon simultaneous-mutual-orgasm as the gold standard end all be all goal. I like to invite clients to imagine a garden; you till the soil, add the seeds and water, remove the weeds and bugs, and see what grows. You aren't sweating bullets screaming, "GROW, DAMNIT!" at the earth, just soaking in the sun and seeing what blooms!
Now go and do with each other what the spring does to the cherry trees.