Way #5

 

Eroticizing Tenderness:
Reframing Desire

Synchrony sex is when emotional openness and responsiveness, tender touch, and erotic exploration all come together.  . . . This is the sex that fulfills, satisfies and connects.
— Dr. Sue Johnson, Hold Me Tight

Delicate pleasuring, tenderly prolonged. Here is my heart, singing your song.
— Cheryl and Bob

 

FOR THOSE WHO SKIPPED AHEAD TO THIS CHAPTER

If you skipped ahead to this chapter (as one of us probably would have done), you have missed the first four “Ways” to sweeten and deepen your closeness – ways that contribute essential parts of the foundation for eroticizing tenderness.  

For you and other readers as well, we’ll do a quick review.  Please do go back after reading this chapter (or preferably now – it’s a quick read: 15 to 20 minutes per chapter) and get the full flavor and substance of these important steps for couples wanting to “live tenderly together.”

FIRST FOUR WAYS CONTRIBUTE TO EROTICIZING TENDERNESS

In Way #1: Honoring Feelings: Becoming Fully Known and Deeply Loved, we cover the key element in treating each other tenderly – having a caring sensitivity to each other’s feelings, and to our own.  We also describe the reward of a deeply satisfying and heart-tingling closeness. 

In Way #2: Taming Criticism, Anger and Blame: Gentling Our Communication, we cover ways to manage our anger gently and constructively, and to scrub blame from our communication – creating the trust and safety necessary to nurture growth in intimacy (emotional and sexual).

In Way #3: Resolving Conflict Tenderly, we cover our own four-step S.A.V.E. Process for turning conflict into closeness by honoring each other’s feelings and fully respecting each other’s point of view.

In Way #4: Celebrating Our Love: Embracing Romance, we cover ways that we have found to romantically reconnect often, including a “daily dance” to a sweet and tender love song (not actually daily but often).  We list some favorite love songs, including one composed and sung by Erin Bode with lyrics by Bob (a love poem to Cheryl): “The Moon Is Ours Tonight.”  (see our BLOG section for the story)

Hopefully this brief review gives you a sense of how each of these steps contributes to Way #5: Eroticizing Tenderness: Reframing Desire.  All together, we’ve seen them create a deep trust in each other’s tender intentions.  The steps create a sweet and tender closeness that allows us to share prolonged exquisite tenderness as lifetime lovers who have a high priority for each other’s pleasure and happiness

TENDERNESS leads to DEEP TRUST leads to SAFETY

As Dr. Sue Johnson puts it in Love Sense, “It makes perfect sense that our basic comfort with closeness and vulnerability affects how we express and experience sex.  We are wired to put safety first.” (our emphasis) She further states, “Many studies now attest to the fact that because secure partners feel safely connected to their lovers, they can access the full richness of their sexuality.”

Dr. Johnson asks us to “Think about it.  If you trust that your partner is there for you, then you can relax and let go without fear of embarrassment or rejection.  Safety fosters a willingness to experiment, take risks, and be fully immersed in the sexual encounter.”  (our emphasis)

TENDERNESS AND DESIRE  

A feeling of safety also affects our desire, according to Dr. Johnson: “One of the heretofore unrecognized requisites for feeling desire, new research suggests, is feeling safe.” (our emphasis)  We have found that consistent tenderness creates deep trust, which leads to safety.  We have been convinced for many years that tenderness has a role in creating desire, especially in a long-term relationship.

STUDENTS OF THE EXPERTS

Desire in a long-term relationship is a topic that we addressed in our workshop called “Tenderness and Desire,” presented at a national marriage enrichment conference many years ago.  Yes, we were brave enough to present at a marriage enrichment conference on the subject of “Tenderness and Desire,” even though we are not experts on the subject but mainly students.  We’re still students, and we continue to learn ways to cultivate a fulfilling and intimate sexual relationship. 

There are experts on the subject, and they tend to agree on certain observations and recommendations.  Some of their advice deserves repeating, especially for those of us who grew up assuming that it will all “come naturally” and we shouldn’t overthink this topic.  Or that planning “isn’t romantic” (except that planning can be romantic, if we let it be).  Or that talking about this subject in any detail is too uncomfortable.  

We don’t plan to cover the range of possible topics of interest on this subject.  Others have done it very well, especially the Gottmans.  In addition to the comprehensive chapter in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, the website of The Gottman Institute has resources for couples that include “Enriching Your Sex Life” among the choices in The Gottman Relationship Coach.

Their website also has a number of BLOG entries, including one of our favorites, “Building a Great Sex Life Is Not Rocket Science,” which contains John Gottman’s list of “13 things all couples do who have an amazing sex life.”  There is more to that BLOG entry than the “13 things,” so we encourage you to go there.  

The list of 13 things all these couples do is based on decades of research studies, and deserves repeating here: “(1) They say “I love you” every day and mean it; (2) They kiss one another passionately for no reason; (3) They give surprise romantic gifts; (4) They know what turns their partners on and off erotically; (5) They are physically affectionate, even in public; (6) They keep playing and having fun together; (7) They cuddle; (8) They make sex a priority, not the last item of a long to-do list; (9) They stay good friends; (10) They can talk comfortably about their sex life; (11) They have weekly dates; (12) They take romantic vacations; and (13) They are mindful about turning toward.” 

DAYTIME KISSING

You may remember from an earlier chapter our kiss on an escalator and the young girl who called out “Get a room” from an opposite escalator.  You may also recall our kisses when seeing hearts in nature and when first seeing the moon.  And then there’s our “daily dance” and the long kiss it sometimes includes.  We think kissing is not only fun but an important way to stay connected or to reconnect.

Kissing is good for us.  It helps us focus on our bond, our love for each other, and the fact that we still like each other and we love sharing moments of fun and closeness.  Daytime kissing says “I’m here for you, I’ve got your back, and I desire your happiness.”  It also says “You’re my Valentine and I’m delighted to be yours.”

It’s a moment of choosing closeness.

OUR FOCUS AND SCOPE

Our primary focus here will be on the processes of reframing desire and eroticizing tenderness, both of which continue to evolve as we accumulate more years of learning how to live tenderly together.

The message we want to share is that tenderness can be eroticized and desire reframed — away from culturally conditioned “sexiness” and toward experiencing closeness exquisitely.  We say “toward” rather than “to” because it is a process, due to the extent of the conditioning we have absorbed and continue to experience.

It Is Your Tenderness

It’s not your sexy dress
It is your tenderness
And so I must confess
I crave your happiness

SPONTANEOUS DESIRE and RESPONSIVE DESIRE

As we mentioned, we’re still learning, and one of the topics that we’ve learned more about from our readings is the difference between spontaneous desire and responsive desire.  The distinction is an important one for many couples who aren’t familiar with the difference.

The “issue” is that spontaneous desire is widely thought to be the only definition of sexual desire, and it is the one usually portrayed in movies, many romance novels and elsewhere in our culture.  Passionate and urgent, the clothes can’t come off fast enough.  Many people have experienced this at some time in their lives and then experienced a waning of that desire in a long-term relationship.

What can happen with couples is that spontaneous desire softens into responsive desire over time.  The newness of each other’s bodies evolves to the familiarity and the comfort of each other’s bodies.  Instead of sparking from a meaningful look across a room, responsive desire is more likely kindled by a thoughtfully created mood and tender touch.  

When spontaneous desire wanes, many people experience that as a disappointment — even as a deprivation.  While our culture continues to highlight the thrill of spontaneous attraction and passion, some can feel stuck in the wallflower corner at a dance called “What Used to Be.”  The dancers look more attractive and animated than one’s partner, and some even decide to risk their relationship to find that thrill again.

“START LOVING RESPONSIVE DESIRE”

In her widely praised bestselling book, Come As You Are: Revised and Updated: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, Emily Nagoski, Ph. D., describes conversations with various women clients who have only felt spontaneous desire in new or “bad” relationships, but not in their stable, more comfortable ones.  Some women in those circumstances have described themselves to her as “broken” or “sexually dead.”  

Nagoski’s first message to those women is that they are not broken or deadened.  They are experiencing the norm, especially for women.  Context-free spontaneous desire is something more often experienced by men.  Women experience it far less often.  She advises women: “Don’t use somebody else’s standard to measure the quality of your sex life.”

Her suggestion has been to “start loving responsive desire.”  “Figure out what contexts give you a fantastic relationship and hot sex.”  

CONTEXT IS KEY

She describes context as “your external circumstances and your internal state.”  She also says that a positive context may be different for different women and for the same woman at different times.

In Come As You Are, Nagoski includes an exercise for discovering how context contributed to positive sexual experiences and not-so-great sexual experiences from the past.  She lists a number of aspects of the experience to choose from, including health, mood, emotional connection, setting, body image, and more.  She also addresses ways to make those aspects more positive by creating future favorable contexts.

In general terms, she describes a favorable context as “a safe, comfortable environment.”  She also writes, “For most people, the best context for sex is low stress + highly affectionate + explicitly erotic.”

EMBRACING RESPONSIVE DESIRE

When you embrace responsive desire, you benefit from two of its major positives.  First, the focus on creating context helps you enhance your experience in delightful ways.  Second, there’s no hurry, which means you can take your time weaving your connections and with your pleasuring.

CONTEXT ELEMENTS: A DIFFERENT MOVIE

In order to envision the cumulative effect of the various context elements, consider a movie unlike those they normally make about couples sharing a sexual experience.  It is rare that a movie shows us the unhurried intentional soft simmer.

Imagine a movie where you see a couple leisurely washing up separately, then coming together to create some atmosphere: lowering the lights, putting on scents, starting a playlist of favorite love songs.

Or we could see them washing up by sharing a playful shower.

But then we’d miss the feeling of them coming together after having prepared themselves for each other, bringing  to their date their unspoken intention: I’m here for you.  Let’s begin.

1:  Would you like a tender poem?

2:  I would, but right now I’m thinking of favorite times together and I feel like taking us there.

1:  I’m right there with you.

2:  I’m remembering our ocean sunsets in Florida, soaking alone together in a secluded thermal pool, and tenting in a coastal campground of gnarled trees and thick foliage.

1:  All lovely memories.

2:  I’m ready for a poem.

1:  My heart is in your hands/ I feel your tenderness/ I’m ready for our dance/ I’m taking off your dress.

2:  Already?

1:  I’m in no hurry.  Just want to enjoy some leisurely stand-up sensuality, skin to skin.

2:  I’m in.

Then we watch our lovers kiss and caress as they hug and sway to the music.  They come to a part of the song that they sing to each other and then kiss again.  

We could then fade to black and come back to them in bed, cuddling and kissing and sharing “sweet somethings” in the afterglow.

That’s a movie we would likely enjoy seeing more than once.

OTHER CONTEXT ELEMENTS

One of the most important context elements for us has been to regularly set aside an extended period of uninterrupted time (easier now that we are retired).  It helps to know that we share a goal of predictable regularity, semi-often, and either of us can put it on the calendar.

We have found it helpful for planning and anticipating our lovemaking date to occasionally explore readings and view movies that are tenderly romantic and/or educational to give us new ideas to enhance our experience.

Another way to begin getting physical is an extended facial caress.  In our “Tenderness and Desire” workshop, we had couples take turns doing a three-minute facial caress to the song, “You Are So Beautiful,” by Captain and Tennille.  We had the room lights lowered to enhance their comfort level.  As you might imagine, it can be a powerful experience, both physically and emotionally.  We also had the couples dance to “He Talks to Me,” by Lorrie Morgan, to lyrics that spell out what she needs the most after lovemaking.

DESIRE AND LONG-TERM MONOGAMY

On the subject of desire, Nagoski addresses the two general schools of thought on “strategies for sustaining desire in a long-term monogamous relationship.”  She frames them as the Esther Perel school and the John Gottman school for shorthand.  Nagoski says our culture generally values Perel’s style higher than Gottman’s.

In The Science of Trust, John Gottman says, “The Perel hypothesis is that boundaries between people and emotional distance create great sex and intimacy.  The alternate hypothesis, which I favor, is that emotional attunement creates intimate trust and makes intimacy personal.”  He cites a study of couples in which those couples who had good sex lives “consistently mentioned: (1) maintaining a close, connected, and trusting friendship, and (2) making sex a priority in their lives.”  He goes on to say “These findings run contrary to Esther Perel’s idea that lasting good sex in a committed relationship comes from emotional distance and from avoiding affection, cuddling, and the dreaded flannel nightgown.”

A contrast made by Nagoski is, “In the Perel style, you come to your partner with your desire already stoked.  In the Gottman style, you stoke each other’s fire.”  She says that both styles have a lot to offer, but her personal preference is Gottman’s, it being “… more a celebration of sensation in context, a celebration of togetherness.”  However, to illustrate how easy it is to find an advocate of Perel’s viewpoint, even Emily Nagoski’s twin sister disagrees with her: “Why would closeness ever make anyone want more closeness?  Space!

CLOSENESS AS A GOAL

Hopefully, dear reader, you can easily tell what our preference is on this subject.  It’s in our subtitle: Loving Tenderly: Six Ways to Sweeten and Deepen Our Closeness.  It’s in the title of the following poem: 

Closeness is the Heart’s Ambrosia

Closeness is the heart’s ambrosia.
Loving, tender, trusting, safe,
Caring and open hearted.
Exquisite and precious.

Closeness is our goal, and it is wonderfully sweetened and deepened by combining it with exquisite pleasure.

Emily Nagoski advises, “To have more and better sex, give yourself a compelling reason to have sex, something important to move toward,” and she gives the example of sex that brings you closer to your partner.

TENDER, CONNECTED SEX

Tender, connected sex.  Who doesn’t want that?

Actually, many people don’t, because most of us have been conditioned to find something else erotic.  

WHAT IS EROTIC?

So, what is erotic?  It depends on who you ask.

There are seven major categories of sexual fantasies, according to Justin J. Lehmiller, the author of Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life.  A Research Fellow and Faculty Affiliate of the Kinsey Institute, Lehmiller published the results in 2018 of the largest scientific survey of Americans’ sexual fantasies ever undertaken prior to that year.

Among the seven categories, such as threesomes (the most popular), “power, control, and rough sex” (second) and forbidden sex (fourth), the sixth most popular one is called, “passion and romance.”  

It would seem that “tender connected sex” isn’t what most people think of as erotic.  Thanks to the typical Hollywood treatment, the usual image of erotic sex is likely to be very action oriented.  The slower pace of tender connected sex could seem less than exciting, unless you have experienced it before or are otherwise able to identify with it.

PROLONGED EXQUISITE TENDERNESS

Imagine that your lover, your closest and dearest friend in the world, has her/his heart set on giving you exquisite pleasure, tenderly prolonged, as a message from her/his heart to yours.

How erotic is that?  We think it’s hot.  Extremely erotic, in our opinion.

YOUR “EROTIC” CAN CHANGE

But it wasn’t always so for either of us.  We were raised in a culture of sexiness based on physical attractiveness as a primary ingredient.  This inevitably leads to the creation of many “genetic celebrities,” as a presenter called them in a workshop we attended years ago.  Certain individuals are admired and often richly rewarded primarily for their genetically-determined physical features.

We can each identify with being attracted to people because of their looks.  We’ve also met individuals who remind us of the saying, “beauty is only skin deep.”  

Over the years our consciousness has changed about how objectifying it is to think of a person, including ourselves, as sexy due to appearance.  

KILLING US SOFTLY

Some years ago we attended a presentation by Jean Kilbourne that included her video, “Killing Us Softly.”  The video showed a wide variety of sexualized images of women from advertisements, many of which the audience recognized from ads in magazines and elsewhere.  She made the point that such images contributed to the objectification of women, and in some cases, to violence against women.  After absorbing an hour or more of such images, it was hard to view similar ads without thinking of their potential harm.  

THE BEAUTY GAME AND BODY POSITIVITY

Images in advertising and elsewhere have an effect on people’s perceptions of what “beauty” is.  In turn, those perceptions have an effect on our sexual wellbeing.  In Come As You Are, Emily Nagoski says, “There is a direct trade-off between sexual wellbeing and self-critical thoughts about your body.”  She cites a review of fifty-seven studies that found “important links” between body image and “arousal, desire, orgasm, frequency of sex, number of partners, sexual self-assertiveness, sexual self-esteem” and more.

One of the ways that we like to think about nurturing body positivity is that the idealized images we have been bombarded with over the years have been created by industries who profit from those images.  This can help us distance ourselves from their “standards.”  Another way of nurturing body-positivity is to shift away from the idealized images to an appreciation of all the wonderful things our bodies do for us. 

As author Ursula K. Le Guin put it, “Beauty always has rules.  It’s a game.  I resent the beauty game when I see it controlled by people who grab fortunes from it and don’t care who they hurt.  I hate it when I see it making people so self-dissatisfied that they starve and deform and poison themselves.”

Gary R. Brooks, Ph. D., is a psychologist who specializes in therapy with men.  In The Centerfold Syndrome: How Men Can Overcome Objectification and Achieve Intimacy with Women, Brooks wrote: “Young men’s . . . evaluations of women’s bodies are enhanced by a culture that celebrates them and by profiteers who use women’s bodies to tantalize and titillate.”  

EROTIC IS WHAT WE THINK IT IS

Erotic is what we think is erotic.  This becomes clearer the more we eliminate the baggage we accumulated over the years – of exposure to “sexy” images.  This also becomes clearer the more we embrace the shift from spontaneous desire to responsive desire.

What is erotic to you?  We think it’s up to us.  We can choose, but it’s been a gradual process.

LOVING TENDERLY CAN BE EROTIC

We find that each of our other Ways of Loving Tenderly can create erotic energy: 

  • Sharing our hearts intimately
  • Gentling our communication in order to create maximum trust and safety
  • Respectfully and generously resolving conflict together
  • Celebrating romantically
  • Experiencing growth together

The elements of Loving Tenderly are the nourishment – the sun, water and fertilizer – of our closeness.  Closeness, especially the rock solid, deeply satisfying and heart tingling kind, is erotic.

OUR FAVORITE VERSION OF EROTIC

Our favorite version of erotic is exquisitely pleasurable touch and extraordinary closeness, tenderly prolonged — cradled by the trust and safety that allows us to feel our lover’s love fully.  

When tenderness is at the core of our intimate connection, our lover becomes our erotic muse.  No fantasy lover could compete with our exquisitely tender partner, whose heart is in every touch.

PERSONALIZED PLEASURE

Although it can be a predictable result of our conditioning about depersonalized sexiness, fantasizing about someone other than our lover during sex is disconnecting during our most intense act of intimacy.  

To us, that means intimacy without closeness, and a missed opportunity.

At our most vulnerable with each other, we have a chance to connect without self-consciousness to give each other exquisite pleasure, tenderly prolonged, as an intimately erotic heart caress from our heart to each other’s.  Personalized exquisite pleasure, from the heart.

TALKING ABOUT SEX TOGETHER CAN CONTRIBUTE GREATLY TO OUR HAPPINESS

Contributing to each other’s happiness is a very high priority for both of us.  Among our opportunities to help each other be happy, it’s easy to see lovemaking as a special one.  We can give each other and receive from each other exquisite pleasure, tenderly prolonged.

We can do all of this better if we are able to talk openly about our preferences, ideally in some detail.

This is difficult for most of us.  That’s understandable, based on the undercurrent of prohibition about this subject.  Is it OK to talk about giving and receiving pleasure?  Are we allowed to focus on our own pleasure?  Sexual pleasure?  With our cherished lifetime lover, absolutely!

Your openness is a gift to your lover, because it encourages them to be open about feelings and preferences, which enhances the experience for both of you.

WHEN SEX DRIES UP

Most couples have sexual dry spells, and we are no exception.  Health conditions can be especially disruptive to the normal flow of everyday life.  Cheryl experienced vaginal dryness issues for a while prior to using prescription estrogen cream.  Bob went through successful prostate cancer surgery.  So there have been periods when our respective libidos went missing.  Fortunately we came through those challenges.  

Sometimes dry spells can stretch into long periods, especially if couples don’t talk about it.  The February/March, 2023 issue of the AARP Magazine has a feature about couples experiencing a loss of sexual intimacy as they get older.  One reason mentioned is erection challenges, and several remedies are referred to.  They cite a urologist who says that most men don’t know that orgasms are possible without erections.

The April, 2023 issue of the Harvard Women’s Health Watch features a front page article called “When Sex Hurts.”  After covering many reasons why women can experience pain during intercourse, the recommended remedies include lubricants, vaginal moisturizers and vaginal estrogen.  In terms of readily-available lubricants, we know personally of a doctor’s recommendation to use olive oil. 

Of course, it never hurts to remind ourselves that there are many ways to share erotic pleasure that don’t involve intercourse, including some with superior pleasure potential.  It can be fun to explore!

SEXINESS

Here’s a poem to remind us of our reframe.

Sexiness

“Sexy” to me
Shifts gradually
Away from the curve of the flesh

To someone I know
Committed to grow
And keeping togetherness fresh

A curious mind
A heart that is kind
A soul with a passion for bliss

Combines with a goal
Of learning the whole
Of how tenderly we can kiss

The light in your eyes
Can conjure up sighs
And set a romantic direction

Our hearts hold the fire
That kindles desire
For the sweet ecstasy of connection

AS WE CLOSE THIS CHAPTER

There are many aspects of sexuality that we have not addressed here, because our focus is on reframing desire and eroticizing tenderness, sweetening and deepening our closeness.  We wish you exquisite pleasure and extraordinary closeness, tenderly prolonged.

AND ONE MORE POEM

Attuned

Imagine why there needs to be
A patient lover fantasy
I’d trade it in a 1-2-3
For sensitive reality

For one who’s slow enough to please
Who’ll lick your lips, then pause to tease
And sensing every breath you take
Will tenderly procrastinate

Whose touch is playful, warm and gentle
Knowing that it’s largely mental
Wanting you to feel the daring
Waves of pleasure, mixed with caring

Wherefore art thou, attuned lover?
Next to me, under the cover