How Does Sex Link to Emotional Connection?
What is the link between emotional and sexual intimacy?
There’s no easy answer for this question. We are complicated beings, and our experience of physical intimacy is heavily influenced by a huge variety of factors - including our physiology, our past experiences, our beliefs about relationships and the world, and the way we feel about ourselves.
One of the most obvious links between sex and emotional connection is that sexual desire has a chemical effect on our bodies, and this affects our emotions. You have probably heard of the hormone oxytocin: it’s been nicknamed ‘the love hormone’, ‘the cuddle hormone’ and, maybe more accurately, ‘the bonding hormone’.
Oxytocin isn’t only released during sex or only in sexual relationships - in fact, it is triggered by most positive experiences of physical touch. Even getting a good massage will increase oxytocin levels in your brain - that’s why you can end up feeling blissed out and relaxed afterwards! Oxytocin increases feelings of affection, peace, and comfort, and it helps you to feel emotionally connected. While it isn’t an inherently sexual response, the steep increase in oxytocin released in the wake of an orgasm is one of the key reasons why sexual and emotional intimacy go hand in hand.
Sex Means Different Things to Different People
While there are some fairly universal factors to human sexual experience, the truth is that sex means different things to different people. Our sexual desires and expectations are formed by so many things, from the way we saw our parents interact to our DNA, and from our culture’s narrative to our past experiences.
While we’re exploring the link between sexual intimacy and emotional bond, it’s important to note that not all sex results in an emotional connection. The release of oxytocin and other bonding and pleasure hormones can make casual sex fun, and they don't mean that love or affection is inevitable.
However, in long term romantic relationships, sex and emotional connection are inextricably bound together. Our sexual needs and our emotional needs overlap - let's dive into how connecting emotionally can affect the experience of being sexually intimate:
Truths about the Link Between Emotional and Sexual Intimacy
‘Sealed off Sex’ vs Connected Sex
It is true that you can absolutely have sex without emotional intimacy. Some experts have called sex without emotional connection ‘sealed off sex’ - this is a term for sexual encounters that are not about connecting with the other person in any way beyond the physical.
Instead, sealed off sex is sex where you are focused primarily on your own physical experience of pleasure. You can have sealed off sex in long term relationships, but it is far more common in casual sexual encounters.
Because it is so focused on exclusively physical sensations, sex that doesn’t incorporate emotional intimacy eventually requires ever-increasing stimuli to stay interesting and arousing. Research has actually found that sexual satisfaction is more limited in these kind of encounters because there is no feedback loop with the other person. In encounters that incorporate feeling connected, your emotional attunement means that you are aware of the joy and pleasure of the other person, and that brings you even higher.
So, while you don’t need emotional intimacy to have sexual connection, emotional intimacy is going to actually give you better sex!
Sex and Trust
One of the most important things in the link between sex and emotional connection is trust.
In every relationship, things happen that hurt our trust. Even the healthiest relationships have moments of strain or hurt feelings. Trust is actually built in these moments - when we can repair and draw close to one another, it makes the relationship feel safe and secure.
Trust is built in emotional intimacy. When we feel that we truly know someone, that we understand them, and that we are connected to them - that’s trust. When we trust, we feel safe. And feeling safe is crucial to good sex.
Even on a physical level, our ability to respond with arousal and pleasure is only possible to the extent that we feel safe. Trust and safety enable us to feel comfortable, feel present in the moment, take risks, and allow us to feel really seen by another person.
How to Make the Most of Sex and Emotional Connection with Your Partner
All of this to say - if you have an amazing emotional connection, you’re setting yourself up for some pretty epic sex. If you want to make the most of sex and emotional connection with your partner, we have some ideas to help you with that:
Work on Your Emotional Attunement
In any committed relationship, sex begins long before you reach the bedroom. You might only get to experience sexual intimacy in certain moments, but you can be working on your emotional intimacy all day long.
When you think about the times that you generally feel more excited for sex with your partner, you might notice that there’s a link between the amount of emotional connection leading up to the encounter and your excitement for it. For instance, many couples feel more excited for sex when they’re on date night, or when they’re on vacation - and while there a number of reasons for that, one of them is that in both situations, you’ve had the emotional connection of shared experiences and quality time before tumbling into bed together.
That doesn’t mean that sex is only going to be amazing when you’ve had some kind of out-the-ordinary fun experience together first. Relationship experts at the Gottman Institute suggest the practice of ‘turning towards’ your partner in everyday life - seeing every interaction as a chance to turn towards them or away from them. Staying emotionally present and attuned to your partner’s feelings in the ordinary moments can lead to an extraordinary sense of connection.
Don’t Forget to Play
Laughter and fun are a huge part of maintaining a healthy emotional connection. Intimacy isn’t just in the deep moments and emotional conversations. Intimacy is also the safety and confidence to be goofy and unselfconscious - exactly the way we are when we’re having fun.
That’s why we created The Adventure Challenge: Couples Edition. It’s full of 50 creative date ideas designed to help you boost your emotional intimacy through fun and play! If it’s been a while since you and your partner laughed til you cried, it’s time to start thinking about how you can play and have fun together. This date book is a great place to start.
Increasing Affectionate Touch
Remember how we said oxytocin was released by most positive touch? Well, that’s reason enough to get better at physical affection in your relationships!
Affectionate touch actually releases a slew of positive chemicals that translate to feelings of affection and trust. Perhaps most significantly, a positive touch - a hand on a shoulder, a long hug, a kiss on the cheek - actually sends signals to the body that you are safe. Reinforcing your emotional connection through physical affection is a great way to build that sense of intimacy that is the foundation for amazing, connected sex.
If you’re looking for ways to boost your sex life through connection and fun, we’ve got you. Our Adventure Challenge: …In Bed book has 50 sex-coach approved challenges that are designed specifically for couples who want to have fun and build emotional intimacy. Be sure you check it out!
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