Joyful, fulfilling sexual intimacy is one of the cornerstones of a healthy life. While not as essential as food and shelter, most adults include consensual and enjoyable sexual intimacy as important aspects of overall well-being. According to health experts and a number of studies, consistent sex contributes to health in a number of ways, including boosting immunity, lowering blood pressure, reducing stress levels, helping to maintain a healthy weight, increasing bladder control and overall pelvic floor resilience, and balancing estrogen and testosterone levels.
How Sex Heals Us
When we are in romantic relationships, sex helps to increase bonding and emotional intimacy with our partners. Several beneficial hormones, such as oxytocin and prolactin, as well as some of the brain chemicals related to pleasure and reward such as dopamine, are released when we make love. This deepens the connection with our partners on a physiological level.
On an emotional level, joyful and mutually desired love-making inspires vulnerability, transparent communication, and soul-level connection. Being physically naked and open with each other tends to increase our ability to be emotionally and mentally vulnerable, as well. The words and feelings we share in the deep quiet moments of full connection are part of makes intimate relationships so powerful and healing.
How Sex Can Harm Us
But in order to reap those benefits, our hearts need to be in the sex act as much as our bodies. Sex that is perfunctory, performed purely out of a sense of obligation, can have the opposite affect. Some of the deepest physiological and psychological traumas that humans carry are connected to our sexuality. Beyond the risk of STIs or unwanted pregnancy, unengaged sex carries the risk of creating or deepening emotional wounds.
As one of the most intense and personal forms of connection available to humans, sex can become a repository for our most intense scars. Sex intensifies everything, both joy and pain. If we let our sex become something that we do out of habit, or because we think we owe something to our partners, it looses its potential for healing and actually can become a place of pain.
Whenever we are lying, consciously or not, we may be inflicting psychological damage on ourselves. And if we are engaging in sex when we are not fully desiring it, we are effectively lying. Over time, this can reduce our ability to trust ourselves, and create resentment in the relationship. We may not even be fully aware of why we or our partners are feeling resentment. Inauthenticity can hide in the veils of boredom, annoyance, argumentativeness, complaining, and a lack of gratitude. But disconnection in the bedroom is directly related to disconnection in the rest of our relationship, whether we are aware of the connection or not.
And it is important to understand that relationships are not economic exchanges. If partners are keeping a tally, tracking how many times one performed a service for the over and striving for a quid-pro-quo type of balance, chances are the magic and true mutuality has been lost.
To be healthy, we need to separate sex from habit or obligation. If we ever feel like we owe sex to our partners, or they owe it to us, it points to a disconnection of some kind within the relationships. Sex that is truly uplifting grows from mutual desire, trust, safety, and multi-dimensional intimacy. It is an expression of connection as much as a means to foster it. Having sex for any other reason, or when only one partner is truly desiring it, is ultimately a form of violence.
Listening for the Yes
The first step to creating only healthy, mutually desired sexual experiences is the ability to recognize a true yes in you and your partner. This yes is more than just a word. It is a full body and soul feeling, a positive surge that wells from your center. Just like when you knew for a fact that you were in love with your partner not as a mental decision, but as a heart-based knowing you will know when you feel this yes.
Listening for the yes requires presence, curiosity, and vulnerability. It requires accepting the fact that we change all the time. It requires being curious about your partner, knowing that you will never understand every bit of the person, and that he or she, and your relationship, will evolve over time. It requires a willingness to make mistakes, to be rejected, to trust the mystery and ask, again and again, what is real for you and your Beloved.
According to the renowned author Bren Brown, the happiest people are the ones who live wholeheartedly. Wholeheartedness is based on vulnerability, and linked to connection, trust, and engagement. Most of the shame and scarcity people experience is linked to a lack of one of those three elements. And all of these elements require that we find our yes and live in accordance with it, even if it is uncomfortable or frightening.
Part of following the yes is the willingness to face our fears, wounds, expectations, and failures. Vulnerability is not invincibility, and sometimes our yes may take us to a place within ourselves that is challenging, or disappoint someone else. And it requires discernment, being able to tell the difference between having the courage to move through resistance and dishonoring an authentic no.
Listening for your partners yes also requires vulnerability. You must both be a yes for a healthy sexual connection. Listening for your partners yes requires that you are both honestly asking, not expecting, and that you come from a full cup, not needing him or her but simply wanting connection and not taking rejection personally if it occurs.
Honoring the No
We can only be a true yes when we have the option to be a no. If our yes is demanded, from us or our partners, then we actually are bereft of choice. The ability to say no is what separates free-will from expectation or force.
We have some obligations in life. Sometimes we have to do things that are not our greatest joys, like emptying the trash or balancing our bank accounts. But if sex falls into that category and we engage in it even when we do not want to, in other words if the thing that is meant to be one of our most joyful forms of connection and celebration becomes an obligation, we are squeezing the joy out of life and slowly killing our souls.
Know Why You Are a No
Our nos to sex can have a variety of reasons. We may be stressed, too busy, or feeling emotionally disconnected form our partners. Sometimes a no to sexual intimacy is actually a sign of a deeper issue that we would be served by addressing, such as an unspoken grievance in the relationship. We usually do not want to make love with someone we are resenting.
A no could also be caused by a physical or emotional block to sexual intimacy. Many issues can interfere with our ability to make love that have roots in hormonal imbalances or sexual trauma. People with a history of sexual or emotional abuse can be challenged in opening to sexuality, or sex can trigger a PTSD episode. Sometimes these triggers wont arise until they are deeply invested in a romantic relationship and feel safe and seen. Sexual health and libido can arise as we age. In all of these instances, getting the guidance and support of an appropriate doctor or counselor can facilitate deep healing, and is worth it for your health and the health of the relationship.
But sometimes a no can stem from incompatibility. If you are asexual or have very little desire for sex, and your partner is a naturally very sexual person, you might not be a sustainable couple. Or you might have to consider alternative ways of connecting, and/or opening up your relationship so that both partners can have their authentic needs met.
Meeting in the Middle
One way to find a mutually beneficial sexual frequency is to invite the yes: If you are going to engage with your partner sexually, make it a point to ask him or her at each stage of intimacy if you are welcomed and invited to go further. One way of honoring each other is to recognize that your desires can shift at any moment. If you set up a field of mutual consent, communication, and trust, you will both feel safer to listen to and express your true needs. Surprisingly, the freedom to say no tends to create more willingness and connection, which can lead to more pleasurable sex when it does occur. And yes can be one of the sexiest and most liberating things to say and hear, when it is authentic and invited without expectation.
Alternate Ways to Deepen Intimacy
There are many ways to connect lovingly with your partner that do not necessarily involve sex.
Tell the truth: Make it a practice to communicate regularly with your partner as authentically as possible. Many healthy couples have a daily check-in, where they share the truth of their feelings, air any grievances, and express gratitude to each other. This keeps them connected and intimate on the mental and emotional levels.
Move together: Dancing, hiking, noncompetitive sports, and other forms of pleasurable exercise are great ways to increase physical intimacy with your partner in non-sexual ways. Even a minute long hug a few times a day will go a long way in supporting your physical and emotional health and connection.
Let it happen if it will: Focus on how you can inspire greater connection with your partner, and allow sex to be a natural extension of that open exploration. Touch, hold, and caress each other simply for the joy of it, not as a means to end and with no expectation that it will lead to sex.
Ultimately, there is no one level of sexual frequency that is right for all couples and individuals. Your optimal frequency of sexual connection may differ at different points in the month, across the span of a relationship, and throughout your adult life. As with most other aspects of health, knowing when to make love requires deep listening to self and others, authenticity, vulnerability, and a true intention for the healthiest connection available and needed in each moment.