Last year my friend’s husband died suddenly and like when all young and thriving people pass unexpectedly it was and still is a huge loss for our group. A few months after he died, my friend asked if she could talk to me since, as she said, “You’re a sex therapist and all.” She told me about a specific pain and heartache she feels regarding the death of her husband. They had a monogamous relationship and with his abrupt death she also lost her partnered sex life that same awful day. She told me that sure she misses the sex, but what she is realizing in her grief is that she is also missing the laughing, the cuddling, the caressing, the hugging, the holding each other, the looking into each other’s eyes, the silly moments, the awkward moments, and yes even the disappointing moments. While masturbation scratched an itch, she said with partnered sex she had exactly that: a partner and intimate friend with whom she could share all those things. It was the 'sharing with' that felt particularly special for her, and is something she profoundly misses now. I was, and still am, deeply moved by her experience and her description of her experience. And with her permission, I share it here as a way in to discuss how partnered sex is different than solo sex.
(On a side note, she also said this issue has not been addressed in any of the grief support groups she’s been going to. Yet another time my profession falls short when it comes to sex. And just this morning on my way to my office I heard the radio deejays describe partnered sex as “that special connection you have with someone else.” It seems everyone understands partnered sex is fundamentally different than solo sex.)
As I talked about in my previous blog (see below), I define solo sex as your first and primary sexual relationship and it is a relationship you have for your entire life regardless of your external relationship situation. I also said that solo sex is your internal experience of your sexuality and chosen external expression of that internal experience. For those that also desire a partnered sex life (because there are people that do not and that’s just fine), solo sex is the foundation of partnered sex.
Partnered sex is when you decide to share your solo sexual self with another person or persons and they decide to share theirs with you. So all parties must first consent. While consent is necessary it is not enough. What exactly is everyone consenting to? For how long? In what order? What kind of safer sex method(s) will be practiced? Who decides when it’s over and how? And what will happen after it’s over? When I ask my clients that initial question (“What are you consenting to?”), they usually say “Duh, sex!” But that still is not clear enough because as I’ve learned everyone has a different idea of what sex is (and isn’t).
As you can see from my questions, when we choose to engage in a partnered sexual encounter, there is a lot more that needs to be addressed ethically. How many times in your life did you engage sexually with another person but you didn’t discuss beforehand about what would and would not happen or what you would and would not do? I think everyone. Looking back, what was missing? “Yeah Diane, it’s called communication” is probably what you’re thinking. OK sure. But that word, “communication”, is horribly inadequate to describe what skills are needed in a partnered sex scenario. A better description of what is needed are things like: self-awareness regarding your likes and dislikes, turn ons and turn offs, and hard and soft boundaries; verbally describing these things clearly and assertively — and of course having the courage to say it; knowing how to negotiate when differences occur; resolving your ambivalence if there is any about any aspect; understanding your hopes and expectations for the experience itself, what happens after, and describing these expectations; preparing for the possibility of disappointment (or judgement) and coping well if it happens; and then having the knowledge that, empathy for, patience with your partner(s) has all these things going on too. You don’t need all these skills in solo sex and this is what is precisely different about solo sex vs. partnered sex. And you can see why when partnered sex “is good”, it brings people closer together and they say they feel more connected - they’ve not only shared of themselves and shared something with someone else, but they’ve also revealed something about themselves to another and it was received with respect and (hopefully) tenderness. And you can also see why when partnered sex “is bad”, just why it’s so darn painful: partnered sex offered the promise of intimacy and connection, seeing and being seen, and mutual pleasure but resulted in hurt feelings, disconnection, and perhaps even relationship discord.
Yes, it is a complex process that in my experience most vanilla (as opposed to kinky) people don’t take the time to do…and when they don’t, they end up experiencing all kinds negative consequences. If you know anything about kinky folks, one of the the hallmarks of kink is how and what is discussed and negotiated beforehand. This is a valuable skill many vanilla people need to learn from kinksters.
I’ve had clients tell me that there are times when they are in the mood for and ready to handle all the complexities of partnered sex that I just described and there are times when they are not in the mood and not ready for dealing with the complexities of partnered sex. I think that’s great - that someone has that much self-knowledge to know this about themselves. I hope more people will come to know and understand themselves better in this way.
I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist located in Sonoma county, California.