How sexuality is expressed is diverse. It is shaped by experience, culture and particularly our relationship with our parents. Each time we have sex it is like looking at a microcosm of our entire emotional life. If we have experienced warm, loving relationships, we will tend to warm, loving sex. However, we have all had a mix of relationship experiences which will be expressed in our sex lives. Understanding the influence of our parents is vital in understanding our own sexuality.
Often my clients come to me confused with what turns them on, or off. Our attraction, fantasies and desires can neither be willed nor controlled. Even if I wanted to be attracted to someone, I could not “fake it”. Married couple’s sex life often fades over time. It is not for lack of wanting a great sex life. The problem is that we cannot manipulate our arousal in the same way we can fake enjoying a party. If we are not aroused by our partner, there is nothing we can do to force it.
What Mom and Dad Really Teach Us about Sex
All of our first experience of deeply intimate physical and emotional relating comes from our relationship with our mom and dad. Mothers, particularly, are very sensual in how they touch, caress and hold their babies. They do not stimulate our genitals, like adult sex partners, but rather they stimulate our whole bodies with warmth and tender touch. This early experience of full body sensuality, become the basis for adult sexuality. As an adult, our genitals are involved, but the foundation for what we expect close intimate contact to be, is formed when we are young.
Our parents are also the first persons from which we learn the mutual back-and-forth of getting our physical and emotional needs met. Could you turn to your mother or father when you were scared or wanted to be held? Did your mother reliably feed you when you were hungry as a baby? If we were able to learn that we could turn to another for our needs and get our needs met, we will understand and a very basic level the trust and mutuality it takes to exchange sexual satisfaction with our partners. As lovers, we also give and take. It requires the same sort of deeply intimate dance to sense one-another’s needs and fill them. During truly great sex, we communicate and respond to one another’s needs at a mostly subconscious level – no words are necessary.
Was touch with your mother tender, loving, warm and safe? Was it sometimes rough, unavailable and distant? Most of us had a balance of the two. Sometimes our mothers were warm and tender; sometimes they may have been rough or unavailable. Even if our mothers really wanted to be always available and loving, the realities of life make it impossible to always give a child what they need. Some of our parents needs to work long hours, some were physically abusive, and may have not known how to care for us as well as we would have liked.
In this context, we experienced two basic types of love and sensuality. One, “good-sensuality”, which we found warm and self-affirming; and one “bad-sensuality,” which we experienced as aggressive and humiliating. This good and bad sensuality later developed into “good sex” and “bad sex” as adults (for more about this, please read my future article on roots of kinky sex).
An Example: Pornography Addiction
John (privacy note), a successful 50-year-old doctor, came into my office asking for my help being more attracted to his wife. John had been married of 20-years. The first few years of his marriage, he found his sex life, “good”. However, over time, he found it increasingly harder to be attracted to his wife sexually. John described their relationship as being like roommates. Every night, he would come home and look forward to retreating into his home-office. John admitted that he often found his wife’s attention “suffocating.” Over time, he discovered internet pornography and began using it more-and-more as a sexual outlet. John felt tremendous guilt every time he viewed pornography, but he could not force himself to be attracted to his wife.
At the root of all pornography addiction is some form of intimacy issue. In John’s case, he found it impossible to be close to his wife emotionally. As a result, he could not be close to her sexually. I worked with John over a number of months to better understand his sexuality. Within a few sessions, John’s conversation turned to his relationship with his overbearing mother. John’s mother had always wanted him to be a doctor. Throughout John’s life, his mother forced him to study hard at school to make his mother proud. John’s social life was almost non-existent as he pursued his mother’s dream for him.
Over John’s time in therapy he started to understand how he was deadly afraid of “loosing himself” with his wife. John had never had the chance to establish his own life and identity under the suffocating influence of his mother. When he was at home with his wife, he needed to be in a separate room to feel safe. When he was in bed with her, he subconsciously was terrified to merge with her physically in the sexual act. At some level, his independence was so fragile that it was too risky for him to lose himself in another; even for a few moments.
With time in therapy, John started to feel more secure with himself. Although his fear of being suffocated remained, it lessened enough for John to start enjoying time with his wife, and needed to retreat less often into his office. Their sex life also was resurrected. With a greater sense of security to lead his own life, he was able to feel safer loosing himself in his wife’s body during sex.
Our sex lives are deeply influenced by our relationship experiences with our parents. Understanding how we are shaped can help us create a fulfilling sex life in our present day. Our sexuality is ever evolving and very rarely ordinary. Our sexuality provides a window into how our entire past and present. If you are trying to improve your sex life, the process of self-discovery can be the key to unlocking new vitality and intimacy.