Our world is highly attuned to validation.
We seek affirmation and call it our love language.
We want praise from our boss, acceptance from our partner and gratitude from our kids.
We want to be seen as good or powerful or successful—every person has a different kink.
It’s not that this way is wrong, but it’s context-dependent.
Seeking Validation Is Normal
The natural progress of growing up requires this type of attunement for survival. The baby learns to be fully focused on his or her mother for physical sustenance, as well as emotional nourishment. Even the child and adolescent are attuned to the others in their life, learning and being shaped by what is acceptable or not.
This reflects our core need for belonging, love and connection.
But beyond our teenage years, our reliance on others for validation starts to negatively impact the potential of our relationships, especially our ability to access hot, intimate sex with someone who we care deeply for.
Reciprocity Can Be Wonderful
There is nothing wrong with reciprocity and doing things for your partner.
By all means, buy flowers for your wife, tell her that you love her, hang out the washing, go on a coffee date with her, or massage her back. Likewise, women, absolutely feel free to buy your man coffee, tell him he looks good, cook him food, take him on a date or rub his head.
It’s a beautiful thing to fill your relationship with kindness and gifts and encouragement.
The problem only comes when these things become required, not simply welcomed.
Later we’ll talk more about how relying on others negatively impacts sex, but first, let’s talk about intimacy.
Intimacy In Relationships
There are two types of intimacy—(1) push-pull intimacy and (2) wholehearted intimacy.
Push-pull intimacy is a style of closeness where the husband and wife are dependent on each other for positive feedback and acceptance. One person will express feelings, perceptions, doubts, concerns, and inner truths, and they will require the other partner to accept, validate, and empathise or reciprocate in-kind with similar sharing. Thus, mutual exchange and reciprocity are at the core of push-pull intimacy. Built into this type of intimacy is an over reliance on the husband to confirm that his wife is “okay” or a good person (or whatever she wants him to confirm). And it works the other way too. The husband will want the wife to confirm certain things to him as well. Perhaps that he’s enough, that he’s right or a good husband etc. Push-pull intimacy requires that certain truths must be ignored, avoided or repressed because if they were shared they would be extremely painful and anxiety-inducing. This is what most people think of as a normal relationship, so it might surprise you to know there’s another way…and it leads to better sex.
Wholehearted intimacy is a style of closeness where the husband and wife are not dependent on each other for positive feedback and acceptance. They will still offer approval and encouragement, but it’s a free-flowing gift because the partner receiving the acceptance isn’t reliant on it. In this style of intimacy, the husband may need to share something with his wife that he knows she won’t like. Despite this, the husband will say what he needs to. It works the opposite way too—when the wife needs to share something she knows her husband will find hard to swallow, she does it in a kind yet honest way, anyway. This is called wholehearted intimacy and it can lead to incredible sex. Let me explain how.
Push-pull intimacy demands a high level of reciprocity. Reciprocity is the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit—“I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine”. Or perhaps more accurately—“I’ve scratched your back, now you must scratch mine”. People often think that “give and take” is a fair and necessary part of marriage—and this is never clearer than in sex.
Before I talk about the second type of intimacy, wholehearted intimacy, let’s take a good ol’ look at push-pull intimacy.
Case Study: Vanessa & Rodger
Vanessa had been faking most orgasms since Rodger and she got together. By now, they’ve been married for 6 years. Just over 12 months agoVanessa gave birth to their first child Ava. When Vanessa and Rodger started having sex again after the birth, Vanessa realised that she was no longer okay with pretending to orgasm.
She’d never really been okay with it, it just seemed necessary so she did it. She had enjoyed having sex with Rodger in the past—specifically the sense of closeness she felt and she didn’t want to spoil that. But more recently, after giving birth, she just couldn’t bring herself to pretend anymore. She just didn’t have the mental energy.
She was torn. She could tell Roger that the past 6 years had been a lie and potentially damaging their connection beyond repair. Or she could stay quiet.
Vanessa assumed Rodger would feel extremely hurt, wounded, and maybe even betrayed if she told him the truth. She didn’t know how long it would take for him to recover, but she knew it’d be a significant blow.
At the same time, she knew she couldn’t keep “putting on a show” without any substance. She didn’t want to lose him, but she didn’t want to have him like this either. It felt like a lose-lose situation with no clearly posted exit signs.
What Vanessa and Rodger are going through is a normal part of push-pull intimacy.
Rodger is relying on Vanessa’s orgasm as a sign that he’s doing a good job—and Vanessa is letting him rely on it.
At some point in one of their early sexual encounters, Vanessa probably had a hard time orgasming and noticed how anxious it made Rodger feel. To avoid that negative feeling, Vanessa probably just went along with things as though they’d all ended well—when they hadn’t. Over time, this became a habit she couldn’t seem to break. They’d get into bed, do the normal routine, and it’d end with her pretending to climax.
This is push-pull intimacy (not wholehearted intimacy, which we’ll talk about soon) because Rodger needed Vanessa’s validation. And for her part, Vanessa needed to keep Rodger feeling good, so she felt okay.
Push-Pull Intimacy Isn’t Wrong
Push-pull intimacy isn’t wrong. It’s just time-limited—it only works for so long!
This happens because the natural progression of relationships is always in the direction of growth.
Couples don’t have to grow. But relationships seem to have a “grow or die” mechanism built-in.
This means that if you choose not to grow (and some people do!), then you may find yourself choosing between the death of your relationship or the death of sex in your relationship. Both of which are painful and unpleasant.
This may seem like harsh stuff. But I promise you the solution, which is wholehearted intimacy makes these problems seem small and distant. Once you start to taste this different type of intimacy, your palette will shift and the old stuff will taste more like cardboard than a full meal.
Okay, so why is push-pull intimacy time limited? Why can’t we go like that forever?
In short: integrity.
Integrity & Feeling Controlled By Your Partner
Strong reciprocity requires one partner to lean on the other to feel good about themselves.
Often one partner will provide whatever validation is needed in the name of “keeping the relationship alive”. But they’ll only do it for so long. After a while, validating your partner feels like going against your own integrity. You want to be yourself and not have to make your partner feel a certain way during sex for them to be “okay”. You want them to “hold onto themselves” and “stand on their own two feet”.
After a while, push-pull intimacy begins to feel like being controlled into validating your partner.
In essence, Vanessa (the person doing the validating) feels like she has to choose between feeling controlled and keeping Rodger’s feelings intact. Between a rock and a hard place if you ask me!
To put this another way, picture a tug of war rope. On one end is “togetherness” and on the other “autonomy”.
In every person, there is a balancing act going on—we each have a desire for togetherness and autonomy.
As humans, we want togetherness. We want to belong and be accepted and part of the group. I’m sure this is a survival instinct and a comfort instinct as well. No person is an island, as they say!
Yet, equally, each person desires autonomy. We want to be ourselves, use self-determination and have the freedom to make choices. This part of us wants to forge our own path into the future.
In marriage, we are continually trying to get comfortable between our desire for togetherness with our partner and our opposing desire for autonomy from our partner.
In Vanessa’s case, the birth of her daughter made her realise that she didn’t have the energy to keep pretending as she had in the past. She realised she was faking orgasms to make Rodger feel good, and so that things weren’t controversial in her relationship. Vanessa knew Rodger wanted to give her pleasure. But what she didn’t realise for a long time was that he also kind of needed to give her pleasure otherwise he felt like he’d failed.
And for a while, it was sexy to go along with this need to make her climax. But that well had run dry.
It was officially unexciting for Vanessa to bolster Rodger’s ego by pretending. She just wanted to be real with him, but also knew it wouldn’t go down well. This was lowering her desire for sex and Rodger was starting to notice. Sure, she could pretend (again) that it was work stress or the transition to motherhood that was making her less interested in sex. But deep down she knew she had to face her fear and just be honest.
Togetherness & Autonomy
In this case, Vanessa was caving to “togetherness” at all costs—and avoiding “autonomy”.
But recently she wanted the autonomy of her own opinion. She wanted to be able to say “that wasn’t good for me” and have Rodger say “well, that was good for me.” She wanted the chance to own the truth of her experience, and let Rodger experience her truth.
For six years she had voluntarily swallowed the truth to “keep the peace” and make sure togetherness was preserved. She masked the truth to “save face”. She didn’t risk the independence (autonomy) of a different opinion to Rodger because she knew it would be hard for him to accept.
She made sounds.
He assumed she’d orgasmed.
She didn’t correct him.
And by omission, she led him to believe she’d climaxed.
In each of us, we’ll usually let one side “win” (either the desire for togetherness or the desire for autonomy) for the sake of safety.
But over time, letting one side win feels more and more like being controlled by our partner.
The “pressure cooker” of committed relationships makes us less and less willing to allow that side to win (it feels like letting our partner control us). So we rebel!
We want the balance of the other side—whether that’s to lean into togetherness or expand into our autonomy.
As I said before, committed relationships are pressure cookers. Over time the pressure builds, and when there’s enough energy rattling around transformation can come quickly and sometimes brutally, as we’re about to find out.
As with many things, the pain of change has to become less than the pain of staying the same.
With Vanessa and Rodger, Vanessa couldn’t stand having sex anymore.
Over time push-pull intimacy can cause resentment in one or both partners, this can reduce the overall desire for sex, and lead to low desire or sexual dissatisfaction, and thus arguments about sex.
Wholehearted Intimacy Looks Like This
In sharp contrast, wholehearted intimacy is about being willing to reveal yourself to another person with a low requirement for reciprocity.
It includes an ability to be honest (verbally or non-verbally) with the other person about yourself in a self-revealing way without needing anything in return.
If you’re in wholehearted intimacy you can give and receive, freely.
There are no obligations or expectations—either spoken or unspoken.
There’s freedom from obligations and expectations.
This leads to the ability to transcend the normal path of sex that requires fairness and can lead to “ego-stroking”.
Wholehearted intimacy doesn’t require reciprocity, but it often spontaneously leads to it.
It’s a stable and steady connection that is more flexible and less rigid.
This style of intimacy can form when one partner doesn’t depend on the other partner’s response. In other words, when one partner doesn’t demand confidence, certainty or safety from the other partner.
Every couple will find this challenging, stretching and uncomfortable—that’s why it takes growth. And it’s also why many couples will settle for push-pull intimacy while complaining about mediocre, mechanical or non-existent sex.
When it comes to truly being seen, both genders are equally intimidated with wholehearted intimacy.
Wholehearted intimacy is not about oversharing. And it has nothing to do with your ability to “share your feelings”. It’s not gender dependent—meaning that both men and women can get good at it. Yet, most men and women are equally shy about it.
But it does not have to be this way.
On the other side of push-pull intimacy is the greatest sex of your life.
Back to Vanessa. Vanessa did face up to herself and Rodger.
Her journey was about more than just blurting out to Rodger that she’d been faking orgasms for essentially their whole relationship. She had to face the truth about deeper things like self-rejection. Why was she so quick to silence the truth, in case it broke the relationship? Why was she so willing to lie to herself and someone she loved? What did that say about her or her beliefs?
Vanessa Confronting Rodger
In their initial conversation, Vanessa shared the truth (she’d been faking orgasms the whole time).
Rodger was ever so slightly reassured by how Vanessa was dealing with these hard questions she was asking herself. But it barely removed a hint of the sting. He felt her words like sand pricking his face. He sulked about the house for days afterwards and didn’t say much.
It was terrible to learn that he’d been having intercourse with a woman who’d been pretending to enjoy herself to climax. It was almost unbearable. And to make matters worse, he knew he couldn’t rely on Vanessa to soften the blow. It had to be him.
Meanwhile, Vanessa had to sooth herself while Rodger reacted poorly to what she shared. And she had to stay confident in her choice to share even while Rodger brooded for days.
The risk with wholehearted intimacy is that you don’t have the guarantee of a cheerful welcome. She couldn’t rely on Rodger accepting, encouraging or validating her confession. In fact, she could almost guarantee a hostile host!
As couples, we need to learn how to detoxify the pain that arises in marriage. Otherwise, it’s not wholehearted intimacy.
Vanessa had to risk her connection with Rodger (would he ever trust her again?) for the sake of her integrity.
In the tug of war between “togetherness” and “autonomy,” we are always invited to find a happy medium between being connected to our partner and being our own person.
Vanessa had always allowed her desire for togetherness (and her fear of separation) to quell her desire for autonomy.
She didn’t have the words to articulate this at the time, but she got to a place where she’d inflate his ego or his penis but was absolutely done trying to do both.
The Truth Can Be Brutally…Pleasant
Now, to be clear, wholehearted intimacy is not about bringing up painful memories or saying things to intentionally hurt. It’s not vindictive.
Vanessa’s words stung when this rebalancing occurred because truth can hurt. But her intention wasn’t to wound.
There is a part of us, our truest self, that indeed cannot be hurt. It is beyond darts or arrows or swords. It does not hurt and cannot be wounded—it is eternal.
But who we think we are, as many of us know, can be wounded. Our image can be punctured and our vision of our idealised self can crumble. So, yes, the truth can sting.
But it does so in a necessary and oftentimes brutally pleasant way—like a trigger-point massage.
The pain of the truth was probably why Vanessa avoided it for so long. But her honesty was their first experience with wholehearted intimacy.
After 7 full days of wallowing and lots of silence, Rodger came back to himself. When they had sex later that day, Vanessa still didn’t orgasm, but it was their first time (in a long time) that they allowed that to happen. They didn’t cover it up!
They felt young and goofy for the first time in years, and even though Rodger was disappointed that Vanessa didn’t climax, he was still proud of himself for not overreacting.
Vanessa felt anxious-exciting, which was a welcome change from resentful and frustrated. Her purge of emotion from the last 6 years had freed up lots of space in her spirit and she was more interested in sex than she’d been in a long time. She was starting to feel the tingles of spontaneous desire, which she was very unaccustomed to.
Intimacy & Holy Loneliness
A unique part of wholehearted intimacy that might be less apparent at first glance is a sense of separateness.
When you realise you are a separate person from your loved one, a sense of holy loneliness can come in. When you realise you are independent and that connection and love and intimacy are a gift, not a given, there can be an added appreciation for life itself.
Vanessa & Rodger… A Little While Later
Vanessa and Rodger were experimenting with more and more wholehearted intimacy, in and out of the bedroom.
After 5 sexual encounters with this new mindset (almost 2 months after their hard conversation), Vanessa had a spontaneous orgasm with Rodger. It was a beautiful moment for them both to enjoy.
Six months after their conversation, lots had changed in their relationship. Vanessa was taking less responsibility for other people’s tasks at work. She felt like she had a better sense of herself and better personal boundaries. Rodger was also doing better. When it came time for his quarterly review, he asked for a promotion and got it. He was comfortable with receiving it, or not, and he thinks it was that “I’m okay either way” energy that allowed him to ask in the first place.
More and more, they were aware of the space between the two of them, as separate people in a finite life together, and this made them hold each other a bit tighter.
They needed it less than ever, but they enjoyed it more than ever.
It wasn’t the end of the journey for Vanessa and Rodger, but they were well on their way to experience the best that sex has to offer.
Stephanie Renee Cluff