There are only two types of intimacy in sex.
They both involve two people in a committed relationship, but they work very differently.
One produces the type of sex most people consider good, adequate, “okay”.
And the other results in hot, base, intense moments of connection that are beautiful, erotic, pleasurable, memorable and make you want to go back for a second helping.
We’re going to look at how both work, and how you can experience the latter in a more profound way.
Brett would come home from work and “test the waters” to see if Celia might be in the mood for sex. He’d enquire superficially about her day. Some days, if she’d been able to publish some writing, she responded well. Other days she shared about health flare-ups, and he knew that meant no action tonight.
In short: push-pull intimacy is where you make the other person responsible for whether or not you’re okay.
Push-pull intimacy is the work of children and adolescents. It’s how we’re brought up to be around people. It’s required to grow and develop.
When we’re kids, we’re wired to look for the approval of our parents. If something gets praise, we do it more. If something ignites anger, we do it less. There’s more complexity in these patterns, but for now, we’ll keep it simple and say that kids look outside of themselves for their self-definition.
As adults, we keep this pattern going. Mainly because we don’t even realise we’re doing. It just feels familiar, so we assume it’s “right” and the best way forward in a loving relationship. This is fine—there’s nothing wrong with this approach if it’s working for you.
The problem arises when this way stops working for you or worse, it begins to stand between you and the best sex of your life.
So what does push-pull intimacy look like in adult life?
It’s such a common approach that you may be shocked when you see it.
The cornerstone of push-pull intimacy is reciprocity. I did X for you, do know you do Y for me.
Jackie told Ben everything. She told him about her past and the hurts she’d had. She shared where she wants to go in her future. It was a buffet of sharing. Ben didn’t respond in kind to Jackie—he wasn’t sure how to access those kinds of details inside of him and just lay them out there. It felt claustrophobic to him. So he didn’t. This made Jackie feel like Ben was unfairly withholding from her. After all, she’d shared freely; now it was his turn.
Reciprocity recommendations are a standard part of traditional sex therapy, according to clinical psychologist Dr David Schnarch.
Push-pull intimacy is about disclosing information and then requiring that your partner accepts, validates or positively reinforces you.
Push-pull intimacy is like an unwritten rule of equity that most couples adhere to, perhaps without realising it. And it’s a popular way people try to avoid fears of rejection.
But after a while, it can become unbearable to continue.
Why? It happens because of the natural evolution of any committed relationship. Choosing another person means removing choices outside of the relationship. It becomes a closed system.
When people both feel like they need their cup filled but from each other simultaneously, it can feel frustrating.
“Why isn’t he responding to me” Jackie might feel. There must be something wrong with him. Ben agrees and thinks maybe there is something wrong with him.
There’s nothing wrong happening, though.
The progression of relationships is always in the direction of growth. It’s not that people always choose to grow. But relationships actually have a “grow or die” mechanism built in. If you don’t surrender to the growth process, you’ll probably have to choose between the death of the relationship or the end of sex.
But it does not have to be with way.
On the other side of surrender is the hottest sex of your life.
To put this another way, picture a tug of war. On one end is “togetherness” and on the other “autonomy”. In every person, there is a tug of war going on constantly.
As humans, we want to belong and desire to be accepted and part of the group. I’m sure this is a survival instinct and a comfort and enjoyment instinct as well. We’re tribal people—no person is an island, as they say.
Yet, equally, inside each person is a desire to be individual. This is the seeking for autonomy, freedom and self-determination. This part of us wants to course our own path and forge a way into the future.
Our personality type will influence which of the two we naturally lean towards. In each of us, we’ll usually let one side win for the sake of convenience and to relieve discomfort.
But over time, the “pressure cooker” of committed relationships makes us less and less willing to let that side that’s consistently won win. We want the freshness of the other side.
Vanessa had been faking most orgasms since Rodger and she got together. They have been married for 6 years now, but she was done pretending after giving birth to Ava 18 months ago. She just didn’t have the energy. She was torn between telling Roger that the past 6 years had essentially been pretending.
She knew he would feel wounded, and he’d probably be very deflated for days or even weeks. She didn’t know how long, but it would be a significant blow. But at the same time, she just knew she couldn’t keep “putting on a show”. She didn’t want to lose him, but she didn’t want to have him like this either.
Often one person in the relationship has to repress their desire for autonomy and swallow “their truth” for the sake of the other person’s ego. This was the case for Vanessa. Her version of this “tug of war” was his consistent submission to “togetherness” at all costs.
She didn’t risk the independence of the truth of her experience because she knew it would be hard for Rodger to swallow. She didn’t realise that she deserved to be honest and that Rodger also deserved the chance to see the truth too.
Over time push-pull intimacy can cause resentment in the “pressure cooker” of committed relationships. It can cause passive indignation because it requires one person in the couple to go against their integrity. Often they will do it in the name of “keeping the relationship alive”. But they’ll only do it for so long. In Vanessa’s case, the birth of her daughter made her realise that she didn’t have the energy to keep pretending.
As with many things, the pain of change has to become less than the pain of staying the same.
With the support of this framework, Vanessa did face up to herself and Rodger. More than just hiding this from Rodger, she had to look at why she would allow herself to pretend and essentially lie to herself and someone she attests to love very much.
Part of this process meant facing all of that and dealing with the discomfort of Rodger’s shame and embarrassment.
Rodger was ever so slightly encouraged by how Vanessa was looking at these things in herself. But it barely removed a hint of the sting. He felt it like hot sand being blown sharply onto his skin. He mopped for days and didn’t say much.
By trying to remain Confident & Unguarded and using Calm-Connected Responding to react productively in an Emotionally Self-Controlled way to Vanessa, he earned her respect. And his own. By using these tools while harnessing the staying power of Grit & Growth, he was training himself to be strong enough to access his sexual potential with Vanessa.
Wholehearted intimacy is about harnessing these four methods to have better sex.
In Vanessa’s case, she had to remain Confident & Unguarded while also being Emotionally Self-Controlled and soothing herself while Rodger reacted poorly to what she shared.
There must be an ability to detoxify the pain that arises as part of normal commuted relationships; otherwise, it’s not wholehearted intimacy.
The risk of wholehearted intimacy is that you don’t have the guarantee of a cheerful welcome.
Now, to be clear, it’s not about bringing up painful things or saying things to intentionally hurt. It’s not vindictive or anything like that.
In the tug of war between “togetherness” and “autonomy”, a rebalancing of the tension will have to come. Vanessa had always allowed her desire for togetherness (and her fear of separation) to trump her desire for self-determination.
It stung when this rebalancing occurred, and the honesty was brought forth. Her intention wasn’t to wound. That was, however, the byproduct of honesty. And probably why she avoided it for so long.
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.
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’s an appreciation for life itself.
Our culture is so entrenched in push-pull intimacy that wholehearted intimacy may look like not caring or even betraying intimacy itself.
Alice and Henry were 18 years old. They’d been dating for 2 months, and Alice had been counting each month religiously. As their first real relationship, they were obsessed with their newfound love.
One Sunday morning, Alice noticed she was angry with Henry. He had not acknowledged their “anniversary” the day before. She was offended at him. In her eyes, he’d shown a lack of commitment and thoughtfulness.
She confronted him. “Love looks like something”, she said, implying that love is about taking action. She said that he’d messed up in his lack of thoughtfulness. Alice felt rejected.
When Henry refused to panda to Alice’s insistence that he was wrong, she realised that perhaps she was unreasonable. It was the first time that Alice could see how her family’s overwhelming reciprocity strategy was not the path to authentic love that she had supposed it was.
Wholehearted intimacy requires each person to use Calm-Connected Responding to react productively in an Emotionally Self-Controlled way.
To get to better sex, you have to be willing to explore.
This isn’t about new positions, though new angles will be discovered.
Exploration will naturally peak anxiety in one or both partners because new things aren’t a sure success. And the possibility of “failure” makes any new sexual experience inherently risky.
But if you and your partner can have just one sexual encounter where you’re Confident & Unguarded with a willingness to explore while remaining Emotionally Self-Controlled, then you’re on your way to the best sex of your life.
Then, if you feel the experience becoming intense or overwhelming, you can use Calm-Connected Responding to prioritise your connection with your partner without “losing yourself”. Over multiple sexual experiences, you can harness the staying power of Grit & Growth.
When you use these four methods together, you’ll move towards accessing the best that radically connected sex has to offer.
✔ A sense of spirituality and divine union.
✔ A profoundly uplifting intimate connection.
✔ Multiple or intense full body orgasm(s).
✔ A deep sense of being seen and known by someone you care about.
✔ An afterglow that extends into the rest of the day and week.
✔ Passionate kissing and eye contact.
Stephanie Renee Cluff