“Everything you do in a relationship is foreplay.” –John Gottman
Maps help us navigate our way in the world; even when we know where we are going our brains cues and signals, in the form of internal schemas, so that we know where to turn. An “Intimacy Map,” also called a “Sex Map,” is an inner guide to relationship intimacy, a way of knowing what you and your partner desire and how to engage in the most intimate of acts in mutually satisfying ways.
Communicating about sex can be difficult, yet without communication you may find yourself navigating based on assumptions. For many women good sex follows good emotional connection. For many men the essential thing is to feel desired by their partner, wanting to be wanted. Yet these needs can be interpreted through counterproductive assumptions, ones you may have about your partner and about yourself. A sex map helps you avoid getting lost in assumptions and the hurt that can result.
Contrary to popular grocery checkout magazine advice, the key to a great sex life does not lie in new positions, using a blindfold, seducing each other, better technique, dirty talk, fantasies, and other such strategies. While these things can add spice to sex, they only work when a roadmap for emotional and physical intimacy is present. Good emotional intimacy enhances good sex; good sexual intimacy enhances emotional connection.
An intimacy map is an inner understanding of what makes you and your partner aroused, satisfied, turned off, pleasured or pained. It includes knowing what you and your partner like during foreplay, sex, and after sex. It also includes strategies to initiate and politely refuse sex, and rituals to maintain a good, open channel of communication about sexual needs, differences, joys, and disappointments. While talking about sexual maps can be awkward, a few basic steps can make this easier:
Tips for Creating and Enhancing your Sex Maps
- Map Your Erogenous Zones: On two sheets of paper, one for you and one for your spouse, draw outlines of the human body, one for the front and one for the back. Next, write numbers in the areas where you like to be pleasured, showing the order of progression. At the same time, your partner writes where he or she typically stimulates you, without looking at each other’s notes (Berman). Don’t forget your neck, shoulders, scalp, back, and other areas. Once each partner is finished, compare diagrams and talk about the differences in a non-blaming and non-self-shaming way. Roles are then reversed. The goal is to facilitate good sexual communication and to look at unspoken assumptions. I give different exercise to clients who are unsure about what they like and thus have difficulty noting preferences.
- Add to Your Sensuality Bank: Find out what makes each other tick by offering sensual bids for connection throughout your day: a kiss, a hug; or a note, email, text, or phone call. At the end of the day, compare notes on what you noticed was offered, what you accepted, and vice versa. Once both of you feel you are starting to communicate sensual likes, try a sensual date. Suggestions include sharing a bath, having a sensual picnic at a favorite spot, dancing with and for each other, or giving each other a massage. Schedule a walk on a local trail or beach and during the walk focus on all your senses: touch for one—moving your finders while holding hands, a soft touch on the shoulders or neck, a kiss when stopping. Pay attention to your partner’s breath, smell, walk, hair, eyes, and sounds. What does he or she see, think of the scenery, smell? Sometimes silence is a powerful sensual connection. A summer walk at dusk when flowers are fragrant, a fall walk through fallen leaves, winter on the crispy snow, or a spring check on the first flowers can all add sensual landmarks to your intimacy map.
- Schedule Intimacy: What was sex like early on in your relationship? Likely it was good when planned and anticipated. You were also both probably attentive to each other’s desires. With work schedules, kids, groceries, meals, and errands, planning for intimacy can be essential (and having a back-up plan if something gets in the way). Having respectful, mutually understood ways of engaging in sex and turning it down can help when you would like to initiate sex or refuse it.
- Be Present: This is the “you are here” symbol on your sex map. David Schnarch describes having sex with eyes open, looking into each other’s eyes. What he means is that when fully present, aligning your body and emotions with your partner, sex really is better. Use mindfulness to bring yourself into the present–senses are a great way to do this.
- Express Yourself: When communicating sexual likes and dislikes, use a soft approach: “I really like it when you…”, “I would like to try…” or, “What do you think of …?” As part of your sexual mapping, both you and your partner can agree that this wording means one behavior is more desirable than another. A basic rule of sex is that if something does not feel good or hurts, stop doing it. Be sure to reconnect emotionally if desires differ; for example, if one partner wants the lights on during sex and the other wants the lights off. When a good emotional connection is present, there is room for compromise—a candle or dim light. Also, look for ways to express yourself while increasing foreplay—sexy underwear, giving each other naked massages, having a “follow-up” night: giving sensual massages and waiting until the next day to engage in sex, raising anticipation.
An intimacy map is not a static, unchanging chart of known waters. Sexual needs can vary over time, and as your body changes and ages. Desire levels will change during pregnancy, while breastfeeding, during menopause, wor hen life stressors rise. A good sex map gives you and your partner a roadmap for sharing emotions during such times, deepening intimacy even when sex does not work out.
At times anxiety or unconscious issues can affect your sex life, leaving you frustrated and ashamed, your partner hurt and unwanted. If you find yourself facing conflict and hurt over differing sexual desire, low libido, sex addiction, painful sex, poor sexual self-confidence, past trauma, or other issues, therapy can help. I help couples identify issues, provide exercises to work on at home, and facilitate the emotional interchange needed to communicate openly and effectively so that you deal with sensitive sex issues.
Your own explorations and the skills and tools provided in sex therapy are good additions to your sex map. This map can point you in the right direction, letting you enjoy the journey and the scenery because you know how to read important map points. In sex, the journey is everything.
References: Berman, L. (2011). Loving Sex: The book of joy and passion. New York: DK Adult. http://www.everydayhealth.com/columns/dr-laura-berman-on-love-and-sex. Gottman, J. (2000). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Harmony. Schnarch, D. (1998). Passionate Marriage. New York: Holy.