Sex is Bonding... Or is It?

Similar to the "sex is special" narrative... the "sex is bonding" story line is also one most of us grow up hearing. Or at least I hope you did. Because the alternative is usually some form of "sex is for procreation only." And that's definitely a sad story we want out of the suitcase. Sex definitely can be bonding. And at the same time, you want to be careful how much of this you keep in your "luggage."

Lots of people experience sexuality within the context of a relationship that is meaningful to them. Whether it's a person they have "fallen in love with," a person they have made commitments to such as marriage or other forms of exclusivity, a person they enjoy spending their time with.... sex can be an ultimate intimacy. A way to share vulnerabilities and get closer to your partner. A sense that this way of interacting makes "our relationship different" than any other in our lives. It can help deepen feelings of love, it can enhance mutual pleasure, it can bond a couple by having them start a family together, it can smooth things over from spats and arguments, it can strengthen attachment... All of these things are beautiful possibilities and, at times, very meaningful realities.

At the same time, this narrative has limitations. In the many debates relationship gurus the likes of Sue Johnson, John Gottman, David Schnarch and Esther Perel have... we hear competing understandings of human sexuality. Johnson and Gottman are in the camp that sex without relational bonding is somehow subpar. If the relationship is well-bonded then the sex should be good. If there isn't sufficient bonding then people are left dissatisfied and in the throes of "unhealthy" sexuality. Perel and Schnarch are more about the idea that sexuality is a complex process that can be about bonding as well as a myriad of other issues. Not everyone wants the same things from sexual experiences - including bonding. In fact too much bonding... putting you in the "friends" category... may actually dampen the mystery needed to keep sexual passion alive.

I tend to agree with Perel and Schnarch. I have seen many relationships where the bonds are strong. The friendship and respect the couple shares are a sight to behold.. and yet their sex life is not satisfying. I have seen people find a lot of pleasure in sexual experiences where the relationship is casual and they are not wanting long-term commitment or bonding, without the negative ramifications in their lives people with moral judgments usually assume will happen. I have seen couples who have horrific bonding issues... to the point of domestic violence... and yet the sex is "hot." So the bonding narrative is complicated.

What can we do about this?

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