NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, January 11, 2021

Relationships: What is Good Sex? Part 2: Are You Using Solace Sex in an Anxious Attempt to Stay Emotionally Connected?

In my prior article, What is Good Sex?, which was Part 1 of this topic, I began a discussion about three different types of sex, as defined by Sue Johnson, Ph.D., who developed Emotionally Focused Therapy For Couples (EFT).  In the current article, I'm focusing on solace sex.

What is Solace Sex?

What is Solace Sex?
Dr. Johnson defines solace sex as occurring when one or both partners are unsure and anxious about the relationship so they seek reassurance in their sex life together.

With solace sex there is a focus on gaining reassurance about the relationship by trying to please the other partner as a way of winning over their approval and through seeking physical proximity.

People who have an anxious attachment style often engage in solace sex.  Also, people with an anxious attachment style often unconsciously choose partners with an avoidant attachment style, so this exacerbates the problem (see my article: How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship).

With solace sex, there is an emphasis on cuddling and being affectionate rather than the more erotic aspects of sex.  In addition, the person with an anxious attachment style, who is insecure, is highly sensitive to any signs of rejection.  

For example, if their partner is too tired to have sex, they often experience catastrophic thoughts where they believe their partner doesn't love them and they try to pressure their partner to have sex to feel reassured that the partner cares for them (see my article:  Are You Catastrophizing?).

This often leads to more arguments and conflicts in the relationship, especially if the relationship is already unstable.

Clinical Vignette 1: Solace Sex in an Uncommitted, Unstable Relationship

Pam and Ed
When Pam and Ed, both in their mid-30s, first met at a party, they were drawn to each other immediately and they began dating soon after that.

From the beginning, Ed was upfront with Pam. He told her that he wasn't looking for a serious relationship--he only wanted a casual relationship with her.  He also let her know that he had never been monogamous in any of his prior relationships, and he was currently dating two other women. 

Although Pam didn't like that Ed was seeing other women, she believed she could eventually change his mind and convince him that she was the woman for him.  Whenever they got together, Pam felt it was an opportunity to change Ed's mind.  She would do everything she could to try to please him in terms of the way she dressed, the meals she made for him, and the little gifts she bought for him.  

During sex, Pam sought constant reassurance from Ed that he liked her, which annoyed Ed.  He couldn't understand why Pam needed so much reassurance.  

After a while, Ed realized that he was thinking about the two other women that he was dating whenever he was with Pam and wishing he was with one of them.  

Three months later, Ed felt tired and bored with the relationship. He told Pam that he didn't want to continue dating her.  When Pam heard this, she flew into a rage, and Ed left her apartment abruptly slamming the door behind him.

Eventually, they reconciled, but over the next six months, Pam and Ed had an on-again/off-again relationship (see my article:  The Heartbreak of the On Again/Off Again Relationship).  

The pattern was always the same: Pam wanted more from Ed than he wanted to give her.  She wanted a monogamous relationship and he wanted to continue to see other women.  The more they argued about this, the more these arguments eroded Pam's self confidence, which was low even before she began dating Ed.  

Whenever they got back together again after a breakup, they never discussed their differences about monogamy.  Instead, they brushed those issues under the rug, and they reconciled by having sex.  Whenever they had sex, Pam felt reassured--until the conflict about monogamy came up again, which led to another breakup.

Pam's friends could see that she had highs and lows in this relationship--mostly lows.  They told her that she would be happier if she dated someone who also wanted to be monogamous.  As they saw how unhappy Pam was with Ed, they couldn't understand why she pursued him after each breakup.  And they really couldn't understand why Pam found Ed so compelling.  

Pam and Ed in EFT Couples Therapy:
Although Ed was reluctant, Pam persuaded him to go with her to EFT couples therapy.  

After the first session, the couples therapist told them that they each wanted something different--Pam wanted to be monogamous and Ed didn't.  She pointed out that, even though they kept coming back together after their frequent breakups, their problems hinged on this issue and they were far apart on it.  She told them that, as long as they were so far apart on the issue of monogamy, she didn't see how couples therapy could help them because what they wanted was so fundamentally different.  She recommended individual therapy for each of them.  

Soon after that, when Ed broke up with Pam again and he refused to reconcile, Pam entered into individual therapy to try to understand why she stayed in such an unstable relationship.  In her individual therapy, Pam learned that her unresolved childhood trauma in an unstable family drew her to Ed.  She also saw that she had a tendency to seek out men who were emotionally unavailable.  She worked on resolving her trauma in individual therapy so she wouldn't continue to repeat this pattern.  

Ed never sought individual therapy for himself. He was content being nonmonogamous and sought out women who were only interested in casual relationships.  Even though these relationships didn't last long, Ed felt comfortable going from one relationship to the next.

Clinical Vignette 2: Solace Sex in a Committed Relationship

Liz and Joe
Liz and Joe were both single and in their early 40s when they met.  During the first six months of their relationship, they had an active sex life together, and they agreed to be monogamous.  

Liz preferred cuddling with Joe and she often wanted reassurances from him that he cared about her and that he found her attractive. At first, Joe didn't mind that Liz needed so much reassurance, but after a while, he was getting tired of it.  He couldn't understand why Liz needed to hear him tell her every time they were together that he cared for her and that she was beautiful.  He felt Liz was nagging him about this.  He also didn't like to cuddle all the time, but he did it because he knew that if he didn't, Liz would become anxious and she would begin to have doubts about his feelings for her.  

By the time they were together for six months, Joe had taken on a second job to pay off his debt, so he was often tired when he saw Liz on the weekends.  He was especially tired on Friday nights after a long work week.  As a result, he was often too tired to have sex on Friday nights and suggested they have sex on Saturday morning.  

Initially, Joe didn't think Liz would mind because, after all, they would be together all weekend.  So when Liz reacted angrily and accused him of not caring about her anymore, he was very surprised.  

He thought Liz was overreacting and he tried to reassure her that his feelings hadn't changed--he was just tired.  But nothing he said helped to soothe Liz, and after a while he felt Liz was being inconsiderate and too demanding.   

As time went on, Joe wondered if he wanted to spend so much time with Liz.  His preference would have been to spend less time together because, compared to Liz, he needed much more down time (see my article: Compromising About Time Together and Time Apart).  

But when he told her this, she became highly anxious and upset, and Joe felt himself withdrawing from her emotionally.  And, as is typical in the dynamic between a person with an anxious attachment style (Liz) and a person with an avoidant attachment style (Joe), the more he withdrew from her, the more she pursued him.

Liz and Joe in EFT Couples Therapy: 
Liz and Joe exemplify a typical dynamic with solace sex.  Liz has an anxious attachment style and Joe has more of an avoidant attachment style.

As such, Liz needed a lot of reassurance from Joe that he cared about her and she sought this reassurance through solace sex.  

She was the emotional and sexual pursuer in the relationship and he was the withdrawer.  After a while, the more she pursued, the more overwhelmed he felt and the more he withdrew from her.

Even though they had problems, Liz and Joe were both committed to their relationship.  Neither of them wanted to see other people.  So, when they realized they weren't able to resolve their problems on their own, they sought help in Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples (EFT).

Their EFT couples therapist helped Liz and Joe to see the negative cycle in their relationship.  Rather than fighting with each other, they learned to pull together to change their relationship dynamic. They each realized that they were repeating a cycle that was part of their family of origin history.  

Liz learned to recognize her catastrophic thinking and, rather than accusing Joe of not caring for her, she calmed herself first and then she was able to approach Joe to tell him what she needed from him.  She also learned not to take it personally if he was too tired to have sex.

When Joe felt less pressured, he felt more drawn to Liz.  Rather than withdrawing from her, Joe was more affectionate, even when he was too tired to have sex.  

In addition, they were able to compromise more about spending time together versus spending time apart, so Joe was able to have more down time, and Liz stopped feeling insecure about Joe's need for time for himself.

Working together in couples therapy, they were able to change their relationship dynamic so they had a more satisfying relationship.  

In the vignettes above, the people with the anxious attachment style who sought out solace sex were women.  They were the pursuers in their relationship and the men were the withdrawers with more of an avoidant attachment style.  However, even though pursuers are usually women and withdrawers are usually men in heterosexual relationships, there are also male pursuers and female withdrawers.

As previously mentioned, people who seek out solace sex usually feel anxious and insecure in their relationships.  This is exacerbated by the fact they often unconsciously choose partners who are less emotionally available, which often repeats a family of origin dynamic.

In unstable relationships, as in the vignette about Pam and Ed, the pursuer (Pam) often finds the instability of the relationship to be compelling--even though, at the same time, the pursuer is trying very hard to get her emotional needs met.  

An insecure attachment, like an anxious attachment style, which develops at an early age, contributes to this dynamic.  The more the pursuer pursues the withdrawer, who has an avoidant attachment style, the more the withdrawer distances himself.  And the more he distances, the more she pursues, which leads to ongoing problems.

Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples helps couples, who are committed to each other, to understand the negative cycle in their relationship so they can work on changing the cycle.  Rather than blaming each other, they learn to work together to improve their relationship.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you and your partner are having problems you haven't been able to resolve on your own, you could benefit from seeking help from an experienced psychotherapist.

Research has shown that EFT Couples therapy is an effective evidence-based couples therapy that has helped many couples to resolve their problems.

Rather than struggling on your own, seek help from a licensed mental health practitioner who is skilled in helping people overcome their relationship problems.

About Me
I am a licensed psychotherapist, EFT couples therapist, hypnotherapist, AEDP, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist in NYC (see my article:  The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Therapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.