Sensate focus and its use in relationship counseling
The vicious cycle of sexual dysfunction: the more you try to get your body or mind to work during intimacy, the less successful your results. In order to combat this, sex and relationship therapists use a series of exercises called sensate focus. These exercises consist of four stages which build trust, communication, and mindfulness in intimacy. With a therapist, partners customize these exercises for their needs and intimacy style. The partners go home, try the exercises, process the experience as partners, and again with a therapist. Sensate focus exercises were originally developed in the 1960s by sex researchers Masters and Johnson. The exercises were created with cisgender, heterosexual, monogamous couples in mind, but can be modified to fit many different sexuality, intimacy, and relationship styles.
Stage one: Partners take turns touching each other, avoiding genital areas or the areas typically stimulated during your relationship’s intimacy. In this stage, focus on what feels good to touch and practice open communication with your partner, both verbally and non-verbally. Examples: Moan if it feels good to have your neck stroked, state “I like it when you touch my stomach”, ask “How touch it feel when I touch your hands like this?. The purpose of this stage is to practice being in the present during intimacy and also take the pressure off any party to become aroused or engage in intercourse. After sessions in this stage, partners can process what the experience was like, what worked for them, and what emotions were felt during the process. With a therapist, they can decide if moving onto the next stage is appropriate or if the partners need to spend more time in stage one.
Stage two: Partners again take turns touching each other and may include all body all body areas. The concepts of communication and mindful touching are the same as in stage one. It is important before this stage to have a conversation about what sexual behavior is permitted if one or more parties become aroused. Will more involved intimacy be in the cards or will it be avoided regardless? One of the benefits of sensate focus is it can take pressure off any partner to perform. Just like the first stage, the partners and the therapist process the experience together and make needed adjustments.
Stage three: Partners touch each other at the same time. The same concepts from the previous two stages roll into stage three. This stage can be more complicated as partners are focusing on touching the others as well as how they are being touched. Again, try the best to keep yourself in the moment and continually communicate about what is working and what can be changed. This stage can spark some productive conversation between partners and the therapist.
Stage Four: Intercourse (or whatever the “main” sexual activity is between partners) is allowed to happen. Depending on the reasons for engaging in sensate focus exercises, it may be wise to ease slowly into intercourse. The specifics of this stage need to be discussed between partners and the therapist.
The goal of sensate focus is to reconnect partners. Often, especially in cisgender, heterosexual relationships, the principle of “penis in vagina” sex can become king. This mindset can perpetuate sexual dysfunction. Sensate focus allows each partner to explore their sexuality beyond their standard and develop new and more varied sexual connections. With the assistance of a therapist, sensate focus exercises can bring a new spark to relationships.
Amy is a provisionally licensed professional counselor and marriage and family therapist in New Orleans. She enjoys making macaroni and cheese and understanding the effects of privledge in relationships.