“Do You Ever Just Cuddle?”
Yael’s arms are folded across her chest, and her legs tightly crossed as she describes her frustration:
“I guess I’m just turned off from any kind of touch at this point- I don't trust it. Most days, it’s just business as usual, except on the nights when he wants sex. That’s when he’ll start trying to be all warm and cuddly, but it’s so obvious that he’s just setting the stage for what he wants. He never just initiates a hug or holds hands for the sake of closeness; it’s just a not-very-subtle hint for getting his needs met. At first, I would feel played and used afterwards; now I don’t even fall for it anymore. And it’s weird because I can sometimes enjoy sex; I just don’t always want it to go there, or only to touch for that purpose. It feels base and empty that way.”
When assessing couples who come in to work on their sexual relationship, the topic of cuddling can play an almost diagnostic role. For most people, sexual experience is about so much more than the technicality of intercourse. Spouses will vary in their estimations of “how important the other stuff is.” But often when the sexual relationship is suffering, it has to do with a general lack of affection or intimacy that is not specifically geared towards intercourse. Of course, there are many reasons why a couple may have sexual problems- to over-simplify that would be unfair. But one issue that seems to be fairly common is the complaint on the part of one partner that “he only touches me when he wants sex.”
Good love-making doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The physical and emotional pleasure that can come from strong sexual connection begin well before intercourse. One could actually make the case that every loving word and interaction- in and out of the bedroom, could be viewed as a form of foreplay.
Does this always hold true? No, of course not. Relationships are complex. But as a rule: investing in kind, loving, and affectionate interactions throughout the day, week, month, and years, for the sake of the general relationship, is a great way to build intimate connection that could lead to better sex.
The following suggestion is one I give many of the couples I treat. It’s not appropriate for everyone, but it might be worth considering if this would be a good exercise for you and your spouse IF you both tend to enjoy mutual, consensual, affectionate touch, and are looking to increase or maintain intimate desire:
Decide that every night that is possible to do so ends with a 1-2 minute, non-sexual cuddle session. That means that when the first spouse is getting ready to turn in, s/he invites the other to join them in bed or on a couch, for some fully-clothed or pajamaed, G-rated gentle snuggle time. This means holding each other, back rubbing, arm stroking, general caressing, maybe some light, dry kissing, but nothing that specifically leads to erotic or heavy petting. Of course, on sex nights this could be a segue, but the idea is to create a ritual of connecting physically and lovingly in a way that is NOT specifically or exclusively a precursor to sexual activity. It’s similar to the idea (another exercise I recommend a lot – for another post..) of carving time for loving conversation that is not geared towards just that “business as usual” but is more of a verbal date to reconnect emotionally.
The nightly cuddle exercise demonstrates to the higher libido partner how enjoyable and important it can be just to share nonsexual physical bonding. It allows the lower libido partner to enjoy affectionate touch regularly without always feeling that it is a pressure or a hint for the other spouse angling to “get lucky.” The cuddle becomes a mutual gift of simple pleasure, separate from sex, but also a long term investment in sexual enhancement- like daily foreplay for occasional intercourse. Keeping up daily physical touch with the emphasis on emotional bonding serves to deepen a couple’s sense of consistent connection and offers the chance to end each day feeling cared for and close. The couples who discuss this experiment strategically, agree that they would both enjoy it, and then implement it regularly, tend to report almost immediate improvement in marital satisfaction and closeness.
*Please note: as stated earlier, this exercise is not right for every couple. Couples who should try this are ones who feel safe, consensual, comfortable with touch, and derive some pleasure from closeness. Those in unstable relationships, recovering from trauma- recent or past, or where one spouse experiences distress from touch, should NOT feel pressured to do any of this, ever, and should seek professional help to navigate these concerns appropriately.