One of the tools I often suggest in helping couples who are having difficulty with intimacy and sexual experience, and who may have a history of trauma or abuse, is Sensate Focus. Pulling from the words of Weiner, Canon, & Avery-Clark here, as they describe succinctly the idea and understanding of what and how it works. This is from their write up about it in Family Therapy Magazine. This technique, along with a solid therapeutic foundation to help navigate the more difficult emotional realms that may (and will) come up for both partners has the capacity to help reconnect a couple back into intimate touch and connection.
What Is Sensate Focus?
Sensate Focus is a hierarchical series of touch exercises aimed in its initial phase at managing or eliminating performance expectations for any specific emotion, whether it be pleasure, relaxation, or arousal. These performance demands result in anxiety, or fears of performance, that interfere with sexual involvement (Weiner & Avery-Clark, 2014). The critical difference between Sensate Focus and erotic touch exercises is that Sensate Focus involves touching for one’s own interest, curiosity, and exploration, not for one’s pleasure or arousal, and not for one’s partner’s pleasure or arousal. When couples get distracted with anxious thoughts while engaged in Sensate Focus, they are taught to mindfully focus on and explore the concrete and reliably available aspects of touch, namely temperature, pressure, and texture (TPT).
How it works
• Dedicate one hour of uninterrupted time, two or three
times a week, to Sensate Focus
• Disconnect from electronics, pets, children, or other
• Take turns touching, and alternate who initiates the touch
(although the more anxious client may initiate the early
• Make sure that:
- There is some lighting in the room
- There is comfortable temperature
• Remove as much clothing as possible, preferably all
• Use only non-verbal communication to maintain sensory
• Keep eyes opened or closed, whichever aids absorption
• Avoid alcohol or recreational drug use
Sensate Focus is an intervention that clinicians can use to teach people how to manage sexual anxieties, preoccupations, and distractions, thereby allowing their bodies to respond naturally. Focusing on temperature, pressure, and texture can calm their apprehensions by directing their attention onto their own, dependable experience rather than onto their partner’s unpredictable responses.
(written by Linda Weiner, MSW Neil Cannon, PhD Constance Avery-Clark, PhD)
A big takeaway here that I help couples navigate is reducing expectation. It is this expectation that often invokes an anxiety state, especially if there is abuse or trauma in one’s past. Decreasing expectation and increasing being “in the moment” without a goal or destination is often times extremely critical in the healing process of touching and being touched.
Feel free to contact me if you have any questions of thoughts about this process and how it may help you and your relationship.