Practicing sensate focus to reconnect sexually with your partner
Masters and Johnson developed the sensate focus exercises in 1970 to help couples have new sensual experiences and rediscover their sexual connection. Studies have shown that these exercises can both decrease anxiety and increase sexual intimacy and satisfaction. Research shows that sensate focus is effective in improving sexual desire in a couple. According to a study, 83% of participants reported a better sex life after doing the exercises. It’s no wonder that these exercises are often used in sex and couples therapy. They can also help in the treatment of vaginismus (contraction of vaginal muscles during sex) or dyspareunia (pain during penetrative sex) and erectile problems.
What does sensate focus entail?
Sensate focus means to perceive and enjoy your own body and that of your partner with all your senses - but without having penetrative sex. These exercises remove sex as a goal and thus any pressure to perform, because it’s often this pressure and expectations which perpetuate problems in the bedroom. Deliberately removing sex from sensual touching at first allows space to have new, positive sexual experiences.
What can sensate focus do?
First and foremost, the aim of sensate focus is to increase feelings of pleasure. To that end, it can have a positive effect on libido while reducing anxiety and the fear of sex, which may stem from past negative sexual experiences. Repeatedly having positive sexual experiences with your partner can help to override the old, negative ones and change physical and mental reactions to sexual situations for the better. Finally, sensate focus can strengthen mutual trust in the relationship, which can improve feelings of self-esteem related to sexuality.
Learn what you like and feel close again
During the sensate focus exercises, you exchange gentle, caring touches with your partner and focus all of your senses on the experience. For the exercises to be successful, it’s important to openly discuss your wants, desires, boundaries or fears and to be respectful of each others’ needs. The goal is to discover what kinds of touches you enjoy, and the same for your partner. This works best if you take turns touching each other, as this allows you to focus all of your attention on giving or receiving touches.
Slowly but surely
There are different stages of sensate focus exercises, and the idea is to slowly move forward step-by-step. Create a cozy, sensual environment to set the stage, for instance by dimming the lights, lighting some candles and/or playing some sensual music. We will introduce you to 4 sensate focus exercises you can try with your partner.
Before you start, how do you know when to move from one exercise to the next?
Make sure you’ve both had a positive experience with the exercise before moving on to the next one. That means that no unwanted or negative feelings such as anxiety or fear came up. Think of each exercise as a prerequisite for the next one – they are only helpful when you both feel ready for them. So take your time, there’s no rush. These exercises give you the opportunity to be sexually close to your partner without the expectation that it will lead to penetrative sex, which may cause some anxiety. Of course, if you both feel ready for sex and agree that the time is right, go for it! The key here is to communicate. If you come across challenges, you may consider exploring couples or sex therapy. Have fun experimenting!
Exercise 1: Touching while clothed
Keep your clothes on and take turns touching the other person’s body. Then switch roles. Only one person should be touching the other at one time. Spend equal time touching your partner as you are touched – the whole exercise should last around 10-15 minutes to avoid getting tired. Try to explore areas of the body that you wouldn't traditionally consider sexy or erotic. You might surprise yourself. Don’t touch genitals, breasts or buttocks and do your best to avoid becoming sexually aroused. If one or both partners get aroused, take a pause and come back to the exercise later.
Exercise 2: Touching in underwear
Do this exercise just like the first one, but this time only wear your underwear. Again, genitals, breasts and buttocks are off-limits for the time being. Here too, the goal is not to get too excited. Rather focus on the pleasurable sensations of your partner exploring the different parts of your body which may not always be touched during sex. Which areas are most sensitive and ticklish? What kinds of movements and pressure do you enjoy?
Exercise 3: Touching while naked
This time, touch each other while naked. You can undress each other or undress yourselves, whichever is more comfortable for you. This time you may also include your genitals and breasts in the touches. Again, try to avoid getting too sexually aroused as this is not the objective. If one or both partners get too excited, take a short break.
Exercise 4: Experimenting with pleasure and arousal
Repeat the previous exercises: Touch each other while clothed, then undress each other or yourselves, touch each other in underwear and then fully naked. Then you can touch each other’s genitals with the goal of arousing your partner, feel free to use lubricant if needed. Apply what you’ve learned in the previous sensate focus exercises about what kinds of touches are pleasurable and exciting. Try to create waves of arousal – perhaps you’ve heard of the concept called “edging”? That basically means bringing each other to almost climax and then backing off before orgasm, then building arousal again.