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Which (Not Who!) Comes First?

Sex and Emotional Intimacy

It is often said that in heterosexual couples women get turned on by emotional intimacy while men access their emotional intimacy through sex. Of course there are exceptions, but for the most part this generalization holds true in my experience. What is the basis for this?

Boys and Girls

About 30 years ago Nancy Chodorow proposed a theory which I will surely be oversimplifying here but is interesting food for thought. She suggested that boys and girls follow different emotional trajectories based largely on their gender relationships to their mothers. (Chodorow’s research was based on heterosexual parents—I don’t know if any follow-up or extension of her theory has been done with same-sex parents.) For girls, being the same gender as their mothers, there is a closer mutual identification between mother and child which allows for a more emotional, relational bond. Boys, on the other hand have a kind of split allegiance between their mothers and their fathers. In fact, in Chodorow’s thinking, at some point boys must push away from their connection with their mothers in order to fully identify with their fathers masculinity. In addition to perhaps not having had as rich and emotional connections to start with due to the gender gap with their mothers, boys then may need to suppress or disavow at least some of their feeling-ties to their mothers to make this shift towards their fathers.

Physical and Emotional

In many cultures, men tend to be more aggressive and physical–qualities which are likely a joint function of culture and biology. So it is easy to see that these ideas could provide a potential pathway for women’s primary orientation to emotional connection and men’s primary orientation to physicality and action as a means of connection. For example it is often observed that men are satisfied just being in the same physical space with friends or loved ones, or engaging in parallel activities, whereas women generally have more of a need for talking, touching, and tend to focus their attention on emotion and relationship. These differences between men’s absorption in activities and women’s absorption in relationship have also been attributed to many other factors, including but not limited to evolutionary roles (hunting and gathering versus nurturing infants) and even the possibility that women evolved a cooperative relational focus as a way of banding together in response to patriarchal subjugation.

Different Gender Needs

The origins of the ideas that I am about to propose were in Sue Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT for short). EFT describes common characteristics of so-called pursuers and withdrawers.  Pursuers–often the woman in a heterosexual relationship–usually have a primary need for connection. Withdrawers–often the man in a heterosexual relationship–usually have a primary need for acceptance. The parallel with the previous discussion is more obvious with women: connection is clearly related to emotion and relationship.  Especially given that women have more at stake in becoming pregnant and bearing children, it also makes total evolutionary sense that women would want to feel emotionally connected (as a predictor of stability) before risking pregnancy through sex.

The equivalent need for men is a little more obscure. Typically the evolutionary explanation for men’s putting sex before emtional intimacy is promulgating their genes. However, if you think about men being satisfied with doing things together, or even just being quietly in the same room, it’s not too much of a leap to imagine that this simple presence with others is an indication for them of tacit acceptance. Often I hear (and you may too! ) from men who feel harangued in their relationships, “I just want peace,” or “I just want to be left alone.”  I don’t think they truthfully want to be left alone—the expressed wish to be alone is more of a proxy for a wish stop the pain. And what is the pain? What these men are feeling is almost always rejection. It is the real pain and hurt of feeling that they are not liked–much less loved–by the woman they love.

The Antidote for Rejection

And what is the antidote for rejection? Acceptance! So boiling this down, what most men want is to feel accepted and received. Putting this together with the physical orientation of men, what could be more accepting and receiving than a woman opening her most tender physical self to his most tender physical self? To a man, entering a woman is at one level offering the most sensitive and vulnerable part of himself for a deliciously soft, warm, wet hug from her most sensitive and vulnerable part. Moreover, being received on this tender physical level is for him a gateway of safety for his emotional self.

Incidentally while everyone wants to be accepted at some level, the emphasis for pursuers (often the woman in heterosexual relationships) is a little bit different. Usually pursuers are primarily seeking connection through emotional intimacy.  This translates to things like sharing feelings and other details of inner experience. A sense of equality and working together as a team are important. Perhaps you could even say that most men derive a sense of relationship security from being inside each other physically while most women derive similar security from being inside each other emotionally.

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