Attachment and the Dance of Sex: An Interview with Susan Johnson

Johnson, Susan 2016

By Susan Johnson

I’ve been studying tango for years, both because I love it and because of the lessons it keeps teaching me about emotional and physical connection in relationship. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to tango with an accomplished dancer who had exotic ways of moving his body and all kinds of frills in his technique. Initially, it was exciting, but I soon found myself feeling detached as his partner. Then I danced with a man who seemed much less technically skilled and couldn’t do anything close to the novel steps of the first man, but he engaged me as a partner in a completely different way. It was the difference between dancing in my own bubble and sharing a moment with someone else.

With the first partner, I had to match his fancy performance moves, which, while varied and novel, quickly became emotionally predictable. But with the second, far less skilled partner, I never knew what was going to happen next because he was picking up from me as much as I was picking up from him. Any time I started to lose my balance just a little bit, I could feel him right there with me, and we readjusted. There was one move in which I had to step around him while we shaped our bodies together. By then, we’d established our connection and were completely in sync, attuned. It was such a thrill—and this is what gives tango that erotic edge.

I saw the same thing recently in the Netherlands watching two swans in a mating dance. There was this beautiful synchrony between them, as if they were testing out, “Will you respond to me? Are you accessible to my cues? Can I engage with you in a way that’ll create this thing that’s bigger than both of us?” The research shows that secure attachment potentiates synchronous dancing together, whether in or out of bed. Of course, sex can be separated from bonding—it can be recreational or just simply thrill-seeking—but the more integrated it is with attachment, the more nurturing it becomes.

If you’re going to help a couple get closer and learn to really dance together, whether in bed or anywhere else, the key is helping partners experience bonding moments that open them to becoming emotionally accessible to each other. If you can do that, their bodies will follow, and sex will almost always improve. The first step is turning down the emotional threat in the relationship and turning up the partners’ ability to reach for each other, physically and emotionally.

Secure attachment allows partners to explore more freely in all areas of experience. In the arena of sex, I have an exercise in which I invite partners to write down their most exciting fantasy of what they’d want to experience in lovemaking and share it with each other. In my experience, women often have fantasies of submission but in the context of safety. I remember one woman saying, “I don’t want to be smacked or hurt. It’s almost like I just want him to come and get me.” So we help people share their fantasies and as they do that, they discover things they were never aware of before. It’s just like in the tango, where both partners start to discover themselves in the dance and help each other shape that emotional experience. And I think it’s the same thing in good lovemaking. If I feel safe enough with you to ask you for what I need, I’m able to allow myself to become more aware of my own needs and longings.

Therapists often focus on specific techniques to help people with their sexual difficulties, but what I see in my work with couples is that usually the most useful thing is helping them expand their often minimal capacities to communicate their longings, needs, blocks, and fears. The more a couple can tune into each other, the better the erotic connection they can make. As the actor Peter Ustinov once said, “Sex is just conversation carried on by other means.”

Check out Susan Johnson’s Saturday Keynote address and workshop at the 2016 Networker Symposium.

We hope to see you there!

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