Emotionally Integrated Sensate Focus
Emotionally Integrated Sensate Focus: Scaffolding for Creating Connection
The goal of Emotionally Integrated Sensate Focus (EISF), it to rewire the brain to integrate physical touch and sexual interaction with emotional connection: for sex to become one of the ways couples are able to connect,. It helps couples liberate their sexual relationship from anything that is preventing them from being fully themselves with each other. It helps them to put sexuality in the context of their relationship as a means of expressing their desire, care, and love for one another, and a means of having fun and relaxing together. It is designed to help facilitate couples ability to co-create their sexual relationship to be whatever they want it to be in that moment, with respect for each others emotional, spiritual and sexual needs and desires.
This is a scaffolding to assist you creating your intimate connection. Please read it and implement it that way, rather than as a one size fits all prescription. If anything, I hope I can help you break free from the destructive myths of one size fits all sex. If there is anything that is not one size fits all, it is sex.
The only goal is for you and your partner to become more fully attuned to your own and each others' emotional and physical/sexual responses as you experience them with one another, as a means of deepening and enriching your connection with one another.
I promise that there is nothing more sexually fulfilling than taking the risk to be yourself and let your partner see you, and having your respond by partner lovingly embracing and accepting you. Risk, Reach, Respond: that's the formula for you and your partner to engage in with one another. That's they way you fall in love, reconnect and repair when things go sideways, and deepen your love over a lifetime.
Risk, Reach, Respond: Emotionally and Sexually
Just as with the original sensate focus, EISF orients partners to a greater awareness of their own and each other’s physical sensations and responses. However, EISF also emphasizes:
reorienting you to your partner to your own and each others emotional experience accompanying your physiological experience
integrating your emotional and physiological experience and
facilitating emotional bonding through shared, emotionally connected sexual experiences between you and your partner.
Emotionally Integrated Sensate Focus rewires partners' views and experiences of sexuality, emotion and their relationship. Sexuality becomes understood and experienced within the context of their relationship. It becomes one of the ways they are able to reach for and respond to each other, and thereby solidify the security of their emotional bond. Sex is to be transformed into an experience that enhances a couple's ability to reassure and connect. Sex becomes a means of each partner exploring and deepening their understanding of themselves and their partner. The sexual relationship becomes a means for couples to express themselves and share with one another in whatever way they desire to do so in that moment: playful, safe, tender, erotic, bonding and even healing.
The emphasis is on the couple’s emotional connection. The process includes:
Identifying and understanding their own and their partner’s emotional needs
Identifying and understanding their own and their partner’s sexual desires
Communicating those needs and desires to each other from a place of emotional vulnerability (being authentic and non-defensive as they share their needs with their partner)
Responding tenderly to each other’s needs and lovingly meet those needs that were expressed
Rather than focusing solely on clients’ experience of physical touch, Emotionally Integrated Sensate Focus reorients partners to their thoughts and emotions that arise from experiencing touching their partner and feeling their partner’s touch.
The Role of Emotions
Emotions are understood as sources of information in that they alert us to something that needs to be addressed. They assist us in identifying our deepest needs and longings. Physical sensations, thoughts and emotions are to be experienced without judging or shutting them down. Partners are instructed to share their thoughts and emotions they experience during this exercise, paying attention to and expressing any accompanying fears or doubts they may have about turning to their partner in this way. This is important in order for partners to change any beliefs they have about sex, themselves, their partners, or their relationship that are interfering with their ability to experience sex as a fulfilling experience that strengthens their emotional connection.
Emotionally Integrated Sensate Experience assists partners with developing their ability to co-regulate. They become more attuned to their own and each other's emotional activation experienced as they interact sexually and they become more effective at responding in ways that soothe each other's central nervous system. By creating emotional safety for one another during sexual interaction, partners are able to create the physiological states necessary for optimal sexual experience: relaxation and arousal.
The emotional arousal that naturally accompanies sexual arousal is often misunderstood. When partners do not understand their own emotional experience and/or do not know how to effectively process their own emotions, they usually experience this emotional heightening as threatening to some degree. When this occurs, the partner will usually respond to that perceived threat in the manner that they respond to other perceived threats to connection: fight, flight, or freeze. These fight, flight, freeze responses can manifest and be experienced in a variety of different ways. These varied responses generally fall into two categories of unhealthy emotional regulation: emotional abosorbtion or emotional cut off.
Rewiring Your Brain: Repeated Positive Experiences
Changing negative beliefs and negative emotional responses to sexuality must occur through repeated corrective emotional experiences. That is, in order for partners to truly change the way they experience their sexual relationship, they must be able to experience physical, emotional and sexual connection with one another that contrasts and calls into question their former negative beliefs and experiences related to sex and to their sexual relationship. They must have repeated positive experiences of physical touch being paired with genuine emotional safety and closeness. Sex must become viewed and experienced in the context of their relationship. Their relationship must become a safe haven and secure base in which they can feel free from judgment, pressure, fear or specific expectations from their partner or themselves. Developing this degree of comfort and emotional safety in a relationship is a process that unfolds over time as partners risk lowering their defenses and authentically sharing themselves with one another. Think of it as a process of reconnecting physical intimacy with emotional intimacy. You are starting fresh by rediscovering one another physically and emotionally, increasing the degree of physical intimacy in proportion to the increases in your emotional intimacy. Experience this gradual progression, savoring the total experience of each moment of your interaction: emotionally, affectionately, and sexually.
Speed of Progression
Start from the beginning as if you are just getting to know each other. Begin with tender physical affection: holding hands, massages, hugging, cuddling. You Proceed according to the speed of the slowest partner. It is imperative that you not push yourself or your partner faster than it is possible to go comfortably: emotionally and sexually. When you or your partner begins feeling pressured, judged, afraid of disappointing, or feelings of shame or fear crop up, you must notice this and refrain from going further. That is the point at which you need to hold each other and reassure each other that you are in this together, and that it is safe for the partner who is experiencing discomfort to share what is coming up for him/her. Patiently, tenderly, and compassionately stay in that moment and allow yourselves to become closer emotionally as the partner who is needing to stop shares what he/she is experiencing.
Maintain the degree of physical closeness that brings comfort to that partner, but refrain from pushing for more. A partner who is struggling with facing the emotional pain and upset that is triggered during physical intimacy, needs a great deal of reassurance from the other partner that:
it is not only okay for them to stop and not go further physically until he/she feels ready
that there is no time frame set for when he/she needs to be ready
that the other partner wants and needs the partner struggling with proceeding to stop and talk to him/her about the struggle so they can really heal whatever it is that has been preventing them from having the emotional and physical connection they desire.
Both partners need to understand that when a partner who struggles with sexuality continues to numb emotionally in order to “perform” sexually for the other partner, the end result is greater emotional disconnection. This emotional disconnection will inevitably create greater resentment toward the other partner and reinforce negative feelings toward sexuality: both of which are lethal to a sexual relationship.
Staying Focused on the Present Moment
Partners are instructed to focus on the present moment, orienting themselves first to the physical sensations (all physical sensations they are feeling, but also being keenly aware of the thoughts and both primary and secondary emotions that emerge as a part of the physical experiences. Primary emotions are those emotions that alert us to our attachment needs and longings. They are authentic emotions, rather than defensive or reactive emotions. Secondary emotions are the defensive or reactive emotions experienced as a means of self-protection from a perceived threat. For instance, anger is usually a secondary emotion. A person who is angry may really be experiencing fear, hurt, shame, sadness, or some combination of these emotions. The anger serves as a protection against whatever that person is perceiving as a threat. People may or may not be aware of the primary emotions underlying their secondary emotions. When people are aware of the primary emotions underlying their secondary emotions, they are better able to identify and access what it is that they are really wanting and needing from a given situation or person and then are better able to take the action necessary to meet those needs.
In a couple relationship, the action needed is to turn to the partner and express the need from a non-defensive, vulnerable position in the hopes that the other partner will respond tenderly with reassurance and compassion. Ideally, the partner would respond in this manner and where there was once tension and potential for conflict and/or disconnection, a stronger connection between the couple will be forged.When partners are able to risk reaching out to one another in the hopes that their partner will be there for them, and the partner is indeed “there for them” in the way that they are needing, the emotional bond between them strengthens and deepens. The emotional safety created out of partners’ experiencing this reciprocal caring, strengthens their trust that they can turn to one other, safely reveal the most vulnerable parts of themselves, and be met with reassurance, tenderness and acceptance. This reciprocal caring creates a pattern of deepening trust and sets the stage for partners to risk being vulnerable with one another in every way, including sexually.
Feeling truly loved, safe and accepted is the greatest aphrodisiac. To know that we will be accepted rather than judged or shamed, frees us to explore ourselves and each other and to be open to the experience as it unfolds in the present moment. It is the very antithesis of what contributes to sexual dysfunction: shame, fear, sadness, hurt, or some combination of these primary emotions. The nonjudgmental acceptance and love of a tender partner can be the elixir that vaporizes these impediments to sexual pleasure and emotional fulfillment in couples’ relationships.
Addressing sexuality out of the context of relationships and the emotional dynamics inextricably involved in human sexual experience, will never get at the root of the sexual problems couples are facing. Whether the issue is sexual compulsivity, erectile dysfunction, pre-mature ejaculation, arousal or desire disorder, inorgasmia, sexual aversion disorder, or other common sexual dysfunctions experienced by couples, the emotional security of the relationship must be addressed. There are different aspects of the couples’ sexuality and relationship that need to be addressed and explored depending on the specific difficulty with which they are dealing, but the common denominator for all couples will be their emotional bond.
Sexuality can indeed be healing. Despite the ways in which prior sexual experiences may have been accompanied by shame, fear, hurt, sadness, or any combination, and despite distorted meanings of sexuality that may have resulted from abusive or unhealthy sexual experiences, the couple relationship has the potential to utilize sexuality as a means of healing these wounds. With the help of a professional, wounds that have resulted from sexual experiences can be healed in a context of a safe and loving couple relationship, and sexual experience can be transformed from one of pain to one of liberation and love.
Being in the Moment
Emphasis is on being in the moment. If thoughts, physical sensations or emotions elicited are uncomfortable or unpleasant in anyway, the couple is instructed to stop and just be in the moment with one another. The partner experiencing the discomfort is encouraged to ask for reassurance from the other partner through any way that they are able to in that moment (verbal and/or nonverbal). The other partner is to provide that comfort and reassurance. Each partner is instructed to share their perceptions and emotional experience with one another, but to do so from a non-defensive, compassionate, authentic emotional place.It cannot be overemphasized that couples must engage in this process with tenderness and proceed very slowly with their touch, honoring whatever comes up for themselves or their partner. They must give themselves the time and space to fully experience this process without pressure or judgment.
Time Frame and Pacing
There is no time frame established. The pace and timing for integrating increasing levels of touch and sexual intimacy, as well as the amount of time set aside each week for the couple to participate in this exercise, is determined collaboratively each week in the therapy with the assistance of the therapist. The level of intimacy is increased each week is based on the particular needs of the partner that is struggling the most with increasing the levels of intimacy.
Original sensate focus instructs couples to set aside at least one hour per week for each partner to take 30 minutes experiencing giving and 30 minutes receiving physical touch. I have found that it can be more helpful to couples to participate in this exercise several times a week for shorter time periods in order to integrate physical touch into the context of their relationship and daily life. It can also feel safer for some partners to experience shorter periods of time of physical touch throughout the week, rather than having the intense experience of one full hour, isolated from any other touching throughout the week. This can be particularly true when one or more partners have a history of sexual abuse or rape. Smaller, incremental experiences of safe touching can lay a foundation of safety that is necessary in order to proceed toward deeper levels of sexual intimacy.
Stages of Emotionally Integrated Sensate Focus
It is important that the couples be able to label the stages in a way that feels most comfortable to them.
Stage One: Affectionate, Non-Sexual Touching
Some clients prefer to call this “caring touch” (no kissing, no breast fondling, no genital stimulation and no intercourse)
Partners are to focus on the tactile sensations and emotional experience of holding hands, cuddling, caressing and massaging.
Stage Two: Sensual Touching
(Yes to kissing, but no breast fondling, no genital stimulation and no intercourse)
Partners are to continue focusing on their physical and emotional experiences, sharing their experiences with each other, seeking and finding comfort from each other when needed and enjoying each other. The only thing that changes in this stage is the introduction of kissing as another means of nurturing and being nurtured.
Stage Three: Heightened Sensual Touching
(Yes to kissing, yes to breast fondling, no genital stimulation and no intercourse)
Again, the only thing that changes is the introduction of breast fondling to the expanding repertoire of ways to nurture and be nurtured. The goal continues to be interconnecting physical touch with the creating emotional connection: creating greater safety in the relationship by building trust in one another’s desire and ability to reach and respond to one another from increasingly vulnerable positions both physically and emotionally.
Stage Four: Sexual Touching
(Yes to kissing, yes to breast fondling, yes to genital stimulation, but no intercourse)
This is the most pivotal stage in that it is where most of the emotional and sexual repair will occur. It is a vulnerable stage and partners should proceed with caution and tenderness. The focus is on increasing their understanding and awareness of their own and each other's emotional needs and triggers. These emotional responses to the sexual touching are shared and processed with one another in the context of authentic verbal reassurance and comforting, non-sexual physical touch.
Stage Five: Sexual Touching and Intercourse
Couples proceed through the full range of sexual touching and intimacy according to what they both desire. Emphasis is on maintaining the emotional connection and attending to each others' needs and desires throughout the experience of physical touching and sexual intimacy.
Giving & Receiving
Partners take turns giving and receiving loving physical touch. When partners are receiving, they are to focus on the physical sensation they are experiencing as their partner touches them and any thoughts and emotions that come up for them. They are to refocus themselves to the physical touch and what feels good physically and safe emotionally to them. The receiving partners are instructed to tenderly (in a non-defensive, non-judgmental, non-demanding manner)
tell their partners what is feeling good and
ask them for more of what they are enjoying. If the receiving partners experience something physically or emotionally uncomfortable, they are instructed to ask the giving partners to stop and redirect them to doing something that feels good and safe. If the discomfort the receiving partners are experiencing is something the receiving partner is able to risk talking
When something emotionally upsetting is triggered, partners are encouraged to ask their partner to stop what they are doing. They are encouraged to share with their partner what is happening for them, to identify the primary emotion(s) they are experiencing and the attachment need connected to it, and ask their partner for whatever it is that they are needing. in the moment for comfort.
The following exercise is best used in conjunction with couples therapy, working with a therapist experienced with helping couples improve emotional and sexual intimacy. It is not to be used as a substitution for therapy.
Emotionally Integrated Sensate Focus
Lisa L. Gold, Ph.D. (2010) ©
Sensate Focus, developed by Masters and Johnson, is a specific protocol of exercises for couples participating in sex therapy to practice at home as part of their overall treatment plan. The goal of sensate focus is to reorient couples to enjoying physical touch, without focusing on orgasm or performance.