Intimacy Expression Exercise

The Intimacy Expression Exercise:  A vacation from sex can be a useful way for survivors of sexual trauma to heal. A vacation from sex provides survivors of sexual trauma (or anyone who is struggling with less sexual desire than they would want for themselves) with an opportunity to process their emotions and feelings about sex, relearn sexual touch in a positive way and rediscover their sexuality in a new and healthier way. A vacation from sex should not be mistaken as a time when survivors get to avoid sex. Rather a vacation from sex requires real work and commitment. There are various exercises you can engage in during your vacation from sex that can help you to build positive intimate experiences with yourself and your partner, build positive experiences with sexual or sensual touch and feelings, strengthen communication between you and your partner and relearn touch.

The Intimacy Expression Exercise will be useful for survivors of sexual trauma or others who 1) falsely believe that intimate activities always lead to sex, 2) experience difficulty identifying intimate experiences they would like to share with their partner that do not involve sexual contact, 3) find it difficult to express love or care in ways that do not involve sexual contact 4) experience intimate touch as triggering, and 5) oversexualize their interactions with their partner or others. Couples who find that they need to work on the emotion base of their relationship will also find this exercise useful.

The Intimacy Expression Exercise will allow you to 1) Identify intimate experiences you can share with your partner that do not involve sexual contact, 2) Learn to communicate how you would like to spend time with your partner effectively, 3) Share positive experiences with your partner that are intimate but do not involve sexual contact and 4) Learn to experience intimate touch in a positive and non-anxiety provoking way.

Level I: Set aside at least thirty minutes to complete this exercise with your partner. The first step is for each of you to simply brainstorm activities that you would like to share with your partner that do not involve sexual contact. On a piece of paper, each of you should generate a list of ten intimate experiences you would like to share with your partner that do not involve sexual activity. Ask your partner to generate a list of their own on a separate piece of paper. Activities that you might include on your list are: cuddling on a comfortable sofa, taking a shower together, cooking dinner together, giving each other a massage, etc. Remember, the activities should all involve intimate touch but not sexual activity. They should increase feelings of closeness between you and your partner. If at the end of thirty minutes you or your partner still have not generated ten activities, come back to your lists over the next several days and add any ideas that come to you. Allow you and your partner one week to complete the list.

Level II: A week after completing level one, set aside thirty minutes for you and your partner to share your list with each other. Make sure to respect the following ground rules when sharing your lists with each other:

  • Do not comment while your partner is sharing his/her list
  • Look at your partner when they are sharing his/her list
  • Be attentive and make sure to actually listen, and not just hear what they are saying
  • Pay attention to your body language
  • After your partner finishes reading their list, if you feel like commenting about their list, make sure to stay positive even if you dislike all of their suggestions. You can always say something like, “You put a lot of work into your list” or “Sounds like you really thought these through.”

After sharing your lists with each other, the next step is to generate a list of ten activities with your partner that you would both like to share with each other. To create this list collaboratively and effectively try to keep in mind the following suggestions: 1. Stay present. Do not focus on the past, “well you never wanted to give me a massage before!” Focus on the fact that your partner is trying to work with you now. If there are activities that he/she previously shied away from, it is okay to ask about how you can both make sure the activity is something that they would be comfortable doing, just make sure do it in a positive and concerned way. 2. Be open to modifications. Each of you will have suggestions and feedback about how to make the activities more comfortable or enjoyable for you. Be open to your partners suggestions keeping in mind that your partner likely has important feedback or insight about how to make these intimate activities work for both of you.

After creating your list the next task is to schedule in time for these important activities. Look at your schedules and set aside at least two thirty minute periods each week when you can engage in these intimate activities. Make sure that you pencil this time into each of your schedules instead of assuming that you will each save the time. Finding time for these experiences may be more difficult if you have kids. Make arrangements to make engaging in these intimate activities feasible such as finding a babysitter or relative for your kids to watch them for that period of time. Or schedule the intimate experiences for when they will be at other activities such as a sports practice. Remember, all you need is one hour a week to begin to being to share positive experiences with intimate activities and touch. It is likely both you and your partner will need to make adjustments to your schedules to ensure you will be able to devote time to this important activity.

Level III: This level is the “fun” stage because you get to begin sharing these intimate experiences with your partner. Engage in at least two of these intimate activities each week. Feel free to modify them to make them more enjoyable for your or your partner, as long as the modifications do not include sexual contact! This level can also be particularly challenging because as survivors may find some of these intimate activities triggering. If you experience an activity as triggering realize that your body and mind are trying to tell you something about your trauma. When engaging in an intimate activity with your partner that you find triggering take time to reflect on the following questions afterward to help you gain more insight:

  • At what point did you know you were or would be triggered? Was it a surprise or did you expect to be triggered?
  • What was your emotional state before the activity? During the activity?
  • How were you feeling about your partner before the activity? During the activity?
  • How did you know you were triggered? Think about what you experienced physically and emotionally.
  • In what ways was the environment triggering for you? Consider the light, time of day, temperature, placement of furniture, size of the room?
  • In what ways was the actual activity triggering for you? Consider the way your partner touched you and where.
  • How is the intimate activity similar to your trauma? In what ways is it different?
  • In what ways could the activity be modified to prevent being triggered?
  • What is the trigger indicating that you may need to work on? If your trigger could talk, what would it tell you?
  • What can I do to reduce the chances of experiencing being triggered? What can my partner do to help me reduce the chances of me feeling triggered?

You may realize that in some situations you and your partner can effectively modify the activity so that you are not triggered. For instance maybe you realize you need more time talking and just holding your partner before receiving a massage. Or you learn that you need your partner to help ground yourself by continuing to talk and make eye contact throughout the activity. Or maybe you learn that if you are feeling resentful or irritated at your partner you are more likely to be triggered regardless of the type of activity. However there may be instances when it seems that no matter how you modify the activity you are triggered. Enlist the support of your partner to help you in either situation. Consider attending therapy to help manage and reduce your triggers.

Remember…part of what makes this intimacy expression exercise a challenge and helps survivors of sexual trauma heal is that it forces survivors to deal with some of their triggers around intimate and sensual touch. While it can be upsetting to experience triggers, if you are not experiencing any triggers while engaging in these intimate activities you should question whether you are dissociating or are simply choosing to participate in activities that are safe for you. In either case you will be doing a disservice to yourself and your partner because you will not be engaging in the work needed to facilitate your healing. If you are engaging in this exercise as intended you will be triggered. Confronting your triggers and gaining insight to what is triggering for you about intimate touch is an important part of healing from trauma.