There is a common idea that romance and sex should be something spontaneous. It seems somehow unromantic to plan for feelings. How do you know how you'll feel next Friday? But why can't it all be spontaneous?
Why We Like Spontaneity
What is it about spontaneity that is appealing? Why do we often put a higher value on things that happen spontaneously rather than deliberately?
If someone does something spontaneously we take it as a sign that it comes from the inner nature of the person. We take it to be a sign of what the real person is like. By contrast, if something is done from deliberate intention it can lead us to wonder how real it is as a reflection of who the person really is.
Sometimes we might wonder if the person is just being calculating, and has other motives than what appear on the surface. But even when I don't doubt the person's sincerity, I might be a little disappointed to find that he or she has to work at being attracted to me.
When we consider romance, we would like to feel that it is our own unaided attractiveness that attracts the other to us. If the other person has to work at feeling attracted to me it is not as flattering. Yet when we see the other show signs of spontaneous delight towards us it feels like a stronger affirmation of our own lovableness.
Why We Value Intentionality
On the other hand, there are times when we value intentionality more than spontaneity. The things that come easily to someone, those things that are easily spontaneous for them, can at times give us the feeling that they are a bit superficial. If someone says flattering things all the time, you can start to wonder if he or she is being entirely genuine.
We recognise this as a possibility because we already know that some character and personality traits have to be worked at. For example, children don't just grow up spontaneously to have good manners. It has to be drilled into them by years of reminders, exhortations and reprimands.
It is not only children who have to work at personal development. We all do in different ways. And so we come to positively value the times when we see someone making an intentional effort for our sake. We realise that something does not come easy to that person, and we value it more highly that they think we are worth the extra effort.
Actions As Signs of Feelings
As we grow we come to recognise the difference between actions and feelings. You can have feelings that you don't express, and you can show signs representing feelings you don't have. So you might be feeling a bit down but you put on a happy face because you don't want to bring others down. Or you might think of something funny but you don't laugh because you are in a solemn social situation.
We can distinguish then between what we feel on the inside and how we can communicate feelings to others by outward signs. This distinction is important in intimate relationships because there is so much more opportunity to affect, and be affected by, the other's feelings.
It is especially important in marriage because you share feelings of an intimate kind, and there are important differences between men and women in this regard. This means that you can't simply assume that the other will have the same kinds of feelings or show the same kinds of signs. Married couples commonly have a lot to learn about this.
Feelings Can Be Intentional
We have noted that you can have feelings you don't express outwardly, and you can give outward expressions that signify feelings that you don't have. However, this is not the end of the story. We can intentionally shape our own inner state of feeling.
If this was not the case we would have only two options. Firstly, we could just live at the mercy of our emotions, showing on the outside whatever was on the inside. Secondly, we could learn to show signs indicating a different feeling than what we actually feel inside.
There is a third option. We can learn to shape our own feelings. This is not necessarily easy to do. In fact it can be quite difficult and in some cases impossible. This is why I say we can 'shape' our feelings, rather than to say we can 'control' them.
The 'levers' we pull to shape our emotions are indirect. It is not like turning a switch on and off. You can't just feel sad one minute and flick a switch and feel happy the next.
We have to learn a range of indirect methods to shape our feelings.
Some of these can be done by the individual, and some need the help of others.
Intentional Sexual Attraction
We began by wondering why a married couple couldn't just take a spontaneous approach to romantic and sexual feeling. Now we can see a bit more clearly why a more intentional approach is needed. Sexual feeling should not be thought of as something solely spontaneous.
How then can a couple become more successful at mobilising the feelings conducive to their sexual life? From what we have seen above, we can identify a three stage process:
1. INTENTION > 2. SIGNS > 3. FEELINGS
The first step in the process is to have the intention to cultivate a romantic-sexual atmosphere in your relationship. This means making a fundamental decision to give a high priority to your intimate relationship. It means an open-ended commitment to deepen the emotional-sexual bond between you, and to seek out whatever ideas you need to help you in this.
It is not just a periodic intention, something that only comes to mind when you start feeling amorous. It needs to be an underlying and continuing commitment. This does not mean a constant preoccupation, as if you had nothing else to do. But it needs to be up there somewhere alongside the more obvious high priorities of children and work.
The second step is to communicate this intention to your spouse on a regular basis. That is, it involves showing signs of affection and sexual interest, not just immediately prior to some hoped for amorous encounter, but frequently and at times when sexual activity is clearly not possible, so that this priority permeates the relationship as a whole.
The signs a man needs to show are generally of a romantic nature. Even when he is not feeling like it he needs to make intentional overtures to his wife of a romantic kind. These can be as simple as frequent hugs and kisses, or at times somewhat more sexual, involving hints and innuendo, yet suitably indirect.
The signs a woman needs to show lean more towards the sensual. Even when she is not feeling like it she needs to be somewhat flirtatious, showing signs of her sex appeal, yet usually with some playful indirectness and evasiveness.
The third step is to allow yourself to feel the kinds of feelings conducive to sexual intimacy. Learn to respond to the overtures your spouse makes, not just outwardly, but inwardly.
The purpose of this as a practice is that you learn to shift emotional gears.
Since we can't just turn our feelings on and off merely by wanting to, we need to learn how. This learning requires repetition. So what is needed is to repeatedly shift in and out of those feelings. This is why it is important to do this fairly often, at times when you know you are not going to go on and have a sexual encounter as such.
If you only learn to shift into the relevant feeling, you won't be able to do much 'emotional practice'. If you have to go on and have sex every time you begin to feel sexual feelings, you are not going to get much of the relevant kind of emotional practice.
Learning to shift out of the feeling is just as important. It helps you to identify the distinctively emotional dimension of sexuality. If you don't learn this then you will be reluctant to arouse those feelings other than on occasions close to an expected sexual encounter. This is because having to let go of those feelings will feel like a loss, an emptiness or a frustration.
The key is to learn how to engage with those feelings under 'the mode of promise'.
These frequent encounters in which the spouses give signs that the other is attractive - distinctively as masculine and feminine - need to be positive. They need to be indicators of your willingness and commitment to the promise to share yourselves fully, including sexually. They are not necessarily about what is soon to happen, but are a promise that your intention to share yourself in your sexual being is real and alive.
The Pivotal Role of Signs
In this three-stage process the signs are pivotal to bringing it alive. The intention is fundamental, but a fundamental intention, even while being quite real, can easily drift from sight. It can easily become minimal. Yes, it is there, but it ceases to effectively mobilise feelings.
The feelings are the 'working objective'. That is, the purpose is to foster a feeling of implicit sexual interest so that it permeates the relationship. The aim is to ensure that your intimate life does not become more notional than real. That will happen if you do not actively keep your underlying intention alive in your feelings for each other.
The signs are pivotal because they can be done as actions prior to having any of the relevant feelings. You don't have to wait until you feel like being amorous to send signs of sexual interest.
A woman doesn't have to have her own kind of amorous feelings to evoke in a man his kind of amorous feelings, and vice versa.
The signs are also pivotal because they shape the feelings of the other. Even if you struggle to stir up the feelings in yourself, you can allow the other to stir them up in you.
Don't wait for the perfect time, or even for obviously suitable times. Be intentional. This includes scheduling things like 'date nights'. But even more importantly, adopt some daily practice of showing signs of emotional-sexual interest. Learn some more about what emotions mean and how they work. Find out what the emotional differences are between men and women, and how this is meant to be an enrichment of your relationship.
Learn to intentionally shape each others' feelings of attraction.