Can Tenderness And Sexual Heat Coexist?

How couples can have lusty, passionate sex AND tender love.

passionate couple man touching woman's lips

An old friend of mine, now in his 50s and married for three years, recently told me that he finds himself resisting his wife's eroticism. "I love cradling her and caring for her in a fatherly way, but when she wants to go to a lustful place during sex, something in me can't quite give over to it." His feelings are so compartmentalized that his desire to take care of her prevents him from being able to "take" her. He walks a tightrope between feelings of love toward his wife and the lustful feelings he only feels in the presence of other women. 


A female acquaintance admits that her fiancé's tenderness is wonderful, but it comes at a price. When she asks him to be seductive, he simply can't. She needs to feel desired, but he can't get past the feeling that such behavior would be disrespectful to her. Meanwhile, he feels hurt because she's the one who has difficulty expressing tenderness. The result is that they rarely have sex at all anymore.

These conversations left me feeling very sad, especially since I know such struggles are far from uncommon. What's going on? Is lustful passion so objectifying that it negates tenderness? Is it so difficult for us to accept all that we are? Why can't we be mothers and fathers, needy children, able businesspeople, and also vixens and studs when the time is right? Advice: We Have Less Sex Than We Used To


If we take our cues from the way sex is portrayed in films, we see the split between lust and tenderness very clearly. Picture any sex scene in any film—take your pick. He pushes her up against the wall (or she pushes him), presses his lips to hers in a bruise-inducing kiss, she wraps her leg around his waist, and it's oh, so hot. Cut to another scene in another film—again, take your pick. This one involves a married couple in a bed. He turns to her and gives her a kiss on the cheek. She snuggles her head into the crook of his neck. It's tender, but about as hot as a trek on an iceberg. With few exceptions, this is how sex is depicted on-screen, and both examples are extremes.

"The pseudo-masculine imagery in mainstream culture seems to be passion from a position of distance," says David Steinberg, an erotic art photographer, and the author of the monthly e-column Comes Naturally. "It's easy for men and women to get confused and think you do one or the other. Or to think of intimacy as being not so masculine or something separate from heat."

Of course, I know there are people who have no trouble merging these two seeming polarities. Not only are they able to seamlessly move from a gentle, sensitive sexual encounter to a rough, animalistic sweat-fest, but they're actually able to express lust and tenderness in the same moment. Steinberg photographs couples like this during the sexual act. His goal is to capture the simultaneous expressions of intense passion and loving intimacy. For these people, sex isn't about orgasm; it's about knowing every aspect of each other fully. It's about bringing the emotion of love into a sizzling physical expression. It's a spiritual and sacred connection, but it's also hot and steamy.

For most of us, this kind of multidimensional sexual experience is an enigma. Why? There are no easy answers. Each individual's relationship to sexuality is a thorny psychological soup of control and trust issues, relationships with parents, religion and the Madonna/whore complex, and the simple fear of not being lovable. Our culture teaches us to not just suppress our sexual feelings but often to judge them harshly—even in a committed relationship. Our natural impulses end up caged before we even recognize what they are. So how can we open ourselves up to a fuller, richer experience of sex? How can we feel deliciously lustful without losing that loving connection? The 4 Types Of Attraction


As I contemplated this problem, I thought about two things that may bridge the gap between these two poles. The first is sensuality. When we're sensual, we can have an experience that focuses less on the genitals and more on the subtle experience of our senses. When we take the time to relish and explore the entire body—the curves, the scents, the sounds, the touch of skin against skin—we can be both tender and erotic.

The second possible bridge is playfulness. It's easy to forget what a deep connection humor can create between two people. Play that begins from a childlike place might just move naturally and easily into more erotic play that maintains a deeper connection. Humor can pull us out of our inhibitions very quickly and allow for a gentle exploration of merging lust and tenderness. In other words, laughter is a great way to begin loosening the noose. Improve Your Love Making With Sexual Role Play

Practice seeing your partner as someone you love who also deserves to feel the intensity of your desire and lust. Give your partner the gift of feeling sexy. We all want to feel that, so don't deprive the person you love of this feeling!

If you need to disconnect and imagine your partner as someone else, do it temporarily. Try switching between the imaginary person of your lust and back to your partner until your love and your lust become less separate and more "friendly" with one another. The only thing standing in your way is a false belief that love and lust are two different things.


In turn, imagine your partner simultaneously loving you and lusting after you. Can you allow that these two emotions can be felt and expressed at the same time? What would that look and feel like?

Make a pact with one another that you will put your usual defensiveness aside and try to move outside of your comfort zone. Women must be willing to trust that men won't objectify them, and men must feel safe that they aren't going to be accused of objectification. Men must be willing to allow women to express what might be termed "slutty" by some, and women must feel that they won't be judged for exploring their "inner stripper." 

I believe, by nature, that we're sexy and spiritual, loving and lusty, naughty and caring creatures, and these qualities are not exclusive of one another or even necessarily adversarial. Even as we struggle with our tangle of issues, we can celebrate our sexual experience. We can look at it less as a problem than as an adventure. And if you're lucky enough to have a loving partner who is willing to walk through the new and uncomfortable territory with you, it can be an adventure that brings you closer together in a number of surprising ways.


For specific ways to bring together tenderness and sexual heat, check out 6 Ways Couples Can Rediscover Erotic Sex.