What is Sensate Focus Therapy?
Sensate Focus Therapy helps couples and individuals reset their sex life and build a foundation of trust, pleasure, good communication, and a deeper emotional connection. It helps to shift patterns of behavior that have not been helpful towards patterns that support improved intimacy. It was developed by Masters and Johnson in the 1970s and has been a cornerstone of sex therapy due to its success in treating so many conditions. It combines mindfulness, exposure therapy, and systematic desensitization. Participants learn to stay in the moment through mindfulness and to experience the sensations their body naturally can provide through a safe space that is not goal oriented and allows for self-exploration. It highlights patterns in the relationship and in one’s mind that pose a barrier to natural sexual arousal and helps create space to. It provides a structured framework that is safe and moves at the client’s pace.
Sensate Focus is commonly done as a couples-focused set of exercises, but it can also be done by individuals only. This individual work may be needed as preparation for the couples’ work or to further process thoughts and feelings as an individual about their body and view of self as a sexual being.
What does Sensate Focus Therapy Treat?
Desire Discrepancy: There can be many reasons for people to have differences in their desire or libidos. Libido also can change in response to life events and developmental processes. Sensate focus helps couples find a middle ground that supports each person’s approach to desire. Some people are more spontaneous while others need more to get into the mood. Sensate focus can help people identify what is needed to create desire.
Rebuilding Trust after Betrayal: When there is a betrayal or multiple betrayals in a relationship, it can damage a partner’s ability to feel safe and open themselves up to be vulnerable after betrayal. It is often common that the person who engaged in betrayal isn’t sure what “healthy sex” entails. Sensate Focus provides a structured approach to help the couple reset and create a safe place to explore their sexual selves together. This can help them create a new sexual relationship.
Sexual Pain: Sexual pain can be caused by physical as well as psychological factors that create sexual pain. Your therapist will collaborate with medical professionals such as a pelvic floor therapist and/or an OBGYN to create a Sensate Focus Protocol that incorporates medical and mental health needs. If you are unsure about the origin of your pain or want to learn more about it, visit our blog about Vaginismus.
Masturbatory Resetting: Masturbation is a natural behavior, though it can be part of a complicated relationship with one’s body. You can learn more about masturbation and if it may be out of control from our blog which details an expert’s perspective on “What is Normal?” Sensate Focus can help people reset their relationship with masturbation and explore healthy boundaries if needed.
Sexual Trauma History: Sensate Focus doesn’t have a time expectation and allows for those with sexual trauma to go as slowly as is needed to feel safe and in control. Attention is given to building safety and incorporating trauma-specific interventions. An individualized protocol is created for each person. Individual work may be helpful before incorporating a partner.
Low Sexual Desire/Arousal: Sensate Focus helps people individually and/or as a couple remove the pressure for sex and create a safe space to explore what may create pleasure for the person with low desire. They will learn how to identify what might get in the way of experiencing desire and arousal and then find solutions to remove any barriers to that natural source of arousal. There are many reasons for sexual arousal to change and most are normal. Learn more about some of these reasons here.
Premature Ejaculation: Sensate Focus is one of a few tools that can be used to help people manage the emotions associated with PE. Sensate Focus work starts individually and then a partner will be incorporated into the process.
Sexual Avoidance: Sensate Focus helps people to reset and connect with natural sexual arousal. It creates a safe place that takes the pressure off without the goal orientation to have sex. People can freely explore and reconnect with touch together as well as have the freedom to experience for themself.
Delayed Ejaculation: Like Premature Ejaculation, individual sensate work as well as other tools are mastered before a partner is introduced. Sensate Focus creates a safe space without sexual pressure or performance demands and allow individuals to implement and practice their therapeutic strategy. Partners also learn how to create a safe place and how to support the PE partner in their journey.
Erectile Dysfunction: Sensate Focus helps those with erectile dysfunction by teaching them how to manage the performance anxiety that often underlies the ED. Without the pressure of sex, individuals can learn how to relax in a sexual situation and allow their penis to vacillate between erect and flaccid. Work is initially individual and then a partner is introduced. Learn more about erectile dysfunction here.
Anorgasmia: Sensate Focus will remove the pressure and demand for arousal and sex. It teaches how to focus on sensations and manage anxiety which may allow arousal to occur naturally. By exploring sensations without pressure, individuals may be able to experience arousal and orgasm with time and practice.
How does Sensate Focus Therapy work?
There are two phases to Sensate Focus Therapy and each phase has up to nine steps that should be completed a minimum of 3 times for couples. Since the exercises are meant to change internal and external patterns of behavior, frequent practice is needed to create a new pathway of connection. Couples will need to be sure they have the time each week to engage in the exercises. Solo sensate focus follows a similar but shorter protocol designed to meet the client’s goals.
In the first Sensate Focus Therapy phase clients learn the foundational skills to use sensate focus:
Mindfulness: being in the moment, noticing distractions, and turning the mind back to sensation focus without judgment
Touching for Oneself– some may view this as negative or as being selfish, but it is an important part of the process. Clients learn to focus on the sensations in their body and touch for their interest rather than focus only on their partner or another stimulus. This removes expectations and goal-oriented thinking. It also helps each person assume responsibility for their pleasure.
Communicating Preferences through Touch-When couples communicate through touch, they use verbal communication much less than usual. This allows them to learn a new effective form of expression in a safe environment.
Managing Distractions-there will be internal and external distractions during the process. It is important to learn how to manage them for oneself as well as together.
The second phase of Sensate Focus Therapy is focused on pleasure
In this phase, there is no expectation or pressure to experience pleasure, only the willingness to be open to the possibility of pleasure. The same foundational skills are used and built upon to support communication and exploration of pleasure. Clients will practice giving and receiving pleasure within the mindset of touching for oneself. Sex can be part of the process but only if there isn’t pressure to have it or that it becomes part of a goal, at least for the first seven steps. Communicating your pleasure to your partner rather than them guessing is an essential skill in this phase. Partners aren’t responsible to know what the other finds pleasurable. This is a frequent theme for couples. It can be arousing and wonderful to pleasure a partner, but it can’t be done by guessing. For some the pressure to please and “guess right” poses a barrier to being mindful and enjoying the moment. It is like assuming you know what your partner wants for dinner. Just because they liked something before doesn’t mean they want it for dinner that night or even prepared the same way. You don’t experience what is in your partner’s body. Communication bridges the gap so that sex isn’t something that happens through mind reading or guessing. Clients will have the opportunity to create a sexual menu of pleasurable behaviors. This menu helps couples have a clearer picture of what their partner could like and be able to be playful about it. It can also be a spring board for further exploration.
While there is a general protocol for sensate focus therapy, it may be altered to meet the specific needs of the client. Some steps in the process may take longer than others. Sensate Focus is a great tool to help individuals and couples safely find their authentic selves.
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