The resource I use more frequently than any other in my practice with couples is the “3 Minute Game” from Betty Martin.
You may have heard of “Sensate Focus” before, a classic tool in the sex therapy repertoire. Sensate Focus was first developed by Masters & Johnson, who were the original pioneers in our field and championed sex positivity. Sensate Focus aims to help clients heighten awareness of sensory perceptions and to encourage sensuality instead of goal-oriented, penetrative sex. The thinking behind Sensate Focus is logical, since a prevalent issue in most couples’ intimacy is getting stuck in habitual interactions revolving around intercourse. Couples tend to have a hyper-awareness of attempting to achieve orgasm for both partners and lose track of the larger potential experience.
The problem with Sensate Focus is that I have rarely found it to be effective. The technique asks couples to commit to hour long sessions multiple times a week for a course of multiple weeks or even months. For my clients who are already feeling bogged down in busyness and finding it difficult to prioritize sex and intimacy, Sensate Focus often becomes one more item on a to-do list of guilty shoulds (ie. I should work out, I should eat better). Nothing kills libido like making intimacy a chore!
I have had much more success with clients by trying the 3 Minute Game, a more recently developed derivative of Sensate Focus.
The 3 Minute Game asks for a manageable commitment: 4 rounds of 3 minutes each for a grand total of 12 minutes, which can easily be added to a bedtime ritual or before turning on the T.V. My relational clients tend to find this process much less daunting, so they actually do their homework and find great benefit in taking time to connect.
The basic gist is this: you touch your partner how they want to be touched for 3 minutes (head scratching, skin stroking, light massage, still pressure etc.), then you let them touch you for 3 minutes how THEY want to touch you (this is what THEY want to experience by touching you, while you communicate your boundaries clearly). Then you switch and do both rounds with YOU as the receiver. Touch is non-genital and non-sexual, but can certainly be sensual. Throughout this process, whether you are the giver or the receiver, you may communicate what you want more of or less of, or how you would like your experience of touch to shift.
The 3 Minute Game helps couples learn how to communicate not only their boundaries but also their desires in a non-threatening, non-sexual context. Participants have the opportunity to drop into mindfulness with themselves and each other. They are able to cultivate some much needed limbic resonance, which is when the limbic part of our brain connects to our partner’s through eye contact, physical touch, laughter and breath, releasing dopamine, norepinephrine and oxytocin (all the good stuff!)