Two hundred and fifty thousand facial expressions: that's the number Ray Birdwhistell, an anthropologist who dedicated his life to the study of nonverbal communication, claims we can make.
At some level, I think we all understand the importance of nonverbal communication. We use emojis to clarify the sentiment of texts and we smize (smiling with your eyes as well as your lips) to convey warmth behind our masks. However, in the bedroom, it’s not uncommon for this knowledge to fly out the window. A phenomenon known as “Still Face Sex” can overshadow intimacy and drive a wedge between lovers.
What is still face?
The Still Face Experiment is a classic psychological study by Dr. Edward Tronick that monitors the impact of non-engagement and non-expressiveness of a mother and how it impacts her infant. It shows us what happens when even slight connection is missing in a relationship, how distress is nearly immediate.
We are all familiar with trying to get our partner’s attention with words and having them not reply. At first, we may wonder if they heard us, then worry that they are angry with us, or tell ourselves that we are not important to them. Even with small bids for attention or requests that need answers, if our partner doesn’t respond we can feel a slight. When our partner’s face doesn’t register happiness upon greeting or when they don’t smile in return, we can instantly suspect we are out of sync. We may not know why, but we often know something is wrong.
When we apply the Still Face concept to lovers, it looks a bit different. Lack of connection in the bedroom can look like non-expressiveness but also limited vocalization, movement, and reciprocal touch. In short, it encompasses an absence of engagement during sex that impacts both partners.
Unfortunately, as my podcast cohost, George Faller, says, “Still Face in bed means disconnection.”
Still face sex
Defining Still Face Sex is easier than explaining why it happens, as there are numerous causes.
Sometimes lovers use Still Face when they are focused inward, concentrating on their experience and arousal.
Cultural conditioning can also play a role, especially if we’ve been taught that loud sex is shameful or if we believe we must be “proper” in the bedroom.
There are also gender differences. In general, women tend to be more vocal than men. Perhaps due to evolution but more than likely due to ideas of masculinity.
It’s also possible to have misplaced expectations. Porn culture can create unrealistic ideas of what the bedroom should look and sound like.
Finally, there’s the Sexual Withdrawer, an individual who retreats during sex as a self-protection mechanism. This person may or may not be aware of their use of Still Face during sex. Instead, they are focused on feelings of vulnerability, exposure, and fear, withdrawing from sex and retreating inward.
How to talk to your partner about still face sex
If you want to address Still Face Sex, curiosity and an open mind are essential. The first thing to manage is your own reactivity. When we see our partner’s Still Face we might experience the disconnection as a kind of danger, the danger of alienation, perhaps. We may feel irritated, anxious, afraid, or rejected. We may even feel activated in our body with an elevated heart rate or tension in our stomach. Perhaps we tell ourselves, “My partner is just not sexual” (a negative view of the other) or worse, “My partner must not be attracted to me,” (a negative view of ourselves.)
We have to manage three things before we can depersonalize what happened and wonder about our partner’s experience:
What we feel
What our body feels
What we tell ourselves about the event.
Emotional intelligence means understanding our feelings, thoughts, and somatic experiences as they pertain to an event and having some ability to be able to question our immediate reactions. Reactivity can hurt our partner: criticize and they may shut down, withdraw and they may become anxious or upset.
It's easy to assume that Still Face is a reaction to something. "Maybe I'm too loud," "What if this doesn't feel good to my partner?" "Maybe I'm a bad lover," but it might not be about you. Still Face sex is often about your partner and something that's happening inside of them. Our own survival modes of fight (anger and criticism), flight (not talking about it, withdrawing warmth, leaving the bedroom in a huff) or freeze (losing arousal, letting fear grip us) stop communication and create an emotional disconnection, too.
Healthy communication starts with dropping assumptions. When we make up a story about our partner or assume the worst, we miss an opportunity for connection. Give your partner the benefit of the doubt and communicate openly.
Laurie Watson via Psychology Today.
The author is a certified sex therapist and host of the popular podcast Foreplay - Radio Sex Therapy, covering intimacy and healthy sexual relationships. She is also the author of Wanting Sex Again - How to Rediscover Your Desire and Heal a Sexless Marriage.