Blue whales rub each other with their flippers, male baboons swagger back and forth, chimpanzees kiss and hold hands, and female possums turn toward their suitors, cock their jaws, and look them straight in the eyes. All mammals, as well as many reptile and bird species, have their own, unique ways of courting each other. Courting is like a dance, with a set sequence of movements and touch that attract a mate and eventu­ally lead into sex. Although the idea of courtship may seem strange and outdated—especially if you think of sex in terms of what is portrayed by porn—all studies of human relating and mating show that courtship is vital in forging lasting intimate sexual bonds between people.

Human courtship usually includes the following behaviors: smiling at each other; flirting; conversation aimed at getting initially acquainted; going out on dates; dancing together; sharing meals; extended conver­sations; holding hands; gazing into each other’s eyes; touching each other on the shoulder, the knee, and the waist; kissing; and hugging.

These behaviors prepare both partners to feel comfortable enough with each other to consider more intimate physical sharing. Touch to the highly sensitive and sexually arousing areas of the body, such as the breasts and genitals, are the final steps in the human mating courtship sequence.

Whether you are beginning or repairing a sexual relationship with a partner, it’s important to engage in a sequence of courtship behaviors. Skipping over steps, or rushing through the courtship process, could thwart the development of genuine sexual intimacy in a relationship. As you engage in courtship, if you find that your partner particularly enjoys certain activities, you may want to linger on those and repeat them often.

The reason that courtship behaviors are so critical to establishing intimacy is that they enable you to gradually develop a sense of familiar­ity and trust with a partner on a physical and emotional level before you become overtly sexual. You become friends before you become sexual partners, thus laying a strong foundation of friendship that supports your entire intimate relationship.

Courtship gives you time to learn to accurately interpret each other’s facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, laughter, casual touch, and other forms of nonverbal communication. Your ability to determine what your partner is communicating with these cues will improve the qual­ity of your sexual relating. It’s very difficult for someone to be a good lover if he can’t tell what his partner’s facial expressions, sounds, and gestures truly indicate. One person’s expression of erotic ecstasy may be another’s grimace of pain.

Courtship activities help you become physically attuned to each other. Often without realizing it consciously, you begin to mimic each other’s gestures, move in tandem at times, synchronize the way you look, smile, and talk to each other. Spending time together as you court also creates positive associations with the way each of you moves, feels, smells, and sounds. As you develop these powerful positive feelings, sexual interest and desire naturally arise. And as a result, when you do eventually relate sexually, your ability to be attuned to each other in multiple dimensions makes for more comfortable and fulfilling sex.

You can develop your courtship skills by getting to know each other in ways that are not focused on having sex. For example, you might spend time holding hands during a walk or massage your partner’s back for a few minutes before dinner. During a conversation, you could smile gently and look into your partner’s eyes. Or put on some music and dance together. Going slow in courtship enables you to truly connect with your partner before moving forward to the next step in intimate relating. Your top priority is developing a sense of trust and comfort with each other, both physically and emotionally.

The following “Intimate Mirroring” exercise gives you an oppor­tunity to experience how coordinating your physical movements with a partner’s can stimulate feelings of unity and connection, which are basic building blocks for sexual intimacy. Taking turns initiating and moving together can help both of you focus on each other and be more comfort­able with a common way of relating.