No one likes conflict. We all avoid uncomfortable conversations; we dance around the edges of discord. And that’s doubly true with sex. Researchers who study conflict have identified three threats that we’re primed to avoid: Threat to the relationship; threat to the partner; threat to ourselves. A disagreement triggers all three threats, but when partners talk about sex, study subjects report that they feel the biggest threat is the one to self.
We feel vulnerable when we talk about sex—naked, so to speak. We may long to talk about what we like (or don’t like) or we may wish he or she would move… just so, or touch… right there, but that conversation strikes at a very tender core. So most of us remain silent, and over the years, sex often becomes scripted and dull.
Yet, talking openly about sex actually improves our relationship beyond the bedroom. It builds trust and confidence—and it just might improve our sex life as well. “People who have the courage to discuss intimacy issues with their partners are generally happier in their relationships,” writes Dr. David Luden in this article. “…if both partners approach the discussion with a desire to resolve the issue, the relationship will be strengthened as a result.”
So, the first rule of talking about sex is: Be positive. Be encouraging. Suggest rather than complain. Compliment first, then suggest. A spoonful of sugar and all that. (“I really love it when you…” “Maybe we could watch a sexy movie first to get in the mood.”) Let your partner know how much you want to be with him or her before you suggest a change. Make eye contact when you talk. Touch. Hold hands.
An addendum to rule number one: Listen and ask open-ended questions: “Do you like it when I…” “What turns you on?” “Park your emotional response, and try to be curious, detached and present,” says therapist Krystal Woodbridge in this article. “Say to your partner: ‘Tell me more about that.’”
Sex isn’t isolated from life in general, so it’s unsurprising that sexual issues are interwoven with other aspects of your relationship. You may wish your partner would initiate sex more often, but his erectile dysfunction makes him embarrassed and even less willing to initiate. This increases your feelings of rejection.
Which brings us to rule number two: Don’t make your talk a giant dump. Stick to one issue. These talks should be targeted, not a laundry list. Maybe just discuss the erectile dysfunction, which is a significant issue, but which is also treatable. Then, maybe later, you can move on to his initiating more often.
Sex is often premised upon pleasing your partner, and that’s not a bad thing. But if it isn’t pleasant for you, you’ll avoid it. Especially if you don’t really know what feels good and therefore can’t communicate about it? So, get to know what IS pleasing to you, by yourself, if necessary. Then maybe you and your partner can practice a little. “People believe they have the power to give another person an orgasm – they don’t. If you take ownership of your own orgasm, it’s within nobody’s power to ‘not’ give you one,” says Woodbridge. Rule number three: Take responsibility for your own pleasure.
Finally, a relationship may be brand new—or decades old. Either way, it’s never too early—or too late to talk about sex. In a new relationship, it’s a good idea to explore your partner’s expectations, boundaries, fantasies, preferences, and difficulties early and often. You’re building trust and laying the groundwork for good communication, and this is a powerful thing in a relationship.
On the other hand, established habits and ingrained ideas are really hard to budge. Woodbridge suggests consciously doing a reset: forget the past and focus on the future. You aren’t doomed to a so-so (or nonexistent) sex life. You and your partner actually have the power to change.
If, however, despite your best efforts and most conciliatory approach, your partner refuses to participate, you still have power over your own attitude and responses. I’d also suggest finding a therapist. This is a tough situation, but it is also one full of potential for growth. I’ve found the Psychology Today directory of pre-vetted therapists listed by geographical area very helpful for an initial search. Read this article about how to find a therapist who’s right for you, and you can launch the directory from there.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.