Talking about sex is an important part of a healthy intimate relationship, but having the conversation can feel difficult and awkward. There’s still a lot of shame and discomfort around sex. We aren’t used to talking about our sex life in honest, specific ways with anyone—including the person we’re sleeping with.
Sometimes we don’t broach the subject because we don’t know what to ask for. If that’s you, take a look at my recent interview with Micheala Boehm, Gwyneth Paltrow’s intimacy coach, about how women can discover what brings them pleasure. But often, the reluctance to approach this delicate topic stems from fear. I’ve led women’s discussion groups about sex and intimacy, and what I’ve heard from women is that they 1) don’t want to hurt their partner’s feelings or threaten the relationship, 2) don’t want to be judged for their desires or seen as selfish/needy/wanton/kinky, and 3) would like to ask for things but aren’t necessarily open to their partner’s desires.
To help us get more comfortable with conversations about sex, I consulted Certified Sex Therapist Heather Shannon. Shannon’s professional mission is “help reduce shame and stigma around sexuality so people can fully embrace and enjoy their sexual selves.” Originally from Chicago, where she trained and established her private practice, she recently relocated to Puerto Rico, where she’s able to conduct her practice virtually. “It’s lovely living in paradise,” she says.
Shannon agrees that it’s important to talk about sex, because things are always changing in relationships. It requires some courage to dive in. “Yes, it is vulnerable and a bit scary,” she says. “But a certain amount of it comes down to just being brave. It comes from having a certain amount of security within yourself—as a human but also as a sexual being.” Here are her suggestions for how to initiate and conduct a conversation with your partner about having a more satisfying sex life.
Start by setting the intention for the communication.
“One of the things I really like from the Gottman Institute (couples counseling experts) is the soft start up,” says Shannon. “I encourage people to state their positive intention such as, ‘Hey, I want us to be able to talk about sex.’ Maybe you start there and maybe you don’t go very much further that day. It might be more of a series of conversations and you start with the easy stuff at first. ‘I want us to both really enjoy sex, and sometimes that might mean exploring new things.’” Setting the intention gets the ball rolling and later you can discuss the details of what new things you might try and the way you might comfortably explore them.
Naming the problem is helps solve it.
Sex is primarily expressed physically, but using words to highlight a pattern or dynamic can be incredibly helpful. “I’ve talked with some couples where the issue just had to be verbalized,” says Shannon. “A woman might say, ‘We start kissing and I always shrink back because I think you’re going to push for sex and I just want to keep it at kissing.’ Usually once it’s named, and once they start talking about it, the couple can find the solution.”
Take shame and judgement out of the equation.
As I’ve written before, it’s common for people to have sexual desires and fantasies that focus on taboo themes that might be considered unacceptable in real life. It can be hard to confide darker desires if you feel like you’ll be rejected for them. A partner’s negative reaction could be caused by their own feelings of discomfort, lack of understanding or fear. But it isn’t fair to put that judgement on the other person.
“‘Don’t yuck my yum’ is a phrase that goes around in the kink community and I love it here too,” says Shannon. “The whole idea is, don’t put your ‘ooh, gross’ onto someone else. For me, working with people, that would be a ground rule for good communication. Don’t yuck anyone’s yum. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. But don’t shame people for their sexual interests.” With this guideline in place, “you’re creating a space where it’s really safe to share.”
Get out of your comfort zone.
Longterm relationships require novelty and spark to remain interesting and healthy. Couples need to be open to experimentation, which admittedly has risks. “You’re probably going to have to try some stuff that won’t go very well,” says Shannon. “Let’s say over time you try 20 new things and 10 work and 10 don’t. You have to not be overly attached to the outcome. The couple who is willing to try things ends up with ten new things in their repertoire while the couple that doesn’t is stuck in the same old rut. The willingness to be uncomfortable makes a big difference.”
Hang in there.
If talking about sex is new to your relationship, it may not go perfectly well at first. “Sometimes a partner will make one comment and a person will say ‘Oh no, they’re judging my sexual fantasy, I can never bring it up again.’ I would say don’t do that. Realize it was just one comment and you maybe internalized it too much. Work on setting the stage and set the safe space so you can talk about this. Because if you don’t, people do things in secret or they find someone else to do it with. People feel unwanted and rejected and it could be pretty hurtful.”
So, for the sake of your relationship, be brave. “Even if it’s going well, talk about it,” advises Shannon. Good sex requires good communication and, with practice and patience, you’ll get more comfortable talking about it. The payoff is a more exciting sex life and a happier relationship—which is worth taking a risk!
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Marjie Killeen is a freelance writer and speaker specializing in communication, relationships and lifestyle. She’s the author of Better’s award-winning Sex & the Suburbs column and has worn many hats during her career including marketer, corporate trainer, actor and two-time mom. Now an empty nester, she and her husband split time between downtown Chicago and Bonita Springs, Florida. Read more of her work at stylechallengers.com and subscribe to the Better Letter to read her monthly column on sex and relationships in Better.