Why Is It so Hard to Talk About Sex?
Talking about sex is challenging, but can make a relationship more satisfying.
Posted Jul 30, 2018
Co-authored by Roanne D. Millman and Jennifer C. Pink
How do you tell her you aren’t interested in sex tonight? Communicating about your sexual desire is crucial for a satisfying sex life, but it can be one of the hardest things for couples to do. Celia, who participated in our research with her partner Adam, described “using” her partner for sex, because it alleviated her feelings of depression, even though she could see he wasn’t interested.
Adam and Celia’s story highlights the importance of talking openly about sexual matters. Celia avoided talking to Adam, because she was afraid to hear that he was bored with her. In reality, Adam’s libido had declined because of stress — not because his feelings towards Celia had changed.
Research shows that turning down a partner’s sexual overtures or talking about what you like and don’t like can be challenging (MacNeil & Byers, 2009; McNeil, Rehman, & Fallis, 2018; Rehman et al., 2011). It requires sharing very private aspects of yourself, which can be uncomfortable. These discussions can also spark painful emotions, like embarrassment or shame, and can fuel conflict (Metts & Cupach, 1989).
In our research, we followed couples for a year, and those who talked constructively had more satisfying sex and generally happier relationships. So even though sexual conversations can be tough to navigate, exploring these issues effectively is worthwhile.
Our research also makes clear that people who are secure in their relationship are more likely to talk about intimate topics and to experience fulfilling sexual lives. In contrast, those who worry excessively about their relationship and a partner’s reactions will struggle with communication.
Fears of rejection or of hurting a partner may make it tough to say you don’t like certain things in the bedroom, you want to try something new, or you’re unhappy with frequency. Worries about your partner’s reaction could also make it hard to be direct, as in Celia’s case. In the absence of concrete information, people make assumptions about the cause of their partner’s behavior. In our research, when people blame their partner or themselves, like Celia did, it only makes the situation worse.
But shouldn’t partners intuitively know what you want without you having to say, especially if they love you? Relationship research shows that unrealistic beliefs like this one can be particularly damaging (Metts & Cupach, 1990; Stackert & Bursick, 2003). Being up-front about your needs and desires is a far more effective way to get what you want than hoping your partner can read your mind.
You might also be worried that talking will destroy the magic. It is important to pick the right moment to raise sensitive matters. Do it when you both have the time and energy for a vulnerable conversation. Sometimes you may not have a choice about the timing, such as when a partner initiates a sexual activity that doesn’t please you. This might require immediate feedback, so what do you do? Our research suggests that communicating your pleasure or displeasure during sexual activity nonverbally rather than verbally might be the best strategy.
Talking during sex might be distracting and ruin the moment. Nonverbal communication, such as moving a hand, slowing down a movement (or speeding one up), is subtler than verbal communication. This may be less threatening to your partner and won’t interfere with enjoyment of sensuous contact. Some verbalizations may also seem ungenuine. Talking dirty might be a great turn on. But if it's motivated by what you think is the “right thing to do,” or what your partner wants, it might backfire. Especially if your partner is trying to figure out if you really mean what you say.
So, how do you tell her you aren’t interested in sex tonight? By being open, non-blaming, and honest. Even communicating a lack of desire can bring partners together. Creating intimacy by sharing thoughts and feelings about sex might end up getting you closer to a truly satisfying sexual relationship.
Roanne D. Millman and Jennifer C. Pink are Ph.D. candidates in the Department of Psychology at Simon Fraser University. They study sexual communication in intimate relationships.
MacNeil, S., & Byers, E. S. (2009). Role of sexual self-disclosure in the sexual satisfaction of long-term heterosexual couples. Journal of Sex Research, 46, 1–12. doi:10.1080/00224490802398399
Metts, S., & Cupach, W. R. (1989). The role of communication in human sexuality. In K. McKinney & S. Sprecher (Eds.), Human sexuality: The societal and interpersonal context (pp. 139-161). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Metts, S., & Cupach, W. R. (1990). The influence of relationship beliefs and problem-solving responses on satisfaction in romantic relationships. Human Communication Research, 17(1), 170-185. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2958.1990.tb00230.x
McNeil, J., Rehman, U. S., & Fallis, E. (2018). The influence of attachment styles on sexual communication behavior. Journal of Sex Research, 55(2), 191-201. doi:10.1080/00224499.2017.1318817
Rehman, U. S., Janssen, E., Newhouse, S., Heiman, J., Holtzworth-Munroe, A., Fallis, E., & Rafaeli, E. (2011). Marital satisfaction and communication behaviors during sexual and nonsexual conflict discussions in newlywed couples: A pilot study. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 37(2), 94-103. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2011.547352
Stackert, R. A., & Bursik, K. (2003). Why am I unsatisfied? Adult attachment style, gendered irrational relationship beliefs, and young adult romantic relationship satisfaction. Personality and Individual Differences, 34(8), 1419-1429. doi:10.1016/S0191-8869(02)00124-1