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Why We Don't Talk About Sex

Expert advice to improve communication and intimacy.

It’s difficult to talk about your sexual desires, even—or especially—to your lover.

I recall admitting to a close friend, at the beginning of a relationship with a new man, that I was having trouble telling my lover about some minor habit that was troubling me. She responded brusquely, “You have to let him know what’s on your mind! Just put a little yellow sticky note on your body.”


One woman who enjoyed full body hugs didn’t like it when her husband went straight from the shower to their bed. He’d still be damp and their all-over hugs just didn’t “slide.” She finally got the courage to tell him his wetness was a turn-off.

Don't Wait Too Long

Putting off sexual conversations can turn them into momentous and forbidding obligations, and that makes you avoid them even longer. Together nearly two decades, Naomi and Janice (not their real names) have moved apart sexually over the past few years, and neither is overjoyed about the change. Naomi explains:

There are different reasons for both of us. Some has to do with body image, discomfort with our own bodies in different ways, and also, for me, I think perimenopause may be a big part of it. My libido is practically gone, but that’s not the case with Janice, even though she’s older than I am and already went through menopause. Also, sex is an area of our lives that is so fraught with old and unfinished emotional stuff. It’s become a big deal to get into it and talk about it and work on it, and I think we’re both just not going there.

Naomi relies on the hope that they will eventually get beyond this long dry spell, their only obstacle to an otherwise deeply satisfying relationship. But meanwhile, neither of them is taking the initiative. Fortunately, they continue to cuddle and snuggle, with no abatement of mutual affection and warmth.

Do It Wordlessly

Communication, of course, doesn’t always require words. In fact, words have been known to get in the way when it comes to messages about what feels sexy. The easiest nonverbal technique is to let your partner know when his or her touch is just right by murmuring—and by staying silent when it’s off a bit.

If a particular touch is uncomfortable, or hurts, move your body or move the innocently offending hand. Suffering in silence will get you nowhere, and in the long run, only bring you more of the same and an increase of resentment. If those gentle purring sounds and slight body shiftings aren’t clear to your partner, take her hand and show her.

If your partner is nondefensive outside the bedroom, this will go smoothly. If she gets defensive at the slightest hint you’re suggesting she change a little, try focusing, for now, on making her feel safer during your non-sexual interactions.

What can you do if your partner seems to hear your request for change, whether verbal or not, adapts his behavior in the moment, then reverts back to his old habits the next time you make love? It’s a common complaint. But instead of assuming he isn’t paying attention to you or doesn’t care, make the effort to repeat your preferences.

It’s possible that he’d been doing this same movement for a long time before you spoke up, and once he’s immersed in sex, his cognitive faculties aren’t fully engaged anymore. He could use a gentle reminder of what you prefer, but lovingly.

Yes, it would be great if each of us could focus on our own sensations and at the same time be attuned to our partners’ responses every moment. It may not be for lack of will or effort that your partner seems forgetful. It takes a while for habits to become entrenched, and by that time, what arouses you may have changed. There’s no way around keeping those communication lines open all the time.

Hold Onto Yourself

I found sex expert David Schnarch’s discussion of differentiation relevant in this context. He explains that differentiation is how well you can maintain your sense of self when you’re near someone very important to you. Schnarch says not to underline passages in his book, for example, and hope your partner will read them—or to do so with other books and articles, as I used to do regularly with my own mate: “If you’re not ready to speak for yourself, then you’re probably not ready to hold onto yourself through the ensuing discussion,” he writes.

Over time, I learned that I had nothing to lose by being frank about intimate preferences. I stopped holding back my wants, and found a way to state desires that kept the responsibility on me, not my partner. In our non-bedroom conversations, too—which the erotic ones mirrored—I learned to say, “This is my own quirky preference, and it says nothing about you. But could you help me meet this need?”

There’s only so much you can do on your own when it comes to improving your sex life. The rest requires loving support and a nondefensive attitude—like Jean and Conrad. Each partner is a monogamous experimenter who likes to try novel scenarios once in a while. “There are actually times when I’ve written him a little note or he’s written me a little note, because we’re a little shy to talk face to face,” Jean admits. She’ll write, for instance, “I’ve been thinking about this. What do you think about it?”

That’s a good start.

Excerpted from Loving in Flow: How the Happiest Couples Get and Stay That Way, (c) Susan K. Perry, whose novel Kylie’s Heel has some sex in it and a lot of communicating, but rarely the two at once.

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