How to Talk About Sex
Trouble talking about sex? 5 tips to get you started
Posted Jul 22, 2016
While some of us are comfortable talking about sex with our partners, a large number of us are not for a couple of good reasons. The topic itself is cloaked in hesitation, reluctance and awkwardness. Many of us grew up in households where sexual topics were rarely if ever discussed, giving us few opportunities or role models to feel comfortable with the subject. And the vulnerability that is stirred in the physical side of sex can easily bleed over to the verbal side. Exposing our intimate thoughts and wishes can make us feel self-critical, small, or unsafe; we fear judgment or rejection.
And so it’s easier to ignore the topic or at best make vague hints, mumbled suggestions that go under the radar or are misunderstood, or because they stir up our partner’s anxiety, are ignored or pushed away only further fueling our fears.
The antidote, of course, is the same for any relationship problem, namely, going against our grain and taking the risk of talking about the elephant in the room. Here are some suggestions to make this all a bit easier:
Decide what you want to say
The starting point is figuring out what is the 1, 2, or 3 points that your partner to come away with. Three not 30. Three is about as much as anyone can process in any given conversation. (You can address other topics in future conversations; right now you just are opening the door to the topic.) This is also not about over-preparing as though your about to deliver a Gettysburg Address, but it’s helpful to have your own thoughts in order before venturing forth.
What’s helpful to also consider and convey is the larger context of your concerns. Sure you can and may need to talk about the specifics of physical pleasure, but often sexual issues are part and parcel of a larger emotional climate of the relationship, where the physical side is a concentrated form of all that is good and not so good in the relationship. Is there enough appreciation, affection, verbal intimacy? Do these need to be thought about and addressed as well? Think about these and decide if they are important to the conversation.
Choose your format
Sitting down and having a straight-ahead adult conversation sounds great but can also be difficult. If you are ready to take this on, it’s often helpful to give your partner a heads up: “I’m wondering if we could make some time this weekend to talk about a couple of things that have been on my mind?” While such planning may feel a bit staged, it avoids falling into those often disastrous attempts at conversation at 12 midnight when you are both tired and your partner feels side-winded and gets defensive.
But if this straight-ahead approach seems too overwhelming, consider sending an email or letter. The obvious advantage is that you have time to gather your thoughts and your partner to absorb what you are saying by reading it over again. You can also make sure you put into it and offset what you fear your partner may think: “I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy our sexual life or that you are not a good lover” – helping to cut such thoughts at the pass. If you go this route, follow up verbally: “Did you read my email? Can we talk about after dinner?”
Finally, consider making bringing other media. This is where some couples will go to the relationship / sex section at Barnes and Noble, find pictures or descriptions in the books on the shelves that fit what they want to say and show to their partners. Or watch porn together that you are both comfortable viewing, using the images as a kick-starter for conversation.
Because the goal is to initiate a two-sided conversation, ask not only for your partner's reactions, but encourage your partner to say what he or she may then want from you.
Follow the good-conversation rules
Make sure you do your best to employ those good-conversation rules: Make “I” statements rather than “you” statements, talking about what you think, feel, and want. Talk about the positive, what you want, rather than what the other person is not doing or doing wrong. These help your partner not become defensive. Be concrete and behavioral. This is especially important when talking about physical desires: “Touch my breasts more gently or thrust more gently” rather than vague language like “be more gentle” or “more engaged”. Knowing exactly what to do helps your partner know...exactly what to do.
If the conversation goes well, circle back, thank your partner for listening, see if he or she has any more reactions or questions. If it didn’t go well, circle back and talk about that: “I’m sorry if you felt on the spot and criticized last night; that's what I intended. Can we try this conversation again?” What’s all too easy to do if the conversation gets derailed is to sweep it all back under the rug; this, obviously, does nothing to solve the problem. Go back and try again.
Talk about talking
Finally, talk at some point about talking. What this means is that after the sexual topic is somewhat put to rest, there often remains the larger issue of why you didn’t have the conversation earlier. Is there something that you need from your partner to feel more safe to bring up sensitive topics? Do you need as a couple to simply make time to talk about what’s on your mind besides the hubbub of work or kids? Does the struggle with communication suggest a deeper underlying problem? This too needs to get on the table.
If all this still seems too difficult, consider a short stint of couple or even individual counseling just to have a safe place to get things out in the open or to figure out better exactly what you want. The counselor can ask the hard questions, slow things down so that you are both heard, and help you learn skills that can make these conversations go more smoothly.