Why Do Loving Couples Struggle with Sexual Communication?
The fear of negative emotions is a powerful deterrent to sexual communication.
Posted Feb 11, 2020
When I began researching the topic of sexual communication, defined broadly as the process by which romantic partners share their sexual preferences, it surprised me to learn how little partners knew about each other’s sexual likes and dislikes.
Even after years of being together, individuals rely more on stereotypes of what they think “men want” or what “women want,” rather than understanding the specifics of their partner’s actual sexual preferences and history. This led to the question: Why are romantic partners hesitant to engage in sexual self-disclosure with each other?
Through my research on this topic as well as the work of other researchers, an important clue to this puzzle is emerging and it lies in how people regulate their emotions. Many individuals avoid sexual communication because they do not want to feel the negative emotions that arise when they engage in sexual self-disclosure. For many individuals, this avoidance occurs in the context of a loving and trusting relationship where the partner is generally caring and responsive to their needs.
How do we understand this paradox? Why do some people experience sexual disclosure as emotionally threatening even as their partner is signaling interest and curiosity in learning about them? It may be helpful to contrast these relationships with a different category of relationships: where the partner’s responses may be hurtful, invalidating, or vindictive. In these cases, the limited disclosure is a self-protective strategy.
However, even in contexts where the partner is responsive and understanding, we can understand the barriers to self-disclosure as a form of emotional self-protection, but a strategy that is being applied to a context where it is not warranted and where it is doing more harm than good by creating distance and misunderstanding in the relationship.
In my therapy work with couples, this dynamic tends to show up in two ways. First, the partner avoiding the disclosure may note that their heart and mind are in conflict; they know, at an intellectual level, that they are in a safe and accepting relationship, but their gut-level, instinctive response is to hide by avoiding the feared topic (“I know that she won’t judge me, but I find it so hard to talk about this”). In other instances, the fear is so powerful that it leads to a distorted view of the consequences of the disclosure (“I know that he will be disgusted if I say…”); this is met by the protest of the other partner, but the protests do little to comfort the person avoiding the disclosure. This projection — mixing up the partner’s reactions with our own internalized barriers — is a persistent, thorny, but critical issue to examine if we are to parse the internal from the interpersonal. To do this, one needs to look carefully and patiently at one’s own sexual identity and the factors that have shaped it, whether positive or negative. This knowledge, in turn, helps to see the partner’s reaction in a more accurate and balanced way.
Even as this self-knowledge builds, it is important to know that understanding one’s own barriers to sexual communication does not mean that disclosures will be easy. There is an erroneous assumption that conversations about sex will always feel good or feel erotic and that it signals a problem when sexual communication is neither easy nor pleasant. The reality is that there are aspects of sexual self-disclosure that may feel like they reveal difficult, unpleasant, or shameful aspects of yourself. When the predominant social message is that such communication should not be scary, it can make an individual question the validity of their own emotional experience.
It’s important, then, to adjust expectations accordingly. At a conference I attended a few years ago, Karen B. K. Chan, a sexual health educator, used a simple but powerful metaphor to describe how false and unrealistic expectations can impede sexual communication. She talked about trying to teach her godson about sharing. Rather than telling him that sharing feels good, she told him the message that is likely opposite to what many parents tell their children around sharing: it doesn’t feel good to share, but it is still important to do it.
Certainly, sexual communication can be easy and enjoyable, but certain types of disclosures can also be awkward and embarrassing. However, without such communication, it is not possible to achieve the desired goals of intimacy, closeness, and pleasure.
Byers, E. S. (2011). Beyond the birds and the bees and was it good for you?: Thirty years of research on sexual communication. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 52, 20.
Rehman, U. S., Balan, D., Sutherland, S., & McNeil, J. (2019). Understanding barriers to sexual communication. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36, 2605-2623.