Are Your Partner's Rules Ruining Your Sex Life?

Expert advice for talking about 4 common issues, like no sex with the lights on.

Posted Nov 27, 2016

Sexual boundaries, like fidelity, can protect our special commitment and guard the heart of a relationship. Sexual rules, on the other hand, are often unspoken and covert, and usually limit sexual expression for a couple. For example, sexual distancers frequently have “rules” around how, when, where, and what to do during sex. Sexually pursuing partners believe that their partner wants to control the relationship as a whole, not just sex. Such rules can control sex, but they usually don’t come from a desire to control. Instead, sexual rules serve other unconscious purposes, such as enhancing self-image, reducing the risk of feeling out of control, conserving energy, limiting unwelcome intensity, preventing humiliation, and preserving attractiveness.

To gain more sexual freedom, it's important to learn what issue your partner's sexual rules are addressing. You can then take practical steps to alleviate his or her hidden fears or inhibitions. When you work to find the hidden meaning of a rule, you must frame your questions as curious so you don't make your partner defensive. It's important that you don’t ask your questions in a way that asserts your own agenda.

Following are four typical sex-limiting rules, along with questions to ask your partner and practical tips to help resolve the obvious issues.

1. No sex with the lights on. This rule is usually made when a partner, male or female, just doesn’t feel good about their appearance. Body-image issues are ubiquitous and a primary sexual inhibitor. Variations on this rule can include not walking around nude; wearing clothing to bed; or never being seen naked. Childhood injunctions about modesty may have been misunderstood to mean the naked body is never acceptable, or that it's "dirty" or "bad." In my work, I find a disproportionate number of women fearing the ugliness of their genitals compared to men who accept their total appearance. Sometimes inhibitions about being seen in common situations like showering or dressing stem from the belief that if a partner becomes aroused, they must then be satisfied with a full sexual encounter.

Questions to get to the root of the matter:

  • “I’ve noticed that you seem to cover up whenever I accidentally find you dressing or showering. Can you tell me what you think or feel in that moment?”
  • “I love seeing you naked but you often want the lights out. How do you feel about being seen in the nude?”

Practical tips:

  • Start with candlelight.
  • Have sex in the morning and after arousal is in full force to coax your partner out from under the sheets.
  • Murmur about how beautiful or sexy their body looks to you.

2. No sexual positions or acts like that. Many times, the rejection of a particular sex act or position stems from an earlier misunderstanding or poor technique. This rule is often unspoken or covert, such as when one partner starts to perform oral sex only to be pushed away by the other. Sometimes a particular position causes pain or brings no pleasure, but the couple doesn’t have enough erotic language skills to correct the problem.

Questions should explore the causes of the refusal:

  • “How do you feel about...?" (Fill in the blank; for example, "...receiving oral sex?”)
  • “Is there something you could tell me about your first experiences or our earlier experiences with this position (or sex act)?"
  • “Do you ever experience pain or physical discomfort when we try to do that?”

Practical tips:

  • Be willing to accept partial progress from your partner toward an end goal.
  • Give as much as you can on your end; for example, if your partner asks you to shower first before making love, just do it.
  • Don’t insist on complete acceptance right away. 

3. No sex while the children are awake. Nobody wants their children walking in on them. Seeing adults making love can be confusing or frightening for a child who stumbles into their parents’ bedroom—especially if the discovery is handled badly. Having recently spent a holiday weekend with teenage and adult children who play games all night long or stay up with friends, I know that the reality of this rule is that eventually, there will never be an "appropriate" time to have sex.

But sometimes this rule extends its reach to “no sexual contact or flirtation around the children.” That rule may be intended to protect the children from inappropriate exposure but often leads to a child-centric family in which a marriage can wither without proper nurturing and prioritizing.

Questions to ask: 

  • “What are the things you are afraid of if the children realize we have a private aspect to our relationship?”
  • “What kinds of sexual touch or affection are you comfortable in front of the children?”

Practical tips:

  • Install a lock on the bedroom door
  • Teach your children to knock on closed doors. By age three, they can understand the concept of privacy. By age five or six, they can develop enough impulse control not to burst into a room unless there is an emergency.
  • Establish firm, consistent, and early bedtimes for your children.
  • Explore ideas about sexual touch or comments that leave your partner feeling comfortable with a direct and upfront conversation rather than in the moment.

4. No sex on a full stomach. Doesn’t a great date night always seem to start with a romantic dinner out? Yet men living with erectile dysfunction often employ this particular rule because they secretly fear spontaneity—an evening out may not give them enough preparation time, say, to take their Viagra. If your partner uses this rule, try asking, “I’m wondering if you've also noticed that often we seem to have a nice evening out followed by a refusal to have sex later in the evening. If so, what do you think stops the sex from happening?”

Practical tips: 

  • If a man says he’s anxious about his performance, bring along a pill and flirtatiously ask him to take it with dessert, so he’s ready when you get home.
  • Suggest having sex before going out, while you both still have fresh energy.

Please listen to my podcast FOREPLAY—Radio Sex Therapy, with new weekly downloads on iTunes or Stitcher or at

You can reach Laurie Watson for Skype therapy or in-person weekend couple's therapy intensives at: AwakeningsCenter.Org.