Ask Better Questions about Sex

When is a question not a question? When it’s really a statement.

Posted Mar 05, 2018

Questions are supposed to illicit information and most likely spark discussion, but bad questions actually stifle the flow of information and reduce discussion, especially around sensitive topics like sex and relationships. If your goal is better sex and a better relationship, then learning how to ask better questions will be part of getting there. It goes way beyond those simplistic reflective listening techniques (e.g., “What I hear you saying is...”) and is really more a matter of emotion regulation and working on tolerating discomfort.

Here’s a simple example of a statement dressed up as a question: “Is that what you’re wearing?” Despite the presence of the question mark at the end, that is rarely an actual question. Most of the time it’s a statement: “I don’t think you should wear that.” Sometimes it’s an even stronger statement: “You’re definitely not wearing that.”

Copyright 123RF
Source: Copyright 123RF

Disagreements over wardrobe choices may evoke some fire from couples, but there are way more hurt feelings at stake when the topic is sex, especially when one partner is revealing something new to their partner (or when an unexpected discovery does the revealing). Intimacy develops by taking some chances and sharing parts of ourselves that our partner may not love or agree with—the early days of relationships are fun and easy because we stick to safe topics, so there is less to fight or be disappointed about.

Couples that aren’t able to handle these revelations well will tend to get stuck and their sex life is more likely to stagnate if they can’t take some chances and mix it up from time to time. We all have sexual acts that we enjoy and feel comfortable revealing to our partner, as well as some that we would be interested in adding to our repertoire, but perhaps feel hesitant to reveal, for fear of our partner’s response. If we don’t challenge ourselves, that can lead to safe sex: We only do the things that feel safe to reveal and that we both agree on. This may be fine in the early days of the relationship where novelty creates the white-hot passion that almost guarantees a good time, but what about long-term couples that can no longer count on that easy passion? How do they infuse some novelty and excitement into the same old sex?

This is where those better questions come in. While the words matter, the tone and delivery are way more important. For example, if your partner shares a new turn-on or makes a request to try something a little different, you might ask, “Why does that turn you on? Why do you like that?” If you ask it with a clear tone of judgment, criticism, disappointment, anger, resentment, or fear, your partner is unlikely to be honest with you—or to even continue the conversation. Walls up; status quo reinforced. If the tone of your question contains a clear implication of “What’s wrong with you that you would want that?” you’re going to have a lot fewer conversations and even fewer productive ones.

By contrast, if you ask it with a clear tone of curiosity and interest, your partner is much more likely to continue the conversation and perhaps explain themselves and reveal more about themselves. You then get to share your thoughts and feelings about the request, as well as to ask more of your own questions. None of this implies that you are required to do what your partner wants, nor that you have to understand why they want to do it, nor even to not be weirded out by it. It just means being willing to hear what they have to say and to try to understand it from their perspective. To accept that this is a desire that is OK for them to have. Real intimacy requires being able to be OK with what we each reveal, including (and especially) the parts where we differ.

Copyright 123RF
Source: Copyright 123RF

Couples that are able to keep sex hot over the decades are the ones who are able to handle this process well, to be willing to do that sometimes difficult work to hold onto their heads when their partner reveals something that makes them uncomfortable. They can then ask those better questions that lead to more intimacy and less shutting down, to more passion and less stagnation. It’s OK, and actually a good thing, to be honest about your own feelings, but in a respectful way. For example, it is totally acceptable to admit that something feels threatening—and then hold onto your head enough to be vulnerable and explain why. And for your partner to handle that response to their revelation by keeping their head on and exploring your feelings about it. For both people, this most likely involves going beyond the surface and obvious answers to the other deeper reasons that are less easy to admit.

Truth is earned by responding well to it. If you want your partner to be honest, you need to respond well to them when they are. If you want to be honest with your partner, you need to explain to them how their bad reactions make it feel safer to shut down and withhold how you really feel.

Truth is revealed by asking good questions. These are questions that are actually questions—not statements hiding in sheep’s clothing. If your sex life isn’t what you want it to be, maybe it’s because you need to ask some better questions—and then practice responding well to the answers that you get. It’s from this place of honesty and mutual understanding that the negotiations begin about what does or doesn’t get added into your sex life and how. There’s no guarantee that you are going to get what you want, but you’re much more likely if you start with honesty and understanding.

(If you're interested in the incredibly broad array of sexual interests that people can have and some intelligent discussion about it, you should check out the Why Are People Into That? podcast. We are a creative species.)