Joanne Davila Ph.D.

Skills for Healthy Relationships

Do You Know How to Get What You Want in Bed?

Science tells us what people want, but you need skills to get it!

Posted May 25, 2016

By Joanne Davila and Kaycee Lashman

Just because the science on what makes people sexually satisfied might seem simple and obvious, it doesn’t mean getting satisfaction is…

“In sum, over time individuals and couples can, and many do, keep passion alive.” (Frederick et al., 2016)

This is the concluding sentence in the research article “What Keeps Passion Alive? Sexual Satisfaction is Associated with Sexual Communication, Mood Setting, Sexual Variety, Oral Sex, Orgasm, and Sex Frequency in a National U.S. Study”.

Indeed, the researchers found that the most satisfied and passionate couples – particularly those who said they were as satisfied currently as they were at the beginning of their relationship, engaged in all the behaviors noted in the article’s title.

You can read the study’s findings here: tandfonline. In an essay on titled “Lasting Couples Are Super Great at Two Things: Talking and Screwing” Tracy Moore, wrote about this study saying, “…I think most of us agree that everything revealed here is what any of us might’ve guessed would lead to a better relationship. But such studies should, I think, always be caveated with the idea that just because what makes people happy is simple and obvious doesn’t mean getting it is…”

We couldn’t agree more!

In our book, “The Thinking Girl's Guide to the Right Guy: How Knowing Yourself Can Help You Navigate Dating, Hookups, and Love” we discuss how people may know what makes for a healthy relationship – things like intimacy, security, respect, good communication, and a sense of being valued – but what they don’t know is how to create the things that lead to healthy relationships and reduce the things that lead to unhealthy ones. As Tracy Moore rightly points out, the same is true for a healthy and satisfying sex life.

Healthy relationships – including sexual relationships – are about met needs, and we need skills to get our needs met. We’ve identified three skills – insight, mutuality, and emotion regulation – that people can use to get their needs met and to meet their partners’ needs as well, which, as the study shows, is key to sexual satisfaction.

How do insight, mutuality, and emotion regulation help people get their needs met and meet those of their partner?

Insight allows people to know what their own and their partners’ needs are – needs can’t get met when you aren’t clear on what they are. Mutuality allows people to appropriately assert their own needs while also being responsive to their partners’ needs. In mutual relationships both people’s needs matter and both are attended to. Emotion regulation allows people to appropriately express their feelings, as well as to manage difficult feelings without acting out or retreating. In that way, emotion regulation helps us handle all the feelings that come along with trying to meet our own and each other’s needs.

One of our needs in relationships is what we call Desire, and it’s directly related to sexual satisfaction. There are three sets of questions that you should ask yourself to see if your Desire need is getting met. The first set is designed to develop insight:

Do I feel comfortable being intimate, do I know what I’m ready for, and do I know what sex and intimacy mean to me?

Asking and answering these questions can help you get clear on what you want and need to be sexually satisfied.

This is important because one of the study’s objectives was to draw attention to common romantic and sexual behaviors rarely assessed in the literature. Participants were given a list of 17 activities and asked “Have you done any of the following in the past year to improve your sex life?” The findings showed that satisfied participants engaged in sexual variety, including things such as: mini-massages, wearing lingerie, showers/baths together, making a date night, trying new sexual positions, going on romantic getaways, using sex toys, trying anal stimulation, watching porn together, talking about or acting out fantasies, anal intercourse, having sexual contact in a public place, integrating food into sex (e.g. chocolate or whipped cream), trying light S&M (e.g. restraints, spanking), taking Viagra, videotaping their sex or posing for pictures in the nude, and inviting another person into bed with them. As you read this list, did you find yourself saying “Yeah, I do that” or “I would like to try that or “I am definitely not interested in that”? If so, that’s you developing insight about your Desire need. It’s you getting clear on your sexual preferences and limits, which helps you know what you want and need.

The next two sets of questions capture whether there is mutuality in your sexual relationship. They also require emotion regulation, as acting on them often involves expressing emotion and may even involve facing any fears about communicating with your partner:

1. Do I want to be sexual with my partner and do I feel comfortable telling my partner about my sexual interests and needs?

2. Does my partner want to be sexual with me and can my partner comfortably tell me about his/her sexual interests and needs?

Julianne, a woman we interviewed for our book, shared the following experience with us, which we've excerpted from our book (pp. 122-123). It’s an interaction between her and her partner that speaks to whether her Desire need was getting met:

“Julianne: So I got this book for us. It’s got erotic stories in it that I thought might be fun for us. (She hands the book to him.) How do you feel about this?

Gregory: What do you want to do with this?

Julianne: I was thinking you could lie back, close your eyes, and I’ll start reading out loud. You can tell me how you feel, and we can see where things go.

Gregory: How do you expect me to feel?

Julianne: Aroused?

Gregory: Why do you think that?

Julianne: I feel aroused when I read these stories, so I thought it might be fun for us together. Listen, at any time if you feel uncomfortable we don’t have to do this. Just tell me to stop.

Gregory: Okay, go ahead.

Julianne: (She starts reading.)

Gregory: Stop. Just stop. I’m not into trash. That’s trash! (He grabs the book, starts ripping it up, and throws it into the garbage.)

Julianne: (The expression on her face is horrified.) What are you doing? It’s not trash. It’s two people having sex. I think it’s pretty tame actually, and I like the detailed description. That’s what I find arousing.

Gregory: Well, I don’t. I think it’s disgusting, and I don’t want to be part of it.”

Not surprisingly, Julianne no longer felt comfortable telling Gregory about her sexual interests and needs. Opening up to partners in this way can be risky. Like with Julianne, a partner may react in a way that makes us feel ashamed and diminished. That’s a sure sign that your Desire need is not getting met and perhaps cannot be met with this partner.

If you’re in a situation where you feel uncomfortable with what your partner is telling you and you want to practice mutuality and emotion regulation say something more like “I’d prefer if we stopped. I’m sorry, but I don’t feel comfortable with this. I know you like it, but I’m not into it. Maybe we can find another way to get you aroused. What else do you like?”

In contrast to Julianne's experience, Emily, another woman we interviewed, shared this experience with us, which we excerpted from our book (pp. 104-105):

“Emily was always sure her partner desired her, but she was less sure of whether he was really comfortable telling her about all of his sexual interests. Then one day, out of the blue, he called her saying he wanted to tell her about a sex dream he’d had. He started off, “If you feel uncomfortable in any way, say stop.” She was nervous and excited at the same time, and also confused because six months ago she had asked him what kind of fantasies he had and he said he didn’t have any. But it turns out he had lied, and he now wanted to tell her about his fantasy of a threesome…

Emily: Why did it take you so long to open up with me?

Will: (laughing nervously) I thought you would think I was some sexual deviant.

Emily: I don’t. I love you. I feel safer with you now that I know what’s in your head, and you’re being genuine and sharing it with me. I think this can really bring us closer than before. If I sent you texts that describe you, me, and another girl in a three-way, would you like that?

Will: Yes, very much. And would it be okay if we talked about specific three-way fantasies when we were having sex? Would you like that too?

Emily: Definitely!

Will: I love you so much.”

Clearly, this aspect of Emily’s Desire need was being met, and you can see how, unlike in Julianne’s situation, Emily was able to meet Will’s openness in a mutual and regulated manner.

The bottom line is that in a healthy, satisfying sexual relationship, both people will want to have sex with one another, both will want to please the other, and both will know and be able to talk about what they want and need.

How can you use the research and the skills to get a more satisfying sex life?

When people are using insight, mutuality, and emotion regulation to get their Desire need met, they are going to be better able to engage in the behaviors that the research shows can lead to sexual satisfaction.


Communication – sexually satisfied people report asking for what they want, having partners who asked for what they want, checking in to see how something felt to the other, praising one another in bed, and sending out “teasers” via phone or email. Mutuality is implicit in this – when you tell your partner what you like, when you ask about their experience, when you let them know you enjoy what they’re doing, you’re showing them you care about their needs and you want theirs and yours to be met. Emotion regulation also is implicit in sexual communication. It can take courage to face the vulnerability of expressing ourselves and to listen and respond to our partners. Could you see yourself talking to your partner about making a weekly date night?  What about sharing your sexual fantasies with them? The latter is probably harder, right? People can be afraid of what partners will think of them and may self-silence. It also takes impulse control and the ability to calm oneself if a situation arises that is disappointing or confusing or sensitive, as can sometimes be the case during sex.

Mood setting – sexually satisfied people report engaging in sexy talk, laughing together about something funny that happened, and, importantly, saying “I love you”. Though the study calls this mood setting, it sounds to us like it’s really about sharing feelings and creating emotional intimacy. It takes emotion regulation to do this well – to be open enough and feel safe enough to express one’s feelings and fully engage in an emotional moment.

Sexual variety, oral sex, orgasm, and sexual frequency – sexually satisfied people are in relationships where they’re engaging in pleasurable activities at a frequency they enjoy. This suggests they really understand and care about meeting their own and their partners’ needs. Hence, insight and mutuality are key here. For these activities to be occurring at the desired frequency, each partner in the relationship must be using their insight about what they and their partner want and like, and they must be willing to both give and receive pleasure, which is the heart of mutuality.

If you can’t tell your partner what you want, if you don’t want to give your partner what he or she wants, if you don’t enjoy the same things or, worse yet, if you don’t enjoy having sex with your partner at all, that’s a sure sign that you’re not in a healthy sexual relationship (in fact, you may not be in a healthy relationship at all). If you find yourself in this situation, this would be an important time to evaluate the state of your sexual relationship to see whether you can use the skills to create the healthy sex life you want.


Davila, J. & Lashman, K. (2016). The Thinking Girl's Guide to the Right Guy: How Knowing Yourself Can Help You Navigate Dating, Hookups, and Love. NY: Guilford Press.

Frederick, D. A., Lever, J., Gillespie, B. J., & Garcia, J. R. (2016). What Keeps Passion Alive? Sexual Satisfaction is Associated with Sexual Communication, Mood Setting, Sexual Variety, Oral Sex, Orgasm, and Sex Frequency in a National U.S. Study. Journal of Sex Research.

Moore, T. “Lasting Couples Are Super Great at Two Things: Talking and Screwing” published February 21, 2016 on

About the Authors

Joanne Davila, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and the Director of Clinical Training at Stony Brook University. She is an expert in the study of romantic relationships.

Kaycee Lashman, EMBA, is an organizational change specialist who focuses on relationship dynamics within companies. She is an avid consumer of relationship science and helps people have healthy relationships.

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