- Good sex doesn't always just happen, it often requires ongoing communication.
- Partners who create lifelong sexual potential, learn to lean into the edges of difficult conversations and confront issues head-on
- If people spoke more honestly about sex, needs and wants for closeness and connection would be better met.
- Think about what you want to create together. Remember that taking risks is key to expanding sexual potential.
Before we discuss how to talk about sex with your partner, let’s highlight why it is so critically important
As a sex therapist and researcher, I can easily say that the number one reason people end up seeking sex therapy is not the loss of desire, differences in sexual styles, problems experiencing orgasms, or erectile dysfunction (all of which are common complaints) but rather the shame and fear that prevent them from openly and honestly addressing their sexual concerns, needs, or wants with their partner.
And given recent findings from research indicating that people across many countries are having less sex than ever, coupled with evidence that we are suffering from more mental health challenges than previously, we might consider that the health-promoting and relationship-lubricating benefits of sex might just be more important now than ever.
And here’s a true confession from a sex therapist-neuroscientist
Due to my work, I spend so much time talking about sex, thinking about sex, and researching sex that I sometimes just plain get tired of the subject.
There was even a time when conducting sex research put a damper on my own sex life. While doing my own fMRI study on what happens in the brain during sexual stimulation and orgasm, I couldn’t stop thinking about what was happening in my brain that seriously hijacked my ability to relax during the experience. Fortunately, that was just a temporary side effect of being so immersed in the daunting process of the dissertation work. But suffice it to say, one of the biggest ways to shut down a good sexual experience is to be thinking distracting thoughts, such as what’s happening (or not) in your brain or body, when you are attempting to enjoy the sensations.
Good sex is rooted in simply being in the sensations, rather than being in your head about what’s happening!
Most of the time, I think I have the best job in the world; helping my clients enhance their capacity for more pleasure and joy, both in and out of the bedroom.
And as I never get tired of saying, pleasure is not a luxury, but a necessity for a well-functioning emotional brain, physical well-being, happy relationships, and a life worth living. This is so critical I wrote a book about it.
And I truly believe that learning how to talk to our partners about sex and pleasure will help some people avoid a visit down the road to a sex therapist.
Good sex doesn't always just happen, it often requires ongoing communication
One of the most pernicious myths about sexuality stems from the mistaken belief that good sex just happens for all couples. That a good sex life should organically and spontaneously bloom in a relationship, and if it doesn’t, something is “wrong”. As I have written, we each have different unique erotic fingerprint types—or sexual styles. After the honeymoon period ends, sometimes these erotic fingerprints are compatible, and sometimes not so much. Talking about what turns us on, how we like to have sex, or even what we mean by “having sex” can help us bridge the differences between different sexual wants and needs in a relationship. And in long-term relationships, the willingness to keep updating our sex lives is key to keeping them alive and vibrant.
Talking about sex can be challenging, get ready to be uncomfortable and let that be okay
Realize that talking about sex with your partner can be anxiety-provoking for both parties. What we know about partners who end up creating lifelong sexual potential is that they learn to lean into the edges of difficult conversations and confront the issues head-on. In fact, I often coach my clients if they are anxious or avoidant about raising an issue to dive right in.
Because of the blend of emotional and physical drivers of sex, any type of sexual experience or activity—even just talking about sex—can stir up all kinds of emotions. One of the most important lessons for good sex (and good relationships, in general) is to learn how to tolerate our feelings, other people’s feelings, and our feelings more fully about other people's feelings.
I can think of so many instances when if people spoke honestly about sex with their partners, things would have gone better—needs and wants for closeness and connection better met, affairs averted, and more fun overall.
Do not try to talk about sex spontaneously, make a date to talk and set a positive intention
Do not try to talk about sex without creating a safe space to do so. You are likely to have a more productive and constructive conversation if you create it with intention. How you frame the desire to discuss sex is key. When you ask to have a sex talk, partners may jump to the conclusion that something is wrong, which is the “problem frame”. Even if you think there is an issue in your sex life that distressed you, think about how to enroll your partner in seeing this kind of conversation as both scintillating and empowering (making a shift to the “outcome frame”—what would you like and how can we create it together?). Ask for a date and time that works for both of you to talk. Think about waiting to have the conversation as a kind of “foreplay. This gives both parties a chance to think about what they have to say. And think about what you want! You can even suggest you read about ways couples can explore their sexual potential as preparation for the meeting.
Steps for creating and nurturing a constructive sex talk
Set a date and time to talk when you’re both likely to be relaxed and receptive. Don’t attempt this after a long stressful day. And before you even begin, check in with your partner that they’re in the right headspace for the talk. If your partner shows any sign of distress or resistance to having the conversation at that time, don’t panic or jump to negative conclusions, just team up to make another date to talk.
If the partner is good to go, make sure you will have a quiet, private space with and with no interruptions.
Set up a safe space for “thinking out loud”
Ask your partner what they need or want to make this conversation feel like a safe space to explore. The best kind of soulful communication happens when we feel safe and free to speak our thoughts, dreams, fears, and fantasies without repercussions. Think of it as an “off the record” conversation. Establish that what goes on in the conversation "stays in Vegas". This is what partners who create lifelong sexual potential do: they penetrate their own and each other’s minds such that they can explore and experiment together.
Start by reassuring your partner that you’re keen to create even more fun for both of you
Thank your partner for being willing to listen. And reassure your partner that you are excited about hearing what they have to say as well.
Think about what you want to create together. Remember that taking risks to let your partner know what you want (or don’t want) is key to expanding the capacity for pleasure.
And if you don’t know exactly what you want when it comes to sex or changing things up in the bedroom be honest and curious. I like to suggest that we expand what we mean by sex to be adult fun—with or without including genitals, friction, or orgasms. Think about enrolling yourself and your partner in the idea that our sex lives can be like a playground for grown-ups—with many different options to pursue partnered exploration.
Take turns speaking, and when it's your turn to listen, try to keep an open mind, avoid judging yourself or your partner, and let feelings of shame or embarrassment be felt and shared.
Lock it down by asking "what I hear you saying is__ (repeat your partner's request) __is that correct?" Ask for details for extra clarity. It will make your partner feel well heard and well-received.
Make a date for further conversations
Once you create a safe space and quality connection the conversation can go deeper and become a regular part of your interaction with your partner. Go for it!
This is so endemic that the podcast ShamelessSex and I co-created an entire episode devoted to “How to talk to your partner about S-E-X.”
Wise, N. J., Frangos, E., & Komisaruk, B. R. (2017). Brain activity unique to orgasm in women: An fMRI analysis. The journal of sexual medicine, 14(11), 1380-1391.
Wise, N. (2020). Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-filled Life. Houghton Mifflin.