You already know that you should be talking about sex in your relationship. When you’re up late at night, Googling your most intimate and embarrassing challenges, it’s the piece of advice you always see at the end of every article. Your sex drives are wildly mismatched? Talk about it. You’ve been in a dry spell for so long you can’t remember the last time you were intimate? Talk about it. You want your partner to stop doing that thing in the bedroom you secretly hate? You guessed it: talk about it. The idea that we need to talk about the myriad and complex dynamics that crop up in our relationships is nothing new. But the typical “just talk about it” advice often ends there, leaving us with a bigger problem – how do we actually have these kinds of conversations?
I speak from personal experience. As I was training to become a licensed psychotherapist specializing in sex therapy, my husband Xander and I faced orgasm issues, mismatched sex drives, and performance anxiety. Despite my chosen career path, we struggled to talk about our own sex life. The few conversations I did muster up the courage to initiate went terribly, which only served to make the topic of sex feel even more fraught. Through years of trial and error, we finally started to figure it out in our own relationship, and I tested and honed these techniques with my clients. I discovered that it was not only possible to effectively resolve sexual issues through communication, but surprisingly fun to talk about sex.
Xander and I wrote Sex Talks to create a practical and playful, step-by-step guide to talking about sex, all in the service of creating deeper intimacy. Because sex is such a huge topic, we believe there are five crucial Sex Talks every couple needs to have: 1. Acknowledgement (“Sex is a thing, and we have it.”) 2. Connection (“What do we need to feel connected to each other?”) 3. Desire (“What do we each need to get turned on?”) 4. Pleasure (“What do we each need to feel good?”) and 5. Exploration (“What should we try next?”).
Most of us struggle with communication in many areas of our relationship, so of course talking about a particularly vulnerable topic like sex is going to feel even harder. To help these discussions be more productive and less awkward, we came up with the Golden Rules of Sex Talks.
1. Name Your Intentions
People get pretty nervous about communication, especially when it involves sex. Those nerves lead us to rehearse conversations in our head, imagining dozens of horrible scenarios of how they can go wrong. But here’s what you need to remind yourself: you have good intentions and positive goals driving your desire to communicate. Remind yourself of these intentions often, especially before approaching your partner. Take a deep breath and tell yourself, “I’m initiating this conversation because I love my partner and I know we’re capable of a smoking-hot sex life.” Giving yourself this pep talk can soothe your anxiety and help you go into the conversation feeling stronger.
It can also be helpful to set intentions with your partner before starting a conversation. Xander and I start any serious chat by asking each other, “What’s your intention in having this conversation?” That way, even if things wind up feeling weird or uncomfortable, there’s an understanding that you’re working together toward a more intimate relationship. Keep in mind that your intentions don’t need to be complicated. They can be as simple as “We want to have a calm and loving conversation.”
2. See Yourselves as a Team
One of the best things you can do for your relationship is think of you and your partner as teammates, working together against whatever is getting in the way of having the sex life of your wildest dreams. No one partner is the problem. You are two individuals who brought history, complications, and ever-evolving needs to your relationship, and your task is to spread all of it out in front of you and say, “OK, how do we make sense of this together?”
Give your teammate the benefit of the doubt during your Sex Talks. If things start to get heated, it can be easy to feel like your partner is purposefully trying to hurt or upset you. And they’re probably going to be thinking the same thing about you. Challenge yourself to think about the good intentions that your partner has in every situation. (That’s why reminding each other of your intentions right before a conversation can be so powerful.) Ask yourself, “What positive feeling does my partner want from their words or actions—even if they’re going about things in an unskillful manner?”
3. Start Softly
Research has found that the way you start a conversation predicts how it will end. In fact, relationship expert John Gottman is famous for being able to predict the likelihood of a couple’s divorce by observing just the first three minutes of a conflict discussion. The way that you start conversations is that important.
When it comes to having your Sex Talks, make sure the conditions are right. Don’t try to talk to your partner when they’re cooking dinner, when they need to leave in 10 minutes to get to a doctor’s appointment, or when they’re obviously stressed about a looming work deadline. Check in with yourself, too. There’s a helpful acronym that you can use here: HALT. If you feel Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired, take a moment to address those feelings before talking to your partner. Only initiate conversations when you both have the space and energy to properly have them. For instance, I have a bad habit of ambushing Xander with complaints when we’re already swamped, harping on him for leaving all his beard trimmings in the sink as we’re running out the door to take the pugs to the vet. It’s essentially setting him up for failure, since there’s no way he can address or even fully listen to a request, and it leaves both of us feeling combative.
Another way to start softly is to initiate any big conversations by labeling your baggage. Acknowledge the challenges you or your partner have faced or are currently facing when it comes to having a healthy relationship with intimacy. For example, “I know we were both raised Catholic and are still carrying a lot of shame about sex.” This reminds you both that your difficulties aren’t your fault, that there are understandable reasons why you’re struggling, and that you’re a team.
Here’s a trick you can use to soften your delivery. Imagine that you’re talking to a friend instead of your partner. Most of us listen to our friends more closely, and we have lower expectations and more patience for them. We tend to give them the benefit of the doubt, and we don’t get as triggered by what they say or do. Imagine one of your best friends in front of you when you’re talking to your partner, and watch your communication transform.
Here are a few other ways to start softly:
- Keep your tone calm and even.
- Be aware of your facial expressions and body language, and try to convey relaxation.
- If you’re open to it, hold hands or touch while you talk. A little bit of physical contact reminds you of your love for each other.
- Make sure your first few sentences are particularly kind and open.
4. Use “I” Language
You’ve probably heard this one before; it’s an oldie but a goodie. Instead of saying “You did this” or “You did that,” talk about your personal reactions and experiences using “I,” “me,” and “my.” So instead of, “You never want to spend time with me,” you say, “I’ve been feeling lonely lately, and I’ve been wanting to feel more connected to you.” If you’re feeling stuck, here’s an easy framework to use: “I feel X, and I need Y.” Notice how that worked in the prior example—I’m feeling lonely and I need more connection.
Using “I” language cuts defensiveness off at the pass. If you tell your partner, “You did this,” it’s going to feel like an attack, and it’s likely to trigger an argumentative response like “No, I didn’t!” But if you talk about your own experience, it’s less likely to inflame that defensiveness.
This also helps you identify the feelings that are coming up for you. Your feelings are what need tending to when you’re upset, not the actual details of what happened. Here’s a great example: If you say, “You haven’t initiated sex in months,” your partner is going to respond with something like, “Yes, I have! I did three weeks ago.” Then the conversation turns into a debate about exactly how many weeks it’s been since they initiated. “No, it’s been months.” “No, the last time was before Rudy’s birthday party and that was this month.” But what about your feelings about initiation? Are you feeling sad? Lonely? Resentful? All those emotions get lost. And the worst part of it all? You’re never, ever going to agree about the logistics. You’re going to be convinced about your timeline, your partner is going to be convinced about their timeline, and those two things are never going to match up. It’s the feelings that matter, and so using “I” language will help you access that deeper layer.
5. Go Slow
This golden rule has two meanings: go at a slow speed, and tackle things one at a time.
Most of us tend to speed up when we’re nervous or upset. Your partner senses you starting to get more intense, and they get more intense in response. Before you know it, you’re having a conversation at breakneck pace. But going fast creates a lot of problems:
- You’re much more likely to interpret your partner’s words as negative, even if they’re not.
- You’re much less likely to listen fully.
- You’re much less likely to express yourself properly. When you’re going too fast, you end up stumbling over your own thoughts and words.
So, slow down! Sometimes I even tell my clients, “Have a conversation at 50% of your usual speed.” Another practical trick is to make yourself take a deep breath before every sentence you speak. This naturally slows you down and helps you relax.
6. What to Always Do to Never Fight
Just kidding! “Always” and “never” are two of the least helpful words for couples. Let’s just get one thing out of the way first: it’s extremely rare in life for something to always happen or never happen. It’s just not accurate language. Plus, these two little words will immediately put your partner on the defensive and make them feel trapped. If they “always” or “never” do something, then you’re essentially saying they’re incapable of doing anything different.
These words also set the bar pathetically low for improvement. Let’s say you tell your partner, “You never give me compliments.” All your partner needs to do is give you one compliment to prove you wrong. And it will put the two of you right back into that argument about logistics. So, do yourselves a favor and eliminate those two words from your vocabulary.
7. Make Space for New Behaviors
You want your partner to change? Then you need to make the space for them to actually change. Rashida dragged her husband, Anthony, into a couples session because she wanted him to be more aggressive and dominant in the bedroom. “But he’ll never do it,” she said. “He’s too shy.” Anthony was seated right beside her on the sofa, staring intently at his feet. Want to hear the shocker of the century? He didn’t change a thing. Rashida sabotaged any possibility of getting her own wish.
8. Close Your Mouth and Open Your Ears
You know you have to let your partner speak, too, right? Your tasks as a listener are to try your best to understand your partner and to help them feel seen. Kick off your own shoes for a minute, and try to put on your partner’s. Give them your full and undivided attention (no multitasking!). Make eye contact. Turn your body toward theirs.
There’s a little trick that you’ll learn in any Psychology 101 class: active listening. After your partner has finished talking, try to summarize what they just said, in your own words. Start with, “So, what I’m hearing is . . .” or “What that sounded like to me is . . .” Ask them if you’ve correctly captured it. If your partner says, “Not exactly,” ask them to clarify what they meant. This makes it clear to your partner that it’s important to you to truly understand what they’re trying to say, and it will cut off misunderstandings before they snowball into huge fights. This technique will feel super clunky at first, but it’s so worth it.
9. Be Compassionate
We all have our baggage when it comes to sex. If your partner is struggling, try to be empathetic and recognize that they’re dealing with their own internal wounds about sex. The best way to get a derailed conversation back on the tracks is to remind yourselves that you’re both doing the best you can. It will get easier with practice, I promise.
Copyright © 2023 by Vanessa Marin. From the book SEX TALKS: Five Conversations That Will Transform Your Love Life by Vanessa Marin, LMFT and Xander Marin to be published by Simon Element, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.