As a couples therapist, I hear a lot about people’s sex lives. I should rephrase that: I hear a lot about people’s less-than-ideal sex lives.I often ask my clients about sex—how much do you have, how fulfilling is it, etc. Answers to “quantity and quality” questions are indicators of a couple’s overall wellbeing. For example, I worry less about a couple that fights intensely but has regular sex (that both people report is still satisfying) than I do about a couple who fights just as often and is not doing much of anything in the bedroom. Relationship satisfaction tracks with sexual satisfaction.
This was the conclusion of an interesting study out of Canada that investigated the sex lives and relationship satisfaction of 244 people over 18 months. Chief among the findings was that “intimate communication” was a key indicator of relationship health; the more of it, the better. Intimate communication is a nebulous term, but it refers, in this case, to the amount of time people said they spent talking about disagreements, expressing thoughts and feelings to each other, and discussing shared interests.Sex counts as a shared interest. And the more you talk about it, the better it’s going to be. The challenge, usually, is how to do it. (Have the talk, that is. The sexual innuendos are inescapable here, just stay focused!)
Dealing With Sexual Mismatches and Incompatibilities All couples have disagreements and disappointments about sex. Sexual mismatches (e.g., “I want sex at night but my husband always wants it in the morning.” or, “I want to do it four times a week; he wants to do it once a month.”) and incompatibilities (e.g., “I am tall—he’s short… the physics are tough.”) exist in almost every relationship. If you have difficulties you need to discuss in the bedroom (or, kitchen, or bathroom, or office, or wherever your sex life unfolds), this does not mean your relationship is doomed. The critical matter here is how you address these issues, and this is where the open and honest communication comes in.Suppose, for example, you want more oral sex. Your man never goes down on you. (This is going to get a little R-rated, but I am trying to make a point: When you talk about sex, you need to talk about sex. You know what I mean?) When he does do it, he makes a big stink or pretends he just won a marathon. Let’s consider two conversations.
Conversation A You: “How come I am the one giving all the oral sex in this relationship? You never go down on me. Why not?” Him: “It’s just not my thing. I am sort of grossed out by it.”You: “You’re grossed out by me?!”Him: “No, not you, just doing that.”You: “Well, I am not a huge fan of blow jobs, but I do it because I know you like it.”Him: “Well, that must be your thing if you don’t mind doing it.”You: “You’re being as ass.”Him: “I am still not going down on you.”You: “Whatever…”How satisfying is that? Not so good, right? From my perspective, the problem with this conversation is that it doesn’t go deep enough.Let’s see what something more productive looks like. We’ll pick up at the end of Conversation A.
MORE: Take the Sexual Satisfaction Quiz
Conversation B Him: “I am still not going down on you.”You [feeling very angry and hurt]: “I think you’re missing the point. I want you to do something for me and you’re telling me I am gross.”Him: “It’s not you, honey, I just don’t like doing that.”You: “Why not? Give me something more than ‘It’s gross.’ I am telling you I want more pleasure and excitement in our sex life and you’re dismissing me.”Him: “I’m not dismissing you, I just don’t like it. It’s got nothing to do with you.”You: “How can it not? It has everything to do with me. I bet you’d even like it if you did it more.”Him: “I seriously doubt that, but I am really not trying to dismiss you. What do you want me to do? I am not going to go down on you more, but I’ll do anything else you want. Seriously.”You: “Stop getting out of bed right after you finish. I want that too. In fact, I want that more.”Him: “That much I can do. I’ll work on the other thing, too, but no promises.”You: “OK, it’s a deal, but don’t call me gross ever again, got it?”Him: “Got it.”In real life, your conversation might sound quite different, and it’s impossible to capture the nuance of what could be a very long discussion in just a few words, but let’s make a few observations. First, in Conversation B, you still don’t get what you want, but you’ve had a good discussion with your partner and you feel satisfied by the outcome.Moreover, you get closer to what you want by expressing your feelings in an honest way and not reacting to what are obviously anger-provoking statements. Instead of throwing your hands up (“Whatever!”), you’ve had the courage to take the conversation to a deeper level—“You’re missing the point… You’re dismissing me… It has everything to do with me.” Making the effort to reach the root of your disappointment can be a relief in and of itself. And it gets you further along the path toward actual resolution.
The Hardest Part In my opinion, the hardest part of a conversation like this—especially about sex—is having the courage to get it rolling, and to express your needs and desires. It’s not easy to say “I want more” or, “Do it like this…” or, “I like it when you do X, but not so much for Y.”When it comes to sex, there are so many things to worry about, but my suggestion is to just be open, honest and sincere. If you ignore something or sweep it under the rug, it’ll pop back out the other side. Muster the courage to get a real conversation started, and remember that your partner is someone you trust, and with whom you can lay your feelings (as well as your body) bare. Take a chance to say the un-say-able. You won’t regret it.