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How to Talk to Your Partner about Sex

Much of the art of love lives within our ability to access and expand our capacity for sexual desire and arousal. There is probably no more deeply vulnerable act of sharing our selves than in the capacity of letting go sexually with someone you love. In many ways, our opening to sexual intimacy is a mirror for what we share in our daily relationship. If you don’t feel safe enough to express yourself, or if you are hiding things in your daily life, these emotional dilemmas shape the access to and meaning of how you share yourself intimately.

The process of awakening to our libido is the result of a complex range of experiences that includes everything from our hormonal levels to our cultural and familial history, as well as the quality of our communication and sense of safety within our relationship. The match, or more frequently, the mismatch of two partners’ abilities to awaken their arousal mechanism in response to each other’s sexual needs becomes the foundation for the satisfaction or the frustration in their intimate lives. In many relationships, couples suffer through years of what can become one of the most hurtful and significant battles in the relationship: the initiation question.

On the surface, the idea of initiating sex seems like it should be playful. ‘How about a date tonight?’ or ‘Have any plans around midnight?’ Yet, when the requests come strictly from one partner and are continuously rebuffed by the other partner, the issue quickly loses its fun. The resulting tensions can become a powder keg in the bedroom, reflecting all that remains unsaid. The classic responses like ‘I am not in the mood’ or ‘I am too tired’ create a cycle of matched defensive and offensive reactions that resemble a pre-patterned dance, and spill into all the other areas of relating.

Feeling wanted sexually carries so much emotional baggage that are often imbued with multiple meanings. The weight of the unresolved initiation question starts to feel like an invisible third person at the party. Although there are many sex therapists that believe that the partner who refuses has more power in the relationship, the truth is that there is no winning side: the shame of rejection is really no better than the guilt of turning away. The pain is equal. This is where mismatched desire becomes a tragic scenario that many couples just don’t have enough language to find their way out of, and which often leads to premature leaving in a relationship.

The first thing that helps to stop this cycle is to identify and name it. Find a neutral time to bring up the topic and agree to look at the issue from a distance, almost as though you were talking about people you both knew. This can be difficult to do, especially if the conversation is long overdue. The breakthrough begins when you can both witness the pattern that your intimate life is stuck in. Mutual recognition of a problem has the power to replace anger with peace, because neither person is left to be alone with it. Although recognition doesn’t solve the problem, it does allow you to create a new relationship to it - one of a combined witness and investigator. It creates the space and time to learn to separate your feelings from what is actually happening.

Once you have both been able to see the issue from both sides, you can slowly unpack your feelings and start to see what it means to you and to your partner to besexually desired and to feelsexual desire. It is really important to keep these discussions in the present tense. Don’t be tempted to justify your behavior and feelings from before, because that will remove the possibility of healing in this moment. Keep in mind, by healing the present moment, you automatically heal the past.

The first secret to a healthy sexual relationship is to agree to not say anything mean to each other. It is incredible how often we will say things to our partner that we would never even utter to a friend. These safety agreement can make a huge difference in your self esteem, and that of your partner.  It can also make a huge dent in the conversation about initiating, as so much of the negativity and fear of rejection loses its power as you both began to feel safer and more loved.

Agree to stop keeping score. Whether you are giving or getting the rejection, keeping score only dampens whatever passion and connection exists between you.  Set small goals of having regular weekly physical conversations that need not even be overtly sexual is a way to begin. A physical conversation can remind you of the healing power of touch and allows you to see the many ways that your relationship is sound and worthy.  

As you move back towards intimacy, refocus your attention away from the initiation question by rethinking the concept of sexual pleasure as foreplay. Often times one or both partners may struggle deeply with performance issues in their sexuality. Instead, focus on becoming deliberate about growing your comfort zone in foreplay activities. Remember the teenage make-out sessions when just putting your hand under your partner’s clothing was a total turn-on? Rekindle desire by rediscovering the art of kissing. Explore the sensuous curves of the neck and hip, it will surprise you with new meanings of erogenous.

Putting more energy into developing a healthy curiosity about what touch feels like will short circuit the initiation dilemma. It will translate over time into not only a more passionate sexuality. but will be mirrored in your emotional relationship as well. Giving up the performance pressure and anxiety often associated with the act of sexual intercourse, which is too often played as a race to the orgasmic finish, can actually open you to whole new worlds of pleasure. The truth is that orgasmic potential builds over time and when you stop chasing after it, it can envelop you, even in foreplay.

Every relationship faces the inevitable initiation question and the dilemma of mismatched libido.  By transforming that question into one that allows you to ask for the intimate contact you seek, you create the space to reinvent the question of who wants who or at least take a closer look at the painful ways we miss each other in our daily encounters.  If you are really interested in changing the nature of your relationship, start at the beginning – get really good at foreplay.