The most important part of cultivating a healthy sex life is talking about a healthy sex life. The Gottman Institute’s research shows that only 9% of couples who can’t comfortably talk about sex with each other say that they’re satisfied sexually.
Sexual honesty, says Esther Perel, is about communicating with your partner in an open and mature way to reveal core aspects of yourself through your sexuality. It’s not about commenting on your partner. It’s talking about your own needs, desires, fears and hopes. Sometimes it means sharing secrets, in authentic and caring ways, that have been hidden for your whole life.
Even though emotional transparency is held up as the ideal of modern intimacy, in my work with clients I am frequently astonished at the lack of real sexual communication between partners. There are so many myths about sex that get in our way. Part of my work is explicitly coaching partners about how, why, where and when to talk about sex. Especially talking about their sexual vulnerability.
Talking about sex is hard for most of us
But have you ever tried talking about your sexual preferences, your fears, your hopes? Have you ever told your partner your sexual story? Do you know your sexual story? The story of how you learned about sex, how you became aware of your sexuality, how you experienced the pain and shame, but also the joy and beauty of sex.
It’s tough. These are not easy conversations. And the worst time to attempt this kind of conversation is during sex. Talking about sex requires that you set aside an intimate time and space separate from when you’re engaged in sex. This should be a priority. The Gottmans recommend creating Love Maps of your partner’s sexuality. If you’re not familiar with this concept, start simply. Don’t go directly to questions about technique. Try this question:
“I’ve heard that some partners want sex to feel close, but others only want sex when they already feel close. Does that fit us in any way? Do you think that’s true? Is it true of us? Is that a problem? If so, how can we make that better?”
Sex is not about quantity and numbers
We’ve somehow been conditioned to think about sex in terms of quantity and quality of intercourse. We’ve also been primed to think about quantity and quality of orgasm. This emphasis misses the mark on both counts. Sex isn’t only about the act. It is also and primarily about the connection.
There are times in life when capacity and tolerance for sex fluctuates. The mark of a healthy sex life cannot be measured by a number. This false belief may partly explain why partners with discrepancies in desire levels (the most common sexual complaint), post-partum mothers, men with erectile dysfunction, the depressed, the distracted, the anxious, the unemployed, the ill etc feel so badly about themselves sexually. Even when sex (or orgasm) is impossible, intimacy and connection are critical.
This is where talking about sex comes in handy. But not just that. Hugging, holding hands, snuggling, kissing, making out – these all all foster intimacy. So does conflict management and resolution of conflict. So does growing together. A commitment to intimacy can yield more frequent and more satisfying sex, but even when it doesn’t, intimacy and pleasure ultimately trump intercourse.
The point – in committed relationships – is sharing both the body and the mind on increasingly deep and vulnerable levels. That’s not always fun. And it’s not easy. It’s difficult and risky – yet also courageous. It’s about sharing deeply and respectfully, being very aware that most of us are extremely vulnerable about our sexuality. Sexual intimacy is vulnerability, and intimate vulnerability is a powerful path to personal growth.
Intimate sex isn’t easy. It’s challenging work. Learning how to initiate and refuse sex without hurting your partner is work. Getting to know your own and your partner’s dreams, preferences, and body is work. Overcoming resistance, fear, and shame is work. Improving your technique is work. There are many myths about sex. It is a very damaging myth that sex in a committed relationship should be spontaneous, ever-passionate and that you should know exactly what to do without needing to talk. Sexual unhappiness must follow if these beliefs are present.
Intimate and connected sex is work. It’s harder, messier and riskier. It’s learning to develop sexual intelligence. But it’s much deeper than impersonal, performance-oriented, orgasm-focused sex. And people who are committed to improving their intimate, passionate, romantic, and sexual lives with one another don’t have to settle for disconnected, pressured or bland sex.
If you want help in how to talk about sex and sexuality issues, you may need an experienced relationship counsellor and accredited sex therapist. Call 0421 961 687 or email us to schedule an appointment. International callers should call +61 2 8005 1742.
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Adapted from Zach Brittle https://www.gottman.com/author/zach-brittle-lmhc/