As a sexuality counselor, a big part of my work is to facilitate a dialogue between couples who have often waited far too long to discuss a sex issue.
These couples have often allowed sex to become the elephant in the room. Maybe it started off with her faking it every once in awhile, but now it's been years since she's had an orgasm with her partner. Or maybe a couple has mismatched libidos, and one partner is humiliated at always being rejected, while the other feels terribly put upon.
Even if we've been married for years, the topic of sex still can make
us blush. As a result, many people find themselves living in silent
desperation - they may be lying next to someone in the same bed, but
they feel like they're a million miles apart.
If only we were more comfortable talking about sex at the outset, we'd be able to nip problems in the bud before they become major issues.
Here's how to get started:
Go on a sexual fact-seeking mission.
"Assume your partner wants information about your preferences, dislikes, and your experience," says sex therapist Marty Klein, author of the new book, "Sexual Intelligence: What We Really Want From Sex, and How to Get It."
"Sharing information should always be a collaborative investigation, not an adversarial one," Klein says. "The goal is not to find out who's wrong, or who's kinky, or who's uptight, but rather to uncover and share information that will enable the two of you to move forward and create more enjoyable experiences together."
Easier said than done. According to marriage therapist John Gottman (who has an entire laboratory in Seattle dedicated to studying interactions between couples), the difference between relationships that succeed and those that fail is the ability to maintain a high ratio of positive to negative interactions. This certainly applies to conversations about sex.
"When talking about your sex life, look for what's good about what your partner does, and make them feel like a superhero when they do anything right, no matter how small and no matter what else they're doing wrong," says sex educator Emily Nagoski, author of the "Good in Bed Guide to Female Orgasms."
Turn foreplay into a chance to talk.
Couples need to get in the habit of sharing fantasies and desires, talking about what works and what doesn't work.
As arousal heightens during foreplay, our inhibitions lower, so it becomes easier to give feedback about how good something feels, or, conversely, how something could feel better.
"If you're giving sexual feedback, first compliment something your partner does well," says sex educator Amy Levine. "Then, let your partner know that you want to try something new and explain how you want to be touched."
Or take the talk out of the bedroom altogether.
"It's best to talk about sex related topics when you're not between the sheets," Levine says. "Instead, have a casual conversation when you're hanging out together. If you're not sure how to start the conversation, you can say you read [blank] in an article, saw something on the news, or read something on the web. Then, share your thoughts and ask what your partner thinks and feels about the topic."
And if face-to-face conversation doesn't work, try side-by-side.
A former female patient of mine once recounted the harrowing experience of trying to talk to her boyfriend about his lovemaking skills: "It was like a scene out of 'Taxi Driver.' He gave me this Robert De Niro 'You talking to me' look, and then pointed his finger in my face."
Anthropologists have long observed that women are "face-to-face" communicators, while men do best "side-by side."
As Dr. Helen Fisher wrote in her remarkable book, "Why We Love," "This response probably stems from men's ancestry. For many millennia men faced their enemies; they sat or walked side by side as they hunted game with their friends."
So it may make sense to have a conversation while taking a walk or a drive, or even while shopping or watching TV.
Or give email a whirl.
If face to face just isn't in the cards, sex educator and co-author of the new book, "Hot Sex," Jamye Waxman suggests even going so far as to set up separate email accounts just to have a conversation about sex, and giving yourselves the opportunity to have a patient thoughtful exchange.
"After a few back and forths, then they set a time to talk about these things together. After they've had time to think about it, how they want to say what they want to say, and all of that. So nothing is rushed and there's plenty of time to really think out what it is a person wants to say."
Finally, know that it's okay to get some assistance.
We all get into relationship binds and ruts, and it's okay to feel like you could use a little professional help. Sometimes even just one or two sessions with a professional can help bring issues out into the clear light of day, so you can go back and make the most of your nights.
If you feel like you could use some professional help, go to www.aasect.org (the website for the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists) and use their therapist locator to find a professional in your area.