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In a good relationship, you don't have to talk about sex, right? Sex, after all, is what you do -- and do, and do -- instead of talking. Isn't it? That may be true in the movies, but in real life -- and in a strong relationship -- talking about sex is essential. "Many people view sexuality as innate and biological, as if it should just happen, like breathing. But sex is a learned behavior that carries many complications, even false assumptions -- and if we don't air them, we won't keep learning," says Philadelphia psychologist Ann Rosen Spector, Ph.D.
Sweeping sexual issues under the rug can even do unnecessary damage. "If difficulties aren't discussed, one -- or both -- of the partners will pull away, making things worse," says Carolyn Bushong, L.P.C, a Boulder, Colorado psychologist and author of Bring Back the Man You Fell in Love With (Adams Media Corporation, 2003).
The problem: Even many of us most gifted with gab clam up when it comes to sex. Why? Because our sex drive, our sense of desire, and our sense of desirability are linked directly to our self-image and self-worth. Doubts and troubles in that area are scary enough to feel in private -- and scarier to share, even with someone we love. And love, by the way, makes things even harder: If you have complaints about your partner, he's probably someone you'd hate to risk hurting.
That's why it's essential to frame your concerns in terms of your wants and needs, not his faults and foibles. "There's a difference between attacking and making a request, between saying 'How come you never...' versus 'I'd love it if you would...,'" says New York City psychologist Sharyn Wolf, C.S.W., author of How to Stay Lovers for Life (Dutton, 1997). "Think and speak not about getting less of what you don't like, but about getting more of what you love."
Should you two need to talk, here are some conversation starters, built around some common sexual issues:
The situation: You don't like his kissing style. Say: "Oooh, I love it when you kiss me like this." Why this works: Some say locking lips is the most intimate of acts. "Kissing is about empathy -- tuning into your partner and sensing his or her responses," says Wolf. "If you kiss him your way, and say, 'That kind of kiss makes me hot -- I want more of that,' he'll respond to the positive feedback because he'll get how good it makes you feel."
The situation: He wants you to do things in bed that you're not comfortable with. Say: "I'm not sure that's my style, but I'm willing to see how it goes..." Why this works: Handcuffs, feathers, elaborate lace contraptions...the unfamiliar doesn't have to be uncomfortable. "Allow for the possibility of enjoying things you don't know about now -- you might find his excitement contagious," says Wolf. "But agree in advance on a 'stop' signal you can use at any moment. Knowing you can say 'no' makes it easier to say 'yes.'" A caveat: If there's something you're sure you never want to do -- say, a threesome -- don't put him off with "Not now..." Instead say "I love you, but no." Says Bushong, "If he keeps asking, and you give in, you will wind up resenting him."
The situation: You crave more cuddling after sex. Say: "I love having sex with you, but you don't seem to like cuddling afterwards as much as I do. I'm curious as to why." Why this works: Timing is important. Don't say this at that loaded moment when you're lying in bed, fuming, facing his back. Rather, says Dr. Spector, asking simple, inquisitive questions at neutral moments is the only way to get answers you can actually work with. "Maybe he just needs five minutes on his own after sex -- but is willing to snuggle more when you're just watching TV," she says. Try to reach a compromise you both feel comfortable with.
The situation: You're shy about sharing your fantasies with him. Say: "Let's each make a list of 10 things we fantasize about and see what we have in common." Why this works: Pooling your raunchiest resources is a great way to help yourself feel less self-conscious. "Nothing is weird if two people like it," says Wolf. And rest assured, he'll be happy to hear anything that comes after, "I want to have a chance to explore new things with you in a way that I never have with anyone else...."
The situation: You're not as hot for him as you used to be. Say: "Let's get all dolled up and go on a date." Why this works: It's not unusual for passions to cool a bit -- especially if you've been together a while, or he (or you!) doesn't make it to the gym as often as he used to. To get your juices flowing again, suggest a date night -- even weekly, if you can swing it. The anticipation of your date coupled with some extra effort to dress up should help your sexual interest increase.
The situation: He's having trouble maintaining an erection. Say: "Is there something that would really turn you on that we haven't tried yet?" Why this works: That's one way of gently opening a conversation you must have -- out of bed -- or one off-night may multiply into many. "His worrying that you're silently judging him will only add to his performance anxiety," says Dr. Spector. Opening the lines of communication is an essential first step toward a solution -- say, a visit to a physician, or Viagra -- and it may even do the trick all by itself. If talking about it doesn't work, you might gently encourage him to schedule an appointment with his doctor for additional assistance.
The situation: You're bored with your sexual routine. Say: "I've got an idea...!" Why this works: "Women still expect to act more like the gatekeeper, but men say that they want someone to initiate, that they want to be made love to, too," says Dr. Spector. Saying "I'm bored" or "We never ..." is not sexy; saying "Hey, what can we do to be more playful and adventurous?" is. Even sexier: going ahead and buying him the silk boxers, lighting the candles, running the bath, or making the weekend getaway plans.
The situation: You want to tell him how to bring you to orgasm. Say: "Mmmmm....!" Why this works: Instead of sounding like a drill sergeant ("Left! Right!"), show him. Says Wolf: "Move his hand to where you want it -- or start touching yourself, smile your sexiest smile, and say, 'Here, watch.'" He'll be speechless.