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.