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How to Talk About Sex With Your Partner

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As a reporter who covers sex and intimacy, I spend a lot of time listening to experts extol the virtues of open, honest communication. To have good sex — and to keep having good sex over time — couples must be willing to talk about it, they say.

But some people would rather leave their relationships than have those conversations, said Jeffrey Chernin, a marriage and family therapist and the author of “Achieving Intimacy: How to Have a Loving Relationship That Lasts” — especially if things in the bedroom aren’t going particularly well.

“One of the things I often say to couples who are having trouble is: ‘I wish there was another way through this,’” he said. “But the only way I know to have a better sex life, or to resume your sex life, is to discuss it.”

Dr. Chernin acknowledged how stressful those conversations can be, sometimes deteriorating into finger-pointing, belittling or stonewalling. That said, these suggestions may help.

It’s common for partners to have trouble talking about intimacy and desire. Research suggests that even in long-term relationships, people know only about 60 percent of what their partner likes sexually, and only about 25 percent of what they don’t like.

Cyndi Darnell, a sex and relationships therapist in New York City, said her patients frequently tell her that talking about sex is “awkward” — which is especially true “if you’ve spent months or years avoiding it,” she said.

“We’ve been tricked into believing sex is natural,” she added. “But, if it were easy and natural, people wouldn’t struggle with it as much as they do.”

She mentioned one couple she worked with, both in their 50s, who hadn’t had sex in years. Every time they talked about it, they fought. So they sought outside help to get past their embarrassment and anger.

In therapy, they realized that they had only been focused on penetration, but the husband was really longing for closeness and tenderness. And once the wife realized that her husband was not going to “pounce on her” whenever she cuddled with him, they were able to be more sensual with each other — and to talk about what they like to do and why, Ms. Darnell said. But it took a spirit of willingness, curiosity and acceptance.

It may be possible to temper the dread that often accompanies these conversations, if you approach them sensitively. “When a partner says, ‘We need to talk,’ Dr. Chernin said, “the other person feels like, ‘I’m going to the principal’s office.’”

Instead, try to:

That means saying something like: “On the one hand, I know how difficult this is for us to talk about,” Dr. Chernin said. “On the other hand, I think it’s important for our marriage or for our relationship to be able to have some discussions about our sex life.”

Then ask: “What can we do about it?”

A script offers scaffolding, Ms. Darnell said. She suggested prompts like: “Our relationship is really important to me, and I’d like for sex to be part of it (again). I was curious if that is something you’d be into also?”

Maggie Bennett-Brown, a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and an assistant professor at Texas Tech University, said “it doesn’t have to be explicit.” Maybe you tell your partner that you like it when he hugs you or plans a romantic night on the town.

If it has been a while since you were intimate, it can help to reminisce — and that can segue into a deeper question. “If people have never had a conversation about: ‘What do you enjoy?’ that’s a good first step,” Dr. Bennett-Brown said.

Be careful about initiating a discussion about sex while in bed, Dr. Chernin said, particularly if you are being critical. (Though some couples may find it easier to talk about sex when they are basking in the afterglow, he said.)

“Think about a conversation as a series of discussions,” Dr. Chernin said. “That way, you’re not putting too much pressure on yourself or your partner.”

If your partner is unwilling to talk — or if the conversation feels painful, not just uncomfortable, Ms. Darnell said — a sex therapist or couples counselor may be able to help mediate.

She did not downplay how high-stakes these conversations can be. But she added that sex may not always be a necessary component of a satisfying romantic relationship.

“One of the questions I often ask my couples for whom sex is a tenuous and difficult issue is: Does this relationship have to be sexual?” she said. She worked with one couple in their 30s and 40s who realized they liked engaging in flirty banter, but did not want to move beyond that. “Permission to not have sex at this phase of their relationship was huge — and a relief,” she said.

“Sex is about so much more than just what we do when our pants are off,” she said.



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