As a sex therapist and educator, I am frequently reminded that our society remains seriously ambivalent about sex. The dominant culture of our time is both fascinated by and repelled by sex. We are bombarded with sexual images, videos, lyrics, billboards and entire TV shows such as “Strange Sex”. From this we can determine that sex is great, or sex is weird, or sex is awfully embarrassing, but the messages are contradictory: “Do it (as much as you can)” or “Don’t do it yet” or “Oral sex isn’t sex” or “Vanilla sex is ordinary and boring” or “Kink is better” or “People with kids don’t have sex.”
In this rather confusing context, couples try to figure out, “Am I normal?” or “Are we normal?” “Is s/he oversexed or a sex addict?” or “Why do I feel sexually turned off?” Many couples struggle with differences between them in sexual desire or preferences, or with a quiet, private unhappiness with their intimate life. “Is something wrong with me?” is a frequent question, or “Should we be having more sex?” What I hear often is concern about a norm, some ideal or expectation, that one should perhaps strive to meet. In these two articles I will address some common questions about couple sexuality; so, let’s talk about it.
What is sex? For some, sex includes a special glance or flirty smile, a favorite style of clothing, a special homemade dinner, or a call to the babysitter—all count as part of the sexual scenario and decision-making. For others, sex is less romantic and primarily for physical satisfaction or release. For them, S-E-X is something you do naked and nothing before or after really counts. For some a sexual interlude “once in a while” suffices, and for others it’s a daily need or preoccupation. Given differences in cultural and religious backgrounds, and in the families who raised them, it’s no wonder that couples are often distressed to find out that they don’t see or experience sex in the same way. To understand couples’ sexual dilemmas and decision-making, we must consider variables such as a person’s gender, age, relationship status, orientation, health factors, work pressures, sexual history, ideas about gender roles in sex, and ideas about morality and ethics—not to mention whether there are children who might interfere. With all of these factors creating differences, it makes sense that many people feel confused or anxious about what would be good or right for them, and how to match that with their partner’s needs. They then seek some guidepost or “norm”—what should I be doing and how? How can I get the sex I need or want? And how can I meet my partner’s expectations?
No matter the area of sexual experience which may be causing distress, a first principle to consider is “let’s try to relax and talk about it.” There are lucky people who received a good, positive sex education and were encouraged to get their questions answered and their sexual needs met. There are many people, perhaps less lucky, who learned to be shy, awkward, pained or even just silent about sexual matters. So when a partner raises questions or even outright dissatisfaction, that person may feel frightened or hurt, or become angry at being “put on the spot.” All of these feelings are normal, and learning to talk about the current sexual situation is an important start to dealing with them. However, this may be a stressful experience for one or both partners. For some couples, the attempt to talk through sexual dilemmas or distress comes only after cold silences, heated expressions of frustration, or sarcastic, biting comments have already created a grey cloud of fearful anticipation.
Guidelines for How to Talk about Your Sexual Relationship:
Introduce the subject carefully but directly. This may sound contradictory, but consider these scenarios: Your partner/wife/husband is likely smarting from the last time you turned down a sexual advance. You need to be sensitive re her/his feelings and mood. You therefore carefully choose an opportune time (kids are asleep, or tasks for the day are done) and say directly, “I hope we can talk about our sex life. Is this a good time?” OR You are miffed/puzzled/sad/irritated about a sexual interaction “gone bad.” Just before bedtime you blurt out, “What’s wrong with our sex life?! I know you’re unhappy with me!”
Of course you can predict which conversation is likely to be more successful. In sum, being considerate of your partner’s mood or needs serves you both in the long run. This approach to talking about sex can help you get across your feelings and ideas effectively.
Be clear about your feelings and needs. Sex is too often a mystery both to the self and the partner. It can encompass the biological, emotional, explicitly sexual and spiritual domains at any given moment. I often hear, “I have no idea what’s on her mind, but I don’t think it’s me!” or “He’s out there, thinking whatever or feeling bad, and I never know it until he complains (or gets moody, or snaps at me, or hides at the computer.”) It helps to remember that if you feel “in the dark,” it’s highly possible that s/he feels similarly confused. It can be a huge relief, and even a bit of fun, to make things explicit for both of you. An ill-defined problem will likely find an equally ill-defined solution or none at all.
Use words that convey what you mean. Most partners would like to know what you think, like, don’t like or need. It is common to keep quiet about sexual dissatisfactions, with the aim of not hurting a partners’ feelings. Often I hear from those same persons that they want to know what they are missing! This conversation promotes both emotional and sexual intimacy by clearing the air and drawing a clear picture of how things might improve. And try to have the courage to name body parts! Despite awkwardness you may feel, this is not the time to be vague and mysterious.
Seek couple sex therapy if talking about sex feels overwhelming. There are good reasons why some people feel stymied or even fearful when approaching sexual topics. Poor sex education, negative ideas or stereotypes, rigidly moralistic approaches and painful sexual experiences in the past are often the culprit. Many people have experienced or witnessed sexual victimization; and even peer ridicule regarding the body or early sexual issues can have long-lasting effects. When any of these factors, or others, interfere, don’t hesitate to get professional consultation. Sex may not be the most important aspect of your life, but it is one of those benefits that can help you feel alive, intimate, loved and loving. It can be well worth the effort!
Michele Marsh, PhD is a Senior Staff Therapist and in the Center City, Wyneewood & Bryn Mawr offices. She can be reached at 215-575-9140 ext. 1.