Let's Talk About Sex

couple in bed learning how to talk about sex with your partner
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How To Talk About Sex With Your Partner

It's a conversation you can't afford to avoid.

You talk with your partner about almost everything. You ask how their day was, their plans for the weekend, and even what they want to eat for dinner. But a topic that you might not be touching upon is sex. “Surprisingly, sex is a topic that many individuals find difficult to discuss with their partners,” Christina Runnels, MA, LPC-S, LCDC, PMH-C, a licensed professional counselor-supervisor explains to Romper. “However, talking about sex, your sexual experiences and desires is essential in any intimate partner relationship.” If you’re struggling to talk about sex with your partner, here's how to make an awkward conversation pretty pleasurable.

Why is it important to talk to your partner about sex?

Of all the things that can be discussed in a relationship (from finances to children, career and in-laws), sex ranks right up at the tippy top. As important as it is, though, it’s not something that you should ever assume that you’re on the same page about, unless you’re actively talking about it, Dr David Helfand, PsyD, a licensed psychologist says. “Most people want their partner to read their mind about turn ons and turn offs,” he says. “This usually leads to disappointment because we then feel sexually unfilled when they can’t perform in the ways that we want.”

Although sex is such a pivotal part of any relationship, people are sometimes afraid (or more likely, embarrassed) to express their true wants and desires. But if you thought that your partner knows that you prefer a certain position (or that wearing your “good” undies means you’re ready for a rowdy romp in bed), think again. “Open communication promotes closeness in relationship,” explains Tracy Taris, MA, LMFT, a licensed marriage and relationship expert and author of Many Voices ONE TRUTH. “We won't know our partner’s history, needs, and wants unless we ask them about it because our partner may not know, on a conscious level, what their needs are unless prompted by conversation.” By having clear communication, you’ll be on the best path towards a more fulfilling sex life.

And as it turns out, by talking about sex, your sex life can improve. “Talking about sex comfortably really helps sex be more comfortable and easier, and because talking about sex is still taboo for many, it can feel great not to be constrained that way,” Carol Queen, PhD, a sexologist explains. “This way, you can be real with your partner, which is a plus for intimacy and for the ability to explore and enjoy sex with comfort and pleasure.”

Tips for how to approach talking to your partner about sex

If the subject of sex is still somewhat taboo to you, then you might need some guidance to get the conversation going. Thing is, you don’t want to do a deep dive on your first chat. “I often recommend that people start with meta-communication, which simply means to talk about the topic more generally. For example, ‘I’ve been fantasizing about adding some spice to our sex life, but I often feel embarrassed to ask for what I really want,’” advises Helfand. “I have seen many couples start the conversation in this manner and then their partner says, ‘OMG! Me too!’ They are starting to emotionally bond before they even discuss the content of what they are requesting.”

You can also set aside some specific time to speak with your partner about your romantic relationship. “Whether the topic is sex or any other important aspect of the relationship, I recommend that couples make an appointment with each other,” suggests Taris. “With time set aside, you’ll have less chance of being distracted or engaging in distracting activities like half-listening or scrolling through your phone because you have purposefully set aside this time for this particular reason.”

But if you’re still a little shaky on the sex convo, see if you can speak about it in more abstract terms. “If you can already talk about sex in the news, sex in the movies, or among the rich and famous, you have begun to get more comfortable talking about sex and this might help you pivot to a more personal focus,” says Queen. “This is all harder if you have been raised in a shame-filled environment where silence was enforced, so break out of that shell in any direction you can.” By approaching your partner with sex-related stories that are not specific to your relationship, it can serve as a segue to speaking about your own needs.

When & where to talk about sex with your partner

Sure, you want to address some issues in your sex life, but you shouldn’t do it during the morning school drop-off, either. While location and timing definitely matter, it’s really up to each couple, Lily Thrope, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker explains to Romper. “Everyone has different safe spaces and times in their week that work for deep conversations,” she says. “For some people, it will be snuggling in bed, for some people it could be on a walk, and for some it could be over the weekend morning coffee.” The key, though, is to find a time to discuss things when you’re both relaxed and present — and not rushing off to do something else or distracted by other things.

For parents, you’ll want to avoid having this conversation in front of (or within earshot of) your child. “It’s best to talk about sex away from children to ensure everyone can speak openly and freely,” advises Runnels. Avoid the awkwardness and do it when your kids are at school, in bed, or out of the house.

Just as important as the location of your conversation is how long it should be. Rule of thumb: it should be short and sweet, not a long soliloquy. “If you are new to this process, start the discussion somewhere private and keep it short,” says Helfand. “10 to 15 minutes is usually enough time to have a fruitful conversation while avoiding too much discomfort.”

Locations and length of time aside, the one place you probably don’t want to bring up a canoodling conundrum is when you’re in the middle of doing it. “Don’t have the conversation in the middle of sex, unless there's an emergency or you've gotten super-comfortable talking about it,” says Queen. And above all, try to read the room: if you’re both in a tense moment, that’s probably not the right time to talk about sex, since it can be harder to access inner feelings, according to Thrope. “If your partner is avoiding the conversation and feels uncomfortable, you can ask when would be a good time and what can make them feel more comfortable discussing,” she says.

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What are some important talking points?

If you’re planning to talk about your sex life with your sweetie, you might need a game plan to get the conversation started. Thrope offers these questions to get both of you talking about this touchy-feely topic:

  • What are your hopes and desires for sex in our relationship?
  • How do you feel about our current sexual relationship?
  • Is there something that I can be doing to make you feel safer and more comfortable?
  • Do you want to share any past experiences with me?
  • Would you want to seek professional help for our sexual relationship with a couple’s counselor or individual therapy?

Now, if there’s a history of trauma, it can dramatically change the landscape of your conversation to something much more serious. While it might be tough to talk about, it will take courage (and transparency) to help both you and your partner understand each other’s needs on a deeper level. “Openly share any sexual history that your partner should know about, such as any previous bad sexual experiences or traumas that make it difficult for you to feel comfortable in your sexuality,” advises Runnels.

And if it’s your partner who is dealing with issues of past trauma and/or abuse, you’ll need to offer a kind ear that will hopefully lead towards sexual fulfillment… and healing. “If someone has a history of trauma, their partner will need to do more listening than speaking,” says Helfand. “Learn active listening techniques such as mirroring to help expand the conversation and keep your partner exploring their sexual desires because in most cases, these partners need to feel more in control and safe during sex.” Once you can both figure out what that looks like, you can work to create that experience together. And if trauma is impacting your relationship to the point where one or both of you find it difficult to navigate a discussion, Taris advises reaching out for professional help.

How can you talk to your partner about sex during pregnancy & postpartum?

Both pregnancy and postpartum can do a one-two punch to your sex drive. Blame it on hormones and physical and mental transformations as you prepare for baby’s birth — you might find that your sex drive skyrockets — or crashes and burns. But no matter which way it goes, having a connection to your partner can help during the journey. “Pregnancy and postpartum are difficult times for many couples’ sex lives,” agrees Thrope. “Open communication is huge during this time to understand and respect your partner's needs.”

If talking about sex during pregnancy and postpartum leaves you tongue-tied, you can always defer to your doctor for help. “Get your OB-GYN to tell you as much as possible about what's going on in terms of how you’re feeling,” says Queen. “Your doctor might have explanatory language in medical terminology that you can use when talking to your partner about it.” Then, when speaking with your partner, you can go over what the doctor said as an entry point into the real conversation about sex, desire, and arousal needs during the pregnancy and postpartum period — for both of you.

Just because you’re in a relationship doesn’t mean that you automatically know how to talk about sex with your partner. But avoiding this all-too-important conversation can leave you feeling disconnected and unsatisfied. So make the effort to engage with your partner and you’ll both reap the rewards.

Experts interviewed:

Christina Runnels, MA, LPC-S, LCDC, PMH-C, a licensed professional counselor-supervisor

Tracy Taris, MA, LMFT, a licensed marriage and relationship expert and author of Many Voices ONE TRUTH

Carol Queen, PhD, a sexologist

Lily Thrope, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker

Dr David Helfand, PsyD, a licensed psychologist