We all know we’re supposed to communicate if we want a healthy and satisfying sex life with a partner, and that talking about what you both want is the key to getting it. But we all grew up with different levels of comfort with our own sexuality and sharing it with others – talking about our own sexual desires, in particular, can feel terrifying for some people who grew up with shame or discomfort around their own sexuality, or in homes where any discussion of sexuality at all was taboo. Here’s how to start navigating talking about sex with a partner when you have different levels of comfort with the topic.
Identify What Makes Discussions Most Comfortable For You
Lots of couples use specific strategies for discussions that might be emotionally charged or heated; sex as a sensitive topic is no different. Think about what sets you up for success when it comes to good communication – is it talking face to face so you can see the other person’s nonverbal communication? Or communicating in writing so you can think carefully about what you want to say?
Similarly, you can talk with your partner about what would make them feel most confident going into sensitive discussions, especially if they’re someone with a lower level of comfort than you when it comes to talking about sex. Would they feel reassured knowing that they could end a conversation at any time if they get uncomfortable, no questions asked? Or using (or avoiding) specific language or names of body parts?
Many people recommend talking about sex in a different setting than sex itself – for good reason. Maybe you’ve had the experience of settling into bed immediately after sex that you thought was great only to have your partner say “you know, I wish you would do X more often.” It’s easy to feel vulnerable and sensitive in that context, even when you know you do in fact want to hear your partner’s feedback. Save discussions of your sex life for a neutral, calm setting outside the bedroom, at a time when you and your partner are feeling stable and connected.
Commit to Mutual Vulnerability
One difficulty in situations where there’s a differential in how experienced or comfortable someone is with sex is that there are often two layers of discomfort: you might feel embarrassed or self-conscious talking about sex, and then you also feel embarrassed or ashamed of feeling that way in the first place.
If this describes you or a partner, it’s helpful to commit to understanding this as a shared dialogue that’s vulnerable for both of you. Although people may have different levels of experience with sex as a whole, you both have the same amount of (in)experience when it comes to sex with each other, and everyone has insecurities, fears, or points of confusion to unpack.
It’s helpful if everyone involved can be upfront about the things they’re working through or questions they have (in a way that isn’t blaming or pointing fingers) to stay on track with the fact that communicating about your sex life (and making it easy for the other person to share too) is a collaborative process, not something just one of you ever needs to work on.
Stay Concrete Rather Than Open-Ended
When it comes to communicating about sex and relationships, we’re often advised to ask questions like “what do you like?” or “what do you want?” These are key things to know, but can also be really challenging questions to answer fluidly in the moment – kind of like being asked “why should we hire you?” in a job interview. If you have any discomfort or self-consciousness around sex, trying to spell out your desires — or admitting that you aren’t sure about them — can be excruciating.
Instead of posing high-stakes open-ended questions, see what it feels like to offer options — almost like an optometrist asking if 1 or 2 is clearer. “Is role-playing or having a hotel room affair a hotter fantasy to you?” “If I want to initiate sex, would you rather I ask out loud or try kissing you?” It can help things feel less like a quiz or interview if you can offer up how you feel as well – “I know I usually like to cuddle right after sex because it makes me feel closer to you. Do you like cuddling and talking after, or would you rather have a glass of water and rest for a minute?”
This technique can be especially useful when trying to communicate during sex itself, which can be a time when emotions are running high and it can feel like direct communication might break the mood or ruin the moment. Instead of asking “do you like that?” which can feel like it’s impossible to say no to, you can try asking “do you want me to keep doing this, or do X instead?” Or even something like “Do you want this softer, harder, or to switch to something else?”
Focus on Security and Unconditional Acceptance
Sex can be a more difficult topic to talk openly about than others for a lot of reasons, but having an overall baseline of comfort and security in discussing personal topics can help make it as approachable as possible.
Think about how your communication works overall in the relationship – do you regularly discuss your likes and dislikes, or why you feel the way you do about things? Are you both comfortable sharing (and hearing) a strong preference? Does your relationship allow for saying things like “actually, I don’t think I feel up to cooking tonight, can we change plans?” or “I think I want to change careers”? Working to make sure you both feel free to share anything with each other without fear of backlash or judgment will go a long way in making your communication about sex healthy as well — and empowering you both to step out of your sexual comfort zone.