If only it were as easy as donning black lycra and dancing around to the classic 1990's Salt n Pepa song. There are so many reasons why good communication is paramount to a good relationship, yet communicating effectively around sex and intimacy often feels stilted or difficult, even in a long-term relationship. In a study released earlier this year in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, researchers found 30% of women report pain during vaginal sex yet "sizable proportions of Americans never even tell their partner when they're in pain."
Dr. Debby Herbenick from Indiana University was one of the sex researchers who compiled the study. She said it is this lack of communication which prevents partners from changing the situation, “which of course leaves one's partner unable to help, to switch positions, to add lubricant, or to avoid that position or kind of thrusting or whatever else in the future."
If we can't even discuss pain during sex with our partner, what else aren't we saying?
Here are some ways women can open up to discuss desire, sex and intimacy in their relationships.
- Clear the space
Over time, resentments can start to take up more and more room in a relationship - to the point where you cannot discuss what you need to because of everything that is in the way. It might seem counter-intuitive, but ask your partner what is bothering them about the relationship - the relationship, mind you, not you. This is not an opportunity for finger pointing, rather an exercise in clearing the space so you can discuss what really needs to be discussed.
- Ask the right questions
Too often, we assume we know what our partner is thinking. Diana, 51, thought her partner was constantly angry and resentful they weren't having sex more regularly. They have two teenage children and demanding jobs - and their sex life had waned. When her therapist suggested she ask Max what would make him feel more loved, Diana knew he would say "more sex" - so she was surprised when he shared that he felt she never saw him anymore. All he asked for was a kiss in the morning and a hug when they got home from work. Additionally, Diana was feeling like all the child-rearing decisions were falling to her, but in their conversation, she learned Max thought she wanted everything done her way, so he was trying to step back to allow her to have that happen. By asking him what would make him feel more loved, Diana was able to get into Max's world and understand what was in the way for him. Those small moves helped them create more intimacy in their relationship on a daily basis.
- Create your own "normal"
According to a 1994 University of Chicago study, "The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States," almost 80% of married couples have sex a few times a month or more. 32% reported having sex two to three times per week while 47% reported having sex a few times per month. What do you and your partner consider normal? What would you like ideally? Just talking about numbers can take the emotion out of the discussion - and give you something to work towards together.
- Make time
How often have you tried to have a meaningful conversation and your partner has had to rush off? Or you are interrupted by a phone call? Or the kids yell for something? Intentionally setting aside time to connect and talk creates a committed conversation space with no excuses. Just 15 minutes can open up a new level of conversation - and help you both see what you have been missing.
- An exercise in listening
When we think about communication, we often think about talking. However, the other component of conversation is just as, if not more, important. Try this exercise in uninterrupted listening: set a timer for five minutes and for the entire time, listen to what your partner has to say. Don't give any advice or feedback - you are there to purely listen. Notice what it is to be completely present to what they have to say. Once the timer has sounded, it is your turn to be heard, uninterrupted.
- Love Notes
When Francis and David were first dating, she would leave little notes on his pillow saying what she loved about the night before. But after 30 years of marriage and four kids, those sorts of romantic gestures had fallen by the wayside. "I started to write little notes saying I loved how he held me or read from his book to me. Sometimes I would write about what I wanted him to do to me in bed like we used to! It made us feel like we were back in college again."If you feel shy about writing what you want in your own words, maybe earmark a few pages in a copy of the ancient Hindu bible on sex, the Kama Sutra with some things you would like to try or a book of erotic stories (we like Anais Nin's Little Birds). Maybe just leave a copy of a poem that touched you. Help your partner understand what desire is like for you now.
Having a third party discuss your relationship with you can feel strange - but it might just be the outside perspective you need. Having your needs and fantasies aired in a neutral environment means being able to take a more detached perspective - and sometimes it can be easier to hear what your partner is saying when it comes out of someone else's mouth. The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists or the Society for Sex Therapy and Research are both great resources.
Playing games together is a non-confrontational way to help you share information. Perhaps you remember playing "Red Light, Green Light" as a child? This is the touching equivalent of that game. One partner lays down comfortably, fully clothed. The other starts to touch them, in a non-sexual way. As the "toucher" makes each motion, the "touchee" lets them know, "Yes, No, or More." It is a great way to discover erogenous zones you may have been missing, and by making it a game, creates a safety in communicating what you may not have been able to say in a different setting.
- Lighten Up
Think back to the early days in your relationship, before the kids and responsibilities came along. What did you enjoy doing together and what attracted you to each other? Block time to do some of those things: leave the kids with the grandparents and just go out and dance, enjoy a quiet dinner or a movie, and rekindle some of that deep connection. Tell your partner what you love about him or her and talk about some of your favorite, shared experiences. Let the evening unfold and the connection build, and if and when the moment is right, talk about what you would love more of and how you can do it together. Don't try to address everything in one night. Schedule regular dates and use most of it to just have fun and rediscover each other.
- Commitment to the journey together
Realize that the discussion may take more than one conversation for you both to get on the same page. Maybe you need to trade articles and literature to understand where you are both coming from. Maybe it is the regular planning of a quiet, uninterrupted hour together once a week. Once you start to open the conversation, don't let it close.
In her many years of research, psychotherapist and author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, Esther Perel has found couples who connect sexually long term have some things in common. "Erotic couples understand that passion waxes and wanes but they know how to bring it back because they have demystified one big myth, which is the myth of spontaneity, which is that it's just going to fall from heaven while you're folding the laundry like a deus ex machina," she says. Perel says responsibility and desire butt heads, so it is paramount that you create space separate from your job to discuss sex with your partner. "Committed sex is premeditated sex. It's willful. It's intentional. It's focus and presence."
So get talking.