Maintaining a positive and pleasurable sex life within our long-term relationships is far more challenging than we are led to believe. Culture and media portrayals misinform us and encourage us to expect an easy, passionate, and “natural” sexual landscape for our partnership.
Unfortunately, this just isn’t true.
Good, lively, passionate, sex lives for long-term committed couples is anything but easy and natural.
As a sex therapist, it’s amazing how many couples come to my office (knowing that I specialize in sexual health) and don’t mention their dissatisfaction surrounding sex in their relationship when we discuss their initial goals for our work together.
Having helpful and honest conversations about sex, just like having good sex, is not so easy and straightforward.
Here’s what their narrative tends to look like when they get in my office:
- “We are fighting a lot more lately and just don’t seem to be on the same page. I don’t feel like my partner is on my team” – says both partners.
- “Oh and I wish we had more sex” – says one partner.
- “Yeah, well I wish we had better sex” – says the other partner.
Sadly, most couples don’t get this far into the conversation very often to discover they actually have the same goals.
It’s amazing how often couples come to me thinking there is a frequency problem between them – one wants more sex and the other doesn’t.
Here’s what I tell them:
We want sex that is worth wanting.
Plain and simple. This isn’t about quantity, it’s about quality.
STARTING THE CONVERSATION
You and your partner have decided to go to couples counseling. You both know there is disagreement about your sex life but neither of you mention it during your first session and your therapist doesn’t ask – although every therapist should.
Instead, you talk about how your fights have been getting more frequent or more angry. You have a hard time getting over them and you don’t feel like you’re laughing together as much as you used to. It feels like you’re never on the same team and your partner is always cutting you down with jabbing remarks and passive aggressive comments.
Oh, and they want to have more sex.
They could go for sex a few times a week. You don’t care to have more sex, even though you are aware that it’s already been three weeks since last time.
You know they are hoping that through the counseling process, you’ll start to want it more.
They want the therapist to help convert you.
So you brace yourself and take a deep breath whenever you hear them complain about “having more time together” or “cuddling” because you know what they really mean.
When sex finally gets brought up in a counseling session, you listen to them complain again about how neglected, forgotten, unimportant, disappointed, and resentful they feel.
They say they just don’t understand you. Of course they would never make comparisons, but their friend’s partner goes crazy for sex and they’ve been together the same amount of time! They say it just doesn’t make sense.
You don’t feel empathic towards them. Their cries of hurt don’t motivate you to validate their feelings or acknowledge how difficult it would be for them.
Their attempts at “converting” and convincing you make you feel empty and removed. Maybe you wish you wanted more sex and maybe you don’t.
Either way, you think there’s probably something wrong with you. Right? After all, your partner and their friend’s partner and those people on Instagram and in the movies all seem to want more sex. So what’s wrong with you?
When the therapist asks if you talk about sex together, you both say:
“All the time! Too often.“
But even while this feels true (your partner mentioned it twice this week already), it also feels so far from true at the same time.
Your therapist asks what you talk about during those conversations and you both say:
“That we aren’t having it.”
And if I’m your therapist, that’s when I smile, lean in, and say:
“That isn’t talking.”
HOW TO TALK ABOUT SEX
Usually when I say this, couples are confused and then relieved. Their bodies relax and sometimes they even laugh.
Thinking they’ve been talking about sex for years and haven’t gotten anywhere is extremely defeating.
Knowing they haven’t even started talking about sex yet creates a new sense of hope and optimism.
To talk about sex, one needs to keep a few things in mind:
- It requires great bravery to disclose one’s deepest feelings in relation to sex, especially to a loved one
- Vulnerabilities are high and criticism and corrections feel extra hurtful, as if they erode at our sense of self
- Sex does not function within the partnership as other languages of love might – we cannot trade it, pressure it, or expect it
- Much of sexuality is blanketed in a layer of shame and privacy, taught through our childhood, confirmed in our adolescence, and conflated by our religious and cultural institutions (To read more later about our widely believed myths about sex, read this article I wrote.)
But due to its vulnerable nature, sex often requires a preamble. There are other things that we need to discuss first.
It’s not necessarily the topic of sex itself that has to wait. It isn’t always related (or ever entirely unrelated) to other topics.
It’s just that we need to establish safety through other topics in order to have safety to talk about sex.
So that’s when we talk about talking.
I help couples engage in conversations about the laundry, road rage, overscheduling the weekends, and which side of the driveway the trash bin goes on. We discuss these topics and practice skills that they’ll need in order to talk about sex. We practice:
We play around with slowing down the conversation to allow room for more of these and less of the typical way their arguments fly.
Practicing these skills with our partner creates reassurance and security to be able to step into a much more heavy and terrifying conversation than one of trash bins and careless drivers.
If the partner experiencing less desire is a woman, this gets even more necessary. Research tells us that the strongest factor related to women’s low sexual desire is the presence or absence of close feelings for their partner.
Closeness creates intimacy. Intimacy is sex. We need closeness, better communication, more safety, and more talking before we can get to more, better sex.
WHY WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT SEX
You are a few sessions in and at least for one hour a week, you are able to actually hear each other. You are dialoguing.
Your therapist tells you to be patient – these skills will become more commonplace at home, as well. You trust that to be true because you have been noticing some small changes already and you’re hoping they last.
But today, you’re going to continue practicing talking in the office and you’re surprised, but not surprised, when the topic turns into sex.
You know things are going better between you two in your relationship. Even though you don’t feel like you’re succeeding at practicing your improved communication skills at home very often, you’ve noticed your fights are less often and less extreme.
But even with having learned to trust your therapist, you aren’t sure what the point is in discussing sex. After all, you just don’t have the desire. What could possibly change?
We want sex that is worth wanting.
And how do we get to good sex? We talk about it!
You know it sounds logical because that’s how it works in other areas of life, too.
If you want your partner to remember to grab milk at the store, you tell them. You might even write it down or remind them just before they leave the house. And not just any milk, you’ll say.
Then you’ll give them even more information, more guidance: I want the whole milk with the picture of the cow on the front. I think it’s organic.
If you aren’t talking about what milk you want, your partner is probably getting you the wrong kind.
And if you don’t talk about what sex you want, you’re probably getting the wrong kind of that, too.
These things don’t just come easy.
HOW TO SAY YOU NEED DIFFERENT SEX
When my clients first start talking about sex, they often have no idea what to say. They talk about frequency and orgasm. In recounting to me, they skip over all the important parts.
They skip the foreplay just like they do in real life.
But here’s the thing:
We want sex that is worth wanting.
Sex, defined narrowly as penetration and orgasm, is hardly worth wanting. That isn’t what we signed up for when, in early courtship, we couldn’t get enough of each other. Back then sex was full of anticipation and nervousness and excitement. It was passionate and full of lust.
Every part of courtship was foreplay. The phone calls and texts. The way their car pulled up to the curb and how they smiled at you when they picked up the check.
You wanted sex back then. You wanted the romance and the passion. You wanted to feel alive and cared for.
But over the years, sex lost its glow. Romance faded away. Routine set in and all of it seemed to take on a dullness.
Now here you are in another counseling session and you discover that your desire is not gone after all. You still daydream – although perhaps not about your partner. You still might self-stimulate. You might even wish for a romantic gesture from your partner, even though you know you’re getting your hopes up for nothing.
There’s nothing wrong with your desire for sex – it’s there and thriving. But it feels like it has no where to go.
Perhaps you start to feel a deep resentment about being made to believe that you supposedly don’t want sex. You miss your sexual self and you feel like it has been stripped away by the poor quality sex in your partnership.
You sometimes feel like you have been robbed of your sexual identity and you’ve been told (enough times to believe it) that you aren’t sexual enough.
But the truth tends to be a little more lively.
You haven’t been robbed of your sexual identity – you have been quieted by the safe and secure lull of long-term partnership. It has misguided you into not speaking up for this need for better sex when it first arose.
When I have couples in my office talking about sex, sometimes I like to ask them to close their eyes and indicate with the height of their arms how frequently they would like to be having sex.
Most times, their hands are close to the same height. When we talk about it, they seem shocked and the partner who came in saying they want more sex and their partner doesn’t just can’t seem to understand.
Why are we even here if you want more sex, too? They wonder.
We’re here because we only want sex that is worth wanting – you finally discover.
So you decide to start asking for sex that you want.
Asking through words can be extremely challenging – especially in sex. It feels too vulnerable and scary to go out on that limb. So the therapist suggests that you guide your partner to do more of what you’re wanting during your next sexual encounter.
The next time you see all the signs for sex, you remember what your therapist said. Instead of stripping down and following the same dance you normally follow for sex, you do something different.
You make a sound or say a word you don’t normally say.
You move their hand to a place you want it to explore.
You create a pause in the dance by kissing your partner.
You build anticipation.
You create foreplay.
You do this many times to play around with what works for you. It’s been so long that you almost can’t remember. You have to rediscover what you like. But it slowly starts to come back and your body begins to respond. It knows a good thing when it sees one.
And here you are now, actively creating sex that is worth wanting.
CREATE DIFFERENT SEX
It doesn’t take two people to change the dance.
If you’re the one who wants more sex and you’re frustrated that your partner says no all the time, try doing something different. Find more ways to engage in foreplay.
Create more pleasure in sex to create more desire for it.
If you think your partner wants all the sex and you don’t want it, think again. Think about what kind of sex you would want.
Maybe it isn’t sex at all. Maybe it’s a massage with candles and fresh fruit. Maybe it’s walk at dusk, protected by a thick layer of lemony bug spray and holding your partner’s hand. Maybe it’s dinner without the kids and without any dishes to clean.
Then get talking. Talk about what you liked and what you want more of. Share what you’re excited about for your next encounter. Tell your partner you can’t stop thinking about that one thing they did.
So don’t forget:
We need closeness, better communication, more safety, and more talking before we can get to more, better sex.
And you both want more, better sex.
If you think you might want to find a therapist to help you sort through some of your own questions and life happenings, check out this article by Kelsey about how to find the right therapist for you, or set up a counseling appointment with Kelsey.