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Talking About Sex With Your Partner Doesn’t Have to Feel So Vulnerable

How to be more comfortable with conversations around intimacy.

by Kari Rusnak
February 8, 2021 | Love
Illustration of profiles of the faces of two lovers very close together. talking about sex, sexual communication, rewire
Credit: Moremar // Adobe

As a couples therapist, I often notice that romantic partners talk a lot about the initiation of sex, but don't go much deeper into their sexual communication.

People seem to feel more comfortable and interested in finding out if their partner is in the mood for sex, when they should be investing more time learning about what their partner enjoys during sex. 

Psychological researcher and clinician John Gottman found that couples who talk more about sex report more satisfying sex lives. I see that as a great motivator to open up with your partner.

So, why aren't people talking about sex more? 

It can be a pretty vulnerable thing for a lot of people to discuss — even when they're having sex with someone who they are deeply connected and committed to. Talking openly about sex is still seen as taboo in many cultures and groups.

We're living in a much more sex-positive society than we were 20 years ago, but we've still got a long way to go in developing healthier and more accepting attitudes about sexuality. 

What’s holding me back from opening up?

Start by thinking about what is stopping you from sharing your desires and naming things that feel good or things you would like to try with your partner. 

It could be an internal reason, such as the way you feel about yourself based on past experiences. It could also be external, relating to your partner or the state of your relationship. 

Illustration of a couple in bed facing away from each other, talking about sex, sexual communication, rewire
"Sometimes past trauma can cause a person to fear vulnerability when talking with their partner about sex," said Hampton.  |  Credit: Valenty // Adobe

If you aren't sure why talking about sex is hard for you or doesn't happen much in your relationship, a therapist can help you to explore why. 

"A cycle of sexual dissatisfaction can take root when someone has taken the role of initiator, and their partner refuses intimacy repeatedly for varied reasons," said Mississippi-based therapist Jaime Parker.

The initiator can get rejected so much that they stop trying, Parker explains. That could lead to resentment or a lack of connection in the relationship. To counter this, the initiator should assume the best about their partner, communicate their perspective and look for deeper understanding. 

If you are the partner who withdraws, Parker suggests the following course of action: Acknowledge the disconnect, communicate your perspective, and ask for your needs to be met.

"Sometimes past trauma can cause a person to fear vulnerability when talking with their partner about sex," said Joan Hampton, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in trauma.

Hampton recommends dealing with trauma head-on as a way to address vulnerability. If it's something you have a hard time processing on your own, it will certainly be hard to talk to your partner about. An individual therapist can help you work through the trauma.

"A professional can help you identify triggers and face any underlying issues that may be present because of past trauma," she said.

Vulnerability looks different for everyone

Layla (who requested her last name be withheld) has struggled with vulnerability. She believes people may feel too vulnerable to ask for what satisfies them because it can come off as selfish. But, she says, being selfish isn't always a bad thing.

"When you see your partner fulfill their selfishness in a sexual context, it is deeply satisfying," she said.

She suggests a better way to initiate is by asking your partner "What are you into?" instead of "Are you interested?" This can help open up communication, especially for those coming to terms with their sexuality.

The lack of a strong relationship foundation can also keep you from opening up. If you experience high levels of conflict or you feel your partner doesn't respect you, it may be harder to be vulnerable, and you may even fear that it could be used against you.

Sometimes vulnerability occurs when we're afraid of hurting our partner's feelings.  

This can be a common fear if our partners, who were trying to give us pleasure, have interpreted our feedback as a negative critique. If this sounds familiar, try reframing your conversation by giving your partner positive feedback before asking them to change it up. 

What can I do to start talking more about sex with my partner?

The following practical tips can help you become more comfortable opening up conversations around sex with your partner:

  • Try talking about sex when you aren’t having sex. It can be hard in the moment to say what you need for fear of ruining the mood. Start by asking your partner, “What do you enjoy most about our sex life?” or “What do you think we can do to improve our sex life?”
  • Start small. Talk about past experiences together that were really pleasurable for you, and tell your partner why it felt so good.
  • Try commenting when you like something your partner does during sex. Say things like “that feels good” or “keep doing that.”
  • Show or tell your partner what types of touch feel good on your body.
  • Make a ritual to talk about sex on a weekly or monthly basis. Use this time to share what you enjoyed and new things you would like to try.
  • Try out the free “Sex Questions” deck on the Gottman Card Decks App. These research-based questions help couples open up about their sex lives. You can also check out the “Salsa” decks to find ideas for spicing things up.
  • Share a movie or erotic story that shows your partner what turns you on.
  • If you have trouble expressing your sexual needs out loud, get a journal where you and your partner can write to each other about your sex life.

If you feel like you're not able to resolve this on your own, search for a counselor that specializes in couples work. We often need a little help with communication in our relationships, and having an expert can assure you make progress opening up to your partner about sex.

Kari Rusnak
Kari Rusnak is a Certified Gottman Therapist whose practice focuses on LGBTQ+, open/poly relationships, chronic pain and sexual health.
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