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Talking About Sex With Your Partner

How to start a real conversation. The importance of communication in a relationship.


by Esther Perel

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I always pay attention to the language that we use when describing our predicaments, because language shapes the experiences we have. And because most couples don’t have the tools to speak talk openly and effectively about sex. They are under the influence of the stories they tell themselves. Meaning: if you talk about your husband or wife as vanilla, and that has become your prime construct for describing them sexually, then I would say you should start watching the way that your language tries to capture your experience, but instead limits possibilities for change.

Some people who are not open to experiment with different things will make you feel so bad about it that, after a while, you will start questioning your motives, sexual desires and so on. Some of my clients even call themselves “perverts” only because they want to try positions that are common in other couples’ sexual encounters. So the language you use will constrain you.

If you have described yourself as more adventurous, or open-minded, or trying-all-kinds-of-things, then whatever your partner does, you’ll interpret as vanilla sex. It’s confirmation bias. We see what we want to see. So a descriptor can actually be restrictive.

This becomes even trickier if your partner knows that you think it’s just vanilla sex with them. They might be building up worries and resentment toward the whole situation, which will soon backfire. If your partner feels that they are already going out of their comfort zone, then they expect some level of acknowledgement or appreciation. Instead, what they receive is a label. So they might be thinking, “No matter what I do, I can never meet my husband’s/wife’s expectations,” which further discourages them.

The question of how people introduce their partners to new forms of sexual play or experience is a very delicate thing, because preferences are often hard-edged, and so are dislikes and disgusts. Everything operates on a track between the stuff that excites you more and the stuff that turns you off. Making these two tracks match is a real art—it’s like two people jamming together. Men and women complain about the same things. It’s a popular topic that sex therapists discuss.

Ironically, not only do we get the same complaints on both sides, we can get them from two people in the same relationship. So while a man complains about his “vanilla sex” wife, the wife complains about her insecure husband, to whom she cannot express her preferences because he takes it immediately as criticism and a sign of inadequacy.

So let’s start here: Have you ever talked with your partner about your conflicted feelings? Not during the sex, but outside the bedroom? And not just to say, “I’m unhappy about this,” but to say that when he/she does do things you like, you appreciate it. Does he/she actually feel appreciated? Ask what it’s like for your partner? And is there a way you can make it more pleasurable? Is your partner yearning for more of anything (more connection, more intimacy, feeling more ravished, etc.)?

You may say, “I’ve talked about sex with him/her ten times and she never says anything.” But that’s only the first step. You must begin a conversation with questions like “What would make sex more exciting for you? Are there things you would like to do? When do you feel most free? When do you feel the most attraction? What is the compliment you would like to receive?” Most women would love to receive this kind of communication from their partner. And not just during sex to say, “I’m coming.” Do you have a good sense of how you turn your husband/wife on? How he/she gets excited by you? How you can bring your partner into a state of ecstasy or surrender? Don’t be embarrassed to tell me, “I don’t know,” or that the only place you’ve seen female satisfaction is in porn. Because it’s very, very different for women.

In most porn there is no body touch. And everything your female partner may like, for example, may have to do with various types of touch. Fast touch, slow touch, deep touch, slow and circular touch, shallow lines, or dotted and interrupted lines, going down one straight line or suddenly going in a different direction because of that feeling of the unknown—she doesn’t know where it’s going to go next. Also have in mind that in a long-term relationship, especially between married couples, the expectations and the role of sex will vary from what it was with all the people each of you have been with before.

You can read more of Esther Perel’s writing on sexuality and desire on her website and learn more about her workshop here.

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