We live such busy lives nowadays having to juggle work, family, studies, volunteering, managing the household, etc. it is understandable that sexual desire may not come on as spontaneously as it once did when we had less responsibilities to attend to. Media and pop culture can sometimes lead us to believe that desire and arousal ‘should’ just come on and in fact, come on as frequently as it used to.
So we are all on the same page, let’s define sexual desire and arousal.
SexualDesire: is the mental state (thoughts, emotions, fantasy) where one is willing, open and perhaps wanting to be sexual with their partner/s. This might look like day-dreaming about being sexual with your partner later that night, wanting to initiate some sexual activity, being open to saying yes to your partner/s when they suggest being sexual.
Arousal: is the physiological and psychological state of feeling turned on. This might be increased blood flow to your genitals, feeling flush, feeling sexual or having sexual thoughts, etc.
The reality is that sexual desire and arousal need to be fostered to experience them at a later time. Ideally, we should start fostering these states from the time the most recent sexual experience finishes. Building sexual desire starts away from sexual activity.
We build sexual desire by laying the foundation or, like plants, fertilising the ground to encourage desire, and ideally, then arousal grows. Because desire isn’t an on/off switch, your partner and you will have certain actions/things that are more likely to swing a desire pendulum towards being open/willing to be sexual and towards closed off from being sexual.
Think to yourself, under what circumstances do you find yourself more open/willing to be sexual?
Some examples to shift the pendulum to being moreopen/desiring may be:
Having time to exercise
A passionate kiss when I come home
Expressions of appreciation
Expressing your gratitude towards me
Preparing dinner so I have some time to myself
A non-sexual massage before bed
Organising some quality time together and/or with the family
Organising a date night
Telling me I look attractive
Sending me a flirty text
Telling me you love me
Dressing up in lingerie
Rubbing my feet after a long day
Some examples that shift the pendulum to being less open/desiring may be:
Not greeting me when I come home
Grabbing my bum/breasts
Doing the entire night routine and prep for next day without help
Stressful day at work
Not having much sleep
Saying “you wanna wink wink” at bedtime
Not having time for myself
Not having time together as a couple (rather than as parents)
It is useful to have this conversation with your partner as their pendulum may swing differently to yours. Ask…
Under what circumstances are you more open or likely to be willing to engage in sexual activity?
What things can I do to help turn you on? (outside the bedroom!)
How can I help you transition from ‘home-life brain’ to your sexuality?
I hope this has provided you with a new way of framing sexual desire and learning more about your own sexual desire.
As a clinical psychologist that works with a large portion of clients with sexual dysfunction, some of the issues I explore with people include low or discrepant libido (sexual desire), unsatisfactory sexual frequency perhaps due to pain, anxiety, or low mood, and broad sexual dissatisfaction. At the heart of these issues is often a belief that the desire for or engagement in “sex” always refers to penetrative intercourse. What I, therefore, want to do, is re-write this belief so couples can still engage in intimate experiences.
Out with the old…
One of the first things I discuss with my clients is the model of sexuality I subscribe to. For most individuals, they implicitly adhere to a narrow and rigid model of “legitimate” sexuality that entails three components: physical arousal => penetration => ejaculation/orgasm. The sexual episode starts when both parties are physically aroused. This may include some “foreplay”, which is only ever seen as an aid to the “legitimate” sexual experience that is, typically, penis-to-vagina penetration in heterosexual couples. A lot of the time male orgasm or an ejaculatory experience then marks the end of the sexual episode, although sometimes this may also include female orgasm too.
In with the new…
I ask my clients to try and let go of this model and instead take on the willingness-to-pleasure (W2P) model (first proposed by Loulan  and further developed by Basson ). This model states that the first part of any sexual experience is the willingness to engage in an experience to give yourself the opportunity to experience arousal/desire and ends with the feeling of pleasure. The sensation of pleasure can be experienced via a smorgasbord of experiences, from kissing, touching non-genital erogenous zones (e.g., neck, ears), showering together, massage, or perhaps genital touch.
The W2P model incorporates the other, older model (given that having penetrative sex ending in orgasm can include willingness and pleasure) but also allows for much broader and more varied experiences as well. What I like about the model is that to start with willingness acknowledges that it is completely normal to not be sexually aroused at the same time as your partner. To be willing is to say “no, I do not have a particular desire yet, but I am open or willing to give us the opportunity to see if it will arise”.
To be willing DOES NOT MEAN to be coerced or pressured. An individual must willingly consent to choose to engage in an intimate or erotic experience. What reinforces this notion of consent is to finish with a feeling of pleasure. As pleasure can take many (non-penetrative) forms, one can choose to stop at any stage pleasure has been accomplished. Of course – even if you have been willing to try and be aroused, it does not guarantee it will happen. Again though, the idea is to have engaged in an intimate and pleasurable act that gave it the opportunity to arise, while you are still enjoying yourself.
This model allows couples more freedom and flexibility to connect with each other without one believing they’re always “asking for it” and the other “always says no”. When this pursuer-withdrawer pattern happens, it is often because there is an expectation all sexual experiences must end in penetration and orgasm. Then what may happen is that when the withdrawer notices any type of sexual cue, they end up shutting down and backing off immediately. The pursuer partner then feels starved of intimacy and unloved while the withdrawer feels frustrated their partner only ever thinks of sex.
The biggest barrier I have found for this model to be successfully implemented is poor or minimal sexual communication. If you are not used to explicitly talking to your partner about sex (including your fantasies, desire, or reflecting on what you enjoyable or less satisfying from your previous sexual experiences) then it may be challenging to talk to them in the moment about what you are willing to do. If you are not willing to invite your partner in on your needs in the moment, then it will likely be difficult to change problematic sexual dynamics.
If you are unhappy with your sexual relationship and you are aware that your expectations of what ‘legitimate’ sexual experiences must include, then I ask you to challenge your beliefs. Next time your partner initiates a sexual experience when you are not yet aroused or feel desire, ask yourself whether you would be willing to give that desire an opportunity to arise. What act or experience are you prepared to engage in that, in and of itself, may be pleasurable and intimate, but may also give rise to your desire. Then, when you are satisfied that you have achieved pleasure, or given your desire the best opportunity to arise, communicate that the experience is ending. Open communication and legitimate consent are a cornerstone of the W2P model and vital for its success.
One of the most common problems I see as a clinical psychologist in a sex therapy clinic is the issue of low libido (sexual desire). I find that one of the most important issues that impacts a person, or couple’s distress is simply a lack of understanding about what affects libido and a general belief that sexual desire is something that should just happen. For a significant portion of people, simply getting to know the factors or context that gives the best opportunity for sexual desire to arise is enough to change the narrative and engage in pleasurable experiences.
Let me quickly preface the rest of the content here by acknowledging that I will be writing as if there is not a primary biological mechanism for the low libido. If you have experienced a change in your libido and it is now lower than what it used to be, then you should talk to your GP for an appropriate biological assessment. A change in hormones, for example, particularly around menopause can, for some people, have a profound impact on their sexuality so definitely get this checked out
1. Re-formulate what is ‘legitimate’ sex
One of the first things I discuss with clients is the Willingness-to-Pleasure model of sex, discussed here. Then, I introduce the idea of a dual-process model of sex, discussed at length in Emily Nagoski’s book, “Come as you are” (highly recommended read). This model of sexual desire incorporates two components: as accelerator system (the things that turn you on) and a brake system (the things that turn you off). To give your desire the bestopportunityto arise, we must produce a context that turns on the accelerator and turns off the brake. This means, it is your job to understand the factors that hit your accelerator system and the factors that hit your brake system.
There is a belief that for some people desire is spontaneous. This would mean that both physical and psychological arousal just pops up, as if out the blue, completely at random. Yet, rarely have I actually encountered someone who, with no awareness or understanding, magically gets an erection or experiences vaginal lubrication. It is nearly always cued. The cue may be external (noticing an attractive person) or internal (noticing an erotic thought) and for some people they may need very few cues to experience desire (these are the people who look like they have “spontaneous” arousal/desire) but this still means the arousal is responsive. All arousal is responsive, we just need to encounter enough cues that turn on our accelerator and minimise exposure to the cues to our brake system, to give our arousal the best opportunity to arise.
2. Curate my context
So, what the hell are my cues? What is the context that gives rise to my desire and arousal? What are the things that slam the brake on?
At this stage, I ask my clients to do some exploratory homework and reflection. I ask them to start to engage in material and stimuli to understand what are the things that push their accelerator. This may be specific erotic material (e.g., porn, erotic literature), TV shows or movies that have sexual scenes or themes they have previously watched, or fantasy material based on memories or idealised scenarios. Importantly, this phase is not meant to be about merely engaging in erotic stimuli, the purpose is to understand what is it about these stimuli that turns my accelerator on? Is it the dynamic between the people involved, is it the physical scenery, is it the music, is it about the tense lead up to a sexual experience, etc? We want to understand the breadth of factors that impact your accelerator to understand how to replicate these in your life.
Simultaneously, we need to understand the brake system. For this, as above, I ask individuals to reflect on stimuli they did not want to engage in. Let’s say you watch porn, and you find yourself scrolling past certain types of videos, ask yourself, what is it about these videos/scenes that I just don’t connect with? Similarly, we explore specific scenarios that the individual has been in whereby their partner wanted to have sex, but they did not. We reflect on what was happening for them and the factors that impacted their desire or willingness to engage in the sexual activity. This may include factors such as a messy environment, stress, physical fatigue, expectation that all sexual activity will end in penetrative sex, low mood, etc.
3. Take ownership
More often than not, when someone experiences low libido, they also rarely initiate sex. This may further exacerbate a pursuer-withdrawer dynamic. Such a dynamic is problematic for many reasons, one of which is that the withdrawer (i.e., the person with low libido) often loses touch with the factors that affect their accelerator and brake system. Therefore, after we have explored these factors, I ask for the individual to initiate an intimate experience at least once a week. This means, at least once a week, the person needs to take ownership of curating a context that is going to give them the best opportunity to experience desire and to move their mindset to be willing (from the willingness-to-pleasure model) to have an intimate experience. I’m being specific in using the words “intimate experience” here because this does not have to end in penetrative sex. It can be any experience that is pleasurable (this may be kissing, touching and may or may not even include genitals).
4. Practise, practise, practise
If you know that some of things that press your brake are incomplete chores and feeling like you have enough time, then pre-plan your intimate night on a day where you can ensure all the chores are done in the morning and you have set aside enough time to not feel rushed. If you know that some of the factors that press your accelerator are clean sheets, feeling sexy in nice clothes, and flirting, the pre-plan a day when you can get the sheets in the wash, that you have a place to wear your special clothes, and that your partner is aware that you want to go out and be flirty and light-hearted together. While it may seem “unromantic” or “unerotic” to plan your sexy/intimate times – how else can you ensure your context is right, the brakes are turned off, and the accelerator is turned on. We must move past the idea of “legitimate” sexual experiences being spontaneous (all desire is actually responsive!) and must end in penetrative sex.
After this, there is a whole lot of practice and reflection in here.
5. Go get help from a professional
I do want to point out, this is a simplified version of what actually happens in therapy as typically we want to explore factors such as stress management, low mood, anxiety, or pain that may be impacting libido. Similarly, other relationship factors may be impacting an individual’s willingness to connect with their partner. It also isn’t uncommon for us to make these processes more structured by putting in rules such as no penetrative sex for a time period, then slowly allowing erotic touch and genital touch before finally, if desired, incorporating penetrative sex. We might implement this to help re-write the expectations that all intimate experiences must end in orgasm or penetration. If unsure, I would recommend finding a therapist/psychologist who is comfortable working with these issues.
Every relationship has their ups and downs. When you’re having a ‘down’ moment, one thing that can make everything feel even worse, is also believing your partner has misunderstood why you’re upset or how the argument occurred.
We can get caught in an ineffectual pattern of she-said/he-said/they-said, talking at or past each other. No one is really listening very effectively. No one is really speaking very effectively. We say things to make sure they hurt in the same way we do, and we interpret what they say with the worst possible interpretation.
Even if things aren’t quite that bad, it can be important to get back to the basics and have a structured conversation that can increase our opportunities to resolve an issue and understand our partner. This does not mean we have to like, accept, or endorse our partner’s interpretation of the conflict, but it will likely build understanding and empathy, while reducing contempt and distance.
If you have noticed that there seems to be a particular issue that is regularly raised by yourself or your partner than having a structured hard conversation may be particularly useful. One of the reasons having such a structured or formal conversation is that you both enter it with the intentionality of resolving something. Often, couples only seem to say what is on their mind in the middle of the argument when the issue is least likely to be resolved. During an argument the intention is often to hurt or persuade your partner, rather than understand and resolve. Further, setting a time for a structured conversation will likely mean you engage in it when things aren’t emotionally charged with anger, frustration, or revenge. You’re more likely to engage with a sense of determination, openness, and curiosity. This will be particularly important as you will likely need to say and hear things that are upsetting in some way.
I would typically practise this with my clients in session to both help recognise when either party is engaging in unhelpful practices such as defensiveness or personal criticism as well as provide suggestions to the enquirer if they are stuck on what to say. You can download the hard conversation exercise here.
The Hard Conversation
To start, one person must choose to be the speaker and one person must choose to be the enquirer.
The speaker’s role is to give an open and honest account of the problem from their point of view. It is their job to explain the problem is a way that gives their partner the best opportunity to understand it from their perspective. This is best achieved without the use of sarcasm, a raised voice, or by telling the other person what they thought or felt (e.g., “I know you don’t care about how I feel but…”).
The enquirer’s role is to listen, explore, and understand the problem from the speaker’s perspective. The enquirer may only do three things: validate the other person’s experience (e.g., “Wow, that sounds like you were really hurt by that”), clarify something the speaker said (e.g., “Can I just double check, did you think I was referring to you when I said X?”), and ask questions to deeper their understanding of the topic (e.g., “What was going on in your mind when you heard me say X on the phone”). Typically, the enquirer will only be speaking approximately 10% of the time compared to the speaker. It is not the enquirer’s role to try and fix the problem, to explain how speaker is wrong, or to argue for their own point of view.
Example topics for speakers
When I come home from work, I sometimes feel overwhelmed when you ask me to speak about my day immediately. I really appreciate that you take such an interest and I have no problem with talking to you, I just need a good hour to decompress.
Sometimes I want to have sex with you, but I just get this sense that you don’t want to. I know that I then get kind of awkward, sullen, and sometimes a bit snappy at you. I’m typically feeling hurt or rejected and I want to feel desired and loved.
Example questions for enquirers
Tell me more about why this is so important to you?
What are the background factors which relate to this?
What can I specifically do to help here?
Is there a deeper issue that this relates to as well?
Are there other times when you feel like this too?
The media and society at large maintain the stereotype/belief that healthy couple sexuality is hot, lustful, headboard banging, lamp falling off the side table, moans of intense pleasure and the inevitable mutual orgasm. Or, sex is portrayed as a boring chore where often, the woman is shunning away her ‘sexually needy’ husband. Unfortunately, this black and white portrayal of couple sexuality maintains faulty sexual beliefs, assumptions and expectations that can at times lead to sexual difficulties and dissatisfaction amongst couples.
Ideally a couple’s sexual experience is mutual and synchronous, meaning both partners experience desire, pleasure, eroticism and satisfaction (more on this later) within the same sexual experience. When we rigidly hold onto this belief, however, and do not experience each of those components, then it may lead to feelings of disappointment and perhaps thoughts such as “I’m not a good lover”, “I failed my partner”, “why can’t I orgasm with him/her”, “we don’t have proper sex”. However, among happy sexually functioning couples, it is normal to have less than 50% of sexual experiences being equally satisfying at the same time.
For many sexually functioning couples, the majority of sexual encounters are positive yet asynchronous, meaning the sexual experience is more satisfying for one partner than the other e.g. one partner reaches orgasm but the other does not. It is important to note that asynchronous sex is still usually enjoyable for both partners when the sexual interaction is underpinned by pleasure and consent. Asynchronous sex becomes problematic when the source of a couples conflict is stuck on the idea that partners must have the same levels of sexual desire, the sexual experience must be lustful, and both must reach orgasm at the same time. When couples have the expectation that all of their sexual experiences have to follow one rigid script, they may be setting themselves up for disappointment.
One approach to shift this source of conflict is through adopting the Good Enough Sex (GES) model1. GES inherently recognises that a couple’s sexuality will always be variable and therefore partners need to be flexible in their approach to sexual experiences. The focus shifts from an “intercourse-or-nothing” perspective to a space where the couple works on building and fostering genuine pleasurable connections.
Desire, pleasure, eroticism, and satisfaction are four pillars that support the GES model.
Desire incorporates both a psychological and bio-medical aspect of sexual desire. Psychologically, desire encompasses positive anticipation of the sexual experience, a belief that you deserve sexual pleasure, choice regarding sexual practices, and the adoption of positive and realistic GES expectations about sexual function. From a bio-medical perspective, desire is facilitated through maintaining a healthy body and healthy behavioural habits (e.g. sleep, balanced eating, alcohol consumption in moderation, etc) as well as the acceptance of normal biological changes that occur as we age.
Pleasure is the receiving and giving of pleasurable touch, in whatever way this can occur. A helpful analogy is the sexual smorgasbord (see below), where each dish represents the many varied ways of being sexual and sensual. One of these dishes may include penetrative sex, however, if this dish is out or not available (e.g., perhaps due to erectile dysfunction or pain) that would not mean you do not eat from the smorgasboard, instead you could choose a different dish e.g. oral sex, mutual genital touching, massage, or bathing together, etc. While Ssome of the dishes may be more arousing than others but the GES model prioritises pleasure and satisfaction over merely being physically aroused, so long as they are pleasurable for you and the couple, you can enjoy a variety of pleasurable arousing touch.
Eroticism involves intense sexual feelings and sensations, often where each partner’s arousal may enhance the others arousal, like an erotic couple dance. Eroticism can also involve turn taking where one partner is the giver of sexual and pleasurable touch while the other acts as the receiver and at times may be further enhanced with the involvement of outside resources (e.g. erotica, pornography, or use of sexual toys, etc). The cornerstone of eroticism is being sexually vulnerable with your partner with a strong foundation of trust and consent. Please note: eroticism is not what is depicted in pornography, does not involve breaking boundaries or taking sexual risks without consent.
Satisfaction involves feeling good about yourself as a sexual person and the couple feeling energised after the sexual experience. Bonding activities such as cuddling or kissing after a sexual experience can help enhance satisfaction by strengthening the couple’s attachment and feelings of closeness. Satisfaction may include orgasm but is meant to represent something more than this alone; feeling satisfied as an individual and couple is more important than sexual function/orgasm. It is through satisfaction that desire for sexual connection is again reinforced.
The GES model starts at a place of acceptance that whilst, hopefully, most sexual experiences are positive and involve desire, pleasure, eroticism, and satisfaction, the reality for many couples is that some sexual experiences will be dissatisfying or dysfunctional. This viewpoint does not mean settling for mediocre or disappointing sex but rather, when the sexual experience has been dysfunctional/disappointing the couple turn towards one another as their intimate friend rather than blame, reject or shame.
The GES model also recognises that sexual experiences within a relationship can have multiple roles and meanings for a couple. For instance, sex when trying to conceive may have a difference experience and meaning compared to “make-up” sex, romantic sex or Sunday morning sex. A couple’s sexuality needs to hold realistic and flexible expectations about sexual function and activity across the couple’s lifespan. Sexual functioning and needs in our 20-30’s, 40-50’s and 60 onwards will evolve as with changes to work, family, or health. Unfortunately, this reality is not depicted in popular media’s portrayal of sexual relationships, which often depicts the traditional ‘perfect’ sexual performance models and as such, couples are not exposed to a GES model and how it may assist their sexual relationship.
How can you and your partner start to incorporate the GES into your relationship?
After engaging in a sexual or sensual experience, turn towards each other and share some form of intimate touch such as cuddling or gentle kissing. Try to not avoid each other if sexual interactions have been disappointing or dysfunctional.
If it has been some time since you have been sexual because of dysfunction (e.g., pain, issues in physical arousal or desire) set some time to talk about the sexual smorgasbord and what pleasurable, sensual, and sexual options you would like to start including again. Perhaps use this resource to explore what your sexual smorgasbord could include.
Remember, GES priorities pleasure, connection, and realistic expectations. If it has been a number of months or years since you have engaged in penetrative or oral sex then start slow with showering together, passionate kissing, or massage where there is no expectation for things to progress for now.
1McCarthy, B. W., & McCarthy, E. (2011). Discovering your couple sexual style: Sharing desire, pleasure, and satisfaction. Routledge.
It is inevitable that conflict will occur in any and all of our relationships. Whether it be with our siblings, our parents, or our friends, or work colleagues, there will be moments of stress, irritability, and conflict that may, at least temporarily, rupture that bond. Conflict is never more inevitable than in our romantic relationships. The human condition demands that friction occur when two or more people, each flawed and neurotic in their own way, try to forge a life with each other. But this is good and healthy and normal! I would suggest conflict is not only health but necessary to deepen our understanding of our partner. It provides opportunities to build kindness and empathy for both you and them. Just as in the Japanese tradition of kintsugi, only when an object has been cracked, chipped, or broken, can we reforge it even more beautiful and unique than before.
However, more serious problems can occur when that object is cracked a little too often, and then perhaps over time, pieces start to go missing. So, while conflict is inevitable, healthy, and can lead to a better relationship, it can also be a part of the dissolution of the relationship.
Broadly speaking conflict or problems in a relationship can come down to one of two issues: an issue of fire or an issue of ice. Problems with fire refer to frequent or intense arguments and conflict, whereby you might both be irritable and quick to react to the other. Problems with ice refer to issues with distance or apathy, it can be like you are two individuals who happen to live in the same house, physically close but emotionally apart.
Again, very broadly, it is more common that issues of fire occur when people are younger or within the first 7ish years of a relationship. Issues of ice tend to occur when people are older or have been in a longer-term relationship (8+ years).
Understanding which of these categories your relationship may belong to is the first step in then being able to implement strategies to resolve and repair your relationship. For example, issues of fire can be resolved by building more effective communication strategies, by knowing how to have “good” fights, and learning how to best negotiate your differences. Issues of ice, on the other hand, can be overcome by reforming the relational friendship, rekindling affection, intimacy, and desire, and strengthening the attachment. Of course, there are many other poignant experiences which may co-occur with issues of either fire or ice such as becoming a parent, negotiating blended families, sexual dysfunction, or one partner having an affair (to just name a few). Often, these problems do not exist in a vacuum (i.e., they do not occur by themselves). While these problems may appear to be the most pressing and obvious, it is very important to understand the landscape in which they occurred as this gives insight into how they may be resolved.
If you are still at the stage where you want to do something to improve or salvage the relationship then it is important to take the view that whatever the problem is, it is separate to both you and your partner. By this, I mean that we do not want to view you or your partner as intrinsically bad or the problem. If one person were the entire problem, they would have 100% of the responsibility to change and make the relationship work. This is never true and, for the sake of improving a relationship, an unhelpful viewpoint.
Often in conflict, we stand face-to-face, pointing forward and yelling “there’s the problem”.
When what would be more useful is standing side-by-side, so we can work together in solving the problem (e.g., poor communication, negative expectations of each other). But to do this, we have to be able to identify what “the problem” is and ensure it is separate to who our partner is.
So, where do you start? You have already identified that something is not right in the relationship. Perhaps you can already tell that your current romantic relationship fits within issues of fire or ice. But now what?
Let us start by asking some questions of yourself and then we will move on to questions that both of you should discuss.
Questions for me
What do I see as the problem in the relationship?
In what way is part of the problem my fault or responsibility?
In what was is part of the problem my partner’s fault or responsibility?
Do I have the resources to resolve or work on the problem with my partner?
Do I have the motivation or desire to try and work on the problem?
Questions for us
If our main problems were solved, in what way would our lives be different? What would we be doing differently? What would be the evidence other people could see to show that you are doing well?
What are the concrete barriers that impeded our ability to do the things from the above question?
What are specific and concrete actions that each of us can take to help resolve our problems?
If either of us notice that the other person is doing something unhelpful to achieve our shared goals (of resolving our problems), what would be an appropriate thing to say to the other person?
How often should we both meet to explicitly discuss our progress towards resolving our problems?
One of the many problems with the Romantic view of relationships is that it expects our partner to be the perfect friend, accountant, housekeeper, maintenance person, counsellor, parent, chef, event planner, and sexual entity. How one person is meant to fulfil all of these roles is beyond me and it seems inevitable we can only be left feeling disappointed. Especially the idea that our partner will start off as, and continue to be, our best sexual mate. They are expected to “just know” what pleases us, what evokes our erotic desire, what are fantasies entail, or what we find uncomfortable or awkward doing. Even more so, they are meant to “just know” how these things change over the years, as our sexual needs and desires mature or change. Romanticism sneers at open and honest communication because surely if they really loved you they would just know.
If you accept that this seems a tad unfair then perhaps, like all other aspects of a good relationship, continual discussions about your sex is in order. But again, for our partners to know and understand us we first must know and understand ourselves.
One of the key assumptions that destroy relationships and douses the erotic fire is the belief that you already know everything about your partner. You don’t. You can’t. Most people don’t even know themself very well so I can almost guarantee you don’t know all about them. People change, grow, and have new and different experiences which change their desires over time. Don’t be complacent in your beliefs about your partner.
Here is a list of questions you might like to reflect upon and, when ready, I would invite you to discuss and explore with your partner. It can be an interesting exercise to first guess what your partner’s answer will be before allowing them to agree or update your answer with their own reflection.
How is sex meant to happen? Is it meant to be spontaneous? Can it be planned and organised? Why?
How is sex initiated? Is there a place, setting, or time of day when it happens? Who is meant to initiate it and why?
How easy do you find it to talk about different aspects of sex with your partner (e.g., your fantasies, your fulfilment of a sexual activity, your expectations of frequency, discussing engaging in new activities, etc)?
Can people in relationships watch porn? Does it have to be together or separately? If you watch porn, does the other person in the relationship need to know?
Do you like the idea of being more dominant or more submissive? Do you also hold other beliefs that make it difficult to come to terms with your desires (e.g., a female who likes to be dominated but also feels conflicted because she holds beliefs about what it means to be a “strong” woman; a male who likes to dominate but also doesn’t want to come across as “pushy”; a male who likes to be submissive but also holds beliefs about what it means to be “a man”).
What is something you would want to do sexually that you don’t believe your partner would?
What is something you believe your partner would want to do sexually that you wouldn’t want to do?
What is one of your most pleasant and memorable sexual memories? What was it about the experience that made it so pleasant and memorable? Can you purposely recreate some of the circumstances that made that experience so nice?
How was sex discussed in your family of origin?
What were the messages you received from your family about sex and how do you think that has influenced your beliefs and experiences of sex?
Hopefully, these questions have been able to evoke some introspection about your beliefs regarding sex and perhaps open some discussions with your partner. The next series of questions are designed to specifically discussed with your partner. While you may be able to reflect on them by yourself, they will be even more useful with your partner.
Can you describe a perfect night (or morning/day/afternoon) of sex where the sole purpose is to satisfy you? Where would it start? What would we be doing? How does it progress? What do we use along the journey? What would be done to you? What would you be in control of? How would it peak?
What do you think is the most attractive part of your body?
What is the type of fantasy you do, or would, masturbate to?
What is something you would like to try, but have found difficult to do, with regards to sex?
What aspect of inviting other people into the bedroom (i.e., having a threesome or swapping partners) do you find most difficult to come to terms with? What is the most dominant emotion when thinking about such an experience and what might that say about you (i.e., excitement about trying, anxiety about being naked in front of or intimate with others, jealously that your partner finds other people attractive, shame that you want to try even though you love your partner, etc).
If you wanted to be intimate without having penetrative sex, what might you do?
If you’re not in the mood for sex, what helps you get there?
What is something your partner might get wrong about you, with regards to your beliefs and desires about sex?
If you could put on hold your current sexual orientation, who of the same/opposite sex would you have a sexual experience with? What would happen?
What is the riskiest sexual experience would you have (e.g., this could be using something, in a particular place, with someone, or because it might not strictly be legal)?
I hope some of the questions and ideas in this post allows you some interesting introspection and opens up a useful conversation with your partner.
To understand why our relationships may or may not be going well, it can be useful to critically evaluate our beliefs about what makes a good romantic relationship.
One of the most important beliefs I often try to deconstruct with some of my clients is that “it is my partner’s job to understand me and meet my needs”. Of course, this would be incredible if our partner somehow could just understand us, read us, and know our every need. But this is typically not realistic.
In fact, Romantics (i.e., those who adhere to the philosophical movement of romanticism [think of a Disney princess conception of love]) would say that that if a partner cannot somehow deduce our exact thoughts, needs, and desires then it must be proof they are not the right person for us. I call bullshit. Nobody is this person. Nobody can be this person. It is, in fact, OUR job to shape our partner and give them the tools into becoming the best version of our partner, as it is their job to shape us into their version of the best partner. To do this we must understand our “stuff” – the beliefs and expectations that shape our feelings and interactions about/with our partner. Only then can we appropriately communicate those needs, in the hope our partner will at least try and meet them.
So here are some questions to first ask yourself, and then to ask your partner. If your partner is happy to play along then perhaps describe what you believe your partner’s answer might be before they tell you. This can be a great way to start to understand how your partner sees you and how you see your partner.
Importantly, the purpose of these questions are not to start a blame or criticism game. If you are going to discuss and ask these questions with and to your partner, start by making a pact that you will be open-minded and kind in hearing your partner describe some difficult things about you. If they get some things wrong, thank them for giving it a go before gently letting them know how your reflection is different.
In what ways [note plural] are you a difficult person to be around or live with?
In what circumstances might these attributes be a strength or be useful?
What are the things that you find most difficult to ask for in a relationship?
What are the things you find most difficult to give in a relationship?
How do you believe people show they care about someone else? What do they do or say? How often do you need to do these things?
What do you believe are “good enough” ways to communicate your frustrations or problems in a relationship? Is this typically how you go about communicating your concerns or problems in a relationship?
How did your parents go about communicating and solving problems? In what way have you been influenced by that?
How did your parents show affection? In what ways have you been influenced by that?
What are some of the most important things you’ve learnt about yourself from previous relationships? In what ways have you not changed (for better or worse) from those previous relationships?
When you see other happy couples, what are the things that are most different about them compared to your relationship?
What are the things that you do well as a couple?
What are the strengths you bring to the relationship?
What are the attributes you find most valuable in a partner?
Which, if any, of these questions have you found most difficult and easy to answer and what do you believe it means about yourself?
So what now?
What do these questions mean about you and your beliefs and expectations about a relationship? I want you to start to reflect on and perhaps discuss with your partner how you can work together to enable each other to overcome any unhelpful beliefs or expectations you may have.
For example, if you recognise that you find it very difficult or awkward to ask for alone time, away from your partner or kids (obviously not because you don’t love or care for them, you just also need some “me” time), you could discuss how you could make this a regular part of your weekly/monthly routine.
Or, perhaps you recognise that, just like your parents, you believe that when a problem arises it must be sorted out immediately (because you can’t possibly go to bed angry, right??), even though you or your partner are rarely in a calm enough state to talk about it calmly, therefore creating more problems than solving. You could decide together that if either of you recognises that things are too heated to solve in the moment, you will agree to raincheck the discussion for 1 / 6 / or 12 hours. In this way, you’re communicating that you believe that this problem needs to be solved but similarly recognising you aren’t in a place to do justice to it, yet.
Have a think about what else you may want to change. Are there ways you can help your partner communicate their needs? Is there something you do to remind yourself to show affection in the way your partner values? Can you set up a regular date to continue these discussions?