No matter how well you and your S.O. know each other, talking about intimacy issues — whether emotional or physical — can be downright uncomfortable. It's a sensitive subject that requires both of you to be vulnerable, and if the conversation goes south, it can lead to frustration, insecurity, and feelings of rejection. But despite the risks, experts say learning how to discuss physical intimacy issues helps couples build emotional intimacy and grow closer than ever before.
"There is no more stable and replicated result in the sex field than this: Being able to talk comfortably about sex is strongly related to satisfaction," explains Noah Clyman, clinical director of NYC Cognitive Therapy, a private practice in Manhattan. "Not just with sex, but with the whole relationship. And the results are not weak, they are dramatic."
The caveat, though, is that this type of dialogue is often considered taboo. "Difficulty talking about sex is perpetuated by myths like, 'There should be a lot of mystery in our sex life,' and 'Sex should happen spontaneously,' and 'My partner should know what I like (without my having to tell them),'" Clyman points out. "These ideas are all distorted, and will prevent you from having a great sex life."
The fact is, there are common intimacy issues that many couples need to get out in the open if they want to overcome them, no matter how difficult it may be. If you're ready to initiate the conversation but you're not sure where to start, read on. Ahead, two relationship gurus give their advice on the best way to conduct these important discussions, as well as some handy conversation starters to get the ball rolling.
Understand Where They're Coming From
April Masini, a relationship expert who regularly contributes advice to dozens of media outlets, says the first step to having a successful chat — particularly about a sensitive subject — is to understand where your partner coming from. "Intimacy issues can be triggers for partners with histories that may either precede you, or they may be with you," she says. For instance, she explains that a person's family and childhood, past partners, self-esteem issues, or sexual history can all impact their ability to be intimate. "Never assume that your partner shares your point of view on intimacy," she concludes. "Try to be open and try to ask, rather than tell. And listen — always listen."
Consider The Time & Place
When bringing up private matters, it's important to make sure that you're both in a setting and state of mind that allows for an honest conversation. "Don’t bring up any issues you have while on public transportation, after a bottle of wine when you’re both feeling boozy, or during a stressful time when there’s a deadline approaching or too many other issues are floating [around]," suggests Masini. "Choose your time and place carefully. Mornings after coffee or afternoons on the weekend may be times when you’re both more lucid, relaxed, and open to talking." Further, she says, "Avoid [having these discussions in] the bedroom, or on a Saturday night when one or both of you are expecting to have sex."
Refrain From Blame
There are some things you should never say in a relationship, particularly when it comes to topics that require a level of vulnerability. "Blame is a buzzkill when it comes to productive communication," says Masini. "So, check yourself before and while you talk to your partner about intimacy issues. Make sure you don’t blame your partner when the point of the conversation is to open a dialogue and work things out and make things better. Pointing fingers is not going to be productive." Another suggestion? "If you’re angry, rehearse what you want to say ahead of time so you don’t blurt out something hurtful and damaging."
Try To Empathize
Problems expressing intimacy, either physically or emotionally, can be among the most frustrating, but it's important to see your S.O.'s side in order to move forward. "[Discussing] intimacy issues is most productive when you can put yourself in your partner’s shoes — or at least try," Masini points out. "And when your partner realizes you are empathizing, they may put down any guard they’ve got up. You can show you’re empathizing by saying things like, 'This must be difficult for you,' or 'I’ve never asked, but how do you feel about this?'"
Therapist-Approved Conversation Starters
Clyman works with his fair share of couples and knows that sometimes, the hardest part about discussing intimacy is knowing how to begin. He recommends the following "blueprint" to his clients, suggesting that each partner take turns asking a question and listening to the other's answers:
What felt good last time?
- What did you feel about our non-sexual affection, [like] touching, caressing, kissing, or massage?
- What made you feel relaxed?
- What made you feel ready for touch and sensuality?
What did you like about the most recent time you were physical (or received affection), and what did you need?
- What do you need to put you in the mood?
- If you are a five (“I’m convincible”) on our amorous scale and I am a nine (very [turned on]), what do you need from me?
- What helps you focus on your body?