How to Talk About Sex (or lack of it)
How to Talk to Your Partner about Not Having Sex
If you believe there’s an issue with your sex life, the first thing to do is explore and understand your own beliefs and feelings about sex and your sexual nature. The best way to do this for many people may be to talk to a therapist to get some help with blind spots and sorting through the imprints from early experiences. Intimacy with yourself will be the cornerstone of intimacy and connection with your partner.
Even when you have increased clarity and awareness about your own sexuality it can still feel embarrassing or risky to broach the topic with your partner, especially if you haven’t spoken about sex together in a long time – or ever before. The following guidelines might be useful in finding a way to start a conversation about sex:
Try to phrase what you'd like to see different in a positive way.
Using ‘I’ phrases (‘I used to like it when we…’) rather than ‘you’ phrases (‘you never want to…’) can help your partner to feel like they’re respected and appreciated instead of being attacked or criticized. It can also be useful to talk about the situation in general terms rather than pointing out what you feel they’ve done to make things worse: ‘We haven’t had sex in a while’, is different than ‘you haven’t wanted to have sex in a while’. If you hear yourself saying the word, 'you,' take a pause and reframe your comments in terms of your own experience.
Titrate your sharing and listen to what your partner says.
A conversation needs to go two ways, so once you’ve explained how you’re feeling . . . listen to what your partner thinks and feels, too. It may be difficult to hear some of what they have to say – but this is always a risk if you want to have an open, honest talk. Reflect back what you heard, before launching into any explanation or clarification of your own.
Sometimes when people are nervous or afraid they keep talking, restating their viewpoint in numerous ways hoping the other person will really 'get' what they're trying to say. If you notice that you're saying the same thing over again, in multiple ways, this is a good indication that you've lost your connection with the issue and are now trying to convince your partner of how right you are and how they REALLY need to 'get' this! Take a pause, create space. Deliver your message in small bites. Give your partner time to take in what you're saying, to digest and assimilate your feelings and your needs. Silence and space can be the part of the conversation in which the true transformation of the conversation is taking place.
Try to understand their perspective. It’s one thing to listen, another to really take on board what your partner is saying. Try to see things from their point of view. They may be experiencing specific anxieties that are making it difficult for them to think about sex, or may feel embarrassed, guilty or inadequate about the situation. This will also help you to understand more about what sex means to them – and whether you’ve got different ideas about what a ‘good’ sex life should be.
This is also the point in the conversation where both partners have the opportunity to realize that it isn't sex per se that is the issue. Rather there are personal, long-held insecurities that affect how each person approaches being physically vulnerable. Sex is an arena in which we are all exposed. If a person is accustomed to hiding from themselves and repressing certain feelings of shame or self-loathing it can feel quite confronting, even dangerous, to surrender the "I'm FINE . . . just don't look at me" defenses that help get them through their days!
Working Your Way Back
If you haven’t been intimate with your partner for a long while, trying to move towards having a sexual relationship again can be a daunting prospect.
You might find it helps to try an approach that is often used in sex therapy. Consider taking some of the pressure off having intercourse or full-on sex, and learning to enjoy intimacy – slowly – from the ground up. This can help to establish a sense of safety and security:
You might like to start by taking sex - intercourse, specifically - off the table entirely. A lot of sexual anxieties can stem from the feeling that any kind of sensual touch must lead to intercourse and orgasm.
This can create a strong association between sex and having to ‘perform’, which can create a negative loop for a lot of people that puts them off sex entirely. Applying a temporary ‘ban’ to intercourse can help to remove this anxiety, so the couple can focus on enjoying being intimate without having to worry about ‘getting it right’ later.
Take very small steps to reintroduce intimacy into your relationship – at a pace that’s comfortable for both partners. This doesn’t mean reintroducing sexual acts. It means careful touching or simple kissing. It is often not in the bedroom, but by stove, or in the garage . . . an offering of non-verbal, genuine care and appreciation communicated through touch.
You might like to try giving each other hand massages or holding hands in bed at night. You are re-learning to enjoy being intimate and sensual in a pressure-free environment. Maybe a foot massage while you're watching TV.
These explorations and experiments with just getting connected in safe, non-sexual ways can take time; weeks perhaps, before you find yourselves ready to move on. Eventually, you might like to try introducing more intimate acts –again, at a pace that’s comfortable for both of you – such as lingering kisses; head, neck and shoulder massages; long hugs; holding each other close while a favorite song is playing.
Eventually, when the time is right, and both partners feel it, movement into sex acts such as genital touching or oral sex might flow naturally – but full-on intercourse is still off the table. Full-on sex is only an option when you’ve both agreed, outside of a sexual encounter that you’d like to try.
Throughout this process, it’s important to keep talking and checking in with each other: telling each other what you’re enjoying, anything you might be finding difficult, and what you might like to try going forward. If one partner is finding things are progressing too fast, then everything needs to slow down. If one partner is feeling that things are moving too slow, then there needs to be discussion and negotiation - what need will be satisfied by moving faster and what CAN you do together that will feel both safe and satisfying?
While the steps above are presented in a linear fashion, the exercise does not usually progress in a linear manner. Partners may find themselves moving through the steps and ready to experiment with oral sex when they realize they need to go back to holding hands. Perhaps there is more insecurity or shame emerging for one or both that requires another layer of holding.
Learning to be intimate is a process that requires flexibility, creativity and patience. Ultimately, being in a long-term, sensually alive relationship is the process of becoming conscious, awake and aware of ourselves, so that we can be truly genuine and authentic with each other.
If you think you need help, notice whether embarrassment or shame is keeping you from asking your partner about talking to a therapist. Although talking to someone about your sex life can feel a little strange at first, many couples are surprised at the level of relief they feel when their situation is normalized and supported by someone who genuinely cares.