This article was originally published on The Gottman Relationship Blog on Feb 14, 2017, and has been republished.
Intimate sex. For some, just reading that phrase brings discomfort.
Past sexual rejection or embarrassment about our bodies is often to blame for intimacy issues. Not to mention our culture and life experiences which have created feelings of sexual shame, making romantic and intimate sex scary to even talk about.
In an online study of 70,000 people in 24 countries, researchers found several similarities in couples who have a great sex life
- They make sex a priority rather than the last item on a long to-do list.
- They create space for intimacy and connection.
- They talk about sex and put the relationship first, despite the demands of work and kids.
- They discover sexual pleasure through a variety of methods, not just intercourse.
We also know that sexually satisfied couples are emotionally attuned to each other in and out of the bedroom. This tells us that the key to long-term happiness – sexually and otherwise – is for both partners to support and value their friendship.
Click here to go through the Lasting Love Checklist.
The key to more romantic and intimate sex lies in working on the emotional or physical intimacy issues that cause roadblocks in our relationships.
Here are five ways to do just that.
Learn the Art of Intimate Sex Talk
A major obstacle to having good sex is talking about sex.
Since it can be such a sensitive topic, many couples “vague out” rather than vulnerably tell each other what they need.
Only 9% of couples who don’t comfortably talk about sex with one another report they’re satisfied sexually.
Talking about sex is a powerful way to deepen intimacy and emotional connection. It allows partners to express their likes and dislikes and work together to build a meaningful sexual relationship.
If you want to learn how to create a safe and comfortable space to talk about the intimate details of sex, take a look at this.
Each person brings to the relationship their own unique attitude about sex to the relationship. This attitude has been shaped by their life experiences.
When I went through sex ed in high school, I was given a textbook which got very technical about human anatomy and physiology, but I don’t remember ever talking about sex within a relationship. I never learned the skills to handle uncomfortable moments and communicate about sex with someone I loved. So when I eventually got into sexual relationships, I was ashamed of my desires.
Most books on relationships don’t go into detail on sex, reflecting what most couples do when it comes to sex talk. As a guy, I grew up thinking that sex defined my masculinity. So it became more about my technique rather than passion and intimate conversation with my partner.
Men often worry about their performance and women worry about achieving orgasms.
Shere Hite’s research found that men compared achieving an orgasm to scoring a touchdown. Sadly, goal-orientated sex can create sexual dysfunction when the goal isn’t reached. Partners feel like there’s something wrong with them.
This pressure and shame makes it easy to understand why so many of us are self-conscious about talking about sex.
Instead of trying to focus on the end result, I encourage couples to slow down and enjoy the entire experience. As Dr. Gottman says, “every positive thing you do in your relationship is foreplay.”
Every time you turn towards each other, you build trust and intimacy.
By redefining sex, partners can make their physical relationship more pleasurable even if an orgasm isn’t achieved. Ironically, not being stressed about having an orgasm makes it easier to have one.
Great sex is the byproduct of a great connection with each other.
Build Erotic Love Maps
An erotic Love Map is a guide to what turns your partner on and off erotically.
Understanding this is one of the 13 things that creates a great sex life. Building a map of your partner’s body and desires can be achieved by asking specific questions about what they like and what they need.
- What felt good about sex last time?
- What did we do that caused you to feel closer and connected to me?
- What did we do that made you relax?
- What did we do that turned you on?
- What do you need to make sex better for you?
- What do you need to feel in the mood for sex?
- What makes sex more like lovemaking for you?
- What are fantasies or thoughts you have during sex?
If you want to dive further into this area, check out: Erotic Touching: 13 Sexually Enhancing Conversations for Couples & 7 Lovemaking Conversations for Couples
Create Rituals for Initiating and Refusing Sex
I often hear from couples that their partner should “just know” that they’re feeling horny.
But here’s the problem: the assumption your partner can read your mind is false and limits the depth of your intimate relationship.
Not to mention, learning how to say no to your partner in a way that doesn’t feel hurtful is just as important as learning how to cope with your partner saying no.
This sexual initiation and refusal is a dance which can be choreographed to making yes and no feel less personal and more acceptable.
Saying yes to sex
While many of us dream of our partners being so attuned to us that they “can just tell I want them,” most of the time our “obvious” signs are not so obvious.
Have a conversation with your partner about cues, verbal and nonverbal, that you can count on and look forward to.
A couple from Dr. Gottman’s lab used Korean dolls on the mantle to signal their desire.
When one partner wanted sex, he or she put the doll in a new position. The partner then signaled their interest by repositioning the other doll.
Your ritual doesn’t have to be elaborate. It can be as simple as rubbing your partner’s back in a certain way, which allows them the option to continue the physical connection or kindly decline.
Another option is to use the arousal scale created by sex therapist Lonnie Barbach.
Saying no to sex
There will be times when you’re just not in the mood. In that case, the key to maintaining emotional connection is to refuse sex gently.
According to Dr. Gottman’s research, it has to be okay, even rewarding, for either partner to refuse sex. As counterintuitive as this sounds, the research suggests that rewarding your partner for saying no with a positive response actually leads to more sex.
When you guilt trip your partner, withdraw emotionally, or withhold physical affection for saying no to sex, your bid for sex was not a bid – it was a demand.
In Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenbeg highlights that when our partner “hears a demand from us, they see two options: to submit or to rebel.”
The key difference between a demand and a bid is how you behave if the your partner refuses.
It’s a demand if you criticize or withdraw. It’s a bid if you show empathy toward your partner’s needs when they say no.
For three tools to help you not feel so rejected when your partner refuses sex, go here.
Questions to ask your partner about refusing sex:
- What should I do if you’re not in the mood?
- If I am really horny for you but you are not feeling it, do you feel comfortable saying no? What do you need from me in order to feel comfortable saying no?
- If you are on the fence about having sex and I am really turned on, what do you need from me? Are you okay with me trying to get you in the mood? If so, how should I approach that?
Have Continuous Conversations About Sexual Intimacy
Improving your sex life doesn’t happen overnight.
Intimacy is key to having a satisfying, fulfilling, and connected sexual relationship.
Start the Intimacy 5 Challenge Now
Make an intentional effort to continue talking about sex in your relationship. Ask questions and be curious about your partner’s deepest desires.
Doing so will allow your partner to openly express what they need to feel loved and will keep you attuned to each other’s needs, leading to an emotionally connected and fulfilling sex life without intimacy issues getting in the way.
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