Why is it so difficult to talk with your partner about sex, and how can you make it easier?
When we don’t explicitly express our needs, we force our partner to guess what we need, writes Professor Bente Træen.
A research finding that consistently appears in study after study is that a lack of sexual satisfaction is linked to poor intimate communication with one’s partner.
Intimate communication means both communication about the purely technical aspects of sex, communication about sexual preferences and fantasies, and communication about the feelings that arise when we have sex with another person.
Verbal and non-verbal communication
Many people find it difficult to put into words what they want sexually, and prefer non-verbal communication to make their partner understand what they want. It can often be good enough, if it concerns clear and (relatively) uncomplicated wishes that are understood and shared by the partner.
In such a situation, you can also use a few, but specific (taboo) words and the communication is clear and distinct: ‘I want this, and I don't want that’, or ‘I like this, and I don't like that’.
However, the world is rarely so simple that everything can be communicated with a few simple words, or with non-verbal communication. Communication becomes more difficult when you consider that any communication on one subject produces an emotion at lightning fast speed.
Long before you have time to think rationally about what is being said, you feel. Your feeling is a Ferrari and your thought is a Fiat, to make a concrete comparison. Your feeling tells you in an instant whether you feel accepted or rejected, liked or disliked, successful or unsuccessful.
To endure this feeling of discomfort, it’s essential to learn something about how to interpret these feelings: you may feel afraid of being abandoned, but does that mean that you are at risk of being abandoned?
You are never seen — but you can feel seen
What we want from our partner is to be seen and accepted for who we see ourselves as. However, each one of us is completely unique, with our unique history and experience. Therefore, we can never be seen, but we can feel seen when the partner guesses correctly in relation to our needs.
Because when we don't explicitly express what we need, we force our partner to guess what we need. Often the guesses are correct, if we have a lot of experience with the partner in question, and correct hypotheses are interpreted as expressions of being seen — my soulmate.
As long as the guesses are correct, everything is fine, but what happens on the day we guess wrong? Will our partner then interpret this as an expression that he or she is no longer seen and accepted, or that the partner no longer loves you? Because this is absolutely a possibility.
Despite the desire to become one with another human being, it is not possible in practice. Therefore, it is vital to always be curious about what the one you love thinks and feels. And if you're going to find out, there's no point in guessing. You have to ask.
In many cases,you may have stopped being curious about your partner — and have stopped asking. Instead, we say what we think our partner feels, such as: ‘ you’re angry’, ‘you’re satisfied’, or ‘you’re jealous’. The partner is deprived of the opportunity to talk about his or her own experience.
What you should do is tell your partner how you feel about him or her. What you should say is ‘I think you’re angry. Is that right?’, ‘I think you look satisfied. Are you?’, or ‘It sounds to me like you're jealous. Are you?’.
By changing how we present our observations of our partner, we allow the partner to be an expert on him- or herself and on who they actually are.
Communication is a risky sport
Communication is undoubtedly a risky sport. It's difficult when the partner comments on our body, or on how we perform in bed. Regardless of the partner's motives or intentions, the effect of what is said will be negative and perceived as rejection.
This rejection makes us believe there are malicious motives and intentions behind what our partner has said. We withdraw, become quiet and try to find an explanation for why our partner has hurt us. Most of the time, however, there aren’t bad intentions behind what people say. People can be thoughtless or awkward, but not mean.
Assuming this is the case, it’s easier to take a step back and explore what the partner's intentions actually are. And it will be easier to get over the crisis and reconcile again. Be brave and dare to ask questions. Explore – without involving your own feelings and experiences. Talk about your own experience, and let your partner keep his or her experience. In short — get good at "having the conversation".
Translated by Nancy Bazilchuk
Ihlen, B. M. & Ihlen, H. (2014). Ubehag. Hvordan vanskelige følelser kan gi gode relasjoner. (Discomfort. How difficult feelings can lead to good relationships.) Cappelen publishing house.
Træen, B. (2022). Kom til min innerste grind. Verktøy for intime samtaler. (Come to my innermost place. Tools for intimate conversations) Gnistr publishing house.
Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no