Let’s talk about sex. No, really, let’s talk about it – because what better day is there than Valentine’s Day to enliven the sexual intimacy in our marriages? And it turns out: if we can just press through a little awkwardness, research published in my new book Secrets of Sex & Marriage shows that couples who can talk about sex are likely to have more sex and better marriages. Yes, you read that right!
Now, I know what many of you are thinking, because it was what I was thinking when I first started researching this topic: It’s pretty uncomfortable to talk about this stuff. Among those we surveyed for our Marriage Intimacy Project , 73% of couples simply weren’t comfortable talking together about the most intimate part of their relationship. Just 27% of couples reported that they could talk about sex without awkwardness or difficulty.
You may also be thinking, Does it really matter that much? After all, actions speak louder than words. And our research showed yes, it really does matter that much – because without the words, you may not be getting much action!
Thankfully, there is good news for everyone here…and three ways to get to talking with your spouse in a way that is authentic and comfortable for both of you.
The good news: if you can talk about sex, you’re more likely to be happy in your marriage… and have more sex.
In our surveys, those who comfortably talk about sex were far more likely to be on the highest rungs of marital happiness (89%) than those who avoided talking about sex altogether (62%). Even more fascinating, those who could talk about sex were actually having more sex. As just one example, 74% of those with great communication had sex once a week or more while only 22% of those with poor communication connected that often! (More research is needed to find out how much of this is causal rather than just correlated, but clinical experience confirms that talking really matters.)
Maybe you’d like to climb a few rungs on that happiness or frequency ladder, but deep down inside you’re also thinking: I’m too embarrassed to talk about frequency, or technicalities, or what I’m doing wrong, or really – any of it! Or maybe, you simply avoid talking because you’ve tried before and don’t think it will make any difference.
If more openness and understanding sounds good to you – if you could just figure out how – here are a few points that may help you get started.
When you have challenges in your intimate relationship, it’s not actually about sex but about other factors running under the surface.
Our issues around sex are rarely about the technicalities of sex. This is the same basic principle that we uncovered in researching and writing about the other big “issue” in marriage, for Thriving in Love & Money. As we have stated before, tension around money isn’t actually about the money – it is about what’s underneath the surface. It’s our feelings about money, our expectations, and so on. The same holds true with sexual intimacy.
What might this look like in practical terms? For the easiest example, think about a stereotypical couple, Billy and Brittany, who are in a strained season of marriage and aren’t intimately connecting very often. Maybe Billy privately believes something like She knows sex is important to me, so if she really cared about me she would want to have sex more. Maybe Brittany believes, He is traveling all the time, and doesn’t want to talk when he gets back, he just wants to jump into bed; he seems to care about sex more than me.
As you might imagine, what’s going on isn’t about the actual sex, right? It’s not about who wants more or how often it is happening. It may look like that on the surface because that is what they are arguing about. But as you can probably tell, it is actually about two people who both feel like their spouse doesn’t really care about them. And since our previous research revealed that even in struggling relationships, 97% of couples really do care about each other, that’s most likely not the actual explanation either. So what else might be going on?
Perhaps in this hypothetical case, the “under the surface” explanation is that Billy doesn’t know how to say that he feels lonely after being on the road for a week. But he instinctively feels that if he can sexually connect with Brittany, he will feel immediately closer to her – and that is what he is going for. (In other words, he wants to jump into bed because he cares about her and the relationship.) Or perhaps Brittany doesn’t know how to explain that she has a different type of desire than Billy does (see last week’s blog), and instinctively makes her decision on whether to connect in the bedroom by how she feels about the relationship outside the bedroom. (In other words, she wants to connect by talking first because she cares about him and wants to want intimate connection as well.)
See how what is going on isn’t really about the technicalities of sex, per se? It’s about a bunch of other factors.
Realize that what you’ll start talking about is the under-the-surface stuff – not the awkward technicalities.
So to get started in conversation with your spouse, focus on that under-the-surface stuff. Where talking about technique or fantasies may initially seem like a bridge too far, the under-the-surface factors are where real breakthrough begins anyway. Then, eventually, you will be comfortable enough to share other things with one another – things you’ve been wishing the other person knew – and build a joint vision for what you both want your intimate life to look like.
But at the outset, dig into the other stuff that could be playing a role in how you feel in this area of your marriage.
For example, maybe you didn’t have good guidance on sexuality when you were growing up and you feel hesitant. Or maybe you pull back because you want more sex but don’t want to pressure your spouse…and then feel undesirable because your spouse never seems to want to initiate (if that’s you, read about the two types of desire in last week’s blog). Perhaps, like Brittany and Billy, you need to talk about relationship issues, potentially guided by a counselor or mentor. Or maybe insecurities about body image are holding you back from fully expressing yourself sexually. (If so, you might be interested to know that nearly half of our survey respondents, mostly women, feel self-conscious about their spouse seeing them naked, and yet 73% of those surveyed – the same people! – do want to see their spouse naked even with their imperfections. Recognizing that your spouse enjoys you in that way can help you open up more, conversationally and sexually.)
There are many potential factors running under the surface. Every couple is different, and sharing what matters to each of you could help you untangle patterns that are hurting both of you. Patterns that are causing emotional, marital, and sexual intimacy to suffer.
As a start, read through Secrets of Sex & Marriage together and discuss what matters to each of you.
The research we present in Secrets of Sex & Marriage includes the largest nationally representative study ever conducted with married couples about sex. We’re really proud of the work we did over a three-year span to understand what’s happening (or not happening) with married couples in the bedroom. While our findings will not apply equally to all readers, the key findings are true and helpful to most couples in most situations. (And where they don’t apply, or where a relationship is particularly troubled, we urge you to seek additional help.)
We designed the book so you can read it together. So read a few paragraphs out loud, then stop and talk to one another about what applies to each of you. Do you have these particular insecurities? How would you answer this survey question? Does this particular point apply to you? It will help you articulate those things you’ve been wishing your spouse knew, but that you didn’t quite know how to say. It will also help you return to topics that you’ve tried to discuss before, by giving each of you validation and a voice.
“Who would not love to have a sexual superpower?”
Learning about each other’s tendencies, beliefs, and insecurities – and talking about them as you go – may be the best investment you’ve ever made in your marriage. As one review of the book put it: “One of my favorite quotes from the book says, ‘Once you cultivate the desire to learn the intimate things that make your spouse tick, you will see that curiosity truly is a sexual superpower.’ Who would not love to have a sexual superpower?”
Just think, if you try these conversation starters, you might make more than a Valentine’s Day for the books. You might just make a marriage for the books.
This article was also published at Patheos.
Order Shaunti’s NEW Book Secrets of Sex & Marriage.
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