No doubt about it: Talking about sex—particularly bringing up ideas outside your comfort zone—can get a bit uncomfortable. In fact, too many people go a lifetime without broaching sexual subjects they really long to address with their partner. That’s too bad, because by not bringing your hidden desires into the light, you deprive yourself and your spouse of some pretty amazing experiences.
The first hurdle is getting up the nerve to share what you really want. The second is expressing it in a way that isn’t threatening or off-putting, but that builds intimacy and hopefully turns your partner on.
Below are a few tips for both the sharer and the receiver of new, boundary-pushing sexual suggestions.
How to Talk to Your Partner About Sex
Connect non-verbally first. Practice eye-gazing (this is an incredibly powerful technique), take a bath together, or give one another a neck massage. Once you have established a feeling of connection, you can begin the discussion.
Your message will be heard more easily if you create a sense of physical harmony before speaking. Communication is as much about the feelings you convey as it is about the words you speak.
First, describe in detail what’s strongest and most satisfying in your marriage and sex life. It’s best to approach sexuality from a sense of abundance rather than scarcity, with a focus on how to get even more pleasure rather than on what’s lacking. Tell your spouse in as much detail as possible just how much you enjoy your sexual interactions and offer honest praise for his/her skills as a lover.
If you’re not feeling great about things as they are currently, remember some great past encounters and talk about how much you enjoyed them. People often go into detail about grievances but neglect to be specific about the positive.
Then, take the leap and bring up something new. This will vary depending on your comfort level. Once you’ve established the mood, you might suggest watching a movie or reading a piece of erotica that portrays your desire. Afterwards you both can talk about it without it being too personal.
For example, you might have gotten turned on by a pick-up scene in a movie. Try saying something like, "Wasn’t it hot when they met in the elevator, locked eyes, and then went back to his hotel room and had wild sex, barely having said a word to each other? Would you be interested in acting that out and pretending we’re strangers?"
“People often go into detail about grievances but neglect to be specific about the positive.”
Invite your spouse into your inner world. Sometimes a particular activity may not seem appealing without context or on first hearing. If you can describe the feelings it evokes in you and how and why it turns you on, your partner may be able to get turned on by your excitement.
Try saying, "I love the way you look when we’re having sex. It turns me on to think about other people seeing you too, and watching us. I like showing off and love showing you off. I would love to have sex outside on the balcony tonight. The thought of getting 'caught' turns me on too. Of course, we can make sure that there’s no chance that anyone will see, but we can pretend that they might. What do you think?"
How to Listen When Your Spouse Talks About Sex
Avoid knee-jerk responses. If your partner’s suggestion makes you uncomfortable, try to avoid snap judgments and don’t say anything negative, hostile, or shaming. "That’s disgusting" is perhaps the worst thing you can possibly say. Even if you feel a little grossed out, it’s much better to ask questions until you understand what it is that turns your partner on and why.
Even if the fantasy remains unappealing, you should avoid saying anything that might damage your spouse's self-esteem. Talking about a secret fantasy takes courage and is a display of trust; convey your appreciation for that courage even if you aren’t interested in participating.
Don’t indulge in self-comparison. Many of our sexual proclivities are well established before adulthood, so it is important to not take the suggestion of a new activity as a judgment of you or your relationship. This often comes up in conversations about pornography. If you’re watching porn together, or if you know your partner watches it alone, don’t assume that your partner is comparing you to the performers, either in terms of appearance or prowess. That’s usually not the case.
“ Many of our sexual proclivities are well established before adulthood, so it is important to not take the suggestion of a new activity as a judgment of you or your relationship.”
If you’re just not willing to do it, offer up an alternative idea. There is always room for creativity and respect for your current relationship boundaries. If going full on and engaging in the activity is not something you are prepared to do, try to find a substitute––reading erotica, holding your partner as she/he masturbates and talks through the fantasy, or watching a film.
There’s no one answer in these circumstances and finding the alternative will depend on the circumstances, the fantasy, and your creativity. For example, if you don’t want to get naked at the clothing-optional beach, you could always suggest that you go to the beach and be present while your partner gets naked. You’re showing your partner that you can meet him or her halfway—and halfway often goes a long way.
Mark A. Michaels and Patricia Johnson are the authors of the new book "Designer Relationships: A Guide to Happy Monogamy, Positive Polyamory, and Optimistic Open Relationships". A devoted married couple, they have been creative collaborators––teaching and writing about relationships, sexuality, and Tantra––since 1999. In addition to Designer Relationships, they have written Partners in Passion, "Great Sex Made Simple, Tantra for Erotic Empowerment," and The Essence of Tantric Sexuality".
Internationally known as experts in sexuality, Michaels and Johnson have taught throughout the United States, as well as in Canada, Europe, and Australia. They have been featured on television and radio and widely quoted in numerous publications. They are cofounders of the Pleasure Salon, a monthly gathering in New York City that brings together sex-positive people and pleasure activists from a variety of communities. Michaels is a graduate of New York University School of Law and holds master’s degrees in American Studies from NYU and Yale. Johnson is a retired professional operatic soprano who toured extensively throughout the United States, Europe, and South America. She currently works in turtle conservation; she is certified in reptile monitoring by the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation and is a New York state-licensed wildlife rehabilitator.