Oh, the things that happen when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and talk about what matters to us. As I explore the ways we ‘show up’ in relationships I’m thinking about the absolute necessity of communication. Because, communication is the key to better sex.
Whether you’re 22 or 62, everything works more smoothly when you’re engaged in communication. Last year I blew up a budding relationship when I expressed my feelings and the man in question bolted instead of risking the conversation. I understood that it made him feel vulnerable—and his walking away, without talking—was a gift to me actually. Because the only way I could have stayed in that relationship with him would have been to shut down my voice—to pretend I was fine with the quiet, awkward, non-communicative way we were having sex.
There are two aspects to good communication–being willing and able to speak our wants and needs and understanding that we only know our story, our feelings and experiences at any given moment, unless we ask. And to ask is often to risk vulnerability. What if they’re not really listening? What if I don’t get the answer I want (which is another issue)…or what if the answer gets turns into a statement of my worth? And what happens when I’m misinterpreting what he’s doing or thinking?
How do we show up in our vulnerability?
Because we are talking about making ourselves vulnerable, about exposing ourselves. I’m not talking about “What do you want to do this weekend?” I’m talking about what happens when we say what’s really going on in the moment, when we share our concerns or our delights—whatever the case may be.
Here’s the personal story that brought this into focus for me. We’re in bed, attempting to have sex. It’s late, way past my bedtime, and I’m tired. But I’m willing. He’s focusing his attention on me, on pleasuring me and I’m quietly enjoying it. In my typically silent way. I’m not as still as to appear asleep but he doesn’t feel like he’s getting enough sound from me to let him know he’s doing a good job.
He asks if I’m asleep, disrupting my energy, our process—and I say no, pointing out that our hands were touching and I was caressing his. He says he took it to be a reflexive thing a body might do in light sleep. And then he tells me that he needs me to vocalize so he’ll know I’m engaged, allowing him to feel aroused and engaged too. It was one of those moments that at 1am I don’t want to deal with…the relationship was already beginning to fizzle. I may have said that I didn’t have the energy to deal with it. I rolled over; he rolled over in the opposite direct and we went to sleep—all this unspoken stuff festering. We did talk, in a general way, about the relationship but I chose not to discuss the specific incident.
I thought a lot about what happened in following days and weeks, and now months later I’m looking at it with some curiosity.
In that moment of being told I needed to vocalize for his benefit everything came to a crashing halt. It indicated to me that we needed a conversation about our different tempos and preferences. I needed to know that he could shift away from focusing on what he needed in the process of trying to give me pleasure—pleasure in the way I needed it, not in the way he thought it should happen.
Communication is the key to having better sex
In intimate moments we have to be able to talk about our needs. We have to be willing to listen to our partner and to engage in conversation. There will always be differences in how two people approach sex. But it’s not a “do it my way or get out”. Yes, there are safety issues and other things, like consent, that aren’t negotiable.
But if you’re going to be intimate with someone you get to hold on to the things that are important to you. You can’t change your personality to match that of a lover’s. Sometimes these possible conflicts can be addressed easily by talking about your sexual needs before the clothes come off. Conversations that begin with “I like ________, what about you?” Or sharing things that you think are important. Obviously the safe sex conversation (The Talk to Have Before You Get Into Bed) comes before clothes are off as well. But it’s the little things that can blow up an encounter. The miscommunications, the oblivious ways we sometimes go about doing what we’ve always done—forgetting that our partner is just that, a partner. Because to partner means to share in an experience. You enter it together and there is an assumption, which can be stated, that both people will actively participate. In a way that feels natural for them.
Now you could say that in my example I should have immediately started vocalizing so he’d feel better. To the extent that it would have taken orgasm off the menu for me? I would have been giving up my pleasure so he could get what he needed–when in the moment the focus was on me. And believe me all too often in the past I’ve given up my own needs to satisfy what I thought a man expected. Giving away my power and my own sexual agency.
There has to be middle ground in any relationship. The only way to figure that out is to talk and then to listen.
As I look back at my story I see that he was mainly talking about himself. He needed to know I was engaged if he was going to go that to trouble. Not his exact words but what I heard (and in a real active listening mode I would have shared that and asked for clarification). He wanted me to change my response style so he could feel turned on. If I had been more invested in the relationship I would have addressed this but I didn’t, because I was ‘done’. He would have been amenable to the conversation and we might have come to a mutual understanding of each other. Unless it turned out that he just wanted it to be his way. He’s not that kind of guy, but lots of them are. They need it to be their way…which means that their partner’s needs aren’t always of equal importance.
Having conversations about the things that are of vital importance to us can be hard, harder for women than men I think. We’re taught to be a bit more deferential, softer, less assertive/aggressive. It is only when we show up as who we really are, deep inside, and we share the things that matter that we have the best chances of successful encounters–in all aspects of life. When it comes to sex it’s harder–we feel embarrassed. Sometimes having to explain makes us feel inadequate, needy.
But I can guarantee you that if you don’t speak up when things aren’t as you want or need them they won’t spontaneously change.
Engaging in honest, occasionally difficult conversations with our intimate partners is worth every bit of the effort. Talk and listen. Keep talking. Share. Appreciate. Find consensus. Acknowledge differences. Don’t we each want the kind of relationship where we are seen and heard? Respected? If those conditions aren’t present then we’re not experiencing the true kind of intimacy that sustains us, or the relationship.
Also published on Medium.