If your sex life isn’t fulfilling, there are steps you can take to make it better. A good start is talking to your partner about how you feel about sex.
Denise Knowles is a psychosexual therapist with Relate, a charity that gives relationship counselling. Here, Denise gives advice on talking about sex, whether it’s bringing up a problem or simply telling your partner your likes and dislikes.
Why talking about sex is good
Communication is important in any healthy relationship because it lets you share your feelings and tackle problems together. This is also true of your sex life, especially if something is worrying you.
“If you can talk about things that are going on in your sex life, then you don't have to bury your problems,” says Denise. “It’s often when a problem goes underground that people start to worry about what might be wrong. That’s when a distance arises in the day-to-day relationship.”
For example, if you want sex less often than your partner but you don’t talk about it, your partner may worry that you don’t love them any more, or are having an affair. If you talk about it (perhaps you’re feeling stressed about work, or you’re coming to terms with changes to your body as you get older), then your partner will know the truth, and both of you can work on managing the problem. You can find out more about loss of libido.
“A lot of couples say that they’ve got good communication, but when it comes to their sexual relationship, they’re less able to communicate,” says Denise. “This might be partly because they’re not sure how their partner might react, and partly because of their own attitudes and embarrassment about asking for their needs to be met.”
How and when to say something about sex
Denise agrees that many people find it hard to talk openly about sex, especially if they’ve never spoken about it with their partner. But you can do it.
“You have to pick the right moment,” says Denise. If you're concerned about your sex life, don’t discuss it when you’ve just tried to make love and it hasn’t worked. “Sex is an emotive subject, and you’re in an emotional situation at that time,” she says. “Be reassuring, and say, ‘OK, but I think we need to talk about this another time’. Don’t tell them that everything is fine, because it isn’t.”
Choose a time when you can be alone together and won’t be interrupted by phones ringing or children returning from school.
Think about the words you’ll use. “Many couples don’t say anything for fear of hurting their partner’s feelings,” says Denise. “But if you're not happy with your sex life, it’s OK to be honest about how it’s affecting you.”
In a loving partnership, the two of you can work together to find a solution that works for you both.
Be sensitive about your partner's feelings
You can bring up suggestions or concerns without hurting your partner’s feelings. Be sensitive and reassuring, and ask your partner to share their thoughts with you. Denise suggests saying something like, ‘I’ve noticed we’re not making love as often as we used to, and that kind of bothers me. What do you think about it?’
If your partner asks why you haven’t brought it up before, be honest – perhaps it’s because you weren’t sure how to say it, or you were hoping that things might improve.
Once you’ve raised the subject, you’ll need to give your partner some time. “It can be a shock for your partner. Once the subject is out in the open, you both might need to go away and think about how you’re feeling, and what you could do differently,” says Denise.
“But do come back to it. There’s no point raising the subject, then not following it through with another action, even if that action is to have another discussion.”
Together you can work out how to manage the situation. If you’re both honest about your feelings, you’ve got a better chance of finding a solution that works for both of you. If you don’t feel you can work it out together, then sexual therapy might help.
Lots of couples go to sexual therapists, and a therapist can help you to address issues that you might find difficult to tackle. They can also suggest ways to improve your intimacy and sex life to suit both of you. Find out more: what does a sex therapist do?
Dealing with infidelity
If one partner in the relationship has had an affair, trust is broken. You may feel that you no longer trust them at all.
“If I ask a couple in this situation whether they trust each other to pick up the kids from school or drive each other’s car, they say yes,” says Denise. “So trust hasn’t completely gone. What we’re really talking about is ‘I can’t trust him/her not to go off again’. This can help us to focus on things that perhaps were or weren’t happening in the relationship.”
A couple can recover from an affair if they both want to, but they need to recognise that their relationship will never be the same again. “They have to let go of the old relationship and renegotiate a new one,” says Denise.
If a partner has cheated on you in the past, it can be hard to trust anyone new. “You need to recognise that this new person is not the person who cheated on you,” says Denise. “Recognise the effect that the cheating had on you, and tell your new partner. If they want to be in a relationship with you, they’ll help you.”