Sex Talk: How Communication Builds Intimacy

Smiling couple embracingI just finished a wonderful book by Peter Lovenheim called In the Neighborhood; The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time. The author laments that we don’t really know the folk who live on our block. So he goes to his neighbors’ homes and spends the night, just like we did as teenagers. Each time he invites the adults to really “open up” about their lives and values. The one thing he avoids discussing is sexual intimacy—how sexual a relationship is and whether or not the partners are happy with their current level of intimacy. My own friends know I’m a marriage therapist and clinical sexologist, but none of them have ever spontaneously opened up to me about their sex lives. Most people are just not comfortable talking about sex.

What would we ask? What would we share? The big question in our highly quantitative culture is probably, are we having enough? Most sex therapists concur that a sexless relationship is defined as one in which the partners have sex less than once a month or less than ten times a year. My colleagues are, of course, referring to “pivi” (penis-in-vagina intercourse). This eliminates same-gender couples and heterosexual couples who prefer other forms of sexual intimacy. I’ve certainly worked with many couples happy to have “pivi” less than monthly who would not describe their relationship as sexless!

After all, sex isn’t the only way to express love or show affection.

I’ve also worked with dozens of women over the years who “submit” to pivi once a week because their partners demand and expect it. These women become increasingly resentful and even hostile, which certainly doesn’t make for a mutually satisfying and trusting relationship. Compare this to the couple that makes time at least once a week to truly connect in ways that might not be overtly sexual. If sharing time, feelings, and needs without pivi truly meets both partners’ intimate needs, they will be quite happy.

Do you believe that you and your partner are mutually satisfied? If you’ve never talked about it, you’re not alone. We often assume that talking about sex will lead to our partner wanting more or wanting it with someone else. And we don’t want to embarrass, wound, or create tension by admitting that we yearn to have our partner bathe or shower before sex or would prefer to be approached in a more romantic way. So we silently comply, disengage, or withhold.

By the time people make it into my office this silence has usually become deafening. You might find yourself in these examples: a man who is worried that he might be impotent, so erectile problems lead to his withdrawal; a woman who feels rejected by his lack of overtures and says nothing; or a woman who fears she’s becoming “frigid” (yes I still hear this term!) and avoids intimacy by staying up late doing Facebook or going to bed hours before he does.

In my office I’m constantly looking for ways to help my couples become more comfortable talking about sex. One of the most important ways to approach this difficult subject is through appreciation. “Something I really enjoy (or enjoyed, even if it was a long time ago) and would like more of is ______.” Regardless of the rate or type of expression of intimacy in your relationship, appreciate it when and if it occurs. “I really loved it when you tenderly stroked my cheek just now…it makes me feel that you truly care.”

Sexual intimacy comprises so much more than genital contact. It’s about how we embrace, touch, chide, celebrate, lean on, listen to, nickname, and especially laugh with one another. Sometimes cake is even tastier without the icing!

Related articles:
Sexual Starvation
Is Your Sex Life “Disordered” or Just Dull?
7 Steps for Talking Your Way to a Better Sex Life

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jill Denton, LMFT, CSAT, CSE, CCS, Sexuality / Sex Therapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • MelG

    March 29th, 2012 at 3:31 PM

    The thought of talking to someone other than my husband about sex just kind of gives me the creeps. It’s weird to be sharing those intimate secrets with someone else who is not going to share in that physicality with you. It seems strange that that’s all we wanted to talk about with others when we were teens, but now we all clam up. And that seems natural. The people that I find odd are the adults in my life who seem to enjoy telling all of those bedroom secrets, because for me that should be something private and sacred between the couple, and not everyone else.

  • vera

    March 29th, 2012 at 4:53 PM

    Sometimes the cake is even tastier without the icing?
    I think that you are gonna have a lot of men to respond to that in the negative!

  • Brent B

    March 30th, 2012 at 4:14 AM

    My wife and I are so much closer after going through treatment like this. Some of you have voiced that it must be hard to talk to a sexoloogist, but for us it felt so easy because this was someone who understood our issues and gave us real world things to try to get our relationship back on track again.
    We had tried the stuff the magazines said, watched Dr. Phil, everything you could imagine. But it wasn’t until we got to sit down with someone in neutral territory and put into words exactly what was going on with the both of us that we were really able to talk about the problems and create solutions.
    It did not happen over the course of just one session, and we definitely had some homework! But most of that was pretty pleasant and it has made us so much stronger as a result.

  • Burt

    March 30th, 2012 at 3:19 PM

    Brent, we need to have a conversation for me to find out how you even got your wife to agree to go to a sex therapist! I want to go but my wife refuses, thinks we got no problems in that area. But there are problems for me, but I’m not sure that anything would change if I went on my own.


    March 31st, 2012 at 12:30 AM

    I agree sex is not the only way to express the intimacy and it could be through other means too. A lot of people think otherwise and in thinking so they ignore and even forget other way to enjoy each others company and feel the closeness.

    What this does is it closes other avenues while sex is on the decline too. Then it leads to a loss of connection and the relationship is in trouble before you evn know it.So to practice and be comfortable with these other avenues Even when the relationship is perfectly fine and the sex is great would be a good idea.

  • kaci

    April 1st, 2012 at 5:04 AM

    for there to be perfect sexual harmony in the world maybe more men need to recognize that there is more to sex than just pivi!

  • laDonna

    April 1st, 2012 at 11:39 AM

    Sometimes I like just going on walks with my husband, snuggling up on the couch and watching tv, and if that is the kind of time that we get together then we both try to cherish and honor that time. It is sometimes just about those small gestures and kind words, those are the things that make you want to be intimate when you get the chance.

  • Jack

    April 2nd, 2012 at 11:05 AM

    I want to have this conversation to find out if my wife is satisfied with our sex lives, but how can I be sure that the answer she gives me won’t offend me or be different from what I think? What would I honestly do if I found that she thought it was lacking and wnated to try something new? Would I really be able to do that? I am not sure, so I don’t ask/. Sounds silly to say that, but I guess I would choose the live ignorant than to know if there is a different truth that I amight not be ready or willing to face.

  • Jill Denton

    April 3rd, 2012 at 8:45 PM

    Hi Jack – this is Jill…no joke Jill Denton who writes this blog. Responding to your question from yesterday. You can’t be sure that you’ll be comfortable with what your wife tells you, but I’m pretty sure that you’ll be grateful to learn more about what can enahnce your relationship.
    It’s not really useful asking “Are you satisfied?” because that invites a yes or no answer. What I’m suggesting is that you open a conversation. More like “Honey I’d really like to talk more about how we’re both feeling about our sex life…” That opens the door!

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