One of the most common concerns sex and marital therapists see are problems with couples’ sex lives. Frequency, behaviors, types of sex acts, masturbation, appoved or disapproved fantasies – these all play a part. There are millions of internet advice pieces on this topic. I have a different take on solving this problem than most. To me, the tactical tips offered by many of these internet sources are not helpful. I believe that, while well-intended, they are premature. Unless you first address some underlying issues, these quick fixes won’t work for long.
1. Recommit to having a better sex life
Remember when you first became sexual with your partner? It was easy, frequent and hot (or at least that’s how many folks remember it). Now, it takes planning, juggling, and determination, happens rarely (if at all), and is often far from hot. What happened? More importantly, what can we do?
A lot of “experts” give you a list of tactical suggestions about new positions, new places, or similar ideas. These are great, but extremely limited. They assume that any underlying issues getting in the way of having the sex you want either don’t exist or have magically been resolved. Applying tactics when you haven’t dealt with the root causes is an exercise in frustration. Having sex in a treehouse isn’t going to improve your relationship if one (or both) of you doesn’t really want to have sex anywhere!
The Affirmative Intimacy™ approach to relationships is designed to help you with the skills to get the relationship you want. Central to achieving that is helping you accept complete responsibility for yourself and for getting what you want in relationship. This includes your sexual satisfaction.
An essential first step is recommitting with your partner that you both want a vibrant, fulfilling sex life together. This is a root cause matter. There are those who have so little sexual desire they simply don’t much care about having a partnered sex life. Others have let their desire waste away from disuse. Or they’ve pushed their desire to the back of their emotional closet for so long they’ve completely lost touch with it. There sometimes are physical challenges that must be addressed, especially as we age. And, there are many “unrelated” issues that can erase your sex life if not addressed.
But research demonstrates that a fulfilling and satisfying sex life is strongly associated with good health and relationship satisfaction. There are powerful and important benefits to be had by getting this right!
So, you and your partner must first have a thoughtful and detailed conversation about your respective willingness to recommit enthusiastically to the sexual component of your relationship. My Safe Space, Structured Dialog, and Mindful Reason techniques can help with this. You then need to work together to demolish any obstacles to prioritizing this aspect of your relationship.
If you can’t master this, no amount of “date nights” or “sexy texts” are going to restore the health of your relationship. There are other measures you can take if you’re deadlocked, but those are beyond the scope of this post.
2. “Normal is just a cycle on the washing machine” – Whoopi Goldberg
Own your desires, turn-ons, ideal partner preference, fantasies and preferred approaches to sex. Collectively, these constitute your lovemap. Forget everything you think you know about what’s “normal.” Each of us is perfectly individual; we all have different life experiences from birth. Even identical twins raised together will have differences in their lovemaps. My point here is to avoid self-shaming, and to build resistance to shaming from others, about your lovemap. Unless your lovemap leads to abusive or criminal behavior, it’s ok.
What is a lovemap? The term comes from a 1986 book by Johns Hopkins University researcher John Money. Money defined it as “a developmental representation or template in the mind and in the brain depicting the idealized lover and the idealized program of sexual and erotic activity projected in imagery or actually engaged in with that lover.”
As we grow up in a particular culture at a particular time, cultural norms shape our sexuality. So do life experiences and family-of-origin norms. We each develop a detailed lovemap that incorporates these inputs and our own reactions to them. Money believed this process begins as early as five years old. Whenever a sexual or potentially sexual situation occurs – real or virtual – we unconsciously consult our lovemap to see if we find it arousing. This then leads us toward satisfying our sexual needs in ways consistent with what we’ve learned and internalized.
3. For better sex, share your fantasies with your partner and ask your partner to do the same
Once you’ve identified your lovemap and associated fantasies, invite your partner to do the same. When they’ve finished, it’s time to share with each other! Research proves that doing this is good for your relationship. It can be an incredibly hot experience for both of you, if you’ve correctly set the stage. My Safe Space training might prove very valuable in getting this right the first time!
4. Accept your partner’s desires, turn-ons, fantasies and preferred approaches (It doesn’t mean you have to do them)
Here’s where a lot of conversations around sexuality and lovemaps go off the rails. To allow vulnerability and honesty, we must commit to unconditional acceptance of each other. It doesn’t matter if we find our partner’s lovemap appealing or appalling; it’s theirs and they have every right to it. Resist any temptation to express disgust or to practice shaming behaviors. It’s perfectly fine to ask for elaboration or clarification, so long as it’s not a setup for launching a put-down.
By accepting, I don’t mean endorsing or committing to act upon your partner’s lovemap. In truth, many of us entertain fantasies that we’d really never want to enact in real life – and that’s ok! They can still be hot and juicy stimuli during a somewhat tamer sexual encounter.
Also, QTIP – quit taking it personally! Resist the urge to judge your partner’s disclosures as a reflection on you, your looks, your skills, or your physical endowments! It doesn’t matter where they came from. This sexual lovemap formed long before your partner ever knew you! Lovemaps typically can be changed only around the margins.
5. Agree on boundaries – then agree to push them a little!
As I said, once you’ve shared your fantasies and lovemaps, you can have an honest conversation about which, if any, might be fulfilled. Set forth your boundaries and limits as clearly as you possibly can. That said, I invite you to give serious consideration to pushing your own boundaries a little. Sometimes our baggage around sexuality causes us to be so limited in our sexual repertoire that we never experience some very interesting and pleasurable variations.
Pleasurable and enjoyable sex is first and foremost about mutual consent and consideration. That said, rigidity denies so many opportunities in the bedroom. Strive to be flexible and willing whenever possible. It can pay off in mind-blowing sexual experiences we would have missed out on if we stubbornly stayed within our safe, quiet shell.
6. Reclaim a healthy sense of sexual entitlement!
As an adult human being, you are entitled to a fulfilling sexual life. That’s what I mean by a healthy sense of entitlement. This absolutely can’t come at the expense of others’ well-being! But neither should you easily surrender this basic human right. You have every right to take every ethical step possible toward meeting this human goal. This does not make you a “sex addict” or a nymphomaniac! As I noted above, the path to achieving this goal lies in mutual consent and consideration. Practice both, liberally and frequently. Within reason, do not seek to deny or infringe each other’s rights in this matter.
7. Then do it! Negotiate win-win scenarios and stretch your boundaries (it feels so good once you’ve tried it!)
Enough contemplation! Take action. Have the conversations, negotiate together how you can each meet your goals, stretch your boundaries a little, and have at it! Now you can bring in all of the tactical tricks that the sex advice columns focus on to the exclusion of addressing the bedrock sexual concerns I’ve touched on here.
Want to know more about my approach to keeping relationships fulfilling, happy, and lusty? Get my free ebook, What’s Wrong With Our Relationships?