How to Talk About Sex from a PACT Perspective
Nov 16, 2022
By Kelifern Pomeranz, PsyD, CST
PACT Level 3 Therapist
Yolanda and Miguel struggle to talk about sex. Yolanda worries that Miguel is no longer attracted to her and feels insecure, rejected, and confused. Miguel has always had a low libido and more recently has been having difficulty maintaining erections. He is embarrassed, sad, and full of shame about his lack of desire and sexual performance and often withdraws as a result. Miguel’s withdrawal only increases Yolanda’s suspicion and anxiety that he no longer wishes to be with her.
Tao and Arthur struggle to talk about sex. While deeply in love they have always had different sexual wants and desires. Upon mutual agreement, they seek sexual partners outside of their relationship to satisfy the majority of their sexual needs. As time goes on, they worry about how this sexual incompatibility (not having sex with each other) will impact their future together.
Maddox and Penelope struggle to talk about sex. He is scared to initiate intimacy as she often shoots him down, and he is starting to have increased sexual thoughts about other women. He feels rejected, frustrated, and hopeless about intimacy in the marriage. Penelope struggles with a history of sexual trauma, depression, and sexual pain. She feels pressured, sad, and a deep sense of shame, often describing herself as "broken." Her strategy has been to avoid talking about sex, but she is starting to notice Maddox's unhappiness and is concerned about the level of disconnection in their relationship.
Opening Up Fraught Topics
Partners often navigate life's daily tasks and struggles (e.g., chores, work, children) with relative skill, grace, and humility. In my office, couples often describe their relationship using the following descriptors: “roommates,” “teammates,” and “best friends.” Rarely do I hear “lovers.”
Couples often feel deeply connected in their love and partnership but deeply alone in their sexuality.
Sex is often a fraught topic in relationships. Years upon years of not knowing how to communicate about this subject can lead to a buildup of hurt, anger, fear, and resentment. When one partner broaches the topic, it can trigger the other which may lead to immediate shut-down or hostility. And once we dig deeper, other relational distress (that also hasn't been talked about) tends to emerge which has an impact on sexual desire and expression (e.g., unbalanced gender and/or identity roles, unhealed relational wounds, unmet attachment needs, misaligned values).
It is a unique privilege as an AASECT-certified sex therapist and PACT clinician to help couple's navigate conversations about sexual needs, wants, desires, fears, and possibilities. With these conversations, relationships deepen, partners begin to feel more alive, and both individuals feel a newfound sense of connection and satisfaction.
Talking About Sex with Your Partner from a PACT Perspective
- Schedule "the talk." Don't surprise your partner with an immediate demand to talk about sex, especially when you are feeling overly emotional about it. Set up a time with your partner that works for the both of you. You may initiate this conversation by saying something like, "I want to feel closer and more connected with you. Can we set up a time to talk about how we feel about intimacy in our relationship? I look forward to hearing how things feel for you."
- Express appreciation. At the beginning of the talk, express gratitude and appreciation for your partner's willingness to not wall off an important part of themselves from you. Lead with what has been going well in the relationship in terms of intimacy and connection. Be clear and honest about what you hope will be different, and reassure your partner that you are motivated to figure out a solution that feels mutually satisfying.
- Get curious about your partner's sexual world. This includes their sexual interests, hopes, and fantasies. Be aware that your partner might not be as ready as you are to have these types of discussions and might need to take it slow. You should think of these conversations as the beginning of an ongoing dialogue. Pay attention to your partner's physical movements and facial expressions. Notice their discomfort and excitement. If they look like they are feeling overwhelmed or beginning to shut down, take a break.
- Don't mask vulnerability with anger. Irritability, frustration, or anger can arise when talking about unmet intimacy needs. These emotions serve as a shield to deeper emotions such as hurt, fear, loneliness, and vulnerability. Anger only serves to push your partner further away. Choose connection over protection. If the heat begins to rise, slow the conversation down. Soften your posture and tone. Articulate the vulnerable feelings underlying your anger so that your partner can truly understand your experience and not feel pushed away.
- Take a nonjudgmental stance. Talking about sex can be quite fraught but remember, this is someone that you deeply care about who is being brave by sharing their vulnerability with you. Be careful with your wording. Saying things like, "That's gross," "I can't believe you are into that," or "I can't believe you are not over that yet," can be deeply shaming and damaging to the relationship. Instead, give yourself time to process what your partner is communicating to you (especially if it is difficult for you to hear) before commenting. Something along the lines of, "Hmm....I have never thought about that. I need some time to process everything you are saying before I respond." Be open to deepening your knowledge of your partner's interests, turn-ons, turn-offs, and trauma.
- Be patient. Our relationship with sex is influenced by a complex and multifaceted system comprised of biological, social, economic, racial, religious, and cultural factors. We often intellectually understand these complexities but emotionally often want intimacy issues to be quickly and easily solved. Working together to acknowledge, appreciate, and address the underlying influences and barriers to sexual expression can make the journey feel connecting rather than disconnecting. Reading articles and books or listening to podcasts to better understand your partner's interests and/or experiences can be helpful.
- Don't threaten the relationship. Partners often resort to threats of breaking up or divorcing when they feel sexually misunderstood. This undermines the safety and security of the relationship. Conversations about sexual incompatibilities can be incredibly difficult. Agree to talk during a time that works for the both of you. Decide on the rules of engagement beforehand, such as actively listening to one other with curiosity, openness, kindness, and non-defensiveness. Agree to stay on topic, discuss one thing at a time, and take turns so that each individual feels listened to and understood. Begin the conversation with vulnerability rather than anger and finger pointing. Remember that you are in each other's care so if you say something that hurts your partner, provide relief through touch, empathy, and ownership of your missteps. If either of you starts to move outside of your window of tolerance, slow things down and see if you can co-regulate through eye-gazing, matching your breath, and/or physical touch. If you are unable to state shift and remain too emotionally dysregulated, agree to take a break with a planned reunion. When you come back together after time apart, reassure one another that you are in this together and are committed to improving the relationship.
- Seek help. If you try talking about sex with your partner but seem to hit a wall time and time again, seek out one of many skilled sex therapists who is highly trained to help guide you through delicate sexual conversations. A couple therapist with specific sexual knowledge can help educate, normalize, and facilitate sex-related discussions. There is no shame in asking a sex therapist to help you up your bedroom game!