Sex can be an uncomfortable topic for couples. Many of us feel embarrassed about our bodies or have been sexually rejected at some point. Not to mention our culture and life experiences which have created feelings of sexual shame, making romantic and intimate sex a scary endeavor to even talk about.
In an online study of 70,000 people in 24 countries, researchers found couples who have a great sex life make sex a priority rather than the last item of a long to-do list. They create space for intimacy and connection. These couples talk about sex and put the relationship first, despite the demands of work and kids. They discover sexual pleasure through a variety of methods, not just intercourse.
Sexually satisfied couples are emotionally attuned to each other inside and outside of the bedroom. The key to long-term happiness then, sexually and otherwise, is for both partners to support and value their friendship. Below are five steps to make sex more romantic in your relationship.
Learn the art of sex talk
A major obstacle to having good sex is talking about sex. Since it can be such a sensitive topic, many couples “vague out” rather than vulnerably tell each other what they need.
Only 9% of couples who can’t comfortably talk about sex with one another report they’re satisfied sexually. Talking about sex is a powerful way to deepen intimacy and emotional connection. It allows partners to express their likes and dislikes and work together to build a meaningful sexual relationship with each other.
To create a safe and comfortable space to talk about the intimate details of sex, read Couples That Talk About Sex Have Better Sex.
Each person brings to the relationship their own unique attitude about sex that has been shaped by their life experiences. When I went through sex ed in high school, I was given a textbook that got very technical about human anatomy and physiology, but I don’t remember ever talking about sex within a relationship. I never learned the skills to communicate, handle uncomfortable moments, and talk about sex with someone I loved. So when I got into my sexual relationships, I was ashamed of my desires.
Most books on relationships don’t go into detail on sex, reflecting what most couples do when it comes to sex talk. As a guy, I grew up thinking that sex defined my masculinity, so it became more about my technique rather than passion and intimate conversation with my partner.
Often men worry about their performance and women worry about achieving orgasms. Shere Hite’s research found that men compared achieving an orgasm to scoring a touchdown. Sadly, goal-orientated sex can create sexual dysfunction when the goal isn’t reached. Partners feel like there’s something wrong with them. This pressure and shame make it easy to understand why so many of us are self-conscious about talking about sex.
Instead of trying to focus on the end result, I encourage couples to slow down and enjoy the entire experience. As Dr. Gottman says, “every positive thing you do in your relationship is foreplay.” Every time you turn towards each other, you build trust and intimacy.
By redefining sex, partners can make their physical relationship more pleasurable even if an orgasm isn’t achieved. Ironically, not being stressed about having an orgasm makes it easier to have one. Great sex is the byproduct of a great connection with each other.
Build erotic Love Maps
An erotic Love Map is a guide to what turns your partner on and off erotically. Understanding this is one of the 13 things that creates a great sex life. Building a map of your partner’s body and desires can be achieved by asking specific questions about what they like and what they need.
What felt good about sex last time?
- What did we do that caused you to feel closer and connected to me?
- What did we do that made you relax?
- What did we do that turned you on?
What do you need to make sex better for you?
- What do you need to feel in the mood for sex?
- What makes sex more like lovemaking for you?
- What are fantasies or thoughts you have during sex?
For a detailed list of questions to enhance your erotic Love Maps, check out the Gottman Relationship Coach: All About Intimacy.
Create rituals for initiating and refusing sex
I often hear from couples that their partner should “just know” that they’re feeling horny. The assumption your partner can read your mind is false and limits the depth of your intimate relationship.
Not to mention, learning how to say no to your partner in a way that doesn’t feel hurtful is just as important as learning how to cope with your partner saying no. This sexual initiation and refusal is a dance that can be choreographed to making yes and no feel less personal and more acceptable.
Saying yes to sex While many of us dream of our partners being so attuned to us that they “can just tell I want them,” most of the time our “obvious” signs are not so obvious. Have a conversation with your partner about cues, verbal and nonverbal, that you can count on and look forward to.
A couple from Dr. Gottman’s lab used Korean dolls on the mantle to signal their desire. When one partner wanted sex, he or she put the doll in a new position. The partner then signaled their interest by repositioning the other doll.
Your ritual doesn’t have to be elaborate. It can be as simple as rubbing your partner’s back in a certain way, which allows them the option to continue the physical connection or kindly decline.
Another option is to use the arousal scale created by sex therapist Lonnie Barbach.
Saying no to sex There will be times when you’re just not in the mood. The key to maintaining emotional connection is to refuse sex gently.
According to Dr. Gottman’s research, it has to be okay, even rewarding, for either partner to refuse sex. As counterintuitive as this sounds, the research suggests that rewarding your partner for saying no with a positive response actually leads to more sex.
When you guilt trip your partner, withdraw emotionally, or withhold physical affection for saying no to sex, your bid for sex was not a bid – it was a demand. In Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenbeg highlights that when our partner “hears a demand from us, they see two options: to submit or to rebel.”
The key difference between a demand and a bid is how you behave if your partner refuses. It’s a demand if you criticize or withdraw. It’s a bid if you show empathy toward your partner’s needs when they say no.
For three tools to not feel so rejected when your partner refuses sex, go here.
Questions to ask your partner about refusing sex:
- What should I do if you’re not in the mood?
- If I am really horny for you but you are not feeling it, do you feel comfortable saying no? What do you need from me in order to feel comfortable saying no?
- If you are on the fence about having sex and I am really turned on, what do you need from me? Are you okay with me trying to get you in the mood? If so, how should I approach that?
Have continuous conversations about sexual intimacy
Improving your sex life doesn’t happen overnight. Make an intentional effort to continue talking about sex in your relationship. Ask questions and be curious about your partner’s deepest desires.
Doing so will allow your partner to openly express what they need to feel loved and will keep you attuned to each other’s needs, leading to an emotionally connected and fulfilling sex life.
Learn how to make your relationship work in the first Gottman Relationship Coach program. Unsure which Gottman Relationship Coach product is for you? Take our quiz!
The Marriage Minute is a new email newsletter from The Gottman Institute that will improve your marriage in 60 seconds or less. Over 40 years of research with thousands of couples has proven a simple fact: small things often can create big changes over time. Got a minute? Sign up below.
Kyle works in The Love Lab where he nerds out on the science of relationships. When not highlighting research on a Sunday morning in his bathrobe, Kyle enjoys writing for his blog Kylebenson.net where he takes the research on successful relationships and transforms them into practical tools for romantic partners.