Ever since I started my Ask Gigi advice column, I’ve been inundated with questions about sex and relationships, and at the root of each and every one of my reader emails is communication. It doesn’t matter what the inquiry is — How do I know if they’re interested in getting serious? How do I tell them I need a little space? How do I share my needs? — the whole reason I’m being asked it is because the person writing the email has no idea how to ask their partner.
“It can feel very vulnerable and ‘uncool’ to tell someone how you are really feeling and about what you want in a relationship, but it’s vital in order to build trust and ensure that you’re on the same page,” says Pam Shaffer, LMFT. “It also builds empathy when you are able to disclose your emotions to the person you’re dating, and you are more likely to be able to connect on meaningful milestones for you both.”
Couples often get out of the honeymoon phase and suddenly realize they don’t understand how to communicate with each other. Once those initial sparks wear off, we have to actually … work through real human experiences and feelings. And while this is true of all couples, it can be especially heightened among heterosexual couples. There are different cultural expectations put on cis-men and cis-women: the former as a-emotional horn-dogs and the latter as touchy-feely, emotionally flooded humans. When we find ourselves in situations that require us to venture outside of these brackets, we don’t know what to do.
The hard truth is we sometimes have to, often in these five challenging areas.
1. What You Want Sexually
Talking about sex is a huge issue for couples. Thanks in no small part to the state of sex ed in this country, we are taught very little about our bodies and essentially nothing about pleasure. We aren’t given a vocabulary around sexuality, making it pretty difficult to communicate what we do and do not want.
Certified relationship coach and clinical sexologist Lucy Rowett says the first step in communicating your sexual desires is learning about your own pleasure. If you can’t bring yourself sexual pleasure, how can you tell a partner what you like? “Take time to explore yourself, because many women don’t know what they want in the first place,” she says. Then, be prepared to give some direction, albeit gently. “You can open with phrases like, ‘I feel nervous to tell you this, but I want to be able to feel more pleasure and I don’t really know where to start. Can we try XYZ?’” Rowett tells us. “Then, use phrases like ‘up a bit,’ ‘down a bit,’ ‘harder,’ and ‘softer.’”
Once you feel something you like, affirm your partner. Tell them how good it feels. This goes both ways. Be willing to ask your partner what they like, listen to them, and experiment in order to learn.
2. Relationship Milestones
In the early stages of relationships, asking, “Where is this going? Is this getting serious or are we just ‘dating?’” or putting specific labels on things can range from pretty intimidating to downright terrifying.
Shaffer says to go forth and not worry about looking cool. “Tell people when you like them and also respectfully inform them of your intentions if you want to keep it more casual,” she says.
To bring this up, simply ask a question that is both direct and positive. You want to be upbeat but also clear. For example, you might say, “I really like you and like where this is going. I just want to be sure we’re on the same page. Do you see this as something more serious? Because that is what I’m looking for.”
You can also simply say, “You’re really great and I’m wondering, are you still seeing other people? Because I’d be open to the idea of just dating each other.”
If you try to play it coy and hope for the best, you’ll just wind up playing yourself. Life is too short to waste your time. If you are super into this person, say how you feel. If someone is into you in the same way, they’re going to be down with this conversation. If they dip out, isn’t it better you know now?
3. Conflicting Love Languages
Love languages are a huge part of communication that we aren’t taught. Certified sex therapist Moushumi Ghose, MFT, suggests taking your education around them into your own hands in order to understand the basics. (You can check out a few great videos here, here, and here.)
“Love languages” refer to the ways in which we like to receive and feel love. They include: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch. The issue we run into in relationships is that we usually give love the way we want to receive love. Meaning, you may be giving your partner love in a love language they don’t respond to.
Rowett advises clients to take the love languages quiz with their partners or potential partners (yes, this is a thing!) to figure out where they stand. “You’ll almost certainly have one or two languages that are different, so this is [a good] time to really appreciate how your partner is different than you,” she says. “Relationships need both people to work, and what you think will make your partner feel happy may not actually be [what does].”
4. Your Needs
Many of us don’t want to feel like we’re “too much,” or we fear feeling judged. We also don’t speak up about what we desire because we worry our partner will shut down upon receiving any sort of criticism or feedback, which is a very valid concern given that this is exactly what many of us have experienced.
Before you can share, Ghose says you must clearly define your needs. “If we don’t take care of ourselves first, we not only disempower ourselves, we also disempower our partners,” she says. “We rob them of the opportunity to learn about us and themselves, and we prevent growth.”
“You need to directly ask for what you need using ‘I’ statements,” Rowett says. “Be willing to hear a ‘no.’” If you receive one, you have to look back at your core values and what you want out of a relationship. Is this “no” something you can work with, or is it a deal breaker? Is there an alternative route you can explore?
As with all communication, it takes two to tango. Both you and your partner need to be willing to talk as well as listen. The bottom line is compromise — you must take each other’s needs into consideration and strive to find common ground.
5. Differences In Libido
A difference in sex drives is basically a given in a relationship, in part because libidos dip, rise, and plateau at different points in our lives for myriad reasons.
Rowett says to effectively communicate about mismatched libidos, you must first define what “sex” and “intimacy” really mean to you. What do you need to feel close to your partner? Once you figure that out, you can develop language to communicate your needs. Start with what you really love about your sex life and then add what you’d like more (or less) of.
You’ll need to figure out together what each of you needs to make your sex life thrive. Perhaps you can have sex once per week? Twice per week? Maybe you engage in tantra or massage rather than intercourse.
Rowett also stresses that intercourse is not the be-all-end-all of sex. “Explore how you can still be intimate without having intercourse,” she says. “Sometimes you need to go right back to basics and get back to just touching each other and enjoying physical closeness.”
Remember, this is about the two of you, and you’re both entitled to sexual satisfaction. “The best thing you can do is accept where your partner is at and that they might have a different experience of sexuality than you do,” Shaffer says. “It’s vital to not take it personally if your partner is more or less into sex at the moment.”
Communication problems happen, and we need to take the time to really dig deep and work through them if we have any shot of making a relationship work. Be clear. Be honest. And don’t be afraid to be vulnerable.