Recently, a therapist sent me a great question. I’ll paraphrase it a little: Where is the healthy line between setting boundaries sexually and stretching beyond your comfort zone to please your partner?
The key ingredient, always, is willingness. You always have the right to decide what activities you want to engage in. Most people engage in some sexual activities and not others; there’s no need to do something you don’t want to do–even if it’s the culturally normative thing, and even if it’s what your partner wants you to do. It’s your life, your body, and your decision to make.
It is also true that most people at one time or another stretch outside of their comfort zone, for example in order to explore a new activity. Willingness doesn’t have to mean enthusiasm, complete comfort, or excitement; it means just that–willingness. It’s perfectly fine to decide to do something just because it will make your partner happy, as long as you are able to identify true willingness within yourself.
However, identifying willingness can be a little complicated, because stretching outside of your comfort zone requires that you be in touch with yourself and your own desires, feelings, thoughts, and preferences, and it also requires being able to express your preferences to your partner. Plus, when you express your preferences, your partner will need to respond in a respectful way, without getting upset if it’s not what they wanted to hear or pushing you to change your mind.
To make things even more complicated, it usually isn’t enough to be able to do this just once at the start of the activity. Safety comes from knowing that you can change your mind if you want to, even in the middle of things. Trust comes from knowing your partner will respond well if you express a desire for a course-correction midstream.
If you’re considering a stretch outside of your comfort zone, think about it in terms of bodily flexibility. Imagine bending over to stretch a tight hamstring. At first, it feels uncomfortable. But as you breathe and lean into it you feel your muscles becoming more supple and relaxed, and your range of motion increasing.
There’s a difference between that kind of careful, intentional stretching to increase range of motion and forcing yourself into the splits. While the first might involve some effort and some discomfort, it doesn’t lead to damage. Just like you listen to your body when you’re going into a stretch, pushing forward more if it feels okay, and pulling back if it feels too intense, you can listen to your own internal voice, moving forward if it feels okay, stopping if it doesn’t.
In a relational context, like a sexual interaction, you can also gradually develop trust in your partner. Try making a course correction or expressing a preference regarding something low-stakes and non-scary first, and see how it goes. If you feel comfortable with how your partner responds, try a little more stretch the next time. If you don’t feel comfortable with your partner’s response, discuss it with them and see if together you can develop the ability to explore together in an atmosphere of safety. Only when you start with the knowledge that you have the right and ability to change your mind, express your preferences, and say “stop” if necessary can you actually stretch past your comfort zone in a way that isn’t harmful.
If you’re a therapist, you have an important role in this process. Your job is to help support a differentiated conversation between partners about what they think, believe, and prefer. Willingness to try a particular activity may or may not emerge; the main point is to create the conditions for honesty, so everyone is freely choosing without coercion or manipulation. From there, you might support your clients as they practice saying “yes”, “no”, “slow down”, “back up” or anything else. I do this in session using a low-stakes activity, like holding hands or massaging one another’s hands so that partners can practice the art of correcting course in the middle of an activity.