Getting What You Really Want Out of Sex

In my last post, I made a case for why good sex is not about a particular sequence of events, but how we interpret and understand those events. What might be a disappointing sexual encounter to one person could be perfectly satisfactory for another–all based on the meaning they make out of what happens, whether the partners are able to stay connected, and how they communicate about it.

But if we accept that idea, what comes next? How do we go about getting what we really want out of sex?

The first step is to figure out what a good sexual encounter means to you. This could be fairly consistent, or it could be different with each encounter, or with different partners. It could even shift from moment to moment within the same encounter. Whatever the case may be, it’s worthwhile to start getting into the habit of looking within and asking yourself “What do I want out of this moment? What am I seeking to feel about myself and about my partner?”

There are infinite possible ways to answer these questions, but here are a few examples of potential responses:
● To feel closer to your partner
● To experience pleasure
● To give your partner pleasure
● To relieve stress or anxiety
● To explore something new
● To show love and affection
These are all perfectly good reasons to have sex. The trouble comes when we associate one of those goals with a particular event or activity. When this happens, your assumptions about what a sexual encounter “should” look like stand in the way of actually getting what you want.

For instance, say one partner is seeking to feel close and connected, and their partner loses their erection partway through sex. If the first partner interprets that as meaning “my partner isn’t attracted to me,” then they’ll feel hurt and disappointed. When one or both partners make negative meaning out of any particular event or lack thereof, the sexual encounter may become disconnecting rather than intimate.

It doesn’t have to go this way. If the first partner is able to hold steady despite their fear, stay connected with their partner, perhaps moving to another activity they enjoy and which doesn’t require an erection, this can be a very positive and satisfying sexual interaction.

In another scenario, the fearful partner could choose to open up to their partner about their fear and thereby potentially have a very connecting and mutually validating interaction. This may or may not involve continuing or returning to sexual contact; either way the encounter can be positive and connecting.

Bodies are messy and unpredictable. They often don’t do what we want them to do. If we attach too much symbolic value to the ways bodies function in sex, we are likely to be disappointed. Rather, we might ask ourselves what these symbols mean to us–what does erection, or wetness, or orgasm signify? How can we go about fulfilling the underlying needs, even when bodies aren’t functioning in the way we hope for or expect?

There are measures of success, in this case in a sexual interaction, that we have some control over and those we do not. Body processes are influenced by so many factors that they are largely outside of our control. However, our part in partner interactions is certainly within our control. When you and your partner are seeking a connecting, pleasurable interaction, what kind of partner do you want to be when things don’t go as planned? The wonderful thing about pleasure and connection is that there are SO many roads to get there! When a roadblock arises, try this:
• Take a deep breath, letting it out very slowly. Calm yourself.
• Look into your partner’s eyes. Your partner is right there with you in this moment.
• Choose a path that leads to connection; that might be talking, quietly touching, saying loving things to one another, or any number of other activities.
• If you both want to, explore activities that are likely to lead to pleasure. Be careful what you do with your mind: it may want to aim for certain outcomes that are symbolic for you, but don’t let it! Instead aim for pleasure and connection. Let the rest take care of itself.

7 Steps to Stay Steady in Tough Conversations

As a couples therapist, I help people learn to hold steady in very difficult conversations with their partner. I know this is not easy, because I had to learn it myself. My spouse, who is much more even-tempered than I, and has been an amazing and challenging teacher for me, particularly when it comes to holding steady and staying in the conversation.

Twenty-two years later, I find it comes much more naturally for me. We are able to make hard conversations look easy. We both know from experience that we can get to a mutually satisfying resolution even if we start off with strong differences of opinion. At least for me, learning to hold steady was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and it would have helped me a lot to know how good the payoff is. The payoff is great!

Today, I’m going to share some steps I take to stay in the game and minimize drama and suffering for both of us. Next time someone you love says something to you that really shakes you up, give this a try.

  1. Pause. Take a moment before you respond at all. Breathe. Breathe some more. Put your feet on the ground and steady yourself. Remind yourself of this: your partner is expressing something about themselves; their perceptions, beliefs, feelings, and meanings they make of various situations. Even if they are pointing their finger and accusing you of something, they are actually telling you about their perceptions, not some global truth. If you want to know them deeply, you will need to listen and get curious.
  2. Set aside your feelings for a few minutes. This was the hardest part for me. I am a person who believes in honoring and expressing my feelings. This is not the time. Remind yourself that you will give your feelings and opinions attention soon, and right now it is not your turn. You will honor your feelings after this conversation. Whatever is still lingering after a break can be expressed fully to your partner. They will be much more willing to hear you out after they experience how amazing it is to feel heard. Your job right now is to give them that experience. Listen. Get curious. Hold your emotions lovingly, and don’t express them yet.
  3. Don’t judge, argue, defend, or convince. Remember: this is someone you love. You respect them, and you don’t have to agree with them. You don’t ever have to agree with them about this. But it might be nice to understand what their internal experience is when this thing happens or this topic comes up. If you truly see this from their perspective, it will probably make some sense, even if their perspective is vastly different from yours. If you argue, defend yourself, or try to convince them you’re right, they will never confide in you about the fear, shame, or vulnerability that underlies their reactions. You will have missed an opportunity for connection.
  4. Get curious. Invite them to give you a tour of their internal culture. How do they see things? How did this get under their skin? What does this issue represent to them? Does this issue challenge something about themselves? The more curious you can get, the more connected you both will feel.  
  5. Focus on feelings and meanings, not details. As you get curious, ask your partner some questions about this activity, experience, or situation–whatever it is they’ve described to you. As you ask, focus your questions on their feelings, rather than on the specifics of the situation. Here are some examples of good questions:    
    • How did that go for you?   
    • At what point did things start feeling bad to you?    
    • What didn’t you like about it? What was going on for you inside?   
    • What did I do or say that made it worse? How did that make it worse?    
    • Can you explain to me how this felt so bad? What did it mean to you that I …(name the perceived hurtful thing here).
  6. Express empathy. At some point you will begin to see that this is about them, not you. For me, I can tell I’m there when I suddenly think “Oh my gosh, THAT’S what you think when I do that?? Wow. Well, of course you’re upset if that’s how you see it or that’s what you heard. That was not my intention, and I’m so sorry for the misunderstanding.”
  7. Post-process. Now is the time to revisit your feelings if they are still swirling around in a worked-up mass. See if you can think about it, journal about it, or let it go. This might be surprisingly easy. If you got all the way to empathy, and had an “aha” moment about your partner’s responses being different but nonetheless understandable, the hurt you felt might have simply gone away. If not, ask your partner if there is a time you could express your experience to them. When the time comes, focus on your feelings, perceptions, beliefs and meanings made. Express the vulnerability underneath the issue, if you know what it is. If not, ask your partner to help you get to the bottom of why this was so upsetting to you.

What do you do when these steps fail, and your conversation starts to turn into a fight? Read more in my post about how to stop fights from damaging your relationship.