If you’re a woman who has sex with men, you’ve probably felt The Gap — the gap between what you want in bed and what actually happens; the gap in understanding when it comes to talking about sexual needs and desires; the gap in intimacy created by your own resentment and disappointment…. It’s the gap that so often exists between what looks like two mutually exclusive desires: the urge to fuck and the need to feel connected.
As a straight guy, I have been on my end of The Gap. I’ve participated in some ways I’m proud of and in other ways I’d rather not repeat. I’ve hidden my own needs, attempted to placate, shut down, and become dismissive. I’ve encountered many layers of Catholic guilt as well as my strong belief that sex could be better, without any way of knowing how to make it so. Luckily, I’ve also been helped by a number of women who were able to coax me into conversation, guide me into trust, and soothe my shame into a vulnerability that I could finally share. I married the one who helped me the most, and we continue to navigate the changing waters of our sexuality nearly every time we get into bed.
Here’s why I’m writing this article. I want women to know that they can have an immensely positive impact on the men in their lives by talking about sex with loving intention. And I want men to receive the kindness and curiosity available to them in the presence of a woman who is able to hold this pure intent. I work with men every day on their end of The Gap; here is my map for women to help them initiate and create a conversation about sex that is healing, connecting, and could actually lead to better sex for everyone involved.
I’m making two assumptions about you and your partner. One is that you love each other and are both invested and committed to your relationship. The second is that your relationship is safe, both emotionally and physically. I don’t suggest attempting to have an edgy conversation in a scenario where you fear emotional or bodily harm may result. Many of you might feel a little shaky or afraid when discussing sexual issues, but that’s different than being downright scared for your safety. Please get appropriate support if this is true for you.
Before You Begin
Before you venture into a conversation about sex, I want you to spend some time considering the larger issues at play for you and your man. By this, I mean the sweeping effects of our social and cultural norms about sex. Throw in any particular information you may have received in a religious upbringing, and BAM, you have an undeniable tidal wave of influence to which no one is immune.
Next, there’s your own personal history, which obviously plays a huge role. What beliefs do you have about your own sexuality? Were you a late bloomer? Were you known as a “slutty girl” back in high school? Do you have sexual trauma? (A shockingly high percentage of women do.) Please spend some time getting to know more deeply what you bring to the table. If this process feels heavy, get some support from a therapist or someone you trust. You’re working with powerful forces, and you deserve respect and appreciation for engaging this stuff so consciously!
As you consider your man, offer him the same awareness you give yourself. What do you know about some of his beliefs about sexuality, his body, and his right to pleasure? What do you know about his cultural or religious influences? As much as you can, see him as innocent. Imagine him as a child, and then as a young person, trying to figure out the overwhelmingly powerful (and often confusing) world of sexuality within and surrounding him. Give him credit for doing the best he can.
Next, get even more curious about how your man is wired. This is not about “figuring him out” or assessing what’s wrong with him. This is about gaining and maintaining the perspective that much of what he does comes out of an organic place that is attempting to stay safe and in control. That’s all neurosis ever is, after all — a series of thoughts and behaviors born out of a need to protect and maintain one’s self. What flavor is your man’s? Is he a fighter? A stonewaller? Does he do some awkward fumble of placating you on his way to collapsing?
After this empathic consideration, ask this: “How might I best support my man?” Commit to being his ally, not his opponent. Commit to being on his team. I can’t emphasize this point strongly enough.
Side note: If one of his stress-related actions triggers your own stress response to the degree to which you cannot remain his ally, stop and take a few deep breaths. Don’t try to have a conversation about sex in that moment. Wait a bit and let things deescalate. Then get support, and evaluate your ability to be his ally. Be truthful about it. You can’t be his true ally if you’re demanding that he change. For example, “I can be his ally when he stops pushing me away. As long as he shuts me out, he’s the one who’s hurting me. It’s his fault that I can’t support him.” This kind of thinking won’t bring about the collaboration needed here.
Second side note: I know there are times when women commit to their man, stand by him, and give everything they can to help him. They endure. They sacrifice. They suffer. But the impact on their man is negligible because he seems like a kind of sieve. All of her generosity runs out the bottom with seemingly no effect! I want to make a clear distinction between this kind of “over-giving” women often sign up for versus a clear, grounded giving that is mutually beneficial. The latter may be challenging, but it’s not draining. A grounded giving may require that you set aside some of your own needs for a moment, but it ultimately brings about a return that nourishes you both.
Set the Stage
Once 1) you’re clear about your side of the street, 2) you’ve gained some perspective about him and 3) you’ve found your commitment to being his ally, you’re now ready to initiate the conversation you know you need to have about sex. Let’s set the stage.
Guys feel like they’re in trouble when their partner says something to the effect of, “Honey, we need to talk.” That particular grouping of sounds will cause ripples of dread to seep throughout the guts and minds of most men, quickly followed by the thought “What have I done now?”
The best way to assuage this fear reaction is a trifecta of reassurance: Touch, smiling, and eye contact. Bonus points if you can throw in some humor. (You know what kind of humor works for him and what doesn’t.) Imagine yourself lovingly looking into his eyes while holding his hand, smiling sweetly while you suggest finding a time when the two of you can discuss making your sex life hotter. Or perhaps you hug him from behind, nibble his ear, and say softly — but with conviction — that your sex life is so important to you that you want to find time to talk about it directly.
Tease him with a flash of your undies, drawing him toward you — and then, with kindness in your eyes, tell him you want to talk about sex. When would be good for you, hon? The key is to initiate the conversation with meaningful contact plus a touch of playfulness. I’ll leave it to you to find the way that works best for your particular guy.
Don’t force the conversation into a particular time slot. It may be now, it may not be. Be spacious. You may think that you’re picking the ideal time, but he may have many good reasons to choose another time. Be loving AND be firm. Collaborate with him to find the ideal time for you both, and don’t let him weasel out of it.
Engage the Conversation
When the predetermined time has come, ask him to listen with an open mind until you’re complete. As the initiator, this is where you get to hold the floor for a time. You are asking for respect and the opportunity to speak without interruption.
As you open the conversation, I strongly suggest you start with what is working in your relationship and your sex life. Even if you struggle to find something that’s going well for you, find that one thing that you can get behind, and then praise both of you for it. Tell him what you do appreciate about him. Tell him about one thing that he does in bed that you really like. This builds goodwill and connection from the get-go. Leading with positive feelings can be a good springboard to contacting the deeper issues at hand.
Next, speak to how you see yourself contributing to your dynamic. Self-responsibility is extremely sexy and promotes things like emotional safety, respect, and equal opportunity for both of you to own your stuff. I can’t say enough about how much I have benefitted from conversations with women who had the capacity to be self-responsible. For me, it meant that I could relax my fear of blame, attack or retribution. It meant I was freed up to look at myself (because I wasn’t busy protecting myself), and I was actually inspired to do so because of how wonderful it felt to receive.
This brings me to vulnerability. To quote Brene Brown, the beautifully outspoken mistress of vulnerability: “Vulnerability is not about fear and grief and disappointment. It is the birthplace of everything we are hungry for.” This doesn’t mean that when you make yourself vulnerable you won’t feel fear, or grief or disappointment, but to me, it does mean that this is not where it ends. When you are actually vulnerable with your guy — sharing yourself, all bare and raw — the results can be literally breathtaking.
When my wife presents me with unmetered, unfiltered, embodied vulnerability, I pretty much melt in her lap. I listen, captivated, fully present to the hunger that lives inside her words, gestures and emotion. And I want to do everything in my power to meet that hunger. I am compelled from a place beyond my mind to become the man she is asking me to be. I know that she is calling me to be a better version of myself, even if in moments I may wince — or start preparing my defense — given what she’s saying. This is very powerful stuff, and not to be underestimated.
So to be clear, talking to your man about what you want out of your sex life will go far, far better if you can step away from talking about what’s wrong with it and move into a space of true vulnerability. A vulnerability that includes your longing, your pain, your anger, and your knowing that what you want is in full service to both of you.
Once your longing is on the table for both of you to see, describe your perspective of your current situation. Watch out for blame. Start every sentence with a solid “I statement.” You know what I mean, right? Not this: “I feel like you are clumsy in bed,” but this: “I sometimes feel anxious and uncomfortable when you touch me and I want to feel relaxed and open to you.” Remember that this is your perspective, not some absolute truth you demand he accept. This is how you see it and you’re asking him to listen, not necessarily agree.
After you have offered your perspective, remember that men love knowing what to do about a problem (how many times do we try to fix yours?). We want a map, or at least a guideline, of how to make things better. Nothing’s worse than serving up a heaping plate of “change this” without some portion of “here’s how.” So get clear about a request you have of him. Do your best to set him up for success by making it something you believe he can both say yes to and follow through with. Make it as specific as you can. And — this is important — do your best to bring forward an actual request, not a demand in the clothing of a request.
I know managing requests can be tricky. You may have a long list of requests you’ve built over time. The best way you can help your man is to ask how he would like to receive those requests. Is he a long-range thinker and likes to see the whole map at once? Does he easily become overwhelmed by too much information and would rather hear one request at a time? Life is rarely so neat; what I’ve seen of requests from my wife is that they often work like a web, and separating them from one another can be very difficult — everything is connected to her. But for me, I can’t see the web like she can, and I work best when she gives me one “big event” request, a starting point I can focus on. However your man is wired, do your best to offer him your requests in a way he can very likely receive. If you’re concerned about getting frustrated, that his pace is too different from yours, return to vulnerability and self-responsibility to guide you toward expressing your feelings without launching an attack.
Here’s one scenario: You may have one big request — a make-it-or-break-it request. You may feel like you’re going to burst if your man doesn’t handle this one. He’ll likely feel that he’s got 16 tons of pressure on him if he doesn’t satisfy it. I empathize with anyone in this position, as it takes a lot from both partners to hang in there and hear each other out. The encouragement I would give to any woman in this scenario is to return to contact with the power inherent in her vulnerability. Reread the parts on vulnerability above. Watch YouTube videos on vulnerability. Talk with an emotionally intelligent friend or therapist.
Your longing is a force, and when appropriately harnessed (with your vulnerability and self-responsibility), it can be used to destroy the barriers that hold you back from the intimacy and love you want. This requires you to tune into the different feelings inside between a destructive force and a healing force. I can’t tell you how it feels for you, but I trust you can discover it. I think it has something to do with actually feeling love for your man, and knowing at the deepest level you are on the same team.
Here’s another scenario: You may not have any concrete notion of what you would like your man to do differently. If this is the case for you, take some time to develop your connection to what you really want. See if your knowing about what you don’t want can inform you of what you do want. Think back to what I said earlier about becoming curious about your man and see if you can imagine what it is that he wants. Do you share any of the same desires? Do you both want more connected sex? You may innately know more about how to call forward the lover in him than you believe.
- Don’t criticize. I think I’ve made this pretty clear throughout, but I want to emphasize how important it is to give criticism a wide berth. The number one issue I hear from men is how much they fear that they can’t please their woman, that they aren’t good enough for her in some way or another. Criticism cuts right to the core of any confidence they have, and sends many men running straight to their standard defenses. Your job is to illuminate the concerns you both feel rather than point the finger.
- Don’t bring up your issues too often. Sadly, this only leads to more defensiveness, and that classic dynamic of a man feeling poked or nagged. Chose your timing wisely. Agree upon it.
- Don’t bring up your issues while you’re in bed, having sex, or immediately before or after. Resist the temptation; it won’t go well.
- Don’t demand that he explain himself. There are many ways to encourage a man to share himself, and demanding isn’t one of them. In many cases, you’d be asking him to articulate something he may not have a lot of conscious access to anyway, at least not right off the bat. I strongly encourage you to imagine that your man is feeling one or more of these things: shame, uncertainty, fear, disconnection from himself. If you can be curious about what might be going on inside him, you could change the tide of the conversation. If you could set aside the assumptions you make about him (even if they’re correct!) and allow him to find ways inform you about his experience, you could change the tide of the conversation. If you could suspend your “need to know” in favor of remaining a patient witness, you could change the tide of the conversation.
Bringing it Home
I want to let you know that I am working with men to offer the women in their lives this same kind of gracious and loving relationship environment. I strongly believe that both men and women deserve the same amount of care and consideration when it comes to the tricky matters of the heart and of sex. I would never expect my wife to show up in this way without meeting her there as well. And her ability to do this for me often reminds and inspires me to return the favor.
Ladies: Use your feminine powers for good! Your feminine brain is inherently wired for emotional communication, and it’s possible for you to lead the way by treading intelligently and compassionately on this delicate ground.
Oh, and by the way? You just might start getting the high-quality lovemaking that you’re longing for.