I have been doing a lot of radio appearances lately to promote The Conscious Sexual Self Workbook, and a question that keeps coming up is – how can we make it easier to talk about sex? Even radio hosts, who talk for a living, share with me that they start to blush and find it hard to get the words out when it comes to sex. I help people have these conversations every day. Here are some ways to set yourself up to have a better experience.
Acknowledge That This May Be Awkward – Much of our embarrassment about sex comes from an adolescent, and unrealistic, feeling that everyone else seems to have this sex thing all together and if you are not playing it completely cool, you are failing. Give yourself and your partner permission to be awkward, to stutter, to not know the answers. Maybe you even have to stop and take a break for a bit. Don’t feel that you have to play a part, be genuine, even genuinely embarrassed, it takes the pressure off.
Don’t Try to Have a Challenging Conversation Right After Having Sex – Rolling over and relaxing or critiquing what just happened – um, go with relaxing. Even if the experience wasn’t what you hoped, keep in mind that post- sex people tend to be a bit vulnerable, making it a great time to share loving words, less great for problem-solving. Make time to have a conversation when you can feel close, awake, and can really focus on listening to each other.
Start With the Positive – Figure out what has been working for you, what do you like about sex? Asking for something you feel good about sets a tone of excitement and potential. As you start to share about something that isn’t working as well or that you would like to change, continue thinking about what you do want. What do you want more of? What would you like instead? Often people just say, “I don’t like it when you…” leaving their partner feeling like the lists of things they can do just shrunk. Certainly say if something is a clear No to you. But keep sharing your YESs too, they are equally important.
Make Contact – Touching your partner is soothing and studies have found that couples report less stress during conversations when they are holding hands. If it feels okay to do so, reach out and touch their leg or arm. Have the conversation cuddled up or while rubbing each other’s feet. Remind yourselves that you are connected by physical contact. This can also help with connection when eye contact feels too intense.
Don’t Expect to Figure it All Out at Once – Often sexual conversations open up questions, new invitations that have to be considered, edges that may take some time to approach. Pressuring yourself or a partner to come up with clear answers right away will only led to one level of growth. Embrace, “I am not sure, I need to think about that for awhile”. Then take the time to get to be curious about yourself. And then keep talking.
Philosopher Nietzsche had a term Lebensneid representing “life envy”. I think most of us are familiar to some degree with the nagging feeling that if only your life was more like that life over there, you would be so much more content. I wonder if we are feeling more and more life envy as we become more and more exposed to others lives, constantly bombarded with images and stories of how other people live. I mean we even have news stories about tiffs over who gets to claim the title of lifestyle guru, and who is just a faker. The power to feed our life envy in a job title.
Life envy does seem to be connected to the plethora of life choices we have available to us. In her wonderful book, Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about a Hmong community she visits in Vietnam and how few choices the people there have in how their life will unfold. The surprise is that because of this they actually seem to have less angst about the state of their life. Choice brings with it doubt. There is always another option not chosen. There is always a “what if?” Perhaps life envy is an externalized version of “what if?” turned into dull but distracting coveting.
What can we do when we are caught in Lebensneid, convinced that our life is lacking in comparison, that they are having better sex, better relationships, a better body, a better orgasm…? We can recognize that these things are incomparable. Trying to reduce the seductive call of all those things out there that we cannot actually do anything with or about will allow us to feel more empowered. Really Gwyneth Paltrow or Jay Cutler do not have something you want. What will make you happy is totally unique to you, shaped by interconnected elements of who you are. It will involve choices and sacrifices that only you can judge. It will also involve joys and satisfactions that are only for you.
We all have our moments of the grass looking greener over there out of reach. It seems to be human nature to feel longing. And we are invited by our consumer culture, where happiness is just one purchase away, to ask ourselves, “Am I fulfilled? Is this as good as it gets?” Look around you, not at what others have, but at what you have. Some of it may be pretty amazing as is. Some of what you have may be raw material to work with in creating something amazing. Don’t fall into the passive disengagement that goes hand in hand with life envy. Be inspired by what is possible but know that happiness will only be found in your own life, not in the imagined life of someone else.
Here is the link to an article I wrote recently for YourTango.com offering 6 tips for repairing a relationship after a betrayal or crisis. These are things that I have witnessed from the strong couples in my practice. Hope you will give it a read :
I got to go and see Natalie Goldberg speak recently. She is a teacher and artist who has linked creative writing into a Zen practice. Her guidance has been a gift to writers around the world who need to be reminded to just sit down and write, to release editing and judgment, and to actually observe the world around you and write what is present and real to you.
She said something about the concept of having a “practice” that really struck a bell inside of me. She said the Zen concept of having a practice is not about improving. You actually don’t sit down to practice to get better. It is not about striving to be at the next level. You practice because you committed to practice. She said – and this really shook me – you practice to just feel and be where you are NOW because you believe what you are doing is valuable in itself. I started thinking about all the things I had been encouraged to practice throughout my life and how it always seemed that the reason I was doing it was so that I would get better. And I thought about the pressure of that kind of practice and how it so often stopped me from really appreciating and settling in to what I was doing at the moment.
It is the American way to strive. We are a self-improvement minded (some could say obsessed) nation. We are rarely encouraged to do something just for fun anymore; things almost always have to include a reason why something is good for us. We are a country of people who deeply believe we can and should do better.
What does this have to do with sex? Well, I was thinking about this constant focus on doing better, doing more, reaching the next level and I realized this is something people do to their sexuality as well. If the expectation is that our sex lives – with one partner, multiple partners or ourselves - will get progressively hotter, more intense, with better performances each time, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and frustration. Even worse though, if we are focusing on taking it to some new level, we are often missing what is actually happening in the moment. “Practicing” so we can perform better can take us away from pleasure. Sometimes it could be helpful to just have the sex we are actually having in an awake and accepting frame of mind.
We are not taught to think in terms of “good enough” in America. And some of you are probably feeling a bit betrayed for me to even suggest that we not strive for better sex all of the time. To be clear, I think people’s sex lives can get more and more satisfying as we grow and I think we can try new things, learn new skills, and have more fun and more orgasms. I wouldn’t be in the field unless I believed in those things. However, I also believe that a lot of people are dismissing good sexual experiences because they think they should be having some other kind of sexual experience. And a lot of couples feel like they are failing because they haven’t tried something new lately. So how about this as an experiment – What if you approached sex and/or masturbation like a zen-practice just one time? Make a commitment to be present for it, to let go of trying to increase the velocity or intensity, to really try and be aware of where you are at that time. What if you engaged in sex this one time because you believe it is important and valuable, even if it never reaches some new level? What if you believed that the sexual experience, just as you are having it, had something valuable to show you?
There is a lot of talk in the media about how to attract a partner, how to get a date, how and when to have sex, but when it comes to commiting to one person long-term people often feel like they are figuring it out on their own. In this article for YourTango Experts, I write about some of the foundational aspects of successful monogamy. Read it at ...