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Gotta Talk in Bend

Bringing up "the talk," but not knowing how to do it

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Dear Dr. Jane,

My wife and I have had problems with intimacy for years. The last time we had sex was early in 2021. I know that we need to have "The Talk" but I have no idea how to bring up the topic of intimacy without making things even more awkward between us. I don't want to hurt her feelings, but I need to tell my wife that I can't just keep going without affection. So how do I start that conversation?

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-Gotta Talk in Bend

Dear Gotta,

You're not alone in this. I get this question all the time in my work with individuals, couples and groups. When sex isn't working in your relationship, it can feel very difficult to have meaningful conversations about the problem. It only gets worse as time passes, so you're best off braving the awkwardness now instead of waiting.

Here's how this conversation goes when it's not going well.

HIM: Wonderful news - another month passed and we didn't do it. 

HER: Is that right? I didn't realize. I've been busy lately with everything.

HIM: Preparing for houseguests? Well, at least the laundry gets done. And we have food. Yay. 

HER: You never appreciate what I do, but whatever.

HIM: Maybe you could do me once in a while. I guess sex with me is a chore. Low on the list. 

HER: Sex with you isn't a chore. 

HIM: I don't want you to do it as a duty. Makes me feel terrible.

HER: I've been under a lot of stress.

HIM: You always make excuses. We need to talk.

HER: We can set up another conversation where you tell me how inadequate I am. 

HIM: I'm not saying you're inadequate. I just need things to change. 

HER: Last time we talked about this was was during our counseling session. That was terrible. 

Here are a few tips that'll help you make this tough conversation as easy as possible. 

-Use the word "we" instead of "me" or "you" as much as possible. The goal of this conversation should be about the growth of your relationship as a couple rather than about your partner's sexual issues.  -Talk about affection, and intimacy - not just the physical act of sex. When your partner thinks you're only interested in sexual gratification, instead of loving and connecting, they'll feel hurt and resentful.   -Ask your partner how they feel about your sex life. Ask if there's anything in your relationship dynamic that's created barriers for them. Ask how they feel about the quality of the sex you have.

-Reflect on your own contributions to the Issue. Intimacy is always something that's created by both of you. You might be the higher libido partner in your relationship, but that doesn't mean that your partner is completely to blame for the way things have been going.

-Try to understand the circumstances your partner's facing. Maybe there are things that they need help with. But, don't do chores or other acts of service just to get sex. These things are separate. Both have the possibility to increase satisfaction in your marriage, but a direct exchange of chores for sex seldom works out the way it's intended. 

People sometimes suggest having the conversation in the presence of a trained professional.  But sometimes the lower libido partner feels ambushed if you bring it up during a therapy session. You'll have to decide what works best in your relationship. 

Just make sure that you have privacy and plenty of time to share. Try to listen without interrupting. Make an agreement to put away your phones and any other distraction - like fur babies or work issues. 

Wherever or whenever you have The Talk, your way of approaching your partner's feelings and thoughts about sexual intimacy will make a big difference in how things turn out between you. Try to be non-judgmental and open. Focus on the purpose of your communication - to grow closer as a couple. 

Having The Talk is just the first step. It's not a single conversation. When things are going well, talking about intimacy is an experience of communication that starts now and continues for the rest of your lives. 

Xoxo, Dr. Jane

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