If you’re anything like me, you may have read into your partner’s behaviors once or twice (or a few dozen times) during the course of your relationship. Was that text cold? Are they acting distant? Communication, though seemingly simple, can feel like the most difficult. Telling your partner what you want more of — and them telling you — is often easier said than done. So, how do the most successful couples do it? Madeline Cooper, a New York City based social worker and sex therapist, is here to deliver answers.
Madeline specializes in talk therapy with people who are less than satisfied with aspects of their sexual experiences. A major part of her job is to help couples and individuals become more comfortable talking about sexuality and gender identity by normalizing her clients experiences and helping them think about their sexual health in new and informative ways. Through her experience, open mindedness, and extensive expertise, Madeline reveals six things that couples in healthy relationships do, and what you should consider as well.
- Speak up if you're not satisfied
While this probably comes as no surprise, Madeline confirms that communication is the key to any healthy relationship; romantic, sexual, or otherwise. She notes that as important as communication and honesty are in relationships, the way that conversations are framed is of equal relevance. “It is important that you do not blame or shame your partner in any discussion, but rather encourage conversation about the dynamic between the two of you,” she suggests. “For example, if you are unhappy with your sex life, I’d encourage you to tell your partner ‘it’s really important to me that our sex life is fulfilling for both of us, and I want it to be a great part of our relationship.’”
Expressing your desires so directly may feel uncomfortable at first, especially when it comes to topics like sex, but open communication is an important part of any trusting relationship.
- More sex doesn't mean more happiness
Many couples who are having regular sex are often confused why they still feel unfulfilled in their relationships. However, it’s important to remember that it's not the quantity of the sex that matters, but rather the quality. In 2015, the Social Psychological and Personality Science Journal published a study that found that couples that have sex at least once a week are happier with their relationship than those who have sex less often. However, the same study also found that partners who had sex more than once a week were not significantly happier than those having sex only once a week. This points to the fact that while sex is an important tool that couples can use to connect and achieve mutual pleasure, less, surprisingly, is sometimes more.
“From my experience working with couples, I find that it is more about the quality of their sex then about a specific number,” confirms Madeline. “My questions usually are, is the sex providing them both with pleasure and is it providing them with a space to express their sexualities in a way that feels good to them? If the answer is yes, then I typically see happier couples.”
Remember that sex is not the only way for couples to connect; in any loving and stable relationship, be sure to prioritize emotional connection along with the physical!
- It's normal for your sex life to change
It’s easier to solve every problem with sex when you’re still in that honey moon phase, but the same often can’t be said for couples who have been together for a long time.
“One of the most frequent and interesting things I have found is how many couples are so comfortable with one another and feel safe and secure but do not have much of a sex life and do not understand why,” Madeline admits. “This is because there are three phases to romantic love: lust, where we are driven by sexual desire, attraction, or falling in love, and finally attachment, where the hormonal high fades as we recognize security and safety.”
If you and your partner fall into the final category of a safe attached relationship, it’s possible you are not having as much sex as you were in the earlier stages of your partnership. If you are looking to reignite your sex life, it is important that you two talk this through. Try to create a certain distance or erotic space between the two of you in order to promote the mystery and intrigue that drove the lust at the beginning phases of your relationship.
- Safety goes beyond condoms
Safety in all its forms — physical, mental, and emotional — are very necessary for any fulfilling relationship.
“Safety and risk awareness is paramount,” Madeline confirms. “In terms of physical health, I encourage safer sex practices, including using condoms and getting tested if you are exchanging fluids with a partner or partners.”
However, safe sex goes beyond protecting against pregnancy or STDs. “Consent is crucial during any sexual experience,” furthers Madeline. “We’re not just talking a “yes” and “no,” either. It’s important for people to recognize that there could be a power dynamic in which a person may not feel like it is okay to say “no” for some reason. Make sure both of you can give an emphatic “yes” during the encounter – it’ll make the sex better for not only the person saying it, but for the person hearing it.”
In any romantic partnership, it is important to make sure that both partners feel safe in every aspect of the relationship; safe to voice their opinion or discomfort, and of course, safe during sex. If you and your partner both actively work to ensure the other’s safety, it is bound to lead to a happy relationship.
- Understand that sex means different things to different people
If you’re feeling unfilled in your sex life, it may be because you and your partner are not on the same page about what constitutes sex.
“Sex means different things to different people,” Madeline explains. “Sex does not always mean penetration. I encourage people to find words that work for them, such as intercourse, anal sex, penetration, oral sex, manual stimulation, masturbation or solo sex, petting, kissing and more. Make sure that you are specific with your partner about what kind of sex you’d like.”
Madeline furthers that just as sex can mean something different to different people, everyone has different sexual preferences -- and this is something that should be celebrated in any loving and fulfilling relationship.
“Everyone has different sexual desires, different arousal patterns, different erogenous zones – and these differences do not need to make someone ‘weird’ or ‘bad’ or ‘gross,’” Madeline says. “In every relationship, individuals should keep in mind that their partners’ expression of themselves as a sexual person might be different from their own. I see couples who talk about literally everything in their relationship – everything except for their sex lives. It’s also okay if you do not have the same preferences, but it’s better to talk about it than to let it fester and become resentful of the relationship you have.”
Open-mindedness is a key to any healthy relationship; make sure you and your partner are on the same page about your sex lives and are willing to try new things to bring the other pleasure!
- Acknowledge stigma and talk about it
It’s no secret that there is stigma attached to sex, particularly for women, queer people, people of color, and other marginalized communities. However, ignoring it won’t do us any good — we need to talk about it. Recognizing stigma is the first stage in overcoming it and an important step in having a more fulfilling sex life.
Madeline points out that many people cannot fully enjoy sex even if they are physically aroused due to stigma surrounding their sexuality. “For many of my clients, one of the biggest issues is the significance of internalized homophobia and transphobia and how deeply this can impact one’s self-worth and the way an individual presents in all areas of life,” remarks Madeline. “I also see this impact on self-worth when it comes to internalized sexism and racism for women and people of color. For my clients experiencing these internalized “isms,” it’s so important that we talk about this openly within the space and my clients feel that they are heard.”
Acknowledging stigmas attached to your sexual pleasure is an important first step in overcoming them. If you feel self-conscious or stigmatized in any aspect of your relationship or sex life, it is important to discuss this with your partner, or even a licensed sex therapist. You can’t experience full sexual pleasure until you are feeling secure mentally and emotionally.
It's more than normal to feel a little insecure in your romantic and sexual life and admitting feelings of unfulfillment in a relationship is the first step towards fixing any problems in your romantic or sexual life. This is why therapists like Madeline exist. No matter how you're feeling about your relationship, remember that honesty, safety, and communication are key to both emotional fulfillment, amazing sex, and a successful partnership.