How to Tell Your Partner What You Want: guest post by Esther Perel

How can I tell my man what I want? If I get even slightly turned on, he takes it as a sign that he can simply proceed straight to the gate for take-off. He’ll stimulate me for 30 seconds and get inside me. And in my mind I’m thinking: ‘I wish he would move a little gently, have his hands all over my body. Then I might ask him to kiss me in a certain spot, so I’ll give him a sort of hint of what would feel good.’ Sometimes he gets it, and he responds. But other times – he doesn’t seem to hear me.


shortcode image
Esther Perel

Amy, age 43, sent this question to therapist and author Esther Perel. Although Amy is a little younger than our age group, both the question and Perel’s answer are so relevant to the readers of this blog that I asked Perel for permission to republish her blog post here. She graciously agreed. Here’s what she told Amy:

If everyone communicates their needs openly, everyone gains.

Women are constantly told that they need to tell their partner what feels good to them sexually, to be proactive with their desire, to be more assertive and bold. For many people, this is easier said than done. It can feel safer to remain passive and take from our sexual encounters what we can get. Women often tell me that they really like to linger in the pleasures of the preliminaries, that they like them as much, if not more, than the act itself, yet they tend to accommodate their partner and abdicate their wants. They tend to go along with a more stereotypically male definition of sex, where foreplay is the mere introduction to the ‘real’ thing.

However, it is precisely the anticipation, the seduction, the playful touch, the kissing, stroking, and gazing into each other’s eyes – all the stuff that fuels desire and excitement – that make them feel desired. It is those exquisite aspects of foreplay that, for women, often make up the real thing.

Many of the women I work with in my practice worry that they take too long to climax, that their partner will be bored. Once he reaches orgasm, they give up theirs as if his rhythm defines hers. They fake their orgasms, they pretend. They tell me: ‘His ego is too fragile’. ‘I don’t think he can hear me’. ‘I don’t want to hurt him.’ Or: ‘I don’t want him to be angry and to reject me.’ Or even, sometimes, ‘I don’t know what I want, all I know is that I don’t want what I have.’ Men like to hear the guidance, but they can’t stand the criticism. It eats away at their sexual confidence. ‘No sooner do I touch her than she starts dictating to me what to do. I feel so tense following instructions. This tickles, this rubs. Here, she is too dry; there, she is too wet. Slower, faster, harder, softer, it doesn’t stop.’

Obviously, it’s tough on the partners too — these sorts of requests can come across as commands at a time when both people in the room are at their most vulnerable.

Talk about your preferences and desires before and after intimate moments, not only during them.
For women and for men, when we feel sexually frustrated we are likely to be irritable, less patient, more aggressive and tactless. Instead of saying ‘I would like more stroking’, we say: ‘Why do you always go straight for my breasts?’ or ‘You never kiss me’ or the crowning put-down: ‘I never had this problem with my previous girlfriend.’ As a rule, sexual communication around what we want and how we want it is better discussed outside the bedroom, not while we are engaging with each other. Expressing appreciation for having your partner in your life is critical to helping him or her feel confident to take in all your needs, without seeing your complaint as a diminishment of his masculinity or her femininity.

Utilize non-verbal communication.
I am a therapist, so I obviously value talking, but I also challenge the insistence of the verbal as the superior way to communicate. We speak with our bodies, with actions, with a gaze. The body, as a matter of fact, is our mother tongue; we express so much in the physical language long before we can utter one word. While I think that talking is important for couples, we are facing a situation where sharing is not a choice but a mandate. There is this perceived wisdom that if you don’t share or talk, you are not close. That is a false assumption and one that puts a lot of pressure on men in particular. There’s a lot to gain from showing your partner, non-verbally, what you like. Gently take his or her hand, guide it, move around so that you have got it where you like it.

Although this is a heterosexual example, I also see examples of a similar dynamic in same sex couples — where one partner capitulates to the other’s needs, or simply does not feel comfortable communicating what he or she wants to experience. Both men and women fall in the trap of believing that if you need to discuss methods, it means there is not a good sexual connection. How about rethinking that? Doesn’t it make more sense that if you feel you can communicate your wants openly, that’s the ‘real’ sign of a good sexual vibe?

Do you effectively communicate your physical and emotional needs to your partner(s)? If not, what’s holding you back? What tactics have been most successful to getting what you want? Leave your comments below and join the conversation.

cover_us_2Esther Perel is recognized as one of the most insightful and provocative voices on personal and professional relationships and the complex science behind human interaction. Perel is a practicing psychotherapist, celebrated speaker, and the best­-selling author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, translated into 25 languages. The New York Times, in a cover story, named her the most important game changer on sexuality and relationships since Dr. Ruth.

Perel is a two-time TED speaker: Her critically acclaimed viral first TED talk reached nearly 5 million viewers in the first year and recently released second one, on the topic of infidelity, was viewed nearly 2 million times in the first month. Watch her here:

When Your Partner Wants Something that Turns You Off

Question for you: If your partner wants a sexual behavior that not only isn’t your thing, but really turns you off, what do you do?

  • Tell your partner no and expect your partner to shut down that desire? 
  • Do your best to accommodate your partner some of the time? 
  • Pretend to like it? 
  • Negotiate “I’ll do this for you if you’ll do this other thing for me”?
  • Give your partner a pass to get that need met with someone else? 
  • Break up because you’re not sexually compatible?
  • Other? 

If you’ve been at the other end of this — you have a passion for something that your partner doesn’t share — how do/did you resolve it?

I’d love to hear from you whether you’re encountering this situation now, or did in the past, or you’re thinking about how you might handle it in the future. Please describe the sexual behavior, fetish, role play, or desire if you’re willing and if it wouldn’t embarrass your partner or ex (no “revenge comments,” please).  I’m also happy to hear from counselors, sex therapists and sex educators about how you advise clients.

If you want to answer anonymously, please pick a name that isn’t yours instead of using the name “anonymous” so that we don’t have a string of comments by “anonymous.”

I hope we can start a discussion about how to work with dissimilar and conflicting sexual needs.

How can a younger person share sexual knowledge with you?

Next week, I’ll have the pleasure of working in Minneapolis, giving three presentations at Smitten Kitten: two public workshops (register for these workshops here) and a staff training on sex and aging. I love sharing my knowledge with all of you, especially when my events are sponsored by sex-positive, education-oriented stores like Smitten Kitten.

One of the staff members sent me this question, and I’d like to open up the topic to comments from you:

I am 23 years old, and sometimes the oldest/most experienced person working at the store on a given day, but I feel that my age and the age of some of my co-workers makes us seem like we can’t relate to older customers, and maybe even makes them feel more uncomfortable.

Usually if we can get past that and into a conversation people realize we all have a lot of knowledge to share, but is there a way to relate to older customer more quickly, or make them feel more at ease? I know that this is a question that there can’t be one right answer for, but any tips would be helpful!

What a good question! Let me turn it over to you, readers.

Let’s say you’re going into a sexuality shop for either the first time, or with a question that embarrasses you. You look around, and all the sales people are about the age of your grandchildren.

  • How do/don’t you want to be approached?
  • What is the right/wrong thing for a staffer to say to you?
  • How can a younger person help you feel more at ease talking about sexual concerns?
  • Do you start a conversation that’s not about the real reason you’re there before honing in on the real question?
  • What makes you decide whether or not you can bring up your real concern?
  • What questions do you wish you had the nerve to ask, but you don’t?

A man I know was 67 when he gathered the courage to walk into a sexuality shop for the first time. He wanted to get advice about buying his first butt plug. He squeaked out the question to the tattooed, nose-ring wearing boy who barely seemed of legal age. The young man led him to the butt plug area of the store and calmly showed him various styles, explaining quietly and clearly which ones were best for novices, and why.

It was clear that (a) he knew his stuff; (b) this was his day job and no question surprised him; and (c) the older man was his valued customer, not an object of ridicule or amazement. The older man felt freer to ask more questions, and he ended up making a purchase that he enjoyed for years.

Would a calm, thorough, matter-of-fact explanation have worked to put you at ease, too?

If you’re age 50+, what experiences — good or bad — have you had in sexuality shops? I’d love to hear from you.

(Please include your age answering any of these questions.)

Things You’ll Never Hear Him Say When He Sees You Naked

Photo by Ruth Lefkowitz
Women of our age: I hear all the time that you’re embarrassed about your aging body to the point of avoiding sex with a new partner — or you insist on sex in a darkened room, using the braille method of discovery. 

I discover it’s not just single women: I had a conversation with a man about my age who is no longer having sex with his wife because she’s too embarrassed about her weight gain to be naked with him.

Other men tell me similar stories — that their wives hide their bodies, and the men miss the sex and the intimacy, but don’t know how to ease their wives past their distaste for their bodies.

I’d like to talk to both genders here:

Women: By hiding your body, being embarrassed by it, you’re buying into our youth-obsessed culture that says that only young, firm, fertile bodies can be sexy and alluring. Let’s put that notion to rest right now!
Single women, imagine this scenario:

Finally, after meeting so many frogs (and not even tempted to kiss any of them), you’ve met a man who makes your heart flutter big time. You’ve flirted, you’ve gone on a few dates, you’ve talked half the night, you’ve laughed at his jokes and he at yours. On your last date, you kissed… and kissed. His hands went exploring, so did yours, and you know that on the next date, more than your lipstick will come off. You’ve even had the Condom Conversation.

But, your inner worrier keeps asking you, what if he sees your body and heads for the hills?

You’ve got to trust me on this, he’s not going to say or even think any of the following:

  • “Oh, gee, you have so many wrinkles!”
  • “You’d be so pretty if you lost weight.”
  • “Huh—I thought you looked younger with clothes on.”
  • “I like firmer butts and perkier breasts.”
  • “Uh, I gotta go now.”

No, whether or not he voices it out loud or conveys it with a smile or melting eyes, here’s what he’s thinking:

 “Oh wow, did I get lucky! This is going to be wonderful.”

Partnered women: Does your husband have the same body as when you first dated? I doubt it. Realize that your man wants you, wants the bonding with you, wants the sexual pleasure with you. Instead of asking him, “Do I look fat?” try asking, “What do you find the sexiest part of my body?” His answer might surprise you, and I’ll bet he’ll be delighted that you asked.

Men: You may not realize how insecure we women are about our bodies. We need to hear from you that you find us sexy, alluring, beautiful. If you think our breasts are gorgeous, or our rear view turns you on, please tell us. Even an “I could gaze into your eyes forever” will make our hearts flutter. We need you to help us affirm our bodies. A hefty dose of romance does wonders for us, too!

We women are our own worst critics, always have been. Remember those teenage pimples? Those worries about our shape and smell? Let’s decide, once and for all, that our bodies are just right, capably of visually delighting a partner and of bringing us both great pleasure.

If we can’t do that at this time of life, when can we? Even if we don’t fully believe it, acting “as if” we’re proud of our bodies will help make it so.

So when it’s time for that get-naked date, prepare with some gorgeous lingerie, dim the lights if you feel the need, but don’t black out the view (candles are sexy and flattering), have lubricant handy, and enjoy.

I’d love to hear from both women and men about this topic! Please comment.

This post was originally published in a slightly different form 11/8/11. I expanded and updated it 11/20/2012.