How to Talk about Sex with Your Partner

“How do you talk about sex to a partner who shuts down conversation?” A reader asked. I’m republishing this 2008 post because Yvonne Fulbright’s information is vitally important for couples who need help breaking through the communications barrier.

I often hear from people having sexual problems with their partner. They may want more, less, or a different kind of quality of sex. Although sexual difficulties won’t magically go away by talking about them, effective communication is a big first step.

I asked certified sex educator Yvonne K. Fulbright for communications strategies she recommends to her clients who are having difficulty resolving sexual problems. “Unless you make your wishes known, your partner is not going to change or even attempt to fill your needs,” she says. “Humans can’t read minds, so you have to try to communicate your desires in order to get what you want out of a relationship.” Here are her suggestions for bridging the communications gap:

1. Let your partner know how you feel, e.g., “I am really hurt and confused that you haven’t wanted to make love for years.” It’s important not to attack your lover and to use “I statements” such as, “I miss having sex with you.” You cannot be faulted for how you feel, and expressing yourself this way is likely to get a more positive reaction than something like, “What’s wrong with you? You never want to have sex.”

2. Don’t make assumptions, which close off an open discussion and can cause your partner to clam up. Avoid questions that only invite a yes/no response. For example, say, “I was hoping we could talk about why we’re not having sex anymore,” instead of, “Are you not interested in sex because I no longer attract you?”

3. Pick a time when you can focus on just the two of you. Don’t have the conversation when you’re doing another task. Plan a time when you can create a private space to talk, and make it a communal experience, e.g., over a cup of tea. The more natural you can make the conversation, the less threatening it will be.

4. Do not accuse or blame your partner for the problem. Instead, communicate that you want to work on your problems as a team effort.

5. Pay attention to your own and your partner’s body language. A great deal of what you’re saying isn’t coming from your mouth, but from your stance, how you’re holding your arms, and your facial expressions. Do you appear defensive? Uncomfortable? Does your partner? Attention to body language will help you to gauge how the conversation is going.

6. Ask for suggestions on how to make things better, rather than telling your partner how it should be done. People are much more likely to act on what they see being possible vs. what someone dictates to them, especially in an intimate relationship. You, too, should also give suggestions, but they should come across as just that – suggestions.

–Certified sex educator Yvonne K. Fulbright, PhD, MSEd is the author of several books, including Sultry Sex Talk to Seduce Any Lover, Better Sex Guide to Extraordinary Lovemaking, and The Hot Guide to Safer Sex. Visit her websites at and

Erectile Dysfunction: Michael Castleman Talks to Women

Update note: I first posted this interview in June 2007. I have so many new readers now that I wanted to bring it to the forefront, because it’s such an important issue for both men and women. Often men feel they can’t talk about ED with their partners. Women tell me their men seem to emotionally disappear and avoid sexual activity and discussion. Michael Castleman helps all of us understand what’s going on. — Joan

In a previous post, I interviewed Michael Castleman, a sex educator, counselor and journalist specializing in men’s sexuality to answer some questions for men about erectile dysfunction. In this part of the interview, Castleman talks directly to women:

Q: What don’t women understand about erectile dysfunction (ED)?

MC: Like men, few women understand the difference between true ED and erection dissatisfaction. [See Erectile Dysfunction: Michael Castleman Talks to Men for explanation of the difference.] Women also don’t really appreciate how men FEEL when EDis or ED develop. It’s sort of like how women feel when they lose a breast to cancer. You’re still alive, but you feel diminished. A part of your body you took for granted isn’t there anymore, or in the case of men, doesn’t work like it used to. And this isn’t just any part of the body. It’s a body part that in a profound way DEFINES you as a man or woman. For women, loss of a breast raises issues like: Am I still attractive? Am I still sexual? Can I still please a man sexually? Men with ED and EDis wrestle with similar issues.

Beyond this, men have lived their whole lives pretty much taking their penises for granted: See a sexy woman, get hard. See porn, get hard. Think a sexual thought, get hard. Then all of a sudden–and in many men this happens pretty suddenly–they’re in a situation where they expect to have to rearrange their underwear to accommodate some swelling down there, and then….nothing. Nothing happens.

Many don’t understand what’s happening to them or why. But even those who do, me for example, feel surprised, upset, disappointed, depressed. Change is stressful. But when the changes concern the penis, well, men get seriously freaked out.

Now women often (and rightly) believe that men are too focused on the penis. That’s often true. It takes most young men years (sometimes decades) to leave penis-centric sex behind and understand the erotic value and pleasure of whole-body sensuality, a lovestyle more based on whole-body massage than on just sticking it in somewhere. Men who never get there, men who continue to view sex as penis-centered, when their penis stops behaving as they expect, they often think it’s the end of sex, that they’re over the sexual hill, that it’s all over. In my experience as a sex counselor and writer, few women appreciate how diminished men feel as they get used to EDis… if they ever adjust.

Q: Why can’t men express these concerns?

MC: Many reasons. In general, men tend to be less emotionally articulate than women. Men are socialized to be the “strong silent type,” to keep a “stiff upper lip,” to “grin and bear it.” In other words, to deny what they’re feeling and just go on. As a result, men get less practice than women discussing their emotions, and when they do, they’re less skilled than women. Now some women believe that men don’t HAVE emotions because they don’t discuss them. Wrong. Men feel things just as deeply as women. They just are less likely to discuss them, and if they do, they’re less likely to be able to really articulate how they feel.

The two genders have different natural histories of sex problems. With the exception of vaginal dryness, which is easily mitigated with lubricants, most women have most of their sex problems/issues when they’re young. Young women wrestle with the mixed messages that they should be sexy but not trampy, that they should want love/sex, but not want sex “too” much, not be “too” easy. But how easy is too easy? Young women also have issues with orgasm. Many don’t have them and have to learn how to release orgasms.

Meanwhile, few young men have sex problems–other than coaxing women in to bed. The young penis works just fine, thank you very much. Maybe the guy comes too soon (this is the #1 sex problem of young men), but only rarely do young men have problems with erection. Then they hit 45 or 50 and suddenly, the erections they took for granted their entire lives start to fail them. They freak. It’s almost unthinkable. Many Americans found themselves speechless after Sept. 11. It was so horrible, unimaginable. Men don’t discuss their ED or EDis in part because it’s unimaginable–then it happens and they’re speechless.

To many men, having reliable erections is a significant part of what defines them as men. If they have problems in the erection department, some fear that the women in their lives will view them as less than real men. So why talk about it? Why invite her to rub his nose in the fact that he’s less of a man?

Q: When should a couple seek counseling?

There’s no hard-and-fast rule on this. But when a problem festers, when you find yourselves having the same conflict over and over again, when there seems to be no way out, no resolution, basically, when you feel stuck, that’s when to consider counseling.

Now every sex problem is also a relationship problem and visa versa. If the main issue is power/control/decision making or conflict resolution, then a couples counselor is probably the place to start. But if they main problem is sexual–a desire difference, orgasm issues for the woman, erection issues for the man–then I’d start with a sex therapist.

Personally, I’m a fan of sex therapy. This is not self-serving because I am not a sex therapist. But studies show that two-thirds of couples who consult sex therapists report significant benefit within 6 months. That’s pretty good. Men with ED or EDis need to reframe their thinking about sex. They need to get away from porn-inspired sex and explore whole-body sensuality. This is often unfamiliar to men. They often fight it. So going back to a therapist week after week can help keep them on the path to self-discovery.

To find a sex therapist, visit the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT). Click the map of the U.S. and Canada, and get a list of all the AASECT-certified sex therapists in your state or province.

Q: What if the man won’t go?

The woman should go by herself. This is not as good as the couple going. But going solo gives the woman a place to vent. It may equip her with new coping skills that can help deal with the couple’s issues. And she may be referred to some written material, e.g. my book and others like it, that she can litter around the house and hope he picks up and checks out.

Great Sex
Michael Castleman, M.A., is the author of twelve books, including Great Sex: The Man’s Guide to the Secrets of Whole-Body Sensuality and Sexual Solutions: For Men and the Women Who Love Them. From 1991-95, he answered the sex questions submitted to the Playboy Advisor. Visit his website about sex after midlife,

Pelvic Floor Relaxation: Advice from A Woman’s Touch

As I write Naked at Our Age, I’m awed by the level of candor from the real people who have agreed to share their stories and the generosity of the experts who are contributing solid, helpful tips that address the problems and concerns you’ve sent me.

The book will come out in Spring 2011, which I realize is a long wait for those of you who are experiencing challenges now that are preventing you from thoroughly enjoying your senior sexuality. Since my mission is to help you, I want to share something that I learned from Ellen Barnard, MSSW, because you might need this information –as I did — before the book comes out.

I wrote Ellen for personal advice — I was startled and dismayed to discover that I was unable to insert the Teneo Smartballs comfortably — something that would have been easy before my self-imposed, long period of celibacy following Robert’s death. “I’m aghast that I’ve let this happen to me,” I told her.

Here is an excerpt from her compassionate and helpful reply, which I hope will open your eyes, as it did mine:

Oh, please don’t be upset – there are many women of all ages who find them to be too wide to insert comfortably unless they are very aroused. Despite the information around them, they really are not intended to be used without arousal and a lot of lubrication first.

It’s not really about stretching the entrance to your vagina. The issue is how tight and how flexible the pelvic floor muscles are at the opening of your vagina. After menopause, it gets more difficult for the pelvic floor to relax unless you regularly practice doing so. Arousal helps with relaxation of the pelvic floor, thus allowing you to insert something inside your vagina comfortably, but after menopause it often takes a conscious relaxation effort in addition to significant massage for arousal.

So your task is to learn how to better relax those muscles and do so as you insert gradually wider toys.  Don’t “push” against those muscles – that doesn’t work, and actually causes them to tighten further. Instead, either gently slip a finger alongside your favorite toy once you are fully aroused, taking a deep belly breath and once you feel the opening relax, slip the finger inside, or take a tapered toy and insert it deeper as you breath deeply and feel the vaginal opening relax.

It’s worth going to our site and downloading our revised Vaginal Renewal and Pelvic Floor Health booklets (see links under “Educational Brochures”) – we address the issue of a tight pelvic floor in both of them. 

Ellen Barnard is a sex educator and counselor who believes we all deserve delightful, healthy sex lives for as long as we live. She consults on the topics of aging and sexuality, cancer and sexuality, and facilitating intimacy at the end of life. She is also the co-owner of A Woman’s Touch Sexuality Resource Center.

Visit A Woman’s Touch for “expertise in sexual health and pleasure.”

He’s History, You’re Not: Interview with Erica Manfred


It was Christmas Eve, 2000, the day before her 55th birthday. Erica Manfred, clad in a flannel nightgown, asked her husband why he had been so distant lately, not wanting sex, or even conversation.

“I want to leave you,” he said. “There’s someone else.” He named a co-worker half Erica’s age. “I’m in love with her. She’s my soul mate.”

After eighteen years together, Erica had to face that her marriage was abruptly, painfully, horribly over.

In the next years, Erica Manfred went on to make every mistake in the book. The good news is that “the book” has just been published — He’s History, You’re Not: Surviving Divorce After 40 — and she learned from her mistakes in time to help you avoid them.

Divorce is different for women in their forties, fifties, and sixties, and Erica Manfred addresses those special concerns head-on, from grieving to financial to dating and sex. She spills her guts, disclosing even embarrassing experiences with emotional nakedness. Her tips are invaluable, and her candor will make you feel she’s your best friend sharing her mistakes so you don’t have to make them. Through it all, she even manages to be laugh-out-loud funny! I had the pleasure of interviewing Erica Manfred:


JP: What are the signs that your marriage is in trouble?

EM: You can’t remember the last time you had (or enjoyed) sex with your husband. You’re stuck in a deadlocked relationship where you “always” do X and he “always” does Y. You have no emotional connection. You wish you could go on vacation without him.


JP: How do you start dating again when your perky parts have gone south and so has your self-image?

EM: Good question Joan. All the women I interviewed lost weight, started going to the gym or exercising like crazy, got manicures, pedicures, new hair colors, makeovers. Buying a new wardrobe helps. Aside from that, act “as if” you’re devastatingly sexy even if you don’t feel that way. Make believe you’re Susan Sarandon or Madonna even if it feels silly. It works.


JP: Give us some tips about dating at our age.

EM: Nothing has changed since high school, except now you want to get laid more than he does, but you still have to play hard to get. Depressing but true. Remember the guys you’re dating came of age in the 50s and they’re not used to getting asked out on dates. They need to do the pursuing.


JP: How soon is too soon to get involved with a new lover?

EM: I’d say give it at least a year after the breakup of a long marriage. Jumping into a new relationship too early can leave you more devastated than when your marriage ended. That said, if you’re hot to trot, experiment a little. Just don’t take it seriously until you’re ready.


JP: What did you do after your divorce that you’re embarrassed to admit now?

EM: Jumped into bed with every Tom, Dick and Harry. Literally. My first lover was Harry and he was a cutie. I was a tad too promiscuous.


JP: What do you wish more women in this situation knew?

EM: How to stop being so dependent on men. You can take care of yourself, pay the bills, get the roof fixed and even live happily alone if you have to. The bad news is there aren’t enough men to go around. The good news is you don’t need a man to be happy.