How to Talk About Sexual Dysfunction With Your Partner
“Sexual disorder” is the kind of phrase many people shudder at — the kind of phrase dozens of people, both men and women, hear and in response throw their hands in the air mercifully, thankful it’s not something on their personal plate. But here’s the thing about shattering taboos: Truth is, you often find out it’s a lot more prevalent than you think.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, issues of sexual dysfunction are universally common. In fact, 43 percent of women and 31 percent of men report some level of difficulty in the bedroom, whether the concern is physiological or psychological. Whether a person — no matter their gender or sexual alignment — is dealing with physiological issues like pelvic floor dysfunction, sexual arousal disorder and orgasm disorders or those in the psychosexual category like sex addiction, PTSD or sexual anxiety — it’s a varied, all-encompassing issue that affects legions of people.
Now that you know you’re not the only one affected by sexual dysfunction (either by experiencing it yourself or secondhand via your partner’s personal struggles), a huge question within the community of people touched by this issue is such: How the heck do you talk about it? And most important, how do you talk about it with your partner?
“There are two parts here,” Dr. Rosara Torrisi tells HelloFlo. “One is how to communicate in general when something is difficult — having a difficult conversation in general, whether it’s about sex or money. My take on that is I prefer communication that is emotionally focused and honest. [It] means you concentrate much more on the emotional, intimate connection you have with the person you’re talking to instead of just the facts.”
Torrisi is an American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists-certified sex therapist with a Ph.D. in human sexuality and also the founder and supervising therapist at the Long Island Institute of Sex Therapy. Torrisi, who deals with people (of all genders and all sexualities) struggling with both psychological and physiological disorders on a daily basis, maintains that emotion rather than stone-cold information is the most effective approach to establishing and maintaining open lines of communication with your partner.
“Even with sexual dysfunction, there’s often an emotion that goes with it when you’re trying to bring up [an issue like] ‘my pelvis turns this way’ or ‘I noticed that when we’re having intercourse, I have this pain.’ There’s an emotional part of saying that to your partner,” Torrisi says.
If emotion is the key to effective, productive communication that’s open and honest, how can those who struggle with emotional vulnerability address these conversations?
“I usually recommend that people do something called sandwiching, where you’re trying to find a balance of being respectful to yourself and the other person. So you’re usually saying something positive, giving some negative feedback or some information that can be construed negatively, and then you’re giving more positive information,” Torrisi explains.
Need more tips? Here’s a general formula — straight from Torrisi’s practice — to follow along with the sandwiching method. Start with how much you’re enjoying your sexual life with your partner, then add something constructive that clues your partner into how it could be better or what you’re specifically looking for, then pose a question or offer — Would you like to do this? Could we try this out? — and close with something else positive.
Check out Torrisi’s bank of keywords and phrases below if you’re having trouble with rhetoric and need exactly what to say.
- “Hey, I really enjoyed the past few times that we’ve been able to get together. I think you’re a really awesome person and I want us to keep enjoying what we’re doing.”
- “I know about myself that I can’t have sex in this position.”
- “I noticed that when I get really anxious, that I don’t [get turned on].”
- “I noticed that without a lot of stimulation right on my clitoris, I don’t reach my peak sexual pleasure.”
- “This is something I've noticed about my body for a really long time now.”
- “You’re such an awesome partner and that’s part of why I’m telling you. I’d be nervous to tell somebody else.”
And if all else fails, Torrisi suggests to totally own your vulnerability. “Just focus on the emotion and go, ‘I’m really nervous and I can’t believe I just said that but I hope it’s OK that I did,’” she says.
Still freaked out about the prospect of having “the conversation?” It’s OK. Torrisi has a tip for that too. Ask a friend to role-play with you. Practice delivering what it is you need to deliver, then have your friend offer both a positive and negative response.
“Getting yourself ready to do it is the hard work,” Torrisi explains. “It takes practice sometimes. The reality is it’ll probably be somewhere in the middle. If this is a person you like, they’re probably not going to be so mean about it.”
Hard conversations are hard because so much of what we see and experience teaches us (whether subconsciously or not) to reject vulnerability, to view it as a negative thing rather than the strength it actually is.
“Our culture does a bad job of communicating in general,” Torrisi states. “Then, when it comes to sex, it’s even worse. [Many of us aren’t] brought up with the skills to communicate within a relationship in the first place… especially in a more constructive, emotional way. People are very afraid of being vulnerable. It’s also a hindrance to a relationship because if you don’t take the risk of vulnerability, you never deeply connect with somebody.”
The takeaway? Hard conversations are hard because it means being vulnerable, stripping down and letting your partner see the most naked parts of you — both physically and emotionally. But despite the difficulty associated with conversations about sexual dysfunction and preferences, Torrisi maintains they are conversations worth having.
“It’s important and really uncomfortable to do this, but I really encourage people to do it anyway: Having a conversation about the sex you want to have and are about to have before you have it is important,” she says. “To say, ‘Hey, this is what I want. This is what I don’t want. This is something I’m comfortable doing. This is something I know I definitely don’t want to do.’ If you can do any of that, you’re already on track.”
Still feel like you need more? Marshall Rosenberg is the founder and director of education at The Center for Nonviolent Communication and his resources — books, workshops, YouTube videos, workbooks and more — come highly regarded and recommended by the Long Island Institute of Sex Therapy.
Originally published on HelloFlo.