How to Initiate Sex With Your Partner Without Feeling Awkward

Sex should be fun, but it can also be complicated. Welcome to Sexual Resolution, a biweekly column by sex therapist Vanessa Marin that answers all your most confidential questions to help you achieve the healthy, safe, and joyful sex life that you deserve.

Relationships require us to try to gain an understanding of our needs, find constructive ways of sharing those requests with our partners and work together as a team to fill the needs of both people in the relationship. Unsurprisingly, this can be a really tricky process.

This week, our questions revolve around making requests of your partners. For our first reader-asked query, I address how to get a partner to follow through on the changes they’ve said they will make but maybe haven't implemented yet. Then, I answer a question about how to get more comfortable initiating sex from a reader whose partner is tired of always being the one to get things going.

QUESTION: I've been asking my boyfriend to make some changes to our sex life for months. He's really good at listening in the moment and making me think he has understood, but then nothing ever changes. He hasn't even attempted to try something new or different once. How do I get it across to him that I need him to do more than just listen? — Looking for Action, 28

VANESSA: Working with couples has always been fascinating for me because of how differently two humans can experience the same situation. I’ve worked with lots of people who, like you, say they’ve been really clear with their partners about what they need. So clear that they can’t possibly imagine there being any sort of miscommunication. But when I talk to the partner, they’ll frequently have a completely different understanding of what was said. It can be truly mind-boggling at times. How is it possible for one person to say ABC and the other person to hear XYZ?

I wonder if this might be the case in your relationship. Perhaps you think you’ve been really clear with your boyfriend, but for some reason or another, he just hasn’t heard what you’ve been saying or has incorrectly heard you. The mistranslation might be:

There’s also the possibility that your partner has heard your requests but has been afraid to take action for one reason or another. Sex is a really tricky topic, and we all have our own hang-ups. It’s possible that your boyfriend is spending all of his effort simply trying to listen to you without freaking out. Maybe he’s so spent by the conversations themselves that he just doesn’t have the energy or the courage to actually take action. Or maybe he’s so overwhelmed by the number of requests you’ve made that he doesn’t know where to start.

I know you’re frustrated, but I think you have to have another conversation with him. First, I would think about the specific requests you’ve made of him and try to pick the one that feels most important to you. Say something like, “I’ve noticed that you and I can talk about sex pretty skillfully, which I really appreciate. I know it’s an insanely difficult topic to talk about, so I’m proud of us. But I feel like I’ve made a few requests of you, and I haven’t seen any action being taken. I’m not expecting perfection, but I’d like us both to make an active effort to work on our sex life.”

Tell him that you’d like to start off by focusing on the request that’s most important to you; focusing on one thing at a time will give him a clear path of action and hopefully prevent him from getting overwhelmed. Tell him why this one request is important to you, and the specific details of what you’d like from him. Then ask him how you can support him in taking that action, and ask him if there are any requests he’d like to make of you in return.

If you’re still not seeing any action after that, it may be time to look for a sex therapist to help you guys figure out where the miscommunication is happening.

QUESTION: My partner has asked me to be more assertive about initiating sex. She feels like she's always the one to initiate, and she gets frustrated feeling like our sex life is her responsibility. I understand her request, but the problem is, I get really embarrassed initiating. It's so much more comfortable for me to have her be the one in the lead. How can I get more comfortable? — Shy in the Sack, 27

VANESSA: Even when you’re with a loving and trusted partner, initiating sex is incredibly vulnerable. You’re putting yourself out there and asking for something you want, and you're also opening yourself up to the possibility of being rejected. Your feelings make sense, and it’s important for you to acknowledge and validate them — initiating sex doesn’t require you to feel perfectly confident and brave. Instead, you have to be willing to feel your fear and embarrassment and choose to take action anyways. That being said, there are still some ways to make initiating feel less vulnerable.

Ask your partner to come up with three different ways that she would like you to initiate sex. The more specific, the better. For example, “I’d like you to come up behind me when I’m relaxing on the sofa and start kissing my neck.” If you have specific ideas from your partner that you know she’ll like, you can feel more at ease initiating.

You can also try to come up with initiation “baby steps.” If saying out loud, “I want you right now” feels too intense to you, maybe the two of you could agree on a little signal that means the same thing. For example, maybe you could do a little “come here” motion with your finger that you’re trying to initiate. This temporary workaround will help you build up your confidence and comfort.

Vanessa Marin is a licensed sex therapist based in Los Angeles. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and her website.

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