As a couple and family therapist, the majority of the clients that I see, whether they are individuals or couples, spend most of the time in sessions discussing their relationships with others. One of the main dilemmas I see is the difficulty in balancing work life, household demands, personal goals, family relationships, and roles as partners and parents. I’m sure as you read this, you can relate. It can feel extremely overwhelming to juggle it all, and odds are some areas get put on the back burner. One common area that often gets ignored when life is overwhelming is one’s sex life. This can be especially true for couples with children and demanding work schedules. Since it is Sexpositive September, here are a few ways to prioritize a healthy sex life in relationships.
Communicating likes and dislikes
In any healthy relationship between two people, communication is fundamental. That is no different when it comes to healthy sex life. In our society, sex seems to be a taboo topic in a sense. On one hand, it is obvious that sex sells, and as Black women, we are often hypersexualized beginning at a young age. On the other hand, thanks to patriarchy, women discussing sex are not seen as ladylike or acceptable. We often receive messages that the purpose of sex is to please the other partner or create life. But not about our pleasure or needs. If a woman decides to embrace her sexuality and take freedom in how she gets her sexual needs met, she may be ridiculed, judged, or called any of the many derogatory names in the book. However, if a woman decides to be more conservative with her sexuality, she may also be judged as prude or too picky. When you’re made to feel like you can’t win, either way, it can be hard to feel safe to communicate your likes and dislikes.
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However, for a satisfying sex life, you and your partner both need to be aware of what works for each other. This may be something you both already know from past experiences. Yet it can be scary to express out of worry of how your partner may respond, or not wanting to hurt their feelings. But not enjoying your sex life with your partner for the sake of “keeping the peace” isn’t healthy and can lead to further issues in the relationship down the line. Masturbating can be a great way to learn your body and what brings you pleasure without the pressure of performing or pleasing someone else. In addition, including your partner in the discovery of what you like and dislike can be helpful as well. Communicating during sex or affirming your partner when they are doing something you like can be a gentle way to express what’s working for you. Having a check-in after sex is another way to facilitate healthy communication in your sex life. It can sound like sharing what aspects you really enjoyed, what you would like to try next time and asking your partner to share the same.
In each relationship, there are two different people, often with different family backgrounds, life experiences, and personality traits, coming together to form a bond. Therefore, it’s understandable that you and your partner will have different expectations and will need to make some adjustments, especially when it comes to sex. There is nothing wrong with having different expectations. But problems tend to arise when these expectations are not expressed and are assumed to be known by the other partner. For example, partners often have different sex drives in a relationship. What might be enough for one person may not be for the other. If that is the case, discussing what each partner feels would be an ideal number of times to have sex per week and finding a middle ground where both feel satisfied can be more beneficial.
Another expectation that is extremely important to express when prioritizing a healthy sex life is focusing on sexual health. Setting the expectation that you two will get tested for STIs together or go separately but share results can provide transparency, as well as show that each of you are taking your sexual health into consideration. When it comes to sexual health, it may also be helpful to set expectations around contraception. For instance, condom usage being expected until you and your partner decide to be exclusive. I know discussing past sexual health history and contraception isn’t always fun and can be uncomfortable. But it fosters a healthier sex life when both partners can feel safe engaging with one another.
“Don’t yuck anybody’s yum”
In college I was the president of a mental health club on campus called Peer Education Programmers (PEPers). During my junior or senior year, we had a joint event with Planned Parenthood to discuss healthy relationship behaviors. I appreciated that Spelman often made space for topics around our mental, sexual, and physical health as young Black women. As this was over six years ago at this point, I don’t recall much from the event. But what did stick with me was the guest speaker telling us not to “yuck anybody’s yum.” Which is a great analogy for having an open mind and not judging what others might be into. When it comes to discussing sex with the couples I see, I have provided a Yes/No/Maybe worksheet, which has a list of various sexual activities. Each partner is able to choose if the activity is a yes, a no, or a maybe for them and compare results. Participating in this exercise helps each partner gain insight into what they may be willing to try, what’s a fantasy for them, and what’s a hard pass.
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Setting aside time for sex
The last way to prioritize a healthy sex life in your relationships, is to literally prioritize having sex. A great way to do that is setting aside time during the week to do so, or creating a schedule. I know for some, this doesn’t seem romantic or organic. There is the belief that sex should always be spontaneous and happen in the heat of the moment. However, that can be difficult for couples who are juggling multiple demands and family schedules. For some couples, by the time they get alone time all they have the energy for is to lay on the couch and watch tv or go to sleep. So if your sex life has fallen by the wasteside due to you and your partner’s busy lives, consider setting aside time for sex, not as a boring routine, but as a way to show intentionality. When you add something to your schedule, that usually means you’re blocking time out of your day to do it. We do it so often when it comes to our work, why can’t we take the same initiative to set aside time in our personal life too?