Unfortunately, many couples struggle to communicate. They either fail to discuss issues of importance at all or hide behind manipulative questions and misrepresentation. When I work with clients struggling with communication, I generally offer three pieces of advice: say what’s on your mind, lay your cards down first, and allow yourself to be seen. Let’s look at each in turn.
It is your job to share what’s on your mind
As a rule, you should reveal what’s going on in your head. It’s not your partner’s job to read your mind, notice you’re upset, or drag stuff out of you. If you have something going on—a concern, a complaint, or something positive to share—you should bring it up with your partner. It’s also your job to correct your partner if they are misreading you; share what you are really thinking or feeling.
This is different from how a lot of people operate. You may expect your partner to speak up when they notice you are sad or annoyed, thinking it’s up to them to show openness to hearing from you. You may feel like they don’t care about you if they aren’t attuned to you and trying to figure out what’s going on. Rather than expect them to read and pursue you, if you have something on your mind, share it directly. At least, you should do that most of the time. Knowing that you aren’t perfect and may sometimes struggle to share your thoughts and feelings, there’s some room for your partner to notice your demeanor and ask (and vice versa). But by and large, the burden is on you to bring things to the table.
Lay your cards down first
There’s a common tactic of asking your partner a question to get a sense of where they stand on an issue before you reveal what you think. You can hide behind the question and play your hand from there, without revealing what you’re thinking, feeling, or wanting. This technique can even be used to trap your partner: getting them to talk about something and then punishing them for whatever they say. My rule of the court is to play your cards first. Lay them on the table before you ask your partner to play theirs. Talk about what you’re thinking or feeling and then follow it up with questions about what your partner thinks. This is intimacy—letting your partner see what’s going on with you, being willing to risk their disapproval, and being able to stand by what you believe.
Allow yourself to be seen
The key to intimacy is letting yourself be seen, for better and for worse, for your assets and your faults. If you want true intimacy and look forward to enjoying your best sex life, you need to reveal yourself to your partner. You cannot hide or pretend and still expect to have great sex. People have non-intimate sex all the time, hiding who they are or putting up a pretense. It might be physically enjoyable. It may even be erotic (at least to one of the participants) since it allows you to create whatever meaning you want. But it doesn’t create open and intimate sex—sex where you put yourself out there and allow your partner to see you. This intimacy, this revealing of yourself, allows you to pursue desire, reveal your preferences, be selfish in a good way, meet your partner’s selfishness with gusto, and explore eroticism as a team. This is what opens the door to the best sex. Being able to show this much about yourself takes a solid sense of who you are.
Allowing yourself to be seen can be scary. It feels edgy to try something new, to share a new aspect of yourself, and to risk stepping into a deeper layer of your eroticism. That risk brings anxiety, and you will need an ability to tolerate that anxiety if your partner balks at your desires. Remember, you will not always get what you want, so it is important to be able to “hold onto yourself” and validate your own sexuality when your partner isn’t receptive. The fear of a partner’s reaction often keeps people from bringing their full selves to the bedroom. Encouraging each other to take these risks and to navigate new territory (whether it is novel sexual behaviors or adding eroticism to the sexual acts that are already on the menu) will enrich the sex you are having.