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Why You Won’t Talk About Sexual Issues With Your Partner by David Ludden Ph.D.

Why You Won’t Talk About Sexual Issues With Your Partner

Finding the courage to push your relationship forward.

Posted Oct 20, 2018
David Ludden Ph.D.
Talking Apes

Conflict is inevitable in relationships. You’d like to save more money for the future, but your partner would like the two of you to get more enjoyment out of life now. You think your partner is too strict with the kids, but your partner thinks you’re too lenient. You think you already do more than your fair share of the work around the house, but your partner thinks you don’t do enough. Or else, they’d rather you did different chores from the ones you’re used to doing.

Couples frequently have fights about issues like these, and often they can find solutions to these disagreements. At the very least, when they talk their problems out, they have a better understanding of their partner’s preferences. But there’s one area of conflict that too many couples avoid discussing at all costs, namely differences in sexual desire.

Plenty of research shows that couples who have open conversations about sexual issues are also more satisfied with their relationships. However, too many people would rather put up with an unhappy sex life than have that dreaded conversation. Why are so many people afraid to communicate their sexual needs to their partner? This is the question that Canadian psychologist Uzma Rehman and her colleagues explored in a recent study of conflict communication in couples.

Conflict communication is always difficult, largely because we’re motivated to avoid negative emotions. Tempers get raised, and feelings get hurt. Just as we avoid going to the dentist despite a toothache, we avoid talking with our partner about sensitive issues. So we let problems fester.

With non-sexual problems in the relationship, we tend to reach a tipping point after which we let it all come out. Arguments can be healthy for a relationship, especially when the discussion remains focused on the issue at hand and doesn’t devolve into slinging insults and pushing each other’s buttons.

But even couples who are reasonably good at resolving other types of conflict get stuck when it comes to discussing sexual problems in the relationship. Instead of communicating our preferences and inquiring about our partner’s, we rely on cultural scripts that tell us how the sex act is supposed to play out. Despite our urge for a break from the routine, we keep our fantasies to ourselves. No wonder our sex lives get stale after years of marriage.

Past research has shown that couples avoid conflict communication, because they perceive it as threatening in three different ways:

  • Threat to relationship. People fear the conflict discussion will irreparably damage the relationship. In other words, they value their relationships even when they’re not happy ones. So they’d rather say nothing than risk a conflict that might improve it, but might also tear it apart.


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