The lights are low. A fire smolders in the fireplace. Two wine glasses sit, half empty, on the nightstand. Your clothes lie in a heap on the floor. You reach for each other. The two of you tumble to the bed, and then…
No explosions of passion. There are no breathy proclamations of desire. No tumultuous climax. To put it bluntly, the sex just isn’t that good. And then you wonder: How can everyone in movies and romance novels be having fiery, combustible sex when you and your partner can barely create a spark?
“TV shows and movies give us this very skewed representation of what sex is supposed to be like,” says Logan Levkoff, Ph.D., a sexologist, relationship expert, and author of the ebook How To Get Your Wife to Have Sex With You.
“Everyone seems to be climaxing and having orgasms all the time from whatever they’re doing, and I think when you grow up on a diet of that when your real life doesn’t match, you think, ‘There’s something wrong with me,’ or, ‘There’s something wrong with my partner.'”
Real-life sex can almost never measure up to the passion portrayed on the screen, says Isadora Alman, MFT, a California-based sex therapist. “People don’t talk about the fact that it’s likely that in an odd position you’ll pass gas or the love of your life will take you in his arms and have bad breath.”
Sex in the real world isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t always end with an earth-shattering climax — but it doesn’t have to, Levkoff says. “Good sex doesn’t necessarily have to be about an orgasm. It can just be an emotionally fulfilling experience between partners.”
No matter how blah your sex life may be, it can get better. The key, say our experts, is to know exactly what you want — and then ask for it.
Getting What You Want in Bed
You like long foreplay sessions. Your partner is ready to go in an instant. You long for wet, sensual kisses. He prefers dry, chaste pecks. Your partner needs sex twice a day. You can’t handle it more than three times a week. Even when everything else in the relationship is working, sexual styles aren’t always compatible. That’s especially true for new couples.
“Sex is not just naturally perfect,” Alman says. “There is the energy of a new relationship that is positive — the excitement and the eagerness and the passion. And the negative is that you bump noses or knees because you just haven’t learned how to dance together yet.”
Even long-term couples can struggle in the bedroom. Though we can easily tell our partner what shirt we’d like them to wear, or what we’d like them to cook for dinner, on the topic of sex we tend to get tongue-tied.
“People tend to be very sensitive when it comes to talking about sex. They’re afraid of hurting their partner’s feelings, so they don’t tell them what they like or don’t like,” says Rachel Sussman, LCSW, a relationship, and family therapist in New York, and author of The Breakup Bible.
“You’re not going to get it unless you ask for it.” So how do you tell your partner what you want without bruising his or her ego? “I think it’s really in how you bring up the statement,” Levkoff says. “‘I would love it if we … or, ‘Could we try this?’ …
You don’t want to make them feel bad about what they’ve done or haven’t done.” You can have that conversation in bed, or at dinner over a glass of wine — wherever is most comfortable for you. Before you talk, you need to know exactly what about your sex life bothers you.
Is it a question of technique? Personal hygiene? Timing? “Once you know what isn’t working for you, there are ways you can suggest that can mitigate those circumstances,” Alman says.
For example, if something about your partner’s smell is turning you off, suggest taking a bath together before making love. If you crave more foreplay, ask for slower segues into sex. Before you can tell your partner what you want him/her to do in bed, you need to know what you like.
“I think especially for women, they’ve got to explore their own bodies. You have to masturbate. Get a vibrator. Get some books. Teach yourself how to orgasm,” Sussman says. Once you’ve figured out what you want and shared it with your partner, what if your sex life continues to be dull or unfulfilling?
What if it’s so bad that it’s threatening your relationship?
When It’s Just Not Working
After you’ve tried talking and the sex still isn’t working, what then? “Experiment together,” Sussman says. “Learn to get to know each other’s bodies.” Try some sex aids. Read books with pictures (such as The Joy of Sex), or watch an educational video together, Alman recommends.
Not porn, but explicit videos in which a voice-over explains what’s happening behind the scenes. Sometimes the problem is a physical one, such as premature ejaculation.
Or it may be that the stress from your job is bleeding over into the bedroom and disrupting your sex life. In those cases, it can help to see a sex therapist. “We unravel why you two are not getting along,” Alman says. ”
And then we try to remedy that.” If you’re still unsatisfied, is it ever OK to fake it in bed? Our experts say no. “If you’re faking it, you’re doing yourself a disservice because you’re not learning what really turns you on,” Sussman says.
“I think eventually, it takes a toll. Your partner’s going to realize that you’re disconnected.” Can sex ever be bad enough to consider ending a relationship over? Possibly. “You might really love somebody and the sex is never going to be better than OK.
You have to decide whether that’s livable with,” Alman says. “The fact is, in many cases, you have to either accept that the sex is never going to be mind-blowing … or you have to leave.”
Whenever you’re considering a breakup or divorce, you need to weigh every element of the relationship, and not just the sex. “You can’t have everything in life,” Sussman says. “If you have a wonderful relationship and you love each other and you have kids but the sex isn’t great … maybe you can live with that.”
In most cases, though, you shouldn’t have to break up or settle for mediocre sex, as long as you’re willing to put a little effort into it. Sussman says every couple has the potential to have good sex.
“If you’re two emotionally and physically healthy people, you should be able to work with what you’ve got. Not everybody needs to be hanging off the chandelier,” Sussman says. “You can get better. But you have to practice, and you have to be open to discussing it and getting help when you need it.”