Practicing Honest Communication in Intimate MomentsJul 13, 2023
This Exercise Builds Skills to Support True Consent
There are a million and one reasons we might not communicate honestly about sex. We might be afraid of hurting our partner– seeing that little disappointed expression cross their face, or risking that they feel rejected. We might be afraid of being judged–seen as too prudish and boring or too kinky and weird. We might not be sure what we want, making it difficult to ask for it.
That’s part of how people can end up saying yes to sexual activities they’re not excited about, or not saying no to touch that hurts, or never telling their partner that there’s something else they’d like to try. As understandable as this is, over time, biting back the truth can do real damage to your sexual connection (and even your body, if you’re pushing through unresolved sex pain) and it can prevent you from having the kind of truly joyful, intimate, and connected sex that we all really want to have.
So, what does it take to develop the ability to communicate honestly in sexual situations? First you’ll need to be able to discern what you want sexually, including in the moment. And of course, you’ll need to be able to express that to your partner in some manner, even if you think they won’t be happy to hear it. And the flip side of that coin is that you’ll need to be able to stay calm, open, and grounded when your partner tells you what they really want, even if it’s not what you wanted to hear. This set of skills is what I call “sexual differentiation,” and it’s the foundation of a healthy and long-lasting sexual connection.
As a sex therapist, I very often find that the core of my work revolves around helping my clients build sexual differentiation. To that end, I’ve developed an exercise that I call Upshifting and Downshifting. It’s designed to help partners practice communicating honestly about physical touch in a low-stress, low-stakes context, so that they get better at communicating honestly and effectively in higher-stakes moments. I use it often in my therapy room, helping clients practice with something simple and low-pressure, like holding hands.
Upshifting and Downshifting builds awareness of what you want for yourself, what you are experiencing, what your partner prefers, and how you can tend to the connection between partners when each wants something different. In other words, it builds sexual differentiation, an important foundation for happy intimate experiences of pleasure.
The exercise goes like this: Each person plays with various responses on both the giving and receiving end of the interaction. This involves asking for something, offering something, and also saying yes, no, or making a different suggestion when their partner asks for something. This exploration will increase comfort with simple expectable pivots that can feel unsettling in a sexual encounter. For example, one partner might ask “may I hold your hand?” Then, the other might play with various responses. Both stay relaxed and easy with one another regardless of the answer.
- Saying yes
- Saying no
- Suggesting a different, lower-stakes activity (“No, but maybe we could go for a walk instead?”)
- Suggesting a different, higher-stakes activity (“No, but would you be willing to put your arm around me instead?”)
Then, partners switch roles, and so they get practice both initiating and receiving/responding. Practice receiving a “no” with warmth and grace. Ask yourself: How can you help support your partner in being honest with you? How can you make it easy for them to tell you what they really want and feel?
This exercise builds important skills for handling the kinds of pivots that are part of any consensual sexual intimacy. The focus here is getting comfortable with a full range of possibilities so reactive emotions don’t get in the way of feeling connected when things don’t go as planned. Try to keep it a little playful, while also noticing and managing the emotions that are bound to arise.
I’m sure you can see how practicing and repeating this sequence supports strengthening skills for handling a full range of possibilities with grace, warmth, and ease. When you know you can count on your partner to receive a “no” well, and also count on yourself to give a “no” when needed, it becomes much more possible to relax and enjoy physical closeness. Try it out and see what happens. The more you practice, the easier it will be–and that ease will transfer into other moments.
Originally published on Psychology Today.