Flowers 001When I was a kid, back in prehistoric times, someone published a book with answers to all the questions people had about sex (so the title proclaimed) but were afraid to ask. Nowadays no one seems to be afraid of asking anything, but sex is still a bugaboo.

He doesn’t get enough and she doesn’t like it—or vice versa. When couples settle in for the long haul, sexual interludes, hot at the outset, lose appeal and become dull and increasingly infrequent. What is wrong with this picture?

When couples first meet, sex seems to be a giant hurdle for them to get over, with hormonal energies pulling them together like a giant magnet until—whew!—it’s a done deal. Then it’s over, another routine added to the relationship repertoire. And yet . . .

Sex is encumbered by all sorts of anxiety. People worry about embarrassment (what if she doesn’t like my body?). Or performance (what if I fail?). Or vulnerability (suppose it is a bad experience and becomes a one-night stand?).

Nowhere is it more important to be able to say what you need and don’t need than in bed. During sex, feeling naked, we desperately want to get it right.

For this to happen, we must be able to tell the other person what we do and don’t want and to heed the other person’s preferences.

To get past the issues of hormones, chemistry, worries, and fears, it helps to take a different view of the proceedings. Satisfying sex is not really about performance. It is about communication.

For this reason it makes sense, when you think you’ve found a partner and are feeling amorous, to test the waters first in other areas. In bed, as elsewhere, the key to success is good listening skills.

Now, anxiety often interferes with a person’s ability to listen. How can you tell if this is the case for you? Ask yourself: when someone else is upset and talking to you, can you (1) hear and remember what is being said? (2) notice the other person’s feelings? (3) stay aware of your own emotions? (4) respond appropriately without interrupting and without turning a deaf ear as you plan what you will say next?

If you can do these things, you are a good listener.

You want to deepen your acquaintance with a new dating partner, ideally over a period of three months at least, before going to bed. After this time has elapsed, you will still barely know him or her, but you will have tested the physical attraction for durability, and you will also have learned how well the two of you communicate in daily life.

Specifically, you want answers to a few questions. (You can add to this list—and by all means let me know if you do.)

1. Does he talk only about himself and his interests, or does he also ask about yours?
2. When you disagree about a proposed course of action, is she willing to negotiate a compromise?
3. When your feelings are hurt, does he take the attitude that it’s not his fault and you should just deal with it? Or does he voice concern and a willingness to listen and work things out as necessary to keep the problem from recurring?
4. When she sets a limit—“I’m not comfortable with this”—does he fight it or accept it? If the boundary relates to privacy or other important personal preferences, does he remember it?
5. When you fight, is she mostly determined to win, or does she remain mindful of the need to protect the relationship and ensure that both of you feel satisfied?
6. Is he forgiving? Does he sweat the small stuff? Does he process misunderstandings promptly with you, or does he hide his feelings and harbor a grudge?
7. Is she reliable? Has she earned your trust by her track record?
8. Is he eager to please you or only interested in being pleased? Does he thank you for remembering what he likes?
9. Do the two of you have the same relationship goals?
10. Do you both find pleasure in at least some of the same things?

Communication is a skill that requires maintenance and can be honed over time. It entails not just listening but also remembering. It is a back-and-forth process, the dance not just of romance but of friendship.

When we keep in mind someone else’s quirks and honor them, we pay respect. When we ask what’s wrong and listen to the answer, we show our concern for the other person’s feelings. When one person is hurt and we respond with a desire to salve the wound, we demonstrate caring not just for the individual but also for the relationship.

By the time you do go to bed, then, sex should feel like an extension of the many ways in which you have already shown your love. His erection or her orgasm is a secondary concern. More important is your joint commitment to pleasing each other.

You know which places like to be scratched, stroked, or tickled. You trust each other not to inflict pain. You understand that cuddling and closeness are as important as anything else. You forgive and gently correct any blunders. You give and accept feedback.

To establish a sound foundation for your sex life, it’s worth waiting until you are both ready before hopping into bed. Indeed one or both of you may discover that you don’t want to go there for a while.

He may worry that she will be stingy or distant, given her criticism of him in money matters. She may worry that he will disregard her needs altogether, as he does when he refuses to pick up after himself despite repeated requests.

Sexual satisfaction is closely allied with the communication issues couples bring into my office—one more way in which someone may not listen and someone may feel unheard. When both people seek real closeness and take the trouble to learn how to share deeply, the pleasure they take in sex becomes the jewel in the crown.

Before it can do so, however, both people must want to nurture their ongoing relationship. An important part of this process is keeping the communication channels open and honoring each other both publicly and privately.