There is nothing better in my book than sex on a boat. So many hot little spaces to explore positions, get handholds, footholds and play. When the boat is rockin don’t come knockin! As many of you know, I love Eric’s butt, so there is ample opportunity to flirt and get frisky as he’s contorting into small spaces to do work. This goes both ways, of course. He has a thing for when I lift heavy things, it’s kinda weird, but I dig it. I am super strong after all. But sex isn’t always about getting off in long term relationships, it’s about intimacy and connection. Two key ingredients of creating intimacy and connection are spending quality time together and communication.
Last season I took two therapist friends out for a sail. While entertaining our friends, Eric and I did our usual sailing thing. We excitedly and nerdily talked over boat handling, performance and procedure while we trimmed and docked. Later my two friends had interesting and unexpected input. One said, “I feel like being with you and Eric sailing was like watching a couple in active foreplay. You two were so into it and each other. It was adorable and inspiring.” So true, one of my great attractions to Eric is he is a hell of a sailor and vice versa. Nothing gets us going more than talking some good wind angle and sail trim. If we get over hull speed, we are in heaven. Taking a lift and strategizing as few tacks or jibes as possible and nailing a lay line is an orgasmic experience. Couples who enjoy something together or share a passion know how bonding that is. Two people working toward a mutual dream or goal is deeply connecting.
The other friend said, “If all couples learned to talk through life like you and Eric did docking that boat, divorce rates would go down exponentially.” That one really got me thinking. Eric and I struggle with emotional communication. He’s a scientist and I am a therapist. We jokingly say he’s a robot and I’m a unicorn, logic and magic can make great things happen and collide with great force. In docking though, we go over everything well in advance and clearly. We have trained one another on how to make the boat handling as easeful as possible. I was taught by a great sailing mentor that communication is the most important boat tactic a skipper has. It also has reinforced and strengthened my skills greatly to put words to the experience. I actively ingrain the knowledge with the activity that way. Our docking looks like this:
Jenn: “The wind is coming in from the southeast and will push the bow away from the dock. I need to angle the approach in more to make up for it.”
Eric: “Okay. The wind is also kinda strong so I will grab the bow and spring lines and step off as you hit reverse for the prop wash to secure the lines and snug her in quick.”
Jenn: “Great. Can you call distance for my approach, give me heads up when I get the bow two feet from the dock.”
Eric: “Got it.”
Jenn: “I’m coming in too hot from the wind pushing, I’m gonna spin her here to slow down then approach.”
Eric: “Got it.”
Then he calls distance and I nail the docking like a badass sailing boss. We give each other lovey eyes, safe at harbor again. He’s soooo gonna get laid later.
Communication is a complicated thing. A combination of intention, words, expression, tone and body language. There are volumes written on couples and communication, so I am gonna boil it down to this. Couples need to communicate often and clearly, and about almost everything, especially sex. It is surprising how many people don’t talk about sex in their relationships. It is surprising how little emotionally connecting communication happens in general. When it comes to talking about feelings, vulnerability and shame often get in the way. Sometimes the absence is a lack of awareness and skills on how to discuss intimate topics. People get scared. They worry about being judged. They can take things personally and feel criticized or hurt. In intimate conversation people can struggle to keep open and not shut down, to stay connected. Sex specifically gets wrapped up into performance rather than process. People can have a lot of triggers and trauma around sex. Avoidance of discussing or having sex is not uncommon.
A healthy sex life in long term relationships is about way more than frequency, foreplay and orgasm. Talking about sex isn’t always about sensual touch or sexual play. It starts with how we talk about our lives, feelings and bodies general. Being able to communicate your needs and wants is important. It creates safety. If I can’t tell Eric that I didn’t like his chicken marinade, how in the hell can I tell him I don’t like it when he licks my neck? If he gets angry and defensive about me telling him about the chicken marinade, how safe am I going to feel telling him about something more personal? You see the dilemma that can happen here? The habits that can build up? We must slow down and create intention about how we communicate. It starts with the little stuff.
The Gottman’s have named it call and response. If around ¾ of the time we make a bid for connection and our partners respond in a connecting way, we are creating healthy bonding and intimacy. This leaves some wiggle room for the times we ignore, are an asshole, or invalidate somehow. When we go out sailing for a day, if I say ten things I am excited about and Eric only responds to two of them with an acknowledgment that is encouraging, no one is having sex that night. I am going to feel ignored, invalidated, alone. If he comments on about six to eight of them with, “Wow, that’s cool!” or “I saw that too!” or “I love it that you notice these things.” I’m going to feel happy and connected, like we are on the same page and I am understood and valuable. This is the path toward some nookie.
It seems so simple when put like that doesn’t it? Here is where it gets a little complicated.
What if one of Eric’s bids is, “I’m cold.”
What if I say flatly, “Well, get a hat.”
What if he says, “I’m hungry.”
What if I say irritated, “I told you to bring snacks.”
What if Eric says, “I forgot my hat.”
What if I say with a sigh, “You always forget!”
What if this is how most of our day goes? We are not only going to not have amazing sex; we are probably not even going to snuggle or talk much later. Or we might fight. Little fights over hats and food are never about hats or food. The fights are over lack of connection.
What if later I say, “Man, I was a bitch today. I was tired and cranky and really wasn’t very kind. I’m so sorry. Can I make it up to you with tea and a foot rub?”
What if later Eric said, “I really felt like you were coming down on me today, is there something wrong? Are you okay?”
You can repair later if you miss the bids or respond unkindly. Repair also builds trust. If you constantly ignore in the moment and don’t attend to the disconnection later, struggle will ensue, distance will occur. You will eventually be two ships passing in the night.
Brene Brown has some great material with, “The story I am telling myself is…” I like to use that with Eric. Let’s say he ignores all the stuff I point out in a day. I might say, “The story I’m telling myself is that you don’t care about what I enjoy, that you think it’s dumb or I’m a dork.” He might say, “OMG! Jenn, no, I love how you excitedly point out all the marine life and scenery. I was just stressed about work today and couldn’t get my mind off of it. Your guidebook accurate references and information are so deeply impressive and sexy.” (I’m adding that guidebook bit in there for my own ego gratification. I might fuck myself later because I’m such an epic and magnificent sexy nerd! HAWT!) Anyway, back to Eric, then I could connect with him about his stress and give empathy. Either of these scenarios can lead to closeness and maybe some snuggles, maybe even sex. Do you see where I’m going with all of this folks? Don’t make assumptions, don’t hold it in. TALK ABOUT IT!!! Foster an environment where you don’t just sweep stuff under the rug, but you engage it. This builds safety and trust with time, which leads to greater intimacy and if you are into it, hotter sex.
Media and movies have a limited view of sex. It has done a lot of damage to a lot of folks to see sex portrayed in such heteronormative monogamous misogynistic ways. It not only alienates a lot of folks, but it also sets up unrealistic expectations for romance and sex. Two being that everyone wants it, and everyone has a lot of it. No, not everyone wants romance or sex, it is a completely valid and healthy experience to identify as Asexual or Aromantic. Not everyone has a lot of sex, also totally okay. How much sex you have is not a marker of your character or worth. Not everyone wants it with just one person, also okay, plenty of happy Polyamorous people out there. Certainly who you like to fuck is totally okay as long as if you do it, they want to fuck you back. Why someone likes to have sex or why they don’t is deeply individual, a mix of biology, psychology, culture and experience. Sex is different for everyone. What they like and don’t like. Who they like it with, how much they like it, how they like it. The answers can change day to day with mood and biology, certainly our relationship to sex changes over time as our bodies age. Knowing your own body and being in tune with it is a key component to great sex. It’s also a key component to health in general.
Folks, it’s all good with me as long as it is consensual and safe. This means communication. Being able to say no or stop and have that responded to quickly and non-defensively is key in building trust. Likewise, telling someone what you want in the moment can be liberating, connecting and super-hot. Everyone has their own unique template on what turns them on or off. This is part of the fun and excitement of it. Getting to know someone in this very personal way is a gift. It is a privilege to share someone’s body or know their preferences and needs to be respected as such. People who spend time talking and getting to know one another in these ways have the healthiest sex lives.
So, if you are struggling with your sex life, maybe instead of focusing on the act of sex and orgasm it’s best to start with communication and intimacy and work your way toward the physical experiences and conversation. If shit is volatile, I strongly suggest couples counseling, coaching or doing further reading and activities to help your relationship repair and grow. I have references below. For now, I leave you with some suggestions.
When was the last time you spent a whole day in bed with your partner? A day just talking and snuggling, maybe some massage or flirting? No sex pressure, in fact, try it without sex, but just relaxing closeness and loving touch.
When was the last time you did something new together, a novel experience? Go to a restaurant you haven’t tried, or a park you haven’t visited? A concert? When did you last enjoy an experience together in a relaxing way and had some fun conversations? A date?
I am going to offer some conversation starters. Before you start asking your partner, ask yourself, can you talk with them about these things without getting reactive to their answers, without taking it personally? Can you enter into the conversation with open curiosity? Can you stay loving and engaged? What do you need to stay present and calm? Again, if you think you can’t then some self reflection or extra mediation and support might be needed.
Here are the questions:
Who do you feel you are right now? Who do you want to be moving forward?
What are your dreams in life? What have been your biggest disappointments?
What do you like about our life together? Do you like our routine?
What would you do if you had unlimited time and money?
If you could meet anyone in history who would it be and why?
What have you been googling and YouTube watching lately? What are you interested in?
What are you most grateful for in life? What brings you joy?
When was the last time you just had an open conversation with this person you spend so much time with like you would a stranger or a friend, just getting to know them? I assure you, your partner has changed over time and is not the same person you met. In long term relationships you have to keep getting to know one another to grow and maintain intimacy. When was the last time you told your partner that you like them, that you enjoy their company? Do you ever tell them why? When was the last time you offered them gratitude?
If you thought I was gonna get into kinky boat sex stuff, sorry-not-sorry I dissapointed you. Lesson here: communication and quality time are foreplay. Maybe if you try those two things in new ways, you will find yourself having some amazing sex with an amazing person. The excellent news for long term couples and mid life folks: when engaged in a healthy way, sex and intimacy just keep getting better! Have fun sailors!
May we all sail in peace.
My Vagina Blog has a lot of resources on sex and women’s health.
Jessa Zimmerman is an excellent sex therapist and has a great book and blog.
Esther Perel has a ton of resources out there for the modern couple.