All too often I overhear complaints about dissatisfaction with relationship partners, both in and outside of the bedroom. Rather than dedicating time to discuss unmet desires and needs with our partners, the complaints seem to grow outside of the relationship—in our heads and amongst peers. On an unconscious level, we somehow expect our partners to telepathically interpret and cater to our thoughts without addressing them. At least, that’s our hope; because let’s face it—no matter how sex positive we may be, talking about sex, especially within our own relationships, is never as easy as we’d like it to be.
As a student, writer, and researcher of human sexuality, I am more comfortable than most in engaging in such discussions. Despite my openness in previous relationships, the depth of honesty required for true intimacy was never cultivated until recent years. I credit this newfound vulnerability to my initial herpes diagnosis in July 2015. Although that period of my life was filled with more questions than answers, I eventually found solace through honest disclosures to those around me. From these conversations stemmed an awareness of the power and profound effect that my honesty held within my interpersonal relationships.
Despite my comfort in discussing my experience with herpes and growing knowledge in the field of human sexuality, it remains difficult for me to muster enough confidence to address my relationship concerns head-on. My natural inclination is to write through my emotions in the form of a letter, rather than initiate a discussion. Verbalizing my emotions is a work-in-progress; there is still some inherent sense of awkwardness to these types of conversations. Yet I am dedicated to making them happen because I know that these communications solidify foundations for positive relationships. It is unfair of me to expect any partner or friend to know my thoughts, needs, and desires. It is also unfair of me to assume that I am the only one with dissatisfaction in relationships. Initiating a discussion of one’s own desires could turn into a fruitful conversation for both partners in the relationship, and typically, it is one that often happens much later than it should (Wong, 2017).
“I believe in the power of vulnerability to create change,” has held truth as my personal mantra since 2016, but its validity is surprisingly challenged by researchers. Researcher, Kory Floyd, is one supporter of said mantra. Floyd (2006) developed the Affection Exchange Theory (AET) which “argues that affectionate messages enhance relational bonds, affectionate communicators are better able to respond to stress, and that affectionate communication physiologically benefits sources.” In health class, we are taught to use some combination of birth control methods and practice safe sex, but honest communication is rarely a topic that instructors include in that discussion. Horan (2016) found that “honesty surrounding sexual history conversations” is considered as a preventative method for Sextually Transmitted Infections (STIs) (451). Countering that finding, multiple studies have found that this honesty is filtered through deception, and may cause more harm than good, insisting that “a risk of affection is deception” (Horan, 2016, 459).
Instead of having a conversation with one’s partner about what is needed to achieve an orgasm, an individual may resort to faking it (Which, from my perspective, is not fair to either party). Horan (2016) noted that a recent study found that “50% of women and 25% of men reported previously pretending to orgasm” (451). It is often easier for some to engage in okay-ish sex than state what will assist them in improving pleasure during sexual activity, or achieving orgasm. Additionally, communication topics surrounding sexuality, such as birth control and sexual history (60% of participants in Horan’s study were untruthful when revealing their number of intimate partners) may be considered taboo dependent upon commitment levels of the partners involved (Horan, 2016, 464). A study by Lehmiller, VanderDrift, and Kelly (2014) found that “friends with benefits relationships were more likely to use condoms than committed romantic relationships.” I am fascinated as to how we, as a society, draw the line between sharing our physical and emotional selves and making determinations as to safe spaces (read: persons) for each.
No matter which side of research you stand by, it is important to consider our differences—not only our physical bodies and racial ethnicities, but the depth of our internal emotional bases. There are those who have been abused, assaulted, and are just now learning to vocalize what they want, and feel that they deserve. There are some who feel utmost shame and guilt due to their past, or present. There are those who refuse to acknowledge trauma because it is easier to deny its existence than to confront it. Some of us like sex a lot, whereas some of us can receive enough intimacy from a hug or make-out session on the couch to satiate our need. Maybe you’ve been married for 30 years and the spark just isn’t there.
Behind these examples are levels of human experiences and emotions that only we as individuals are privy to. Affectionate disclosures may put us at risk for deception, but remaining bound eternally by fear puts us against an even greater risk. It is not our obligation to tell the world every ounce of our story, but I do believe there is power in sharing honest conversation with those who matter.
Floyd, K. (2006). Communicating affection: Interpersonal behavior and social context. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Horan, Sean M. (2016). Further understanding sexual communication: Honesty, deception, safety, and risk. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 33(4), 449-468.
Lehmiller, J.L., VanderDrift, L. E., & Kelly, J.R. (2014. Sexual communication, satisfaction, and condom use behavior in friends with benefits and romantic partners. Journal of Sex Research, 5, 74-85.
Wong, B. (2017, March 10). By the time you show up to my office, your marriage may be over [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/by-the-time-you-show-up-to-my-office-your-marriage-may-beover_us_58c2de1de4b054a0ea6a5cad?ncid=engmodushpmg00000004