Although sex is (usually) much more fun to have than to talk about, those awkward conversations are some of the most important discussions to have. A simple talk can increase the likelihood that you're satisfied, happy, and healthy, and that your partner is too, and all of that leads to a stronger relationship (and hotter sex, let's be honest).
From virginity at an unconventional age to STIs and bedroom kinks, the following sticky issues may be difficult to bring up, but don't worry—we have (expert- and science-backed) tips to navigate the most difficult convos.
Note for the grammar police: We use the pronoun "they" throughout to indicate one partner or the other, as the issues discussed can involve any and all genders.
1. The Issue: I Want My Partner to Get Tested
With an estimated 110 million total STIs in the United States and 20 million new infections a year, sexually transmitted infections pose a real risk to sexually active people. Because these infections don’t always show symptoms, it’s super important to know if you are infected before exposing yourself (in more ways than one) to your partner. Getting tested is not only crucial for one’s own health and that of a partner’s but also for the health of the public (you noble citizen, you!), i.e. future partners and their future partners and their... you get it. Even if one partner does their part, it takes two to stop the spread of an STI, so this conversation is a must-have before a couple sleeps together.
The conversation: Again, this isn’t an easy one. Licensed psychologist and certified sex therapist Lori Buckley suggests bringing up the topic when you are pretty sure that sex is in the imminent future (as in, you’re likely to sleep with this person soon, but not so soon that you’re already in bed). She recommends starting by talking about your own history and then asking about your partner’s. A good line: “I have been recently been tested, and I don’t have any STIs. Have you been tested?” A direct, non-accusatory approach like this effectively introduces the issue so there’s no room for misunderstanding.
2. The Issue: I Have an STI (Sexually Transmitted Infection)
Since it's definitely possible (it's in the name, after all) to transmit an STI to someone you’re sleeping with, it's a good idea to bring up the topic before things get too hot and heavy. Preventing the spread of STIs means knowing a) whether one has a disease, b) how and when it is transmitted, and c) how transmission can be prevented. A good deal of prevention relies on practicing safer sex, which in turn relies heavily on communication. Seriously: One study found that when couples talked to each other about condom use and sexual histories, they were more likely to practice safer sex than couples who talked about “safe sex” in general Why communication is crucial: Meta-analysis of the relationship between safer sexual communication and condom use. Noar, S. M., Carlyle, K., & Cole, C. Journal of Health Communication, 2006; 11:365-390. . The conversation is definitely one that has to happen, and it has to be specific.
The conversation: Nationally recognized sex and relationship expert Ian Kerner, PhD, says that there is no great time to have the “I have an STI” conversation. However, there are a number of ways to make sure it goes as smoothly as possible. Body language and information are both key here. “With this sort of conversation, side-by-side communication is better than face-to-face,” Kerner says. Taking a walk or a drive together can facilitate conversation, create a soothing atmosphere, and relieve some of the pressure. Kerner also suggests having as much information about the particular STI on hand before bringing up the topic. Having the facts straight before the big talk can go a long way to making both partners feel a little more in control of the situation.
3. The Issue: Safe Sex Is Super Important to Me, but It Seems Like It’s Less So to My Partner
Safe sex, which includes getting tested for STIs, preventing unwanted pregnancies, and staying safe while drinking, should be a priority no matter what a person’s relationship status. Unfortunately, not everyone thinks about minimizing sex-related risk (20-somethings are particularly uninformed), so it’s up to the rest of us to get the discussion going.
The conversation: Negotiation shouldn’t be part of the conversation at all, Buckley says. A good one-liner? “If you want to have sex with me, you have to respect my values.” If someone still can’t work with those boundaries, drop ‘em fast. Kerner says that upholding one’s stance on safe sex is “a point of dignity and self-esteem and self value; it says that you care about your body, you care about yourself, and you value a partner who respects you.”
4. The Issue: I’ve Faced Sexual Trauma in the Past
While every situation, individual, and relationship is different, the issue of sexual assault is a serious one. In 2012, close to one in five women and one in 71 men reported having been raped at one or more points in their lives. (And these numbers likely underestimate the actual incidence of rape and don’t include other forms of sexual violence, such as unwanted sexual contact.) Sexual trauma does not preclude positive sexual experiences, but it certainly can affect a person’s emotions and behaviors in sex-related situations. The decision to bring up an event or events in the past is ultimately up to the individual and definitely requires trust. However, once the decision has been made, it's worth it to think through how to approach the talk.
The conversation: First, decide how much you feel comfortable sharing and stick to your guns. Bring up the topic when emotions are not running high, and make it clear that you have something important and difficult to share with them. Simply say, “I’m struggling with the right words to say,” Buckley suggests. Chances are, you’ll find that you have a loving, supportive partner. Kerner recommends continuing the conversation with a couples’ therapist who specializes in sexual trauma. However, couples who are in a loving, trusting partnership may continue the discussion on their own.
You might find yourself on the other side of such a conversation, in which case it’s totally normal to be emotionally thrown for a loop. Reactions can range from anger to fear, but regardless of the emotion, the important thing is simply to listen to and support your loved one. And it’s also perfectly OK to seek help yourself in trying to understand and process the potentially difficult information you’ve learned.
5. The Issue: There’s Something in My Past That My Partner Doesn’t Know About
Soooo.. I used to be the girlfriend of a female international drug smuggler, but now I'm engaged to a man, and I don't quite know how to bring up my past to him.
While most of us do not have quite such a TV-worthy past, chances are that someone will have at least one or two things that they think is need-to-know info for a partner. Research shows that self-disclosure to a partner can boost self-esteem, confidence in a relationship, and relationship quality. However, whether it's a past marriage, divorce, abortion, unusual sexual past, or other particularly significant event that you want to share, it's important to bring it up at the right time.
The conversation: Buckley recommends first thinking about why the particular piece of information is important for your partner to know. You don’t have to share everything with everyone, she says, but giving and receiving information is part of building a strong relationship. As for time and place, Kerner advises picking a private place where you and your partner can have an unhurried conversation. Try a Saturday or Sunday afternoon when your can carve out some alone time and end with a bit of cuddling.
6. The Issue: I’m a Virgin
There are a number of reasons a person may remain a virgin into adulthood Prevalence and predictors of sexual inexperience in adulthood. Haydon, A. A., Cheng, M. M., Herring, A. H. et al. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 2014; 43:221-230. —chances are, however, there is a reason. “If someone has made that choice, then there is a reason why they made that choice. Disclosing that information requires some vulnerability, which is necessary for intimacy,” Buckley says. Essentially, it’s an individual’s decision to tell their partner, but it can help to build closeness and trust.
The conversation: This is one that’s best to have face-to-face, Kerner says. Buckley recommends opening with a question: “What are your thoughts about casual sex?” After hearing your partner’s input, you can state your own beliefs, which transitions nicely to the topic of virginity. Whether you’re committed to waiting until marriage or you’re eagerly anticipating becoming an ex-virgin, be up-front about your values. Another approach is to tell your partner as a preface to intimacy. A partner should feel “honored, flattered, and potentially excited” by the disclosure, Kerner says, making it a perfect topic to slip in when you are fooling around (assuming you’re open to going all the way eventually).
7. The Issue: I Want to Spice Things up in the Bedroom, but I Don’t Know if My Partner Would Be Down for Gettin’ a Little (or a Lot) Kinky
Whether it’s a fetish, sexual fantasy, or just trying something out of the ordinary, mixing it up in the bedroom is not an uncommon desire for people in relationships ABC of sexual health: sexual variations. de Silva, W. P. BMJ (Clinical Research Ed.), 1999; 318:654-656. . Research shows that both men and women in long-term relationships tend to lose sexual interest over time Correlates of men's sexual interest: A cross-cultural study. Carvalheira, A., Traeen, B., & Stulhofer, A. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 2014; 11:154-164. Why did passion wane? A qualitative study of married women's attributions for declines in sexual desire. Sims, K. E., & Meana, M. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 2010; 36:360-380. . However, many appear to be quite interested in regaining that desire. According to a survey of 1,418 men and 1,923 women, fewer than 3 percent of respondents indicated that they would not want to try something new in the bedroom. The rest? The majority were “entirely interested” in trying something new.
The conversation: Got something spicy in mind? Great. Your partner probably does too. Approach the subject when the two of you are feeling a little flirty, and bring it up as, "I had a really sexy dream about you last night... ” This way of sharing a fantasy lets your partner know that the desire comes from a subconscious part of you, Kerner says. So before whipping out a whip, test the waters by playing messenger for your subconscious self.
8. The Issue: I Want to Start Seeing Other People—in Addition to My Current Partner
While polyamory isn’t for everyone, a non-traditional relationship is certainly an option for some. A positive monogamous relationship may boost health, but monogamy in general doesn’t appear to be healthier than other forms of a relationship. In fact, polygamy may be the evolutionally (if not socially) advantageous form of bonding between humans A critical examination of popular assumptions about the benefits and outcomes of monogamous relationships. Conley, T. D., Ziegler, A., Moors, A. C. et al. Personality and Social Psychology Review: An Official Journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc, 2013; 17:124-141. The benefit and the doubt: Why monogamy? Schuiling, G. A. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 2003; 24:55-61. . If someone thinks that non-monogomy is ultimately right for them, then it’s worth knowing how to navigate that subject with a partner.
The conversation: This one is going to vary depending on your partner's personality and the expectations set in the beginning of the relationship. “If [non-monogamy] hasn’t been part of the relationship from the beginning, it’s pretty hard to introduce,” Kerner says. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not impossible to bring up once a couple has been together for a while. While Kerner suggests planting a seed for the future by alluding to a sexual fantasy, Buckley takes a more direct approach, saying that having the conversation is a win-win: “You might find that the other person wants those things too, or you find out that the other partner isn’t into it.” Either way, a couple gets valuable information about each other and the future of their relationship.
9. The Issue: Something Smells, and I’m Pretty Sure It’s Not Me
Unfortunately, personal hygiene doesn't mean the same thing to everyone. What might be A-OK for one person (no post-workout shower, no problem!) might be supergross for another. And it's hard to get down with gettin' down while unpleasant aromas linger.
The conversation: Depending on how long the relationship has been going or the comfort level, it might be best to approach this one in a roundabout way. Both Kerner and Buckley suggest a pre-nooky soap-up session. However, if you'd like to address it a little more directly, and with an eye toward coming up with a long-term solution, try bringing your own habits into it. "Gosh, I feel so gross if I don't shower after the gym. Where are you at with that?" could do the trick in getting the conversation started. The key is to avoid being passive-aggressive about the issue. As for making the ask, acknowledge that it’s an awkward topic, reassure your partner that you’re way into them overall and that you don’t want to embarrass them, and then proceed gently with the request. In short, be “clear, concise, and compassionate."
10. The Issue: I Want to Know What “We” Are
Ah, the notorious relationship talk. From friends with benefits to a “real couple,” there are plenty of possible labels to paste on coupledom. However, simply defining a relationship will not ensure that all of the pieces are there—trust, monogamy, or whatever you have in mind. One study found that building trust in a relationship is a back-and-forth process between partners involving a number of small steps such as doing little things to show a partner one’s value for them Commitment, pro-relationship behavior, and trust in close relationships. Wieselquist, J., Rusbult, C. E., Foster, C. A. et al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1999; 77:942-966. . Actions speak louder than words, it seems?
The conversation: While open communication can lead to less stress among couples, this may be one instance in which confronting the issue head-on may not be the best approach. Even if you are eager to slap a label on things, try breaking it down into smaller, actionable steps. Instead of a premature discussion of what exactly you are, try spending more time with your partner’s family and friends or making a regular date night. Build up the relationship by integrating meaningful aspects of your lives, and you’ll likely find that there’s less pressure to define the relationship. Once things do progress to a certain point (i.e., you feel you and your partner are ready to be exclusive), you’ll likely find the conversation comes more easily.
11. The Issue: I’m Really into My Partner, but We Don’t Quite “Click” in Bed
Tall, dark, handsome (and funny, nice, gives great hugs!) but... not a great kisser. Like, not even a little bit. This might not actually be your partner’s fault but more of an it-takes-two issue that can be solved with some communication. Buckley says that sometimes we may get lucky and end up with a partner whose moves are exactly what we like, but most of the time that doesn’t happen. And it’s up to us to provide constructive feedback.
Research shows that the more open a person is with their partner about sexual preferences, the higher the degree of that person’s own sexual satisfaction. In addition, a partner’s lack of knowledge about sexual preferences is associated with sexual dysfunction in the relationship The importance of sexual self-disclosure to sexual satisfaction and functioning in committed relationships. Rehman, U. S., Rellini, A. H., & Fallis, E. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 2011; 8:3108-3115. . Makes sense, doesn’t it?
The conversation: According to Buckley, there are two strategies here, and only one of them involves clothing. She says that a conversation you can have out of bed would begin something like “the other night when you were [insert turn-on here] really turned me on.” Then you can tack on what you’d like to improve. Positive reinforcement coupled with actionable suggestions can only help to bring you and your partner more in line sexually. The second strategy involves giving some verbal or nonverbal direction to your partner while in the moment. Try making adjustments or telling your partner when they are doing something right. (A simple, “Oh, YES,” will do.)
12. The Issue: I’m Not Satisfied With How Often We Knock Boots
Unfortunately, a mismatch in sexual desire is not an uncommon problem for couples. In general, the more out-of-sync a couple is, the more likely they are to have an unstable and unsatisfying relationship Sexual desire discrepancy: The effect of individual differences in desired and actual sexual frequency on dating couples. Willoughby, B. J., & Vitas, J. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 2012; 41:477-486. . Because what’s normal for one partner can be completely different for the other, sex-related tension (and not the good kind!) can easily develop. It’s worth sitting down with your partner to figure out what’s up when your sex life is feelin’ down.
The conversation: This is a good chat to have out of the bedroom so there will be much less pressure. Regardless of which end of the spectrum you are when it comes to sex drive, kick off the convo with a simple observation: “I’ve noticed that I tend to want more/less sex than you, and it’s making us both a little tense. How do you feel about it?” Feeling out where your partner is at can go a long way toward addressing the issue, but it’s not going to solve it. Individuals with low sex drives don’t usually have a problem getting into the mood once things get hot and heavy—the problem is getting to that point, Buckley says. This conversation can lead to some brainstorming about how both partners can get on the same page. Sometimes a little structure is all that’s need to troubleshoot and minimize the anxiety one or both people are feeling.
While there are probably hundreds of other awkward sex-related issues that may come up in relationships, the strategies for dealing with most of them are pretty similar: a) know what you want to achieve with a conversation, b) bring up the issue at the appropriate time, c) don’t be wishy-washy about your values, and d) remember that conversations (and relationships!) are two-way streets. A final important point to remember, Buckley says, is that conversations with a romantic partner are not just about giving information but about getting information as well. So however awkward the talk may be, it’s ultimately about getting to know one’s partner and building intimacy by listening as well as sharing.