As a sex therapist for over 30 years, one of the most common goals people have come in with is “I want to be a better lover.”
Of course, different people mean different things by that. These range from “I want my partner to enjoy sex more;” to “I want to compete more effectively with other would-be lovers (real or imagined);” to “I want to enjoy sex more.” Some of these people are highly experienced, while others are beginners.
Most people who “want to be better lovers” are after some new technique, the latest sex toy, or a position they haven’t thought of yet. But I don’t think that’s where people should look.
What’s underrated as a tool is curiosity.
Not about how to twist two human bodies into a new kind of pretzel, or how to persuade someone to do something they’ve said they don’t want to do. And I certainly don’t mean some long-hidden secret about the sexuality of “all women” or “all men.”
No, I mean curiosity about your sexual partner’s subjective experience of their sexuality—of their experiences with you, of their body, of their fantasies, of their desires.
Empathy, of course, is important in every relationship: how do we imagine this other person is feeling? But to be truly empathic in a relationship (as opposed to with strangers in the airport), we need information about the other. Who is this other person? What are their beliefs and attitudes about sex?
And when it comes to sex,
* What does s/he want?
* How does s/he feel?
* What does s/he mean by various looks, silences, and sounds?
* How are you supposed to know the above?
Remember the concept of polysemicity (multiple meanings): Any given behavior may mean very different things to you and to your partner. For example, you may feel that a woman who initiates sex is powerful and confident. Your female partner might feel that such a woman is far too brazen, or is pressuring you in ways you will resent. Similarly, your partner might feel that using rough language during sex is a turn-on, while for you it feels theatrical or “not us.”
So when people ask me about becoming “better lovers,” I encourage curiosity, and the communication to satisfy it. Did your partner like the last sexual session you two had? Would your partner like you go to faster or slower (or is your pace just right)? Would he or she like more of anything you two already do? Whether it can be changed or not, is anything physically uncomfortable?
Other questions you might ask include, Thinking back to a time when you really enjoyed our sex, what made it so great for you? Did a scene in a recent movie or TV make you especially hot, and if so, is there something from that scene you’d like to try? Is there anything you do when you masturbate that you’d like us to try?
Curiosity: an undervalued quality in a sexual partner.
I don’t hear many gay or lesbian couples quarrel about pornography. But if you’re a guy in a sexual relationship with a woman, and she complains about your porn watching, you need to be curious. If she seems unreasonable (to you, not to herself), you need to be even more curious.
To get beyond the “porn is crap,” “no it’s not;” “porn demeans women,” “no it doesn’t” non-conversation, you need to get your partner talking about herself. How does she feel (as opposed to what she thinks) when she reflects on you watching porn?
How does she believe it affects your sexual relationship? How does she feel about your sexual relationship in general?
When a couple is in conflict, most people’s instinct is to try and get the person to understand them better. If both people are trying that simultaneously, the exchange isn’t likely to be productive. If instead one or both people are committed to understanding the other person better, there’s a chance they can resolve the conflict.
And if your partner reveals that when you watch porn, she feels unimportant to you, or unattractive, or pushed away, don’t disagree or even reassure her. Start by understanding how she feels, and why, and let her know that you understand. This is no small thing. When your partner feels understood you can then have a rational conversation about the options you have as a couple. These include making sex more enjoyable, and being more intimate or connected outside of sex.
It may be less glamorous, but curiosity will get you further than a new position or toy. Ultimately, the process of creating enjoyable sex generally isn’t glamorous—it’s more like creating a connection between two people who feel understood and cared about, and who pursue their mutual goals together as partners.
It doesn’t start with your partner understanding you—it start with you being curious about your partner.