6 Conversations You Should Be Having With Your Partners
Out of all the skills we’re taught in school growing up, how to navigate intimate relationships is not one of them. There’s no Relationship Communication Styles 101 or How To Build A Healthy Relationship course that we can take to learn how to best figure out these often messy and very real human experiences. We know so little of sexual intimacy, getting to know our desires, communicating boundaries, and creating intentional dialogues with our partners. We know far too little of what it means to build healthy and nurturing relationships — whether it be a casual fling or long term love. So many of us have rarely, if ever, experienced this kind of relationship.
If you’ve ever ended up in an unhealthy relationship or felt like you didn’t know how to express your needs to a partner, don’t worry — you’re not alone. Relationships take work and we’re all just trying to figure it out as we go along without much information or examples of what a healthy relationship has the potential to look like.
There are many components to the intimate relationships we have — sexual, emotional, physical — and a plethora of conversations that can help us nurture each aspect of our relationships. These six conversation starters will help you delve deeper into the core of your sexual and romantic relationships, whether they’re brand new and casual fun or long term with a lot of intimate history.
How to talk about your sexual desires:
Telling someone exactly what turns you on is a vulnerable process. Whether you’re bringing home a first date or wanting to try something new with a partner you’ve had for years — letting your sexual partner know what you like is important. Not only will this lead to better sex but it’s also a great way to build intimacy in the moment. The goal with this work is that every sexual encounter you have is as pleasurable and fulfilling as it possibly can be!
Sometimes telling people your desire can feel more challenging in a long-term relationship — there’s simply less at stake with a casual hookup. The possibility of rejection from your partner not wanting to try a new kink you’ve been dying to explore will sting a lot more than someone you may only have sex with a few times. The delivery of what kind of sex you want to have is likely going to shift depending on who you’re sleeping with and your dynamic with them. Because of that, here are four options for how you can communicate your desires.
Make it playful
Sex is fun! So talking about it shouldn’t feel stressful or anxiety provoking. You can literally make a game out of talking about your desires.
You can find these comprehensive lists online, there are options focused more towards kink/BDSM, some are created by and for queer folks, and others for people who are having sex for the first time. Pick a list that feels tailored to where you’re at in your sexual journey and fill it out separately from your partner. You put a “yes” next to everything that is an enthusiastic yes, you want to do this every time you have sex. A “no” next to the items that are hard no, you don’t even want to try. And a “maybe” next to all the things you are interested in trying or like to do some of the time. Then you come together and go over your lists! See where you align with your “yes” items and talk about why you placed each item where it is. This can be a great practice to do (either by yourself or with a partner) every 6 months or so to see where your desires shift and evolve over time.
With this game, you and your partner write down sexual or intimate things you like on little pieces of paper and place them in a fishbowl (or a regular bowl will do). You can include anything on your paper from a sensual massage to foot fetish to using a vibrator during sex. On a night when you have time to simply spend together, grab the fishbowl and take turns pulling out the pieces of paper with your desires on them. As they come up, you can talk about each desire and even try it out, if you want to!
Talk about it outside the bedroom
Take away the context of whatever it is you want happening right now in this second (like your clothes are already off and everything) and you might find the pressure reduces a bit. Go out on a date or cook dinner together and make an intention to check in about your sex life. What’s going really well? Do you like your needs are being met? Have you been dying to go to a play party together? Now is the time where both of you can bring all of your desires to the table! It can feel fun to delve into all of this with your partner and start to fantasize about all the new avenues you can explore together. Feel free to use some of the playful conversation tactics from above (the yes/no/maybe list is a great one for this conversation strategy).
Use body language during sex
Sometimes our bodies know better how to communicate our needs and we have to trust that. During a consent workshop, I once had a student tell me that while she was hooking up with someone, they made a fist with their hand and guided that to her pussy — a way of communicating she wanted to be fisted. You can use something literal like that to let your partner know what you want. Or if someone whispers something they’d like to do in your ear, you can give them affirmative consent by making moves to start said activity. It’s important to note that, when consent is concerned (as it always is during sex), nonverbal communication is a good additive to verbal consent. Body language is great to begin taking steps towards something sexy, but make sure you check in verbally throughout.
Decompress after sex
Aftercare isn’t all snuggles and cuteness, you can do real intimacy building in how you tend to each other's needs after sex. Talk about what felt amazing. Tell your partner(s) what (if anything) didn’t feel so great. Talk about what you want to try next time. Talk about how the sex made you feel. Use this time after sex — while you’re feeling connected and yummy — to really digest the sex you just had, the sex you want to continue having, and the new things you’d love to add to that!
How to talk about sexual health:
Your sexual health is so important, and by talking about it you can show your partner(s) that you also care about their sexual health. If you’re navigating sex with someone new who you haven’t been intimate with before, it’s essential to have the STI talk before you have sex. It can feel really vulnerable and scary to be the person to ask “When was the last time you were tested?” or “Do you know your STI status?” It’s helpful to start off by sharing your status.
You can say something like:
“I got tested 2 months ago and tested positive for X, but am undetectable. When was the last time you were tested?”
“I got tested a few months ago and tested negative across the board, but have had fluid bonding sex with one person since then. Do you know your status?”
“I got tested 4 months ago and am positive for X. I would love to use barriers (condoms, dental dams, gloves) tonight. Do you know your status?”
By starting this dialogue, you open up the space for your partner to also share their status so there can be informed consent about what kind of barriers you want to integrate into your play, or if you decide to fluid bond. Steer away from using words like clean or clear to describe your STI status — that language is attached to a lot of stigma and shame by implying people who are STI positive are “dirty” (they aren’t!).
Sexual health isn’t a one-and-done kind of conversation, it should be ongoing with all of your partner(s). Yes, even if you’re in a long term monogamous partnership. That’s because sexual health is so much more than just STIs. (However, I recommend a yearly STI test for everyone, even folks in monogamous relationships.) You can talk about how/when you clean your sex toys, whether or not you’ve had your annual pap smear/mammogram/prostate exam, if you’re processing through any past sexual trauma, or how your sexual relationship with yourself is going outside of your relationship. These are all components of your sexual health that can be talked about with your partner(s), if and when you want to.
How to talk about the relationship dynamic you want to have:
Personally, I think this is a topic that should come up within the first 3 dates of seeing someone new. But we live in a society that assumes compulsory monogamy, especially within straight relationships. This sets so many of our relationships up for failure before they even start. If you aren’t working off the same definitions or understandings of what kind of relationship you want to have — then how the hell are you supposed to be together? But that’s how most of our first relationships started, you went on dates with someone until you were just kind of together and monogamous without ever talking about it.
Here’s the thing: there are so many different ways to be in a relationship with another person. And even more ways to be in a dynamic while dating multiple people (i.e. non-monogamy). There’s even options for feeling like you want something in between those two! Whew, the options are kind of endless when it comes to figuring out the kind of relationship you want to be in. You’ll need the tools and conversations to get there.
Some questions to ask a new date:
Are you monogamous or non-monogamous? (Pro tip: you don’t have to identify with a singular option here, you might find that you want a dynamic that feels fluid between the two or you may find you’re comfortable with different dynamics depending on the person. Relationships are allowed to be fluid, the idea is to talk about it openly.)
What kind of relationship dynamic excites you right now/are you looking for?
Some questions to ask if you’re in a long term monogamous relationship:
How do you define monogamy?
How do you define cheating?
How are we making sure we’re meeting our needs outside of our relationship? (I.e. not getting too wrapped up in one another as your only support system. Make sure you keep connections with friends and community. One person can’t meet all of your relational needs!)
How do you process jealousy?
Do we want to talk about external attractions when/if they come up?
Is flirting okay outside of our relationship? If so, how do you define flirting? (Some people call a casual banter at the bar flirting. Others include sexual touch in flirting. Get specific to avoid the possibility of future hurt in your relationship.)
How often does it feel good for you to check in about our dynamic/boundaries?
Some questions to ask if you’re navigating any kind of non-monogamy:
What kind of non-monogamy excites you? (I.e. solo polyamory, triad, open relationship, relationship anarchy, polyamory.)
How do you define the kind of non-monogamy you’re practicing?
What kind of boundaries are important to you in how much we discuss about our other partners?
How often do you get tested for STIs if you’re fluid bonding with other people?
How do you process jealousy?
How do you define cheating? (Yes, cheating can happen in non-monogamous dynamics if someone breaks a boundary.)
How often does it feel good for you to check in about our dynamic/boundaries?
The most beautiful aspect of relationships is that you get decide exactly what kind of dynamic you want to be in with your partner(s)! It’s your own relationship by design. Your version of monogamy might look incredibly different from your bestie who is also monogamous. These questions should get you started in figuring this all out.
Why you should talk about the energies you’re bringing from past relationships:
Baggage. That unavoidable thing that comes from having a past. I don’t really like that word though, I think “baggage” carries a negative context for a lot of people who were taught you aren’t supposed to have any. Let’s use the word energy instead: what kind of energies are you bringing from past relationships? Maybe you’ve been cheated on before and because of that, you really struggle with jealousy. Maybe you’ve survived an abusive relationship and building trust comes slow for you now. Or maybe you just got out of a long term relationship and you want to explore dating casually for the first time in years. All of those are examples of energies people can bring from past relationships. There’s nothing inherently bad about any of that.
When you have self awareness that allows you to get comfy with what kind of energy you’re bringing into a new relationships from the past, you can better communicate around tough spots that may come up (before they happen). Here are some ways to do that.
“I really struggle with jealousy because I was cheated on in my last relationship. Transparency about whether or not we’re seeing other people, and where our relationship is at help me feel more secure. I also want to make sure to respect your boundaries and privacy, so I’d love to work together on creating boundaries that feel good for both of us.”
“It takes me a while to build trust in a relationship. I really like you and where this is headed, and it would feel good for me to continue taking it slow and having an open dialogue about where our relationship stands.”
“I really like spending time with you but I feel like I should let you know that I’m still healing from my last relationship. I wanted to be honest about where I’m at emotionally and that I’m just looking to casually date right now. I’d love to talk about our boundaries within that dynamic.”
It’s a give and take! Being honest about how your past relationships have impacted how you exist in current relationship(s) keeps the dialogue open and allows you to cultivate a healthy connection.
How to talk about jealousy:
Jealousy gets a bad reputation as an emotion, which I don’t think is really fair. Especially with such a normal and natural feeling like being jealous. No matter how emotionally mature and intune you are with yourself, jealousy is something that is likely going to come up as you date people. Whether you’re in a monogamous or non-monogamous partnership, jealousy is going to rear its head. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing for your relationship, in fact, it can bring you closer together.
The first question to ask is why am I feeling jealous right now? Often, we’re quick to assume that our jealousy exists simply because our partners went on a date with someone else or they’re going out more than normal. However, more often, there is an underlying explanation for that raging feeling gnawing at the pit of your stomach. You might even discover that your jealousy has nothing to do with your partner(s) — and everything to do with you. Their new date might have triggered something from your past that you now get to figure out for yourself, with the help and support of your amazing partner(s).
Don’t shame yourself or spiral when jealous comes up. Communication is key, you shouldn’t have to go through your jealous feelings alone. When you feel ready, talk about it with your partner in a way that isn’t accusing your jealousy as their fault (unless they actually cheated or broke a boundary). Setting aside time to talk about your jealousy, will not only help you be able to better understand and manage yours (and your partners’) jealous feelings — you’ll also be building a more solid relationship together.
Here are some ways to do that:
“It’s making me feel kind up jealous that you keep choosing to hang out with your friends after work over me. I realized that’s because I miss going out on fun dates with you and we haven’t done that in a while. I think it would help me feel less jealous if we set aside one night a week for an intentional date night. How does that sound to you?”
“I’ve been having a hard time with jealousy since you went on that first date with X last week. I realized it’s because you didn’t tell me about it beforehand, so I felt kind of blindsided when you told me about it afterwards. How would you feel about letting each other know about new dates beforehand?”
Why you should talk about how you argue in a relationship:
Talking about how you argue with your partner(s) before you’re mid-ripping your hair out, you’re so angry at each other is a really healthy way to set boundaries. Usually, we know best what we need to cool down from an argument in order to come back to it ready to communicate with more intention. Here are some options for how to communicate that with your partner(s).
“When I’m upset with you, what I really need is to go for a walk around the block. It helps me clear my head and come back to the conversation without yelling at you.”
“I feel like when we argue we just end up saying hurtful things to one another and it’s not a productive conversation. Can we have a safe word that if either of us say, we stop arguing and give each other a half hour of space before coming back to the conversation?”
“When we argue, I start to disassociate and completely shut down emotionally. I don’t mean to do this but it can be really helpful for me to be able to pause so I can center my thoughts and then come back to our conversation with more compassion and love for you.”
“Sometimes when I’m upset, verbal communication doesn’t work best for me and I like to write it all down. It might be helpful for me to know that I can bring you a letter and read it out loud to you when I’m feeling hurt about something in our relationship.”
Have this plan set for whenever something heated might come up and see how it plays out next time. You may need to adjust or have different options. Knowing that you can openly talk about how you argue before it comes up will help reduce the chances of either person saying something mean they’ll regret mid-argument. It will also help you build intimacy in knowing that you can still get to your loving space when either of you are feeling hurt by giving space, having a safe word, or being able to process with more intention.
Relationships take work and they can be messy but that doesn’t make them any less wonderful or worth putting in the work. You and your partner(s) should be able to have an open dialogue about all of beautiful components that make up your connection. You might make mistakes along the way (that’s normal!), but by using these tactics to have open and honest conversations about your needs in the relationship — you’re creating a structure for how to get through the hard moments while still caring for one another.