How to talk
Just leap in
Nichole Cook, of Pittsburgh, mom of Eleanor, 8, Odessa, 7, and Izabelle, 6, was embarrassed into silence not long after Eleanor was born: One time during sex she squirted breast milk all over her husband. "I was mortified. I thought it was gross -- and totally not normal." Rather than telling him how she felt, though, Cook simply avoided sex altogether for the next couple of weeks.
While talking about sex can be awkward, no one yet has actually died of embarrassment. Dr. Raskin suggests breaking the ice simply by acknowledging how hard it is.
That's what Cook did, a few weeks later. "I was really nervous, but I finally just said, 'That was really embarrassing for me.'" As it turned out, her husband hadn't even noticed and didn't think it was a big deal anyway. "After that, we just made sure we had a towel handy. Now it's something we laugh about."
Rather than letting things build up, talking about it now makes room for more openness later.
Choose the right place and tone
One of the worst fights J.B. and I had about sex was right after a failed attempt at it. I really wanted to be in the mood -- even though I wasn't at all -- so we got partway into the act before I admitted that things weren't working. We lay in bed trying to "talk" about what had happened. But we were so upset that we ended up blaming, and J.B. stormed angrily out of the room.
Thus, we discovered the importance of environment for having a fruitful discussion of our sex life. Choose a night when nothing else is planned and wait until the kids are asleep. Turn off the TV and the phone. This isn't an inquisition. It's an opportunity to reconnect with each other, to steal an intimate moment in a chaotic life. It's about how you show and share love, about something that should be fun and pleasurable.
J.B. and I have had some of our best talks late at night on our front stoop. We turn off the porch light, pour some wine, and sit side by side. There's something about not looking directly at each other (and the wine, maybe) that lets things flow. It may cut awkwardness to merge your heart-to-heart with an activity -- try talking while hiking, or walking, or sorting through your penny jar.
Acknowledge the problem
This is not the same as agreeing on the cause of the problem. It's just a way to get the conversation rolling. Dr. Raskin calls this "outing the secret -- even though it's not really a secret." Begin by stating the obvious: "I know things aren't like they used to be," or "I know we haven't been having sex very much lately." Often, acknowledging this reality, without judgment, can bring a couple closer.
After that big fight, I realized that my husband and I had let things go far too long. While Ramona was napping the next day, I simply said: "I'm having a hard time with sex these days. I hate the way it's come between us, and it must really suck for you, too." The fact that I wasn't trying to deny or make excuses helped J.B. feel comfortable.
After listening to J.B., I realized he wasn't as angry about the situation as I'd thought. It annoyed him that I'd initiated sex when I didn't really want it, but he'd needed to leave the room to cool down because he simply couldn't change gears and talk rationally while he was still aroused. This not only helped me understand why he became so agitated but also made it easier for me to talk about what I was experiencing physically.
Asking and listening without getting defensive is an important part of this process. Repeat what your partner's saying and ask if you're understanding correctly. Ask, "Is there more you want me to know?"
Look forward, not back
Agree to make a fresh start. Don't pull out old fights; avoid generalizing or labeling. Saying things like "You never want sex" or "You're a sex fiend!" is just talking negatively about the past. We all say dumb things; don't waste time fighting about whether they're true.
It's also a bad idea to compare yourself to other couples. What's right for them isn't necessarily what's right for you. When Holly Wing's husband saw a poll in a magazine that claimed most of its readers had sex a lot more often than they did each month, he kept referring to it -- comparing their own not-nearly-so-much stats. Wing, a Berkeley mom of 2-year-old Clio, then started to counter with her own statistics, and before long they were locked in battle. "Instead of solving any problems, we were just getting really good at fighting!"
So stick to what you're feeling ("I feel sad that we're having trouble finding the time to make love") rather than accusations about how you measure up to others.
"I don't want to talk about sex we haven't had anymore," Wing told her husband after another fight. "If you want to have sex seventeen times a month, well, then, let's go for it!" she said, naming his wildly optimistic ideal. Of course they didn't meet the goal, but the effort did help. Wing felt that her husband realized how hard it is to make time for (and want) frequent sex rather than just complaining about it. And he appreciated her willingness to give it a try.
Shooting for high numbers may not be your solution, but the attitude is admirable. Remind each other that you'll get through this and that you both want to work it out. Instead of saying, "You never woo me anymore," try "Remember that poem you wrote me on our honeymoon? That got me hot!" And if your conversation falls apart and you revert to blaming -- stop. Don't try to win. Just end it and try again later when you've both cooled down.