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Tips To Bridge The Communication Gap


Here's some advice from experts about how to have a candid, sincere discussion with your partner about sex:

* Resist knee-jerk responses to your partner's comments. Listen before you respond. Be kind, gentle and patient. "People get defensive because this is such a sensitive subject," says Tibor Jukelevics, a Torrance psychologist. For example, they might wrongly assume a partner who fumbles when talking about sex is being critical. "It's just difficult for them to talk. Getting upset, rather than trying to understand, can turn a harmless comment into a hurtful argument."

* Save sexual criticisms, says sociologist Pepper Schwartz. Nothing stings a relationship or squashes an ego more than a sexual insult, even if it's not intended to be one. This is particularly true if the comment relates to performance, or penis or breast size.

* Discuss techniques after sex. "It's a private and safe time to say, 'I really liked it when you touched me like this, or kissed me like that," says Marilyn Fithian, co-director of the Center for Marital and Sexual Studies in Long Beach. Such praise encourages a partner to repeat the feel-good techniques. It also makes them more confident about pleasing a partner's sexual requests. "Say it in a way that flatters them, such as, 'I would love it if you touched me here.' "

* Broach emotional feelings about sex at a time when both partners are relaxed, Fithian says, when intimacy and mutual respect are at their peak. "There's likely to be more understanding and self-revelation."

* View portrayals of sex in the mass media with skepticism. Don't compare yourself to someone who is not real. Psychotherapist Bonnie Maslin understands why people like to compare. Sex still worries most of us, she writes in "The Angry Marriage: Overcoming the Rage, Reclaiming the Love" (Hyperion, 1994). "Am I normal? Do we do it enough? Why do I feel this way? Why do I think this way?"

* Be wary, for example, when hearing about a friend's wild night of lusty, no-strings-attached sex. "People often exaggerate to make themselves sound good," Maslin adds.

* Understand that an occasional diminishing interest in sex is normal. "Sexual encounters eventually lose the glow of romantic excitement they had when couples first met," Maslin writes. "Burning love doesn't continue to burn indefinitely."

* Concentrate on resolving self-esteem and relationship problems. "Sex is not separate from other parts of your life," says Judith Wallerstein, founder of the Center for the Family in Transition, in Northern California. "A low self-image or communication problems show up in the bedroom."

* Realize that extra sensitivity is needed if a partner has ever been sexually abused. The recent University of Chicago study found that adults who were sexually touched as children have higher rates of sexual dysfunction.

* Acknowledge communication barriers relating to gender, religious and ethnic differences. For instance, a finding from a 1992 study in the Journal of Sex Research discussed how men and women incorrectly perceived each other's sexual desires. "This is because men and women are brought up differently," says Jukelevics, the Torrance psychologist. "Women tend to value intimacy while men express themselves through physical activity. The differences can create sexual misunderstandings."

* Pinpoint words that might be a source of embarrassment, Jukelevics suggests. "Sometimes it's best for couples to come up with their own names of genitalia or sexual acts. This makes them more comfortable."

* Learn about sex from books and videos. Stores are full of them. "I found that to be an easy way to bring up the subject, especially if we were both studying the same thing," says Maureen Ward, a Malibu resident who no longer has an unsatisfying sex life. "It's easier to say something like, 'Honey, I read this book about hanging from a chandelier, and I think I know a way we can really enhance our sex life.' "

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