Giving Pointers

Also: "Playing Dress Up?" "Initiating Sex"

by Michael Sytsma and Debra Taylor

Most of the time I enjoy my husband's moves when we're making love. But every once in a while I'd like him to try something different. How can I give him a pointer without bruising his ego?

Debra: It's important for each couple to negotiate how they are going to talk about their sexual relationship together. To talk honestly about our sexuality, sexual preferences, fears, feelings about our bodies, struggles, joys—this is intimacy, deep friendship with trust and faithfulness.

Whenever we approach our spouse with information that could be perceived as criticism, we need to be respectful and thoughtful.

It's best to have a sexual talk away from actual lovemaking. Arrange some uninterrupted "just us" time for conversation (the kids are in bed, or get a babysitter and go somewhere private), and then bring up your desire: "I've been thinking about our lovemaking …" is one way to start. Be careful not to use the word but ("I usually like what we do, but …"). The word and works better ("I enjoy our lovemaking and I've been thinking about some things I'd like to do with you …").

Positive suggestions are more useful than vague or negative comments. Affirmations and sincere compliments help alleviate fears of rejection or criticism. When you talk together about your sexuality, you're talking about one of the core parts of your person; you're on holy ground. Be mindful of where you are and speak respectfully—as you would want your husband to be respectful and kind to you.

Michael: The male ego can be fragile. Especially when it comes to sexual prowess. Depending on how fragile your husband's ego is, you might not be able to avoid hurting him. The beauty is, God created us with a great ability to heal. And many times, a little pain is worth the gain. Take courage, jump in, and risk it for the reward. Most men are willing to risk their egos a bit in sports, business, investing, and other areas of life when there's the chance of reward.

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You may also want to try subtle direction and reward. This works best when the two of you are in a playful sexual mood. In those times, you could say, "Oooh. Would you ______ (fill in your pointer)?" When he does, make a big deal about it. Moan and let him know, "You haven't done that before. It feels really good tonight." That kind of affirmation speaks powerfully to most men.

During the relaxed time after sex, tell him how you wouldn't want that every time, but you enjoyed him trying that this time: "Our typical routine is comfortable and feels good. Sometimes trying something different is also good. You're a great lover."

Playing dress up?
My wife and I enjoy it when she dresses in "costumes" and we role-play. It's never anything like pretending we're other real people. It's just doctor/nurse stuff and things like that. That's okay, right? Or is that considered fantasizing?

Debra: The dictionary states this about fantasize (verb): to indulge in daydreaming about something desired; to imagine something you would like to have happen.

Yes, dressing up and role-playing is a type of fantasizing. That said, what's wrong with fantasizing? The most important sexual organ is your brain. What's happening in your mind affects your responses physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Using your imagination and playing together are important for a healthy marriage and sexual relationship. You have already honed in on a key to evaluating if fantasy is healthy or unhealthy—you're not imagining sex with someone else, you're fully engaged in relating to each other.

If you're both having fun, neither of you feels degraded, there is no physical or psychological pain, you are growing in your oneness, and expressing your love for each other, then enjoy!

Michael: You are imagining yourselves in different scenarios, much like a child playing school, or pretending he's a fireman or a doctor. This type of play is healthy for children. We enjoy watching and almost envy them being lost in their world.

Much is the same for adults in sex. While some couples may find this type of play awkward, unappealing, or even offensive ("I want my husband/wife to connect with the real me, not a fantasy me"), many others will find it a meaningful type of play. Playfulness is a valuable part of a healthy sex life. If this is how the two of you enjoy playing, I encourage you to continue to explore.

Keep it within boundaries:

(1) No one else should ever be invited in to your fantasies. Your sex play is for you alone. Dressing up as a movie star is one thing, imagining your wife is a specific movie star you are having sex with is lust and is out of bounds. Keep your fantasies to yourself. They need to be private play, not for sharing among your friends.

(2) Keep it fun. Healthy fantasy is not about degrading or hurting each other.

(3) Never force a fantasy on your spouse. Because it's fun one day, doesn't mean it will be any other time. Also, a fantasy of yours might be scary or offensive to your spouse because of something (he or she might not even be aware of) from the past. If your spouse says "no" or "I'm not comfortable with that" then stop.

(4) Never lose track of the real goal of sex—a God-reflective connection with your spouse. God is a playful God, but he always connects with us authentically. Play it up, but keep the connection real.

Initiating sex
My husband wants me to initiate sex more often. I want to but I get embarrassed. How can I get over that?

Michael: I'm impressed with your desire to grow and to please your husband. Keep nurturing that in yourself. It's part of the heart of a truly great marriage and sex life.

I wonder what kind of initiation is embarrassing to you? A common male fantasy is to walk in the door from work and have his wife strip off his clothes right there in the foyer. In reality an initiation this forward is atypical for most wives and might be embarrassing and uncomfortable for you.

Begin by identifying what would be the most comfortable way for you to initiate. Just putting on something sexy and inviting is an initiation. Explore variations of your most comfortable idea. Then identify and challenge unhealthy beliefs ("I have to be in the mood to initiate sex"; "Sex should spontaneously erupt; I shouldn't have to plan for or initiate it"; "I won't recover from the rejection if he's not immediately interested"; "My body isn't really that attractive.") These unhealthy beliefs keep wives (and husbands) shut down and embarrassed. While coy and shy can be cute, you don't want embarrassment to be restrictive. Plan a way around it that fits you.

Discuss your ideas with your husband. Don't forget to gently suggest ways he can respond (verbally and nonverbally) that decrease your embarrassment.

Debra: Think of anything else you've done for the first or second time (entertaining, playing soccer, ballroom dancing). That felt awkward, too, right? Whenever you try something new, there is a period where you feel self-conscious, fake, embarrassed. But as you keep learning, it becomes easier, you gain confidence, and often, you enjoy it!

Frequently in marriage, initiation is a non-verbal activity. He kisses her a certain way and she "knows" that's what he wants. Or she is more affectionate than usual and he is supposed to "know" she is initiating. I don't think "signals" work well in relationships unless they are talked about and understood. Try initiating with words: "Would you like to make love?" or "I would like to make love to you."

If that seems too forward, direct, or unromantic for you, some couples come up with non-verbal signals they both understand. One wife lights a candle in the bedroom when she's open to having sex. Another couple keeps a tube of red lipstick next to their large bathroom mirror. When she comes home from work she writes a number from 0-10 on her side of the mirror. Zero is "not a chance," 5 is "It's okay with me," 10 is "I want to!" When he comes home, he writes on his side of the mirror his number, 0-10. If both of them are above a 5, they make love. This works well for those couples—because they've communicated about it and have agreed on the meaning.

Michael Sytsma, Ph.D., is a minister and founder of Building Intimate Marriages (www.intimatemarriage.org). Debra Taylor, MFT, is co-author of Secrets of Eve (Thomas Nelson). Both are certified Christian sex therapists and co-founders of Sexual Wholeness, Inc. (www.sexualwholeness.com).