6 Tips for a Successful Conversation about Sex

Published on: 03/23/15

Conversation about sex is the most important component in finding intimacy again. Cancer changed us, both physically and emotionally, and it may have also changed our wants and needs. The journey may have also changed our relationship. To develop or maintain a healthy relationship, we need to be able to communicate with our partner, those changes we’ve experienced, along with our wants and needs.

Today you’ll walk away with strategies and tips to make the delicate conversation easier with a better chance of succeeding. The when, where, what, and how related to discussing sex with your partner will be covered, along with six rules to guide you through it.

Cancer changed us, both physically and emotionally, and it may have also changed our wants and needs. To maintain a healthy relationship, we need to be able to communicate those wants and needs with our partner.

Rule #1: Where…This conversation needs to take place outside of the bedroom. Pick a place that is neutral, comfortable for both of you, a place where there will be no interruptions, including children and phones ringing.

Rule#2: When…Schedule a time to talk: not right before sex, not during, and not right after. Schedule a time for a short period. No more than 30-60 minutes. Pick a time when you’re not feeling fatigued or low on energy, or having negative effects of any medicines. You want to feel sharp, alert, and optimistic about the outcome of the conversation. When we’re low on energy we feel less in control of our emotions and more apathetic about our ability to control our future.

Rule #3: What… Be specific about the topics you want to discuss. Let’s not try to boil the ocean with this first conversation. We’re going to focus on one or two issues only. So don’t say, “I want to discuss the problems or issue we’re having in the bedroom”, because that could be anything, and could scare the other person into not having the discussion. Instead, say “I want to talk to you about some of the changes I’ve noticed about my body and how it reacts to touch, since cancer.”

The next three rules are all about the how.

Rule #4: When expressing your concerns, use “I” statements. Never begin a sentence with the word “you”. These will statements related to your feelings. For example, “Since cancer, I don’t get as excited when I’m touched the way I did before cancer. My body doesn’t respond the same way.” Compare that to…”Since cancer, your touch doesn’t get me excited anymore.” The latter example feels accusatory or suggests the problem is his. One sentence structure blames him and the other doesn’t. You’ll avoid arguments if you stick with talking about “I”, your feelings, not his behavior. Consider these two sentences…”I feel rejected when we don’t have sex as much as before cancer. Or…”You aren’t attracted to me since cancer.”

Rule #5: Highlight any positive with the negative. “I appreciate how gentle you try to be with me when you touch me, but I’m concerned that my body has changed since cancer and doesn’t respond as I want it to.” I acknowledge and I appreciate the efforts he’s making along with letting him know there is still a concern to be dealt with.

After you give your concerns, be quiet, patient, and LISTEN. Or ask to hear his concerns. Don’t put words in his mouth and don’t assume you know what he’s thinking when his response isn’t immediate. Men and women communicate very differently. No one has to be right and the other wrong in these discussions.

In my own discussions with my husband, I wanted more back and forth, discussing and exploring ideas of what could be happening with me, and what should be done about it. But I got nothing in that first conversation. As I said before, he needs time to process and figure out his response. It’s true with every serious discussion we have. And it’s true of conversations involving other concerns, non-sexual and non-intimacy related.

This leads me to Rule #6: Schedule a time to talk again. Same rules apply. Set a specific time 30-60 minutes, outside the bedroom, when you have the most energy, using “I” sentences instead of “you”, listening to his concerns, not assuming you know what he’s thinking, except in the second discussion, focus on strategies together, possible solutions to the issue at hand. Your intention of this discussion will be to walk away with one or two ideas you can agree on as next steps to resolving the concerns. This may involve seeking the help of your physician, developing the questions one of both of you have for a medical team members, or may be something one or both of you will do differently in preparation of, or during foreplay or any sexual activity.

If you have an issue in mind, consider each of the rules as you prepare to discuss it with your partner. Communicating can be tricky without throwing cancer into the mix. Expressing feelings can leave us raw and vulnerable. And one thing is certain. Cancer changed us, possibly inside and out. Your needs and wants may have changed as well. No doubt there are feelings you both have that neither realizes. The only way to end up on the same page understanding each other is to talk about it. Your ability to communicate those needs and wants will increase your chances of working through the issues together as you support each other in your efforts to find intimacy again.

Next time we’ll review the when, what and who regarding questions to ask your physician if it isn’t brought up to you first. Your comments or questions are welcomed. Sign up to join the community of survivors struggling with these same issues. You’ll get advice, tips, and resources directly to your email inbox.

    Craig Regan

    Hi Erin, My name is Craig. I am 60 years old. I live with my wife Janine and three of our four kids (all over 18) in Melbourne, Australia. I completed surgery and treatment for gastro-esophageal cancer about 6 months ago. During treatment, the relationship between Janine and I was closer than it had been in our 27 years of marriage. Due to reactions to immunotherapy and Sepsis from a leak in my sewn up stomach, I got close to death a few times. I know I would not have gotten through without Janine's support. Seeing her walk through the door of my hospital room occasionally sent me into tears of happiness. When I was in intensive care and the tubes and wires stopped us from kissing goodbye, I would ask her to just rest her forehead on mine for a few seconds. It was an intense time. We have both noticed that we've drifted apart since my treatment ended. We're not sure why. We're close to just being friends in the same house. We're not arguing, just not connecting. Perhaps a "let down" was bound to happen as we came through that intense period but we're both troubled by what seems a significant loss of closeness and intimacy, and we're frightened that we may be an example of a couple on "divergent paths in life", even though that seems strange so soon after feeling so close. I read somewhere that someone coming out of cancer has changed, even if they think they haven't. I don't think I've changed much, in fact I get frustrated by the feeling that I am not the shining example of someone with "a new lease on life, a second chance". I am back at work and feeling the same stresses etc that I always did. If I have changed I don't know what the changes might be. I'd be grateful for any advice you can offer. Thank you

    John Doe

    This is so cool.

    Rosemary Guehrn

    Great article Erin. You shed light on an important and often neglected aspect of cancer recovery . Thanks

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