The lights are low. A fire smolders in the fireplace. Two wineglasses sit, half empty, on the nightstand. Your clothes lie in a heap on the floor. You reach for each other. The two of you tumble to the bed, and...
No explosions of passion. No breathy proclamations of desire. No tumultuous climax. Then you wonder: How can everyone in movies and romance novels be having fiery, combustible sex when you and your partner barely create a spark?
Sexologist Logan Levkoff, author of the eBook How to Get Your Wife to Have Sex With You, says, "TV shows and movies give us this very skewed representation of what sex is supposed to be like. Everyone seems to be climaxing and having orgasms all the time from whatever they're doing. When you grow up on a diet of that, and when your real life doesn't match, you think, 'There's something wrong with me,' or, 'There's something wrong with my partner.'"
Real-life sex can almost never measure up to the passion portrayed on the screen, sex therapist Isadora Alman says. "People don't talk about the fact that it's likely that in an odd position you'll pass gas or the love of your life will take you in his arms and have bad breath."
Sex in the real world isn't perfect, and it doesn't always end with an earth-shattering climax -- but it doesn't have to, Levkoff says. "Good sex doesn't necessarily have to be about an orgasm. It can just be an emotionally fulfilling experience between partners."
Getting What You Want in Bed
Even when everything else in the relationship is working, sexual styles aren't always compatible. You like long foreplay sessions. Your partner is ready to go in an instant. You long for wet, sensual kisses. They prefer dry, chaste pecks. "Sex is not just naturally perfect," Alman says. "There is the energy of a new relationship that is positive -- the excitement and the eagerness and the passion. And the negative is that you bump noses or knees because you just haven't learned how to dance together yet."
But even long-term couples can struggle in the bedroom. Though we can easily tell our partner what shirt we'd like them to wear, or what we'd like to cook together for dinner, we tend to get tongue-tied when it comes to the topic of sex.
"People tend to be very sensitive when it comes to talking about sex," says relationship and family therapist Rachel Sussman. "They're afraid of hurting their partner's feelings, so they don't tell them what they like or don't like. But you're not going to get it unless you ask for it."
So how do you tell your partner what you want without bruising their ego? "I think it's really in how you bring up the statement," Levkoff says. "'I would love it if we...' or, 'Could we try this?' You don't want to make them feel bad about what they've done or haven't done."
You can have the conversation whenever and wherever it's most comfortable for you. But before you talk, you need to know exactly what it is about your sex life that bothers you. Is it a question of technique? Personal hygiene? Timing? "Once you know what isn't working for you," Alman says, "there are things you can suggest that can mitigate those circumstances."
For example, if something about your partner's smell is turning you off, suggest taking a bath together before making love. If you crave more foreplay, ask for slower segues into sex.
Before you can tell your partner what you want them to do in bed, you need to know what you like. "I think especially for women, they've got to explore their own bodies," Sussman says. "You have to masturbate. Get a vibrator. Get some books. Teach yourself how to orgasm."
When It's Just Not Working
After you've tried talking and the sex still isn't working, what then?
"Experiment together," Sussman says. "Learn to get to know each other's bodies."
Try some sex aids. Read books with pictures (such as The Joy of Sex), or watch an educational video together, Alman says. Not porn, but explicit videos in which a voice-over explains what's happening in the scenes.
Sometimes, the problem is a physical one, such as premature ejaculation. Or it may be that the stress from your job is bleeding over into the bedroom and disrupting your sex life. In those cases it can help to see a sex therapist. "We unravel why you two are not getting along," Alman says. "And then we try to remedy that."
If you're still unsatisfied, is it ever OK to fake it in bed?
"If you're faking it, you're doing yourself a disservice because you're not learning what really turns you on," Sussman says. "I think eventually, it takes a toll. Your partner's going to realize that you're disconnected."
Can sex ever be bad enough to consider ending a relationship over? Possibly. "You might really love somebody and the sex is never going to be better than OK. You have to decide whether you can live with that," Alman says.
Whenever you're considering a breakup or divorce, you need to weigh every element of the relationship and not just the sex. "You can't have everything in life," Sussman says. "If you have a wonderful relationship and you love each other and you have kids but the sex isn't great, maybe you can live with that."
Sussman says that every couple has the potential to have good sex if you’re willing to put a little effort into it. "If you're two emotionally and physically healthy people, you should be able to work with what you've got. Not everybody needs to be hanging off the chandelier," Sussman says. "You can get better. But you have to practice, and you have to be open to discussing it and getting help when you need it."