Stop me if this sounds familiar. You’re reading a book in bed. Your partner wanders into the room and gives you a come-hither look. You sigh. The book is really good.

But it has been a while since the two of you shared some sexy time. So, you start to kiss, and you start to run your hands over each other’s bodies and your limbs become entangled AND… it’s underwhelming. Your mind starts to wander. You rush to the finish line so you can get back to your book. And the next time your partner makes a move, you’re less inclined to say yes because—well—why bother?

Scenes like this are more common than you think. Partners fall into a routine or a full-on rut. Some of the flirtier stuff they engaged in at the beginning of the relationship falls by the wayside. They start to skip all of the touching and the caressing they used to do. They just rush right into penetrative intercourse, which doesn’t really allow anyone the time to build arousal.

Still, a strong intimate life is worth fighting for. So, what’s the solution to lackluster sex? You guessed it: communication.

First, do your homework.

Before you bring up your dissatisfaction with what’s happening in the bedroom, you should brainstorm some solutions. Tracey Cox, author of Great Sex Starts at 50, recommends making a list of 10 things you want more of in the bedroom, 10 things you want less of, and 10 new things you’d like to try. “Your partner is not a mind reader,” says Cox. “Loving you does not mean they know exactly what you need to turn you on at that exact moment.”

Set a date.

I ask Stella Harris, author of Tongue Tied and the Ultimate Guide to Threesomes, the best time to have a conversation about sex. “Not during sex,” she says. “Or not immediately after.”

Harris believes it’s important to set yourself up for a successful conversation. Questioning your partner’s technique while one of you is thrusting into the other is not a recipe for success.

“I think it’s helpful to have these conversations pretty darn removed from sex,” says Harris. “Like over coffee in the morning, with all your clothes on.”

She also suggests giving advance notice that you’d like to talk about your intimate life, especially since sex can carry so much baggage. “If you surprise them, they can shut down,” says Harris. “Let them know you want to have that conversation. Give them an opportunity to opt in and prepare.”

How to frame the conversation.

As with any relationship issues, the conversation you have about your sex life should be just that: a conversation, not a lecture. “You’re opening up a discussion on sex that’s two-way,” says Cox. “Both of you talking as a team about what you’d like to explore instead of you pointing the finger.”

Harris agrees, pointing out that any sentence that starts with “you” is likely bad, as it will sound like an accusation or a direct criticism. “Instead,” she says, “make it about you and your feelings and what you would like. Make a request. Again, bring a solution to the table.”

If you find yourself knee-jerk starting your sentences with “you,” as in “You’re terrible at this,” or “You always do this one annoying thing and it’s atrocious,” think of how you might flip it around and lead with something positive.

Try: “I really like it when you do X. Can we do more of that?” or “Remember when we used to do more of Y? I kind of miss that.”

If you’d like to suggest something new, present it as something you heard about on TV or from a friend or read about in a magazine article. Ask your partner if they’d like to give it a try. Again, this is about treating your intimate life as a collaborative activity. “Hopefully, this is an ‘in it together’ kind of thing,” says Harris. “Not a ‘you’re bad at this; get better’ situation.”

Reinforce all of this in the bedroom:

Once you finally get down to business, Cox says, you should reinforce your words with your body language. She suggests using your hands to guide your partner’s hands or mouth or hips. “It’s pointless—not to mention a complete waste of time that could be spent enjoying yourself—to just lie there and hope they’ll eventually hit the spot,” says Cox.

She also recommends giving positive reinforcement using your voice (i.e. sighs, moans, and dirty talk) and your body (i.e. pulling them closer) when they get it right.

If you don’t see fireworks at first?

This stuff is hard. Being intimate right now is hard. Maintaining a sense of passion over the long haul is hard. And, hell, communicating about what you want in bed—especially when you’re not even sure what you want in bed—is hard!

Harris reminds us we carry baggage around sex… baggage we’ve collected over many years and across multiple relationships. This includes all the things past partners have said to us.

Suddenly, I am rocketed back to my own unhealthy relationship 20 years ago, with the man who picked apart everything I did in bed, sulked every time I wasn’t ready to try something new, and berated me for my inexperience.

Many of us have experiences like this in our past. These experiences can teach us not to trust our own desires and not to feel that we deserve anything more than what we already have.

They can also lead us to lash out at the person we love because the ways in which we’re not enjoying ourselves in the bedroom remind us of a time when we were made to feel so very small.

“We want to show up to these conversations with kindness and curiosity,” says Harris. “If you’re in a place where everything you want to say is mean, I suspect the sex is not the problem.”

So, take it slow. Know that change may not come immediately. Remember: It likely won’t take just one conversation. Keeping your sex life strong has to be an ongoing collaborative effort.

Stephanie Auteri

Stephanie Auteri

Journalist, author, & sex educator
Steph Auteri has written about sexuality for the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Pacific Standard, VICE, and other publications, and has collaborated with folks at the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT), the Center for Sex Education, and Good in Bed. She is the author of A Dirty Word, a reported memoir about how female sexuality is so often treated like a dirty word.