I’ve been writing about sex for over 20 years now—touting the glories of sexual communication in just about every article I’ve written—and yet, sometimes, I’m still a mess of miscommunication when it comes to my own sex life.

There were times I hesitated to make the first move because, well, my partner always made the first move. If they hadn’t done so already, didn’t that mean they weren’t in the mood?

There were times my partner strove to make our sex play last as long as humanly possible because they thought it would make me feel good when, in the moment, I would have preferred a quickie.

There were times I felt guilty for my hibernating libido, only to find out their libido was hibernating, too.

Just imagine the angst that could have been avoided!

In each of these cases, we made assumptions about what the other person wanted, only to end up with one or both of us dissatisfied.

If only we’d set some expectations around our sex play.

How can you and your partner sidestep our silly mistakes?

Have a conversation, the earlier the better.

Research indicates that relational strategies developed by both partners—versus just one partner—are associated with greater sexual and relationship satisfaction. This is because we can’t read minds when it comes to what will actually make our partner happy. As Logan Levkoff, a New York City-based sexuality educator, once told me, “We anticipate that people know what we want, that they know what we need.” In actuality, we’re all just stumbling around in the dark, bumping into furniture and accidentally elbowing people in the face.

Which is why it can be useful to have a conversation about sexual wants and needs before entering into a sexual relationship.

Though, obviously, if you’ve been having lackluster sex for some time already, it’s never too late to shift course with the help of some open communication.

What would make you feel more comfortable?

What do you need from a sexual relationship to fully enjoy yourself? Would a conversation about safer sex—whatever that means to you—put your mind at ease? Do you prefer to play with the lights out, or to have soft lighting? Would pillows or other props make it easier for you to access certain positions? Are there certain body parts or positions or even words or phrases that are off-limits? Where do your boundaries lie?

Think about what, in the past, has prevented you from staying in the moment during sex play. How can you ensure these roadblocks don’t derail things in the future? These are all things your partner would benefit from knowing about you—and that you’d benefit from knowing about them.

What role do you want sex to play in your relationship?

It would also be helpful to think about the value of intimacy in your life. Does sex help you maintain an intimate connection with your partner? Does it help you feel closer to them? When you’re in a bad mood, do you use sex to make yourself feel better, or do you hate being touched at those times? Would you prefer to have sex more often? Less often?

How would your partner answer these questions? You might not be on the same exact page but having a greater understanding of each other’s needs can help you come to a place where you’re both satisfied.

What feels good to you… and what doesn’t?

As I’ve mentioned in the past, we can sometimes be limited by our very narrow definition of sex. We assume that the only sex worth having is PIV (penis-in-vagina) penetrative intercourse that ends in orgasm. But how might things change if you asked yourself: What would be nice right now?

You can use a yes/no/maybe list with your partner in order to explore together what you know you enjoy in the bedroom, what you’d like to try, and what are absolute no-nos. Or maybe you already know, and you don’t need such a list to facilitate that conversation.

If you’re not sure which types of touch would make you happiest—or which are instant turn-offs—it would be worth your while to spend some time exploring your own body.

Once you do have that conversation, though, remember to approach it with openness and curiosity. The things you learn about each other are sure to bring you closer, and to make sex even more amazing.

Have a positive attitude.

Speaking of openness and curiosity, rather than focusing on what you don’t enjoy in the bedroom, frame these talks around what you’d love to do with your partner, what you’d love to try, and how that thing you did the other night felt fantastic and—hey—maybe you could do it again?

Sex can put us in a position of vulnerability, a position shrouded by shame and insecurity. So when you position your desires as something the two of you might enjoy doing together, versus a reflection of something you hated, it can build excitement for the both of you.

And if you feel nervous about suggesting a new activity, you can frame that differently, too. You could say, “Hey, I read this article the other day and it mentioned this thing that seemed interesting” or “Hey, I saw this thing in a film the other night and it seemed really sexy… wanna try?”

Don’t forget aftercare.

Though this is a concept that comes from the BDSM community, it’s worth it for all partners to consider what might provide them with a sense of closure after sex. I’ve mentioned aftercare in the past but, as a reminder, it can look like anything from offering your partner snacks, to making sure they get home safely, to snuggling for a while, to having a conversation about the experience.

Allow this to be an ongoing conversation.

Setting expectations around sex isn’t a one-and-done proposition. After all, we constantly grow and change as humans, and the things we enjoy in the bedroom change with us. We are always allowed to change our minds about what we do and do not want to do with our partner.

Allow your expectations around sex to evolve and continue to communicate about them as they do.

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.