How to have Difficult Conversations with your Sexual Partner

While I might have the gift of the gab, I’m not immune to clamming up when it comes to having difficult conversations. As a perpetual ‘nice girl’, I’ve to admit I get jealous of those who always appear assertive, confident and don’t back down from standing their ground. Instead I tend to avoid confrontations, wonder if I should even bring it up, and shrug things off saying “It’s alright, it’s not a big deal...”

That is until that tiny little knot in your stomach slowly gets tighter and tighter. You start feeling that wave of annoyance wash over when you see their name flash on your mobile screen, and finally one day you erupt in anger because – well now it’s a big deal.

Trust me, I’ve been there many, many times. And I’m still learning along the way with each challenging situation. So that’s why we need to talk… about having The Talk®

I wished it’s as easy as having a glass box engraved with “EMERGENCY USE ONLY, BREAK GLASS” with a script inside for every awkward conversation you’ll possibly have with a partner, long-term or otherwise. 

As an anxious partner paired with an ex who avoided talking about emotions, the worst insult he’d ever lobbed at me was when he laughed sarcastically and said “You want to talk about feelings? You have feelings about feelings!” 

It didn’t make sense then and clearly doesn’t make sense now – because it was a form of gaslighting. He was turning the spotlight on me and belittling my request to have a serious conversation. It worked at that moment because I wasn’t aware of our dynamics, and how my desire to be seen as calm and mature took over my real need to hash out actual issues in our relationship.

While we will go through a couple of common partner scenarios, there’s a tendency to ignore the most important bit before having The Talk®. That bit consists of your feelings, how you’re framing the situation, and the relationship dynamics with your partner. Once you understand these aspects and know what’s the ideal outcome you want to achieve from the conversation, then it’s easier to stick to the script and stand your ground. So that’s where we shall start from today – let’s dive into the Drama Triangle. 

The Drama Triangle is a social model conceptualized by Stephen B. Karpman. The triangle maps the roles that people can take on in a conflict and the subsequent interactions that eventually end up being destructive or perpetuating the drama (as the name suggests). Often used in psychotherapy, the main roles in a triangle are the Persecutor, Victim and Rescuer. Once you’re aware of which role you fall under during a conflict, it allows you to step outside of the drama and become empowered to be assertive.

Here’s a quick rundown of each role and how they identify themselves in a Drama Triangle.

The Victim: If you find yourself resentful or feel like you’re always giving way to your partner, you’ll probably recognize yourself as a Victim. The Victim often feels helpless or ashamed in a situation that is seemingly outside of their control. 

The Persecutor: The Persecutor is the bad guy in the story. They’re seen as the person who’s controlling, difficult to talk to, critical and/or often superior. It may seem like they’re the ones calling the shots in the situation which causes the victim to feel stuck. 

The Rescuer: While the Rescuer may mean well, they often become an enabler when they feel guilty in a Drama Triangle. Unfortunately not only does it allow the Persecutor and/or Victim to stay in their roles, the Rescuer is often avoidant of their own problems and anxiety so they focus on helping others instead. Wanna know if you’re a Rescuer? If you’re the person who others run to put out metaphorical fires without getting anything in return, you’re probably the Rescuer. 

Do note that in a Drama Triangle, the roles don’t necessarily represent the actual victims or bad guys but instead how one views themselves in the relationship dynamic. It also means at any point, the roles can switch even within the same conversation. For example, in my previous anecdote – I started off as a Victim (“I want to talk to you about something that’s upsetting me.”) with my ex as the Persecutor. When he responded by gaslighting me with how often I want to talk about my feelings, in my mind’s eye he became a Victim (“Oh no, maybe he’s right! I am quite emotional..”). Subconsciously I then switched roles to becoming the Rescuer (“Ok, I won’t talk about it then. Never mind, you’re right I’m being sensitive..”). A few days later, I’d looked back at the half-hearted attempt I took at voicing my opinions and my resentment boils over again. Bingo, I’m back to square one of being The Victim! That’s when you find yourself stuck ping-ponging against all sides of the Drama Triangle. 

Time to switch it up and get out! So how do you go about doing that exactly? You flip from filling in a role in the drama to framing it as an empowered state instead. When you find yourself falling into a victim mindset, don’t be hard on yourself. Instead accept it as a state of Vulnerability and intentionally frame the situation from that point of view with stating how you perceive the scenario and how it makes you feel. Likewise, instead of making a judgement call in the role of the Persecutor, envision yourself as being Assertive. When someone needs your help, resist the urge to jump in and rescue them but speak kindly with Care and remain Assertive. 

For example:

Victim Role: “We always do what you want in the bedroom. I feel like you don’t care about pleasing me at all!”

Vulnerable State: “When we have sex, it feels like I pay more attention on pleasuring you because I spend more time on foreplay in comparison. I am feeling insecure about it because I’m assuming that you don’t want to reciprocate. Let’s talk about it…”

Isn’t it absolutely liberating once you can take a step back and see where you fall within partnered dynamics? That also means each time you want to engage in a tricky talk, you’re able to go in with clear intentions and awareness of how you and your partner might react. Remember that while it may seem intimidating at first, keep your focus on what tangible outcome you want to achieve from each difficult conversation. 

Here’s some common difficult conversations related to sex and sexual health with some ideas on conversation starters. As always, speak in a neutral setting and time (e.g. outside the bedroom/NOT during sexy times) as you want both parties to be calm and feel safe since these conversations can be emotionally charged.

• “How do I bring up STI testing with a new sexual partner?”
• “How do I tell my previous partners I have an STI?”
• “How do I bring up using protection like condoms during sex?”
• “How do I bring up emergency contraception with my partner?”
• “How do I talk about birth control with my partner?”
• “How do I introduce the idea of using sex toys with my partner?”
• “How do I bring up my kink/fetish with my partner?”
• “How do I give constructive feedback about sex with my partner?”

• “How do I tell my partner that this is my boundary?”

“How do I bring up STI testing with a new sexual partner?”

Desired Outcome: You want to be sexy but still stay safe when it comes to a new partner. You want to know if they’ve been recently tested and practice safe sex. 

Conversation Starter: “Just to make sure we’re on the same page, I’m sexually active and my last STI test was X. How about you?”

When it comes to discussing sexual health, keep it short, simple and direct. Lead with your own information first so they’ll feel less self-conscious about volunteering theirs.

“How do I tell my previous partners I have an STI?”

Desired Outcome: You’ve tested positive for an STI and would like to inform your past partner/s so they can also get tested and treated.

Conversation Starter: “Hi, how are you? I’m reaching out because I’ve just recently tested positive for X and am currently receiving treatment for it. I know this isn’t the best news to hear but it’ll be a good idea for you to get tested too just in case.”

We agree that this can be quite an emotional conversation to have, so rest assure that STI’s are commonplace and most are asymptomatic which means that they don’t actually show obvious symptoms unless there are side effects or you’ve been tested. There’s a tendency for regret and victim-blaming during situations like these so we advise you to approach your partners with empathy. They are probably scared and angry since STIs are still stigmatized and so they might react emotionally. Remind yourself that you’re doing the right thing to ensure they’re taking care of their health and treating the infection. 

“How do I bring up using protection like condoms during sex?”

Desired Outcome: It’s your first time with a new sexual partner and you want to use a condom during sex to mitigate the risks of STIs and pregnancy. 

Conversation Starter: “I can’t wait to spend the night with you… do you think we’ll end up finishing the whole box of condoms? What’s the usual brand/type you prefer?”

We’re going with a slightly different take on this as we believe in that you should always bring your own protection, regardless of gender. Since that’s the case, use flirting to your advantage by implying safe sex and taking initiative when it comes to discussing condoms. You can tell by their reaction on how they feel about protection and therefore you’ll be able to steer the conversation accordingly (e.g. “I definitely practice safe sex and it’s a must for me.”)

“How do I bring up emergency contraception with my partner?”

Desired Outcome: You’ve had unprotected sex in the past 72 hours and suspect that there might be a probability of getting pregnant. You want to let your partner know of your situation and purchase emergency contraception together.

Conversation Starter: “I don’t mean to alarm you but I think that the condom broke during our last session together. I want to be on the safe side and get the morning-after pill. Will you accompany me to get it?”

Don’t worry, it happens to the best of us! Whether it’s an accident or the heat of the moment, emergency contraception exists exactly for thatreason. While it’s perfectly reasonable to ask for your partner’s emotional support (and split the cost as well as it takes two to tango!), there’s also a much easier way of getting your emergency contraception without having to head down to the clinic. Telemedical online platforms like Siena Health provide a range of emergency contraception at transparent and affordable pricing, and literally couriered to your doorstep incognito! While it might be called the Morning-After pill, Siena Health also offers an emergency contraception pill that can be taken up to 120 hours after unprotected sex. That’s a 5 days window to quell the panic – but obviously don’t use this as an excuse to treat emergency contraception as a form of birth control. 

“How do I talk about birth control with my partner?”

Desired Outcome: You’ve been dating exclusively and trust each other to have unprotected sex in the relationship. However you’ll like to get on birth control to prevent pregnancies. 

Conversation Starter: “I think it’s great that we’re taking the next step in our relationship and helps me feel literally closer to you. I do want to talk to you about sharing the costs for birth control together since I’m not ready to have a child yet. I definitely prefer the peace of mind with birth control instead of hoping we get lucky with the pull-out method. ”

Birth control can seem mysterious and there’s still plenty of myths surrounding the Pill and side effects. Even before chatting with your partner, we suggest speaking to your doctor first to make sure you have all the facts and personalized prescription that will work best for you and your health needs. Siena Health also offers tele-consultations with their sex-positive and female-centric doctors for affordable oral birth control and birth control patches.

Yes, it’s your body and your choice but once you’re armed with the full facts, it’ll be easier to speak to your partner and have them agree to their share in the responsibility. If they start kicking up a fuss, remind them that it’ll still be cheaper than raising a child and feels so much better than rubber!

“How do I introduce the idea of using sex toys with my partner?”

Desired Outcome: You don’t want to replace your partner but you’re interested in exploring using sex toys together so you can both enjoy different sensations and experiences. 

Conversation Starter: “So I’ve been reading about all these cool toys for the bedroom and I’m quite intrigued. Are you open to exploring these sex toys together with me? I think it’ll be fun to try something new and I’ll love to have that experience with you… ”

For some, the idea of sex toys and pleasure accessories may seem quite foreign or seen as ‘dirty’ because as a conservative Asian society, we’ve been conditioned to view sex as purely procreational. Pleasure hasn’t been placed in the forefront of conversations around sex so talking about owning, receiving and giving pleasure is still seen as taboo or weird.

The stigma around sex toys is also exacerbated by the misconception that a partner’s worth is also determined by how much they can give pleasure to their partner through just their genitals alone. (A.k.a if you have to use a toy in the bedroom, it means that you’re not sexually satisfied by your partner.) So when it comes (pun intended) to trying out sex toys to a partner who might be new to this world, we suggest emphasizing that it’s all about the shared experience, and mutually giving and receiving different types of pleasure as a fun way to strengthen your bonds. 

“How do I bring up my kink/fetish with my partner?”

Desired Outcome: You are ready to share with your partner a sexual kink that you would like to experience with them. 

Conversation Starter: “I really love being with you and how much sexual chemistry we have. There’s been something I’ve wanted to share with you but since I felt quite vulnerable about it, I wanted to wait till we were closer. I’m actually quite turned on by BDSM and have wanted to explore it with someone I trust. Is this something you’ll be keen to explore with me? It’s ok to let me know if you’re not comfortable with the idea either. ”

Similar to our notes on introducing sex toys, be prepared that your partner might not initially know how to react if they’re not used to speaking openly about their sexual fantasies and pleasure preferences. Keep the dialogue open-ended and emphasize that while it might be your personal kink, they’re free to say a hard ‘No’ or that they can try it first but set up boundaries that they’re comfortable with. Remember that consent isn’t set in stone. While they may be open to trying it at first, they have the right to retract consent during play or afterwards if they’re uncomfortable and you should respect that decision.

“How do I give constructive feedback about sex with my partner?”

Desired Outcome: Everything’s great except for that one thing in the bedroom! You want to speak to them after sex on how it can be better. 

Conversation Starter: “That was amazing! I really like it when you did X. I wasn’t a fan when Y was happening but it felt really good when you switched it to X. ”

It’s often been called the ‘shit sandwich’ when it comes to delivering constructive feedback and it works even for sex! You’ll want to start by complimenting what you did enjoy during sex, then mentioning how it didn’t feel as good when they did the other act instead. Avoid accusatory negative comments like “You were pulling too hard” and rephrase it to focus on the act and how it felt (e.g. “It can get painful and intense when there’s a strong grip. I like it best when you focus on this part instead.”)

“How do I tell my partner that this is my boundary?”

Desired Outcome: You gave consent previously but it’s now making you feel uncomfortable to engage further. You would like to stop and set a boundary to prevent it from happening again. 

Conversation Starter: “Can I speak to you about something important? I feel uncomfortable when X happens/you do Y. I know I’d initially said that I’ll like to give it a try but now I realize it’s not right for me. This is my boundary and I hope you respect that.”

We’ve gone full circle to the very first conversation starter and the tip we suggested. Keep it short, simple and direct. Don’t feel guilty or the need to apologize for putting up a boundary. You also shouldn’t feel the need to explain why it makes you uncomfortable – it’s a line you’ve drawn up and the only expectation on their end is to respect it. 

We hope these scripts have given you some ideas on how to navigate those difficult conversations with your sexual partner. Whenever you’re feeling unsure or nervous about bringing up a potentially tricky topic, just take a deep breath and stay emphatic yet empowered to avoid being a ping-pong in the Drama Triangle!

This article is a collaboration with Siena Health, where everyone deserves access to quality, convenient, affordable care. Siena was built to empower women with the access, choice and knowledge they need to be their own healthcare advocates. Special thanks to the Siena Health team for inspiring the topic!