My teenage bedroom, the photography darkroom at our highschool, his 1995 Buick Regal, my parent's guest room, and a thicket of trees outside a nearby movie theater. These are just a few of the places my husband and I utilized when we were hormone-driven 16-year-olds without any privacy. While I wouldn't really label us as exhibitionists, I can't deny that we capitalized on just about any location we could in order to fool around back in those days.
To be fair, it was the first real relationship either of us had experienced. Not to mention that we both had overprotective parents who always kept a watchful eye on us. When our parents eventually became less vigilant, we took advantage of every opportunity to have sex. Having access to the pleasure of a first romance was a temptation we couldn't resist. What followed was 17 years of sexual exploration that resulted in three children, 12 years of marriage (and counting), and a generally happy relationship.
However, after so many years together, long-term relationships will inevitably face their share of issues.
While some partners will realize they've grown apart or that their attraction has stagnated, my husband and I have an entirely different kind of problem: We’re learning to establish sexual boundaries that we've already been crossing for 17 years.
This lesson started on an average night after we finally got the kids to bed and could spend some much needed time alone. It was in a moment of play leading up to sex when my husband got a little too aggressive while kissing my chest — his attention was clearly going to leave a mark.
To be clear, I've never had a problem with hickeys. In fact, I'm fond of them most of the time. But as my husband kissed me, I was shaken by a high school memory: the first time my husband gave me a chest full of marks. I was less than thrilled when it happened, but it wasn't that I was uncomfortable with bruises. I just didn't like that rough feeling on my chest, and I soon discovered that I much preferred gentler play.
Why hadn't I ever told my husband this before?
In that moment, rather than choosing to bear rougher play as usual. I stopped my husband and came clean. I told him about my preference and how I didn't like being attended to so vigorously.
When I spoke up, I may have felt anxious about being sexually vulnerable, but I also knew that my husband had always been so understanding of who I am throughout our entire relationship. One of the reasons I fell in love with him so completely is because we have always been on the same wavelength. We are very different people, but we complement each other. Unsurprisingly, he had no problem changing the intimate ways in which he kissed me. Satisfied that he understood my needs, we went on to enjoy a much more playful and relaxed session of lovemaking. But with this interaction still in the back of my mind, it brought another conversation entirely.
After having sex, my husband and I realized something: We had never really talked to each other about what we liked during sex.
As teens, we were just genuinely in awe of each other, of our bodies, and of the pleasure we could find there. We only dated for three months before we had sex for the first time, and a discussion about boundaries seemed less important than the way we felt when we were alone together. We didn’t know the importance of talking about what is off limits. Then, once our physical relationship became routine, we still never spelled out our expectations for each other when it came to intimicy, fidelity, and sex.
We both grew up going to public school in Texas, so the only sort of sex education my husband and I ever received was abstinence-only education. As you can imagine, the sole boundaries we were taught to enforce were the ones that teach you to say no to sex — that obviously didn't work for me and my husband.
My husband grew up in a very repressed household with no other masculine energy to look towards, but that changed suddenly when he moved into my family’s home during high school. From then on, he had my dad to rely on — but there was no way he was going to talk to his girlfriend's father about sex.
Speaking of my dad, when it came to premarital sex, he had a very traditional stance. I usually felt like I could tell him anything, but I didn't want to reveal too much to my father and cause him to disapprove of my boyfriend.
Talking to my mom wasn't an option either. Her sex education had been even worse than mine — she didn't know the biological words for certain body parts or the sex acts I'd ask about. She had also been taken advantage of more than once as a younger woman, so that impacted her understanding of sexual boundaries. Talking about sex usually just made her uncomfortable.
Now, as an adult, I understand that boundaries are a very important foundation for any sexual relationship.
I don’t think my husband and I avoided these conversations on purpose — it goes back to us being on that same wavelength. But even if we complement each other so well, and even if we seem to often read each others’ minds, there is no doubt that we should always be checking in with each other and having these important discussions. Luckily, it doesn't seem too late for us to establish these boundaries now, or to work on breaking bad habits and educate each other.
In order to seriously dedicate ourselves to redefining sexual boundaries in our relationship, my husband and I have made this goal our New Year's resolution.
Like other typical communication-based resolutions, commitment to the process is key. Both parties have to approach it with positivity and keep an open mind. Yes, we will have to share the things we like and dislike during sex, but we shouldn't attack or feel attacked during the exercise. Just the feeling of judgement can shut down a necessary conversation, so we have to be receptive and kind.
Our first hour-long conversation about our sex life drew out several non-negotiable items for both of us to talk about. I’ve always understood my husband to be hypersexual, so I was surprised to learn that he enjoyed sex to be more intimate, slow, and soft. This list led to a greater understanding of what my husband wants out of our sexual relationship but had never bothered to say. It also reflected what I no longer wanted to happen in the bedroom.
Most surprisingly, talking with my husband about our sexual boundaries has opened the door to trying new things in the bedroom that we’ve both been curious about. After our first talk, my husband and I have discussed our desires much more casually. I have a feeling these talks will become even more organic from now on.
It’s kind of amazing to find out that, after 17 years of sexual exploration, there are still things my husband and I can discover together. It’s often believed that, when it comes to sex, we let our bodies “do the talking.” But I’ve learned that, sometimes, we need to verbally communicate to learn the desires that exist alongside our boundaries.