When it comes to marriage and long-term relationships, people usually assume they will be monogamous. Anything other than monogamy is still considered a fringe, alternative set of relationship styles, even though more couples are subscribing to the notion that relationships are co-created experiences between two adult people. When it comes to this monogamy that we’re expected to tacitly adhere to, we’re supposed to be taking a vow to honor our partner, without question, until our very last breath.
It’s assumed that there can be no room for discussion or a rejiggering of the “rules.” If you agreed to be with someone forever (whether in an LTR, marriage, or domestic partnership), you’re supposed to always agree to be in that relationship, as it was, no matter how long ago that agreement was made.
More and more, experts (and people in relationships) are questioning this idea of a blanket “yes” in relationships. It’s unrealistic to expect that someone is going to stay the same forever. We’re in constant flux as individuals. Our sexual wants, needs, and desires shift and change as we move through life—juggling all of its unpredictability.
This is highlighted by the way we approach sex in a long-term relationship. Your sex life is supposed to stay the same. There is no framework from which to grow as individuals, or as a couple. We’re not given the language to discuss sex, and so when we want to talk about sex with our partners, it’s a bit like speaking French when you’ve never had a French lesson before. However, who you were as a sexual human a year ago might be completely different from the sexual human you are today. That’s the nature of desire: It changes!
Your sexual relationship, just like your relationship as a whole, is an agreement made between two people to spend their lives together. It’s a contract, one that can be negotiated and renegotiated as we evolve on an individual and relational level. “Sexual satisfaction and being able to talk about sex are so closely linked that the couples who report the best sex lives are not the ones who have more sex, or always want sex at the same time, or who are always into the same things, but the couples who are able to talk about sex and make it a priority,” Dr. Karen Gurney, a clinical psychologist, psychosexologist, and author of Mind the Gap: The Truth About Desire and How to Futureproof Your Sex Life, tells TheBody.
Cue: The annual review of your sex life.
What Is an Annual Review?
An annual review is a sit-down conversation during which couples can take a look at their sex life, check in, and openly discuss what they hope to experience in the next year. Gurney points out that we already have these kinds of goal-setting conversations with ourselves every single New Year’s Eve—so why couldn’t we do the same thing for sex?
These yearly reviews can help facilitate open and honest communication. Too many couples think that they agree to be in a relationship and that’s that. Having a real sit-down to discuss what’s working in your intimate relationship and what’s not, and then creating new goals together is how you keep the sparks alive in relationships and in sex. “Annual reviews are a great way to have a ‘looking forward’ conversation about your sex life,” Gurney says.
We all need more of this forward thinking around sex. Life is too short to stay static, doing the same things over and over again until you die.
Who Are They For?
These conversations should be viewed as an opportunity for you to set boundaries as a couple and to understand how to be better and more present for each other in your sex life.
Lucy Rowett, a certified intimacy coach and clinical sexologist, tells TheBody that revisiting the informal “relationship contract” can be an opportunity to discuss “how to best support each other and how you want to show up in your relationship. A relationship contract is especially valuable in non-monogamous relationships when boundaries need to be clearly stated so that all partners can feel loved and valued.”
In short: Annual reviews are not just for alternative relationship styles. Everyone can find something positive to take away. Whether monogamous, non-monogamous, or something in-between, everyone benefits from these discussions.
Approaching Your Partner About Having a Discussion on Sex
Having a sit-down discussion about sex can be a scary prospect. Since we’re not particularly versed in talking about sex, approaching a yearly, open discussion might be enough to give you a panic attack.
Don’t worry. You’re not alone.
The vast majority of people might agree with this idea on an intellectual level, while having absolutely no idea how to implement it in their own lives. “Being able to talk openly and honestly about your needs takes maturity. Not everybody can do it, and [this] is another reason why unresolved conflicts happen,” Rowett says. “Relationships don’t just thrive by themselves—they take skill and refining.”
Four Tips to Make It Happen
1. If you’re going to do this, you need to talk (and listen).
One of the biggest issues many couples face is that they lack communication skills around everything, including sex. We tend to tiptoe around each other. The problem? This breeds discontent and resentment. “Talk, talk, talk with each other,” Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a Beverly Hills, California, family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, tells TheBody. “Taking turns listening and talking with each other is the seed that grows passion in relationships. Each one of us wants the same thing: to be seen, acknowledged, validated, loved, and accepted—flaws and all!”
2. Figure out your method.
Rowett says deciding on a framework for this chat can be really helpful. “Some people like to make it a piece of paper, others like to just make it verbal; it’s really up to you and what feels right for you,” she says. When we know how it’s going to go down, it can be easier to navigate the conversation. It makes it more approachable.
3. Set a date.
It’s important to mark your calendars and give this conversation the space and reverence it deserves. Having a conversation of this depth on the fly can overwhelm your partner, leading to a lack of productive communication. “The reason to set a review date (I often suggest an anniversary, or as part of a looking forward conversation about all areas of life as people often do at New Year) is that if you don’t make it a regular habit, you either risk it not happening by falling off the agenda, or you risk it only happening [if] one of you feels strongly about something, which can easily be interpreted as a problem by the other and lead to defensiveness,” Gurney says.
4. Stay positive.
There is a real importance to keeping this conversation positive and affirming. It’s not so much about what you “don’t want,” but about what you “do want.” You don’t want to make your partner feel crappy. That isn’t going to get you anywhere. Instead, make this a talk that is about your relationship and the both of you together.
Gurney suggests using these questions as jumping-off points to get the flow going: “‘What did you enjoy most about our sex life this year?’ [Then add] something which has the promise of excitement to come [such as], ‘What would you like to do more of or explore in our sex life this year?’”