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Communicating sexual boundaries in a relationship.

Communicating Sexual Boundaries in a Relationship.
In Partnership with

Talking through intimacy with a therapist’s tips.

Introducing our series in partnership with therapy platform Alma. With their network of licensed professionals, we navigate sex and intimacy as it involves mental health and communication.

Talking about sex can feel oddly stressful, even if it’s with someone who’s already seen you in your full birthday suit—especially if you’re broaching the topic of sexual boundaries. Sure, it feels great to tell your partner what you want to do with them, but outlining the things you don’t like can be a more awkward conversation.

But it’s an extremely important one to have. After all, any worthwhile sexual partner will be respectful and understanding of your boundaries—and glad that you brought them up. Here’s how to communicate those boundaries the right way, according to mental health counselor and therapist Lyndsey Masters.

When is the best time for someone to communicate sexual boundaries in a relationship?

Ideally: Before that boundary is crossed knowingly or unknowingly. All parties should be calm, comfortable, and sober when the topic is raised. “If sex is a consideration, it's important to reflect with yourself what limits and boundaries don't feel comfortable to cross and to communicate these to your partner(s) before things escalate,” Masters says.

Communication isn’t a one-and-done thing, either. “Sometimes you might find that something you thought you were going to be OK with doesn't feel as good as you had hoped,” Masters says. “It's important to check in with yourself and your partner(s) when this happens.” Boundaries can change over time, so be sure to keep the pathways to communicating them open.

How to communicate sexual boundaries with a partner who may have different preferences from you

It's okay, expected even, that we all will have varying levels of comfort with different interests and kinks,” Masters says. If a partner has a preference that doesn’t align with your boundaries, seek understanding instead of outright rejecting them, as visceral responses can create a sense of shame and resentment. 

“Ask them to share with you what it is about this activity that interests them,” Masters says. “If you find that their kink isn't your kink, that's okay, but share that boundary with compassion. If the kink doesn't involve harming an unconsenting participant, try not to yuck on someone else's yum.”

How to bring up boundaries after those boundaries have already been crossed 

This can be a tricky thing to deal with, and both parties may ultimately find themselves feeling confused and uncomfortable. But Masters stresses it’s important to recognize that consent can be revoked for certain activities at any time: “We might find that something we tried doesn't feel as good as we thought it would, or it's bringing up some emotions that are difficult to deal with, or we just plain don't like it anymore. Share these feelings and changes in boundaries with your partner(s) and discuss if something happened that made your boundaries change, and why you need the boundary to change.”

It doesn’t have to be a tense conversation. Consider something along these lines: "I know that we've done it one way in the past, but I'm finding that it really isn't for me and I don't want to have sex that way again." Remember that some sexual activities can make you feel more vulnerable than others, and some can make you feel empowered; if there is anything that you’re not enthusiastic about, don’t feel pressured to do it for the benefit of another person.

Recommended reading:

Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg

Kink: Stories, edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell

The Ultimate Guide to Kink: BDSM, Role Play, and the Erotic Edge by Tristan Taormino