You're tired, or the kids interrupt you, or the 11 happy-hour mai tais you accidentally drank make it impossible to get even one leg out of your pants. Using movies—which almost always depict couples having perfectly lit, simultaneously orgasmic sex (Check out some erotic flicks you'll both like)—as a yardstick will only make you feel needlessly inadequate. So what, exactly, qualifies as bad sex?
"If either person is dissatisfied over the long term, it's bad sex," explains Gina Ogden, PhD, a sex therapist in Cambridge, MA, and author of The Heart and Soul of Sex. "We've been taught that good sex is intercourse where the man and woman achieve orgasm. But that's just a small part. In fact, if you ask 100 people what bad sex is, they'll all tell you how it makes them feel. And every single person may feel something different."
Martha's* feelings changed from elation to humiliation the first time she had sex with an attractive coworker. "I was so excited to sleep with him, but when we got in bed he turned into Julia Roberts from Pretty Woman— he wouldn't kiss me," says the 30-year-old lawyer.
"I told myself it was OK, because sometimes sex is just dirty and fun." But after several months of the same behavior, she realized it really wasn't OK. "I was certain I was in love with him, and just watching him walk around the office turned me on! But I couldn't get turned on in bed. Finally, I asked him to kiss me in the middle of the act and he actually said no—then finished. It was the last time we slept together."
The secret to good sex is figuring out what you need to be happy in bed. Most people never enter the bedroom alone; they always bring baggage with them. Whether it's something as serious as sexual abuse or as natural as the habits formed with past lovers, everyone has expectations, and they can derail a new couple's sex life.
If you expect sex to be boring, it probably will be. If you assume your partner will enjoy something that an ex liked, you'll be less attuned to his actual response.
In fact, it's not at all unusual for one person to be perfectly satisfied with sex while the other person is not—and the happy person may not realize that his or her partner is dissatisfied. So if you're the unhappy one, you have to change things. "Communicating about sexual issues is one of the more important things a couple needs to do," says Michael Milburn, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston and coauthor of Sexual Intelligence. "You need to be able to talk comfortably about sex with your partner."
When, where, and how you talk about sex can be the difference between a productive conversation and a catastrophic meltdown. Bringing up your misgivings during sex is, to say the least, not recommended; doing it immediately afterwards could make your partner feel like he’s being attacked—and besides, his snoring may drown you out. Take the conversation outside the bedroom to keep it neutral and non-threatening. But try not to do it in, say, a crowded subway car.
If talking about the problem directly is too daunting, find another way to raise your concerns. "My boyfriend was sweet, but extremely inexperienced," says Stephanie, a 26-year-old teacher. "I had no idea how to address it without hurting his ego. But one day at a bookstore I picked up The Joy of Sex, and told him it would be hot if we could read it together. And let me tell you, that book holds up."
In a healthy relationship, tricks like that can, well, do the trick. But sometimes people blame their bad relationship on bad sex when the bad sex is, in fact, a result of the bad relationship. It's an especially easy trap for men to fall into. "They put more importance on sex and ignore intimacy," Keesling says. "They think that if they can get laid and enjoy it, things will be OK. Well, that's naïve—and they often end up going out and having sex with someone else."
Generally, it's only when the relationship itself is beyond repair that the sex is, too. So talk to your partner, demonstrate what you need, do what it takes. Because you never want to look back and discover that, in the end, the dealbreaker was you.