What does consent mean in long-term relationships?
By Corinne Farago
One of my couples came to me feeling the fallout of a non-consensual incident that resulted in one of them feeling angry and the other confused. The man made the mistake of not asking his partner’s consent to try out something new in the bedroom.
Rather than talking about it with his partner beforehand, he showed up in the bedroom with handcuffs, and proceeded to lock his partner’s arms behind her back.
There was no conversation about using restraints and no mutual exploration on the subject of bondage beforehand. In effect, consent was not given, and because of that it didn’t go well, at all.
Sexual consent was not born out of the MeToo movement
Sexual consent is one of the defining terms of our era. It first appeared as a slow, percolating drip over the last few decades, starting out in the more fringe sexual communities like kink and BDSM, where consent conversations are taught and expected. The LGBTQ community also laid down the tracks of open consent conversations when it comes to sex. Sexual consent kept people feeling safe and understood in their desires and expectations.
Once we started confronting consent breaches on the public stage and social media, the floodgates gushed open. Sexual consent became a household conversation and debate. The MeToo movement will go down in history as the nozzle to that floodgate. It challenges power structures and educates us on the importance of clear conversations when it comes to our desires and our bodies.
Consent undermines power structures
Consent gives a voice to all parties
Consent creates sexual equality and safety
Consent clarifies sexual expectations and reduces rejection
Consent makes it more possible for all parties to get their needs met
The internet is full of advice on how to have a consent conversation with a new partner, and why it’s imperative to represent your wishes and boundaries when it comes to sex with someone you don’t know well, but when it comes to many long-term relationships, consent is a multi-layered consideration. Consent is less black and white. It’s not a yes or no question. It’s more nuanced and not often discussed, because in long-term relationships, consent is often implied.
What is implied consent?
Communication about sex, in and of itself, is limited in most relationships, so sexual initiation is often short-handed into an exchange of a certain look, a fondling, or an innuendo.
Partners come to believe they know each other well enough that conversations about desires, requests or agreements aren’t necessary. They know the pattern, the time of day, and the moves that brings them together for sex.
They bypass deeper conversations, and slip into sexual routines that are familiar, by virtue of their sexual history together.
Consent is implied, if we squeeze our partner’s butt in the kitchen, consent is implied. If we pull our partner close to us in bed with sexual desire, consent is implied. Couples know each other’s cues, verbal and non-verbal, that reliably guide them into sexual play together.
We also know the signs when our partner is not interested in sex. We can feel it in their bodies, their words, and their gestures. Couples come to read consent in all sorts of ways that don’t necessarily require a sit down conversation. But, familiarity can be a double-edged sword when it comes to sex.
When we stop talking about sex, we begin to form expectations and make presumptions about our partner’s needs and desires.
Unspoken sexual expectations and presumptions, all lead to misunderstandings and rejection. It happens all the time. This is why I teach my couples about consent and why it’s important in long-term relationships.
Our sexual tastes can change over time. What worked for us once, may not work for us anymore. We may think we know what our partner likes sexually, but unless we become comfortable talking about sex, we can’t be certain.
How many partners are agreeing to sexual acts to keep the peace or avoid an uncomfortable conversation?
If pleasing our partner becomes a primary motive for having sex, we get used to bypassing our own desires, and over time, forget what desires we even have.
In long-term relationships, consent is more than just asking for sex, it’s asking about what kind of sex we want. It’s not a yes or no question. It’s a conversation about needs and desires. It’s checking in with your partner and insuring that you both have an opportunity to express an enthusiastic ‘yes’ to what’s being offered, whether that’s a foot massage, sexual intercourse, or something new on the erotic menu.
Knowing what you want sexually
When the initiating partner starts to include consent conversations in their sexual relationship, they increase their chances of not being rejected. Why? Because they begin asking open ended questions that lead with curiosity about their partner’s desires and needs.
By asking open-ended questions, they’re making it possible for their partner’s ‘no’ to turn into a ‘maybe’ or even a ‘yes’.
They may find out that one night their partner is a ‘no’ to sexual intercourse, but they’re open to giving and receiving oral sex, or reaching orgasms in other ways, or enjoying something more playful, or simply sharing intimacy that doesn’t lead to orgasm. By expanding consent beyond a yes or no answer, it’s all on the table to be discussed.
When we ask what our partner is up for sexually, we’re giving them a chance to reflect on their own desire in the moment. This is surprisingly something that couples stop doing. Sexual consent is about inviting our partner to feel their desires in the moment by taking the time to ask them, questions like:
How are you feeling tonight?
I’d love to share some intimate time together.
Would you like to set aside some time for that?
Let’s talk about what that might look like.
Do you have any desires you’d like to share with me?
Let’s talk about what would make you feel good right now.
Disappointment is a natural part of consent conversations
No matter how much awareness we bring to consent and initiation, there will be times when our partner won’t be able to meet our needs.
Learning how to deal with moments of disappointment without falling into blame, shame, feelings of rejection, or emotional withdrawal, is important.
If we subtly or overtly punish our partner for not giving their sexual consent to something, we’re creating an environment where honest feelings can’t be heard and accepted.
When we can feel the vulnerability of disappointment without blaming our partner, we keep the doors of communication open. When we allow for our partner’s honest answers, without getting moody and pulling away, we’re letting our partner know they don’t have to take care of our emotions, and that their sexual consent is important to us.
If consent is something that is rarely or never given, as in a sexless marriage, then coaching is a path that will help reveal what’s blocking desire, and how to grow again as a sexually active couple.
If sexual trauma is part of your or your partner’s past, then consent conversations can be opportunities to heal old wounds and reestablish trust. Find a coach or therapist to help you navigate this sensitive terrain.
Unlearning bad sex education
We’re not taught about consent conversations in mainstream entertainment. Usually sex happens with few words. We’re shown that sex sweeps both willing partners up in a passionate embrace that ends with sexual intercourse and mutual orgasms. And just as it began, it ends with few words as well.
This kind of wordless approach to sex isn’t sustainable in long-term relationships.
If a couple is hoping to enjoy a vibrant, growing sex life throughout their life together, then open, honest conversations about desires and consent is imperative.
Consent conversations acknowledge that we’re not always the same in our desires from week to week, or even day to day.
Learning that consent is sexy
I have no doubt that the generation now growing up into adults will be living in a very different sexual world. They already have little patience for sexual bigotry when it comes to gender, sexual preferences or identity. They are far more accepting of those who are different from them, and their sexual openness is less complicated by shame and puritanism.
I hope they will continue to live in a world where consent is a sexy conversation of possibilities, and non-consent practices will be looked on as old-fashioned and uptight.
Talking about sex takes courage
Sometimes it’s even harder to talk about sex with someone you’ve been having sex with for a long time. It’s easy to let it slide and fall back on familiarity and routine.
So, let me be the voice in your ear encouraging you to start having those consent conversations in your relationship.
Download Your Erotic Menu, where I guide you through conversations about sex, and how to grow your erotic menu in a way that’s consensual, aware, and sexy.
If talking about things like love, sex and desire is intimidating to you, reach out and get some help. Sex and relationship coaching will give you the skills to turn mediocre sex into great sex. How you define ‘great sex’ is up to you.
Schedule a Discovery Call with me and let’s talk about it.
If sex is not on your mind these days, don’t beat yourself up about it. Our bodies are not designed to think about sex when our brains are communicating that we may be in danger. We can’t convince our bodies that we’re safe, when in fact we’re not. When stress is dictating our lack of sexual desire, we need to find ways to regulate our stress. We may not be able to avoid stress, but we can learn to manage it.
Sensual, Tantra, Romance, Passion, Fetish and Kink are all spectrums within the wide world of human sexual expression. Where we find ourselves on that spectrum is part of our journey. Personally, it’s my belief that we narrow our sexual identity far too quickly in life, and exclude other avenues to arousal before we’ve even investigated them fully.
Ask most couples about the early stages of their relationship, and they’ll remember the ease they experienced around sex and intimacy. They’ll stare off into space with memories of testosterone-driven lust and estrogen flooding seduction.