Help, My Wife Is Vanilla in Bed
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Help, My Wife Is Vanilla in Bed

Esther Perel on how to have more adventurous sex

  • 07 April 2015

Because every man wants to have better sex, even if that means actually committing to a relationship, we're proud to present Ask Esther Perel, a monthly series in which critically acclaimed sex therapist Esther Perel answers your questions about sex and relationships and helps you and your partner have a more fulfilling life, together. Have a question? Just ask Esther Perel.


My wife of five years is very vanilla. Very, very vanilla. She likes sex, initiates even sometimes, and has no problem having an orgasm, especially when she’s on top. But she does not like things like sperm, or anal, and generally makes that “ew, icky” face whenever bodily fluids are involved. And the bigger problem is she doesn’t think that she’s vanilla! She thinks she is open-minded! Sometimes I try to nudge her in a different direction, say “let’s try this” or something similar, and she doesn’t say “no” all the time, but I can tell she’s just not into it. It’s like she’s just doing it to please me, which makes me feel one, awful, and two, bored. I’ve been with plenty of women before her (she's been around too) and I look back on those sexual relationships with longing. When it comes to sex, I’m worried I married the wrong woman. How can I move us in a non-vanilla direction?

— Just Please No More Vanilla

Dear Just Please No More Vanilla,

I hear you, and I always pay attention to the language that we use when describing our predicaments. Because language shapes the experiences we have. And because most couples don’t have the tools to speak openly and effectively about sex. They are under the influence of the stories they tell themselves.

Meaning: if you talk about your wife as vanilla, and that has become your prime construct for describing her sexually, then I would say you should start watching the way that your language tries to capture your experience, but instead limits possibilities for change.

In the spectrum of people who are labeled as “vanilla” your wife is actually “open-minded.”

Trust me: some people not only are not open to experiment with different things, but will also make you feel so bad about it that, after a while, you will start questioning your motives, desires and so on. Some of my clients even call themselves “perverts” only because they want to try positions that are common in other couples’ sexual encounters.

So the language you use will constrain you. By implication you have described yourself as more adventurous, or open-minded, or trying-all-kinds-of-things. And now, whatever she does, no matter what she does, you’ll interpret it as vanilla. 

It’s confirmation bias. We see what we want to see. So a descriptor can actually be restrictive.

What makes this even trickier is that now your wife knows this, too. In a way, she might be building up worries and resentment towards the whole situation, which will soon backfire. If she feels she is already going out of her comfort zone (i.e., not resisting your suggestions but reflecting this dislike on her face), then she expects some level of acknowledgement or appreciation but instead what she receives is a label.

So she might be thinking "No matter what I do, I can never meet my husband’s expectations," which would be further discouraging to her.

The question of how people introduce their partners into new forms of sexual play or experience is a very delicate thing. Because preferences are often hard-edged, and so are dislikes and disgusts. Everything operates on a track between the stuff that excites you more and the stuff that turns you off. And to make these two tracks match is a real art — it’s like two people jamming together. 

And just so you know, men and women complain about the same things. It’s a popular topic that sex therapists discuss. That even as you’re sending me this question, as a man, I may be getting the same question from a woman.

Ironically, not only do we get the same complaints on both sides, we can get them from two people in the same relationship. So while a man complains about his “vanilla” wife, the wife complains about her insecure husband, to whom she cannot express her preferences because he takes it immediately as criticism and a sign of inadequacy.

The way the question is written tells the story. And furthermore, it emphasizes the importance of finding every way possible of improving the communication. And this communication happens outside the bedroom.

So let’s start here: Have you ever talked with your wife about your conflicted feelings? Not during the sex and not during the act, but outside the bedroom?

And not just to say "I’m unhappy about this," but to say that when she does do things you like, that you appreciate that.

Does she actually feel appreciated? Ask her questions. What’s it like for her?

And is there a way you can make it more pleasurable for her? Or more of anything that she might be yearning for (more connected, more intimate, more ravished, etc.).

You may say, "I’ve asked her ten times and she never says anything." But that’s only the first step.

You must begin a conversation with questions like "What would make sex more exciting for you? Are there things you would like to do? When do you feel most free? When do you feel the most attraction? What is the compliment you would like to receive?"

Most women would love to receive this kind of communication from their partner. And not just during sex to say, “I’m coming.”

I mean, do you have a good sense of how you turn your wife on? Of how she gets excited by you? About how you can bring her into a state of ecstasy or surrender? And don’t be embarrassed to tell me "I don’t know," or that the only place you’ve seen female satisfaction is in porn. Because it’s very, very different for women.

In most porn there is no body touch. And everything she may like, for example, may have to do with various types of touch. Fast touch, slow touch, deep touch, slow and circular touch, shallow lines, or dotted and interrupted lines, going down one straight line or suddenly going in a different direction because of that feeling of the unknown  — she doesn’t know where it’s going to go next.  

Also have in mind that in a long-term relationship, especially between married individuals, the expectations and the role of sex will vary from what it was with all the people each of you have been with before.

It would also be helpful for you to ask yourself a question or two before the thought of marrying the wrong person escalates and becomes a serious one in your mind.

Were you happy to marry any other one of your sexual partners? Why did you choose your current wife? Probably because many other factors that you were looking for in a wife were united in her — so it is very important to differentiate between past experiences and the current one, especially if you are in a relationship of a different caliber with your current partner (aka married to her).

Comparing only part of a relationship from the past (sex) with the whole relationship now is not very wise.

There’s a book by Jaiya you should know about and read. It’s called Cuffed, Tied and Satisfied. This book will introduce you to edge. Edge is threshold. It’s that very moment in-between control and letting go. Pain and pleasure. Between wanting more and having enough. Great, great book.

There’s another book I want to recommend to you. It’s called Being French, it’s an e-book on Amazon. It’s a man’s guide to understanding women. Take a look.

More questions for you:

Are you equally generous with her? 

Are you open to doing things that will do nothing for you but maybe make her climb through the ceiling? And perhaps sometimes it’s worth considering that for many women, what happens between her ears is far more important than what happens between her legs.

In fact, she may love kissing, and that kissing will open the lips of her mouth, and by extension, the lips of her vagina.

Previously:

Has Watching Porn Diminished My Libido?
So My Wife Wants to Have a Threesome...
Is Sharing Spouses Actually a Thing?


Esther Perel is the best-selling author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, a practicing psychotherapist, celebrated speaker and organizational consultant to Fortune 500 companies. The New York Times, in a cover story, named her the most important game-changer on sexuality and relationships since Dr. Ruth. Have a question? Ask Esther Perel.

Photo credit: The New York Times

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