How To Talk About Sex
December 19, 2013 9:09 AM   Subscribe

Occasionally, I bring up the subject of sex with my partner, and I always get nowhere. Sex has never been something that we've really talked about. We had those first few conversations when we met several years ago: disclosures of risks, general preferences, expectations for monogamy, etc. and from there we just let it develop naturally. We need to talk about it because our sex life isn't meeting my needs, and I've asked to talk about it, but I still don't know how to talk about it, and I'm afraid this is just going to become another in a string of failed attempts to talk about sex.

First off, our relationship is very exciting and meets so many of my needs that I feel a little silly and selfish even harping on the sex issue. We have always been able to talk about other difficult issues without any trouble. Nobody yells in our house, no disagreement lasts more than a day or two, and our goals are so harmonized we usually end up agreeing before any given conversation has started. Also, my partner is highly responsive with those other issues, taking active steps to improve areas of concern that we've identified together. (And so am I.) So, fantastic. Typically great communication.

Just... not with sex. I try to communicate clearly, both during the act and in the rest of our life together. I have tried to bring the subject up several times in several different ways and each time, my partner either agrees that we should talk about it (but doesn't), agrees that we should follow through on what I'm asking for (but doesn't), or just shuts down completely.

Our sex life (I feel) exists almost entirely within the bounds of my partner's control. The dynamic that has developed is that I ask for sex and it is dispensed in such quantities as my partner sees fit, under such circumstances as my partner wishes. I also get the feeling that my partner views sex as a chore. Typically, our sex life consists of mutual masturbation, once a week or once every other week, usually while we are in the shower getting ready for work. I once thought that would be my ideal sex life, but in the years we've been together it has become a bit of a race to the bottom in terms of frequency and repertoire. And most importantly, the concerns I voice about our sex life go unaddressed. I know that's not a healthy dynamic, or at least it isn't healthy for me, but I can't figure out how to fix it without better communication. And furthermore, even if I had a plan I couldn't implement it alone.

Ways I've tried to bring it up:

A) Saying "I would really enjoy it if we did [x]." (For values of x typically including "have more sex" or "cuddle" or "experiment with another type of sex.") General responses range from "okay sure let's do that someday" to complete silence. Usually, I bring this type of thing up during sex and never as a suggestion that we should/must do [x] immediately. I cannot even stand the thought of demanding sex from my partner. So instead I just put my desires out there. And there they sit.

B) General inquiry into how we feel about our sex life. Sometimes I try to do a spot check, a sort of free-form-go-nuts suggestion box. This is where I get stonewalled most. My partner either says "Yes, you're right, things could be better" and then immediately lets it go, or says "I can't talk about this right now because I'm not prepared to have this discussion." It's clear that there is more to be discussed there, and I've tried gently pushing back against this type of dismissive response to no avail. I couldn't even elicit a good response by just asking, "What would your ideal sex life look like?" I hoped that I could identify areas of overlap that we could build on, but all I got in return was "this is not as much of a priority to me as it is to you."

C) Addressing issues directly. "It hurts me when you [x]." These are the most difficult conversations to have, because my partner usually becomes defensive and tries to return the subject to me and my feelings/behaviors. There's been a bit of middle school debate going on here, as when I said I felt like my sexual advances were always rebuffed. My partner said that "always" was inaccurate, completely diverting our focus from the issue that I felt like my partner was exerting inordinate control over the time, place and manner our sex life is carried out. I try to use non-judgmental language - all the "I statement" stuff - and avoid becoming defensive if/when my partner tries to deflect things back to me. In the above example, I acknowledged that "always" was an inappropriate word but that the sentiment I was trying to express remained unchanged. It didn't work. I also try to be sensitive to the fact that there may be more lurking beneath the surface than I can contemplate, and so I try to avoid any language that might be inadvertently shaming or cruel. Finally, I try to avoid any pressure, deadlines and/or ultimatums because I don't want this to turn into more of a chore for my partner.

D) Meanwhile, I try to make myself more attractive as an attempt at something of a natural cure for this. I am active in my own hobbies, am cultivating an interesting and stable professional life, and through diet and exercise I have lost 25 lbs since this time last year, which decreased my BMI from 28.3 to 25 but has seemingly made no difference in the frequency or quality of our sex. The one success I had discussing sex was when I point-blank asked if my partner found me attractive. The answer was "yes" with the caveat that I'd be more attractive if I was more slim/toned. So I set to work.

I want to be very clear that, while our sex life is not what I want it to be, "fixing" our sex life is of distant secondary concern to me. (Honestly, my needs are few.) I am shadowboxing with a sexual dynamic that don't understand and can't understand on my own. The lack of communication and the unknown factors in our sex life really terrify me, and consume my thoughts. If our sex life never changed, I might be disappointed, but so long as I understood the reasons behind it, I think I could work on becoming more comfortable with it and banishing my disappointment and anxieties.

Questions:

1) What are good phrases that you use to inspire open communication about sex?
2) Am I going about this the right way? What other options do I have for moving forward?*
3) I know MetaFilter loves to suggest therapy. I don't know if my partner is amenable to therapy. (Frankly, I'm not sure if I am amenable to therapy because it hasn't ever helped me in the past.) But for the sake of getting the best possible answer and not just a chorus of "go to therapy," if we were to pursue therapy, what expertise would we want a therapist to have (eg. we are a same-sex couple), and what framework should we use to get the most out of therapy? Basically, explain couples sex/intimacy therapy to me like I'm five.

*Please don't suggest that I print this out and hand it to my partner. Or, if you think I should, please at least explain what part of this question differs from my previous attempts at communication, which are almost all in writing and cover almost all the bases discussed in this question.
posted by this *is* my happy face to Human Relations (28 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
I feel a little silly and selfish even harping on the sex issue

Sexual satisfaction in a relationship is very important. Not silly at all. Step one is to stop thinking that way and accept that this IS something that matters and that deserves attention.



How long have you been in this relationship? Has this always been the sexual dynamic you've had, or has it changed?
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 9:10 AM on December 19, 2013 [7 favorites]


1) What are good phrases that you use to inspire open communication about sex?

What about saying something like, "I've tried to talk about our unsatisfying sex life with you a number of times, and it's gone nowhere. Having a good sex life with you is important enough to me that I think we will have to reconsider our future together if it isn't addressed and if it doesn't improve dramatically. Are you willing to work with me on this?"

And then follow through, either working on it if they're willing to, or moving on if they're not.
posted by jayder at 9:16 AM on December 19, 2013 [11 favorites]


Honestly, and maybe I put too much importance on sexual compatibility, their inability to discuss this would be nearing deal-breaker land for me. Refusing to have the conversation is a very unhealthy dynamic to be engaging in. Agreeing but never following through (did they ever intend to follow through?) isn't okay either. This isn't just about sex, it is also about how issues are resolved in your relationship, and their not really caring that you are unhappy and unsatisfied. You're right, there IS a huge power struggle going on, and the person with the least investment holds all the cards. I feel they are behaving selfishly. Do they behave selfishly in other situations as well?

By refusing to acknowledge, address, or even discuss this issue they are basically saying "Hey, I'm getting what I need. The fact that you aren't getting what you need doesn't matter to me."
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 9:18 AM on December 19, 2013 [17 favorites]


My partner either says "Yes, you're right, things could be better" and then immediately lets it go, or says "I can't talk about this right now because I'm not prepared to have this discussion."

I almost wonder if it is a communication problem and specifically, stonewalling.

I'm saying this a person who sometimes stonewalls- time may be needed to first reflect and define, but it is not fair for your partner to leave you in limbo forever. So when you get the "I'm not prepared to have this discussion" answer, respond with something along the lines that it is important to you (both of you), and you would like to set aside time to talk about it. Let your partner select when and where, but ideally, a week from now, a few days from now, not an arbitrary unset date or time.

Before the conversation, you could ask your partner if they would be willing to discuss what your partner's needs are (could it b a lower need and that is the problem not being verbalized) in addition is there anything that they have shame around.
posted by Wolfster at 9:27 AM on December 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Honestly, and maybe I put too much importance on sexual compatibility, their inability to discuss this would be nearing deal-breaker land for me. Refusing to have the conversation is a very unhealthy dynamic to be engaging in.

MetaFilter differs from much of the world at large in that many people out there in the real world have healthy sexual preferences and appetites but for social reasons are shy and/or embarrassed to talk about them. While much of the MetaFilter audience may have no qualms about discussing their dildo collection many people in the world aren't quite ready to do that and, "What's wrong with you, why aren't you communicating with me? This is damaging our relationship!" is just going to compound their embarrassment with guilt.

The fact that not everyone is comfortable talking about sex seems to be a giant elephant in the room around here. I think this is worth keeping in mind as people discuss ways to get a reluctant partner to open up about the topic.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:27 AM on December 19, 2013 [12 favorites]


This is a pretty critical topic. I think that is probably the first place to start -- along the lines of, "Sweetie, I love you and I love our relationship, but I am not happy sexually and we need to talk about it. How and when shall we do that?"

The place to do this -- i.e. broach the topic that you two need to talk, and soon, at a specified time -- is not in bed during sex, but at a different time, like over a meal, when you two are talking and focused on each other.

Really, your partner needs to sit down with you to discuss this, and also commit to finding ways to address the issue. If your partner doesn't think the two of you can solve the problem, then the right place to go with this would, seriously, be couples counseling.

I think what is missing here is the message to your partner that this is a very important issue for you, which must be addressed.
posted by bearwife at 9:28 AM on December 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Also, your question reminded me strong of a comment I made a couple months ago... Their partner was fine and didn't think there was anything wrong in the relationship because they were happy. The fact that SHE was uphappy was totally unimportant and unrelated. He was getting what he needed, so clearly she was just wrong and ruining a perfectly good relationship.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 9:30 AM on December 19, 2013


1) Normal advice on this one is to do it out of the bedroom, when everybody is calm and so forth. Honestly... you do seem to be doing a pretty good job on the communicating so far. Maybe schedule a meeting, let him/her know in advance it is about sex, and hope it works?


2) Am I going about this the right way? What other options do I have for moving forward?

I am unsure of why they seem so resistant... If male, I'd say check the hormone levels asap. Do ladies have the same kind of related drops? I honestly don't know. Check the medications taken, too. Those can have nasty side effects. If there aren't noticeable physical reasons... well, I'd have to have more of P's backstory to make a half reasonable guess. Could range from just the way P is, to upbringing, to shame/anxiety about being gay, religion, or just hugely uncomfortable with talking sex, to knowing there is a problem which causes anxiety about fixing the problem which causes more anxiety.....

3) LBGT friendly sex therapist. They are out there, but maybe not in small towns. Then, you kinda do the best you can and hope. This is far from my specialty, but I imagine they do a lot of the stuff normal therapists do: Look at the current behaviors, see what might be causing them, how yall communicate about them, and what needs to be tweaked to fix the issues. Sex is part physical and part mental, and can have a lot of factors, including several kinds of issues from childhood. Every therapist is different, but it may be time to call in medical advice, starting with a hormone level check, and possibly escalating to sex therapy.
posted by Jacen at 9:33 AM on December 19, 2013


Sexual compatibility is so, so important. Sure, this may be "of distant secondary concern" to you now, but if it stays this way for the next 25-30 years, how will you feel about it then?

How is your partners communication style otherwise? Is there another form of communicating that they would be more comfortable with for this? (For example, email? I have no issue discussing sex now, but ten years ago, I was far more comfortable discussing it over email or chat than I was in person - this allowed me time to get my thoughts together, and respond, without being put on the spot.)

I agree with wolfster - it's reasonable to say I would like to discuss this, and I understand if you're not prepared right now, but it's a discussion that is important to me - when in the next week can we set aside some time to discuss?
posted by needlegrrl at 9:35 AM on December 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Small thing: One phrase I find helpful in these kinds of discussions is "more than I want" (or "less often than I want", as appropriate). It moves it from always/never or "half the time" or "well, what do you mean 'fair'?" And into the realm of what you want.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:36 AM on December 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


(I don't do the pronoun game, so I'm going to answer as if your partner is male; advice will be the same regardless of your partner's gender though)

If you're making requests, you need to phrase them as requests. Don't just put your desires out there and assume he'll know what to do with them. Phrase them as clear requests that he will need to either fulfill or refuse. Make them as clear as possible. "Hey, there's this thing I'd like to try. What do you say we have an early dinner and then do (whatever the thing is) Wednesday night?" The usefulness of this approach is that it makes the request something he can't shuffle off and procrastinate on. Either he does it or he doesn't.

More than that, though, this is your needs not being met. Honestly, based only on what you've said here, it sounds like you're giving up too much ground. Look:

while our sex life is not what I want it to be, "fixing" our sex life is of distant secondary concern to me. (Honestly, my needs are few.) I am shadowboxing with a sexual dynamic that don't understand and can't understand on my own. The lack of communication and the unknown factors in our sex life really terrify me, and consume my thoughts. If our sex life never changed, I might be disappointed, but so long as I understood the reasons behind it, I think I could work on becoming more comfortable with it and banishing my disappointment and anxieties.

What you're saying is, "I've given up a lot of ground and it's eating away at me. I'd like to find a compromise, and if that compromise involves me not getting almost any of what I want besides understanding why it has to be this way, and my partner continuing to get just about everything he wants, I expect I'll be okay with that."

Maybe you would. But you shouldn't.

Hell, you already lost twenty-five pounds just so he'd want you more. You're doing all the work. This isn't okay.

I'm gonna be honest - what you're talking about here is a deeply-rooted communication issue, and it's the sort of thing I can't see getting untangled without couples therapy. Any other solution will just keep being untenable and this will only keep ripping away at you.

Here's how couples therapy works:

1. Tell him, "I love you and I am happy in almost every way, but my needs aren't being met as far as sex. This is very important to me. I want to work on this together. We've put it off for a long time but something needs to change soon. I've tried talking about this and it hasn't really gotten us anywhere. I would like to go to couples therapy together, so we can find solutions that work for both of us. I'd like to be able to communicate effectively and be partners. If you need to think about this, I understand, but again, this is important to me and I'm asking you to give me a yes or no answer in the next forty-eight hours."

2a. If he's not amenable to the idea, I don't know. I personally would leave but that is me. If he won't address this constructively then it's not going to get better and you're going to be a doormat for the duration of your relationship. You will keep sacrificing parts of yourself to feed a problem that will never stop being hungry. So think about it.

2b. If he's amenable to the idea, hooray! Check around for couples therapists in your area. Most of them will have specializations and reviews and whatnot. When you think you've found one, call them.

3. They will ask you what's up. Explain to them that you and your partner, a same-sex couple, are having a lot of trouble talking about sex. Not in the sense of dirty talk but in the sense that you aren't satisfied with the variety or frequency and your partner doesn't want to talk about it.

4. The person on the other end of the phone will likely then begin asking questions and take it from there.

Basically, one of you is an accommodator and one of you is a procrastinator and you need to start taking the bull by the horns, quite possibly in ways that make you a little uncomfortable initially, or nothing is ever going to get done.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 9:46 AM on December 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


"this is not as much of a priority to me as it is to you."

I think the problem is pretty straightforward. You have different needs and your partner is fine with how things are.

To get things to change, you have to convince them that there's a reason they should be concerned. That means assessing whether you've reached a point where it would be worth it for you to move on if things never changed, and if so, letting your partner know that you've decided you need a more passionate relationship - either they can make the effort to provide it, or you will have to say goodbye so you can find satisfaction elsewhere. (And then you've got to be willing to follow through, so do the requisite soul-searching first.)

You may think that your partner should be willing to work with you on this, but if they seem to think it's a chore at times, remember that it's possible they already think they are putting in extra effort, and would be happy with even less sex than you are currently having...
posted by mdn at 9:57 AM on December 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


our relationship is very exciting and meets so many of my needs that I feel a little silly and selfish even harping on the sex issue.

Oh my, you're not being silly at all. Sexuality is a deep, deep need and even if it isn't important to you, it's still important to you, you know what I mean? Issues of body image, self-esteem, abandonment . . . all that.

One question I would like to know the answer to: what kind of relationship is this? Are you dating? How long have you been dating? Are you married or otherwise committed - meaning, is this a forever relationship? It kinda changes my advice.

For the purposes of answering, I will assume that you both are fully committed in a marriage-type relationship.

So, for question #2, to be honest, this stumps me: "Usually, I bring this type of thing up during sex" vs. "my previous attempts at communication, which are almost all in writing". It sounds like you have tried many approaches, and your partner just does not want to discuss this, full stop. I don't know that there is a magic phrase or approach that will make him/her open up about sex.

So in the interests of not just saying "therapy", I will suggest that you two go to a couple's counselor. This page may help you understand what it is, how it can help, and how to go about finding one that specializes in same-sex relationships.
posted by chainsofreedom at 10:40 AM on December 19, 2013


You've done quite a bit on the communication front, but what about the action front? Perhaps you could try initiating some of the type of sexual activity you want? You say you ask for sex, but do you ask for the kind of sex you would specifically like?

Clearly you'll have to do this in a way that doesn't go from mutual masturbation to something extreme (not that you want something extreme). Start small. Do you want more penetration? Bring a vibrator or dildo to bed with you. Do you want more cuddling? Initiate some cuddling. Do you want more making out? Initiate some making out.

I don't think you just spring it on your partner and you'd need to preface the action with some communication. Communication that focuses not on fixing a problem, but on how desirable your partner is and how you want to satisfy that desire in a particular way. "I've been thinking about doing x with you all day and I've brought Y or want to do Z with you now."

If there's a definite refusal that at least provides you with the opportunity to talk right then and there or bring up couples counseling as has been suggested above.
posted by brookeb at 10:52 AM on December 19, 2013


There are two very separate issues here:
1. Your partner won't talk about your sex life.

This may be indicative of other communication issues in the relationship, but it's really separate from problem #2.

2. You don't have the sex life you want.
As was said in other posts, this isn't a communication issue. It's not that your partner doesn't know, or won't talk about it, or isn't taking the hints you've been dropping. They know full well that you're not getting what you need. And at this moment, they're simply not interested in meeting your needs.

Just to reiterate: You seem to think the sex issue a communication issue. It isn't. Your partner is clear on the situation.

I say that you stop hinting and tell your partner explicitly that this a problem for you. Once the problem is clear and has been stated, you can then decide the next step based on their future behavior. You have a choice both before and after this conversation to live with it, which I would recommend against.
posted by cnc at 10:59 AM on December 19, 2013


You may think that your partner should be willing to work with you on this, but if they seem to think it's a chore at times, remember that it's possible they already think they are putting in extra effort, and would be happy with even less sex than you are currently having...

Very insightful comment. If this is true, you will likely end up with less satisfying sex than you're having now.
posted by cnc at 11:01 AM on December 19, 2013


Thanks very much for the input, everyone. I honestly hadn't even considered the possibility that my partner may be exerting as much or more effort than I am, just in the opposite direction.

Just a bit of clarification.

This is a multi-year, marriage-type relationship. And with the exception of a bit of willingness to experiment at the outset, this has been the dynamic since the beginning. Of course, it is difficult to know that it is the dynamic when you're still getting to know someone. In general, this is not about moving goal-posts.

When I say I bring things up during sex, I am not trying to start serious conversations while we are otherwise occupied. Instead, I just try to be present in that moment and talk about what is working for me and what isn't at that very moment. ("A little to the left," "that tickles," etc.)

As for action, yes I do initiate some things, although admittedly less than in the past. As I mentioned above, I feel rebuffed pretty regularly. And eventually, I just kind of gave up trying to initiate anything because it always seemed to end in "I'm too tired" or "I have a headache" or "Don't get any ideas."

I know there are no magic words for this sort of thing, but I love my partner and want to work on this in the healthiest way possible. Thanks for helping me do that, MetaFilter.
posted by this *is* my happy face at 11:12 AM on December 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


To start the conversation, how about having a meta conversation first. Talk about talking about sex. Discuss and analyze comfort levels with the topic in an impartial way, quiz your partner about their family culture, sharing with friends, doctor. Talk about appreciating how difficult this can be, compare to whatever is similarly difficult for you. Give your partner and yourself a chance to enjoy the spirit of openness, revel in that intimacy. Then, if your partner has warmed up and opened up, start talking about secrets. Share the transgressions you've each committed in your lives, small ones, big ones, whatever. Then move on to sexual topics, but be gentle. Giggle about it. Share your likes and dislikes and talk about where you'd draw the line. Talk about kink, how you feel about it.

This all may take time, possibly multiple sessions. Maybe it'll need to happen in semi-darkness, with a glass of wine, maybe it'll all start when you go on a date in a romantic bar and sit next to each other on the couch and spend hours talking.
posted by Dragonness at 11:34 AM on December 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


The book Intimacy and Desire by David Schnarch would be very helpful to you. The high desire/low desire dynamics and problems you describe are very common. Read it yourself and then ask your partner to read it--I think it will help each of you get insight into what the other is thinking/feeling and can help you get started on the path to a solution. Good luck .
posted by Sublimity at 12:08 PM on December 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


All the communication skills in the world won't help if your partner isn't willing to communicate. There needs to be effort on both sides for things to improve. And not just silent effort, but open communication about the effort both people are making.

A few years ago I could have written your post word for word, minus the same-sex part. I tried a million different ways of improving communication but it was all pointless because I didn't understand that my partner wasn't willing or able to communicate in return. I was making all the effort to fix things, while he did nothing. For me the solution was breaking up, which is probably not something you want to think about (it took me 3 years of unhappiness before I finally accepted it), but it is probably something you should think about. Sometimes it's hard to realize how miserable you were until you're out of the relationship.

You might not be at that point yet, but it's worth thinking about how much effort your partner is investing in solving the problem - if they have an attitude of "It's your problem, not mine" that is seriously bad news.
posted by randomnity at 12:23 PM on December 19, 2013


I was once in a relationship with someone who wasn't particularly adventurous or excitable in bed. They liked sex fine, but it was (to my mind) a very limited menu with 3 things on it. I prefer a considerably larger menu. Obviously, we brushed up against each other's menus a lot. They liked me to do a particular thing EVERY time we had sex, which ultimately made me responsible for their orgasm.

I tried asking my partner to poke strawberries up my nose*. I hinted at it. I suggested we watch Strawberry-Nose-Poking porn. I asked them how they felt about it, with no verbal response.

So I decided we had to have a conversation. First, I outlined that I wasn't asking Partner to do something that they didn't want to do. If they weren't up for fruit-based sex, that was completely OK. I was going to stop asking them to do things that they weren't up for. (I should have done this the first time they said no, to be honest.)

I then explained that their lack of interest in my sex life didn't really encourage me to take an interest in theirs. Since our sex life wasn't working, we wouldn't be having sex. I explained that being rejected for things that were important to me made me feel rejected in every way and it wasn't really conducive to raising my libido or level of arousal when in bed with them.

So, the next couple of times we had sex, I didn't perform the thing that they wanted performing. They got upset and complained that "it wasn't the same" and that "it was better when I did it". Cue another conversation about how I just wasn't up for it. Apparently, having done it in the past meant that I should always be up for it because Partner wanted it - nope! Partner complained that I was"withholding sex", which ugh, you can't withhold something from someone when they're not entitled to it.

Partner gave me the distinct impression that I was not doing what they wanted just to spite them. This was pretty much the lightbulb moment for Partner, when they realised that this was how I felt when I got rejected. I made it clear to Partner that I wanted them to have fun and was happy to do things that achieved that end. And if they didn't want to do particular things, that that was completely OK. I also made it clear, though, that the thought of being shot down again made me not want to be bothered getting undressed.

It wasn't easy to have these conversations, or explain that although I had a higher libido and was more adventurous I wasn't always going to be prepared to do what Partner wanted without some form of reciprocation. Sex as a transactional thing is often frowned upon. But I don't see the problem. I've done things that I have no interest in doing to make my partner happy. If they don't want to do the same, that's their right, and should absolutely 100% be respected. Sex has to work for both of the people doing it, though, not just one of them.

I never took a punnet of strawberries into the bedroom. Partner just wasn't ever up for that. We did try a lot of other things, though. Most of which didn't become part of our repertoire. Ultimately, we split up.

TL;DR, tell your partner that you don't want to have sex with someone if it's not working for both of you. Your needs are just as valid as theirs. If you're absolutely can't-meet-in-the-middle mismatched, then it's time to decide whether you can continue to be rejected.

*Not the actual thing I asked for, but it will do as a stand-in.
posted by Solomon at 2:00 PM on December 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


Replying again with a little more time to write. Several years ago I might have described the dynamic of my marriage the way you did: we got along great, no fights, amazing agreement, but jeez, the sex just evaporated. My husband would give lukewarm and noncommittal responses when I said I wanted to be closer, missed sex, etc. In our case we are a straight couple with kids, so that was a confounding factor--the workload and exhaustion and stuff seemed pretty typical and sex was on the back burner out of necessity for a while. But when kid duty eased up, my libido came back but his didn't. It was really hurtful and confusing. I relate a lot to the tone of your post.

Fast forward several years and a few marital catastrophes... Suffice to say after lots of heartache and effort, it started to come clear that the smooth-sailing, totally agreeable marriage we had had owed a lot to some deep seated conflict avoidance. Withholding sex was a passive-aggressive way of coping with frustrations arising from being unable to deal with even low levels of conflict.

Anecdata to be sure, but your post resonates very strongly. My guess is that it is going to be really tough to get your partner to engage this even with a big sit-down talk or counseling. But if you do start unpacking it in counseling, don't be surprised if other, deeper issues start coming to the fore.

Again, that Schnarch book is great for reassuring you that your responses are totally normal--and may resonate with your partner too, enough to get the problem solving moving between you. But if your partner is putting that space between you as a buffer to cope with the fallout of their own conflict avoidance... Good luck, you're really going to need it.
posted by Sublimity at 2:48 PM on December 19, 2013 [8 favorites]


If P uses porn a lot, this can also significantly lower his interest in normal person sexy times. May or may not be an issue, but if so, they may be sneaking the porn use in. Don't want you to be too paranoid, but it is a possibility.
posted by Jacen at 3:20 PM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


That is definitely an issue that I've tried to confront directly. I know it is going on. It is really difficult to approach that issue from a perspective that isn't possessive, jealous and shaming, but which also recognizes that the behavior is counterproductive and selfish. And at least in our situation, because mutual masturbation makes up the extent of our sex life, it is really hard not to take that extremely personally because it essentially just omits me from the picture and replaces me with porn.
posted by this *is* my happy face at 3:50 PM on December 19, 2013


This resonated with me. I have a lot of anxiety, and part of the way my brain coped before I started dealing with it was by pretending it didn't exist - my partner had no idea how bad it is for years, and it took two years to open up about its full extent with my therapist. The only place this failed is with sex. I almost physically cannot talk about it. I can't implement things my partner asks for, even when I say I will. So, to try to cover that intense anxiety and fear, I stonewall. I get passive aggressive or avoidant. I behave a lot like you describe your partner behaving.

I don't know if my story is helpful, but it's possible that your partner has some serious anxiety around sex that he's masking with this avoidant behavior. Therapy might be the next place to go to address the issue.
posted by linettasky at 6:14 PM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Withholding sex [is] a passive-aggressive way of coping with frustrations arising from being unable to deal with even low levels of conflict.

QFT. How you describe sex being dispensed in controlled quantities sadly resonates for me as well. In my last (3.5-year) relationship, when I finally worked up the guts to call my partner on it, it DID reveal itself to be the tip of the iceberg in terms of issues my partner had been avoiding. And I'm talking major debasing-MY-worth-as-a-human-being-type issues.

Up until our split, I would try to improve my desirability by doing decidedly feminine things (like get my hair done) but at best it merely made me more tolerable to be near for a couple of nights -- certainly not enough to help him forget (even for an evening) how undesirable he found me. I also exercised, which he came to find fault with because he claimed it had made my body odor unmanageable. So for several months I started compulsively washing my armpits multiple times a day before ever coming near him, to avoid ruining all chances of sex that night by nauseating him with any hint of my natural smell... I don't mean to use such an obscene example to suggest that your partner is absolutely as problematic as mine was, but when you say you've "set to work" improving yourself, this is the chord it struck for me. It was only in finally breaking down and disclosing these details to some of my closest friends that I realized this level of self-silencing was not normal in healthy relationships.

During the course of our breakup, my ex admitted he considered my sex drive to be abnormal, and felt he was improving me by forcing me to adhere to what he considered a "normal" amount of sex (which totally contradicted the fact that he using porn, which meant that he wanted sex more than he was "allowing" it to happen). Like you, I wanted to understand what was causing the incompatibility, until it finally came to light that he was staying with me in spite of me -- that he actually had been keeping a tally of what made me a more defective human being than he was. It seemed to be his way of completely avoiding having to focus on any conflicts he had been bringing to the relationship. That was why he never wanted to have a conversation about sex, because that was the truth that was waiting to come out, and that hurt far worse than my willingness to settle for a second-rate sex life. We did seek couples counselling as a last ditch effort to avoid breaking up, but there his true feelings about me could no longer mask themselves... It was clear that for reasons he had decided on without me, he found MANY aspects of my being repulsive (my sexuality only being one), while simultaneously seeing himself as flawless. It was as though being with me gave him the authority to own no wrong (no matter what negativity he might be bringing to the relationship, he was well-assured that I was *always* contributing more). Ultimately I became more ashamed to stay with someone who saw themselves as so burdened with my defectiveness than I was about my sexuality or my goddamn body odor.

So........ I certainly can't say if that's exactly what's happening with you, but as Sublimity cautioned above, I would definitely say be prepared for much bigger issues to come out if you take the couples counselling route. You sound very intelligent and focused on being successful in your contributions to the relationship, so I doubt that there is actually much wrong with you as a sexual being or a responsible partner here. If anything, it sounds like you really deserve someone who puts as much effort into accommodating feelings around difficult conversations as you do, and who is also willing to allow some focus on their contribution to a relationship problem, rather than focus so exclusively on yours. This may not have been what you want to hear, but it's my datapoint nonetheless.
posted by human ecologist at 11:51 PM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


this *is* my happy face: "That is definitely an issue that I've tried to confront directly. I know it is going on. It is really difficult to approach that issue from a perspective that isn't possessive, jealous and shaming, but which also recognizes that the behavior is counterproductive and selfish. And at least in our situation, because mutual masturbation makes up the extent of our sex life, it is really hard not to take that extremely personally because it essentially just omits me from the picture and replaces me with porn."

When you're partnered, things are different to being single. They just are, no two ways about it. That includes how you deal with the side effects of porn usage - if your refractory period is dead because you've masturbated three times today, that has an affect on your partnered sex life. If you've, in effect, conditioned yourself to orgasm under a certain stimuli (at the computer, dark house, furtively, watching X/Y/Z) then it is going to be harder to orgasm with other stimuli. If you stop finding your partner attractive because they are three dimensional, abjectly natural beings, then that's gonna affect your sex life and your relationship.

(And that's not even touching on the almost addictive qualities suggested about internet porn as far as seeking out more and more transgressive material)

My advice for sex is almost always 'take it off the table and see how your partner's sex drive develops sans the pressure from you' but it sounds like this is what it's developed into, with a side portion of porn.

Have you tried asking them to set a time to talk about it? Saying "Partner, I love you. Our sex life is making me miserable. I would like to discuss ways to improve it but I know you don't like talking about sex, and need time to deal. So please give me a time in the next week when you think you might be able to sit down over a meal/drink a bottle of wine/go on a long drive/do a quiet chore together and talk it out because I need to have some hope that this will get better because I am unsatisfied". With whatever codicil you need to use ("if we don't discuss it I will go and stay with a friend for a week while you work out your feelings" or "If we do not discuss it, I will then bring it up each morning until we do").

You cannot avoid hurting their feelings about this. It's impossible. So be as blunt as you need to be about your feelings and let them deal with theirs. I tend to think leaving your partner over sex is a shitty thing to do, and that if you partner up seriously then it's through thick and thin BUT I tend to assume everyone is actually talking and on the same page, just not the same libido. Your partner is aggressively refusing to engage with you on something that is making you miserable.

That said, work out what your 100% is on this and please, for the love of God, do NOT make it something utterly unrealistic and alien to the relationship you have with them (like, I know my partner would love sex every day, and oral in the mornings, but we're old now, I decrepit, and we have a kid, that's just obnoxious to put it on the table as a goal right now but putting sex three times a week? That's achievable, that's something we can work towards.)
posted by geek anachronism at 3:02 AM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Thanks everyone. I've marked a bunch of best answers and this morning my partner agreed to sit down and talk about this within the next week. We will have plenty of quiet time over the holidays, and I think you've given me a lot to work with in terms of being more concrete with how I talk about this. I'm optimistic.
posted by this *is* my happy face at 7:49 AM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


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