Are we wrong for each other or too scared to try?
January 28, 2012 3:36 PM   Subscribe

My partner and I feel comfortable and safe in our relationship, and we feel love for one another. But we are sexually unfulfilled, and to a smaller extent emotionally and/or intellectually troubled. How do we know whether to break up or to work at it?

This is long, and introspective, and dry, and I'm sorry for that. I don't feel very lighthearted right now.

My partner and I have been together for 4 years. These years have been the happiest either of us has ever been, but we're now faced with the terrible cliché that "love is not enough."

We both entered in to the relationship with low self-esteem and a lack of confidence. She, because of bad relationships, trauamatic childhood and experiences with depression. Me, because of having no previous romantic relationships, and at one time suffering from serious social anxiety.

We carved a safe life for ourselves with one another, by taking it slow and supporting each other. Our sex life has never been great, bordering on non-existant. We tend to go months without any sexual interaction. I have always been dissastisfied with this, but was so afraid of losing her (or being alone) that I didn't challenge it. To begin with, she didn't care, as she was simply happy to be with someone and develop other aspects of the relationship.

We are now both dissatisfied with this situation, but there are still a lot of anxieties, a lack of experience, and a lack of passion to contend with. We've built the relationship on a foundation of childlike comfort and safety, and sex seems incongruous with that.

There are also other problems with dropping emotional fulfillment. My partner has depression, which takes up a lot of the relationship's time. She's also very open and sharing with her interests, and reliant on me for most of her social interaction. I'm more closed and private, and get a lot of my social fulfillment from friends. I'm also timid, and so don't share my interests.

This creates a horrible imbalance, where my partner feels like the relationship is too much about her and that she's missing out on a deeper connection with me. Equally, I feel unfulfilled because my emotional needs aren't being paid as much attention as my partner's, and our world is so much about her interests.

None of these problems feel like anyone's fault, but like an unfortunate clash of personality types and neuroses.

We've talked about some of these problems over the years, but in the past week have begun to face them more head on. We talk about the issues and we talk about working on them, via therapy or other routes.

But these conversations always seem to steer towards splitting up. This might be to do with how hard and frightening the problems are, and our desperate need for closure to end the pain and confusion of uncertainty.

When we do start to seriously imagine splitting up - and the loss of our lives, our potential future together, and all we provide for one another - we both end up in tears. It seems so painful. We are so comfortable and secure together, and enjoy each other's company, and hug a lot. We are best friends.

But we still keep steering the conversation towards the reasons why the relationship isn't working, and the ways it might never work. We consider that staying together might be forever denying ourselves a fulfilling sexual life. I consider that I might never have another relationship if we don't split up, and this scares me. We are both scared of distracting ourselvse through decades of these issues persisting, and denying ourselves the opportunity to grow as people or to be fulfilled.

And we consider whether what we have is enough, and whether we'd regret the decision to break up for the rest of our lives because we have so much that is wonderful.

We go round and round, and so I'm hoping other people might have some advice or experiences to share. I have a throwaway email address [redacted]. Thanks for reading!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

We've talked about some of these problems over the years, but in the past week have begun to face them more head on. We talk about the issues and we talk about working on them, via therapy or other routes.

It sounds like you haven't done the therapy yet? Go to couples therapy. Hopefully she is also in therapy on her own for her depression.
posted by sweetkid at 3:44 PM on January 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

What strikes me about your account of your relationship is how cerebral it is. You say there's a lack of passion. Are you two attracted to one another? Do you enjoy having sex with each other when you do have it? If you are, then yes, I don't see why things can't be worked out. If you are attracted to each other and just can't get past your emotional issues, then see a sex therapist. If there's no chemistry after four years... well, what you have is basically a friendship.
posted by orange swan at 3:45 PM on January 28, 2012 [6 favorites]

It sounds like you have really good communication, which is an excellent sign. It also sounds like you haven't yet talked this over with a neutral third party - I hate to be the "try therapy" Metafilter cliche, but it sounds like it would really be helpful to you to have an outside perspective.

And, my own personal experience is that while I am depressed, it's almost impossible to be in a functional relationship - so your partner really, really needs to work on her depression, probably through both therapy and medication. If and when the depression lifts, you might be very happily surprised at how your relationship changes - including sex.
posted by insectosaurus at 3:46 PM on January 28, 2012

We tend to go months without any sexual interaction.

To me, in my relationships, sex isn't just doing it, it is part of the entire relationship. Do you guys touch, hold hands, lean against each other on the couch, share giggles about private jokes when in public? What is your overall interaction like? How much do you touch each other? What you've said sounds very clinical, very sterile. And yes, the depression could be making all of this amplified, I do hope your partner gets better quickly.
posted by kellyblah at 3:51 PM on January 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

When we do start to seriously imagine splitting up - and the loss of our lives, our potential future together, and all we provide for one another - we both end up in tears. It seems so painful. We are so comfortable and secure together, and enjoy each other's company, and hug a lot. We are best friends.

I think the pain of separating here is that we often believe relationships need to end with the doors slammed in each other's faces, calling one another names. It seems that that's an end to a relationship - if each party hates one another.

But the reality is that you are best friends. And that shouldn't cease just because you are not in a relationship together. You are not really in a sexual relationship with one another at the moment and you both understand that.

There is nothing wrong with being comfortable and still needing more.

And we consider whether what we have is enough, and whether we'd regret the decision to break up for the rest of our lives because we have so much that is wonderful.

Nothing really has to be "for the rest of our lives" here. You can take a time out from one another during which you both work very hard on your depression and anxiety. You see how you both are and your feelings towards one another after a specific period of time.

I'm not entirely sure you can both move forward in the place you're both currently in. In my mind, you're both leaning on one another, propping each other up, and it's more like you're just surviving together. If you both go off and do the hard work on yourselves individually then I think you could possibly come back together even stronger if that's what you both want.
posted by mleigh at 3:58 PM on January 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure how helpful you'll find this but if you're in the northern hemisphere, this is the darkest, most depressing time of the year. Maybe you could both use this fact as an excuse to take breakup off the table for the time being. It could give you the space to more freely discuss things, without so much fear of immediate, impending doom.
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:34 PM on January 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think maybe taking a break, not a break up, would maybe be a good idea. That way you guys can have some time apart and can be a little selfish so you can work on yourselves without having to worry about the relationship. No one says the break has to be forever.
posted by littlesq at 4:35 PM on January 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I recommend that, before you do anything major read Passionate Marriage. Buy two copies, read it concurrently and discuss what you discover.
posted by Kerasia at 4:45 PM on January 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think maybe taking a break, not a break up, would maybe be a good idea. That way you guys can have some time apart and can be a little selfish so you can work on yourselves without having to worry about the relationship. No one says the break has to be forever.

A break has a high probability of being forever.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 4:47 PM on January 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

A lot of good advice upthread, and I want to second couples' counseling, and she should definitely be in therapy for her depression.

There are a few things you say like they can't change--she relies on you too much, and you don't share with her. You can both change these behaviors. They are not set in stone. I know in a long-term relationship it sort of feels like it gels at a certain point, and you feel like the way you interact is a reflection of something concrete about who you are. That is often not true, especially when untreated or undertreated mental illness is in the picture.

It sounds like she depends on you heavily and might benefit from being able to spread her wings. Appropriate treatment for depression, as well as motivation, will help her do that and give you more space.

Now for the sex. The lack of sex might change, but might not. If it doesn't, breaking up and pursuing relationships elsewhere is one solution. Another is seeking sexual and/or romantic relationships in addition to you current relationship. If you're interested in that, I suggestOpening Up by Tristan Taormino. It specifically addresses opening relationships as a result of sexual incompatibility and in the case of a lack of sex drive in one partner.

Best of luck.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:48 PM on January 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Couples therapy really sounds like spot-on advice here. You don't want your relationship to end. Neither of you does. But when you discuss these issues, you get scared, and you wonder whether the relationship will be able to work out.

Look, either it will or it won't. But don't give up in advance. Work on these issues. Right now you only talk about working on them and then wonder if you should give up. The answer is, no, you shouldn't give up -- not without trying and determining whether the issues can be worked out and your relationship can be salvaged in a way that works for both of you.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:09 PM on January 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Someone mentioned winter. Are you both getting regular check-ups and Vitamin D levels checked? Physicals all working out okay? Do you both exercise?

Also, I was remarking upon this to my husband today, "we are both so different!" and he replied, "well, I wouldn't want a carbon copy of myself."

There is also reframing, look at the things you like about each other, instead of focusing on the things you don't like.

I really can't answer the sex question, as she seriously needs to get her depression, whatever the cause of it, treated. I would gently encourage that because well... sex and intimacy is very important to most people. If I wanted a roommate, I wouldn't be married.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:14 PM on January 28, 2012

Depression can be battled. Inequities can be resolved. Therapy can be obtained. Changes can be made. The issues between you are not insoluble.

But this?

We are best friends.

This is something that can't be forced or manufactured, something that the most seemingly passionate relationships can wholly lack, and the SINGLE most important basis of a relationship.

And you've got that part nailed already.

As for the rest... well, what I'm seeing is this: You (both) are actively discussing your issues, have identified troublesome areas without casting blame, and are aware of the necessity of change for you to both consider the relationship satisfying. This is, like, the textbook example of How To Work Out Your Relationship Issues, in terms of being a SOLID foundation from which to work toward changes.

So why does the conversation keep steering toward breaking up? Because splitting up is easier than fixing problems. Which is easier - dismantling an appliance to track down a problem, or simply buying a new one?* The new purchase, for certain. And cultural pressures reinforce this - if John breaks up with Jane over such-and-such rather than working to fix the relationship, that validates Brad's decision to break up with Janet over a similar issue.

*Disclaimer: You are not a refrigerator, and your partner is not a stove. And neither of you, to the best of my knowledge, are in any way associated with the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

It seems to me that the question you're asking is, Is my relationship hopeless? To which I provide the following answer:

Your relationship is not hopeless. Your relationship can be fixed.

Now. Did reading those words make you feel buoyant, fill you with hope? Or did they fill you with a crushing sense of misery and hopelessness?

There's your answer.
posted by mie at 5:20 PM on January 28, 2012 [31 favorites]

Things hurt sometimes. Well, we all know that. But there are two things that seem relevant to mitigate the hurt potential: a) you can remain friends 'cause, in fact, you already are just friends (mostly); b) you can find someone else and be happy with the other person and yet also happy if you stay in contact with each other. You don't need to be unhappy (well, given therapy/addressing other issues).

I don't know, it's just so straightforward to me: it's completely unacceptable to me personally when I contemplate being in a relationship for comfort, that is to say, simply to be in a relationship. That worked out when I was little (I mean, before I started school and I just needed my mom), but it's not as viable as a model for romantic relationships and adult connections in general. I would (personally) work on my attachment issues, unhealthy connection patterns to others, and inability to self-regulate or deal with my emotions, if I found myself in such a situation. This may seem like psychobabble to you, but if you have a therapist, you can as to discuss 'attachment patterns' and related issues. One of the main things humans learn as they grow up and detach from their primary care-giver is to let go-- that is, let go of the comfortable, loving presence that is always there for you (that is, your mom) in order to grow up and participate fully in the outside world. Maybe you and/or she could experiment with orienting your therapy more obviously toward dealing with early childhood attachment issues. This pattern of romantic attachment seems to point pretty directly at projection of a parental figure's role onto that of a significant other.

In the end, sex isn't this minor thing you can 'append' to a relationship when there is no passion, or no 'slot' for it to go. This is one reason we don't have sex with our parents: there's no emotional/mental 'slot' for it. Lack of desire is simply too broad-- it can be based on hormonal imbalances, mood, orientation, degree of libido-- all sorts of issues. But you're describing something more fundamental, something like an incompatible pattern of attachment, such as familial vs romantic. This is why it continuously baffles me when people say things like, they chose to focus on 'other aspects'. Being a strong physical/hormonal drive (as basic as food and sleep), sex isn't something you can successfully suppress in properly suitable circumstances, where desire has flowered-- so I'd say if your desire hasn't flowered, it's an obvious a signal as not being hungry and therefore not eating, or not being sleepy and therefore not sleeping. Don't force sex when you don't feel lust-- or just like eating when you're not hungry, you'll get problems (such as obesity in the latter case). The positive point I'm trying to make is that it's always a good idea to listen to your instincts (which say 'do not want sex') and follow them to their rational conclusion from the beginning, so that in the future you may avoid these hurt feelings and learn from your mistakes. Relationships require a form of social skills, and the good news that you can improve those. I wish you well.
posted by reenka at 5:43 PM on January 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

We are best friends.

It sounds like that is what you are -- so you should focus on that. Splitting up doesn't mean not being best friends -- it just means being honest about the relationship that you do have, and getting the most out of that relationship.
posted by DoubleLune at 6:26 PM on January 28, 2012

It sounds like it's pretty much a platonic close friendship already. Are you guys okay with "downgrading" to that? Are you guys okay with not having any sex ever again as long as you stay together? And to be honest, do you want to boink her and does she want to boink you? Just because you love each other, doesn't mean that you are "in love" with each other in the close friendship + sexual way that "in love" requires.

Yeah, couples therapy would be good here, but I'd suggest sorting out if you actually *have* any romantic/sexual relationship with each other or not, if you ever want to, and if you can happily downgrade if the answers to that are no.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:32 PM on January 28, 2012

You might want to read David Schnarch's book Intimacy & Desire together.
What made me recommend it is that Schnarch takes the view that a passionate, long-lasting marriage requires both partners to have the inner strength to stand on their own (not leaning on the other) so that they can tolerate the risk of being honest about their needs - asking for what they want and taking the risk that their partner might not give it to them or but also having the confidence to be the partner that says no to what doesnt work for them (having faith that they can work it out and will find something better that satisfies both of them.)

This if from an Amazon review - gives you a good flavor of the book.
Schnarch presents a number of "moving parts" within our relationships that work to grow us personally & as a partner. And his approach is generally at odds with the common approach within our culture of accomodation or withdrawal from conflict. Instead, he suggests that confronting one's issues -- from one's family of origin or from one's current partner (and commonly they are one & the same) -- is the real path to growth. The process involves these key variable:

* All key dimensions of activity, including sex, have a high & a low desire partner.
* Our sense of self can be based on others' opinion (other validated) or on our own heart (self validated). Both are valid, but if one is predominantly other-validated, then one becomes reluctant to say or do things that will endanger our partner's good opinion of us. And that creates major problems often to the extent of losing our self in the process.
* The tension between autonomy & connectedness provides the opportunity for personal growth: the authors Crucible Approach (which he's trademarked).
* Mind mapping is the core process of understanding the thoughts & intentions of another. Only where you allow another to honestly & fully know you can you have that deep connection most of us seek.
* Mind mapping as well as personal integrity is intimately involved in maintaining collaborative alliances with your partner. Being able to maintain such a collaborative alliance most of the time over a prolonged time is what makes for a "good relationship."
* Being psychologically prepared to sustain an alliance, and the integrity necessary for it, requires individual skills that were collectively called "differentiation" in Passionate Marriage and are here more usefully detailed as his Four Points of Balance on page 72.
* Marriage is a people growing system. One of its key mechanisms is to give you 2 Choice Dilemmas, forcing choice between alternatives that are both desirable. It forces growth where we might otherwise be tempted to complacently stay within our comfort zone -- and thus stagnate within relationship.
* Desiring your partner is one such Choice. And positively choosing your partner is a key part of fully participating in relationship.
posted by metahawk at 7:32 PM on January 28, 2012

My husband isn't my "best friend." My husband is the guy I love more than anyone else in the world, and whom I'm still crazy passionate about after a bazillion years*. My best friends are people I can open my heart to and rely on and laugh with, and whom I know always have my back. With my husband, all of those things are true, but we also have this tremendous physical connection that is just--well, it makes the relationship different from the "best friend" thing. Desire is a powerful energy.

Now, being married to or partnered with their "best friend" might work for a lot of people, but that's not what I wanted, and it's not the only model for marriages or partnerships. If you want romantic and sexual passion, that's a perfectly reasonable thing to want, and to try to work toward.

If you folks don't want or need a sexual and romantic connection to be part of your relationship, that's cool, and more power to you. If one of you doesn't and the other does, that's a challenge. It sounds like you both are having trouble talking about this without catastrophizing yourselves into "Maybe we should break up! But I love you! Oh no!"

Couples therapy is one way to make this kind of conversation more productive, but something to consider as well is structuring your conversations more consciously, so you can really get these issues out there. Maybe setting ground rules like "no talking about breaking up in this conversation--today we're exploring only possibilities that involve us choosing to stay together" or "in this conversation, we're only going to talk about what each of us wants, with I-statements, and not express concerns or critiques of the other person's behavior" or what ever other structures might help you two stay focused.

*For "a bazillion" read "14". I think the myth that passion can't last in long-term partnerships is really toxic. My grandparents were married for 46 years, and until the day my grandfather died, you could see the sizzle between them.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:45 AM on January 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

Pretending this is a romantic relationship isn't doing either of you any favors. This is a very close friendship, and a support group of two. Trying to wring sex and romantic companionship out of this arrangement is going to leave you both feeling deeply unsatisfied.

Stop thinking about this as "breaking up." You can have like 90% of what you have now, but you need to change the format so that both of you become open to more outside influences. You probably should not be living together. I definitely recommend a therapist to preside over these deliberations.
posted by hermitosis at 10:07 AM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

There is, obviously, a lot of issues in this relationship. It is possible that well... 'growing up' means breaking up. Or it is possible that for you two, it is working out this relationship. I can't tell you that.

However. There are some things you can work on. What is her love language? WHat does she need to feel loved? The main 5 are: Touch, encouraging words/compliments, quality time, services (dishes done, etc) and little 'thinking of you' type gifts. Often, couples both end up feeling unloved because they both are trying to give their partner the love language they, themselves want... but it isnt the partners love language.

And sex, like anything else, gets better with practice. How much foreplay does she like? Any secret fetishes? What time do you get aroused? Morning, noon evening? What time does she get aroused? Does she? If not, there could be a physical cause. (medications can easily kill arousal) Childhood abuse can also contribute to hesitations regarding intimacy.

Of course, if she has zero desire for sex (with you specifically i'm sorry to have to add, though I have met people just utterly uninterested in sex in general).... there isnt much you can do. Can you stay with no sex? DO you want to? Is it fair to you?
posted by Jacen at 12:16 PM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

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