How to navigate differences in physicality, when to call it quits
August 23, 2020 3:26 AM   Subscribe

We're both in our mid 30s. GF and I (male) always knew that our levels of physicality differed. At the beginning of our relationship, it didn't seem like an unfixable problem. Now, it's huge.

She tends to (often, not always) find physical contact invasive - she's not really a hugger with her friends, accidental and benign contact with strangers or acquaintances is an irritant to her, and she's very particular about contact with her skin - even clamminess, itchy fabrics, and seams drive her nuts. As far as sex, it's very difficult for her to get off (even by herself), and she flatly says that she finds it only somewhat enjoyable, and the majority of sexual activity just puzzles her - she likes fairly standard penetration and doesn't get the point of the rest.

Me, on the other hand, opposite end of the spectrum. I would say physicality and sexuality are a big part of my identity and how I connect to a partner. I'm physically affectionate with my friends. I enjoy being packed next to other bodies on crowded dance floors. I have a moderate sex drive, and like to bring a sense of play and affectionate and creativity to the proceedings. To me it's a way to connect and maintain connection, have fun, and even express myself.

Clearly, GF and I seem fairly incompatible on this dimension. How are we 3 years into a relationship? It started with an uncannily awesome matchup of values, humor, lifestyles, life goals - and generally, minds. We talked and talked. Our physicality took a little while to take off, but then it really did take off. She told me I was a breath of fresh air after her history of alternatingly unavailable and mildly abusive partners. She said she felt safe, and that I was the first person who could get her off. She wanted to play and explore, and she did. It was a wonderful 6 month honeymoon phase.

That honeymoon ended with a 2-month deppressive period - something she's struggled with her whole life. I did my best to be supportive and undemanding as she suffered and slowly emerged. But when she did emerge, something seemed to have changed. She mostly stopped showing physical affection, sex became a rare thing - and more perfunctory, and it became impossible for her to get off - though she said she doesn't mind. I made sure not to pressure her for a few months after the depression, and things eventually settled into a tense new normal. We became a low-physicality couple, sexually and otherwise. She also started making less time for me, seemingly preffering group-events with her close friends who she's comfortable with - though I'm always invited. When we do have couple-time, it's still really enjoyable. We have a cabin in the countryside, and we cook and hike and talk and watch movies, like old friends. It's peaceful, and she likes holding hands. I enjoy it, but something is missing. And she started in an intense new job 6 months ago, so it's just getting worse. The feeling now is of constantly missing her, even when we're together.

We've had some open conversations about this, but they haven't really helped me understand what's hapenning. She sees a therapist, but is very private about what's hapenning there. She's declined couples counseling - she says the idea exhausts her. I know about her perfectionist, self-harming youth and gnawing depression and self esteem problems. I know about her crappy and somewhat traumatizing relationship history. But I don't know where she's at right now. When I ask her what's changed since that honeymoon period, she just says "that was then, this is now." When I ask her about physicality - she just says that she's not a very physical or sexual person and that I shouldn't take it personally - something that I struggle to reconcile with our honeymoon period. When I ask her if she desires me or is attracted to me, she says she feels little desire and doesn't experience attraction like others do, but can't explain it any further. She also says that the pressure and fear that she's abnormal or broken makes it even more fraught. I try not to exert any pressure and be casual, and reassure her that there's no such thing as abnormal, just different people. She says she knows but struggles to know it. I ask her if she still wants to be in a relationship with me, but all she says is "if we can both be happy in it, than yes" - it's tautological and frustrating. When I tell her that the lack of physicality is hard for me and ask her if she thinks it could ever change, she tells me that she doesn't know and hopes that I do what's right for me. When I ask what she wants for herself - she just says that she wants what comes naturally for her and to not be forced into anything. She says a lot of "it's not you, it's me" and that she wishes she was a normal person, and that she feels pressured by my person, and not by anything I do.

There are a couple of struggles I'm dealing with:

Fundamentally, I want to be with GF. I am attracted to her and love her and am interested by her, and I'm at a stage of my life where a longterm partner and stability are important to me. A breakup would be a heavy blow right now. I keep trying to understand what's hapenning - her privacy about her inner life, reluctance to talk about the relationship, and inability to answer questions leaves me bewildered. Is the desire for understanding somehow misguided? Should I just make peace with not really knowing what's hapenning in my partner's head? Does this mean that I won't know why the relationship is the way it is or where it's going? Is that ok?

I also want to give her and the relationship plenty of easy friendly no-pressure space. Because of Corona, most of our 1/1 time this year is at our cabin in the countryside. And it's lovely, but also hard. Without friends, jobs, or online distractions - we have each other and books and time - a dream. When I'm happy to be in "platonic" mode - we both have a great time. But in this context, I sometimes have a really hard time not thirsting for physicality. And frankly, I feel sexually frustrated in a way I haven't since I was a teenager. The cabin is a small space, so I can't even "help myself." I can feel that we're not in a physically intimate space, so I draw a mental wall around my hands and keep them to myself. But this eventually makes me feel weirdly withdrawn and sad and less fun to be around. GF has noticed this and told me that I should just be my affectionate self and we don't have to make a big deal about it. But that's also a catch-22 - many days worth of unreciprocated touch and declined/dodged sexual advances makes me feel like some gross heteronormative male cliche - heavy-breathing and gross and unattractive and pleading. I know I'm not that and she tells me I'm not that, but it's hard not to go there nevertheless. So, how do we spend time at the cabin, such a linchpin to our relationship? What internal work can I do to avoid getting caught in this loop? How do I enjoy this time in a way that's real?

Finally - I struggle with when to call it quits. I really don't want to. I also know that GF is somewhat fragile, has few friends and doesn't make them easily, and has a hard job (she's a doctor). I'm half her support system. The thought of a split breaks my heart for both of us - it feels like it would be self-harm. But without any clear sense of trajectory or a light at the end of the tunnel, is it completely foolhardy to just hang around and hope things get better? I'm very confused.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (37 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

Ask her, if instead of a sexual relationship, she could just have you as a close or best friend, if she would prefer that?

And what the differences are?

Maybe that conversation will give you some clarity.

Thing is, if she would prefer to be friends with you, then - she may have already fallen into that pattern, but you mentally get there right away. Even if you did want that, you would need some time to adjust

And that time is usually known as a breakup. And being apart long enough that you start looking towards other people as romantic and sexual partners. And then, *then* maybe you can be friends.

She might want something else, but they way you've presented it here, that sounds like what *you* think she actually wants, so asking her, and processing what that means, is required.
posted by Elysum at 4:22 AM on August 23, 2020 [6 favorites]

I ask her if she still wants to be in a relationship with me, but all she says is "if we can both be happy in it, than yes" - it's tautological and frustrating. When I tell her that the lack of physicality is hard for me and ask her if she thinks it could ever change, she tells me that she doesn't know and hopes that I do what's right for me.

Is she giving you an invitation to break up?

You don't want to end this relationship because it's important to you to have a stable, long-term relationship. But do you really want a long-term relationship under these conditions? You have a partner who can't offer the physical and emotional closeness that you crave, and can't reassure you that things will change.

It sounds like two very lovely people with different needs, different ideas about what's important, and what a relationship could look like. That's important stuff.
posted by bunderful at 4:30 AM on August 23, 2020 [46 favorites]

I'm sorry for what you're going through. This relationship clearly isn't working, and I can't see any reason to think it ever will. You're not just missing physicality; you're missing intimacy. The idea of couples counseling exhausts her, but the actual relationship is exhausting you.

Your desire for understanding is completely natural, but understanding wouldn't fix this. At best it might help you let yourself off the hook.

The facts that she's fragile and has a difficult job, that she doesn't have a robust support system, that you dread a breakup, or that you were once happy together for 6 whole months -- none of that makes the reality you're living with sustainable. You're not describing a happy relationship; you're describing the denial phase of mourning.

A great deal about how you're feeling is familiar. Memail me if you'd like to talk.
posted by jon1270 at 4:51 AM on August 23, 2020 [18 favorites]

Sounds to me like she has asked you in a few different ways to break up with her.
posted by phunniemee at 4:54 AM on August 23, 2020 [32 favorites]

Is the desire for understanding somehow misguided? Should I just make peace with not really knowing what's hapenning in my partner's head? Does this mean that I won't know why the relationship is the way it is or where it's going? Is that ok?

no, not to this degree, yes, not for you (per your question)

the combination of communication issues and physical intimacy issues is really hard. either one of those is tough by itself, but physical intimacy can be a bridge when you're not communicating well, and good communication can help you to adjust to (or at least understand) intimacy issues. both at the same time? difficult to fix, even if everyone involved is willing and able to do the work.

it doesn't sound like your partner is in a position to do the work. her feelings about physical intimacy might change at some point, but you can't know how likely that is (or how to help her get to that point, if she even wants to) unless you have a better idea why she feels as she does right now, and you won't get that without communication. it seems clear that you're not able to communicate effectively by yourselves, and she's declining to have someone else help the two of you with that. not necessarily her fault, just a mismatch between what she's able to do at the moment, and what your relationship needs.

it's not clear to me that she's asking you to break up with her, but she might as well be.


1. carry on as you are and hope things get better. not a good idea. things might get better, but you have no idea how likely that is or how long that might take without being able to communicate about it, and in the meantime you (and probably she) will still be suffering, confused, etc., the relationship will be damaged further, and you'll be asking a more fraught version of the same question in a year or two. future you is telling me to tell you this is a bad idea.

2. make a final effort to fix your communication issues. this will require professional help. tell her what you've told us (even if you've told her this before), tell her that you don't think the relationship is viable unless the two of you go to couples' counselling, give her some space to think about it, and then ask her for a decision. she's right that it will be exhausting, by the way - based on your description, you're likely to need to spend a lot of time and a lot of effort on it, and she in particular is going to find it very difficult, even if she fully embraces it and engages with it (which she may not do). plus, even if you both put that effort in, the outcome isn't certain - you may just end up with a detailed understanding of how and why you're incompatible (now and for the foreseeable future).

3. break up.

for some people, there would be an option 4 (see whether there is a way for you to meet your physical needs outside this relationship in a way that both of you are ok with), but that would be a terrible idea here for a multitude of reasons, not least because it requires a lot of open communication that you don't have.

i would go with option 2 and see what happens. if she still declines to go to couples' counselling (or can't / won't make a decision on it), if she goes but hasn't engaged after the first few sessions, or if she goes and engages and it becomes apparent that your relationship either is not going to work or is going to require more than one or other of you can give... you'll know it's time to call it quits. i think that's a much more likely outcome than successfully fixing your relationship, sorry to say, but going with option 2 rather than skipping straight to breaking up might at least help you to feel a bit more at peace with a decision to break up, should that happen.
posted by inire at 5:29 AM on August 23, 2020 [7 favorites]

Have you thought about some form of polyamory or other non-"standard" relationship? If you're good together except for the physicality would you both be okay with you finding someone else to satisfy those needs?
posted by Awfki at 5:39 AM on August 23, 2020

It feels pretty clear to me that she has decided that once you're ready you should break up.

She doesn't want to talk to you about this issue from her perspective. She doesn't to go to couples counselling for this issue. Therefore she doesn't want to change the issue. She has no plans, desire to address this.

She knows this bothers you and that you're unhappy.

She's basically said that if you're unhappy with the status quo (which, above, she doesn't want to make efforts to change), that you should break up.

Sorry. I hope you will find someone who enjoys being chased around a cabin.
posted by thebazilist at 6:30 AM on August 23, 2020 [8 favorites]

I was the more physically affectionate and sexual person in a couple with a guy so aggressively opposed to physical touch that he would wake up on the middle of the night and sleep on the floor of he felt I was too close to him. I knew I should break up because I was unfulfilled in so many ways but I was afraid of going from a fun friendship (where we would peck-kiss goodbye when I left after a day of not holding hands, having sex, and sitting on opposite sides of the bed while I studiously tried not to encroach on his territory by touching any part of his body with any part of my body) to not being in a relationship and not even getting that amount of affection. After 9 months of this, he came with me to a friend's wedding in Chicago and when we got home, he ghosted me the next day - I never heard from him again.

In the first two weeks of online dating after he disappeared, I had more sex than in 9 months of dating him. Clearly we had issues that went beyond not having sex, but the freedom I feel now to touch the person I'm dating, and the utter warmth and affection and love I feel when they are the first person to initiate physical contact is so worth it.

You should break up. If you still feel a connection, be friendly afterwards, but never feeling wanted by your partner is hard and hurts. You deserve someone who will kiss you first some of the time.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:42 AM on August 23, 2020 [24 favorites]

I've been your GF, probably. I did some soul-searching and realized that I am demi-sexual. Basically, I am only attracted to someone if I have a deep emotional connection. Without that, I am also a "what's the point?" person about sex.

In my past long-term relationship I didn't do anything about it and my highly sexual partner was really unhappy for a long time until I ended it. In my current relationship, I see myself pulling away and I'm learning to take that as a cue that my emotional attachment to my partner is at risk. It's been a rough time for me (see my Asks if you want) and this is the first time I've been able to acknowledge these truths about myself, and I'm 45. So it can take awhile to really know yourself and realize that yes, maybe I don't march to the same sexual beat as many others (supposedly) do.

In this case, though, it sounds like your GF would be more comfortable ending things than figuring out how to make your incompatibility in this one area work for both of you. It can be exhausting to essentially have to prop up someone else's ego about sex when it's just not your thing. Not that this is you necessarily - but if she's not into physical touch and you are, that doesn't mean you're wrong and it doesn't mean you have any right to it, either. As someone who doesn't like constant physical touch, it frequently boggles my mind that others feel entitled to it. That doesn't mean you shouldn't have what you need, it's just that her need to not be touched is as important as your need to be touched, and you don't get to "win" just because that's some kind of perceived default of hetero relationships in 2020.

So yea, I'd say maybe you should find someone else who is more compatible with you in this way and let your GF figure out her own shit without the pressure.
posted by cabingirl at 7:03 AM on August 23, 2020 [12 favorites]

It's such a hard dance. I get why she doesn't want couples counseling if the goal is to have her be physical and she doesn't want that.

I was so incredibly physical but I am ten years into marriage with small kids and...yeah. Break ups happen for many reasons and sexuality also waxes and wanes. Physicality at this point may be your deal breaker. It would have been mine in times past. Make a list of what the three most important things in a relationship are for you and hold to them. At some point mine was partly 'having children', and 'complete acceptance of LGBT rights'; a friend's was 'faith in God'. There is nothing wrong with deciding that physical intimacy is on your list and nothing wrong with it not being on hers.

I shared my examples as people will usually agree that if someone really wants kids and the other strongly wants to remain childfree that they wouldn't be a good match but if someone talks about need / no need for physical intimacy that they sometimes get termed negatively as 'shallow' or 'frigid'. You both need to decide what is key for each of you.
posted by biggreenplant at 7:03 AM on August 23, 2020 [6 favorites]

You should break up. It really sounds like she's asking you to. After being in a physically similar relationship as you for twenty(!) years as the person with your same profile for touch I am coming to grips with how much I buried my needs to support my partner. It took a huge toll on my mental health. I never grew resentful at the lack of physicality rather I became dull and detached and those feelings bled into everything outside of my relationship. I recently got out and now I'm grieving all the time I spent not getting what I needed.
posted by onebyone at 7:09 AM on August 23, 2020 [8 favorites]

She won't or can't respond to your intense pain about how this relationship has changed. I agree that she is inviting you to break up with her. She's saying that the way things are is okay for her, but if it's not for you, ending it would be acceptable to her (the both partners being happy quote in your original post). I would insist on couples therapy, and if it's too exhausting for her to contemplate, then she's saying she's just not willing to put in the effort to try to improve things. It is very very sad, especially now, to break up. I feel really badly for you.

oh, one more thing: I would masturbate in your bed whether she can see/hear you or not. That's something that a lot of people do even when they have good partnered sex lives. Nothing shameful about it. At least take care of yourself in that way.
posted by DMelanogaster at 8:00 AM on August 23, 2020 [7 favorites]

I think how she feels about touch is a neurological, rather than psychological.

It sounds like she tried experimenting with trying meet your preferences, but she no longer wants to do that. And it's easy for her to feel guilty, but maybe some of her work with her therapist is about having boundaries and learning how to not feel guilty.

When I ask her about physicality - she just says that she's not a very physical or sexual person and that I shouldn't take it personally - something that I struggle to reconcile with our honeymoon period.

What she's saying makes a lot of sense. This is how she feels about being touched, not how she feels about you. I'm afraid you don't want to hear it. I believe you were very happy during the "honeymoon period" and you're also certain that she was too? Couldn't it be that she was experimenting with pushing herself to do what made you happy, but that she had emotional conflict about it?

As I was reading from the top, my first thought about compromising about touch was that doing some less sexual touching might be helpful. Would she stroke your head or massage your hands to help you feel good? But it seems that right now she might not be willing to discuss the fact that you feel touch-deprived because it makes her feel guilty and wrong to even think about the situation.

(When she says she wants the relationship only if you can both be happy, that does suggest that she knows you are unhappy, doesn't want you to be unhappy, and can't give you what she thinks you want.)

I think for you this is like trying to live on a 900 calorie diet day after day.

When I ask her what's changed since that honeymoon period, she just says "that was then, this is now."

I strongly dislike this "answer". Because it doesn't give any helpful info, and it's dismissive, while pretending to be an answer.
posted by puddledork at 9:03 AM on August 23, 2020 [7 favorites]

Counseling won't help here. Counseling can help improve communication and living-together tools. But it can't make a personal more sexual in general or more sexually attracted to their partner. And it certainly can't make her more physical in general.

Unfortunately, it's very, very common for women's sex drive/attraction to their long term partner to go down -- and this is horribly ironic, and not often acknowledged, but if you look you'll find the research -- *as a function of familiarity*. A woman with a low sex drive can perk up for a bit when something's new, but she'll come back to baseline eventually.

She's right not to go to counseling. It would be exhausting and miserable, and it would lead to the exact same result as you'd get to anyway, which is: this is how she is, and if you value physical touch and an enthusiastic sex life (not the same things by the way, not at all; a lot of women love physical touch even if they're not in the mood for sex), she is not the right long term romantic partner for you.

I'm sorry, I know it sucks, but she sounds like a catch for the right person, and so do you. You could be great friends someday, after the dust settles.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:06 AM on August 23, 2020 [6 favorites]

It sounds to me like she might be somewhere on the asexual spectrum. It might help to include this in your discussions.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:15 AM on August 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

But without any clear sense of trajectory or a light at the end of the tunnel, is it completely foolhardy to just hang around and hope things get better?

Probably? I'm more like your GF but I am also in a long term relationship that is also long distance. Also me and my partner talk about it, a LOT. He has said almost exactly what you have said about not wanting to be a male cliche. And so we talk and work on it. I don't like sudden touch but I am fine with touch that is expected, especially certain kinds (foot rubs, back rubs, holding hands, expected embraces, snuggling on the couch, whatever). I'm not super adventurous sexually but I enjoy sex it's just... complicated for me. With a partner who was willing to work with me on this and also work on himself in some ways, I think it mostly works. It's challenging because I don't think he's ever really been able to get past the "I am normal and you are kinda weird" feeling in his own head, but he also acknowledges that this is kinda his thing to work on and finding ways for us to be able to touch and be intimate is part of what I work on.

All this is to say: it doesn't sound like your partner is doing the work on this one, and absent a new relationship configuration where you could find sexual satisfaction with another person, I don't think this is working for you and you may not know it fully until, as ChuraChura discovered, things could turn around super quickly with the right person.
posted by jessamyn at 9:21 AM on August 23, 2020 [4 favorites]

Forget asexual, it sounds to me like she might be somewhere on the autism spectrum. I suggest reading/watching what you can find on the internet of self-reported accounts from adult autistic women of their experiences [not everyone is the same].

The bits I found suggestive:
- physical contact sensitivity (including seams)
- doesn't make friends easily
- inability to answer questions about her feelings (trouble interpreting her own emotions and/or expressing them)
- chronic exhaustion due to new job stress
- bad relationship history (excessive loyalty and trust)
- worries that she's abnormal or broken, wishes she were "normal"
- logical (tautological) analysis of relationship issue

Caveat: I just figured out that I'm autistic at age 45 and am now armchair-diagnosing everybody, so take this with a huge grain of salt. However, "knowledge is power, ignorance is a cage, and feelings can be dealt with." [Hannah Gadsby]
posted by heatherlogan at 9:33 AM on August 23, 2020 [14 favorites]

You see that period as the ideal state of your relationship that you want to return to, but she's not interested. Maybe it wasn't really a "honeymoon period" for both of you. Also, perhaps she has not really "emerged" from her depression in the way that you think.

I don't think you want to understand why she is this way or what she is really feeling so much as you want her to change, and I don't think that's anymore reasonable than her totally abdicating the decision on whether to continue the relationship to you.

I'm not going to pathologize or armchair diagnose your girlfriend and I don't think you should either, but I am the lower libido/less physical touch partner in my marriage for Reasons and there was a point where my husband felt similar to you -- like a thirsty creep -- which made him withdraw somewhat emotionally. Sensing his unhappiness, I then felt horrible and guilty, which actually made me more avoidant. It's a whole cycle. I was willing to work with my husband to figure out ways that both our needs and boundaries were being met. Your girlfriend sounds unwilling to do that; I'm not sure hanging around with your fingers crossed behind your back is going to get you to a happier place.
posted by sm1tten at 9:33 AM on August 23, 2020 [4 favorites]

There are many ways of dealing with all the issues you raise, but the key is that both partners have to be willing to explore them. Your GF has told you that this is how it is and will be, and that she only wants to continue the relationship if you can be happy in it as is.

This is a slightly more polite version of "take it or leave it," and you should feel no guilt about leaving it.
posted by rpfields at 9:45 AM on August 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

You cannot know what’s going on with your girlfriend. Also, you cannot assume that she knows why she feels the way she feels or why she is the way she is. I think “that was then, this is now” is a perfectly reasonable response because I don’t think people should be required to justify their needs. She needs to be exactly how she is and you need to be exactly as you are and that means the two of you may someday be best friends, as I am with my ex. The ex who stopped wanting to have sex with me ever and thus I felt sad and lonely and horny and ugly and rejected.

That is not the only reason we broke up but that was one of the reasons. Take whatever time you need to work this out with a therapist, or a close friend or whomever. Mourn if you need to. But be clear with yourself: if physical touch, both sexual and nonsexual, is important to you than you are with the wrong gal. I really regret all the ways in which I made my ex feel shitty. It sounds like you’re doing a much better job than I did but an even better job would be realizing that your needs and her needs are both important and incompatible. In this situation, it is not a loving thing to try to get her to change; it is not a loving thing to yourself to try to change.

It is OK to love someone and break up anyway. Love is the floor, it is not the entirety of a relationship. Sit down, and see if your girlfriend is willing to work with you on how to break up in the most adult way possible. And if that’s not possible, then figure out how to leave in a generous and loving way knowing that you are doing the absolute right thing for both of you. Because you both deserve to be loved by people who can accept you exactly the way you are because you meet their needs as you are. You were in a wonderful relationship. It was great. Now you need to move on. Growth is often painful but you are headed toward something better. And so is the person you love.
posted by Bella Donna at 9:52 AM on August 23, 2020 [9 favorites]

Could you ease into a deeper layer of understanding - can she trust you to hold her concerns about neurological responses - it takes a lot to talk about the intricacies of medication, shifts in personal health (or self-awareness given that she’s a doctor), trauma, compassion fatigue, and more. You could start with something more structural (but deep) that many women experience decades of people feeling entitled to touch them, and while you don’t support that at all, microaggression buildup can be part of what weighs people down.

Also for taking care of yourself at the cabin - work out with her what You need and what is okay. Could she go for an early morning walk if the space is too small and you join her later?

This could be a pandemic-influenced long season, and/or more about her, however without both of you connecting more deeply, you are stalled in the water, and it’s understandable that you are seeking solutions.
posted by childofTethys at 10:07 AM on August 23, 2020

Forget asexual, it sounds to me like she might be somewhere on the autism spectrum.

One doesn’t preclude the other. The “doesn’t experience attraction” thing is what I was mostly referring to.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:08 AM on August 23, 2020 [5 favorites]

One relationship doesn't need to meet all of your needs, even if it is a long-term committed relationship. Since it sounds like this is someone you want to keep in your life, consider how you can imagine doing that in your ideal world without expecting her to change, and then discuss with her whether any of those options might be possible for her.
posted by metasarah at 10:32 AM on August 23, 2020

You don't mention a reason to think this situation will change, and it sounds like a really unhappy situation (for you, at least). Maybe you can pursue polyamory, or maybe you can break up, but it doesn't sound like staying in this relationship for the long-term is going to work.
posted by hungrytiger at 10:44 AM on August 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

It sounds like she's communicating just fine. She's just communicating something that you very much don't want to hear.

I'm asexual. I can do sex just fine. My "honeymoon period" is about 3-6 months. I can get excited about it because my partner is excited about it. AND there's a very toxic high performing compulsive heterosexuality and finally feeling *normal*. But it's like any hobby outside my comfort zone, eventually my support wanes from enthusiastic participant to wanting to bow out because I'm the buzzkill who's stopped enjoying themselves. My true honeymoon period is after that ends, and we behave like best friends who occasionally snuggle - which is typically when the other partner slowly becomes dissatisfied with the state of the relationship.

That might not be her reasoning. But the fact is, it's perfectly okay that her feelings about sex have changed. She has communicated that they've changed. And she's told you very bluntly that she only wants to be with you if you can be happy, despite these changes.

So. Can you be happy? You don't sound happy. But you sound like you still want to keep talking about it to process this change. So do that - just with your own therapist. You aren't getting anywhere with your girlfriend, because you're still trying to sell her something she doesn't want.
posted by politikitty at 11:04 AM on August 23, 2020 [12 favorites]

To me it seems like she knows you're incompatible with your physical desires and is bothered by it too. I have been incompatible like that with someone and I knew it wouldn't last. You're bonded in other ways so the inevitable split is going to be difficult. Don't worry about her support system or lack thereof, worry about yours. Of course be kind and gentle and if you can be just friends later more power to ya!
posted by DixieBaby at 11:08 AM on August 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

I was in a similar situation to your GF. We broke up; it was sad but the right thing to do. We still have a strong friendship and everyone involved is much happier with their lives.

There is definitely nothing wrong with her sexuality, and I'd recommend you both read Emily Nagoski's Come As You Are, which discusses misconceptions about how sexuality is "supposed" to work and the unhealthy dynamic that often arises from a mismatch in sex drives.

Considering she seems unwilling/unable to work on the relationship (and by that I don't mean "fixing" her sex drive, but developing better communication and relationship skills), it's okay for this to be a dealbreaker. Even if you did work on things, it might be a dealbreaker. I'm sure she feels miserable knowing that the relationship is making you miserable.
posted by toastedcheese at 11:10 AM on August 23, 2020 [5 favorites]

Asexuality, autism, trauma... I don't know if it will help to try to figure out what's going on with your gf. At the end of the day, you're a sexual person with sexual needs, and she's not able to meet those needs. Her response of "that was then, this is now" - sums it up succinctly. She was interested in sex back then, and she isn't now. That could be said for anyone and anything - they were interested in [x] a few years and aren't anymore. It happens.

I think you should start looking into how you can change your relationship somehow - she sounds like a great best friend, and you said the platonic times are happy. I know you can't just shut of desire, but if you could somehow move towards seeing her as a platonic partner or something, maybe that would be the best thing. Then you're not in a situation where you don't want/expect sex from her, and she doesn't feel the pressure/doesn't feel abnormal. Her lack of desire is not something to fix, just like your desires aren't something to fix. But maybe the relationship structure itself can change.

I recently heard about queerplatonic relationships, so maybe that's something to look into. In this world where life partner relationships must encompass everything - romance, sexual desire, friendship, running a household together, raising kids together, and if one of those things isn't being fulfilled 100% then it means the relationship must end, it's nice to see that there are alternatives. And yes, relationships end all the time because of sexual incompatibility, and some exes are able to be friends afterwards, but what about something in between? This has been described as companionate marriage (a marriage with no sex, which focuses on companionship). But now we have queerplatonic relationships - relationships that are defined by the intensity of the emotional connection (which you have) and which is not organized around sexuality/sexual exclusivity.

And even then, having her as your queerplatonic life partner doesn't exclude you from having a serious romantic/sexual relationship with someone else. (I know that letter writer's situation doesn't map exactly to yours, but maybe it can give you some ideas.)
posted by foxjacket at 11:20 AM on August 23, 2020 [4 favorites]

I agree that you both sound like lovely people, but this is not working. I get the blow of a long-term breakup in your 30s when you feel ready for the stability--it's fucking awful and it knocked me on my ass for a while. I had one of the worst years of my life post-breakup, but also on the most life-transforming years of my life, and I'm still here! So please don't let that hold you back.

A few other things I'll mention:

1) I don't like that she refuses to go to couples' therapy. The goal of therapy is not: how do we make X more sexual. No--the goal would be to figure out how you can BOTH gets your needs and happiness met (and that very much might mean exiting the relationship). Because right now, your needs and happiness fall WAY below hers, and that's not okay.

2) You mention she had been in "mildly abusive" relationships. There's abuse and there's abuse, and we all process (or don't!) different traumas in different ways. I think that this is history is probably not insignificant (and also not saying it's your business and you need to pry). Just putting it out there.

3) You mention more than once her orgasms (or lack thereof). Please lay 100% off of that and don't mention it to her again. Female sexuality, desires, and orgasms are portrayed in such crazily unrealistic and also harmful ways in mainstream media, and are created to make the regular normal human woman feel bad when she doesn't meet these stupid standards that are NOT BASED ON REALITY OR SCIENCE. You're feeding into that. Stop it.
posted by namemeansgazelle at 11:41 AM on August 23, 2020 [7 favorites]

Just to add my two cents re: something other posters have brought up - I think it is unlikely that a fraught romantic relationship can transition seamlessly into a healthy open relationship, close friendship, or queerplatonic relationship.

Don't get me wrong, any of those relationship configurations may work for one or both of you down the line! But if you decide to end the relationship as it currently stands, this woman deserves the courtesy of a formal breakup, and you will both need time and space apart to mourn the relationship and decide what comes next.
posted by toastedcheese at 1:26 PM on August 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

She’s not interested in intimacy with you — emotional, physical, anything. I don’t know why and won’t hazard a guess, but it seems like she’s even admitted it and doesn’t see it changing. Please don’t torture yourself trying to “win her over.” You and I both know that’s not how healthy relationships work.

Go out into the world with optimism — you’re loving and lovable and there is a partner out there for you. A *partner,* who will want to share herself with you like you do with her.
posted by rue72 at 1:37 PM on August 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

Accept the fact that she's gone as a GF and, because of the shared personal history and common sense of the world she has with you there is an opportunity to have a friend. (Been thru this-we're still speaking and making each other laugh 50 years on). But it also means that you're best shot to get on is to strike out on your own until the right person comes along. It may take a while. Best of luck.
posted by ptm at 2:03 PM on August 23, 2020 [3 favorites]

I've been your gf in this situation, in my late teens/early 20s. I'm autistic, asexual, and a lesbian, but I didn't know any of those things then and was trying to force myself to be in a "normal" heterosexual relationship with a truly lovely boy. This post was super painful to read because I recognised so much of both of us and our feelings in it, down to the break-up chicken because we were both miserable but deeply cared about the other and didn't want to be the one to end it.

We're not together now. We are both SO much happier - I'm married to a woman who is happy to forgo sex entirely, he's engaged to a woman who does like it. He was my bridesmaid and I'm going to be his. He's the sperm donor for my child. Turns out we can still continue to care deeply for each other, outside of that relationship and especially the absolutely grim pressure around sex. But we were so deeply incompatible around that. Counselling would absolutely not have solved anything. My main regret is not being self-aware enough back then to have ended it sooner and saved us both literal years of miserable guilt about just not being able to be a fundamentally different person.
posted by Cheerwell Maker at 4:12 PM on August 23, 2020 [16 favorites]

There are two very good reasons to end this relationship: first, that you aren’t sexually compatible at all and your partner has no concerns about this; and two, your partner refuses couples counseling, which is to say, your partner refuses to work on issues of concern to you.

You are far too young to condemn yourself to a sexless life. I made a big mistake marrying a man with whom I wasn’t sexually compatible. I wish I had prioritized this more. Your relationship will not get better.

I see lots of folks trying to diagnose your partner with something. That way lies madness. Instead of trying to figure out why she’s the way she is, or hoping for a return to a brief period in your relationship, focus on your unmet needs and how leaving this relationship will allow you to start down the path towards finding a relationship that is better for you.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:47 PM on August 23, 2020 [6 favorites]

The value in exploring the cause is mostly so that both people stop feeling bad about who was “wrong.” This is especially useful if you’d like to stay friends, which it sounds like OP might. It also helps you avoid similar problems in future potential relationships.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:44 PM on August 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

she's very particular about contact with her skin - even clamminess, itchy fabrics, and seams drive her nuts..

I am going to second or third what was said above about there being a neurological component to this problem. This extreme sensitivity coupled with her dislike of physical contact sounds like autism.
posted by mani at 1:09 AM on August 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

You will never understand your way to what you want from this person. She just doesn't have it to offer, a fact that doesn't appear to bother her in spite of how much it bothers you. There doesn't have to be a bad guy for there to be a bad fit.
posted by headnsouth at 1:20 PM on August 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

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