I'm in a loving but sexless relationship. What should I do?
July 30, 2008 12:54 PM   Subscribe

I'm in a loving but sexless relationship. What should I do?

I'm a 36-year-old gay man, my partner and I have been together for about six years, and we live together. Although I love him, I'm dissatisfied, because we don't have sex. He barely has any sex drive (we recently fooled around for the first time in 2 years -- see below), it's not all that exciting when it happens, and although I think he's cute, sometimes very cute, I'm not particularly attracted to -- well -- his penis.

We've been in couples' therapy for a few months, and although we're communicating and understanding each other better, the sex issue isn't improving. I've thought on and off for months about whether I should end our relationship, even though the idea pains me.

Before I met my partner, I had dated around for a few years and gone through lots of false starts and heartbreak. When I met him, we just clicked immediately. On our second date, we went to bed together, and although it wasn't particularly great, I overlooked this because I was thankful to finally find someone with whom I got along so well.

At first we'd fool around once a week or so. Then less frequently. I'd make moves and he either wouldn't take the hint or he'd rebuff me. We eventually discussed it. It turned out that he's just not that into sex and never had much experience before me, and there are certain things he doesn't really want to do -- including full-on intercourse. He's not depressed and has always seemed perfectly content in his life and with our relationship, so I don't know what the deal is.

A few years ago, after discussion, he agreed to an open relationship, as long as I'm careful and he doesn't have to know about what I do. This, too, is not ideal. I definitely make use of our arrangement, often through chat rooms, but it's not satisfying, because sex without intimacy is unfulfilling, and when I do feel intimacy, I feel like I'm cheating. And it requires me to lie or withhold information from my partner. This is not how I want to live.

A few months ago, at my suggestion, we started couples therapy with a great therapist. My partner was initially skeptical but has taken to it quite well. I've been able to bring up these sexual issues, although the therapist has also been having us work on being more couple-y together, more affectionate, more emotionally intimate. My partner has said that he loves me and values me and is really happy having me in his life. My presence alone makes him feel good.

A couple of months ago, we actually fooled around for the first time in 2 years. So maybe the therapy has done something. But although it was a relief to do it, it still wasn't all that exciting, and I still don't feel inclined to have sex with him because I'm afraid that it won't excite me. And he has said that because he doesn't think he can please me sexually, it keeps him from trying.

I don't want to live the rest of my life like this. He's a wonderful guy who's doing his part to try and fix things. But a great sex life is really important to me. I want a substantive, loving relationship that also includes a great sexual component. Is this unreasonable?

I think it's possible that there's someone out there with whom I'd be more compatible. But it took me a few years to find my current partner, and I'm really afraid of having to go through that dark valley until finding someone else. I worry that I'd never find someone else, that it would be devastating for both of us, that I'd have to find a new apartment and pay higher rent, that I couldn't survive being single again (when I think about coming home to an empty place at night, it scares the crap out of me), that I'd have to go through the awful, sometimes heartbreaking dating process.

So, to sum up:

* We love and care about each other; he's a great person; he's actually making an effort to improve things in our relationship.
* We have a very unsatisfying sex life, and sexual intimacy is very important to me, and I don't know if this is solvable.
* I'm too afraid to break up and be single.

I have my own therapist with whom I've discussed this stuff for a long time. But I still feel stuck. Anyone have any insight? Advice, books, anything? I've also set up an email address if you're more comfortable contacting me that way - sexless.relationship@yahoo.com.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

This man is your best friend. Your lover is still out there.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 1:10 PM on July 30, 2008 [18 favorites]

It sounds like you guys are great friends who care about each other very much. Maybe that's where you should leave it.
posted by Pecinpah at 1:11 PM on July 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

Some of these sex drive issues may be medical - you should pursue that route before throwing in the towel.

However, I've been in the relationship where the other person was very dysfunctional, but otherwise things were great. It was maddening.

If things don't get better, get out. It doesn't have to be the end of the world, but taking a step away will really force your s-o to realize that he isn't meeting all of your needs. He may never be able to meet your needs, that's just life, but you're trying and part of trying can be stepping away from that particular relationship for a while.

Good luck!
posted by wfrgms at 1:16 PM on July 30, 2008

I was in a very similar situation (same status quo, but we are/were much younger, and hetero, and i never availed myself of her offer that I could get my kicks elsewhere.)

Our solution, as incredibly painful as it was at the time, was to break up. I spent a couple of months staring blankly at walls and mourning my lost love and soul-crushing heartbreak, and then moved on. I haven't found anything quite as great since then, but I'm enjoying my life a lot more, and she's with a new guy who, presumably, doesn't mind her total and complete lack of a sex drive.

I know that's not exactly what you wre looking for, and good job on giving therapy (and, I hope, consideration that it may be medical in origin) a chance - but hey, this is ask.mefi, where "break up already!" is Standard Answer #3 (right after 'get a lawyer' and 'ask a freaking doctor,' and just edging out 'quit immediately and find a job you actually like')
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:20 PM on July 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

I think it's possible that there's someone out there with whom I'd be more compatible. But it took me a few years to find my current partner, and I'm really afraid of having to go through that dark valley until finding someone else. I worry that I'd never find someone else, that it would be devastating for both of us, that I'd have to find a new apartment and pay higher rent, that I couldn't survive being single again (when I think about coming home to an empty place at night, it scares the crap out of me), that I'd have to go through the awful, sometimes heartbreaking dating process.

To me, this says everything. Fear of the unknown is no reason to settle for less - which it sounds like you are doing. That's the first thing that you really have to decide - are you willing to accept that you may never get the sex that you really want from this relationship in order to avoid being alone. I think you already know that answer.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 1:42 PM on July 30, 2008

I don't want to live the rest of my life like this. He's a wonderful guy who's doing his part to try and fix things. But a great sex life is really important to me. I want a substantive, loving relationship that also includes a great sexual component. Is this unreasonable?

No. A critically important part of a substantive, loving relationship is sexual compatibility. You see the writing on the wall. Sexual incompatibility and incompatibility are exactly very much the same thing.
posted by littlelebowskiurbanachiever at 1:55 PM on July 30, 2008

You're stuck between two options you don't want. As a result you stay where you are. That's the mechanism. Lot's of people experience that in some way in some stage of their lives.
I think you're right that having somebody you click well with is very important. And you guys are right to make a real effort to fix what's wrong.
But you run the risk, through the mechanism I described above, that you'll be in the same unsatisfying position in, say, 4 years.
So I'd suggest that you think of what you need at least. F.i. full sexual intercourse, feeling intimate and at ease together during sex, ... And decide for an approximate timeframe; say half a year. Then you make every effort to make it work and... become very happy together.
obviously I meant that after half a year you evaluate and decide. If it's still not working you should step out of the cosy house into the chilly outdoors knowing that there's more warmth to be found.
Or something.

posted by jouke at 1:58 PM on July 30, 2008

there's something between fucking and emotional intimacy. you know, getting nekkid and fooling around. a lot. purposefully--like not to cum, but to get to a place where you feel truly comfortable being physically intimate with one another, and hopefully very turned on instead of seeing sex as a chore to be accomplished. it sounds like both of you have weighted the event of naked cuddling way out of your league or something. the less you do it, the more important and fraught with stress the "act" becomes. relaxing together is what your therapist is trying to get at--the idea that intimacy is a lot more than just being able to "do it."
posted by RedEmma at 2:36 PM on July 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

I don't know if you should break up and be friends or not, but the book Passionate Marriage by Snarch is worth a look. It's all about sex, something I thought was simple and I knew everything I needed to know about -- but this has a lot of different ideas about intimacy and different fundamental aspects of sex, being the physical, the emotional and the imaginative. Maybe read it together and see if it sparks some worthy directions/insights.
posted by Listener at 2:55 PM on July 30, 2008

A few years ago, after discussion, he agreed to an open relationship, as long as I'm careful and he doesn't have to know about what I do.

This is a colossal red flag that should not be underestimated. In fact, your post is full of red flags that signal deep-set issues for which you're not likely to gain any meaningful insight here.

This is one of those situations for which the phrase "trial separation" was invented.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:37 PM on July 30, 2008

Seconding Ambrosia Voyeur. This is a friendship.
posted by turgid dahlia at 4:00 PM on July 30, 2008

I'm very uncomfortable with the attitude of "oh, well, if you're not gettin' any, DTMF."

Commitment, to me, transcends the physical. I can fuck a wide range of people; I can only live with and imagine spending my life with a very small number of people. Yes, sex builds and helps to maintain intimacy, but so do other things.

Interestingly, when you nurture the other things, it can help bring the physical intimacy back. You need to work with your therapist to make improving the physical aspect of your relationship a priority. RedEmma has useful advice about some of the ways that can be done. If he or she isn't the person best equipped to deal with this, get a referral to a sexual therapist.

You, or your therapist, should also be insisting that your partner see a GP to rule out physical causes for his low sex drive. This isn't selfish; it's caring.

I'm not saying you have to stay with this person forever. If you find after working on your sex life that this relationship is not fulfilling enough for you, then you can make the decision to move on. But leaving because the sex isn't all that... I find that sad.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:02 PM on July 30, 2008 [5 favorites]

Can you somehow tell him how to please you? It sounds like his fear that he just won't be able to please you is a huge stumbling block. Maybe focus in on one thing or technique at a time that he can do that will please you, whether that's getting him to relax (somehow) and let you please him, or some specific instructions to him -- maybe get a book. Seriously. Spend some hours and several sessions on this, somewhat focusing on mechanics, so that he can be very confident.
posted by amtho at 4:14 PM on July 30, 2008

I want a substantive, loving relationship that also includes a great sexual component. Is this unreasonable?

It's completely reasonable. No doubt. Many of us would like to be in such a relationship. But even if it were unreasonable, would you be able to stop yourself from wanting it? You wrote that you don't want to live the rest of your life like this, which sounds like a pretty clear "no" to me. You've already tried various ways to deal with this, including opening the relationship with a "don't ask, don't tell" arrangement, but you are still not happy.

My heart goes out to you; this really sounds like a heartbreaking situation. It can be agonizing and demoralizing to be in an otherwise good and loving relationship where your partner's lack of interest in sex makes you doubt whether your own desires are reasonable. All the more so when you're in a live-in situation, have come to realize that things are not likely to change in the ways you need, and suspect that you may have to leave this behind in order to have a chance of finding sex and intimacy in one package.

I second the recommendation of Schnarch's book Passionate Marriage - there are lots of good insights there that might shed light on your situation. (That book changed my entire paradigm of relationships). If nothing else, it should help you get clear on the fact that yes, your desires are perfectly reasonable.

Your fears - of not finding someone else, of spending more to find a new place to live, etc. - are understandable. Life doesn't give us any guarantees; that's part of why situations like this are so difficult. But if you use these fears as reasons to settle for less than your heart desires, you're selling yourself short.

Don't sell yourself short.
posted by velvet winter at 4:38 PM on July 30, 2008

Break up. If not for you, do it for your partner. It isn't fair to trap him in your sexless relationship. I know that sounds harsh, but you don't seem very concerned with your partner's needs and he deserves to have someone who loves him and wants him.

You will make it through the break up and so will he. You'll both be happier eventually even though it will be difficult and more expensive.

You are best friends and not lovers. I've been there. I'm happier now without my sexless partner. He is too.
posted by k8to at 4:38 PM on July 30, 2008

I'm a gay dude and have been married to my husband for six years.

Man, take a breath. First, it sounds like your partner is nervous about satisfying you. His lack of experience is compounding this and accounts for his lack of confidence. It's up to you to make him feel confident and after such a long time it'll be tricky. A good start would be to close the open relationship for now -- if you really want to give this a go. Personally, I'll disagree with Cool Papa on this one. I don't think it's a red flag and it's a very common arrangement from my experience. Don't worry about what's happened before, this is a fresh start.

I think RedEmma has it with the naked time suggestion. Get some good non-sexual physical love in there. Build some physical trust. Hold hands, put your arm around his waist, some butt pats, neck rubs, a hug when he gets home from work. Move on to massage and some nice spooning. Tell him that you're tired and not really up for anything seriously sexy, but just want to hold him, or rub his muscles. Work up to showering together or jerking off together (I'll assume there's quite a bit of that going on). Take it from there. If, in the end, you really want some intercourse and he's not interested in getting poked, let him do the poking (or vice versa). Or do some playing around with toys. Butt love isn't for everyone, it's a complicated procedure and a lot of stuff can weird him out about it if he hasn't done much in that genre. Start with some shower poking and perhaps tongue-play. Make it fun. Make it silly. Work up to the main event.

If you guys suffer a little sexy malfunction don't say, "oh, that's okay and roll over." Tell him how hot it is when he's soft and how it turns you on (helps if it does). Rub his chest and sprinkle him with kisses or roll him over and massage his back until he's relaxed again. Open up and tell him what turns you on, divulge some of your secret kinks. Show him how you like to do your business, have him show you how he likes to do his. Get to a place where he doesn't feel like your sexual pleasure rests on him alone. He needs to know that he can concentrate on himself.

Also, all too often verbal affection falls by the wayside. Tell him you love him. That he looks nice in that shirt. That you think he does something in a neat way. Tell him that you appreciate him when you do. It's too easy to fall into a roommates situation and approach it as business (for straight and gay). He's your lover, act like it. Be passionate about him! If he is truly fine with how things are then this is for you and you need to make him want to touch you, etc. Depending on your situation you might need to start at the beginning - take him out on a date, spend time with just the two of you several nights a week. Make a big effort to connect with him in the things that you have in common. Take nothing for granted. Don't be lazy.

If these less direct routes aren't working. Talk to him about sex being important to you. But, talk to him about why it's important and what you derive from it and that you want to share that with him because you think he's awesome! Don't make him feel bad, that'll just make it worse, so concentrate on being positive and upbeat.

Personally, I think since you've made it through 6 years(!) and you say you care for him - give it another shot. You have nothing to lose if you try and everything to gain. But, if you do, go in with an open heart and without expectations. If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. You'll need to decide what's a deal breaker for you and what your timetable is.

I'm sure I don't need to tell you, gay-relationships are HARD. Always do your best and take care of each other. Don't lose sight of your love when the details don't quite match up. But, always be honest with yourself and don't participate in a relationship that you don't think is going to work out.

I wish you the best of luck! (you're welcome to memail me if you'd like)
posted by Craig at 5:43 PM on July 30, 2008 [29 favorites]

I think Craig's post should be required reading for everyone - straight, gay or whatever - in this situation.
posted by desjardins at 7:00 PM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by flabdablet at 7:09 PM on July 30, 2008

I can really understand being afraid of being single, but have you spent much time thinking about why? It is definitely something that you'll survive. I want to tell you "fear of being alone is a bad reason not to break up," but I also realize that sometimes our instincts are right and are protecting us from things we can't articulate but are rightly afraid of. (There's a good chapter on this in The Dance of Intimacy.) A lot of people spend years or decades being single. You might think through why you feel like it would be such an abyss. Maybe by addressing some of those reasons, you would feel freer to end a relationship when it's not fulfilling to you. You could also focus on the even better future you could have in another relationship; you may just be in a Local Max and need to keep focused on the Absolute Max to go through the difficulties.

But although it was a relief to do it, it still wasn't all that exciting, and I still don't feel inclined to have sex with him because I'm afraid that it won't excite me. And he has said that because he doesn't think he can please me sexually, it keeps him from trying.

It sounds like you and he have matching beliefs. But is it really true? Certain things can become self-fulfilling or at least self-reinforcing prophecies. If you do want to work on the relationship more before leaving, I'd try imagining that he will excite and please you. You could also try teaching him things you like, but before getting into tactics, I'd work on a more emotional level to re-build the confidence you each have in his sexual skills. Focus on ways he does excite you. Give him positive feedback about those things.

Another question I have is -- what about being mad about being rejected? That's what I thought you were going to say was your lasting issue, that you'd gotten rebuffed so many times and were just too mad to try again now. Since that's not there... why not? Is that what's going on with your worry he won't excite you -- is it like some subtle way of getting back at him? (I can see other possibilities, so I might be way off here.)

One last thought: why did you click so well with him? Does it have anything to do with this issue? Sometimes what makes people click and the most frustrating aspects of the relationship are two sides of the same coin in one way or another. Sometimes thinking about that can help people get free from whatever it is that isn't working. YMMV.
posted by salvia at 7:11 PM on July 30, 2008

What if you had some sex sessions that were all about him? Maybe he will be more interested in sex if he has some mind blowing orgasms.

There is a lot to be said for being in a relationship with your best friend. Two years is a hell of a long time without nookie, though. I doubt I would have lasted as long. You're doing some really good things to salvage your relationship.
posted by Foam Pants at 7:43 PM on July 30, 2008

I'm certainly no expert, but this sure sounds like (the male version of) lesbian bed death^.
posted by dhartung at 10:14 PM on July 30, 2008

I was in that relationship, only we are both women (the proverbial "lesbian bed death"). She was my best friend, my confidante, my partner-in-crime, my co-parent, but she really wasn't my lover. I stayed, out of fear of being alone and financial considerations. We talked about it, off and on, tried various approaches to create and maintain intimacy (backrubs, little notes, spooning to watch movies, you name it), romantic getaways, couples counseling, all of it. And at the end of all that effort, we were still best friends who just weren't meant to be lovers. I spent 9 years figuring that out, and only wish I had sooner.

Four and a half years later, I still haven't found my next partner (well, maybe, but too soon to tell), but I've had some great dating experiences and more sex in any 2 month period with any lover since her than the entire 9 years we were together. And we're still friends.

Maybe you can work something out where you can be friends and roommates for a transitional period, since you are so close, and move on with your lives in finding compatible lovers for partners.
posted by notashroom at 10:44 AM on July 31, 2008

Ha! I should've previewed. :)
posted by notashroom at 10:45 AM on July 31, 2008

Craig's reply needs to be like, the standard cut-and-paste response for all future AskMe's of this nature.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:03 PM on July 31, 2008

I am a gay man in a loving and sexless relationship. Notice I changed "but" to "and".

In our case, we've been together eight years and plan to be together for the duration, indefinitely. The first year or so the sex was wonderful, but as my partner's health declined he lost interest in sex, and then later it became implausible, if not impossible. Sex just isn't on the agenda.

We always did have an open relationship. In the earlier years it was more in the sense of "play with others, come home for something special," where special might be the love, might be the intimacy, might be the familiarity, might be any number of things. Yet, I also found (as I always had) that there were opportunities to achieve a sort of temporary-but-overwhelming intimacy even with ostensibly short-term or casual encounters. I liken this to the "strangers on a plane" phenomenon, where you open up and reveal a part of yourself to someone you just met, not really expecting to meet again, but who knows... It never felt like "cheating": I always told my partner all about everything, he knew, he understood, and in fact urged me to take more such opportunities.

Since the prolonged illness and passing of both my parents last year, I also pretty much lost interest in sex. It's ironic, since my main web programming work is for a client's network of gay hookup/porn web sites. :-) Now, almost a year later, I'm slowly opening up to the idea of having sex again, but with the idea that the value of my "family" and "homelife" comes first, above all. I don't know how much time my partner and I will have together, really. I remember the night he woke up moaning, when his blood glucose level was 29... Anyhow, I want to make the most of the years we have.

He and I have, from time to time, discussed adding a third partner to our relationship. We always felt that was something we wanted, but again, were choosy enough to wait and see if it ever happened rather than going out and looking for it. The idea, I think, is that changes in the relationship should be made with the sense of adding and improving it, and affirming the value of everyone involved. That doesn't mean that either of us always has everything we want, or most of it, but overall we have a good life.

I'm rambling on, and I apologize for that. Mainly I want you to know that it's o.k. to have a sexless relationship. It is rather common among gay male relationships that endure over time, as Craig indicates above. I do understand it is not o.k. with you, not now, maybe not ever.

My advice is that you and your partner think about what most matters to you. Dear Abby always used to ask, "Are you better off with him or without him?" Perhaps that's a question both of you should ask. If the answer is "with him," perhaps you both will have to make some of the adaptations and compromises that my partner and I have made, and fortunately you both sound like you are able to adapt. You'd have to work all that out, together. If the answer is "without him," then you'll need to leave not only the bad but the good, and the prospect of the future years and deepening intimacy you might have developed.

I hope that things work out for the best, for both of you. Please feel free to mefi-mail me if you wish.
posted by Robert Angelo at 3:30 PM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wow. I got a shiver reading the [more inside]...I have been holding out for some time now (months) from posting basically this exact same question/scenario. (Junge, is that you?!)

Anon, I am sending an email to the posted address, but for the benefit of anyone still reading this; the age, scenario and much of the details could have been me.

While it is possible to have a loving, caring, sex-less relationship, I have come to the conclusion (YMMV) that it is not, however, possible to have a loving, caring, sex-less marriage unless you are both happy, which it seems obvious to me that the asker is not.

For the record, though, my honest opinion is that you owe it to your partner and yourself to end this phase of the relationship. Note that I said phase. You don't have to cut off all contact, or even move out immediately. My (husband? boyfriend? boy?) is still very very close with his ex, and still loves him a great deal. He just came to the conclusion that they ultimately weren't a good match in the long run, and both of them have been much happier since. They still love each other dearly, but in a different way.

To the respondents (Ambrosia, in particular), thank you for telling me what I already know.
posted by geckoinpdx at 12:10 AM on August 1, 2008

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