When it comes to an intimate relationship, sex is important – in fact, it’s vital, writes Victoria Richards
I’ve been with my partner for five years and while the sex was good at the beginning, it’s really tapered off – and not for want of me trying.
I don’t know if I’m being shallow and superficial by thinking that life as a thirty-something without sex is sad and problematic, or whether I’m justified in worrying about it. I love my partner and don’t want us to break up – but I also can’t quite come to terms with the idea that our physical relationship is only ever going to be full of sadness and resentment. Or, that I’ll never have sex again! What will happen in a few years if it continues like this? Will I end up having an affair? I don’t want to hurt my girlfriend – I love her. She’s gorgeous – I’d love to be having sex a couple of times a week, but at the moment I’m lucky if it’s once a month… and even then, it has started feeling like a chore; like it’s something she is “ticking off” so we don’t have to do it again for another month.
I don’t want to be made to feel guilty for wanting an active sex life. It’s perfectly normal to want sex – isn’t it? I also can’t bear the way she turns away from me in bed when I suggest being intimate, or makes some rubbish excuse. We have a great relationship in every other way – we have a laugh, we have fun together – we have a healthy degree of independence, too. But we don’t even have kids yet and I’m already feeling like I’m clawing at the walls. I don’t think my sex drive is out of the ordinary – it’s what I’d imagine is healthy for a guy in his early thirties. Is this the way things always go in long-term relationships? Do I just have to suck it up and get used to it – or (worse) break up with her? Is our relationship completely doomed? Please help. I’m not just feeling frustrated, but lonely and a little rejected, too.
I don’t want to tell you that your relationship is doomed – but you do need to get to the bottom of this, urgently. Some people may disagree with me on this, but I think that when it comes to an intimate relationship (unless you’re happily aromantic and/or asexual), sex is important. In fact, it’s vital.
It might not be the most critical element of a happy partnership (everyone will prioritise different things) but – unless you’re celibate by choice, or aren’t able/don’t want a physical sexual relationship for other reasons – a romantic relationship is usually built on being romantic with each other, whether you’re in a couple or polyamorous or any number of glorious combinations.
Without sex, it’s friendship. And while friendship is also extremely important, sex is the one thing that marks out your connection to another person as different and as special. You wouldn’t usually have sex with your friends.
But first, and thinking about your email, I do want to get rid of a presumption that all too often crops up: that women are the “gate-keepers” to sex. It’s a common and damaging trope that a woman in a heterosexual relationship “never wants to have sex”; that she will “cry off with a headache”, that the man will automatically have a higher sex drive and “pester her” routinely until she “gives in”. Plenty of women love having sex. The problem isn’t with gender, but how well your relationship is functioning overall.
Now, let’s get real: we all know that relationships change as time passes. They also often follow certain patterns that I’m sure we all recognise. The developmental psychologist Ira Reiss posited a “wheel theory of love” in the 1960s, suggesting that all couples go through four main stages (or processes) of romantic relationships, from the initial establishing of rapport (you are drawn to each other and are interested in getting to know more/spend time together), to self-revelation (sharing and confiding personal feelings), to mutual dependency (becoming a couple and sharing thoughts, fears, dreams, hopes and sexual desires), and finally intimacy-need fulfilment (making decisions together, making plans and satisfying deeper needs, such as building a family or buying a house).
As one element goes up on the priority list (such as making plans for the future), another may fall back slightly (such as sexual activity) – but they are all inter-related. None, according to Reiss, are static. They ebb and flow depending on many different factors: often including things like age, health (physical and emotional) and the number of years a couple has been together.
And so, the sex life of any couple in a relationship waxes and wanes – the initial, giddy, falling-into-bed “honeymoon stage” (where being physical with the other person is all you can think about) is a plot-line of romantic movies for good reason. When we are sexually attracted to someone and the chemistry is right, many of us slide into a sort of wildly chaotic, lust-filled dance – where all you want to do is kiss and touch the other person; where you quite literally cannot get enough of them (for an excellent description of this feeling in poetry, try Pablo Neruda’s “Love Sonnet XI”: “I want to eat your skin like a whole almond.”)
That sometimes fades as marriages or long-term relationships deepen and develop, or when kids come along – but it doesn’t have to. The key to a healthy and fulfilling sex life with someone you love (especially if you live together) comes down to one vital component: communication.
I know, I know, I bang on about communication all the time in this advice column; but that’s because it’s so important. At the moment, you say your relationship with your girlfriend is “great”. But how easily can you tell her how it makes you feel when she rejects you?
Don’t beat yourself up for feeling low; rejection is tough – it can affect your feelings of self-esteem, it can cause anxiety and low mood, it can make you feel “less than”. It can make you question your relationship and drive you mad worrying that the other person is truly happy, or is looking for a “get out”. Plus, being rejected physically is primal – it goes right to the heart of those fears we all have about feeling unattractive and unwanted. That’s why it is dangerous, and that’s why it is so important to air it. If you don’t, I fear the problem won’t stay confined to the bedroom.
What’s the secret to great sex? Being open about what you want (and don’t want). It helps with all sorts of issues: consent, exploration, experimentation, intimacy. After all, the other person is not a mind-reader – they will not know if you don’t tell them. And forget being embarrassed – many people find it a turn-on to get verbal encouragement or instruction. Words are sexy: play around with them.
Consider whether you have asked your girlfriend recently to express what she likes or doesn’t, and whether you have been sharing the same in return (here’s a tip: to avoid sounding too negative, try not to say your partner is doing something wrong, and instead say something along the lines of: “I loved what you were doing a moment ago. Can we do that again?”) Don’t put any pressure on her to perform to some kind of quota, but do let her know she has a safe space to share her feelings with you.
When you’re in a sexual relationship with someone (even if that relationship is casual) it is absolutely vital to communicate your wants, needs and desires – nobody wants or deserves bad sex, and nobody wants to go to bed with someone and sense that they’re not really feeling it, either. The best sex is when both parties are able to be completely themselves. If you feel too shy to talk (but not too shy to actually have sex) then dig deeper into why that might be: why do you assume your needs aren’t important? Because they are, and so is your body. And there’s nothing sexier than a man or woman who knows that.
A final word of caution – a loss of libido, particularly if it’s sudden or unusual, might be something to discuss with a doctor or a therapist. So many elements can cause a temporary lack of interest in sex: from depression and grief, to illness or stress at work – not to mention the fact that we’ve all been living through a life-changing pandemic.
People are suffering from lack of routine, uncertainty and loneliness, as well as self-isolation and ill-health. Not everyone is dying to rip the clothes off their other half when they’ve been in a near-constant isolation “bubble” with that one person. We need to miss each other a bit to really crave each other. It’s a really tricky balance – as the psychotherapist Esther Perel puts it: “Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery.”
So give yourself a bit of a break: you love your girlfriend and think she’s “gorgeous” – that’s a great start. Make sure you tell her that. See if you can carve out a bit of distance from each other (in terms of the everyday grind) to regain a little of that alluring “mystery”. Talk about trying something in the bedroom you’ve never tried before, if she’s up for that. Buy a new toy.
Hopefully, what you’re experiencing now is just a temporary blip. In the worst-case scenario, your girlfriend may be reconsidering your relationship – I understand how frightening and sad that is. But again, and I’ll sound like a broken record – you won’t know until you talk about it. And it’s far better to find out now than to spend the next five years feeling lonely.
Victoria Richards is The Independent’s advice columnist. Having problems with work, love, family or friends? Contact DearVix@independent.co.uk