Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

Is Sex A “Legitimate” Need In A Relationship?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’ve been with my girlfriend for 4 years, living together for the last year. In the beginning, we had a lot of sex. It started dwindling around two years in, and six months ago she stopped wanting it altogether.

I asked and she said our sex was amazing, but she just doesn’t need or miss it. I respect her and don’t want to force her to do anything she doesn’t want to, so I just expressed that sex was an important need in a relationship for me and didn’t pressure. However, I got sad and it was visible in my mood. I love her and want us to be happy, but it’s hard. She also says I should focus on all the good things we have (and we do have a good relationship otherwise) and let it go. I want to, but I’m sad, feeling rejected, unwanted, and unsatisfied in this important aspect of the relationship.

But she made me question: is sex a legitimate need?

Feeling Left Out

DEAR FEELING LEFT OUT: Short version, FLO is that yes, sex is a legitimate need in a relationship. But I think it’s more accurate to say that sexual compatibility is a legitimate need in a relationship. When we talk about sexual compatibility, we tend to think of it in terms of matching libidos, or the type of sex people want to have. But sexual compatibility goes beyond kink or sexual positions or even who wants it every day and who wants it once a week. It’s also about what sex means to the two of you, how much of a priority it should be as part of your connection and how important it is to you to be sexual in your relationship.  Some people have romantic and intimate relationships where sex simply isn’t part of their connection and that’s valid and legitimate. But that’s also something that they agreed to. One or both of them may be asexual; they may have had a sexual connection at first, but discovered that it’s not as important to them. Or one partner may have lost an interest or desire for sex — or even the ability to have it — but they found ways to make their relationship work that satisfies them both.

That, unfortunately, is not what happened with you and your girlfriend.

The idea that your desire for sex — especially for sex with your partner — is something you should be willing to give up is a great way to cause a break up. It’s worse to try to tell the sexual partner that it shouldn’t be important to them.

If it’s important to you to be sexual with your partner, then hell yes sex is a legitimate need. Sex is a way of expressing emotion, building intimacy, triggers bonding between couples and, of course, it’s fun. It’s completely legitimate and understandable that you want to have that physical and emotional intimacy with your partner. Having her tell you that you’ve got all of these other things in your relationship and that you should just let the sex go is honestly unhelpful at best and hurtful at the worst.  She’s telling you that  this aspect of your relationship — something that you crave, that makes you feel loved and connected to her — isn’t important and you shouldn’t miss it.

And hey, that may well be true for her. But that’s not true for you. And this is where the conflict arises.

While this may not be the message that she intends, what she’s telling you is that it’s wrong of you to want it and that your desire is a problem. But your desire isn’t the problem; the incompatibility is the problem. And that incompatibility is making you feel rejected and unwanted. That’s the sort of thing that destroys relationships.

You and your girlfriend need to have a long Awkward Conversation about your mutual needs and how you can resolve this issue. However, when you have this conversation — or series of conversations — it’s important that you both come to this from a position of trying to understand each other, not “ok so how do we figure out who gets sex or not?” One of the things that’s going to be important to unpack is why she’s no longer interested in sex. Is it a case that she’s lost her libido? Is it that she was bored or unsatisfied and this is why her libido cratered? Has sex always been unimportant to her and she only just go to a point of not wanting to go through the motions any more? Or is it possible — and I hate to say this — that she’s interested in sex… just not sex with you?

Meanwhile, you want to explain what sex means to you — that it’s more than just orgasms, but that the sex ending has left you feeling rejected and unwanted and cut off from your girlfriend. That it’s not about how many times you get to get off, but about the connection and your relationship with her. But you also need to make it clear that sex in and of itself is important to you. The desire for sex doesn’t have to be about emotional intimacy and connection to be valid; it’s perfectly legitimate and valid to want sex because you like f--king. It’s no less real or legit to want sex because you like sex; it doesn’t need to be a transcendent event to be an acceptable desire. If sex — not just with her, sex in general — is important to you, then you should be clear and up front about that when you have these conversations.

And then the two of you need to decide how you’re going to move forward.

There’re a number of ways the two of you can go. If her loss of interest in sex bothers her, then she may want to see a doctor and see if there’s a medical cause. There are a number of issues that can crater your libido, ranging from hormone levels to stress to medication. A doctor can help zero in on whether there’s a medical or chemical cause for her libido going away.

If it’s a case that she was bored or unsatisfied with sex, then the two of you could visit a sex-positive relationship counselor and work on finding ways of communicating your needs and making your sexual connection work for the both of you. I would suggest visiting the referral directory at the Association of Sexual Educators, Counselors and Therapists to find a counselor in your area.

There’s also the obvious option opening the relationship. You could see about discussing the possibility of finding sexual partners besides your girlfriend. As I said: there are people in companionate relationships, where their connection isn’t sexual, but they have other things that bring them together. However, that may well not be the kind of relationship you want, especially not long-term.

But much of this is going to come down to your girlfriend too. There’re people who will decide that they’re done with sex and therefore so is their partner. They may not be sexual any more, but they still insist on monogamy. Or she may see your finding sex with someone else to be a threat to your relationship with her and either refuse to open things up or set up conditions so stringent that they may as well be impossible. Or it could be that not having sex as part of your relationship with her is the issue and you won’t be satisfied with getting your needs met elsewhere.

In those cases… the kindest thing for the both of you is to end the relationship. That doesn’t mean that she’s the villain for not wanting sex, and more than you are for not being able to stop wanting it. It just means that your relationship together no longer suits your needs. The people you are now are different from the people you were when you started and those new people simply aren’t compatible. That’s not a failure on anyone’s part or an indication that your relationship wasn’t strong enough. The two of you may simply have come to the end of your story together, and it’s time for you both to move to the next chapters in your respective lives.

But you can’t know that until you talk things out together, and make sure that you both understand each other first.

It’s a s--tty place to be stuck in, and you have my sympathies, FLO. I hope you can find a solution that works for you.

Good luck.

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