DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: My boyfriend and I have been in a relationship for about 3.5 years and we’ve been through a lot together and I like to think it’s a pretty solid relationship overall.
However in the last year our sex life has suffered, namely because I haven’t wanted it or enjoyed it. Sorry to be TMI, but I often struggle to get physically aroused, can have limited sensation ‘down there’ or when I can feel things it’s often, at best, uncomfortable and, at worst, painful.
I have always tried to be open and honest with him about these issues and, at first, it caused arguments as my boyfriend thought I might no longer be attracted to him and/or wanted to be with someone else (feelings based on bad experiences in his previous relationships). But that’s very much not the case and I’d always try to talk it out with him and reassure him as best I could.
Towards the start of 2019, I went back on antidepressants for a depressive episode. And at first I thought this was what was causing my problems. And so when it got to May this year and I was having physical health issues (which me and the doctor thought were side effects of the antidepressants) and I had to come off them, I was hopeful that at least my sex problems would be resolved.
They were not. Plot twist – it wasn’t the anti depressants. With the same physical issues on going (and seemingly connected to the sex problems) I was referred to an endocrinologist and found out I have a suspected tumour. IN MY BRAIN.
Ok. Ok. So it’s not exactly in my brain but just under it. On my pituitary gland. And it’s most likely benign. But as I’m sure you can understand, it’s scary for me nevertheless.
I’m currently waiting on an MRI scan (I’m in the UK so going through the NHS) to confirm the diagnosis and start treatment, but with the pandemic and lockdown I don’t know when that will be.
My boyfriend is always very supportive of me through the hospital appointments and always looks after me when I’m not feeling great. I know he’s worried for my health and just wants me to get better. I don’t want you to think he’s completely selfish and his only concern is the fact he’s not getting any!!
I just don’t know how to handle our sex life (or lack of) in the meantime. Sometimes I will try sex with him in the hopes it will feel at least okay, but it sucks. We try to keep an open and honest conversation about the subject but we both get frustrated that there’s nothing we can really do while we wait for the doctors to sort out the tumour.
I do worry this could be the thing that ruins an otherwise amazing relationship.
What should I do?
Can’t Get There
DEAR CAN’T GET THERE: First of all CGT, I’m glad to hear that your tumor is apparently benign. It’s still a terrifying situation to be in, but that at least takes a little bit off your emotional plate.
Second of all, I want to say that I’m glad your boyfriend is being so supportive and that you and he have talked things through so that he understands that this is a physical issue, not one of interest. I’m also glad that it seems clear that you’re both on the same page — both about trying to find a solution and about wanting to make things work in the meantime.
But it does seem as though that part of the issue here comes down to how you define sex. One of the things that I’ve seen fairly often when people struggle with physical pain during sex or who have difficulty having sex is that their definition of sex starts and ends with “penetration”, and “penis-in-vagina penetration” specifically. And while that’s understandable — straight folks, especially straight men get taught this as gospel — that limitation may be both the cause of and solution to some of the challenges here.
One of the things about sex that we tend to lose track of is that it’s not all about “tab-a-into-slot-b, repeat”, it’s about desire, intimacy and contact. When done properly, it’s about the shared experience, not just what went where until someone got off. When you hold that in mind, it’s much easier to expand your definition of what sex is and what it can consist of. Making that shift not only means that you make it easier for you and your boyfriend to have great sex, but it encourages the two of you to get creative and adventurous. When you have to think a little outside the box (er… as it were), it’s much harder to fall into the rut of the same-old, same-old and get bored of both sex and each other. You’re actively incentivized to try new things together, to experiment with things you might not otherwise have tried and — importantly — to be mindful of what you both get out of each particular encounter. That helps keep the spark alive and vital and makes sex something creative and participatory instead of something you do on automatic; that, in turn helps keep your relationship strong and fulfilling
Treating oral sex, for example, as sex, rather than just as foreplay or as a “instead of PIV” option, means that you’re both encouraged to do more with it — playing with stopping and starting, different textures and sensations, orgasm denial, and so on. Other forms of sex — anal sex, mutual masturbation (assuming that clitoral stimulation works for you, even if penetration doesn’t), frottage, etc. give you more options as well. You can also incorporate toys as part of being intimate with one another. Maybe an external vibrator would work for you. Maybe your boyfriend might be interested in prostate play or using a plug during other forms of sex. And if you or your boyfriend want something more akin to traditional penetration… well, that’s still on the table, in a way. You can use masturbation sheaths like Fleshlights or Tengas during sex, instead of treating them as something you use instead of sex with a partner. Using it on your boyfriend — controlling it by hand or holding it between your thighs, say — can help give the sense of riding or being ridden that you both may be missing.
And if getting the tumor treated does help with issues surrounding penetrative sex… well, then traditional penetration can be part of your sexual repertoire, rather than the primary focus. Getting in the mindset of expanding what sex is to you can make traditional penetration even better for both of you because you’ll have all these other tools to help enhance the holistic experience.
Here’s to hoping that your treatment start soon, go smoothly and that you have a complete and full recovery with no complications.
And please, be sure to write back and let us know how you’re doing!
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org