DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: How do you know if/when to end a long-term relationship when everything is great except for the sex? How do you know when it’s irrational to keep trying to make it work?
I’ve been dating my girlfriend Helen (not her real name) for 5 years, and lived with her for 3. We’re both in our mid-20s. Before meeting Helen, I had very little success in the dating and sexual realm; this is my first real relationship and she’s the only person I’ve had sex with more than once (I had a couple of one-time hookups years ago). We mutually decided to be polyamorous from the start, as both of us identified with it, though in practice I haven’t dated outside our relationship.
Helen and I were friends before we started dating, and as soon as we did we went through the typical honeymoon phase, including a deep personal connection and lots of enthusiastic sex. The thing is, even after the honeymoon phase wore off the non-sexual parts of our relationship continued to be amazing. We have similar values and (weird) personality types, share similar niche academic interests, communicate openly and honestly, and have a mutual love of cuddling. We still find ourselves regularly getting lost in fascinating, hours-long conversations. We’ve supported one another through hard times and mental illness. We’re best friends, and until recently I was 100% sure I was going to spend the rest of my life with Helen.
Over the course of our relationship, though, we’ve been having sex less and less, and Helen has seemed less and less sexually attracted to me. Nowadays, we sometimes go months without any sort of sexual intimacy. Even when we do have sex, while Helen still says she enjoys it, I always have to initiate and it’s clear that she’s mostly doing it because she cares about me and the relationship, and less out of visceral desire or excitement (she’s also told me as much, FWIW). It feels like she always prefers snuggling up with me on the couch and watching another episode of a show together over having sex, no matter what I do. We’ve had many conversations where I’ve tried to ask Helen in a lowkey way what I could do to be more attractive or make sex with me more enjoyable for her, but her responses are either unhelpfully vague or that it’s more about her than me.
To make matters worse, it isn’t that Helen’s sex drive has gone down in general, just that it’s gone down for sex with me in particular. While I wouldn’t say she has a high sex drive, and stress sometimes completely kills it for a week or two at a time, generally speaking she still masturbates, and when she has other partners she still enthusiastically has sex with them (this is based on conversations we’ve had, not my own assumptions, to be clear).
This is a problem for me. I have a high sex drive and really value sexuality. I masturbate almost daily, and often 2-3 times a day. And I’m still very attracted to Helen. Even after 5 years. I still feel over the moon every time we have sex, and it makes me feel close to her in a way few other things do.
I know it’s not realistic to expect daily sex in a long-term relationship, and that sometimes people will have a stressful week or month that might dramatically lower their libido temporarily, and I’m ok with that. That said, I really want my primary partner to make me feel desired, to sometimes be enthusiastic about sex with me, and to have sex with them a couple times a week on average. I want to feel like my partner is getting as much from sex as I am. I want my sex life to be more than just a very occasional quickie or handjob to keep me happy.
It really hurts to feel like your own girlfriend doesn’t desire you anymore. I try not to let it get to me too much and focus on the other good things in our relationship, but in some moods this dynamic makes me feel undesirable, lonely, and sexually frustrated, which is how I often felt back in my unhappy years as a college-aged virgin.
At the same time, aside from the sex our relationship is wonderful and I’d be devastated if it ended. When I compare our relationship to those of my friends and family, Helen and I have one of the healthiest and closest I know of outside of the bedroom. That connection feels really special and I feel like I’d be a fool to give it up.
Sometimes I wonder if I should try my hand once again at polyamorous dating to get my sexual needs met now that I’ve been vaccinated, but other times I wonder how much that would really help. And, to be honest, my past experiences with online dating as a partnered, polyamorous, introverted guy have been extremely dispiriting and not particularly fruitful.
My question isn’t so much about how I can be more attractive to Helen or communicate better about sex with her, we’ve been seeing a sex-positive couple’s therapist about that, but rather how do you know when you’ve given it your all and it just isn’t going to work out? How do I even go about thinking about this? What questions should I be asking myself? I feel so lost and uncertain.
Lost in a Relationship
DEAR LOST IN A RELATIONSHIP: Hoo boy, LIR, you decided to jump right into the deep end, huh?
Your question is pretty tangled up in a lot of different ways, and those are all influencing each other. There really isn’t any way to pick one area and stick to it because all these other issues are tied up with ’em and if you only pull on one knot, you’re gonna snarl up all the others.
But let’s start with something basic: yes, sexual compatibility and satisfaction is critical for a successful relationship. Now, this is an area that trips a lot of folks up, because they make a lot of assumptions around what sexual compatibility and satisfaction mean. The TL;DR version is fairly simple: you and your partner are more or less on the same page regarding sex — including frequency, kinds of sex, monogamy or non-monogamy, your yes/no/maybes during sex and what is considered cheating.
Now this doesn’t mean that, for example, you have to have equally matched libidos or be the same flavors of kink (or standard-issue); it just means that you and your partner are able to come to agreements that are satisfactory to both parties.
That may mean, for example, that in the case of mismatched libidos, accomodations are made for both parties. If one partner is cool with going without until the other is ready, then that works for them. But if not, one solution might be that the party with the lower libido will cheerfully and enthusiastically help out at times when they don’t feel like having penetrative sex, while the partner with the higher libido agrees to a level of partnered sex that is less than they’d ideally want, but one they can be satisfied with. Alternately, the partner with the higher libido may have permission to get their needs met elsewhere, either openly or discretely. Someone who’s with a kinky partner but is themselves more standard-issue may participate in some kinks (within reason) and/or give permission for the kinky partner to play elsewhere.
The point is for both partners to reach an accommodation that may not be perfect, but is one they can both be happy with over the long-term.
This is important because sexual dissatisfaction will kill a relationship deader than the dodo and faster than Affliction tees. When sex — or the lack thereof — is causing problems, those issues will spread very quickly into other areas of your relationship. It goes from sexual dissatisfaction to relationship dissatisfaction. If, for example, you have mismatched sex drives with no reasonable accommodation, you quickly end up with one partner feeling used and the other feeling abandoned or undesired. It doesn’t take much for that to curdle into bitterness and resentment… and those are two of the Four Horsemen of Relationships.
So as a general rule: when the sex isn’t working and it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be any way to fix things, then it’s time to reconsider things.
Now the second issue is the nature of the relationship. I think there’s a fundamental imbalance here in how you and Helen feel for each other, sexually. It seems pretty clear that Helen is having maintenance sex with you, because she wants you to be happy and because she cares about you… but she isn’t as interested in you sexually. She clearly likes being physically intimate with you (cuddling, etc.) but the sexual attraction just doesn’t seem to be there any more. You, on the other hand, are still very into her. That’s a problem. This is different from mismatched libidos; someone with a low libido still finds their partner sexually attractive; they just don’t want sex that often. While that can leave someone feeling unwanted, it’s a different situation where the attraction has faded, which is what seems to have happened here.
This isn’t all that unusual; in fact, this is one of the reasons why FWBs often end the “benefits” part of the relationship. Their friendship was strong and there was attraction at the beginning, but eventually that attraction and sexual interest faded, and the benefits aspect gets wound down while the friendship continues. There are also people who round the affection and emotional intimacy of a friendship up to romantic love, only to realize that while they love their partner, they don’t love them in that way after all.
And, of course, there’re also people who need sexual novelty. The Coolidge Effect — where the brain doesn’t produce as much dopamine and oxytocin during sex with a familiar partner — kicks in early and hard, and their interest in their partner wanes quickly after the initial honeymoon period.
In the context of a long-term and committed relationship, this is a problem. It’s entirely reasonable — even in a poly or open relationship — to assume that the sexual attraction is a core of the relationship. When that starts to fade — especially for only one partner — that creates a fundamental change in the nature of the relationship, and one that people may not necessarily have been ready for or expected. Even in a non-monogamous relationship, there is still the reasonable assumption that your primary or nesting partner (or whatever term you prefer) isn’t going to lose sexual interest in you. If this was something that you knew going in, then at least you go in forewarned; you understand what you’re signing up for. But it doesn’t sound like you got the heads up about this… and that’s left you in the lurch.
And to be fair: Helen may not have known this about herself. It can take a lot of self-examination and self-awareness to recognize why patterns keep cropping up in your relationships. But if that’s part of how she rolls, that’s something she really should have told you beforehand.
The third issue is communication. Clear and open communication is key for any relationship, but especially in a poly relationship. In a lot of ways, polyamory and other forms of ethical non-monogamy is dating at the varsity level; you’re having to manage multiple relationships and a lot of potentially very complicated feelings. Being able to advocate for your needs, communicate how you feel and be fully up front with your partners is vital. And it’s even more important that you be able to talk about difficult, awkward or potentially painful subjects. One of the biggest mistakes couples make is that they hide or downplay how they’re actually feeling out of a desire to avoid hurting or upsetting their partner. And while that’s understandable, it tends to backfire. There’s only so much “no, it’s just stress” or “I’ve got other things bothering me” one can give before the other partner starts to suspect that they’re being misled. And when the truth finally does come out, the pain that’s caused is exponentially greater. While the initial “look, my attraction for you is fading” is going to hurt — there really is no way around that, even when it’s just how someone is — kicking that conversation down the road just means that the other partner is having to live with questions and doubts and nagging worries that just get worse over time. And once you learn the truth — that those fears were correct and that your partner’s been hiding it from you and that they’ve been having sex they don’t necessarily want — well, that’s when things tend to pop off, messily and all over the place.
Like removing a bandage, the quick, sharp pain ends up being far preferable to the long, drawn-out ordeal.
Helen really should’ve been straight-forward with you about how she was feeling. While I don’t doubt that she was being honest when she said it was about her, not you, the lack of information was hurting you far more than the truth would have. The truth, at least, would mean that you could work on how the two of you were going to move forward. Dragging it out with vagueness and hand-waves did you and your relationship no favors, especially when the issue was very clearly centered around you.
All of which brings us to the core of your question: what do you do now?
Well… I think it comes down to the nature of your relationship with Helen and what you expect from it. You love Helen and it sounds pretty clear that she loves you too. But the fundamental disconnect comes from the fact that you’re still attracted to her, but that attraction isn’t mutual. And while she is willing to have sex for the sake of the relationship, that doesn’t sound like something you want. And that’s legit; you are right to want to feel wanted and desired by your partner. Not having that in your relationship is a problem for you.
But if I’m being honest… I don’t know if dating other people is going to fix that for you. Leaving aside the issues you’ve had with dating before — that’s a different and solvable obstacle — I don’t think that sleeping with other people is going to meet the need that’s going unfulfilled. It’s not just orgasms or sex that you’re missing, it’s being desired by Helen. I would worry that seeing other people isn’t going to fill that need with your relationship as it currently stands.
There’re two ways forward that I can see here for you.
The first is that you accept a change in the nature of your relationship with Helen. The fact that the sexual connection seems to have ended doesn’t mean that you have to give up the relationship entirely.
There are couples who have loving and romantic relationships that aren’t about mutual attraction or sex. They love each other, they rely on each other and they have a very strong and intimate relationship. They are legitimate partners in life, but they don’t have a sexual connection. You could — in theory — pivot to having a romantic and intimate relationship with Helen, one built on love, but completely platonic. Because you’re both polyamorous, you would be free to also date and have romantic relationships with other women.
However, the thing about companionate relationships is that most of the time, their relationship didn’t start as a sexual one… or, if it did, they were in a position where it made more sense to stay together than to break up when the sexual side of things ended.
And that’s the difference here. You and Helen are both very young and you have few significant ties to one another; you’re not reliant on the other’s financial support, you (presumably) don’t own major assets together and you don’t have children. You don’t have as many things that would make it more convenient or sensible to stay together. And — critically — you’re still hurting by how this has all gone down.
I think that might make pivoting to a non-sexual romantic relationship difficult in the long-run. I suspect that your wounds haven’t even begun to close yet, and the expectations you have of your relationship are keeping them open. While it’s theoretically possible for you two to pivot to living together without being nesting partners or primaries, I think that you’re not really in a place where that’s feasible for you.
That’s why I think the more viable option for you would be option number 2: you end the relationship. And to be clear: breaking up with Helen doesn’t mean that you never see each other again or that she’s dead to you. It just means that you are no longer her partner. Remember what I said about the expectations of the relationship causing you pain? Changing your relationship — from lovers to friends — may well make things easier on you. And to be clear: you can have close, intimate friendships. For a lot of people, their friends are the most significant relationship of their lives, rather than someone they’re dating, and that’s beautiful. But when you go from being partners to friends, even close friends, you let go of the (not unreasonable) expectation of sexual attraction and desire from her. That’s not part of what most people expect from friendships, even friendships with exes. And I suspect that not having that expectation would make it easier for you to move on to a romantic relationship with someone else — poly or not.
And if I’m being honest: staying with her because you’ve had a hard time dating before is a bad idea in general. As the saying goes: it’s better to be lonely because you’re alone, than to be lonely because you’re with the wrong person. You can get better at dating; that’s kind of my whole thing, after all. But you can’t get back the time you spent in a relationship that not only doesn’t meet your needs, but makes you feel worse about yourself.
How do you know it’s over? When you decide that you’re done. When you know that things aren’t going to change, and you’re tired of throwing yourself against that particular brick wall. And if the pain of being there is outweighing the benefits… well, then it’s better to end things now, than down the line when that pain starts to fester and becomes the infection that eats away at the good in your relationship. That would make it impossible to keep a relationship with her, no matter whether you stay or break up.
I think, in your heart, you already know what you want. It’s just a matter of whether you’re going to do it now or later.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org