Things I learned from being in a sexless relationship

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Lack of sex: ‘I’m worried my sex life might be over’

Red’s agony aunt Philippa Perry helps one reader see that sex has a different meaning for her and her partner

Philippa Perry is a psychotherapist, Red’s agony aunt and the author of bestselling parenting book, The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read. Here, she advises a reader who is worried her sex life might be over due to a lack of sex in her relationship. It’s time to talk through the different meanings sex has for you and your partner, she says…
My boyfriend and I began dating two years ago and for the first year we both agreed the sex was amazing. We were very close and spent a lot of time together. However, I had a lot of stress in my life which began to affect our relationship. I was antagonistic, needy and unreasonable with him at times, starting arguments which made him withdraw.

I’ve apologised for the way I behaved, and our relationship is now back on track, but it has had a negative effect on our sex life. During and immediately after this period we dropped to having sex just once a month and it felt stilted. We now have sex more frequently, always initiated by me, and usually without much foreplay. I have brought up the situation a couple of times, and he has reassured me that he is still sexually attracted to me.

The physical side of our relationship is incredibly important to me, and I feel that the issues isn’t that we are sexually incompatible – because we have been in the past – it’s more that we’ve gone off-track, and I’m just not sure how to get us back where we were. He will often refuse to talk about sex.

Philippa says:
Sex is nearly always more intense in the first two years of a relationship. When we first hook up with someone, we connect with a fantasy about what they are like. Then as the relationship develops and kicks in, the fantasy stage is over.
Sometimes long-term partners play games to try to relive this fantasy by role-playing a first date scenario or chance encounters – it’s why fancy dress outfitters do such a good trade in fireman’s uniforms.

‘Sex is nearly always more intense in the first two years of a relationship’
By play-acting sexy strangers you can go through that first-time fun all over again. I’m not suggesting this would work for you. But I mention it because many sexual relationships start with a bang and end with a whimper, and such well-known sex games are just what some couples seem to enjoy and employ to keep themselves interested.

A less effortful way of keeping the intrigue going is to get him to meet you at your workplace. If your partner sees you in an unfamiliar environment it can help you seem like an interesting person again – not just a familiar part of them– and that can be arousing. However it’s done, the challenge is to keep some mystery alive.

But something else is also going on here. He is withdrawing and you are chasing. The more he withdraws, the more you chase. He is like a cat – he needs to hide away to feel grounded again. You are like a dog and you need connection to feel better. It’s not that these different styles are incompatible, or that one of you is wrong, it is that they are different, which makes mutual understanding more difficult.

You also had a wobble which made you, albeit unconsciously, want to test the strength of your relationship, which has made him even more cat-like and wary. It is also possible that now he has seen your antagonistic side it doesn’t feel safe for him to make himself vulnerable with you.

This might be something he is unable to put into words and reason himself out of, it maybe why he doesn’t want to talk about it.I wonder, though, whether you could talk about what meanings you each assign to sex, because I wouldn’t be surprised if they were very different.

Remember, you can’t chase a cat and expect them to turn around to come to you. You must wait for them to come out of their hiding place if you are going to meet, and even then, there is no guarantee that he’ll feel safe enough to show all of himself again. But think also of this old cliché: does someone who cannot cope with you at your worst deserve you at your best?

1. It wasn’t my fault
When I ended a long term relationship seven years ago, everyone from my parents to the postman wanted to know why. ‘We grew apart’ was the easy answer, and more palatable than the truth, which was that I’d been trapped for five years in a sexless, house-mate-like living arrangement.

A situation that I was too ashamed to discuss with anyone, and which gradually affected everything from my mental health to my self-esteem. Even now – almost a decade and some great sex later – I look back with anger that I allowed someone to deny me what is fundamentally the ‘glue’ of a relationship, and incredulity that I let it continue for so long.
I exited the relationship feeling bitter and alone, but since coming out the other side, I’ve discovered my situation was far from unique. Google searches for ‘sexless marriage’ are apparently eight times more common than ‘loveless marriage’, and there are 16 times more web queries about a partner not wanting sex than them not being willing to talk according to New York Times research.

So what did my period of enforced celibacy ultimately teach me?

It wasn’t my fault
We are so programmed to think that everyone else is having sex thrice daily including while loading the dishwasher, that when our partners don’t want it, we wonder what is wrong with us. The answer is nothing. It was not MY fault that my ex didn’t want to have a physical relationship with me, and it’s not your fault if yours doesn’t either. Addressing the reasons why and making changes is something only the withholding partner can do.
I didn’t tell anyone I was getting less sex than a nun until I was actually out of the relationship.

I should have been more open with other people
I didn’t tell anyone I was getting less sex than a nun until I was actually out of the relationship, but with hindsight, I could have saved myself a lot of inner turmoil by confiding in someone – a problem shared and all that. If you can’t face talking to a friend or close family member, (and let’s face it, it IS embarrassing to admit that your partner doesn’t want to sleep with you) search for online support groups (with due care). Just writing down the problem and how it is making you feel can be hugely cathartic, as well as hearing other people’s experiences and outcomes.

Seeking professional help is key if you want change
This wasn’t an option for me simply because as time went on, it went from being the elephant in the room, to the sole focus of all my resentment and anger, and I didn’t want to go back; I just wanted out and a normal life, but if you do both want to get your relationship back on track, consider counselling. Relate has sound advice on couples’ sex therapy, but remember that the actual sex itself might not be the root issue. Depression, anxiety, health and stress can all leave people less than inclined to get sweaty under the duvet.

When a few months of no action became the entirety of my most fertile years, resentment set in
Don’t normalise it

If neither party wants it and are both happy with the set up, then fine, but one person denying the other the very thing that defines an intimate relationship is not the stuff of happy ever after. If a fulfilling sex life is important to you, then you have to do something about it, particularly if you want children. For me, being in sexless relationship for a large part of my thirties meant that I didn’t have the option of extending my family, and when a few months of no action ultimately became the entirety of my most fertile years, resentment and anger set in.

‘Love yourself’ is not just a cringey ‘inspirational’ quote
It’s not exactly hard to hook up for no-strings sex, but it’s not for everyone – especially if you do want to work things out with your partner. Far better to become an expert in self-satisfaction via some sex shop retail therapy until the drought lifts or you move on. And if the relationship does end up passing the point of no return, you’ll at least go into your next one knowing exactly what you want and need.

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