Advice,  Feelings Involved

Feelings Involved #11: No sex, no relationship?

Dear Kitty,

I've been with my partner since I was 18 and we've already been through a lot. We were so young when we met, but eager to explore the world together. And for many years we were on the same page about how we wanted our life to look. We explored being queer together, moved cities together for the first time, went on our first adventure around the world and eventually moved into our first flat. And even when we didn't want to live together any longer, we somehow managed to survive that transition. But that's when shit hit the fan...

During this transition period we started fighting a lot and for me it was really important to be physically close to her after we fought but she wanted to distance herself from me. So eventually I started to feel rejected. And then we fought even more because I felt so lost without the sex and the cuddles that we used to have.

That's been going on for 1 year (we’ve been together 7) and I'm so intimacy-deprived that I don't even know if what we have still counts as a relationship. I really love her and I want to be with her, but what if we never have sex again? Is this still a relationship that I want to be in?

Signed,

Longing for Sex

Dear Longing for Sex,

Seven years is a long period of time, particularly those years from the age of 18 to 25: you and your partner have grown into adulthood in this relationship. It sounds like you’ve shared a great deal in that time, having navigated many firsts together, and I can imagine that you’ve provided each other with a lot of support over the years. Coming out, travelling together, and setting up a shared home are all big transitions and to have got through them all speaks to the strength of what you’ve built.

Your letter and pen-name suggest that the current lack of sex and intimacy is the most pressing issue for you. I’d like, though, to go back a few steps to your most recent transition and the period of fighting you mention. Moving from co-habiting to living apart need not be a step back, or sign of trouble, in a relationship. When you say, though, that you “somehow managed to survive” as a couple, it sounds like this was a pretty challenging change for you. I’m curious what precipitated the decision to move apart, and also, to use your metaphor, about the shit that then hit the fan. You don’t say whether you’ve been fighting about specific issues; perhaps you’re in a pattern where everything and anything can end in an argument. Either way, it seems likely to me that you’ll need to address both the source or content of your disagreements, as well as your respective conflict styles and your pattern as a couple, rather than looking at the sexual dynamic in isolation.

Some conflict is inevitable in ongoing relationships: it’s how we handle it that can be unhealthy. One way of looking at conflict dynamics is through the lens of attachment theory. In the simplest terms, both anxious and avoidant attachment styles predispose us to experience conflict as threatening and therefore to react from a place of fear. A more anxiously-attached person is likely to fear the loss of the relationship and react by approaching their partner, seeking reassurance and greater intimacy. Those with more avoidant attachment, on the other hand, fear being overwhelmed by their partner (i.e. losing themselves), and respond by withdrawing and seeking physical and/or metaphorical space. It’s easy to see how a pattern can develop whereby each person’s default reaction to conflict exacerbates the other’s fears, leading to a vicious cycle, and I wonder if something like this may have happened between you and your partner.

In any sexual partnership, having (and not having) sex becomes one of the ways that we communicate. That’s totally natural, and can be a beautiful thing when it’s one of multiple ways in which we express ourselves and attend to one another. But when other communication channels are failing, sex can become overburdened with our unspoken feelings. Not wanting to have sex isn’t inherently a problem. If, however, behind that lack of desire there’s something (for example, anger), which we’re avoiding articulating, difficulties can arise, including feelings of rejection and defensiveness in our partner/s. Equally, if someone tries to initiate sex as a means of communicating, for example, their loneliness, the latent emotion can infuse the sexual advances with an urgency that puts unfair pressure on others, potentially leading to guilt or resentment.

Sex can become loaded with implicit meaning, creating doubts and misunderstandings and inhibiting genuine desire. If this resonates with you (though the specific examples I’ve given may not apply), it could be a helpful way of reframing your experience. Your longing for closeness and her wish for distance may feel like an impasse. Rather than focussing on this apparent incompatibility, I’d encourage each of you to reflect on any feelings you haven’t expressed, or even acknowledged to yourself, that could be showing up in your sexual dynamic. Be brave and ask yourself the difficult questions: what am I angry about? What do I fear? What am I not saying to my partner?

If the two of you want to continue the relationship, you may need to invest time and energy into building some new communication strategies and approaches to conflict, to try to help you break out of the pattern of this last year. A good couple’s counsellor could provide you with structure for this endeavour, useful observations about your existing dynamic, and the opportunity to learn new skills and tools (there may be donation-based or low-cost options available in your area, for example through local queer support services, if you need them).

It may be that working on the underlying relationship issues creates some space for you to reconnect sexually – but that’s not guaranteed. You ask “what if we never have sex again?”, and I think it’s important for you to answer this question. If you weren’t fighting, but still weren’t having sex, what would that mean for your future? Can you imagine yourself being happy in a relationship that doesn’t involve sex and cuddles (or involves cuddles but no sex, or vice versa)? There are no rules about what “counts” as a relationship, there’s only what it means to you. If sex is an important part of a partnership for you, that’s okay. You may need to sit with the possibility that for all the love that you feel for one another, and all of your history, the next transition will be from partners to something new. And if that is the case, it doesn’t negate the value of what you’ve shared and how much you mean to one another.

With the warmest wishes,

Kitty

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