Hello, all you creepy lovebones, and welcome to Ask Dr NerdLove, the only dating advice column covered by the Sakovia Accords. This week, we're going to be talking about confronting difficult issues in our relationships. From having to have uncomfortable conversations about sex, making hard choices and even letting go of relationships that may not be working, it's time to insert coins and gird your loins.
Let's do this thing.
I'm a 30 years old guy, with a problem I can't seem to be able to resolve.
A little bit of context: I've been dating a girl for the past 3+ years. She is great at everything, a good companion, funny, charming... but our sex life is really bad.
We may have sex once every 2 weeks, and every time we do it, it's really bad (lack of effort, mood, etc). Sometimes due to health issues (pains, urinary tract infection, etc), we could be without sex for months.
We talked at great length about it since the beginning of the relationship, and she always said that it was something she was going to make an effort to change.
After a couple of years, it looks like it's something that won't change. In fact, it has been getting worse.
Last times we talked, she told there is something that she has not been able to talk about with anyone in her life, including me (which makes me assume the worst possibility of what it could be). She also added that is something that I'd have to "understand and live with it".
But that's the thing, I don't understand, because I don't know what it is, and I really like having sex while in a relationship.
I really don't know what to do. I don't want a future with a person where I know the sex is going to be bad, and that it won't ever be good; but in everything else, I think she is perfect.
Dead In Bed
I get a lot of letters like yours, DIB, and they all start the same way: "My relationship/partner is perfect, except for this one little thing…"
And that little thing? Almost always sex. Most of the time, if something else was causing that much headache and misery in a relationship, the couple would have broken up already; they'd chalk it up to irreconcilable differences, call it a day and move on. But when the problem is sex, the issue tends to linger because sex manages to be simultaneously the most and least important thing in a relationship.
Now, before we get to that, DIB, the first thing that's needed is to isolate the issue. It could well be that you and your girlfriend aren't sexually compatible. She may not like sex in general, she may not like sex with you or she may want very different kinds of sex than the two of you are having.
Alternately, she may have a physical issue like vaginismus, which makes penetration deeply uncomfortable if not incredibly painful. Or it may be that she has something in her past that's made sex a no-go area for her.
Depending on just what that issue is, you're going to have some decisions to make.
First things first — assuming that you haven't done so already during your talks about your sex life — is that you two have a long and frank talk about the sex you are (and aren't) having and why. Are there things that she'd rather be doing in bed, or that she might need to be aroused? Is she not interested in sex in general? And, more importantly, is this something she's going to want to fix?
If she's having physical issues that make sex uncomfortable or painful, then a talk with her gynecologist should be the first step. It's worth noting that some doctors can be very sex-negative and tend to brush off issues surrounding painful intercourse as not a big deal or being in the patient's head. It's important for her to be willing to advocate for her own health; if she's getting the brush-off, then it's time for her to find a different doctor who'll listen and take her issues seriously.
Assuming the issue isn't physical, then my next suggestion is a sex-positive counsellor or therapist. If there is something in her past that's put some sort of whammy on her sexuality — and that could be anything from abuse to an intensely religious upbringing — then a therapist is the best person to talk to. Similarly, if the issue is that she has hang-ups around her own pleasure and desires or if she's asexual, then a sex-positive counsellor can help the both of you work through these issues.
But with all that being said, let's address the elephant in the room: this has been part of your relationship for three years now… and in all likelihood, that doesn't seem as though it's going to change. This is where you have to start making some decisions. Sex and sexual satisfaction is a critical part of a successful romantic relationship; when one or both partners aren't happy with their sex-lives, the relationship tends to fall apart. And right now you're not happy, and you haven't been happy for quite some time. Yes, everything else in your relationship is great, but this isn't a small or unimportant issue. This aspect of your relationship with your girlfriend might never change; it may end up being the price of entry for being in a relationship with her.
If you want to stay with her, then that may require compromise, on both your parts. You may have to accept that a sexual connection might not be part of your relationship. If that's the case, it may well be worth talking with your girlfriend about some form of non-monogamy, where you're allowed to get your needs met outside of your relationship with her.
The other option is to end things. This can be difficult. Remember what I said about sex being the most and least important part of a relationship? This is where it kicks in. We live in a fairly sex-negative culture, and there's a lot of social opprobrium to leaving someone because you weren't having enough sex. There's a lot of social programming that says sex shouldn't be so important that you throw a relationship away over it, especially if things are working in other areas.
At the same time, however, it's entirely reasonable to want to have a sexual relationship with the person you love and for that to be a priority in the relationships you want to have. If the two of you are simply not compatible as lovers then you're not going to work as a couple, and it's far better to end things quickly and cleanly than to linger and make both of you miserable in the process.
You're in a tough spot, DIB, and I wish I had better answers for you. Talk things out with your girlfriend and decide how you're going to proceed.
First off I want to say I've loved your articles since they started appearing on Kotaku a few years ago. I used to look around and see people living happy lives with their significant others and I was kind of sad because of it. I was mostly fine with being alone; just seeing people with their other made me a tinge lonely if anything. Now, however, I'm the one with an odd relationship issue.
I've just started dating this amazing girl, who we'll call Lily. We've only started dating last summer and I've finally gotten back into school after saving up and getting my brothers started in university. Lily and I had been friends since I was like 14 (I'm 27 now) and I've had a crush on her before. After two shitty boyfriends, both of which were only using her, she has finally agreed to date me. We have almost everything in common.
We play the same games, we like the same genres of movies, we both like eating different foods, and we're both comp sci majors. Perfect, right? Not quite. This is a very long distance relationship (Canada to California), and she needs constant communication. And I mean constant, like every few minutes. Lily gets jealous when I spend the odd day hanging out with friends (I spend 5-6 nights just being with her usually). She also gets incredibly depressed when she loses at a game and feels "useless" despite our best efforts to assure her she isn't (she's the best support out of our group of friends that play League of Legends). Lily also gets upset if I don't respond to her texts within a few minutes (because I'm at work, class or hanging out with friends).
There's also the problem that we run out of things to talk about and that she wants me to start talking about every little detail of my day (even though I text her pictures of almost every event/action I am doing or participating in).
I understand maintaining communication is important in long distance (especially since we only get to visit each other twice a year). When I started dating her, I had no idea she was like this at all since we've talked about our behaviours in relationships (OK she's my first, but still), so this was a surprise to me.
Meanwhile, I've met an awesome girl in my recent and first year of returning to university, let's call her Ruby. She's adventurous to say the least. She doesn't like the same things I do, but does? We're like two opposite sides of the same coin. She prefers fantasy over sci-fi, I prefer sci-fi over fantasy. She prefers turn-based strategy games, I prefer League of Legends. She's willing to try new stuff, but usually doesn't necessarily like it and I will. Ruby likes spicy, I like salt, and so on. I love hanging out with Ruby though because our sense of humour just mixes really well. She makes me laugh a lot and I can make her laugh a lot with my sarcasm.
Lily on the other hand tends to get hurt and shrinks away when I crack my sarcasm, whether at myself or anything else.
Ruby and I have both admitted we would get sick of hanging out with the same person 24/7 and would need a day or two to ourselves or with other people.
Here's where it gets complicated. Ruby and I were talking about her relationship views (I wanted to help her find a boyfriend), But her conditions are exactly like mine. Become best friends first before she considers it possible to date a guy.
The problem? I'm her best friend and a guy, but she acknowledges I'm in a relationship. Ruby doesn't admit any difficulties in hanging out with me, but admits that of any friends she has I'd be the only one she would consider dating. I was in the exact same boat as her prior to dating Lily, but I don't know if hanging out with me is difficult and she just doesn't want to admit it for sake of our friendship, or if she really does consider our friendship platonic.
I'm honestly not sure if I made a rash choice in dating Lily and I wouldn't mind dating Ruby since I like myself around Ruby. If I have made a rash choice in dating Lily, I'm not sure how to go about fixing this situation. If I didn't make a rash choice in dating Lily, I'm not sure if I'm hurting Ruby at all and I don't want to be (even if it means we have to stop hanging out or hang out even less often).
Stuck In The Middle
SITM, you've got two very different issues on your hands. And the first is your relationship with Lily.
Now before I get into this: congratulations on finally dating someone you've had a long-standing crush on. I'm sure you're thrilled beyond measure that you've made the leap from The Friend Zone to being her boyfriend and fulfilling all those dreams you've been sitting on for so long.
That's why it's a damn shame that I am now going to have to introduce those dreams to the Chair Leg of Truth. Sorry.
(Also: there is no Friend Zone. There are people who are attracted to you and people who aren't. That's it.)
I realise you've been crushing on her for 13 years (thirteen!!) and finally being with her is making your junk sing "We Are The Champions" in three part harmony. However, I think you let the goal of achieving a long-standing crush get ahead of the reality of the situation, and now you're feeling stuck.
You've made a mistake that a lot of young geeky guys (myself included) make and decided to leap into the long distance thing for your first relationship. To a certain extent, they feel easier and less intimidating. You have that whole distance thing to mitigate a lot of the pressures of an in-person relationship, and you get to say you're dating somebody without actually changing your day-to-day life. But in reality you're missing out on pretty much everything involved in a relationship, not the least of which is gaining the experience that will let you maintain a relationship over long distances. Long distance relationships are hard to begin with, and if you don't have any real relationship experience to start with, they're a damned misery. And now you're starting to see why...
Long distance relationships require having a lot of trust and patience, and it doesn't seem like Lily has either. She doesn't seem to get that you have a life outside of her, nor that you might need emotional space, even as you have physical space now. There's enough difficulty in maintaining an LDR with someone without having to continually manage their emotional state along with your own. The fact that she gets jealous if you spend time anywhere other than in her virtual presence is her problem, not yours, and it's on her to deal with it. That's part of being a grown-arse adult.
If she wants someone who's cool with being chained together like The Defiant Ones, then she's welcome to find someone who is, not to browbeat you into being him.
This is not a good relationship to start with, and the distance issue is only making it worse.
Now let's talk about Ruby. One of the things you're learning with Lily is that dating someone who's superficially similar to you — you have all the same interests in common — doesn't mean that you're a compatible couple. Just because you both love LoL doesn't mean that you're necessarily going to fit together like a couple of LEGO. The things that make you compatible are the deeper issues: your attachment style, your need for togetherness vs. personal time, whether you have complimentary senses of humour and the like.
Which you seem to have with Ruby. The problem there is that all you have right now is a platonic relationship and a lot of assumptions. Assumptions, I might add, that are currently based more on wish fulfilment than on facts. You dig Ruby. You're letting the fact that you dig Ruby colour your ideas about what she might want without stopping to, y'know, ask. Not that you're not an awesome guy, SITM, but assuming that she's into you but is afraid to say anything because you're in a long distance relationship is a wee bit presumptuous.
Yeah, the two of you are tight. You're good together as friends. But that doesn't mean she's necessarily into you as someone she wants to see naked on the regular.
So what do you do?
First of all: the best thing you can do is break up with Lily. Not because of Ruby, mind you, but because this relationship isn't going to work. Her demands on you aren't reasonable, especially if she's putting it on you to keep her from feeling jealous or upset. Let this be part of what you learn from your first relationship: where your boundaries are, how to enforce them and to be willing to be single rather than to be in a relationship that isn't working out for you.
After you break up with Lily… you're going to use your words. Instead of worrying about Ruby's theoretical crush and potential emotions, you're going to find out how Ruby actually feels by the radical method of asking her. You're going to say, "You know, I really like you. I think we really have a connection, and I'd like to take you out on a proper date." Not "hang out some time", not "go do something" or otherwise surf the deniability quantum wave where you're both asking her out and not asking her out. You are going to use the D word because you want to make it clear that you want to try seeing her in a romantic context, not just a platonic one.
And if she says no? Then it's all cool. Not only do you have your answer, which means you're now free to go explore other possibilities, but you've learned a lesson in how to handle rejection without making it weird. You're still friends. It won't be a big, awkward deal unless you make it awkward.
*** Have you dealt with sexual incompatibilities in your relationship? Was your first relationship long distance? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments, and we'll be back in two weeks with more of your dating questions. ***
Ask Dr Nerdlove is Kotaku's fortnightly advice column for matters of the heart, hosted by the one and only Harris O'Malley, AKA Dr Nerdlove.
Harris O'Malley is a writer and dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blog Paging Dr NerdLove and the Dr NerdLove podcast. He is also a regular guest at One Of Us. He can be found dispensing snark and advice on Facebook and on Twitter at @DrNerdLove. Dr Nerdlove is not really a doctor.