The “Dear Sugars” podcast is an advice program hosted by Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed. The audio contains more letters; submissions are welcome at email@example.com. If you’re reading this on desktop, click the play button below to listen. Mobile readers can find “Dear Sugars” on the Podcasts app (iPhone and iPad) or Radio Public (Android and tablet).
My partner and I have been together for three years. She’s 37, I’m 32 (and male). We’ve had our ups and downs, but the longer we’re together the stronger our relationship becomes. We support one another and share a lot of sweetness.
The problem is sex. Our libidos are mismatched, with me being the high-desire partner. My advances are often met with passivity. On average, we have sex once a month. It’s always good, if not great. We talk about what turns us on and off, we share our fantasies, and we’re open to trying new things. My partner says I’m good at pleasuring her and she often expresses her attraction to me, so I don’t understand why we have sex so seldom. We’ve had numerous conversations about it — almost always because I brought it up. I explain that I want to understand why attraction doesn’t for her translate into desire. She says sex just isn’t “a big part” of our relationship, but my desire for her is unflagging.
We’re talking about moving in together and starting a family. I’m open to that, but also reluctant, knowing that sex will likely become even less frequent once we have kids. I want to believe that we can create a robust, healthy sex life, but I’m at a loss as to what the next step is.
Cheryl Strayed: I’m struck by your partner’s statement that sex isn’t “a big part” of your relationship. Clearly, you disagree. I’m not sure your girlfriend is aware of how deeply. You’ve done well in initiating discussions with her about your dissatisfaction with the frequency of your sexual intimacy, Frustrated, but I think the next step is to go further in stating your concerns. Your partner needs to know that you’re more than bothered by this issue, that in fact it’s causing you to question whether or not to continue the relationship. I’m not suggesting you make a have-sex-with-me-more-often-or-else-I’m-leaving ultimatum, but rather that you transparently share your feelings with her about the fact that this really matters to you.
Steve Almond: Let’s be real here. If you’re feeling this deprived during your courtship, just imagine what happens when you move in and have kids. The broader issue here has to do with feeling loved. For you, this involves the chance to express your sexual desire for your partner. She doesn’t share the same intensity of desire. This inequality isn’t anyone’s fault. But it is your circumstance, and it poses a real threat to your happiness. Given that you’ve already talked a good deal on your own, with little discernible improvement, I’d suggest talking with a counselor before you move in together.
CS: Talking more explicitly about this issue will not only communicate to your partner how important sex is to you, it will also give you an opportunity to understand her sexuality better. I don’t see it as a contradiction that her attraction for you doesn’t always translate into desire. I think it’s fairly common in long-term relationships — which is among the reasons the frequency of sex so often drops off over time. It can be difficult to get things rolling once the great driving engine of lust subsides. So it’s time to have a conversation that goes beyond your bedroom talks about turn-ons and fantasies, Frustrated. What does compel your girlfriend to want to have sex with you and how might the two of you create those conditions more often? Are there ways other than sex that you might nurture and sustain your erotic connection with each other?
SA: I’m curious how your partner reacts to your attempts to initiate intimacy. Even if she doesn’t want to make love, is she able to acknowledge and engage with your desire in other ways? Are you open to soliciting other forms of erotic connection? I ask because I sense that you yearn for a lover who feels desire for you, not just one who consents to having sex when you initiate. I think it’s great to seek compromise, and to get creative in finding ways to reconcile the imbalance in your libidos. But to do so, you have to be radically honest about the true nature of your desires in a lover.
CS: Steve is right that so much of this is about the murkier territory of intimacy and desire — all of that is worth examining. And yet there’s also a very practical way through this. Perhaps, Frustrated, you simply need to ask your girlfriend if she’d be willing to jump in the sack with you once a week so you feel more content in your relationship. I know this sounds incredibly unsexy, but I’m a fan of appointment sex. It doesn’t rely upon magic to make it happen. It’s on your to-do list. (Which doesn’t mean that magic won’t be made.) Like so many worthwhile things in my life — writing, exercising — I’m not always in the mood to have sex, but afterward I’m always glad I did. It’s the just-do-it model of doing it. And it works.
SA: Love appointment sex! Cheryl’s plan is definitely worth a try. But if it doesn’t work, I want to reiterate my suggestion that you visit a counselor, preferably a sex therapist who can help you explore what erotic intimacy means for each of you, and for your relationship. Look, I don’t know anyone in a long-term monogamy who feels completely satisfied and in sync with their partner sexually. But I do know that it’s not fair for one person to walk around feeling sexually deprived and undesired. Nor for that person’s partner to feel pressured and resented. We all have different libidos, different yearnings, a different erotic imagination. What matters in the end is that the person we choose to be with accepts and even embraces our sexuality. The two of you may disagree about what constitutes a “robust, healthy sex life,” Frustrated. But you both have to be willing to acknowledge this as a goal. If your partner can’t, your next step may be finding a partner who can.