Q: I've been dating this guy for about six months, and for the most part, things have been good, but there are occasionally times when I'm less satisfied. I just started graduate school in September and moved to a new state, so I'm going through some major life changes and still adjusting. The conversations where we’re having trouble are exclusively about needs. I don't always want to have sex when he does, and he assumes something is wrong when this happens. It’s frustrating, and it makes me feel bad about not wanting to have sex. These instances usually lead to long conversations about whether or not I want to be with him. The only time he seems concerned about our relationship is when my need for sex doesn’t align with his, and that makes me feel like sex is the center of it all for him.
He's insisted that a regular, healthy sex life is part of a good relationship. I know it is, but I should also be able to express when I am and am not in the mood without causing an issue.
Additionally, I’ve always needed time alone to myself as I'm pretty introverted. When I've said as much to him, he assumes I don't want to see him, or that I need space because of him. That isn’t the case at all — I need space from everyone so I can decompress, and I should be able to ask for this, too, without feeling guilty. During our last big conversation, I brought up the idea of taking a moment to reflect on the things I need (essentially taking a small break) and he hated that. I thought I was being mature. I got out of a relationship two months before we started seriously dating, so maybe I needed more time in between to be by myself.
A: First of all, you deserve alone time simply because you’re human. You don’t need to list reasons why it makes you feel better in order to justify it. That your boyfriend doesn’t respect your need for alone time is just as upsetting as his lack of regard for your sexual preferences. Both behaviors are violating, self-centered, and manipulative. Healthy people want their partner to get time for themselves, to recharge in whatever ways make them feel good.
Now, onto the sex issue. I’m surprised by his claim that “a regular, healthy sex life is part of a good relationship” when he is the one who has, unintentionally perhaps, created a toxic pattern around sex. His position here — essentially, no alone time, no turning down sex — is certainly far from what anyone would consider “healthy.”
It’s perfectly understandable if your partner isn’t thrilled with the amount of sex you two are having, or with the ways that sex is being initiated. It’s common, if sad, to occasionally feel undesired by your partner, or to feel dissatisfied with your sex life, and it’s something that can be addressed. The problem here is how he’s choosing to respond. You’ve expressed to him your wants and needs, and he’s pushing back against those asks using multiple tactics. That is what is incredibly troubling to me. That is red flag central.
Having a partner turn down sex doesn’t feel amazing. I get that. Obviously, it would be great if our sex drives always lined up with our partners. That said, a more healthy conversation about sex would go like this, “Hey babe, want to have sex tonight?” and then the other person might say, “I’m not really feeling up for it, but I’d love to make out/watch TV together/cuddle tonight.” Or whatever! And then both parties would feel totally fine. Maybe one person would jerk off! Maybe they’d watch porn together and not have sex! Maybe they’d both fall asleep and do nothing! But if you can’t have basic conversations around sex without it becoming a rejection, that’s concerning.
Imagine sex like eating. If you said, “Hey, do you want to have lunch now?” and your partner replied, “Oh, no, I’m not hungry,” and then you got upset, that would be absolutely bananas, right? Being horny and being hungry are very similar. They’re body feelings! You don’t always want as much as your partner at the same time, and that’s perfectly OK. You don’t owe your partner a matching sex drive.
The simplest answer here is for you to break up with this man who has no respect for your needs and boundaries, and a problematic connection between sex and validation to boot. That said, I know it’s much easier said than done to just walk away. If you stay, it’s imperative that you make a massive change before your own relationship to sex gets violated or harmed. I don’t want you to look back in a year and think, “Wow, I used to really enjoy sex, and now it feels like something I owe the people I date.” I don’t want you to feel used, undervalued, or objectified. Those are not feelings you should ever feel in a relationship.
I don’t know your boyfriend beyond what you’ve told me here, but my best friend’s ex exhibited similar patterns. He was insistent about sex and guilt-tripped her when they didn’t have it “regularly,” which to him meant every day. He was jealous when she spent time doing anything that wasn’t actively validating him and their relationship. The whole thing was, for her — and possibly for him! — exhausting. Theirs was not a caring relationship equally imagined by both parties. Instead, she was a slot machine, and if he put in enough “nice guy” quarters, he might win sex. If he didn’t, he made her life miserable, becoming clingy and whiny to the point where it was easier to just have sex with him to sate him for a little while.
Maybe reading this written about someone else will allow it to sink in: That’s not love, it’s manipulation.
One of the most concerning parts about this situation is that you’ve had multiple conversations — big conversations by your own admission — but he still doesn’t seem to be capable of hearing you or adjusting his behavior. If you’re set on staying in this relationship, though, I think you have to have a lot more big talks, starting with a real Come To Jesus talk. The talk to end all talks.
For me, it would go something like this. “Byron, you are doing things that are deal-breakers for me, and if they continue, I will have to leave. This isn’t an ultimatum; it’s a hard boundary. I’ve been telling you what I need for a while, and you have either not understood me or not been willing to listen. If I turn down sex, it doesn’t mean I don’t want you. It’s not a measure of my love. I’m not giving sex to you as a gift. Sex is something we do together because it feels good. Even if it didn’t feel good for me, I’m concerned that you still would want to have it. Help me brainstorm a solution that works for us, because I’m at the end of my rope.” Ultimately, he needs to understand how much his actions have hurt you, and want to change his behavior as a result of that — not simply because you’re “mad” at him.
I would also insist on couples therapy and individual therapy for him. He needs to get to the bottom of why he believes that he is owed sex by a partner, and why that’s the only way he’s feeling validated by you. Together, you might find it helpful to have a third party there who can listen to what’s going on and point out unhealthy behaviors and patterns. Without that, I’m concerned the current dynamic will slowly chip away at your self-assurance that your own needs are just as important as his.
In relationships where sex is a particularly sensitive issue, some couples implement the red, yellow, and green light system, where green would represent, “I’m horny as hell, all systems go,” yellow would mean, “Let’s take a shower together and see where we’re at,” and red would signal, “I’m exhausted, raincheck?” Putting sexual desire in code words removes some of the emotion behind it, which can help minimize feelings of rejection. Additionally, suggesting a different intimate activity is usually helpful in making that partner feel like they’re still desired; something like, “I’m not up for it now, but I can’t wait to spend all day in bed with you this weekend,” or “I’m beat, but let’s cuddle and watch the new show you’ve been talking about.”
Again, not having sex with your partner isn’t a rejection of them, nor does it signify a lack of love. Your partner equating those things isn’t healthy, but it is understandable — almost none of us has a perfectly sound relationship with sex and desire. Him taking those feelings out on you, however, isn’t OK, and it’s a dynamic that has to change if your relationship is to continue.
It’s A Pleasure appears here every Thursday. If you have a sex, dating, or relationship question, email Sophia at BustleSexAdvice@gmail.com.