I ended my last relationship because of sex.
But that’s not what I told my boyfriend about why I wanted to split up. I told him other things that were also true (so I didn’t exactly lie), but I didn’t tell him the whole truth.
I didn’t share the full story with him for the same reason a lot of people never say anything: because we’re afraid of “hurting each other’s feelings.”
I believe a whole lot of people break up (and even end marriages) in large part because of sex, even though they often list something else as the culprit.
I’m not saying sex isn’t a cited reason. Often, one person will say s/he wants it more (or less) than the other. One will say the other isn’t as “open-minded” as s/he wants.
But that’s not the real, underlying reason beneath the sexual dissatisfaction.
It’s not that we could never satisfy each other. It’s not that we’re fundamentally different and fundamentally incapable of becoming compatible.
No, I believe it’s due to something much more serious than we have given it credit for. Something that’s just as much of a relationship-destroyer as cheating, yet remains something we rarely talk about.
There’s a dirty little secret in most relationships: We have no f*cking clue how to talk to one another about sex.
I’m not talking about frequency. I’m not talking about the, “Hey, it’s been a while since we had sex. Is everything cool?” conversation. I’m not even talking about the, “Hey, we need to talk about this…I feel like I want sex way more than you, and I’m afraid of what that means” thing.
No, not the how-often-we-have-it, not the details of how I give you blow jobs, or when you’ll be open to us having anal sex—I’m talking about the actual, down and dirty sex part.
What it feels like.
What I crave from you, and you from me.
Whether I trust you—really trust you.
Where I feel truly, extremely vulnerable sexually, and what that means for me.
Where you feel truly, extremely vulnerable sexually, and what that means for you.
Where we are meeting one another’s needs, and where we aren’t meeting one another’s needs.
In my case, I knew better. I knew what gorgeous, haunting, mesmerizing, bed-shaking, earth-quaking sex felt like. I knew what it meant to be so completely absorbed by my partner’s body, attention, and touch that I became literally speechless.
I knew what truly great sex was, so I wasn’t willing to settle for something just okay.
It’s not that I never tried to talk about it. For example, I did bring up the idea of him being more gentle with his hands—a few times. He tended to get more gentle for a few minutes (sometimes even a whole encounter), but then went back to doing it how he’d always done it.
After a few times, I let it go.
I didn’t want to be a nag. I didn’t want to be seen as demanding. I didn’t want to be told I was too sensitive or too much. I didn’t want to be shut down or shamed. So I let it go.
No, that’s the wrong phrase.
I gave up.
I recently conducted sex research on 1,000 people, and there were a lot of similar responses from the women. They said they’d tried to communicate with their partners about sex, then felt really discouraged when it didn’t “stick.”
They ended up doing what I did: giving up. They started to grin and bear it, tolerate the pain when it happened, and figure this was just as good as it gets.
To be fair to the men, my guess is that these women approached the conversation with as much trepidation as me, and without informing the men of the extent to which this was a problem. They probably didn’t say just how much it mattered, the same way I didn’t.
They didn’t give him the stakes.
For example, I said something like, “I would love a lighter touch. The more gentle you are with your hands, the more I feel. When it’s too much pressure, I numb out.”
The second time, I probably just said, “Lighter, lighter, lighter,” because he’d gone back to a pressure that hurt.
The third time, I squirmed and said, “Less pressure.”
The fourth time, I gave up.
At no point did I say say:
“Listen, I’d love to talk to you about something really important. I’ve brought it up a few times, but I’ve got to emphasize it: I need a lighter touch when you touch my vulva with your fingers and hands. Right now, the pressure is often too much, and it hurts. I cringe inside and tense up my body, which distracts me from any pleasure I might have been feeling. I end up feeling like I have to protect myself; instead of enjoying myself, I’m often bracing for pain.”
“This is really important to me. I want us to have beautiful, amazing, spectacular sex, and I want to enjoy every minute of it. In fact, it’s so important that if it doesn’t get better, I’m considering breaking up with you.”
Was I wrong to not say that?
Was I right to?
Was it my responsibility to make sure he understood the stakes, or was it his responsibility to take the direction I’d given (and not miss it by the next encounter)?
Whose “fault” was it?
I don’t know.
I do know that this is the dirty little secret in countless relationships.
I do know that when you love someone, it’s hard to “criticize” them about something so inherently vulnerable.
I do know that when you don’t fully let yourself go during sex, it damages the intimacy of the whole relationship. And that is the beginning of the end.
So I want to know: How do you talk about sex with a partner? Have you ever broken up with someone because of sex? Ever talked about it with someone and had it go well?
I’m conducting a short survey about this to help understand the extent of the issue and the possible solutions. If you’re willing to share (anonymously), please do:
Let’s talk about how to talk about sex.
Author: Melanie Curtin
Editor: Callie Rushton