It's A Pleasure

Our Sex Life Is Great, But I Still Don’t Feel Connected To My Boyfriend

I want to stop relying on sex as a shortcut to intimacy.

Originally Published: 
How can I build emotional intimacy with my boyfriend and stop relying on sex to feel close?
Caroline Wurtzel/Bustle; Stocksy

Q: I am a 23-year-old woman who finds myself using excessive sex as a way of creating intimacy in my relationships with men. I do not feel I have ever connected with any man in a way where there can be real intimacy without sex. By intimacy, I mean someone you can be truly honest with, someone you can talk to all night and bare your soul to, or just laugh for hours with and feel like you’ve found your best friend. I really want to find that type of connection, and I think I compensate for not having it by making my relationships revolve around sex and physical attraction.

I’m currently dating a man whom I absolutely adore in a thousand ways; he’s amazing, we have tons of fun together, he’s funny and thoughtful, and we have a wonderful friendship, but it feels like I can’t open up in the important ways. We have great sex, and lots of it, because I feel closest to him when we are physical, and that’s just not enough for me. I really don’t know if I’m the problem here or if this is even something I can fix. Can I find that kind of true intimacy and connection with my boyfriend, or should I search elsewhere?

A: I really don’t love to pull the “therapy could really help with this” card this early on in the game, mostly because it gives people the vibe that their issue is a massive, unsolvable knot in the delicate chain necklace that is their life, and that’s not the case! I just want to point out before we dive in that what you’re talking about is both complex and ongoing — which is the kind of situation therapy can really help with. It’s nice to have someone who knows your history and patterns to wade through issues with you on a regular basis.

Beyond that, let me say that sex does build intimacy for many, many people. It’s not a wrong way to connect with someone. But it is a bit like the croutons in a salad — if sex is the only way you’re creating intimacy, maybe that’s not a great salad.

On one hand, I wonder if you’ve created an idealized level of romantic intimacy in your mind that no one can reach. You’ve decided that someone must be as close as a best friend and as passionate as a two-week fling. Those two things are often a bit at odds with one another (not totally — of course you should be attracted to your partner, and enjoy talking to them). But familiarity and safety frequently clash with the novelty and anxiety required for high-octane sexual desire.

The second paragraph where you described your current partner frankly sounded amazing… until you told me your concerns. What can you not open up about? Do you know why you’re hesitant? What are you worried will happen if you tell him these things? How do you judge yourself or others for opening up to a man? What has happened in the past when you’ve tried? Genuinely think about these things.

Aside from therapy, you can practice this with a friend or by writing your thoughts down, but the only way to open up to your partner is… to open up. There’s no shortcut. It might feel uncomfortable or scary, but the only way out is through. If this is a relationship you want to last, you’re both going to have to make some attempts to express your feelings. Not sure how to dive into the conversation? Start by saying you’ve been nervous about opening up.

Are you actually satisfied in bed?

On the other hand, I’m curious about what ideas you hold about men and sex, consciously and subconsciously. Have you been told men “only” want sex from women because that’s when we’re most valuable to them? I also wonder if you’re playing a part or doing a performance of a sexually desirable woman. Are you actually satisfied in bed? Orgasms aren’t a perfect measure of satisfaction, so I’m hesitant to tell you to use them as a barometer, but do you enjoy the sex you have? Or are you simply employing sex as a shortcut to intimacy?

It might be worth thinking about what actually turns you on. What do you masturbate to? What do you fantasize about? When you’re alone, what excites you? Exploring this might help you learn more about who and what you’re looking for sexually.

I do not necessarily think you need to look elsewhere for intimacy and connection; a lot of what you describe (having fun, being friends) is intimate. The traits you crave in your romantic or sexual relationships don’t need to mirror what you enjoy about your platonic ones. My boyfriend does not want to spend 45 minutes analyzing my best friend’s ex-fiancé’s new Instagram post, and that is fine. It’s not some damning red flag. Different people play different roles.

But if you aren’t getting what you want from your relationship, you can change your partner, your behavior, your outlook, or some combination of the three. Listen to yourself, decide what parts aren’t working, and go bravely toward something else. Whatever you find might not be the magic answer, but it’ll be a start. To quote one of my favorite lines of poetry by Marianne Moore, “satisfaction is a lowly/thing, how pure a thing is joy.” Twenty-three is far too young to let go of joy.

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