Q: I have been with my boyfriend for about a year and a half. I’m 29 and this is my longest relationship ever. He’s a wonderfully supportive, emotionally intelligent partner and I love him a lot! I have been struggling with being satisfied with our sex life. We’ve discussed this a lot so I don’t think it’s a communication problem, but maybe it is. I am someone with a really high libido and would love to have sex often. My boyfriend doesn’t have a low libido, exactly, but he has erectile dysfunction (ED) and needs to take medicine to have sex. Which is fine! I like that this means sex is more intentional. However, his medicine gives him some unpleasant side effects like headaches, which means sex happens at the end of the day — also fine. On top of this, he works the night shift and I work during the day, and we don’t live together, so there are not a lot of chances to have sex, since he can’t really have a quickie and go to work without feeling miserable all night. I really want to respect his boundaries and I definitely don’t want to make him feel bad about something he can’t control, I just wish we could have more sex! I’ve suggested we do non-sex sexy stuff more often, but he says that’s frustrating because it makes him want to have sex, but he can’t. We end up doing it about one or two times a week, which is a lot for him and not a lot for me. I’m not trying to get him to change anything, I’d just like some tips on how I can be satisfied with this situation.
A: Oh man, this is heartbreakingly irritating. This is one of those circumstances where no one is doing anything wrong, there’s just incompatibility, and to be blunt, those are usually the toughest issues to tackle. It’s much easier when someone is being a bozo or a jack*ss and you can simply address that. I’m not trying to discourage you here, but rather, I hope to highlight just how onerous what you’ve been dealing with is. Trying to navigate a mismatch also often feels incredibly lonely since you and your partner seem like you’re on opposite sides of these issues. Even when someone is being their absolute best, kindest, most empathetic self, when your needs go up against theirs and you’re both struggling it’s hard to not feel like throwing a little tantrum, like, “YOU DON’T GET IT! THIS SUCKS FOR ME IN A SPECIFIC WAY!” And obviously, you know it also sucks for them in a specific way! But when both of you are suffering or compromising, there’s not as much room for, well, complaining about your own situation.
So, the first thing I’d recommend is getting a therapist for yourself if you have the ability to get one. Why? Because this is something that you should get to complain about but that includes personal information about your partner and information that you probably shouldn’t be spreading around your friend group. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t talk with close friends about your feelings, but for something this intimate, a therapist is probably the way to go. That way, as you go through this — and I do think it will take a bit of time, or be ongoing for the whole relationship — you have an outlet that’s there for you to pour out your feelings about how much this sucks/makes you sad/feels lonely/isn’t fair.
OK, great, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, what’s the other advice? Well, firstly, great on you guys for communicating about this — already a huge step! But uhh, bad news bears, you’re going to have to keep talking about it. I know. Groan. Right now, as I said above, the problem seems like it’s your needs versus his needs, but how are you two going to solve this as you two versus the problem? I think looking at it that way is especially important so that it doesn't feel like somehow this is his or his body’s “fault,” which it isn’t at all, or any more than it’s your “fault” that you want to have sex more than once a week. (It’s no one’s fault, bodies are bodies.)
How are you two going to get on the same page that this is a Very Big Deal for both of you? Because it is! Does he feel like it’s a Very Big Deal that you’re unhappy with your sex life? Because, again, it is! It’s a huge deal. To me, it’s a deal-breaker if you cannot be sexually satisfied while in this relationship — and that might look like a lot of things. What are solutions that he can come up with that give you more sexual times?
Honestly, your idea of sexy non-sex times seems like a very good one to me — it’s what I would have suggested. Especially if you can pinpoint what precisely you like about sex. Is it the intimacy? The physical act? Feeling desired? And if you can replicate that, then the non-sex sexy stuff is especially valuable. I also think it might be worth thinking of those things as sex, because once your mouth and hands are on someone’s bits, guess what? It counts if you want it to! Is he closed off to all messing around unless he’s going to come? (Frankly, that seems a little unfair?) Is he open to you guys opening up your relationship? Is he open to you masturbating next to him? Is his expectation that one of you is sexually frustrated for the rest of the relationship? On top of these questions for him about you, what other options are there for him? Are there other ED treatments he can try that don’t cause headaches? Does his doctor know that the medication gives him headaches? I know this is cliched to the point of painfulness from an advice columnist, but a common treatment for ED is … therapy. I would also ask the all-important question: If ED weren’t an issue, how often would he ideally like to have sex?
I don’t want to dismiss his frustrations, or make it seem like his side of the equation is easy. Having your body not cooperate is an emotionally devastating reality. I’m 100% sure he’s not happy that you’re dissatisfied with your sex life. And of course, it’s not like he owes you sex more often (or at all) simply because he’s your partner. The question is, if you aren't getting this pleasure and intimacy from him — if he’s not open to having non-sex sexy times especially — where are you able to get it? And if he can’t budge on those boundaries, which is fair and fine, if devastating, then that means you two aren’t sexually compatible. And that’s an extremely reasonable deal-breaker. If you’re only having sex with one person and the sex isn’t working, that’s a massive sacrifice. It’s like if you promised to only get dinner from one restaurant ever and they always gave you the wrong order or the food was always expired. You’d be like… OK, I’m ending my exclusive agreement with this place. There are a lot of steps to take before you get there, but I want you to know that it’s more than OK if that’s the conclusion you reach. It’s depressing and heartbreaking, but it’s fair and your sex life is worth it.
It’s A Pleasure appears here every Thursday. If you have a sex, dating, or relationship question, email Sophia at BustleSexAdvice@gmail.com or fill out this form.