Ask Dr. NerdLove: Can This Relationship Be Saved?

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Hi Dr. NerdLove,

Question for the expert. I’m in a long-term relationship that’s lasted roughly ~3 years. My girlfriend and I (both early 30s) have been living together for two years out of the three we’ve been dating and we get along great; we’re both geeks and animal-lovers who suffer from some level of social anxiety and we share a lot of the same interests / passions. We’re reaching the stage where we’re talking about getting married / spending the rest of our lives together. I’d be thrilled about that, except for one thing that worries me; we don’t have sex that much any more, and I’m not 100% sure I understand why (that’s the part that really worries me).

Qualifier: “that much” obviously depends on who you ask and what they call “that much”. Let’s just say that we have sex on average maybe once every two-three weeks and earlier this year somehow managed to go a month and a half without getting it on. That’s not down to me — ideally I would have sex twice a week but once a week works. My girlfriend, on the other hand, finds sex very anxiety-inducing because of her insecurities about her appearance. She has a tough time getting in the mood, nowadays she usually has to read some online erotica for half an hour or so before she can get in the mood to have sex. Consequently, she doesn’t like to have sex very often, and I feel bad bugging her to have sex all the time. Even when we do have sex it often gets awkward because she’s so anxious — she’s deeply insecure about her appearance (true, what woman isn’t). I love to go down on her and she won’t let me, for example, because of her anxiety. Last time I tried to go down on her, she got all “in her head” about me being down there and sexytime was over.

Back at the beginning of our relationship we didn’t have any of these problems — we used to have sex all the time, and there was never any of this awkwardness. At some point, maybe after six months or so, we started to have sex less and less often, and it’s been kind of a gradual slide since then. My gf says she’s worried about her body because some horrible ex gave her a hard time about how he thought she was fat or whatever, but I think she’s gorgeous, I love her body and I’d like to have sex more often than we do. It’s a little frustrating to have to go to sleep next to her every night and go, well, I guess we can’t do it tonight because she’s not in the mood, and I know tomorrow night and the night after are going to be the same way, but hey…maybe in a week and a half or so…who knows. So I end up feeling undesirable and frustrated.

We’ve talked about this a few times. Partly this happens because of her anxiety (as a result of which she’s not in the mood most of the time); partly I think it’s also because we’re very busy (we’re both very career-oriented people and we’ve both had a lot going on over the last year). But I’m very worried that maybe she’s just not sexually attracted to me any more. She says she finds me very attractive, she says I’m great in bed and she loves the sex we do have, says the best sex she’s had in her life was with me, but then…she has a hard time getting in the mood more often than once every two or three weeks, so…I don’t know.

An open relationship isn’t really an option — it’s not something that would work for either of us.

So my questions are these:

1) This is the first relationship in my life that’s lasted for more than a couple years (my love life in my 20s was pretty lame, partly due those social anxiety issues I mentioned…oh well.) Is it pretty typical to be having sex 1-2 times a month after you’ve been together a few years? Am I worrying about something that’s really pretty typical and not a big deal?

2) What can I do to help her feel less anxious about — well, intimacy? What’s the best way to try to get the spark back in our relationship without bugging her to death about having sex more often (I hate doing that)? Or is it possible she’s just no longer attracted to me in spite of what she says?

3) Is marriage likely to help (by making her less anxious) or make things worse (say, going from sex once every two or three weeks to once every two or three months?)

Sorry if that’s a little long-winded. This has been bugging me lately so I’d be very grateful for any advice you can give!

Best,

Confused And Confounded

Before I get to literally anything else, let’s address one important point.

No, marriage will not fix this. 

One of the mistakes that a lot of people make is assuming that if they get married, their relationship problems will go away. Whether it’s a toxic or abusive partner, religious or lifestyle conflicts or being sexually incompatible, marriage will not fix your problems. Marriage isn’t a magic problem-solver. It’s not going to take anxiety away. It’s not going to make someone feel more secure. You are going to have the exact same problems you had before you got married as you did afterwards. The only difference is that now you have legal and financial entanglements that will make navigating things even trickier if you realize your relationship isn’t going to work. I have seen this happen more times than I care to count.

(Before you freak out: no I’m not saying your relationship is dying.)

So a reminder: 

do not get married to solve your problems. Unless your problem is “I need to be on my spouse’s health insurance” or “I’m really tired of filing my taxes separately”, then marriage is going to fix exactly jack and shit.

And Jack left town.

OK. So. That out of the way, let’s deal with your sex life, C&C.

Your story isn’t that uncommon. What it is, however, is a sign that there’s likely more going on than just basic anxiety. While sexual passion does tend to diminish over time for most couples, it usually doesn’t turn into an anxiety-fest that requires a half-hour of reading porn before someone gets in the mood.

Now, there are differences between how men and women come to sexual arousal; men tend to have an active arousal pattern while women have a responsive pattern. That is: men get erections and start initiating sex. On the other hand, women tend to become aroused by the actions leading to sex – the kissing, the caressing, etc. This is part of why foreplay is a critical part of good sex; it means that a hetero couple is taking the time for both partners to reach peak arousal and make orgasms achievable by everyone. Men and women take about the same amount of time to start reaching peak arousal but because guys are usually aroused before they initiate sex, they tend to get there first.

So if the usual routine for you and your girlfriend is that you get horny and you’re trying to speed towards penetration… well, it’s not surprising that she’s not terribly aroused right from the word “go”. This doesn’t mean she has to be “alright, take me right this instant” before sex happens; being up for sex, even if she’s not completely horny means that she can get there. Taking some time and using foreplay is going to be a big part of getting her engine running.

But I suspect that this isn’t the problem. Or at least, if it is, it’s not the only problem. I’m more inclined to think that you and your girlfriend have different sex-drives. If I were to guess, I’d say that hers is lower – possibly a lot lower than yours. Being less interested in sex over all and taking more time to get in the mood are pretty good indicators that this might be the case.

My question would be whether this is being caused by the anxiety, whether the anxiety is caused by her having a lower drive (and thus making her worry about what’s wrong with her) or… if it’s just the reason she’s giving you for why she doesn’t want to have sex with you just then.

This is something that your girlfriend would have to tell you. And to be fair: this may be something she’s unable to articulate or even something she’s not entirely aware of herself. And that’s why I think the best thing for the two of you to do right now is talk to a sex-positive relationship counselor together. The American Association of Sexual Educators, Counselors and Therapists has a great referral directory to help you find a counselor in your area. Think of it less as someone who’s going to “fix your broken relationship” and more of a facilitator; they’ll be able to help you find the vocabulary and the techniques to dig down and unearth the roots of the issue. If it really is an issue of body-issue related anxiety, then they’ll be able to help put together something to ease her fears. If it’s an issue of differing sex-drives, they’ll be able to help you two find a balance that lets you both be satisfied. And if it’s something more… well, they’re trained to help you navigate those issues too.

This is a series of conversations you two are going to have together to sort out. But it can be worked out.

Good luck.


Hey Doc,

I’d appreciate some advice on something I’ve tried to think through myself for a while that I haven’t really gotten to a good conclusion on. I was raised in a Conservative Christian household(weekly church, Fox News, etc). Because of this, my dating advice was basically non-existent. What “advice” I did get was in the form of those Christian books for teens that basically say “avoid all physical contact with those you’re dating, because that can lead to sex, which is THE WORST THING, and you want to avoid that all costs before you’re married”. This, to me, who didn’t want to do anything wrong, ended up essentially getting stuck in my brain as “stay away from girls so you don’t have THE SEX, which is the WORST THING YOU CAN DO.”

Now, I wasn’t a rebellious teen or anything. I basically just unquestionably trusted everything I was told by my parents and given by my parents for my entire life up until partway through college. I was also home-schooled until high school, so I didn’t get much real socialization until then. And, as you can imagine, as someone who was essentially brainwashed into avoiding girls, I continued to do that and never got a chance to work through this unhealthy mindset. I also have what I now know to be actual diagnosed anxiety, which didn’t help me when thinking about asking people out(I was generally unable to get up the nerve to do it). I just kept waiting and waiting until it was too late. Even now, when I know that a lot of that mindset is unhealthy, and while I’m trying to work through it, something is still sticking in what some of my friends like to call my “lizard brain”, that part of the brain which holds all your doubts and things you were taught as a kid that you KNOW are wrong/unhealthy, but you can’t quite get past for one reason or another.

I’m now 28 (almost 29), have a stable life, and have been trying to improve myself in many ways, from losing weight, to starting hobbies that I’ve been interested in for a while, to doing more things that scare me. One of those things is dating. I joined OKCupid and have sent out a ton of messages, gotten a solid number of replies, and been on several first dates. Some of those first dates turned into second dates, but most didn’t go beyond that. However, there was one wonderful young woman who I went on a half-dozen or so dates with and was really into. I even broke through a huge mental barrier for myself, and asked her if she wanted a goodnight kiss after one of our dates. She said yes, and that was my first kiss, which I told her(she was very surprised). However, through all of those dates, I never told her about these issues that I’m trying to work through. And after the date where we kissed, as I was texting her and trying to schedule another one, she said she didn’t see a romantic relationship in the future. I asked her why, and she said she wanted someone who was a bit more assertive, confident, and bold. Those are the exact things I know I struggle with in dating still due to my upbringing and the unhealthy attitude it has apparently stuck me with regarding relationships. I know that I avoided contact during things like watching movies at one of our apartments, even though I even assumed at the time that it would have been welcome. And I can’t help but wonder about whether it would have been the same if I had just told her those things that I’m struggling with, that I’m trying to work through them, would have liked to work through them with her, but it would require some patience. I think I’m coming to terms with it regardless (this is the closest thing to a “breakup” I’ve ever had, since I’ve never had “a girlfriend”, so it’s been a little weird to try to think through) since I know those were things I need to work on.

After that bit of rambling about my background, now to the heart of the question I have. How much do I tell someone I’m dating about that background and what I’m still struggling with, and how early? I don’t want to overwhelm someone with info about how much I suck early and drive them away, but I also don’t want to wait too long and have a similar situation happen again because I didn’t tell that to someone I really like and really care for. It’s an odd line that I haven’t truly figured out, because it seems like it’s a bit too “heavy” for early dating, but is something that should be known as a relationship gets more serious, and that sort of line and what belongs on what side is something I haven’t really figured out. It also feels a bit weird and creepy for me to say something along the lines of “hey, I really want to touch you but my brain isn’t letting me”, even though there’s a lot more to it than just the physical contact portion.

Since it’s relevant, I have been speaking with a therapist, which is part of what has helped me work through things enough to go out there and start to date in the first place. But with their help being a bit broader than just dating advice, I thought I’d turn to you and see what sort of advice I could get. Any help would be appreciated.

Lizard Brain Sabotage

Before we get started LBS, I want to congratulate you on all the progress you’ve made thus far. You’ve clearly been putting in a lot of work excising the whammy that your upbringing put on you and that’s really admirable. You’ve come a long way so far and you should be proud of yourself for what you’ve accomplished and you’re doing everything you should be doing. That’s pretty damn huge.

So, how do we deal with your problem?

Part of it is just a matter of framing. A lot of our dating issues are based less in reality and far more in how we perceive them. We are a language-based species and words have power. When you define your circumstances as “mental barriers” and “struggles”, you make them into these monumental things that just loom large in your mind like The Wall just north of Winterfell. They become massive and oppressive and leave you feeling like you have to go on an epic quest to get over them or break through. But if you see it less as “There is this THING that STOPS ME from DOING WHAT I WANT” and more “Well… I’m a little shy,” then the whole situation changes. It’s the same issue – there’s a thing you want to do that you can’t quite bring yourself to attempt – but the narrative has changed. This isn’t an epic quest and mighty struggle that will tax you to the very limits of your being, it’s a quirk. You were trained into a habit and an outlook. It’s annoying, but it’s something that can be undone with a little work and perseverance.

It’s way easier to believe you can overcome some shyness and bad habits than it is to have to BREAK THOSE RUSTY CHAINS AROUND YOUR SOUL.

It’s also way easier to explain to someone in a way that they’ll understand and not be freaked out by. You’re just a little shy and my need some encouragement – or even better, someone who’s cool with being more assertive, at least at first.

The other thing to keep in mind that the girl you kissed (congratulations, by the way!) isn’t representative of every woman. The kind of guy she’s into into is just that: the kind of guy that she’s into.

You don’t need to be big and bold to be attractive. Being assertive is good, don’t get me wrong, but there are women out there who like gentler and meeker guys. I can guarantee you that there’re girls who’d find the idea of someone who’s sweet and shy to be a huge turn on. It may well be that you should prioritize women who’re into gentler or unassuming dudes. This doesn’t mean that you should be passive or a complete push-over; even women who like submissive guys don’t want a doormat. But someone who’s cool with a guy who’s a little shy and may need to be coaxed a bit? That’s going to be a prize for someone… especially as you start to improve and come more into your own.

Don’t forget: you’ve made a lot of progress and you’re doing really well. Keep working at it and you’re going to get there sooner than you realize.

You got this, LBS.

Good luck.


Doc,

I’m a 27 year old guy in need of help reading what’s in front of him. I work in an office environment and over the last 6 months have grown increasingly closer to a woman I work with. We became friends, the growth has been organic and we genuinely seem to like each other. But… (you had to suspect this) she is recently married and I am with another woman. So I haven’t told her how I feel and instead just accept that I was too late. I don’t want to be a cheater and still care about the woman I am with…

I just can’t ignore the (what seems like) really good chemistry. The problem is that despite (I assume) her ignorance to my feelings it sort of seems like the feelings are traveling in both directions but I don’t know if I’m just a nut and she feels comfy/trusts I am just a friend. So I watch for signs. Body language says that it’s likely. Voice indicates likely. She goes out of her way to talk to me, peacocks a bit, she smiles big and even let me take her out to lunch (displaying no similar comradery with any other men at work).

We chat all the time at work (comp) and she’s not so ignorant that she wouldn’t at least suspect that I am attracted to her. She doesn’t talk about her hubby much, but does sometimes and frequently it’s venting about the various annoyances. Got anything? What’s a way to know for certain what her mode/end goal is here?

Reading The Signs

Quick question: what’s your end-goal here, RTS? Are you hoping to find out that she likes you so that you can make a move, potentially ending your relationship with your current girlfriend? Are you hoping to backburner this, just in case the window of opportunity opens or your relationship with your current partner ends? Or is it just a case of wanting the ego-stroke of knowing the person you have a crush on digs you too?

Because honestly, most of the outcomes I see here are not great for anyone involved. Usually I’d tell someone who wants to know for sure how somebody feels about them to just ask them out already, but in this case, there’re too many complicating factors. She’s married, you’re dating and you work together. Throw all that together and poking too hard at it can lead to more bad endings than good ones.

This is especially true if you’re satisfied in your relationship. Trying to figure out whether she likes you as a cool, platonic work-husband is one vs. “wants that D” is inviting unnecessary temptation into your life. Yeah, you can be friends with someone you’re attracted to without acting on that attraction, but there comes a point where you’re setting yourself up for failing your willpower check and fucking up your relationship. And that’s without dealing with her relationship or the complications of trying to hook up with a co-worker.

My advice? Let it be whatever it is. If it does your ego good, just assume she digs you… but leave it alone. This is a time when trying to puzzle things out is likely to do more harm than good in both the short and long term.

 

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