I got out of a long-term relationship (2.5 years) recently. It was a mutual, polite and extremely amicable break-up, to the extent that a mutual friend who is consoling both of us has called it the most amicable break-up ever. We collectively realised that we wanted different things out of the relationship – I was too much of a planner for her, she was always more about spontaneity – and parted ways. I am doing okay, your advice about an ended relationship not being a failed relationship has helped me a lot.
One of the reasons I’m not 100% better that I can’t really talk about with my friends because we move in HEAVILY overlapping social circles is… the sex. For context, we lost our virginity to each other within the first few months. This was, in large part, because my ex helped me through my initial anxieties (I was 22 the first time we had sex).
We were, I would say, certainly compatible on a basic level, but I always had a higher sex drive than she did. For the first year and a half this wasn’t so much of a problem, because we were having sex regularly enough that I could deal, but then I got a new job with less flexibility. That lead to us not having the time (since it pretty much killed any chance of “wanna stay the night?” without lots of planning, which was anathema to her) and combined with the steady loss of intimacy (and a corresponding growth in my anxiety) our sex life completely petered out.
The core of my issue… I think I might have scared my ex off sex. And I feel really guilty about this.
The last time we attempted sex was 12 months before we broke up; a spontaneous moment after we had run back to my house from a freak rain shower. (Before that, a gap of a few months for the summer; before that, a few months for exams – so we were already on the wind down). After a few failed attempts at penetration I tried going down on her and, presumably because of nerves, that didn’t do the job either. My ex was never really someone who needed much foreplay, so I knew something was wrong. Once everything cooled down I told her about vaginismus – because I genuinely thought that she might have it and that she would be willing to maybe get some help and work through it – and promised that I would help her.
I then embarked on what I thought was helpful but which I can now see was probably pressuring behaviour. I tried to ask her what I could request in the bedroom (essentially, if penetrative sex was off-limits, then I wouldn’t ask for it) and got told that she didn’t know. I bought her a vibrator so we had more options in the bedroom, she reacted with disgust and later told me it never got taken out of its packaging. Weeks went by and I got increasingly frustrated that not only were we not having sex, but we weren’t even doing anything that might potentially lead to it any more. Eventually at the end of the academic year once everything was over – and after plans for her to stay the night had fallen through again – I flat out asked if I should be worried about the lack of sex, to which I was told that sex was horribly stressful and she wasn’t up for it because of her exams… which didn’t really solve the rest of the issues I was worrying about at the time.
Long story short, we went on our first – and obviously now last – holiday together about a month before we broke up. It was, in hindsight, a disaster. We were, a few good moments aside, constantly stressing out at each other from planning right through to the airport home. Most of all, on our 2.5-year anniversary night (which I had based a fair bit of the holiday around) suffice it to say things did not go as I had planned; possibly because while I didn’t explicitly state it outright I think I probably made it a little too obvious that I was expecting things to end with a bang. In hindsight that was the moment we stopped working, because our expectations had so clearly diverged.
But… women don’t just stop wanting sex for no reason, right?
I feel like I failed her, because she was able to help me with my anxiety issues and I couldn’t help her with hers. I’m scared my ex is about to become one of those statistics you hear about women who can’t enjoy sex because of negative past experiences. Most of all, we broke up saying we both wanted the other to be happy and I’m upset that I might have cost her a large part of that chance. I want to deal with this guilt – partly because otherwise I reckon I’m going to be an anxious wreck in the bedroom if/when I do end up dating again – but I don’t think asking my ex about her sexual hang-ups is a good idea right now assuming it ever was. Any advice you have would be appreciated.
Help me Dr-Wan Kenobi you’re my only hope.
Did I Break It?
OK, don’t take this the wrong way DIBI but… you’re giving yourself way too much credit here.
So, I get it. You’re worried that you did something wrong. You’re afraid that you were so bad – so bad in the sack, so bad with the pressure, so bad with the (apparently) fumbling attempts to help – that you’ve broken this delicate little bird. Your ex was this fragile, porcelain figurine and you destroyed something beautiful in your clumsiness.
Except… not really.
So this is going to sound harsh but stick with me for a second. Here’s what’s up, DIBI: you’re doing the thing where you are vastly overestimating both your importance and the impact you had on someone, without any actual evidence. There’re a lot of folks who do this and it’s something that guys are often prone to because we’ve all absorbed a lot of stupid shit over the years. We’re convinced that we’re the center of women’s universes, that we’re the horny ones and that women’s sexuality is this frangible piece of glass and spider webs that will break if you look at it the wrong way. Sex is something that must be carefully coaxed out of women, lest we make a sudden move and send it scurrying like a bunny back to it’s warren.
In reality: not so much. Women are just as sexual as men are and, honestly, spend a lot of time dealing with sex that just isn’t that great. If a bad lay – or even dating somebody who they had mediocre sex with – was all it took to scare women away from sex, the human race would’ve died out before we ever got past the “furry thing with long teeth BAD!” stage of evolution.
Now let’s talk about what happened with you and your ex. There are a couple of things going on, but the biggest is simple: the two of you just weren’t compatible. You both had different needs and expectations when it came to sex and those just didn’t mesh. Think of it like two gears, where one is missing a tooth; they’ll work together up to a certain point, but there’s going to come a point where they don’t and that’ll throw the whole thing off. In your case, it was easier to make the sex work during the honeymoon stage of your relationship when everything was new and exciting and you were getting hit with that rush of dopamine and oxytocin every single time. It’s easier to ignore difficulties and annoyances because you’re quite literally high off each other. But that doesn’t last forever; not only does hedonistic adaptation kick in and we get less of a dopamine rush, but those annoyances and incompatibilities build up over time.
You two hit the point where the novelty of banging someone new – or having sex at all, for that matter – wasn’t overpowering the basic incompatibility the two of you had. And if your ex wasn’t really enjoying the sex you were having or the way you were having it… well, it’s not surprising that things shut down. It wasn’t that she was thrown off sex entirely, it’s that she was thrown off sex with you.
And you didn’t get that. You thought the problem might be with her. So you were trying to help, as best you could. But like trying to treat a tooth ache with accupressure massage, you were trying to solve the wrong problem with the wrong technique.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not blaming you. You went into this with the best of intentions and you wanted to help as best you could. It’s just that you got things wrong. And y’know, that’s ok. I don’t think you did any actual damage besides annoyance – certainly nothing that she won’t recover from or that won’t be resolved when she finds someone she is compatible with.
The fact that you two weren’t compatible isn’t your fault, DIBI. It’s not hers either. It isn’t anyone‘s. It’s just bad luck. Out of the billions of women out there, there will be plenty that you don’t mesh with; your ex was simply one of them.
So now it’s just a question of where you go from here.
What you shouldn’t do is pester your ex about this… or refer to what happened as “her sexual hang-ups”. Not only is that seriously insulting, but it’s not even accurate. She didn’t have hang-ups, she’s not broken or damaged. She just didn’t like having sex with you. I realize that stings, my dude, but it’s better to face an uncomfortable truth than it is to make things even more awkward.
Instead, what you need to do is just live, learn from this and move forward. Next time, you work to avoid making the mistakes you made this time. Prioritize communication a little more highly, especially before you start trying to solve people’s not-actually-a-problem. Sharing and listening will serve you in great stead, especially when it comes to sex. The better you and your future partners are able to communicate your needs, desires and boundaries, the better you will be in the sack.
Don’t let this all throw you off, DIBI. As you get more experience under your belt, you’ll have a better grasp on who is and isn’t right for you and how to make the sexual side of your relationships work. These are just growing pains that everyone goes through. Your ex will be ok and so will you. I promise.
Love your podcast, love your advice column and I have a more general socializing question for you: I live in a large city and have a handful of flaky, emotionally volatile or otherwise difficult-to-meet-up-with friends in the surrounding area.
What usually happens if I make plans with them is one of the following
-I arrange something with one friend (we’ll call her Amy) who cancels 75% of the time because she either has a migraine, some family, issues, is too tired, etc. I called her out on this flakiness at one point, leading her to get defensive and angry. Note: she has very few close friends. I have not cut off contact with her as she is the daughter of my mom’s close friends, though I have stopped contacting her as frequently.
Another (that we’ll call Lisa) has had some pretty severe emotional trauma in the past, which manifests itself in public crying fits, talking too loudly in public almost to the point of yelling (kind of like that Will Ferrell character from SNL), overt derision of dating claiming she will be ‘forever alone’, etc. She has been getting therapy to deal with it over the past year or so. However, she has told me she has some empathy issues and does not seem to want to get a full-time job, spending most of her time doing ride-sharing or volunteering. I encouraged her to try to at least find a part-time job as I think the consistency and socializing would be good for her. She says the process freaks her out, which leads me to believe her therapist maybe isn’t encouraging her to be as proactive as I think would benefit her. I have also stopped contacting her as frequently as with the person above.
As a result, I now spend most of my time with my boyfriend and after a short weekend at PAX with him and his buddies, I noticed how much stronger their bonds are as a group than any of the people I see in the city. I told him my concerns and and he encouraged me to seek out other people to get to know better, seeing how complicated and inconsistent those relationships are and how unhappy/annoyed it was making me. I do have long term friends that are reliable but they are married, live farther out, work all the time, etc so it’s a bit tougher to arrange things with them.
TL,DR: Kind of out of patience for dealing with difficult/volatile people. I don’t like abandoning friendships as it makes me feel guilty but I think it’s kind of gotten to that point where it might be better to cut my losses entirely and just find other people to meet up with. In case there are other people reading this who might be having a similar experience, what do you think would be a reasonable limit for just peacing out entirely from a bad friendship?
Flakey Pie Crust Not People
One of the things I find somewhat fascinating is how differently we as a culture often treat friendships and romantic relationships. For all that people complain about The Friend Zone1 and we treat friendship as somehow lesser than love or sex… we put up with way more from our friends than we’d ever tolerate from our lovers. In fact, we often find ourselves stuck in friendships out of a sense of obligation, rather than a desire to have those people in our lives.
I have a lot of friends who live out in Los Angeles, a place that’s notorious for instilling and encouraging flaky behavior in folks. And all of them have had issues with flaky, irresponsible friends who will just bail at the last minute or with no notice. And to a person, their lives all got better once they started to not just accept flakiness from folks in their lives. If someone was going to be that uncaring about others… well, they got moved down the list of priorities, while folks who could be counted on were moved up.
Here’s the thing about friendship: it’s not like you two are starring in The Defiant Ones. The fact that you’re friends doesn’t mean that you’re bound together for life, no matter what. You are allowed to break up with your friends, especially when their friendship is causing you pain and anxiety. You aren’t required to put up with bad behavior or disrespect just because you’ve agreed that you’re buds. “Friends no matter what” is bullshit if the other person isn’t actually taking responsibility for themselves and their behavior. The whole “if you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best” thing drives me up the goddamn wall, in no small part because of how much it excuses the person saying it from ever considering that maybe they should try not being the worst. Just to see how it feels.
Now this doesn’t mean that Amy and Lisa may not have legitimate issues. It’s entirely possible that they’re being 100% real with you about what makes them unreliable. It could well be that they’re putting in a good-faith effort to try to work around it, even if they don’t always succeed. If that’s the case… well, calling them out on being flakey is going to put them on the defensive. Odds are good that they’re already self-conscious as hell about flaking out on people. Calling them out just makes them feel worse about it.
But that doesn’t change the fact that they are unreliable and it feels like all of the accommodation is coming from your side of the friendship. It’s one thing to try to accomodate a condition, but the other person needs to be able to work around that condition too. And while there are plenty of issues – physical and emotional – that can be hard to predict, if you know that you have something that makes you unreliable or requires that you cancel… well, you have a responsibility to factor that into what you agree to do and what plans you make.
At the same time: even if they are being straight with you and are making good faith efforts to work around their issues, that doesn’t mean that you need to continue being friends with them. As with relationships, if you’re simply not compatible with them, then you are free to end the relationship. They may very well be good people, but you two may simply not be right for one another. You have different needs, and neither of you can reasonably fulfill them for one another in an equitable fashion.
So don’t feel guilty about cutting your losses, FPCNP. It’s a shame when friendships have to end. But, like romantic relationships, not every friendship is meant to be forever. Some are just for now. And, in the future, prioritize building friendships with people who demonstrate that they are more reliable and steadfast. It won’t ensure that every new friend will be for life… but it will cut down on the headaches and agita immensely.
- Standard disclaimer: there is no Friend Zone [↩]