Smash Talks: Intimacy Inadequacy

Ashera is a Marriage and Family Therapist with an extensive background in sexual health education. You can ask her stuff anonymously and she won’t get weirded out. Seriously, try her. Send your queries through our anonymous contact form here.

Hi Smashera, 

I’m about a year and a half into my first-ever relationship with a woman. Several months in, my fatal relationship flaw appeared on schedule: I started to become completely uninterested in sex with my very loving girlfriend. I’ve never been in a long-term relationship where this did not happen, and my girlfriend even accompanied me for a few visits to my therapist—something I was very reluctant to do and eventually stopped because it made me very uncomfortable to talk about with the two of them. I really can’t figure out why this always happens to me and it makes me feel like I’ll never be able to give any partner what they need long term. I’m sure it is in some way related to the depression I’m being treated for. 

At the beginning of the relationship, our sex life was very active and it has since dwindled down to nonexistent. I love her, but it seems that I am not going to be able to recover my sexual desire for her. In this time, we’ve developed a very unhealthy pursuer/distancer relationship and I feel smothered by her persistent attempts to cultivate intimacy. We’ve gone for several months at a time without having sex, and when we do nowadays it always feels like an obligation. All of this is par for the course, but I also can’t ignore the fact that I feel like there is something anatomical missing from our sex life. When I did bring up trying toys, she refused to confront that idea until we fixed the problem, so I quickly gave up that pursuit. I’m sure the idea made her feel inadequate in a very real and painful way.

After all of this time, we’ve grown closer in other ways and our lives are very much intertwined. It feels as though we’ve been together for much longer than we have. We have gotten to the point where we are a part of each other’s families and my best friends would feel the loss of her in our circle keenly. I know that I need to break up with her. She deserves to be with someone who will give her the fulfilling sex life that she desires. I am very much afraid of the fallout. The last thing I want to do is to hurt and lose this person who has become one of my closest friends, but I know our relationship cannot go on this way. I’ve never had such a hard time ending a relationship. 

How do I break up without breaking her heart? How will I ever find a lasting relationship when my disappearing libido always begins the slow descent into resentment and withdrawal on my part?

– Minus Libido

Dear Minus Libido,

Sex drives are so finicky. If they were just switches that were either ON or OFF, it would be way easier to figure out how to maneuver them to our hearts’ (and loins’) desire. But they’re not ON/OFF switches; they’re leavers and pulleys accompanied with a tome of terms and conditions. There’s a lot of fine print when it comes to turning a person on for the long haul, so it’s natural and normal for your tides of horniness to fluctuate across time. What I’m saying is, you’re not a hopeless case.

It sounds like libido-loss is a recurring theme for you. It would take some time to tease out, but you may be experiencing Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder, or HSDD. It’s fairly common, with about a third of women experiencing it at some point in their lives. There are all sorts of factors that contribute to a loss of mojo—stress, relationship issues, hormone imbalances, and health problems. It’s often not just one issue, so it can be a little tricky tailoring interventions, but tricky doesn’t mean impossible!

To begin getting to the roots of the issue, talk to your doctor to rule out any underlying health problems, including possible side effects from your depression meds. It would be beyond frustrating to keep trying various treatments only to find out that your hormones are out of whack. Your doc might just have some insight that could be helpful to you.

You mentioned speaking to a therapist about this before along with your girlfriend. I’m sorry that was an uncomfortable experience for you. While therapy isn’t an easy process, it’s unhelpful to go into a session already anxious. In the future, you might consider looking for an AASECT-certified sex therapist, with or without your girlfriend. The benefit of a therapist with a background in AASECT is that they may be a bit more well-versed in treating sexual issues than say, a psychologist or mental health counselor. People are mad complicated. That’s why we have specialists! It’s totally okay to see if your therapist will consult with a sex therapist about your case. Teamwork makes the dream work.

I am curious about a few things: when does your sex drive tend to fizzle away? Is it after things become more emotionally intimate? If getting close emotionally makes your libido run for the hills, this is something you could definitely work on with your therapist. Also, to what extent does your libido shut down? If you’re still getting hot and bothered, but only under specific circumstances, what are they? Who and what turns you on? What used to?

People create intimacy in all sorts of different ways: physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual. All of these forces coalesce and form how we experience sex. Gina Ogden, my hero in life, has developed some rad tools to help people tease out the inner workings of their sexualities. By understanding all the components of YOUR sexuality, it’s possible to begin to heal traumas, unlearn toxic messages, and finally move forward. Her stuff is super readable, so maybe check it out and see if anything rings true for you.

It sounds like you’re really attached to this relationship, but are feeling a lot of shame with yourself. If you could save this relationship, would you? You ask if there’s a way to end this without breaking her heart, but what about your heart? Twice in your letter, you mention sacrificing your needs, first in therapy and again with wanting to use toys. Is this an ongoing thing for you? The pursuit/withdraw cycle you speak of certainly isn’t helping. While “putting out” might be a quick fix, it could deepen the problem in the long run if you end up feeling resentful. Maybe you can try to take sex “off the table” for a month to try and re-set. Talk to your girlfriend, set some boundaries, take the pressure off of yourself and see if that changes anything. Don’t forget to process those feels. 😉

At the end of the day, if every fiber of your being is telling you to end this relationship, then by all means do. If I could figure out a way to suck all of the pain out of a breakup, I would be stupid rich. They always hurt, though. If you still want this relationship, then the work is worth it. What you’re experiencing does not make you unlovable or unworthy. I really hope that with some work you can restore your libido and experience the love that you desire.