How can a sex life become mutually pleasurable when you don't want the same things?

john doe
asks:
Me and my girlfriend have been dating for over a year. We have had sex maybe three times. The past couple of months, I've been touching her and going down and doing everything to please her. After it's over, I ask her if she will get me and it's either "I'm too tired" or "I don't like doing that." She's never gone down, never even touched me, since we have been together; only when we have had sex. I tried to talk to her about it, but she always gets mad and usually leaves or change the subject. I could really use some help because I feel unwanted and almost used in a way.
s.e. smith replies:

Dear John,

Having mismatched expectations in a relationship can be a real bummer, and a great way to build resentment and frustration. I hear you saying that you feel your relationship is very one-sided and focused on your girlfriend's pleasure, but not your own, which is not the building block of what should be a mutually enjoyable partnership. It sounds to me like you and your girlfriend have some communicating to do.

But let's start with this:

Relationships are not transactional, and neither is sex. This is a good time to rethink the concept of reciprocity and power structures in your relationship. What I mean by this is that just because you do something for your girlfriend, it doesn't mean she owes you the same thing, and vice versa. Anything you do, from oral sex to buying flowers, should be done out of a desire to connect, build intimacy, and nurture a healthy relationship. If you're approaching sex with the expectation that she's going to reciprocate or "get me," that's not going to leave her feeling great.

It also sounds like you're assuming the things you're doing are bringing her pleasure. Are you sure that's the case? Have you specifically asked her? If you aren't communicating with each other, it's possible she's not having a very fun time, and maybe that feeds into her sexual expression.

The desire for oral, manual, or any other kind of sex isn't wrong, and it's certainly not wrong for you to want these things with your girlfriend. Desire is powerful and complicated and glorious and we should always stop to acknowledge those feelings. But when these things are approached with a sense of expectations — "if I do this, you should too" or "I did this, now it's your turn" — that deprives your girlfriend of her sexual autonomy. She has the right to decide what she wants to do, with whom, and when, just as you do. Pressuring someone or making them feel like they "owe you" is crummy, as I'm sure you know from times when you've been in similar situations.

Whether you mean to or not, you may be creating an atmosphere of pressure for your girlfriend that makes it hard for her to enjoy being sexual with you, which is something to think about.

The issue here sounds like a breakdown of expectations, but also one of communication.

You say that you've tried to bring this issue up with her before, so my first question for you is what the context of these earlier conversations has been. This is a talk that needs to happen outside the bedroom and long before you start making out, fooling around, or getting busy with it. It also can't happen when you're in a hurry, stressed out, unhappy, or waiting for someone. You need some time and space for this conversation.

While the words "we need to talk" can strike dread into many hearts, they're actually very appropriate here. It's okay to appoach your girlfriend and say: "Hey, I want to talk about how we can make our sex life more fulfilling for both of us. When would be a good time to do that?" Think about how this may feel from her perspective. Don't pick a time when she's stressed out or overloaded, and choose your phrasing carefully to make sure that she understands this is an us thing, not a you or me thing. But also make it clear that you don't want to get sexual with her until you've had a chance to check in about your sexual relationship, and that walking away or changing the subject isn't going to cut off your concern.

My next question is about the angle your prior conversations have taken. Have they focused on asking her why she's not interested in sex, or wanting to know why she doesn't reciprocate? That can make people feel defensive, and isn't the best way to open up a conversation. This should be less about "why won't you do this thing that I want" and more about "how can we have amazing sex together?"

Think about framing this in a way that reflects her needs; you may find "Yes, No, Maybe So" a great starting point for thinking about specific activities and boundaries to talk about. Start by asking her what gives her pleasure and what kinds of things she would like to do to you (or have done to her): If you haven't asked her directly, you may be surprised by the answer. When she says "I don't like that" about giving oral sex, maybe she means just that, and you should make it clear that you're in a space where that will be respected. But maybe she gets tired after orgasm and just wants to relax, and if you switched up the order of things, she might be more enthusiastic about oral sex as part of foreplay.

Or maybe she gets uncomfortable, but has felt shy about saying so, and something as simple as changing positions, using props like folded blankets and pillows, or other things would help her focus on sexytimes instead of physical discomfort or awkwardness. Or maybe she has some complex feelings around things like giving oral sex, and talking through those feelings could increase comfort: For example, some people really hate kneeling in front of someone because they find it uncomfortable, demeaning, or awkward, but there are tons of other positions for oral sex.

Maybe she's nervous about not giving you the pleasure you want and need, in which case mutual masturbation might allow you to show her what turns you on and feels good while she does the same. Sometimes people feel shy or awkward about sex and sexuality and a willingness to explore together could give her more confidence. Cultivate a judgment-free zone; if something doesn't go quite as expected, or you try something and it turns out to not be your thing, that's okay! There's always tomorrow, or next week.

As you talk about what she enjoys, and how switching things up in the bedroom to make her more comfortable might be helpful for her, invite her to ask you the same. Be articulate about the things that give you pleasure, how, and why. Maybe for you that includes giving her pleasure — I hope so! — in which case, you should definitely say so. But avoid lines of thinking that make it sound like you need an exchange of things to feel fulfilled, unless we're talking about a carefully pre-negotiated scene with someone. "Thinking about you going down on me is really hot" or "it's really sexy when you take charge and initiate sex" is one thing; "I'm disappointed when I go down on you but you don't return the favor" is another.

A balanced relationship involves many different things. For you, sex is clearly one of them, but think about other things that make this relationship important to you, and bring those up when you talk with your girlfriend so she knows that you care about this relationship as a whole. Maybe that's hanging out and talking, enjoying a shared activity, collaborating on projects together. Remember that sex is only one piece of a bigger puzzle — but when a piece is missing, bent, or misshapen, it can ruin the whole picture. She's probably aware that your relationship is a little imbalanced, but she may be struggling with how to start that conversation. Taking the initiative could be really transformative for both of you.

As you have this conversation, though, think about the whole picture of your relationship and how communicating will make it stronger and intensify your connection to one another. That, in turn, is going to make your sex better, and demonstrating that you want to talk about mutual pleasure may help your girlfriend express some desires that could be both surprising and delightful for both of you.

The bottom line: Take a step back from the feeling that your girlfriend owes you something and spend some time talking with her about how to make sex mutually pleasurable, without the burden of expectations or demands. Open communication can be an amazing way to enrich your sex life.

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