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I gave him my virginity, and I don't feel like I got anything back.

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needs some advice asks:

I've been dating my boyfriend for 6 months now. He is my first long-term boyfriend and I really do love him. He is 3 years older than me and has had a 3 year relationship with another girl before me. After 3 months we decided to have sex. I was a virgin and this was a really big deal to me but he was not a virgin and had been with 2 girls before me. I don't regret being with him, I knew I was ready. But I get really upset about him not losing his virginity to me. Is it normal to be so upset about his past and past relationships? I have tried to just forget it all but I almost feel cheated. I gave my virginity to him and I didn't get anything in return. I felt like it wasn't as special to him as it was to me. How can I get over this?

Heather Corinna replies:

Feeling like you didn't "get anything in return" sounds very troubling to me. That strikes me as a huge deal, and like something that's probably bigger and about more than sex being a first-time for you and not for him. Someone with partners before you isn't limited in their ability to do their part to make sex be something where it feels like there is a very mutual benefit because they had other partners.

I want to make sure you know that if you made what you feel is a wrong choice for you in this, that's okay. Our lives are an ongoing learning process, and we are not always going to make our best choices. Often enough, we won't know or realize what our poor choices were and what the better ones could have been until we've already made them. It's not the most awesome-feeling part of life, for sure, but it's human, okay and is a big part of how we grow and keep figuring out what we really want and need. Plus, we really can do most things again in ways better for us when we want to try again. This setup some people create where first-time-ever sex is either perfect or awful, and nothing in between, doesn't really support that process. I'll explain more as I go, but I'd suggest you try and let go of that notion if you have it. Every time we have sex can be a first time if we approach it that way, which not only takes a lot of these pressures off, it tends to make for a much better sex life then anyone thinking their firsts are all over, or the most important part of their sex life -- a part that's most typically not the most awesome for anyone -- already happened.

If you're holding on to feelings of being mad at yourself about this choice, try and let that go. Beating up on ourselves rarely gets us to the good stuff. How about you instead focus on taking the valuable things you can from all of this and using them like we tend to use things we learn from a first try: to move forward so that our next try goes a bit more like we'd like it to than the first did?

What first-time sex (whether that's intercourse or something else) means to any given person varies. What any given sexual experience someone can have can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, including first-time experiences. Even if you'd engaged in sex for the very first time with someone else whose very first time it was, too, that doesn't mean it would have meant the same things to both of you, like that you'd have felt it was as special to the other person as it was to you. It also doesn't mean you'd have found in it what it was you were looking for.

I don't know what first-time sex has meant for you before, during or what it now means after-the-fact. Like I said, people differ with this. I also don't know what you, as an individual, have wanted or want now when it comes to your sexual or romantic partners. For some people, having a sexual partner with their same level of experience, be that general life experience or specifically sexual or romantic experience, is important. For other people, it's isn't, isn't so much, or isn't in the same ways. And of course, how important some of these things are can change for people through different phases of life, different relationships, or based on what they find out from their life, sexual or romantic experiences.

You get to feel however you feel about this. If what you really wanted was a sexual partner whose first time it also was, you get to have wanted that. You even get to still want that. But that's not the person you chose to be with for this experience. You know we can't unring a bell, whether that's about choosing to engage in sex with this person or this person's life having involved other sexual and romantic partners before you. How you feel about these things is in the present, but these events are in the past. They're done. He had partners before you, and you chose to engage in sex with him, knowing that. I can get you might feel bummed about that, but I don't think it has to be a big bummer, really, especially since that issue alone probably isn't really what's at the core of how you're feeling, anyway.

You feel pretty bad right now, and about some things now in the past, but probably also about a relationship or parts of it that are still going on or might happen in the future. I'm not sure what you think might have been different if this had been his first time, but I think you can certainly start by thinking about that yourself, because I think that's a good start to figuring out what you want and need now and moving forward.

I have a couple lists you can make and look at which I think will help get to the bottom of some of this -- including if this is bigger than his sexual history, which I suspect it is -- may help you move forward from here in a sound way and will hopefully also help you make some peace with your feelings.

First: make a list of what you walked into first-time sex expecting and what you wanted from it. Be as real and as honest as you can. Then cross out the things where you feel like those expectations and wants were met: where it was as you expected and you did get what you wanted from it. After that, set that list aside for a bit.

Next: make a list of what didn't happen with first-time sex you are NOW so strongly wishing it had been like: things that aren't on the first list, that you've only realized or discovered in hindsight. That may include you wishing you had been this person's first partner, but don't stop there. Focus on all the things you can think of that you feel were not right or didn't feel good (including afterward) about that experience, and put them on this list, even if some of those things seem silly or like they shouldn't matter.

Now: look at both of those lists. Put an X by things that really, truly ONLY could happen or could have happened if you had been his very first partner.

Chances are, there won't be much to put an X by. For instance, maybe you wanted this person to put more value on the sex you two were having or better recognize how important this was and is to you. His having had partners before you doesn't prevent that (nor would you being his first partner mean he'd have done those things), so that'd stay. What about wanting something like someone to ask you more how things felt for you during, or maybe have expressed how he felt about you more demonstrably during or after sex? He can still do those things and could have: his having previous partnerships didn't stand in the way of any of that, either.

Maybe you wanted him to feel just as vulnerable as you did, a vulnerability you think is about it a first time? Even in that case, I don't think you can cross that one out, because for all you know he didn't feel any more vulnerable than when it was his first time and wouldn't have. Maybe you wanted him to act like he didn't know what he was dong? Again, I don't think we can cross that off: a lot of people having a first-time don't act that way, and just because we've slept with other people before also doesn't mean we know what we're doing with a new partner, even if we think we do or act like we do.

When you've X'd the things it truly is sound to cross off as things that absolutely could not have been or can't be based only on his past, because his past is not something he can change, take a look at what's left.

Those are the things where you could potentially have experienced or might still experience something different with this person if he or you changed your behavior -- during sex or in general -- ideas or attitudes. Or where things could have gone more like you wanted and didn't, but not because or only because he had sex with others before you.

Those are things you both can probably potentially change if you both want to change them, be that with the way you relate, how you approach and go about sex together, how you think about these things, or even by changing your expectations. Plenty of people's expectations about sex before they engage in it (and plenty after) are not very realistic, so some of this stuff may just be about acknowledging the things we can't ask sex itself to provide, like increasing a partner's value of us, for example. Those are the things that are not about his having previous partners.

Next. Do you want to do what you can to resolve these feelings with this person, and/or keep pursuing a sexual and romantic relationship with them? Then after you think about these things for yourself, it's time to start talking about them together. In these talks, I'd focus not on what he or you can't change -- like his part or your choice to have sex with him -- but what you or he can change. If you wanted those things then and feel bad now, you probably also want them now and in the future, right? The things you have on that list you feel you want and need that he can provide or help with, regardless of his sexual history? Tell him you want and need them. Ask him to talk with you about how he feels he or you might be able to make changes so you can have them.

You also want to make sure that you're taking stock of what things you wanted and want still that he might not be a big part of. For example, how's your self-esteem? Do YOU feel special all by yourself, without any status from your relationship, including the status you don't have, but want of being a first sexual partner? Too, with what you know now, were you really ready? Do you feel ready now, or like maybe you need to take a few steps back and rethink this for yourself? Anything you come to realize is about things you need to do or work on for yourself? Hop on 'em.

If his having previous partners still feels like a big issue for you and you want to stay in a relationship with this person, it might help to think about romantic or sexual relationships as being similar to friendships or family relationships. People often apply very different standards to them in some respect, but that's often not sound.

In families with more than one child, can a second or third child never be as special as the first? Whoever your best friend is in life right now: are they less special than your best friends from before? Was your very first best friend any less special because you have this other best friend now? Is this boyfriend less special to you because you had boyfriends before? In all of those cases, the answer is probably no.

We don't have a tiny handful of love or ourselves that we can spend in one place like that and have it be gone ever after or be less than we had in the first place. Value, love and care for other people are kind of like rechargeable batteries. We can use up a lot of juice with one person at one time, sure, but then we can recharge and have just as much to give someone else. That's part of why we CAN have more than one friend and have them both be special, and parents can have more than one kid and love one of them just as much as another. I'd suggest you try to let go of ideas about this person or you being more or less special and embrace the fact that BOTH of you can be special, just in different ways and at different times. Even if his very first partner was special to him, that doesn't mean his very first time with you wasn't, too. This doesn't have to be a competition: everyone can win.

That all said, if you strongly feel you would feel better being with someone whose life experience and romantic and sexual history is more like yours, then you get to choose that moving forward. Maybe for you, at this point in your life, having this kind of relationship with someone years older than you and with more life experience isn't what you want or what feels right for you. It's okay for people to have those kinds of preferences in ways that are still respectful of others, which is mostly about just owning your preference as yours instead of suggesting it should be everyone's and recognizing it's about a preference of yours, not about someone like your boyfriend having less intrinsic value as a person because he had other partners before you.

You know, for as long as this work has been my gig, I have heard a vast array of first-time sex stories and feelings about them afterwards. One of the many things I've learned in that listening and talking is that there is NO one right way of engaging in first-time sex -- sparing serious basics like everyone really wanting to have that kind of sex, full, mutual consent and people feeling ready -- that results in people getting the expected results or what they wanted. For instance, I've heard people be disappointed or feel hurt in the ways you're expressing when both people were both having a first-time. I've heard from people able to marry who waited until marriage and were disappointed. I've heard from people who didn't wait and were disappointed. People experience disappointment and regret with first-time sex in every context you can think of, just like other people don't in every context you can think of.

Disappointment with first-time sexual experiences is tremendously common. Having seen so many people aim to do what their (or someone else's) idea of the "right way" was who still found it didn't give them what they were after, my sense is that's usually less about the context being wrong and more about people's expectations being problematic. So many people who feel disappointed with first-times seem to often have had the idea that a first time is about things being perfect or one-time-only. I don't know about you, but for me, that's an awful lot to ask of a first time for anything.

First-time sex, just like first-time bike riding, first-time public speaking or first-time writing isn't about getting everything exactly right or about any sort of end. It's about beginnings, about a start to what will likely be a lifelong process of learning and growing and experiencing things. The first time we try and walk? We usually fall flat on our face or our bum. Our steps are unsteady. Our knees wobble like jello. Then we try again. And again. And we get better and better at it over time, rather than magically being expert at it and feeling expert at it that first time, or framing that first time as an ideal for how to walk. Over time we learn things that help us get better at it, like what we need to be stable in our steps, how we can move from walking to running or jumping, and how to feel more confident in walking. We learn how to walk whatever our own best way is, based on the uniqueness of our bodies and selves. We don't -- and can't -- know any of those things with our very first step. That first step is where we just start learning, not where we stop. The same is true here.

Your first time wasn't what you wanted it to be. I know how important that can be to people, so I'm so sorry that you feel that way. But one of the very best things about what really makes a first time so cool and potentially important, even when it's not ideal (and sometimes more because it isn't!), is that it's about opening a door to many, many opportunities afterward for next times, many of which will, just by virtue of not being first times, usually go way better. Now you've learned a few things, maybe gotten some clues about things you want and need you might not have known or acknowledged before. You had a first time. Going into it, you expected certain things, you wanted certain things, and you felt you did or didn't need certain things. So, going into a possible next time, and a time after that, and after that, what do you know now? What can you use from what you know now to make choices moving forward, to ask of partners moving forward, and be much more likely to get what you want and need?

Some of what you learned here might mostly be for or about yourself, like maybe part of being ready for you when it comes to sex is being with someone and in a time of your own life or a relationship where you already feel very special and very valued in the greater context of their lives and your own, separate from them. Maybe some of what you learned, and this partner can too -- after all, it was his first time with YOU, so he's at the start of a learning process just like you are -- is that there are some things you need for sex to feel good for you neither of you knew you did, like perhaps some more affirmation and loving communication during sex or more affection afterward, like things to make it feel more special for both of you, like having it be more clearly recognized by your partner that sex with a partner is a very big deal to you.

I don't know anything about this relationship. I know you love this person, but that doesn't tell me anything about the dynamics or quality of the relationship. So, I also want to make sure you're thinking about that. Sometimes sex with someone illuminates parts of our relationship: it can do that with the great stuff but also with the stuff that isn't great. It may be some of the bad feelings you're having are because the failings with the sex you had are also failings in your relationship as a whole. I want to make sure you don't have the idea that you have to stay with this person if things really aren't good, if this relationship isn't what you really want, or if what went wrong here for you with this sex is what's been or is becoming wrong for you in the relationship, like not feeling special to this person or like you get as good as you give.

I know sometimes people can feel that if they "gave their virginity" to someone and they don't stay with that person evermore, they will have really messed up. But since it's rare for people to stay a lifetime with a first partner, and staying in a relationship that's not what you want and need and isn't good for you is bad news for everyone, I disagree. Again, we're talking about first-times, not last times.

If you feel lousy about sex you had with someone, like feeling that you didn't get anything close to what they did out of it the first time, chances are good that -- unless something changes about that person, how they interact with you and vice-versa, and the way you're having sex together -- it's probably going to feel that way the next time. And the time after that unless, again, whatever created those feelings can change and does change. So, in working all of this through, be sure you also do some thinking about this relationship as a whole and if it's right for you. If the things you want and need are things you can both work on and improve, but this guy doesn't seem to care about them or really want to work on them, the big issue here may not be this guy's past, but this guy just not being a good fit for you in the present. Same goes for figuring out if, with what you know now, a sexual relationship with this person is right for you. If you feel like it's not, or you're really unsure now, you can always take sex off the table. Just because we had any kind of sex with someone once never means we have to keep having sex with them.

This is a heavy stuff, I know, and it can be hard to try and sort it all through when you're feeling blue. You don't have to figure all of this out at once: you can't, anyway. Before you even get started, you may need to take some extra care of yourself, like doing things you know make you feel better when you're feeling down. Take whatever time you need with this, have as many talks as you need to with this person, friends or family. I don't think you did anything wrong here in any big way. But I think you can use how you're feeling and what you know now to inform your choices moving forward so that you're more likely to have sexual experiences and romantic relationships you feel great about, rather than conflicted with. And that's going to involve more than loving someone or not, but taking some larger stock of what you really want and need for yourself and in sex with someone else beyond feeling love.

Whatever conclusions you come to, just be and stay real about whatever it is you really want and need right now, using this past experience not as something that makes your present miserable, but as a way to get better at seeking out, asking for and agreeing only to what you feel will make sex or sexual relationships in your present and future be more likely to be as right for you as they can be.

I'm going to leave you with some links I think might help, and you're also always welcome to come to the message boards if you'd like to talk more about this either one-on-one, or with other users who've been where you're at:

written 18 Oct 2011 . updated 19 Oct 2011

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