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I'm not ready...but am I just overthinking it?

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Barbara asks:

I have been so grateful for this site, it has been wonderful in making me more comfortable about my relationship. Basically, it comes down to the fact that my boyfriend and I are at the point where sex would seem like the next natural step, but every time we get close, we end up having a discussion instead. We have been together for a year now, are 21 and are both virgins, and while he is completely ready, I am not sure I am. We have engaged in all other sexual activities, manual, oral, etc, but I cannot seem to wrap my head around the idea of having actual intercourse.I have told him why - nervous, scared that the relationship will change, that it will become all about the physical, etc. And while he says he wants me to be comfortable, I think that he is really getting frustrated. I feel like even though we are not having sex yet, everything is now about that. And the last time we were together, it was all about him...physically I mean. And he is never like that. I just don't know if I am making too big a deal out of the whole sex thing. I mean we have talked the issue to death already, and I want to know what sex with him would be like....is there anything I can do to take the pressure off of myself and to therefore, take the pressure off our relationship?

Heather Corinna replies:

Before I say anything else, just know that you get to feel whatever you feel, and that there isn't anything wrong with either not feeling ready for -- or just plain old not wanting -- any given sexual activity. Anything I say from here on out is not intended to influence you to make any one choice, okay? When you connect your head, heart and your guts, whatever the general consensus is will be your right answer for you.

It might be helpful to know that when we're looking at how sex can change relationships -- and it can, in a whole bunch of different ways, negatively and/or positively -- we're not just talking about intercourse. You two have already been sexually active, so you've likely already seen the changes you're going to. If your relationship was going to become all about sex because of becoming sexually active, it probably would have happened by now. Too, you will already have a good idea of what sex is like with him right now: how things are with all the other sexual activities you're having is likely to be the same sort of dynamic, emotional tone and such that you'd have adding intercourse to the mix.

Mind you, vaginal intercourse is given an extra weight in our culture, something we often tend to pick up on from a very early age, so it's typical for people to give an extra weight to it, too. Obviously, the fact that pregnancy is then a risk also adds extra gravity all its own. So, while sex is sex is sex, really, if intercourse carries more weight in your mind than other activities, then it is something different for you.

But it sounds to me like right now you ARE noticing a dynamic in the sex you're already having, and the way you're both talking about intercourse, that is already not a good one. Have you talked about that evening where he made the sex all about him? Have you talked about how you feel like things are becoming all about sex, and that while he says he wants you to be comfortable, you're feeling pressured? If so, have those been conversations you've left feeling good about, and feeling like your issues were addressed? If not, then I'd say part of your reluctance may be because as it stands already, sex or the relationship is currently problematic, and it's sage to be reluctant -- for any sex -- when that's the case. And if you haven't talked about any or all of these things, I'd say you need to, and need to far outside the bedroom.

I'd also suggest engaging him and asking him to be very honest in expressing to you how he is feeling, if intercourse is a dire need and if so, why, and if it is for him, talking about how you two might deal with what appear to be conflicting wants right now. For instance, if he just feels he needs a relationship with something in it you're not comfortable with yet, then it may even be time to part ways so you both CAN have your needs fulfilled by partners whose wants and needs are in better alignment. Or, if that want does not outweigh his desire to be with you, then looking at the big picture, he may easily agree to just let it go for right now.

I think one way to take the pressure off of yourself is to simply acknowledge that however you're feeling about all of this is valid. If you don't feel like it's the right time for intercourse yet -- and if you're feeling pressured, it's really not: good, healthy sex doesn't tend to come out of a situation where anyone feels pressured -- that's valid, too. Intercourse really, truly, positively is not some sort of sexual Holy Grail, or the be-all-end-all of sex, particularly for women, but also for plenty of men. It's likely to be less physically satisfying for you than other kinds of sex, because that's commonly the case for a majority of women. And indeed, it does put an extra risk in the mix, and also add other factors you'll have to be negotiating with a partner, like birth control, and having an understanding about how you might manage an accidental pregnancy. If the sex you've been having so far is really great, and the relationship so far is really great, it would be unlikely that intercourse won't be in line with that. In the same vein, I'm hearing you having conflicts around sex right now, and when that's the case, those conflicts would likely carry into intercourse, too.

It sounds to me like before you can even think about adding more sex to the mix, or continuing the sex you are having, you two do need to talk more, and have discussions which are productive. If you really feel like you've talked this to death, and had productive talks and still don't feel like intercourse is the right thing, then I think you have your answer: it's clearly not for you at this time, and just making that clear -- a la, "We've talked about it, and I've thought about it, and for now, I need to just put that on the shelf and will let you know if and when I'm ready to revisit it," -- should help a lot when it comes to opening the pressure valve on all this. You may also just need some time right now to reevaluate the relationship, think for yourself, maybe talk to friends about it rather than to your boyfriend.

You might also have a couple of dates, you and the guy, where it is NOT about sex, at all, so you can revisit the other parts of the relationship right now and get a better idea of if it's a good one, and if it's one that any kind of sex is healthy within and something you feel good about within.

If after reading all of this, a few good talks, a couple good no-sex dates, and the pressures removed, you're feeling a lot better about it, and you CAN choose to have intercourse without any feelings of being pressured, and it is something you not just agree to but very much want... then there's that answer.

But that's the place you're looking to be at when it comes to any kind of sex: where it's not just if it's okay or not, but where it's something you deeply want, physically and emotionally, separate from your partner's wants and desires. If and when you get there, that's a right place to consider any sort of sex in. Remember: sex is about closeness and intimacy, for sure, but it's also about deep desire and pleasure. Wanting sex, ideally, isn't about a "Well, I guess it's okay," but about a deep belly growl, a stirring hunger, a very big, enthusiastic YES. That's the case whether we're talking about intercourse the first time or the 80th; whether we're talking about intercourse or oral sex or manual sex or sex of any kind. I haven't heard any address of that at all in your post, about any kind of sex, so that's something else I'd encourage you to think about. If you're not strongly feeling all of THAT, then it's no surprise it's not a place you want to go, or that this seems to be all about talk and thinking, rather than about a clearer want or desire, and sometimes, when sex seems all about what's in our heads, only, it's a good indication that the desire really isn't there.

I know I've jumped around a bit, but hopefully at least some of that will be helpful to you. I'm going to toss a few links at you, and hopefully, between those, this and your own head and heart, things will become a bit more clear.

Several months later, Barbara wrote back...

So, my boyfriend of a year and a half, my first ever completely serious romantic and sexual relationship broke up with me OVER THE PHONE when I came home from school this summer even though I had asked it to be in person (we were talking about it being a possibility, we were going in circles for weeks) because he didn't feel "romantically" about me anymore, he said. We had a very open, trusting, and wonderful relationship, but I noticed that we did have our issues. Before we were sleeping together (which on what I think is an important side note, was always frustrating and not very fun, but I thought that was because we were both previously virgins -maybe I was wrong) he was confused about what he wanted to do with his life, he is very unhappy with things as they are and he was concerned about us being together in the future because I wanted so many things for myself, career-wise and he felt that he didn't fit into the picture. I said I would compromise, it was never an issue for me and he let it go. But then a month later (after sleeping with me two more times) he just ended it.

I was extremely hurt, and still am, because he had said that he wanted to be with me, basically marry me and I wanted that too, and then he just changed his mind. I have so many theories as to why and I'm just so confused. I don't think his feelings just changed overnight....I think he just got scared or couldn't handle it or was making excuses for his own bad place in life. But my question is WHY? Why would you leave if you still cared about me? Why would you leave the one person who cares about you back? I was the only person he never fought with, we were compatible every way - intelligence, humor, values...expect for maybe the sex part, to be honest he was selfish there, once he was done it was over but we had only tried four times (since I live away at school) and I just figured it would get better, easier, more fun...

He did say he felt that I wanted to be with him more than he wanted to be with me. He never told me he loved me, by the way. He had said he was only going to say that to the person he was going to be with forever and I accepted that. But once we started sleeping together I thought he would. I waited a year and half to be sure I wanted to sleep with him, now it is one of the biggest regrets I have looking back, even though at the time I was fine with my decision.

I just feel so many different things - cheated out of how great sex could have become (but never was) the growing companionship, sharing a life with someone. He had been everything to me - my first relationship in all aspects from date to kiss to boyfriend to sexual partner and maybe I was just deluded coming into all this at 22...I don't know. I thought I loved him. I miss him everyday and want to go back....but we haven't spoken in three months, we ran into each other once and he had to leave it was so uncomfortable. We can't even talk to each other, let alone be friends. To watch him walk out on me like that after we shared so much and we're so close just kills me. I'm crying again as I type.

I just don't know what to think. I want answers but he is the only one who has them and I can't ask him. I can't hurt like that again. But I can't let this go either. Please help me to understand. I know that maybe we weren't all that compatible if he wasn't willing to try and if he was selfish....but why even try in the first place. I know I'm bitter, I know that, but I just need someone to tell me something.

It may help you to know that I posted on here months ago as Barbara "I'm not ready....but am I just overthinking it?" and obviously, I slept with him and obviously, since the sex was so awful and it made him want to the end the relationship, I shouldn't have. I am just so confused and I feel so guilty. I blame myself for everything - his changing feelings, the bad sex, the pulling away, the distance, the confusion. I only wanted him to be happy, with me, with his life and with our relationship...and I hate myself that I slept with him, that I couldn't fix things. That I lost him. That he doesn't want to be with me.

I feel sick and dizzy all the time and just afraid that he was my only chance, and I blew it or that he threw it away because I wasn't good enough. I DON'T KNOW. I feel cheated and used in a way because the break-up was so harmonious with the sex. Please help me to understand this. I have talked to everyone I care about and they say just to let it go, that its over that I no longer have to deal with his problems and confusion and negative influence on my life and that I can find someone better and happier and whatever but I feel bad doing that. I was never annoyed with his confusion and before sleeping together and his upset with his life he was wonderful and caring and gentle... I wanted to help him. I was hurt by the way things ended and what he said (it was a chore to see me he said) but I feel like we should be together, I feel like I'll never find anyone else. I feel lost. Please help me.

When someone asks me for advice, I always have to know that I'm just giving another perspective, not a directive. I always have to bear in mind that a person asking may or may not take that advice, and I have to hope that if that person does not take my advice, and has a negative outcome I expressed concern with, they recognize that a negative outcome may have happened no matter what they did.

I hope that you, too, can recognize that. For all either of us know, even if you had kept from having sex with him, you still may have had this exact same result. Looking at some of the dynamics you're expressing here now, that actually seems pretty likely to me.

In your original question, you didn't really talk about any of the kinds of relationship dynamics you're talking about now. Had you, I actually would have probably told you to take some steps away from the relationship altogether. I can obviously see that you're really hurting right now, but I have to say that, like your friends, I don't really see this result as a negative so far as this relationship being over is concerned.

I hear you, in this new reply, expressing some troubling things. I hear you having expressed a willingness to completely alter your own life goals, for instance, because he didn't have his own, or because he wasn't sure he could have a relationship with you in alignment with those goals. The right relationship for us is going to be pretty harmonious with our life goals. Sure, sometimes BOTH partners may have to make some compromises or adjustments, but it sounds to me like he expected you to make all those compromises, rather than making any himself. It also sounds like you felt it was reasonable for one person to make all those compromises (you), while I don't find that to be the basis of a healthy relationship with a partner or yourself.

I also hear you saying you were compatible in every way, but at the same time, clearly expressing that you weren't: not sexually, not when it came to your life goals, not when it came to your level of earnest investment in the relationship. You loved him, but he seems to have been unable to love you back. And for the record, I'm pretty certain that as is the case so often with that, that was not due to you being unworthy: it was due to him lacking that ability to go all-in with love. We can be as awesome as we wanna be, but if and when we encounter people like that, our sheer awesomeness can't magically give them that ability: that's something they have to find in themselves first.

You seem to feel that sex had the potential power to fix your relationship. Thing is, it doesn't have that power. Rather, sex is often a mirror of the relationship we presently have. It can often enhance a healthy relationship, but it can't repair one that isn't working. Sex and orgasm can be awesome, sure, but they can't part the Red Sea.

I think it might help if you realized that when it comes to what a great relationship is, your bar seems to have been set pretty low. You very likely WILL have opportunities for partnership in your life....well, I'd say again, but it seems to me like you didn't really have a partnership with this at all. You had someone who couldn't express love for you over a substantial period of time, who couldn't be supportive of you or your life goals, someone who seems to have felt lesser because we was with someone who had their act together when he didn't. That's not the recipe for a good partner, gal. You suggest maybe you were not worthy of him, but what I see in some of his actions is that it was he who felt unable to step up to the plate with you.

We also have to look more to someone's actions than their words. In other words, he said he wanted to marry you, but I don't see you talking about him actually enacting those words. In other words, his behavior doesn't seem to reflect them. Someone who cares that deeply for someone else really doesn't break up with them by phone, or just drop the ball totally when trying to work out conflicts. I think we can also safely say that someone who is so serious about a relationship they're talking marriage should be able to say "I love you," -- and mean it -- well before then. saying he wanted to marry you, but withholding an expression of love because that's "for the person he wants to be with forever," doesn't make any sense to me. It seems highly contradictory, and very much like his actions spoke a lot more clearly than his words. From what you've written here, I don't see this guy as a person you'd have had a chance at the kind of partnership you want with.

Whether he's just not there yet in his life or he's just not interested you nor I probably can't know. And you're also not likely to get his list of "whys" here: he's not even speaking with you. Even if you could, I'm not sure how much they would help or make you feel better. You invested in something deeply: he didn't seem to. No matter why he didn't, it's going to hurt for a while. I do think you need to let go of the idea that the sex is why he wanted to end this. Like I said to you in your previous answer and this one, sex just isn't that powerful: it doesn't have that power, to either repair or destroy an otherwise healthy relationship. And from the looks of things, the dynamic he brought from the beginning with sex never changed: as he seems to have been in other areas of the relationship, it was all about him and his needs, and not about a partnership or something shared. I don't think you missed out on some great opportunity of your life to have amazing, incredible, enriching sex with this guy: whether it's temporary or permanent, I can't know, but based on what has gone on so far, and for right now, this guy didn't have that in him. I think the reason he ended this is that he just wasn't up for it and ready for the kind of relationship -- with you, with himself -- that you are.

When someone like that is out of your life, then the door IS open for a bonafide partnership with a partner who CAN express love for you, who IS supportive of you, who DOES have their act together, who WILL be invested in your sexual pleasure as much as their own and who, for the love of Pete, is happy enough on their own that the relationship can be based in you BOTH wanting to support the other's happiness. From what I can gather, this guy was not a highway to all of that good stuff: he was a road block. Now you really CAN have the ability to meet someone else who can potentially offer you these things, and perhaps you also will have more clarity now in terms of being better able to see when someone can't.

There's no neat, pat thing I can say about getting over a first love. It is almost always very painful, very hard and a feeling of disappointment can linger for a while. It's a very romantic notion that we'll manage to hit a home run our first time out at bat, but it is one that doesn't really fit most folks' reality. There's nothing wrong with it taking a few tries to find a fantastic partnership, and nothing somehow automatically better about having that be with a first partner. It's more than okay that you invested a lot on this when it came to your heart and time: you have to know you clearly did try (more than he did) to make this work. It just didn't, and sometimes, things just don't. It's also totally okay to feel bad for a while: just know that that feeling bad is likely to be more about the loss of an ideal than anything else. You didn't just lose a great relationship, from what I can gather: you lost a bit of a doozy, but a doozy you clearly hoped COULD be that great relationship.

So, take the time you need to grieve. Hang out with your friends and family. Get back to those life goals with a renewed vigor now that you don't have someone around second-guessing them or making you feel like you have to choose between him and them. And when it feels right, start to date again, taking your time with who you're dating before you get very invested, and coming to those potential relationships knowing full well you're worth more than you know, and deserving of everything you want. You don't have to make concessions or compromises when it comes to things like being fully loved and supported, like having sex actually be about you as much as the other person, like having a partner who brings enough to the table himself that your goals are part of why you're so great, not why they suck so much.

written 02 Feb 2008 . updated 31 Jan 2014

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