Heather Corinna replies:
Me and my boyfriend plain to marry after school. I really love him and I really want him the same way he wants me, but I am scared about if we have sex then he leaves me. I don't want to lose him.
There's no sense in being anything but frank.
Sex does tend to change things.
It can bring about or illuminate changes in the relationships it occurs within, changes in our other relationships, and changes in ourselves. Often, we have to add some factors to our lives we may not have had to before, like adding the use of birth control or safer sex, getting sexual healthcare, talking about sexual limits, boundaries and desires, negotiating sex or navigating through sexual conflicts or issues. Obviously, certain results or consequences of sex, such as a pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection, can also create physical changes, as well as changes to our lives and relationships.
Sometimes those changes aren't even negative things, like losing someone, winding up with Herpes or discovering that sex just doesn't feel good or right between you. Sometimes those are neutral or positive changes, like discovering new and pleasurable things about yourself or your sexuality (or about your partner and his sexuality) you didn't know before, getting a boost to your body image, winding up with a wanted pregnancy, or having a relationship go to a new and bigger place, but they are still changes, all the same, and sometimes we're just not at a time or place in our lives where we feel best able to deal with big changes. This is why, in the Sex Readiness Checklist we have at Scarleteen, one of the questions we suggest people ask themselves if if they feel able to handle any changes sex may cause.
As well, with any relationship we are in, that relationship changing, coming to an end, or any one party leaving is always a possibility, whether we have sex or not, whether we (when we can) marry or not.
There is absolutely nothing any of us can do to assure that a given person stays with us, or stays in a certain relationship with us.
Whether sex is part of the picture of not, life changes things, and time changes things. People change and relationships change as we live, learn and grow, and there is no magic formula or list of things to do or not to do -- nor an order to do things in or not -- which can put you in complete control of that. One of the trickiest parts of love and relationships is that while they can feel eternal, and while we may have times when we want a certain way we feel, or place we're at in a relationship, or person to stick around forever, if we can count on any one thing in our lives, it's change, and that fact that nothing really lasts forever.
So, in my book, the way to approach that is to value our feelings as much as we can while we have them, and to love and honor the people who are in our lives while they're here as best we can. I also think it's sage and caring to try and be flexible and open enough that when -- as we all tend to -- each of us changes, we can still love each other and be in one another's lives being more attached to who people are than to what exact kind of relationship we are in with them. (And if you talk to older couples who have been together and happy for a very long time, you'll hear many say that in a long-term marriage, that kind of flexibility is key.) By all means, when you find something marvelous you want to commit to as fully as you can, and really put your whole heart into, I say go for it, since that's so much of what really living life is about, but also understand that trying to always telescope all your actions based on what will keep someone around can, at a certain point, get in the way of fully experiencing and enjoying what you have while you have it.
What I seem to hear you saying, though, in regard to sex, sounds to me like you are feeling that it is very important to you to assure -- for as much as you can -- that when you have sex, you do so in a relationship with someone who is committed to staying in the relationship with you after sex. That's hardly an uncommon thing for a person to want: many people feel that way, and that's absolutely valid.
Maybe for you, that means you'd prefer to save sex together for after marriage: if that's what feels best to you, you get to do that. Or, maybe you need to sit down and have a deep conversation with your partner about your concerns, and if you very strongly feel you want to have sex before marriage, but are fearful about him leaving, see how he feels about that, and find out how committed he is to sticking with you no matter what sex might change for each of you and between you. In doing that, you can also provide him the opportunity to talk about his own fears and concerns, which you'll want to be sure get addressed just like your own.
It sounds to me like you're expressing feeling pretty fearful about this right now, and I know for myself that when I feel very scared about doing something which is absolutely optional -- and sex is, and always should be -- I find it best to take more time to work out how I feel about that thing and how that thing may or may not really suit my needs before I go ahead and do it.
So, my personal suggestion to you would be to take some more time to sort out your feelings and talk with your boyfriend before you become sexually active.
Not only does that make it more likely that you'll make the best choice for you, but sex when you're fearful simply does not tend to be very enjoyable or enriching: our minds and bodies don't tend to experience a lot of pleasure when we're scared or freaked out, and it's also tough to be open enough to really get close to someone during sex when we're scared. The time when it's going to be most right for you is when it's not this scary, and clearly, when you feel a bit more secure in your relationship than you do right now, and have developed more trust than you have in it right now. An intention to marry or a promise of marriage in the future can't automatically create things like trust and stability with where you're at (it's sage to say that marriage is more about a demonstration of those things as they already exist): it sounds to me like it might be a good idea for you, in your decision-making with this and in general, to think less about a future marriage and more about where you're at, how you're feeling, and what you need to feel more secure in your relationship today.
Don't forget, too, that sex is not just intercourse. The only two big differences between vaginal intercourse and all other kinds of sex is the risk of pregnancy, and the fact that some people simply attach more importance to vaginal intercourse for personal, religious or cultural reasons, particularly before they have it (afterwards, it can tend to be clearer just how different from other kinds of sex it often isn't). In other words, if you are doing things like making out, or having manual or oral sex, then you already are going to have some idea of how things are going when it comes to sex and the two of you. If you are doing those things, you can look at how those have been going, and if it seems like the sex you're already having in your relationship is working well within it and leaves you feeling good -- not just physically, but also emotionally -- or not-so-great.
Again, no matter what, you can't have a guarantee that any choice you make will assure your boyfriend stays your boyfriend, becomes your husband or sticks around: there is just nothing you can do to assure that. Heck, maybe you'll find that it's you who thinks about leaving him at some point; maybe it's you who will find that sex changes how you feel about him, your relationship, yourself or your future plans. Maybe you two will have some changes in your relationship -- or that one of you will decide not to continue on with it or a marriage -- over something that isn't about sex at all. While you can't have that guarantee, you can manage this in a way which is most likely to keep you and your relationship in a good place.
You're the best expert on knowing when something is right for you, and when you feel up to handling something and when you do not. You can certainly act in ways which are most likely to benefit your relationship and its quality, such as being honest about your fears, voicing your own needs and working with your partner to assure that sex is something you both really want, and feel ready both to manage and enjoy. The bonus is that doing that not only helps you make the best sexual choices that you can, it helps nurture and grow more love in your relationship as a whole.
Here are a few extra links to grow on: