I don't want to have sex anymore and my boyfriend won't let it go.
Heather Corinna replies:My boyfriend and I have been dating for almost 5 years now. We used to have sex all the time, if we hung out alone it was just bound to happen. In the past year or so, I've just stopped wanting to. I know it definitely has something to do with my sexual assault PTSD, which he knows about and also probably has himself, but I genuinely don't want to have sex anymore, and I have no problem with that, on my own. I am absolutely fine not being sexually active, in fact, part of me prefers it. The problem is my boyfriend. He keeps wanting to know exactly why, and he keeps thinking I'm not sexually attracted to him. The last part wouldn't be an issue if he didn't make it feel like my fault and like I have to change. He keeps telling me to get it figured out, but I don't want to. He acts like I'm not considering his feelings, because I'm considering my own feelings. It got to the point where I've just given in a couple times and just lied there. It gave me flashbacks and I almost cried and he didn't even take care of me after. Everything else in our relationship is perfect, I really don't wanna leave him, I just want him to leave me alone about this but have the closure he needs to not be insecure about it. I will admit, though, after the conversations about this, consenting to him actually put fear through my body every time I would.
I'm so sorry that you have been in this situation, Michael. It sounds stressful and heartbreaking. Let's see if I can help a little.
Before I say anything else, I want to strongly suggest that you do not have any sex, of any kind, with anyone, that you do not also very much want yourself. It's no surprise to me that you've felt how you have about it, before, during and after, because having sex we do not want is usually traumatizing, all the more so if you we're already dealing with PTSD from a sexual assault. I can understand why you've tried: it's really hard not to cave under the kind of pressure your boyfriend has been exerting. But I think it's very important for your emotional and overall well-being that you stop and hold that line. You know this is not what you want: that's very clear. Anyone who cares for you needs to respect and accept that, even if it doesn't align with what they want. You owe yourself real bodily and sexual autonomy and agency. You deserve to only have sex or any kind of touch that is what you truly want, including if that's none at all. Anyone who shows you they aren't down with that is showing you that they not only aren't safe to be intimate with in the first place, but that they lack the capacity or the interest to be a good partner, in any respect, in some of the most basic ways.
It's difficult for me to imagine that any part of a relationship can be perfect when in one area, someone is behaving like your boyfriend has been. To me, pressuring someone for sex who has been so clear it isn't what they want, having sex with them when they are clearly not into it, and not taking care of them during any part of it suggests that that person might not have a whole lot of respect or love for the person they are doing that to. I also hear you saying you consented, but consent under duress -- like coercion, and other kinds of pressure or emotional manipulation -- isn't really consent. We can only truly give consent when we feel just as free to say no, not like that, or maybe later as we do to say yes.
Now, it might be that your expectations for sex or relationships with people are different than mine, or it might be that in every other area of your relationship, you feel respected and cared for by this person. I don't think any relationship actually has the capacity to be perfect, mind, since relationships are made of people, and every last one of us is wholly imperfect, but I think with this kind of treatment and dynamics are happening in one, it really can only be so great. This kind of behavior rarely tends to stay in one area of a relationship. If it hasn't already, it will likely show up in other areas eventually.
Over time, especially over years, relationships of all kinds do tend to shift and change, as do the people in them. There are a lot of ways sex, in particular, in relationships can change. Relationships that were not sexual can become so, relationships can change in the specific ways they were sexual, people in them can develop new limits, needs or wants, and sexual relationships can also sometimes become non-sexual. Sometimes the way relationships change can feel like something that just happens without anyone's intent; other times, like in yours right now, a change can be about someone's wants changing, and their intentionally deciding that they do not want an aspect of the relationship -- in your case, a sexual aspect -- that they wanted before, and letting their partner know that.
However it happens, when someone in a previously sexual relationship doesn't want it to be sexual anymore, there are two basic options that are both healthy and caring.
The people in the relationship can agree to try and change that relationship to one that isn't sexual, and see how that goes, making whatever different agreements or adjustments they need to in order to make that change work for them and their partner. For instance, it may be that the person who still wants a sexual relationship then, understandably, wants to pursue sex with other partners. It may be that everyone in the relationship still wants and likes some kinds of platonic physical affection, like cuddling or holding hands, and they agree to engage in whatever that is. There also may be agreements or rules that people want to make around asking for the relationship to be sexual again: for instance, agreeing that the person who wants sex shouldn't ask for it, but that the person who doesn't will let them know if their feelings change at any point. If and when people really want to be in each other's lives, if the nonsexual parts of their relationships bring a lot of benefit to them both, or, if that part of the relationship isn't really developed yet, but seems promising, and everyone involved has the capacity to let go of their sexual attachment to it, this can be a good and absolutely doable option. Sometimes you can even discover that a relationship works better as a nonsexual one than it did as a sexual one.
The other healthy and acceptable option is for the people in the relationship to choose to part ways. If a sexual relationship has mostly been about the sexual aspect, if the other parts of it don't feel that valuable (or healthy) to anyone or everyone in it, if anyone in it just does not feel able to let go of the sexual part and still be in it, these and other reasons can be some of why people might choose this option in your situation. Same goes for if a nonsexual relationship just is not what anyone in it wants or if someone is -- not to put too fine a point on it -- just being a real dick about an ask for no more sex. It can also happen that after trying to shift a sexual relationship to a nonsexual one, someone or everyone in the relationship learns that that just doesn't work, either, and so they decide to dissolve the relationship entirely.
What is not a healthy, caring, or at all acceptable option is for someone to do what your boyfriend has been doing: refusing to accept that you don't want to have sex with them anymore, pressing you for information about it over and over, suggesting your disinterest is a problem that needs fixing when it is not a problem for you, pressuring you in any way and certainly outright being sexual with you when they know very clearly it is not what you want. Wearing someone down until they give in and give us what we want is not an acceptable thing to do to anyone, about anything, in any kind of relationship. That's coercion, which is an abuse.
Based on what you have told me, I think it's most likely that this relationship has run its course. It sounds to me like, at this point, your wants have diverged in some big ways, and your boyfriend lacks the desire, the ability, or both, to make the adjustment to nurture a different kind of relationship than he has had with you so far. I am also very concerned about your ability to be safe with him: safe emotionally, safe sexually. You make clear you feel fear around and with him, and given how he's behaved, I think those feelings are valid, and very much worth listening to. This just sounds like, even if it didn't start that way, this is something that has been going bad and is getting worse. I am concerned that his coercive and manipulative behavior is going to escalate.
Five years is a long time to be in a sexual or romantic relationship as a younger person -- heck, as any person at any age. It's not unusual for all kinds of relationships to run their course in this kind of time frame, particularly when you're younger and often changing so much as a person, and learning so much about life and relationships.
I so get that it's hard to let go of a long-term relationship you have valued and that it sounds like you still value in many ways. I think it can also be particularly hard in a situation like this, where part of you might feel like if you do part ways, it's your fault for not wanting to be sexual, and that if you just wanted to, everything would be great. It might also be this was a first love, sexual relationship, or both, and given how much a part of us those relationships can feel like, leaving them can be extra difficult.
I want to tell you, in case this kind of thing is in your head at all, I doubt this would be all better -- or that it was before -- if you just wanted to be sexual with him again. I think it's probably likely that the sex you had with him when you did wasn't all that great or good for you -- a partner who feels entitled to sex like this generally isn't going to co-create sexual relationships of care, equality and sensitivity, especially in any ways where what they want and what their partner does diverge. These kinds of dynamics aren't the recipe for a relationship to do well long-term, no matter what.
I think you're right when you say the real problem here is your boyfriend, and, more specifically, his behavior. I agree.
I also hear you when you say you really want to try and keep this relationship going, and I want to respect that, even if I lack your confidence in the relationship. So, if you do want to try and give it a go, I think you'll need to sit down and have a talk with this guy and discuss the following things together:
- You remain dedicated to the relationship and having him in your life, but the relationship can simply no longer be sexual, and probably won't ever be again, and that is something you will need him to accept, not question, and not push if you are to remain part of each other's lives in any way. Can he do that? How does he feel about it? What would he need to make that work (like, for instance, the ability to have sexual relationships with other people, or some time apart first to take care of his own feelings around this change, for example)?
What kind of relationship do you want with him? You can let him know what you're looking for at this point and what you want when it comes to who you two are together and what your relationship looks like. How does what you want sound to him? What would he want this new kind of relationship with you to look like? Does what you both want and don't mesh enough to give it a go or not?
- In the event you both want to still be in some form of relationship, and all of the conversation about those two previous arenas goes well, what changes to your previous agreements do you want or need to make? What do you want to call each other? What limits and boundaries do you each want? What kind of time or "place" in each other's lives will you be aiming for?
How this talk(s) go will likely determine what you each choose from here. It may be that you both want to try to nurture a nonsexual relationship, or it may you just need to let each other go for now and part ways. Who knows, if you two really do have a great connection, maybe with some space and time apart, and the ability for both of you to only seek out and engage in what you actually want, you might reconnect some time later in life in some way that feels (and is) healthier and like a better fit. It's not unusual to have something like that happen: life is long, and people can grow, you know?
I'm going to toss you a few more pieces that might be helpful if you want or need some more food for thought or help strategizing a discussion. I really hope that whatever winds up happening, you can come to some kind of peace with all of this and find a way to give and get yourself that space from sex that you want. Again, I want to reiterate that you deserve a sexual life that wholly respects your limits and boundaries, and people in your life who do the same. All my best to you.