If Your Sex Life Isn’t Satisfying, Can Your Relationship Be Saved?

Communication is key.

I have been in love with my boyfriend for 3 years now and have started exploring the physical side for 1 year. But somehow I have come to a realization that no matter how much I love him, he won’t be able to fulfill my physical needs the way I want. (It is never intentional on his part). The mere fact of falling out of love with him makes me feel like I’m betraying him. What should I do?
—Teresa, 24

I have so much empathy for you, Teresa. The ambivalence and sorrow in your letter takes me right back to a years-long relationship of mine, in which I cared for the person deeply but simply did not enjoy our sex life. This dynamic can be incredibly disorienting, leading to a lot of late-night self-blame and frantic Googling. What does being “in love” mean if sexual passion is not part of the equation? What if you’re attracted to your partner, but can’t manage to have satisfying sex together? Is there any way to “fix” your sex life if it’s never really worked for you?

Your letter is full of feeling, but light on details, so let’s parse out a few things. First, as licensed sex therapist Shadeen Francis reminded me, there’s a difference between sexual chemistry and sexual compatibility. “Chemistry might mean there’s some sort of spark, pull, or connection,” says Francis. But “compatibility is about satisfaction.” It’s a more active and fluid process. “It’s about asking, ‘Does this work?’”

If you are fully missing sexual chemistry — if you don’t and never did feel attracted and aroused by your partner; if you can’t think back to a time when you were dying to hook up with him—there’s little chance that this urge will show up after three years. You can build upon, but not create, sexual chemistry. Communication, experimentation, and openness can help rekindle or augment a spark, but they cannot construct one out of thin air.

That’s not to say that a relationship can’t survive unless there’s white-hot sexual chemistry. Holly Richmond, another certified sex therapist I spoke to, sees a lot of couples who have “meh” sex and choose to stay together, anyway. In those cases, the one who feels unsatisfied “ends up having a very rich fantasy and masturbation life,” Richmond says. “Or they experiment with non-monogamy and open up their relationship.” There are some people who can forgo sexual satisfaction with their partner in exchange for all the wonderful things they get from their partnerships.

Honestly, Teresa, I have a feeling you are not one of those people. If you were, you probably wouldn’t have written me this letter. If you determine that there isn’t and never was any kind of sexual spark between you and your boyfriend, I believe you two are not long for this world.

But not so fast: I can’t quite tell from your letter whether you indeed have zero chemistry, or whether you two just haven’t yet nurtured and developed an already-present attraction. I could see a scenario in which you are (or remember a time when you were) genuinely turned on by your boo, but your sex sessions are just not quite fulfilling your sexual needs. If this is the case, there’s still hope! It’s just gonna take some bravery and, yes, some work.

What does this work entail? Above all, some explicit and unflinching conversations about desire. It sounds like you do have a clear idea of your desires, whether that’s a specific fantasy or kink, a power dynamic you enjoy, or just a way you like to be touched. But it also sounds like perhaps you’ve come to this realization privately. I’m wondering how much of your “physical needs” you’ve expressed to your boyfriend before you concluded that it’d never work. I’m wondering whether you’ve admitted your dissatisfaction, discussed your fantasies, or tried new things with him.

It’s okay if you haven’t. Talking frankly about sex is not easy for even the most experienced among us, but it’s necessary if you want to give better sex a shot. This means, according to sex therapist Moushumi Ghose, “stepping outside of your comfort zone, having difficult and uncomfortable conversations, and having awkward sex and sensual moments.” Maybe you take the emphasis off orgasms and performance, and try to just enjoy each other’s bodies, without worrying about penetration or how wet or hard anybody is. Non-goal-oriented activities could mean “having a makeout session just to make out,” Ghose says, or dry humping, or masturbating in front of each other. It could mean experimenting with sex toys, watching porn together, dirty-talking, or sexting. I know “work” doesn’t sound all that sexy, but exploring what feels good for both of you can be a profound and revelatory bonding experience.

So yes, it is possible to improve your sex life. But the last factor—the factor that all three sex therapists I spoke to said was absolutely key—is whether you are actually motivated to do any of this. This kind of communication and investment and vulnerability is not for the faint of heart. And not everyone feels that it’s worth it.

If you do, it’s time to schedule a state-of-the-union conversation with your boyfriend immediately. If you don’t, or if you already feel like you’ve exhausted your options, that’s completely valid. Identifying what’s truly important to you often does lead to breaking up with someone, even someone you love. It doesn’t mean you are betraying him. It means you are sparing him, and yourself, from longterm resentment and despair.

Hi! I used to have a partner who would laugh or giggle a lot whenever he had an orgasm. What’s the deal with this?
—Kendra, 37

Orgasms are strange, wonderful things that can produce some unexpected and completely involuntary behaviors. The more unusual ones, like laughing, crying, sneezing, or headache are called “peri-orgasmic phenomena.” Even in 2020, scientists know little about why they happen. Some theorize that these odd side effects are caused by the constellation of hormones flooding one’s body during sex, like oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine, and adrenaline. Laughing during climax isn’t unheard of, but it’s certainly rare—so rare that the only research about it comes in the form of individual case studies.

One thing seems to be clear, though: Apart from initial confusion, these reactions are not causes for concern. Sounds like this partner is in your past, but if you ever come across a laughing orgasm again, the best thing to do is to be cool with it. We all have our little quirks!


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