Thanks for reading Can We Talk?, a sex and relationships column that aims to tackle the burning questions about sex, dating, relationships, and breakups that you’re too afraid to ask your partner — or maybe even your besties. Last time, relationship therapist Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT, helped a reader dealing with racist in-laws. This week, she tackles a question from someone deciding between getting back together with a toxic ex or staying in their current sexless relationship.
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Can we talk about my desire to go back to my ex? I identify as a lesbian and am in a relationship of three years with my partner. We have lived together almost our whole relationship, as we started out as friends. The origins of our relationship are complicated. Before we began dating, I fell in love with a man I had known in high school and reconnected with. He ultimately ended up disappearing. As some kind of weird retaliation — and an attempt to keep my female friend in my life — I decided to begin dating her.
Down the road, after my ex got together with a different ex of his, he got back in contact with me and admitted he was unhappy with her. He even said he was still in love with me. But... then he vanished again. Meanwhile, my current partner and I haven’t had sex in close to three years. I don’t know whether to leave my relationship (to be honest, we’ve become codependent, and we’ve made a nice life together). However, I feel I only love her as a friend, and I’m not in love with her as you should be with a partner. In fact, I believe I’m actually still in love with the man who disappeared on me (twice). Help!
Torn & Tempted
Torn & Tempted
Dear Torn & Tempted,
If your question is, "do you choose the guy who ghosted you or your best friend who you have no sexual intimacy with?" I can answer that in a snap. I don’t think you actually want either one. I know my simple answer isn’t necessarily an easy one to grapple with. Right now, it seems to me you are thinking in binaries: Black or white, him or her, chemistry or stability. But I’m going to ask you to step into the “gray area” for a moment with me. The more we lean into life’s complexities, the more colorful, rich, and joyful our worlds can become.
But to get in this zone, let’s first unpack the two options you’re considering.
Should you go back to your ex?
You have the ex-lover who ghosted you… twice. His actions have shown you he has no problem telling another person he loves them even if he’s in a relationship. While it probably feels incredible to be desired, I’d try to look beyond that. I wouldn’t automatically interpret his actions as him longing for you as “the one who got away.” It seems he has a pattern of going back to what’s familiar when he is unhappy. It tells me that he has his own issues with commitment that he needs to work out. Let him do that — on his own. A relationship can only thrive when you have trust. Again, for the people in the back: A relationship can only thrive when you have trust. If you go back to him, you could be left worrying that every time he feels tension or disconnection, he’ll vanish — or go searching for something (or someone) that feels more comfortable instead of talking to you about it.
However, it seems you’re doing something somewhat similar. You're looking around for another familiar option instead of addressing the discontent in your own relationship. There may be deeper reasons for this. Since you likely formed some of your own intimacy patterns with him back when you two were dating, you may be subconsciously mimicking behaviors you picked up from him in your relationship now.
I know this may sound like tough love — yes, I am calling you out on your shit a little bit. But only because knowing this may help you parse through your situation.
With that said, know that many people wonder about their exes and if any love or happiness has been left on the table. But just because we loved (or still love) someone does not mean we should be with them. And as warm and gooey as it can feel to reminisce about the good memories — the hottest sex or the time they surprised you with your favorite flowers (blush pink tulips, anyone?) — it’s just as important to remember why those times came to an end in the first place.
Ask yourself: Did you take the time to fully grieve the relationship? How can you do that now? It makes sense you have unanswered questions, considering he left abruptly, twice, and maybe you felt abandoned. As you are thinking about if you want to go back to him, consider why he might have ghosted in the first place. What was going on in the relationship at the time? Was there fighting, avoidance, or cheating? On a piece of paper, can you map out the pattern that led to such deep disconnection that he eventually just disappeared? Then write down what questions you would have asked him when he ghosted if you’d had the opportunity. Do you have the answers to those questions? Would you feel comfortable actually asking him now? After working through all of this, do you feel reassured that he has deepened his insight into his behaviors and wouldn’t disappear on you again? If not, it’s time to ask the hardest question of all: Why would you go back to someone who has not shown any significant growth since your last breakup?
Should you stay in a relationship where there's no chemistry?
Now, onto the second option you proposed: Staying with your best friend and current partner. You have been living together for about as long as the relationship, but you have not been having sex for much of that time. I am so curious what they think about that. Clearly, the lack of sexual intimacy is not sustainable for you, but is it for them? Was your sexual relationship once satisfying? Did something happen that changed that? I have had so many couples come into therapy reporting a fear of “Lesbian Bed Death,” which is a term that was coined based on the misunderstanding of and generalizing of queer folks, but that sums up the idea that sex and intimacy will just stop and never come back once you’ve been with someone for a while. Despite this stereotype, I believe the best sex actually happens in a safe relationship where you feel like you can have fun and play with your partner, which often happens after you’ve been together for the long haul.
Before you jump into any discussion about ending your current relationship, I’d encourage you to have a good, clear, and open conversation with your partner about what’s going on in the relationship, especially regarding sex. Try to understand where they are at, too. Sometimes we tell ourselves we are protecting people we love by not having some of these hard conversations, but having them is often the kind, brave thing to do.
If things don’t change after this talk, as much as it would be heartbreaking, you may need to end things. You’ll likely worry she’ll be hurt by this, but if I were her, I would not want to stay in a relationship with someone who knows they are not in love with me, as you seem to. You are not only robbing yourself of happiness, but you are also blocking the opportunity for them to find someone who lights their soul on fire. We all deserve that.
Believe me, you also merit that deep love.
Can you choose... you?
I find myself wondering how low your self-esteem is feeling right now. I ask because you are limiting yourself to being either with someone who hurt you or someone who, at present, is not satisfying you. Feeling like you only have these two choices makes me think that you might have a story in your head that’s telling you that you cannot do better. That you don’t get to have that best friend who also rocks your world in bed. As I support you in shifting away from binary thinking, I want to encourage you to work on your self-esteem.
A part of that work is to find any root injuries to your heart — times you were hurt and internalized it. One might have happened when you were ghosted. That would leave me with a deep feeling of not being enough. Oh, and with a shit ton of anger.
Whatever your wounds are, they fed you with the idea that you are not the kind of person who gets to “have it all.” It's not true.
Our scars, experiences, and trauma can teach us that the world is not safe, and within that fear, we look for ways to guard ourselves against the chaos. Sometimes that leads to seeing things more rigidly. It feels easier to stick with these two options that you know, rather than having to navigate the worry of being rejected again by yet another person. But know this: There are many stars in the universe. And there are plenty of people just waiting to meet you.
Before you pursue your options, though, I recommend doing some internal work, especially around healing the wound that caused your fear of being rejected. Did you grow up with any narratives around what your future was going to look like? It is not uncommon for parents to directly or indirectly project what their kids’ adult lives “should” look like on them. I wonder how your sexual identity fits into that view of an ideal life. Some families have every detail planned out for their kids — from what college a child will attend to the tiny bride-and-groom topper on the future buttercream wedding cake. Other children grow up with the people around them telling them all the reasons why they will always be alone and no one will want them. Rarely do parents continuously say, “I just want you to be curious, happy, and passionate about something — anything. And if you decide to find a partner, they can identify however they choose and I hope they are passionate and curious also.” But if they did, maybe we wouldn’t have to worry as much about rejection or being a disappointment.
I recommend you dig into both your relationship history and your views on future relationships, with it all in relation to your own sexuality. You are stating that you identify as a lesbian, but describe wanting to go back to a male-identified person. I personally believe that sexuality, gender, and their expressions all live on a spectrum. Each of us, no matter how we identify, should have continuous curiosity throughout our lives about where we fall on it. As we honor that we are ever-evolving, we find a deeper knowing within.
I am wondering how it is feeling for you that you identify as a lesbian but you are in love with a man and are considering being in a relationship with him. Is your sexuality feeling like it is evolving? If so, how do you feel about that? This would be a great time to explore and possibly deepen your knowledge of the many sexual identities that exist, from bisexual, pansexual, to omnisexual. A reminder that your identity does not need to match who you are actively having sex with, although, when those two things are feeling consistently out of sync, it’s good to also look at whether the sex you are having feels disconnected. If therapy is an option for you, I recommend finding a queer or LGBTQIA-affirming mental health professional to support you in this work.
The bottom line of all this: You can have the full, happy, and satisfying life you want without either of the people you’re considering. In fact, you might need to get rid of them in order to access it, and instead turn your attention to learning more about yourself, your past, and your identity. From there, perhaps you can find the partner you’re really meant to be with, someone you haven’t even considered yet.
I always say, the longest and most intimate relationship you will ever have is the relationship with yourself, so prioritizing that will do wonders for your own self-worth.
I know when you asked your question, you were probably expecting me to tell you to choose one person or the other. But life is just not that limited. Often, the bravest thing we can do is step into the gray area.
You Got This,
DeGeare is a licensed marriage and family therapist, who specializes in intimacy, LGBTQIA+ relationships, mixed-culture couples, and racial identity development. The advice in this column is to point you in a direction that encourages healing and creates safety for you in this world. It is not to replace the relationship with a licensed mental health professional who knows your personal history.