Last time, relationship therapist Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT, helped someone who was unsure about whether or not they should disclose to a new partner that they have HPV. Today we hear from one reader about their struggle to commit to their partner until they have better communication and a healthier sex life with them.
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I’ve been seeing someone for three months now and they check every box when it comes to what I’m looking for in a long-term partner. There’s just one catch: They’re a virgin.
I’m 27 and they’re 29, and I’ve communicated to them that sex is really important to me in a relationship. While we have been physical with one another, we haven’t gone "all the way" yet. They want to be exclusive but I’m not comfortable committing until we work towards having better communication and a healthier sex life.
We live in different cities and don’t get to see each other that often. After visiting one another four or five times, I asked why we haven't progressed sexually. I wondered if they were trying to build an emotional connection first before we go there, or if it was something deeper. They responded that they are genuinely inexperienced in that area and have never felt comfortable enough to go there with someone.
This person seems like the perfect partner: They’re kind, attractive, have a great job and are genuinely easy to get along with. But our communication and sexual relationship aren’t what I’m looking for, and I’m not interested in teaching someone the ropes. Can we talk about what I should do?
Sex On My Mind
Dear Sex On My Mind,
Communication and sex are essential aspects of any relationship. Without them, even if all other boxes are checked, any situation would be far from "perfect." Ignoring these basic needs now will only cause issues when you crave a more satisfying relationship in the future. The early stages of a relationship are not about falsely creating deeper intimacy, they’re about giving the relationship the best chance by building a strong foundation.
It seems like both of you are feeling scared. When we become stuck on a particular issue and struggle to see the bigger picture, it often stems from fear. Our minds may be fixated on one aspect of our fear, unable to see the entire situation, even telling ourselves, If I can control this one thing, everything will be better.
We cannot reduce this stuck spot to solely being about having sexual intercourse for the first time. When you find yourself fixating on one piece of the complex web of intimacy, it's a good signal that we are overlooking a bigger, rather normal relationship behavior: vulnerability. Ask yourself, How much vulnerability am I willing to risk for this person? How can I accept that intimacy involves trusting that when I am radically open, my partner will meet me there and desire to understand me? Vulnerability can be scary and often we are doing things unconsciously to keep ourselves in these protective, closed-off places. It costs us countless relationships, not just romantic ones.
While you may view this moment as a crucial turning point, the type of connection we want to emphasize is not necessarily physical. This focus does not undermine the importance of sex in an intimate relationship for most people, so long as it aligns with the relationship values and boundaries that you both agreed upon. Of course, it is worth noting that sex is not a vital part of all relationships. Intimacy means sharing your inner world with your partner. A fulfilling sex life is a mix of emotional connection and physical pleasure. However, it's important not to skip emotional intimacy, honest communication and building trust. Without them, exploring each other sexually can become risky. You might misinterpret each other's boundaries and end up feeling hurt or misunderstood.
When it comes to sexual partners, we guide each and every one of them in knowing our bodies and what brings us pleasure, whether our time together is short or lasts for decades. Desiring a partner who is already skilled in sex dismisses the fact that every new partner needs to learn our wants and needs. Even a highly skilled person is not skilled in you, specifically. Taking the time to teach them is as much about your joy over your effort to teach, as they delight in learning how to please you.
Trust is the foundation of satisfying sex. It is important to recognize that when your partner expresses a need for trust and security, they are seeking to feel in sync with you and explore deeper levels of intimacy. They may ask for exclusivity, even if your needs are currently in competition. However, it is possible that the security you both desire is more similar than it appears.
If having sexual experiences outside of a committed relationship is important to you, that is entirely okay and something you don't have to compromise on. This may prompt you to explore your views on monogamy and what you desire in your long-term relationships. It's possible that this desire is simply about exploring physical intimacy with them. However, what if you find yourself feeling stuck again in the future around sex? It may be worth examining now whether your needs in a relationship are in conflict just for this moment or in larger, values-driven ways.
Your partner's desire or need to feel a certain way in the relationship for it to progress is significant. We are not sure if we know exactly what they are craving to feel behind that physical boundary. Let's explore that and set you up to really hear them so they also feel like they can be understood by you, even if their need is different from yours. Move your potential frustration at being rejected to curiosity about what they are craving. Ask them, "What story do you tell yourself about what you want your relationship to feel like before you have sex?" and, if they are open to sharing, "Have you had moments that feel close to that point or does it feel far away and unclear?"
A common block to deeper connection in relationships is the desire for our partners to think more like us, not just in superficial ways like clothing or coffee orders but in how they perceive the world. If they saw things from our perspective, it would be easier to connect with them. During conflicts, we often hope that our partner will come to our side so that we can feel reconnected. That is less of a feeling of compromise and more of a triumph, telling ourselves we are loved because they joined us. So instead of focusing on one person "winning," why not discuss what is causing this stuck spot? You may be able to find a more common ground. In the end it might be a compromise, although if you both want deeper trust, perhaps it’s less about compromise and more about getting on the same page regarding what trust is, what it looks like right now in the present state of the relationship.
Ask yourself these questions first:
Why do I not want to be exclusive now, compared to the day after we have sex? Why am I scared to be exclusive if I think this relationship could be great? What feels important to me about keeping my options open instead of going all in on this relationship and giving it a chance? That fear is worth exploring within yourself and with your partner if parts of the relationship beyond sex are worrying you.
What story am I telling myself about why my partner doesn't want to have sex with me? The feeling of rejection is your own and it is important to separate it from the reason behind their boundary. Your lived experience is different from theirs. Are there aspects of not knowing each other's worlds that are affecting how you interpret their boundaries?
It's natural to look for signs that we are important to someone in a long-term relationship. However, it's important to remember that they choose to be with you every day, which confirms your importance to them. Are you telling yourself that having sex means you are more special than all of their exes?
What if the sex just isn't great? Don't worry, it may take some time for you to learn each other's bodies and preferences. Are you willing to work on the relationship and prioritize daily intentional effort to make it work? Remember, happy relationships require consistent work.
Then open the conversation with your partner like this:
I have been thinking about why I’m scared to be exclusive before we have sex. Is now a good time to share how I’m feeling?
If you are curious about getting to know your partner on a deeper level, keep these questions in mind:
1) How do you know when you feel more understood by me?
2) Was waiting to have sex until a certain feeling always an intentional choice or did a specific event impact that decision?
3) I respect your boundaries, can you help me understand what feels missing for you in our relationship as it is right now?
4) What happens in your body when you think about us moving to a deeper stage of intimacy?
Having conversations with your partner about past relationships can deepen intimacy and trust in your current relationship, and can help you to understand why they are the way they are. Maybe your current partner has had bad experiences in the past, leaving them needing more trust than others when it comes to sex. While it's common to avoid past relationship conversations in early stages of dating, reflecting on what you learned and how you've grown can be incredibly insightful and vulnerable, and it's important to acknowledge that this relationship is new and different from past ones that may have ended due to getting stuck in certain patterns. However, it's equally important to avoid bashing past exes and instead focus on personal growth and how the relationship can move forward positively.
If your partner is uncomfortable with certain sexual acts, it's important to respect their boundaries and communicate effectively to determine what they do want before taking the next step in the relationship. You’ll also want to create a safe and supportive space for your partner to express themselves and their needs.
I encourage you to be curious and learn more about your partner if you believe they are worth getting to know better. By approaching your partner with curiosity instead of frustration, you can build safety and trust in your relationship. This creates a pattern of openness and connection, allowing you to enjoy exploring each other emotionally and physically.
Relationships require effort but this effort doesn't have to be difficult. By working intentionally and evolving together, you can deepen your relationship and reap the rewards of your progress. Starting a relationship with a lot of work can be an opportunity to figure out how to work together effectively, rather than accepting a relationship that will always be hard and never resolved. Some people unconsciously choose the latter but I believe that the work put into a relationship is deeply rewarding.
Be brave and see what is happening for you both. Imagine the relationship progressing in the most satisfying way, leaving you both glowing with pride that you showed up for yourselves and shared with this other curious human.
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.