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Relationships • Breaking Up & Heartbreak

Should Sex Ever Be a Reason to Break Up?

The most basic test of the viability of any modern relationship involves a criterion that would have appeared extremely odd to a French aristocrat in 1755 or to a Scottish crofter in 1952 or indeed to most people who have ever existed since the emergence of our species, but that is now universally accepted and very hard to overlook: an active and fulfilling sex life. It’s forcefully suggested to us that it would be highly peculiar and in certain ways rather suspect to remain with anyone for any length of time if there were no intense sexual connection – and we could correspondingly count on immediate sympathy and deep understanding were we to announce that we had split because sex was ‘no longer working.’ If we are looking for a decent reason to leave, unfortunate sex seems to be all we ever need to cite.

Yet we might also recognise that there is something peculiar and a little preposterous about this idea as well. Would we really leave someone because of the quality or frequency of a feeling that lasts only minutes and is from certain angles no more or less pleasurable than a fantastic dessert or a very exciting moment on the dance floor? Would one really shatter children, destroy a family, ruin assets and put oneself through hell for something like this? How seriously should we take the claims of sex?

Part of the reason we get confused is that sex is both a physical and an emotional phenomenon, a duality that can make it hard for us to determine the correct place it might have in our ledger of reasons to stay or to leave. There can be sex that has about as much meaning as a game of tennis and sex that seems to be a conduit to another’s soul. The act is the same, its significance can vary beyond measure.

We might at this point venture a large claim: no one ever feels a need to leave a relationship because of ‘bad sex’. They may say, and be inwardly convinced, that poor love making is the problem, but the real issue is almost certain to lie elsewhere. And equally, any degree of non-existent or physically awkward sex can be bearable, so long as other things can be in place.

What really cannot be borne, and truly is the grounds for flight, is an absence of affection. The entire point of a relationship hangs on the feeling of being witnessed, understood, accepted, stimulated, bolstered and cherished by another person. Without this, we truly might as well be eating on our own for the long term. But crucially, how affection is expressed and intimated is open to a wide degree of variation. It could be done with limbs and lips, with erotic carresses and the interplay of fantasies. But there might be other ways as well: it could be done through someone holding our hand, or hugging us at night, listening to our sorrows very carefully or keeping our needs closely in their minds. A light kiss when we return home can be as meaningful as full blown sex when it comes to securing a close connection. 

The rejection of our advances in bed with a partner and long intervals between sex threaten to be distressing not so much because of the physical pleasures we’re missing out on as because we carry within us an ongoing requirement for evidence of affection: we want to be reassured, as directly as possible, that we retain a hugely significant place in a lover’s heart. It’s not lack of sex – in and of itself – that can really be the problem that might bring us to separation. It’s the lack of closeness and tenderness implied by the absence.

There’s a huge difference between on the one hand someone who really is very tired or not at the moment in the mood because they are preoccupied by a meeting tomorrow or by a child in the next room who might start crying, but who nevertheless understands the intensity of our longings – and on the other hand a partner for whom our advances and desires are merely unreasonable irritants and demands for a degree of closeness in which they no longer have any interest. The practical result may be the same: there is no sex. But the emotional dynamics are entirely different. In the first case, we can feel loved and wanted even though (sadly) our partner can’t respond. In the second case, it is almost certainly time to leave.

We could almost forgo the acting out of many of our desires if we knew that a partner could express why we mattered to them and could be warm and tender with us in daily life – even if (because of their own intimate history) their relationship to the erotic ran in a different and more invisible direction. Given enough affection between two people, the fact that one of them (for complex reasons) craves to perform certain physical acts – whether with them or even with someone else – and the other one has no appetite need not be a disaster or a terminal threat to the relationship. What is fatal is not so much that our partner can’t enact our desires but that they meet us with defensiveness, coldness, judgement or indifference. 

Happy Holiday 1999 Agnes Martin

In order to see whether a relationship may be saved we need to accept that we may not directly be facing a sex issue, but one of underlying distance. It might theoretically be entirely survivable if a partner never sought to have an orgasm with their companion or never fully engaged with a fantasy so long as both parties were able to feel genuinely loved and wanted. The distinction matters because, if we end up splitting, we need to know the real reason: if we persist in thinking the problem is a lack of sex (or not the kind of sex we want) we may misread what we are in essence seeking from another person: we aren’t (as we’re too often taught to think) after the perfect sexual partner, we’re after something yet more critical and often harder to secure: a good enough source of affection and understanding. We might in a next, but better relationship, end up having the same rather negligible quantity of sex but no longer resent the paucity because we have found a raft of other, and perhaps more stable, ways of feeling assured of another’s love.

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