I want love but not sex. Help. I know it's a thing, but I don't know how to deal with it!
WW: Forgive me for overreading, but the crux of your question, I think, is not actually within your question at all. On top of your question, then, I’ll add my own: why is wanting love, but not sex, something to “deal with” at all? A recent story on the cover of the Atlantic was titled “Young People Are Having Less Sex,” a decree which was only a hair’s breadth away from the kind of scaremongering articles about how millennials are killing Applebee’s. Cited among the reasons for this decline was masturbation, Tinder, and helicopter parents (not to mention, say, the larger part of a generation getting thrust into economic precarity). To be sure, some of these might be true for some people, but the sheer number of potential causes revealed the fact that framing the issue as a problem for sociology to diagnose—and, perhaps, solve—might be a little beside the point. Do we have to treat young people’s different view of sex like a generation gone awry? Why is our sense of normalcy clocked to our libido anyways?
Our ideas of sex go largely unspoken in our actual lives, yet they’re all but central in cultural fantasies about what our lives should look like, making you feel a little like you’re in a XXX version of the Truman Show: everyone but you is horny, and in on the joke. You don’t have to believe this literally—no one actually does—in order for this silent expectation to exert a powerful influence on what you take for granted. Following the sexual revolution and all of its feminist and queer descendants, we’ve only just begun to expand our vocabulary for the sex we do have, let alone the sex we don’t. On the side of sex there are such vibrant, capacious verbs (a matter of taste, but I find ‘rimming’ to be strangely poetic). But on the side of the sexless there seems to be a dead-end, a lack of the same rich ways to describe what we do and who we want to be.
I am drawing your attention specifically to verbs because, just like the rom-coms and pornography which claim to reflect our desires (and which, in actuality, work to shape them), I think this is partly a question of narrative. Consciously or not, many of us enter relationships not for what they are, but for what they might become, often with ‘sex’ as the thing we’re moving towards (i.e. a greater intimacy and capacity to be vulnerable) or away from (i.e. developing relationships beyond the purely physical). Again, this doesn’t have to be true in order to have real effects, and its status as always a little bit fictional is another valence of why I’m calling it a “narrative.” Even if you don’t see yourself stuck within the confines of this all-too-simple pattern, you might be finding it difficult to find words to communicate outside of these stories we tell ourselves, to tell stories that don’t start with sex or to ask someone you already love, “Well, where do we go from here?”
If your concern is with finding someone who will care for you outside of a narrow sense of physical intimacy, then I would assure you that with a lot of communication and a little time, you will find someone who wants to discover the parts of you that have nothing to do with sex. I suspect, however, that you will first have to start discovering those parts yourself. There are so many stories that love can help you tell about coming into contact with the complexity of another person’s worldview. These stories might lead to sex later on down the line, or they might not. They might instead be stories about experiences you never knew you cherished, wisdom you never knew you had. In any case, believing that these stories can take you places you haven’t been might actually make it easier to hope for the relationships you want, and easier to communicate versions of being together that don’t have sex as an overly pat ending.
I have been seeing somebody who doesn’t share my interests and it feels strange, maybe because many of my previous partners have. Part of me thinks this might be a great way to start to be open to new experiences, but part of me thinks that I’m abandoning a slower process of finding someone I can really get along with. Is this growth or a compromise?
SS: I’ll start this off by raising the polemic that, maybe, we never want novelty out of our love lives. I’m tempted to suggest that, more often that not, our desires remain fairly stable over time—even when we try to broaden our romantic horizons, the heart wants what the heart wants. I cite this adage because it also gets at the fact that desire exists precisely because we can’t rationalize it away. It’s exactly because we can’t predict or force a crush that crushes are fun.
There’s a reading of your question that’s more generous to your partner: that you can’t really tell whether or not you’re compatible with them, and that this uneasiness is making you intermittently doubt your long-term chemistry. Everyone’s been with someone like that—the sex one night is great, and the next day you suddenly realize that you can’t stand the way they talk about some lame hobby (tie-dying, playing with Tech Decks, analytic philosophy). I want to suggest that it’s nearly impossible to feel completely and unconditionally attracted to anyone, let alone someone you’ve only been dating for a short while. I’ve never started a relationship without considering all the ways things could be better. The truth is that it’s impossible to compare any single relationship to an amalgamated recollection of the best parts of your old relationships without feeling disappointed. There’s no gold standard for compatibility, only different ways of feeling closeness. It’s up to you to figure out whether or not you actually feel such a closeness with your current partner.
My question to you is this: does the time you spend with this person matter to you as much as your interests do? If they’re bored by your interests, or you’re bored by theirs, then the answer to this question is probably “no.” All things considered, I don’t think you have to tell yourself that openness to new experiences matters enough to determine whether you go on more than one or two dates with someone you aren’t especially into. It may be hard to admit to yourself that you regard this person, who represents a form of romantic stability that’s easy to dismiss as satisfying, as a distraction from your will to live a life pervaded and defined by the pastimes and shibboleths you cherish. The choice at hand isn’t between dating people who share your interests and dating people who don’t. Instead, decide whether or not you want to spend your valuable time taking a chance on someone you find underwhelming. From my own experience, the process of cultivating happiness alone with yourself is way more challenging—but always leads to the kind of growth that you’re doubting this relationship can provide.
How do you deal with patronizing partners? I want to stand up for myself, but I don't want to fuel an already-imbalanced power dynamic.
SS: First, I want to address a key point you’re suggesting here: that this “patronizing partner” of yours is part of an already-imbalanced power dynamic. I get it, getting close to a condescending person can be super toxic; still, the term “patronizing partner” here feels too undefined to help me figure out what’s making it so hard for you to feel comfortable with this person. Is this patronizing partner someone whose dismissive condescension discourages you from feeling vulnerable enough to vocalize your needs? Do they only tell you they care about you when they want something from you? You might be dating something like a fake friend. For the sake of this reply, I’ll raise a working definition of “patronizing partner” that stresses the way in which your partner’s insincerity allows them to keep you around even as they impose rhetorical sanctions on emotionally honest communication. By imposing this distance within the confines of a serious and perhaps committed relationship, I’m sure that your partner leaves you feeling powerless, even when you aren’t. I want to draw a parallel between the words “patronize” and “pander” because both terms reference faux-sincere speech so unwilling to overcome the task of building closeness that its value becomes transactional, a proverbial carrot on a stick. I seriously hope that their economization of love is unintentional; I hope that they’re not pulling tricks just to enjoy relative dom-status over you. Unfortunately, you might think that your patronizing partner is a great person, despite the fact that they’ve constructed this state of unavailability.
It sounds like there’s an imbalanced power dynamic preceding and conditioning your entire relationship with this person, such that standing up for yourself (or just voicing your emotional needs) feels like it’s part of a bargaining process. If this is true, I’d encourage you to reconsider why you’re even attracted to them. But if your problem is just that your partner is primarily relating to you by being patronizing, and you have never started a dialogue with them about how invisible that I imagine this makes you feel, I’d also encourage you to go ahead and stand up for yourself. Except, by standing up for yourself, I mean that you should open up to your partner about how their behavior makes you feel and try to work it out. In fact, try not to imagine the task of communicating your emotional needs as identical to “standing up for yourself.” This person has—I sincerely hope—no actual control over you. They’re being a jerk to you and you’re understandably frustrated. This doesn’t mean you have to ditch them forever (unless you want to)! There’s no way to know for sure whether or not your partner is purposefully being toxic to you until you talk to them. It’s not unlikely that their patronizing behavior is a poor guise for some deeper insecurity that haunts all their other relationships, too.
At the same time, don’t hesitate to admit to yourself that you’re feeling distrustful of your partner. There’s good reason for this—when they’re being patronizing to you, they fail to acknowledge the fact that you’re a complex individual whose desire for intimacy can’t just be swept under the rug. It’s difficult to trust someone who can’t recognize you as you. Unfortunately, you’re still gonna need to talk. Not because it’s your fault that you’ve ended up with someone who makes you feel so empty, but because you owe honest communication to every single person you know, especially yourself. You’ll feel a lot better once you know for sure how this person reacts to the simple truth that you feel alone in your togetherness with them.
I'm trying to get over someone who I had feelings for, but never expressed. I'd like to move on from something that ultimately never amounted to much, and I'm not sure how to. I feel like this might be a different process than getting over a breakup. Help!
WW: You say that this unexpressed connection never amounted to much, but I want to put out the possibility that it actually amounted to much more than the raw details of your life could possibly describe. For example, there are some days when I feel like I’ve dreamed up a whole soap opera before I get out of the shower in the morning. I can’t tell you the number of men I’ve mentally proposed to on my walk to work. And, perhaps like you, I have had connections with people which have grown not less, but more intense because our intimacy went undefined. These were relationships whose possibilities were allowed to silently multiply until the people I loved left my life, leaving me adrift in visions of a world all the more compelling for having never come into being. Our lives are poor containers for the lives we live in our heads.
Actually, I take part of that back. These worlds aren’t more compelling, or even hospitable; they only feel that way. If these relationships never really started, they also never really have to end. Fantasies are all too easy to sustain, and all too hard to grieve. But this is exactly what I’m suggesting: not a process of forgetting—how can your mind wipe out what it created in the first place?—but a process of mourning.
I have to admit that when I first encountered your question, I had doubts that I ever found a path through this grief myself. There are still songs, tchotchkes, and places in my hometown which send me reeling back to a spot in my life I worry I never really left. And so, with a queasy feeling in my stomach, I consulted with others about how they fashioned a sense of closure for themselves. For one confidante, this fashioning was material. “Write a letter expressing exactly what you once felt you never could,” they instructed me. “Then burn it, or bury it.” As a fan of the 1996 witchy teen romp The Craft, the notion of hexing yourself into moving on carried a certain amount of romance, like gathering your pals together and chanting “Light as a feather!” to see if you can levitate.
But it was this romance which, ultimately, gave me pause. Though this ritual might be soothing in the short term, it also feels like trying to replace one fantasy with another. This problem is deep at the heart of what makes these thoughts hard to get rid of: lacking what you might consider material proof, they demand to be proven, and whether it’s burning a letter or convincing yourself they loved you back after all, your attempts to furnish evidence that your love was real and that it mattered will always be tenuous, temporary, falling short.
This is why, on top of the material steps I might usually suggest here (focusing on other areas that boost your confidence chief among them!) I am recommending the difficult imaginative task of dealing with this unrequited connection on its own terms. What this means, essentially, is knowing that there are no more questions to ask of this time in your life, nothing more to know, and nothing left to prove. It means living with a question that doesn’t have an answer. It also means recognizing the very thing that I started this response with: sometimes the most important experiences we have can only be our own. You loved this person—that, at least, was real.
If this still seems vague, it is likely because I don’t know what shape it would take in my own life either. I suspect it would feel like forgiveness, for both the person you loved and, most importantly, for yourself.