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I was spooning my boyfriend of six years when he turned to me and said: “Do you ever worry that this will just fizzle out and we will end up being friends?”
His eyes were bloodshot. I started shaking — my physical reaction was uncontrollable. I asked him questions. How long had he been thinking this? About nine or ten months. Was he still attracted to me? Not as much as he used to be, although he still loved me.
Would we get through this? That question is yet to be fully answered but I have learned a few life lessons along the way.
As far as what I gather is ‘normal’ for many long-term relationships, my boyfriend and I have undergone increasingly frequent ‘dry spells’. What had started as sex every day was now once a month or even less. Long distance kept things exciting for a while, but living with someone, especially during lockdown, makes it harder to keep the spark alive. But a dimming spark is difficult to monitor. There is no manual describing when a touch or kiss becomes more routine, more familial, than exciting.
I was deeply shocked and upset by his honesty, but it was also a wake-up call. I started listening to Esther Perel podcasts and audio porn (and booking therapy) like there is no tomorrow, determined that my boyfriend’s revelation could be spun into an opportunity – to reinvent our relationship, to stop taking each other for granted and to re-discover my own libido as well as his.
Because, well, where had mine gone?
“I’d finally come to a point in my early 30s where I was much happier with the notion of quality over quantity.”
I can’t say exactly. My boyfriend isn’t keen on period sex (ironically, this is usually when I am most turned on). Combine that with a recurring chronic health problem on my side, along with the banality of daily routine, and it’s easy to see how a couple can slide towards six weeks of inaction. Excuses are used, instead of facing the truth. I just don’t want to. I’m starting to see you more as a close friend.
This brings me to the uncomfortable notion that in a relationship, you feel pressure and obligation to keep having sex, because that is the most obvious barometer of wellbeing. I even feel relief when it’s over: That’s that ticked off the list for at least a week! Neither the pressure nor the relief is ideal.
My boyfriend’s truth was not just awkward in the content but also the timing. I’d finally come to a point in my early 30s where I was much happier with the notion of quality over quantity. I had also spent several years trying to unpick the toxic thread in my mind, very tightly woven, that sex was more about the man. From books, I knew what feminist sex should feel like, yet I still found it a herculean task to even suggest that I might not be ‘done’ as soon as my boyfriend had an orgasm, or could oral sex possibly please last just a little bit longer. Feminist liberation wasn’t how we had started our relationship, or how it had been with any man before him.
Last year I heard a journalist on the radio passionately defend the concept of a weekly ‘maintenance shag’ with her husband (usually before going out for dinner, because afterwards you’d normally be tired and/or bloated). It annoyed me — I refused to feel further obligation.
I discussed this with a friend, a keen advocate of scheduling sex. I asked her what happened if her body didn’t sync up with her head — what if she wasn’t wet enough, when the moment on the calendar arrived. She turned, looked at me very intently, and took both my hands in hers. “Darling, use lube”.
Lube is great for the vagina. Not so great for oiling those sticky brakes in your head calling out ’no, I’d really rather not, thank you’.
“I won’t pretend one date night solves a relationship crisis. But it has given me a new perspective.”
What I have come to understand, however, is that I can’t control how my boyfriend feels about himself or about me. What I do have control over is how I feel and what I want. Because his desire doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it responds to mine. I don’t ‘blame’ myself, but after months or years of me gently warding him off or failing to communicate my own needs and desires, of course that rejection or mismatch would take its toll. I realised I’d have to combine action with mindset.
So, reader, we made a date. Friday night.
I finished work at 6pm. I lit candles. I changed my dress. I sat down on the bed and breathed deeply, trying to shift my mindset towards one of calm. I brought out a fragranced CBD spray. I gulped down the smell; I was weirdly nervous.
And as Jane Austen doesn’t say at the end of her novel, ‘He came through to the bedroom and we did it.’
I won’t pretend one date night solves a relationship crisis. But it has given me a new perspective, and an even stronger incentive to understand my own sexuality. I have to learn to not hold my boyfriend responsible for the patriarchy in our bedroom, but rather consider him, and us, a priority. I want my mindset to change, although I recognise this might be — God help me — a lifelong process.
In the meantime we have Esther Perel. To paraphrase her, relationships are hard work. Bloody hell, I think she’s right.
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