Ask Professor Foxy: What Is the Line Between Support and Getting My Needs Met?

This weekly Saturday column “Ask Professor Foxy” will regularly contain sexually explicit material. This material is likely not safe for work viewing. The title of the column will include the major topic of the post, so please read the topic when deciding whether or not to read the entire column.
Dear Professor Foxy,
I have been in a happy monogamous relationship with my partner for five years now. She is my best friend and we have an amazing egalitarian relationship. Sure, we have our disagreements, but we respect each other and work through them and grow for it.
The only thing that’s missing from our relationship is physical intimacy. I was a virgin when we met and the first couple years of our relationship were extremely sexually active and exploratory (and as far as I knew, great!). About two years ago, however, that came to a screeching halt. My partner not only has no desire sexually, but even intimate closeness makes her uncomfortable. No snuggling to fall asleep, no kissing other than a quick hello/goodbye peck, etc.
We have discussed the issue before and she was the one who brought it up. It was extremely emotional. She says she feels pressured to be intimate with me when I try to show her any affection so rather than cuddling/kissing/etc. when I’m in the mood I just don’t do anything so that she doesn’t feel pressured. She brought up a few reasons for her lack of desire and I completely understand her reasons for not wanting any intimacy right now. But at the same time, while every other aspect of our relationship is great having no physical intimacy for two years and not seeing it change anytime soon is definitely hard on me. I have pretty severe self-esteem issues so to not feel ‘wanted’ at all and not have any closeness can be pretty stressful. Being told that I’m loved is great, but having to stay on your own side of the bed and not cuddle at all makes for some conflicting messages.
I completely understand her reasons for not wanting any intimacy: She is an abuse survivor, has fought through eating disorders and body issues, and hates the way that she gets treated as the female in a heterosexual relationship. Her loss of desire started about the time we started planning our wedding (a small, non-traditional service where we both took a new common name) and she claims that is the biggest part of the problem. I work really hard at recognizing my privilege as a male and not letting anyone make assumptions about our relationship, etc. and she recognizes that, but the comments and actions of other people are what eventually seem to get to her. The entire process of planning a wedding — no matter how egalitarian and non-traditional — was really stressful but after the wedding things seem to have only gotten worse.
How do approach this subject without making her feel pressured at all? Am I wrong for feeling like this lack of intimacy should have an affect on our otherwise-idyllic relationship? What can I do to help her, or should I just back off and let her work through the problems that are at the root of the issue herself?

Dear In Need –
I think your sign off says it all. You need something that you are not getting in your relationship. I wonder how fulfilled and satisfied you are in your relationship. I worry about how much you are compromising. Most people need some degree of physical intimacy and it is not just about sex, it is about how our partners and lovers show their feelings through physical affection and how that reinforces what they tell us about their feelings.
You are giving up quite a bit and I wonder if you are giving up too much. She is not be able to give you what you need in terms of physical intimacy, how sustainable is that for you?
What are your minimums to stay in this? Cuddling once a week? Can you hold hands while you fall asleep? Have you tried taking sex off the table? So she knows that when you touch her you are not doing it as foreplay, but just for the pure enjoyment of cuddling? Have you said I am not asking for sex and don’t want you to feel pressured, but I need physical affection.
I also wonder if you should consider opening up your relationship and/or paying someone for the intimacy that you are not getting at home. If you want to stay in this relationship, it may be time to find another way to get your needs met.
I feel the need to separate her being abused and the eating disorders from the marriage/heteronormative society issue. I get that she is working through a lot and that these all of these issues impact her daily. Eating disorders and sexual abuse are not easily recovered from and they can certainly have bearing how she feels about intimacy and touch, but you are a part of this relationship too. You appear to be dissolving into her issues.
You are not wrong. Everyone has intimacy/touch/sex minimums and maximums. How much do you want to be touched? By whom? You also can’t heal her. You can be supportive, but she is the one that needs to go through these issues. What is up to you is how you help her: as friend or as her partner.
Professor Foxy
If you have a question for Professor Foxy, send it to ProfessorFoxyATfeministingDOTcom.

Join the Conversation