Life

Four women get real about sex in long-term relationships

Posted by
Lucy Vine
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As Wanderlust, “the BBC’s sexiest drama ever”, explores the issue of sex in long-term relationships, four women open up about their own experiences… 

Perversely, we are more comfortable divulging the details of a one-night stand from the previous decade than we are about articulating our sexual needs with our long-term partners right now. Too raw. Uncomfortably intimate. Potentially depressing. Navigating the journey from when-we-met passion to long-term sexual fulfilment can be rocky, occasionally exhilarating, perhaps underwhelming. Sex can be everything and it can be nothing; it can feel intrinsic to a relationship yet completely separate from it.

“Sex is connected to what we’re going through and where we’re at in life – nothing is isolated, is it?” Toni Collette tells Stylist. She stars in new BBC drama Wanderlust, which features a couple attempting to reignite their spark. Indeed, the understanding that sex can be a barometer for intimacy goes some way to explain why discussing it can be so hard, require so much courage and leave so much unspoken.

Wanderlust tells a story we don’t typically see on primetime TV: what happens when the sex goes out of a marriage, but the woman wants more. Its refreshing focus suggests that, finally, the industry has realised that women like ‘doing it’ too. That female sexuality is something to be explored. That masturbation is not a dirty word.

Collette plays therapist Joy Richards, who tries to inject passion back into her marriage after a serious accident. It doesn’t quite go to plan, but the pair do begin to open up sexually to get what they both need – and to examine whether monogamy is right for them.

Toni Collette stars in Wanderlust

If the prospect of watching a couple crackle with tension – particularly while sat on the sofa next to your long-term partner – makes you feel nails-on-a-blackboard awkward, Collette assures that the series is, “warm and fun and moving. The show looks at how to sustain long-term relationships. It’s juicy without being salacious or gratuitous. And, as the story unfolds, it becomes even more profound. Without being dogmatic, Wanderlust shows us that until we are able to face ourselves, our lives, our past – until we truly connect and accept ourselves and take responsibility – we will not get the deep connection we are looking for. The story explores much of what we don’t discuss yet we constantly wonder about.”

And wonder we do. There’s a threshold in long-term relationships when the shutters come down, sexually. We stop talking about sex with our friends, because it’s between us and our partners. Then we may stop talking about sex with our partners. We may struggle to articulate our sexual needs even to ourselves. But our clandestine fingertips type the truth into search engines.

“How do I know if I’m good in bed?” “Does sex matter?” Harvard economist and data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, author of Everybody Lies, found there are 16 times more complaints on Google about a spouse not wanting sex than about a married partner not being willing to talk. There are more complaints that a boyfriend “won’t have sex” than that a girlfriend won’t. Complaints about husbands and wives are pretty much equal.

From lack of libido to loss of attraction, every couple’s sex life comes with its own challenges. Here, four women share their experiences of sex in long-term relationships…

“The intimacy of sex is missing from our marriage”: Kate, 35, Southampton

“I’ve tried yoga, meditation, sex therapy and an online course about getting in touch with your cervix, but nothing’s worked. I find intercourse painful, and have done for 13 years.

The weird thing is, I often dream about having sex with my husband, and that gives me the hope that, deep down, I still have sexual desire.

The first time we went a few months without sex, I was paranoid that our relationship would fall apart. I’d had an abnormal smear test, and then what should have been a minor gynaecological procedure known as LLETZ, or ‘large loop excision of the transformation zone’. I was advised to wait four weeks before having sex again so my cervix could heal. Things didn’t feel right even after six weeks and, honestly, I didn’t feel like sex, but I thought I’d better give it a go anyway. It felt weird not to try. But sex was painful, sore. I couldn’t orgasm. I went back to the doctor, but nothing changed. I was devastated.

We kept having regular sex, even though it was painful and not the same as before.

My husband has never put any pressure on me. It’s me. I feel there is an intimacy that comes with sex which is missing from our marriage, so I keep trying. I like the way sex makes us feel closer together; emotionally it’s such a bonding thing. Part of me has come to terms with the fact that things will never go back to how they were, but I know I couldn’t be happy in a completely sexless relationship. We are sexual beings and we need to express that in our lives somehow.

Closeness comes in many forms. We talk a lot. I love my husband’s sense of humour. Tony is my soulmate and we work well as a team. Everything else in our relationship is good, so the sex part isn’t as vital as I used to think it was.

Here’s an unexpected positive: sex isn’t boring when you only have it every month or so. It’s a novelty. When I can get myself in the mood and actually move through the barriers to have sex, it really is lovely and wonderful. I don’t want to switch off this part of me.” 

“Sex became too nerve-wracking to instigate”: Karen, 26, Cardiff

“I didn’t want to embarrass Max by trying to initiate sex all the time when I knew he wasn’t up for it, so I didn’t instigate things very often. Although there was one spell in particular when I was reading Fifty Shades and it gave me the horn and we had an amazing blow-out session unlike anything we’d had in months.

I got used to him not wanting sex, at first, because I’ve never had an especially high sex drive myself. Cliché of clichés, when we moved in together, we got all routine and things slowed up. Sex went from fortnightly to monthly and then became too nerve-wracking to instigate in about six months. Then he went on meds for depression and his libido vanished. He’d warned me this would be a side effect, but I naively assumed that once the anti-depressants took effect he’d be fine. I kept telling myself things like, ‘Oh, a weekend away and a change of scenery will kickstart things again.’ Sadly they never did.

The thing is, I know Max used to have a cheeky w*nk when I wasn’t around, so the urges were still there, but it took him ages to come. So he’d do it alone rather than bore me with two-hour sessions. 

When we first got together the sex was completely different. There was plenty of it, for a start. We were open. Wilder. Intense. We got turned on talking about what we wanted to try. Role play. Dressing up. Trying new techniques to climax. Even trying to learn female ejaculation – a fruitless task, but fun trying. That felt so long ago, like it had happened to two totally different people.

By the time Max was feeling more up for it, I’d lost interest entirely. We’d grown out of sync, and it was so alien to even contemplate hitting on each other that we just didn’t. We stumbled across the open relationship thing one night walking home, about a year before the end. I’m pretty sure it was him who suggested it – to please me, I guess. I don’t think I’d have dared consider it. 

As far as I know he never slept with anyone else. When I had sex with another man, I thought it would feel weird, but honestly I was exhilarated. The strangest thing was, when I talked about it with Max later, there was no jealousy. That’s when I knew our relationship was over. We didn’t split up because we weren’t having sex, but because we realised we’d never get our spark back.

All the years of thinking I had a low sex drive must have been because I hadn’t found a man I was genuinely physically attracted to. I’m now blissfully happy, married to an amazing guy who I have great sex with – and just as much now as we did at the start.” 

“We didn’t have sex for the last three years we were together”: Jess, 28, Durham

Sex had become a chore. Becky often made moves on me, but I wasn’t interested. She had an amazing body. Phenomenal tits. We had fun together and I loved her dearly. We held hands, slept in the same bed, but the physicality we shared was rarely sexual. We kissed often, but always in a tender way not ‘I want to thrust my tongue down your throat and make out for years’. Becky tried to talk to me about it, but I dodged the conversation with, ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ – the most spineless cop out in the book. We tried holidays and impromptu overnight trips to get the spark back.

I relented once on a trip because I felt guilty, and because you’re supposed to have sex in a luxurious boutique hotel, right? But the feeling of relief afterwards was mortifying, like I’d done what I needed to do and that was me off the sex hook for another few months. I wasn’t attracted to her, but I wasn’t honest enough to tell her.

We didn’t have sex for the last three years we were together. But a girl has needs, so I’d have a w*nk most mornings after she’d gone to work. I assumed the spark would reignite when I was happier at work, or when I wasn’t worried about money, and life ticked onwards. Things weren’t bad – we had a very loving relationship. More of a companionship than a relationship, really. Cosy, reliable and always there for a cuddle.

I wonder if Becky and I would have stayed together so long if I hadn’t had the idea that it’s normal for sex to dwindle in a long-term relationship. I’ve now met an incredible girl who I literally fancied the pants off from the moment we met. We have sex at least twice a day, which is smug but after going without for so long I’m making up for lost time. Sex with someone you fancy and love is one of the best things ever.”

“I’d be perfectly happy with a snuggle”: Jennifer*, 35, Bath

“I get grossed out by anything involving bodily fluids so sex is never going to happen. Sam* and I have been together 12 years and we’re very physical, depending on your definition of ‘physical’. Touch is my love language. If we’re in the same room, we’re usually in contact: cuddling, holding hands, touching feet under the table. I enjoy lips-only kissing but I don’t get how people can enjoy sticking their tongue in each other’s mouths. That’s bizarre to me.

I’d be perfectly happy if our physical contact ended at snuggling. It’s not the case for all asexuals, but I’ve personally never felt the desire for anything more. Any morning we don’t have to get straight up, we’ll lie in bed naked, running our hands over each other and enjoying the skin-on-skin contact.

That’s enough for me. I’m almost always ready to stop before Sam is. He gets lost in the moment, while it doesn’t take long for me to start thinking of things I want to get up and do. I do enjoy having orgasms sometimes though, so on the rare occasions I do feel arousal, we give each other orgasms with our hands. There’s never penetration.

It’s gotten easier as we’ve settled into a routine we’re both comfortable with, but it’s taken me a while to get over the fact that our bodies want different things. I know that a person’s right to say no should always take precedence over someone else’s desires, and the other partner should respect that, but I have struggled with guilt at times. Even though Sam knew I was asexual before we were an item – we’d been friends previously – I have worried about the imbalance.

In the early years, I felt like I was denying him something he, as a straight man, had every right to want. These days Sam is much more patient and lets me initiate. He’s always assured me that sex isn’t as important as being with me, but it has taken me years to accept that I’m not a bad person for not wanting to have sex with the man I love.

It is sad that society assumes a sexless relationship can’t work, but Sam and I are proof that’s wrong. I’ve had judgemental comments. Seriously, knowing he loves me so much that he wants to be with me even if it means never having sex – that’s huge. What trust! How could I doubt his commitment to me? We share so much –touch, a sense of humour, comfort, support through bad times and shared celebration over our triumphs – why should it matter that we don’t have sex?”

*Names have been changed

Images: Getty, Unsplash