Q&A: a question about sex

Clare writes:

"My partner and I have been together for about five years and we have a18-month old child. We used to have sex a few times a week before the baby came along and our sex life was pretty normal.  Since the baby has been born, I have absolutely no sex drive whatsoever.  I just couldn't care less about it.  I'm still nursing, so that's what I attributed my lack of sex drive to until I analyzed it a little further: we have bad sex.

I can count the number of times my husband has made me orgasm on ONE hand. He rarely tries to please me, not with his mouth, not with his hand, nothing.  The few times he has tried to go down on me I've cut it short because it just wasn't going anywhere.  I know men aren't mind readers when it comes to what we have, but part of me just feels silly having to give directions after this long of being together, and I'm terrified that I'm going to hurt his feelings, or worse-- that even with directions, he'll still suck.  (I do orgasm during sex, but always with my vibrator. Sometimes I don't bring it out in the hopes that he'll take some initiative and try to please me, but nope--it's the vibrator or nothing.)

I think what the biggest problem is, is that it's now become normal.  My previous partner and I were also having really bad sex for two years (he too made no effort to please me)- so after a combined total of about seven years of bad sex, I just accept it.  What IS that?!  I used to have great sex! I was blessed with partners who knew what they were doing, or at least took cues from my breathing or noises that they should keep doing exactly as they're doing, but those days are long gone.

Bad sex is contagious too! Because my husband doesn't really try to make me enjoy it, I've become a bit spiteful and never give him oral sex anymore (I used to, up until the baby was born) because I don't get anything in return. I've almost stopped trying to be good at actual penis-vagina sex too, because I feel so hurt that he doesn't care about my needs. It's a vicious circle and I don't know how to stop it! Are we doomed to have worse and worse sex for the rest of our lives?"

Well, this is a juicy question for a Friday in March.

(Before we go any further into Clare's specific issue, I want to say that if you were having good sex before the baby but are feeling lack of desire now, many many women find that their libido comes back when their menstrual cycle returns and/or they stop nursing. If you want your cycle to come back but don't want to stop nursing, see if you can go for a 7 hours stretch without nursing every day for a few weeks--in some women that's enough to bring it back, while others have to completely wean for several months before it will return. You're probably somewhere in between. If you're completely done nursing for awhile and have your cycle back and still no libido, get your thyroid levels checked. If you were not having good sex before you had a baby, then you have a different issue to deal with than hormone levels.)

Claire, you're not alone. I'm sure there are tons of us that are or were partnered to people who didn't do it for us sexually. There's a theory that you can teach someone to be your perfect lover, but I think there has to be an initial spark, and that you can go from good sex to amazing sex, but it's awfully hard to go from bad sex to anything else.

Unfortunately, I think women get this idea from the larger culture that you date "bad boys" but marry "good guys" and that sets us up for some strange expectations for long-term partnership or marriage. It's almost as if we seek out men with whom we have no spark, because those are the guys we think are going to be good bets for the long haul, or good fathers, or whatever we're supposed to be looking for.

Here on the other side of a bad marriage, I've realized that sex is important. Really important. I think sexual chemistry is a huge indicator of other areas of compatibility in a relationship. Now I would only ever marry someone who completely knocked my socks off sexually, because I just think the sex is a barometer of the rest of how you relate and your expectations of each other. But that's not anything that helps Claire, or anyone else who looks around and realizes she's married to someone she's always had bad sex with.

Claire's situation is going from bad to worse, in that resentment is building up, and the two of them seem to be shutting down progressively. I think there are a couple of ways to address that. One way is for Claire to bite the bullet and have an honest talk with her partner (when they're not in bed) about how she sees the two of them pulling away from each other. They can talk about it and decide to make a commitment to being more proactive about each other's pleasure. Or Claire could just decide she was going to start changing the way she reacts, and become more generous with her partner, in hopes that that will open things up between them and her partner will start to reciprocate.

This still doesn't solve the larger issue, which is that they've always had bad sex. And there have to be reasons that that's true. Maybe Claire had a set of expectations of herself and her partner that made her enter into a long-term relationships with someone who wasn't satisfying her. It sounds like those expectations may be changing. I certainly don't want to tell people who have an otherwise good relationship to split up--that just doesn't make much sense. But how long can people live with bad sex (tapering off into no sex) between them? It seems like an unsolvable problem.

So I'm turning it over to you. Not asking for an answer necessarily (although if you have one, please post it!). I'm really just hoping you guys will post your stories and data points. If you and your partner have a sexual spark, has it always been there, or did it take time to develop? Has anyone started out with mediocre sex and improved it? If the sex is bad in your partnership, how do you deal with it? Could you live in a sexless marriage? Are you living in one?

Please feel free to comment anonymously! (Put www.google.com or www.fake.com in the URL field, and if it tells you it's not accepting the data, cut and copy your comment, then refresh the page and paste the comment into the text box and try again. I have no idea why that happens.)