Dear Sara: I am a 40-year-old woman who is healthy, happy, and open to life. I am single currently and have not had a real relationship for almost 15 years. The two big relationships I had when I was younger died, and when I look back I think one of the major factors was my desire to not have sex.
I was 25 and grew up in a regular middle-class Indian family, liberal and progressive in most aspects. However, I was also raised Catholic and studying in a convent-educated school may have led me believe that sex was taboo/bad/off-limits till marriage.
Anyway, I believe I have a healthy appetite and have been attracted to many men over the course of my life. However, somewhere in my head I have the idea that men are not looking for love, but sex—i.e. no matter how loving, beautiful, funny, smart the woman is, all they are thinking of is how she will be/perform in bed. And that thought puts me off men. I struggle to make sense of where and how I developed this thinking—it may be because of the pressure to have sex in my second serious relationship, and also from my numerous conversations with 35- to 45-year-old married guy friends who always seem to be fantasizing over someone other than their wife, who also say that there is no sex in their marriage.
I used to believe in love, and finding a soulmate, and the ethereal feeling that you were destined to be with someone, that you glow and are your best self with this person. But I increasingly feel that is a fantasy, and that reality is very different, that men don’t long for this kind of love at all, and that they just want to be excited and entertained in bed.
I am constantly looking for examples around me to dispel this thought. I know deep down in my heart that not all men are like this but I find it very hard to believe that on most days. –R
Dear R: Yes, most men think sex is very important in a relationship—most women do, too. So if you weren’t interested in having sex in your previous relationships then it’s not surprising that that would be an issue.
So I just want to make that distinction. A man can place a high priority on sex, and want to be in a loving, committed relationship. You can have both things, and I think most people want both things. Sure, many men talk a good game about wanting the James Bond lifestyle, and there is a popular notion that women drag men to the altar against their wishes. But I don’t buy it. If men didn’t want to marry, they wouldn’t. If men didn’t want to be in committed, long-term relationships, there would be a lot fewer committed long-term relationships out there.
But the truth is, most men do marry. The numbers may be lower than previous generations, but it’s still something that the wide majority of Americans do at some point in their lives. And contrary to well-cultivated stereotypes about married men and bachelors, studies have found that marriage makes men healthier and happier.
I’m not saying married men don’t look around, or get tempted, or complain to their attractive single female friends about the sexlessness of their marriages. I’m not saying people don’t cheat—obviously, that happens. There are a million ways, large and small, that spouses betray each other.
I’m saying that’s not the whole story. If a married male friend complains to you in a flirty way about his sex life, then he is not being very nice to his wife. But there may be a lot of other things he’s not telling you about—like the time he filled the tank of her car with gas and checked the air pressure on her tires before she took a long road trip, or the way he always makes sure the DVR is set to record her favorite shows.
Nobody makes movies about the small acts of care that go on in couples. Most people don’t talk about it at all. But I think they’re at the heart of any functioning relationship, and they occur even between spouses who get bored or annoyed with one another. Just because your guy friends are complaining about their marriages, doesn’t mean they don’t love their wives. Both things can be true at once.
So why do you instinctively feel that men only want sex? It could be that you’ve had some bad luck with men—there certainly are cads and commitment-phobes, and if you’ve had relationships with one or two it’s understandable that that would color your view of all men.
But I’m guessing our culture has also played a role. Women are repeatedly told than men only value them for their bodies, for sex. It’s an insult to both men and women, and it’s part of a toxic mixed message. Women are supposed to be sexy, but we’re not supposed to like sex unless the circumstances are perfect. Unless the guy is madly in love with you, unless he’s John-Cusack-in-Say-Anything gaga, then any desire you feel is suspect—comically sad, or worse.
So if you have a lot of confused and conflicted feelings about sex—welcome to the club. My suggestion is to take some time to reflect on why you view sex and love as being in opposition to one another. Worry less about how the guy feels and think about how you feel. Do you judge yourself when you feel desire or attraction? Do you start to feel a panic that that he’s going to hurt you, that he’ll seduce you and then disappear? Just take that time to notice what you’re feeling without judgment; close your eyes and allow yourself to feel that vulnerability or whatever other uncomfortable emotions arise. Meditation is a good way to work with this stuff, or if that’s not your thing I think a book called The Happiness Trap has some helpful tools to work with this.
Getting in touch with your own feelings won’t necessarily prevent you from getting conned by a smooth-talker. And if that happens, it will still hurt. But the pain won’t be as severe if you don’t judge yourself for getting hoodwinked, if you can simply put the blame where it belongs—with the person who misrepresented himself. If this is hard to do, ask yourself how you would respond to a good friend who was in this situation, and then treat yourself accordingly.
And when you do become intimate with someone, see what it’s like to drop all that worry (“Is he sincere?” “Is he really into me?”) and enjoy yourself.
Sara Eckel is a personal coach and the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her questions here.