Here’s something that doesn’t need to be said: I’m just not attracted to you.
Recently “Sally & Sue” came in to talk because they hadn’t had sex in several months. Sally was very upset about it. She missed the warmth and intimacy of their early relationship, but was afraid that Sue had shut down permanently. Sally was in a dilemma: she didn’t want to live in an asexual relationship, but she didn’t want to leave Sue either. So she felt stuck and resentful and on the edge of despair.
Then Sue spoke up. “Frankly,” she said, “you’ve gained weight and I’m just not attracted to you any more.” Imagine how Sally felt hearing that from her partner, in front of a third person. A painful silence ensued.
The problem with that statement is that it’s humiliating, and mean-spirited, and unforgettable. Most of us would feel so wounded we’d withdraw or lash out in defensive anger. Nothing positive will result from that statement. So why say it?
It does work as a real conversation stopper. When someone announces a lack of attraction, what’s to discuss? You can skip over more complicated questions about your own sexual history, or perceptions of your own attractiveness, or other ego-related vulnerabilities. It’s all wrapped up in “just not attracted.” One person feels bruised, and the relationship settles even more into an asexual stalemate. And BTW, hardly anyone loses weight after an affront like that.
In fact, when Sue described her own history of sexual desire, guess what? She always lost her “attraction” to a partner after about 6 months—with or without weight gain or other changes in physical appearance. Sue just ran out of steam in ongoing relationships. It seemed like an obvious pattern to me, one that would let Sally know this truly wasn’t about her. It wasn’t personal.
But sex is extremely personal. It usually involves getting naked with another person, and words like “I’m just not attracted to you” are unforgettably ego-bruising. There’s just no way for that NOT to cut to the core. We don’t need that from intimate partners. Responsiveness, affirmation, understanding—that’s what we need!
I’m sure Sue (and many other women who share her perspective) would protest that she has a right to honor her feelings of attraction vs. non-attraction, and of course she does.
But honoring and expressing aren’t the same. And there’s not going to be any positive outcome from tearing down her partner’s ego. It’s worth finding a better way.
Here’s something to consider: Sex and self-esteem go together very nicely. When you’re feeling better about yourself, you’re more likely to want to be sexual with someone else. You’re also more likely to make positive behavioral changes when you feel better about yourself. You take better care of yourself. So if you want your partner to take better care of herself, it’s best not to rip her self-esteem. Neither of you will appreciate the outcome.
And yet, it’s just so easy to use the “not attracted” defense–and I think it is a defense against other feelings that are even worse. It’s rather classic to put others down in order to make ourselves feel better. Instead of dealing with my internal conflicts, self-esteem issues, or relationship challenges, let me focus on what’s wrong with you! And I can shame you in the process, so you’re less likely to challenge me about my sexual withdrawal.
Everyone is entitled to have her own standards of physical attractiveness, and to act in accordance thereof. But what about someone who had sex with her partner the week they first met, moved in with her within two months, and then decided she wasn’t attracted to her in Month #5? Did a switch get flipped, or are other shadows converging to dim the lights? And wouldn’t it be important to explore those issues also?
For Sally and Sue, one of those other issues was the mother-child dynamic that was evolving between them. It turned out that this had kicked into action soon after they began living together and had to negotiate day-to-day life. Their roles had elicited behaviors that aren’t very attractive to anyone–acting helpless or controlling, turning away from each other, ignoring each other sexually. There was a lot going on–and a lot of ways they can both feel more attractive, when they address these issues directly.
But a simple “just not attracted” won’t get them there.
Glenda Corwin, Ph.D is a clinical psychologist who specializes in lesbian sexual issues. She is the author of Sexual Intimacy for Women: A Guide for Same Sex Couples (Seal Press, 2010). Dr. Corwin writes for the Huffington Post: Gay Voices, Epochalips.com, as well as her own blog on www.DrGlendaCorwin.com. She presents frequently at professional conferences, and is a regular guest on Barb Elgin’s LesbianLoveTalk radio program.