Dear Verity and Nic: I've been in a relationship for two years. The problem I have is that I am not sexually aroused or attracted to my partner. I love her, we are committed, and she has a high sex drive. We are able to be intimate, but I just don't like it or find her attractive. This would break her heart into a million pieces, so do I just keep going and say nothing? Leaving her would shatter her too. She tells me this all the time, plus her daughter has abandonment issues so again, I feel trapped. - Sam
We will answer your question in two ways, depending on whether or not you were sexually attracted to your partner at the beginning of the relationship. We are assuming the sexual aspect of a relationship is important to you.
We were struck by how much of your question is about your partner's needs and wants and how little there is about your own. If there was some sexual attraction to your partner which died off over time, that over-focus on your partner would fit with you losing your connection with yourself.
It may be that one of the attractive things about this relationship is that you believe your partner needs you to take care of her. Being wanted by someone so intensely that they say their very existence depends on you can be very rewarding in the short term but can become a stifling responsibility as time goes on. (It is also an insecure and precarious way for your partner to live). If you are in that kind of situation, we encourage you to consider whether your attraction is driven partly by your fears that you aren't good enough, aren't wanted or similar.
Despite what the songs say, losing yourself in a relationship is not romantic or sexy. It threatens your identity, and people frequently respond unconsciously by withholding some part of themselves - often their sexuality. It is hard to feel sexually attracted to someone you unconsciously sense is co-opting your selfhood and placing you in a bind where you can't be yourself or honest about how things are for you.
In our experience, people can find their way back to feeling more sexual attraction and enjoyment with their partner if they address the insecure dynamics that have developed in the relationship. They do that by learning how to tolerate the honesty of deep emotional intimacy. You need to learn how to talk about your experience; for example, that by focusing on her needs and wants, you have gone too far and lost sight of what you need and want. Many things that seem "impossible", can be talked about.
From what you say, your partner would have to learn to tolerate greater intimacy, too. It is important you stop buying into the idea that if you talk honestly about your sex life it would "break her heart into a million pieces". Believing that leaves little room for you to be you. You could talk with her that you need to her to able to tolerate hearing about how things are for you, even though it might be uncomfortable for her, as that's the only way to intimately engage and work out how you and she can improve things. If all that seems too daunting, enlist the help of a skilled relationship therapist.
If there was never any sexual chemistry for you, it is our experience it is unlikely to develop. We don't think it is wise for you to go on in a relationship where you feel this compromised.
One option is to explore consensual non-monogamy. That is, you getting your sexual needs met outside the relationship, with your partner's consent. However, this approach requires the ability to communicate clearly and openly about challenging issues. Given how difficult you have found it to talk about important things, this would require a radical change in how you communicate, but it is an option that allows you to maintain your integrity and stay in the relationship.
If that seems beyond you then, to us, it sounds like you may need to end the relationship if you are to grow and flourish. If you are not looking after your integrity, the relationship is on a very fragile foundation anyway. Leaving may require you facing down your fears about being a bad person, or about not being good enough to have someone whom you do find sexually attractive.
In terms of your concerns about your partner "shattering", it is important that you emphasise your responsibility for the choices you have made. For the kindest of reasons, you have been deceiving her all along. Whatever the motivation, this always hurts people, and there is no way you can get around that. You can apologise for having kept this from her for so long, that you regret not talking about this sooner, and that she is not to blame in any way.
Reassure her that this is not a negative reflection on her but rather about the chemistry not being right for you, even though it might have been right for her. Your language here is important. Don't say blunt things like; "I didn't enjoy the sex we had, and I don't find you attractive". Again, talk more about yourself, "I have not been into the sex we have been having, I have been struggling to enjoy it". Even if you do this very well you cannot control whether your partner takes it personally. If she has long-standing fears about her worth or attractiveness, this may activate them. Do your best to try to prevent that but, in the end, those fears are not your responsibility.
Ultimately, if you end the relationship, your partner may need to rely on the support and comfort of family and friends to handle her distress. Staying trapped in the relationship may not be good for your partner either who is perhaps anxiously clinging on to you rather than looking at building her own resources. That is a disempowered and vulnerable way to live, and it may take the loss of her dependence on you to help her realise she needs to find another way to care for herself.
Finally, it is lovely that you are considering the impact on your partner's daughter of your relationship ending. So many people don't. If the relationship needs to end, acting sooner rather than later is best for the daughter. You may want to discuss with your partner if there is any possibility of you staying in her daughter's life as a friendly caring adult figure. If that's not practical, you can still consult with her about what might work well for her daughter in terms of the ending of your relationship.
Verity & Nic are psychologists and family therapists who have specialised in relationship and sex therapy for over 25 years. They have been working on their own relationship for more than 40 years and have two adult children.