Sometimes I don’t feel attracted to my girlfriend. Should I leave her?

Kai advises a reader who is struggling with inconsistent desire

Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world. Have a question? Email [email protected].

Dear Kai,

I’m in my late 20s, and I’ve only been attracted to other people a handful of times. When I have felt attraction, it’s often been to people I hate (not cute, I know). I explored asexuality for years, and ultimately found that I still felt sexual desire often enough that the label didn’t quite fit. I know I have fears about intimacy, and I often feel too embarrassed to ask prospective partners to deal with that. Still, I want to love and fuck with desire. 

Over a year ago, I met my current partner, who is so loving. She opened up the world to me. She’s patient, easygoing, passionate, honest, principled and so brilliant. I love her beyond words. Nevertheless, I have never felt certain about my attraction to her. The more I reflect on it, the more ashamed I feel that I might have been asking her to live a lie this whole time. I remember times when I decidedly have not felt attracted to her, or fleeting minutes of freezing up during sex. I know she feels insecure about her body, and there have been moments where she’s brought that up and I haven’t given her reassurance. This is only because I was caught up in my own BS, which I hate.

I’ve talked about my fear of sexual intimacy with her, and the wavering attraction I’ve felt, and she’s been very open. With her, I’ve experienced moments where I felt my body respond positively in ways I never have with another person. But then they slip through my fingers and I’m back to feeling turned off. Plenty of people would probably say that if I feel so conflicted about whether or not I’m attracted to my partner, I should just break up with her already. But I keep clinging to the belief that my feelings could be different. 

When I feel free of shame, I find my girlfriend beautiful and sexy. But so often, I’m not free. I’ve always felt unknown and undesirable. I know, whatever decision I make, that I owe it to her to be more honest, but I don’t know which truth to follow anymore. How do I treat my girlfriend with the most grace possible?

Sincerely,

Gray Tinted Glasses

Dear GTG, 

Beautiful wounded and wandering soul, I see and hear your struggle. You want deep intimacy and enduring love, but your internal compass keeps changing direction. You want passionate sexuality, but where your soul goes, your body will not follow. Know that you are not alone. 

 

Many people who identify as sexual beings struggle with finding and maintaining access to their felt sense of desire. Many people I have met and worked with in my years as a sex educator have described such experiences, often with a sense of shame or even self-loathing. Some ways I have heard folks describe themselves when they are having a hard time feeling sexual desire include: broken, numb, empty, confused, ambiguous, ambivalent and “like a violin whose strings have been cut.” I myself have felt this way from time to time throughout my life, in various contexts—as though I know that there is beautiful music inside me, yearning to be heard, but I’m somehow trapped in silence. 

GTG, I deeply and truly believe that the music is still there. 

You ask how you can treat your girlfriend with “the most grace possible,” and this may seem trite, but my sincere opinion is that it begins with offering yourself with that same grace. You say that you owe it to your girlfriend to “be more honest,” but you also say that you’ve already talked about your sexual fear and wavering attraction to her. You say that you aren’t sure if you’ve ever found her attractive, but also that you remember moments where your body has responded to her in ways you never have with another person. You say you are uncertain, but you also say that you “love her beyond words.”

When I read these words, I don’t see someone who has been dishonest or who doesn’t love their partner. I see someone who doesn’t feel like they have something good enough to offer the person they love.

GTG, I wonder what it would be like for you to approach your girlfriend not from a place of deficit and self-blame, but a place of mutual dignity and self-compassion? Would it be possible to offer honesty that is not an indictment of what you feel and who you are, but rather a clear and heartfelt invitation to get to know you more deeply? Would it be possible to talk about not only what you can’t give, but also the gifts you do bring to the relationship? 

What that might look like in practice is saying something along the lines of “I know we’ve talked about this before, but I want to be really honest with you that I’m still having a hard time finding consistent desire and arousal when it comes to sex. I love you so much, and you’ve opened up the world to me, but I also understand if what you need is someone who feels more certain in their sexuality. And if you do want to stay together, what I can promise to offer you is honesty, adoration and love beyond words.” 

(No, it doesn’t have to be quite that intense or that earnest, but hopefully you get the idea.) 

My suggestion here, GTG, is that you don’t need to “rescue” your girlfriend from what I suspect you believe is the horror of dating you. You don’t need to break up with someone you love just because your sexual feelings wax and wane. Your girlfriend has her own reasons for being with you, her own sense of what is hot and what is difficult about your relationship. It could be that having sex is not all that important to her. It could be that she is willing to stay for the experience of it all because she sees something wonderful in you. You’ll never know unless you invite that open and honest conversation about what you can and cannot offer—and then simply let her make a decision based on her own empowered choice.

There is, of course, a certain skillfulness that must accompany honest self-expression. When we’re sharing our honest feelings about a sexual or intimate relationship with someone, it’s important to keep our common sense and kindness online. In your case, GTG, when you’re talking with your girlfriend about desire and attraction, I would keep the conversation focused on your own experience rather than her body. Concepts such as “ugly” and “pretty” don’t need to come into it, because that’s not really what this conversation is about—it’s about the way you relate to your own body’s arousal and response to sensation.

The psychologist Jack S. Annon believed that what people who are struggling with sexuality most need is permission to voice their experience in a non-judgmental environment. Of course, other kinds of support may be helpful or necessary as well, but so much shame and pain can be relieved simply by acknowledging our bodies as they already are, in all their strength and their suffering. 

Your ambivalence is what it is, GTG: a mix of desire and disconnection, and one doesn’t discount the other. Those moments of attraction, arousal and pleasure that you have felt are still real even though you have also felt uncertainty, non-attraction or frozen. Putting pressure on yourself to feel arousal is also most likely to cause performance anxiety, which creates further blocks to desire. Letting go of specific goals or visions of what desire and sexuality are “supposed” to look like and simply paying attention to what feels good and what doesn’t may be a helpful strategy on your journey. 

Ambivalence does not mean you cannot love or that you don’t deserve love. What it might mean is that your body is trying to tell you something important about what you need in order to access desire. You can explore this with the help of a professional sex therapist, sexologist or somatic sex educator. There is wisdom in your body, GTG, and all of the messages it sends. I suspect that the more you listen, the more your intuition will reveal itself. 

So listen to yourself. Listen to your own body with as much grace and compassion and loving care as you want to offer others. Listen to the ambivalence, the fear, the fleeting moments of freedom, the pleasure that does exist from time to time. Listen for the hidden patterns, the wisdom of your body asking for what it needs. Listen to the music that still plays, deep within.


Kai Cheng Thom is no longer a registered or practicing mental health professional. The opinions expressed in this column are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content in this column, including, but not limited to, all text, graphics, videos and images, is for general information purposes only. This column, its author, Xtra (including its parent and affiliated companies, as well as their directors, officers, employees, successors and assigns) and any guest authors are not responsible for the accuracy of the information contained in this column or the outcome of following any information provided directly or indirectly from it.

Kai Cheng Thom is a writer, performer, and social worker who divides her heart between Montreal and Toronto, unceded Indigenous territories. She is the author of the Lambda Award-nominated novel Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl's Confabulous Memoir (Metonymy Press), as well as the poetry collection a place called No Homeland (Arsenal Pulp Press). Her latest book, Falling Back in Love with Being Human, a collection of letters and poetry, is out now from Penguin Random House Canada.

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