Sure, sex is only one aspect of a relationship — but it’s a pretty huge aspect. If you like or love your partner, but the sex is falling short, we really feel for you. While it doesn’t necessarily have to be a deal-breaker in a relationship, it very well can be.
So, how do you distinguish between sex that is fixable and sex that might be a sign of incompatibility? Before you consider walking away from your relationship, read on. We spoke with sex and relationship expert Annabelle Knight and creator of the Sexual Pro Series Webinar videos Dr. Jessica O'Reilly, as well as current collegiettes to find out the truth about mediocre sex with someone you like.
1. It might not be about the sex
You might find yourself struggling with a new partner once that initial attraction starts to fade, or even struggling with your long-term SO. As a relationship ages and you and your partner get to know more about each other, you could find that you aren’t as compatible as you once thought. Any lukewarm feelings toward your partner can easily transfer over into the bedroom, and sometimes, you might not even realize what’s happening.
Brianna*, a student at Georgia State University, thought she had feelings for one of her guy friends until he told her he was sexually attracted to her, which threw her off completely. What’s her advice for unexpectedly bad sex with someone you thought you were interested in? “If your woman intuition is telling you something, listen to it,” she says. “Be honest with yourself and your feelings.”
Dr. O'Reilly says that it all comes down to how much each of you care about the relationship at hand. "If you value the relationship and you're both willing to put some effort into your sex life, it's worth trying to fix," she says. "If, however, one of you refuses to talk about it or make changes, you may not be compatible. Compatibility is rooted in each partner being willing to put in a similar amound of effort."
So, how do you put in this effort if you believe the compatibility is there?
2. Find out if your partner is unhappy too
This is so important. If both you and your partner are unhappy, you may be able to work with each other to improve things. However, if you’re unhappy and your partner thinks everything is fine (or vice versa), there could be a bigger issue at play.
Knight recommends you discuss what’s going on right away. “The longer you put off speaking about your concerns, the more likely the ramifications will be more serious when you eventually do speak about them,” she says. “The best thing to do is just be honest. Conversations like these should be seen as a chance to learn, not just about what your partner wants in bed, but other equally important relationship skills such as joint problem solving, active listening, and mature conflict resolutions.” By speaking up, you increase intimacy levels with your partner, and that fact alone can improve your sexual performance.
Approach the situation in a non-judgmental way, but be straight up about how you feel. After all, everyone deserves the sex (and relationship) they’ve always dreamed of.
3. Communicate about what you like (and don’t like)
If you find that you are both unhappy, don’t be upset — this could actually be a good thing. It allows you the space to learn about each other sexually. It is a common misconception that sex should be effortless with the person you love.
"Research shows that good sex requires work," Dr. O'Reilly says. "Those who believe in sexual destiny are worse off than those who believe in sexual growth. That is, if you believe that a relationship takes work, you’re more likely to have a satisfying relationship — and you’re better able to face challenges when they arise. If you believe fate determines the outcome of a relationship (or sex life), then you’re less likely to be satisfied." This is a great (and rational) way to think about things.
Knight reitterates this point. “Even those in long-term relationships may find that over time their sexal appetite changes,” she says. “They discover new things they prefer and cast old sexual habits aside in favor of something else.” It’s normal for your sexual needs to grow as you grow.
And this is a great thing, according to Knight. “The wonderful thing about sex is that you can have a different experience every time, even with the same person,” she adds. “This means that, in effect, sex is never effortless. In order to have a happy and healthy sex life, you need to put in the effort.”
Think about it this way: If you plan to be with your partner long-term, you’re going to be having sex with them for a very long time. So, you need to be able to communicate openly, whether this means sharing your desires, trying new things or compromising. Dr. O'Reilly agrees, and provides three tips of her own for how to communicate with your partner: first, start with the positive; second, ask if there is anything they'd like to try or change; and third, ask for what you want more or less of.
On the other hand, if the not-so-great sex is happening with a new love interest, you can still try to communicate with him or her about your desires, but it might not always work.
For Courtney, a senior at Marist College, her expectations fell short with someone she met (and liked) studying abroad. “Maybe he was nervous? Maybe I was nervous? Mediocre sex regardless, I still liked him,” she says. “We vibe effortlessly to this day, even if the serious relationship I once hoped we would have never came about.”
“I tried telling him things that I like (why am I the only one giving oral sex?), but nothing changed," Courtney adds. "I don’t know ladies, if the spark isn’t there, maybe it’s just not meant to be.” Make the effort, ladies, because you’ll never know unless you try.
4. Take control in the bedroom
When the sex is mediocre, you have to be able to ask yourself if you’re part of the issue too. This doesn’t mean getting down on yourself. Instead, ask yourself if you’re willing to change some things in order to work on improving your sexual relationship with your partner.
“If [your sex life] is substandard, it’s up to you to do something about it,” Knight says. “If you’ve tried talking and it’s not had the desired effect, then now is the time to take action. Start by telling your partner exactly what you want –– lots of partners find it extremely sexy when their other half takes control, and for many women, being in the driving seat can be extremely liberating.”
Keep in mind that your sex life is your sex life, and the only one who can really make a change when it comes down to it is you. Sometimes, it might be necessary to stop talking and start acting. If still nothing changes, then you need to take an honest look at your relationship. You don’t want to (or deserve to) hang onto an unfulfilling relationship that may have ran its course.
5. Understand that no one is bad at sex
The first few times you have sex with a new partner, it might be a little uncomfortable — and understandably so. After all, you each have your previous experiences, which have influenced your desires in the bedroom. Don’t jump ship right away.
“Bad sex is the result of both parties involved, and the blame shouldn’t be laid entirely at one person’s door,” Knight says. “Substandard sex is born from a range of factors, inexperience and a lack of communication being the primary culprits.”
If this blossoming romance is strong in every other element besides the sex, try to improve things before you throw in the towel.
6. Bring effort back into your relationship
If you’ve been in a committed relationship with your partner for a long time, this one’s for you. You might be at the point in your relationship where it seems like you and your partner have lost some spark –– and it’s simply because sex is not some concrete thing. It requires effort to keep things fresh, even with someone you very much love.
According to Knight, you and your partner have probably gotten a little too comfortable with one another. “Comfort is a wonderful thing and is a strong building block for any committed relationship,” she says. “However, too much comfort can mean that you no longer make the effort you once did.”
Dr. O'Reilly agrees that losing that initial spark is totally normal. "Passionate love inevitably fades after six to 18 months," she says. "It's a chemical change (from dopamine and adrenaline boosts to oxytocin and vasopressin boosts)."
Take the time to prioritize your relationship again. “When it comes to long-term sex, it’s important to keep things fresh, which is why many couples look to lingerie, sex toys, and role-play to save the day,” Knight says. These things enable you to spice things up and expand your horizons.
When it comes to mediocre sex with your long-term partner, don’t stress. Talk it out, take some space if you need it, and work on finding your flow again.
Relax, ladies, bad sex is fixable — especially when it’s with someone you really like, as long as you’re both honest and on the same page. Bear in mind, though, that sex is a crucial part of any relationship. It doesn’t have to be the deal-breaker of your relationship, but it can be. The choice is yours.
*Name has been changed