If you are seeking perspective on sexually mismatched relationships, especially with an asexual partner, this article is for you.
When someone decides to end a relationship due to sexual incompatibility, or considers whether that might be the most compassionate option, there’s often plenty of judgment to go around. This is especially true in the online world. It can make things even more difficult during an already challenging time.
I’m here to tell you that you’re not alone, reassure you that your frustration is valid, and share some tips on being gentle with yourself and your asexual partner.
Here, “sexually mismatched” refers to couples where (a) levels of interest in sex are regularly disparate enough to cause unhappiness, and (b) causes of the differences are so fundamental that extensive mutual efforts and/or therapy are unable to help.
You might be in a completely sexless relationship. Or you might be in a relationship where your asexual partner willingly goes along with sex, but it’s frustratingly obvious that they never enjoy it, despite valiant efforts to shift that.
Not all couples in asexual-sexual relationships experience sexual mismatch (some asexuals like sex), and sexual mismatch can also occur with other orientations. For example, two people may form a heterosexual relationship, but after several years and an increasingly challenging sex life, one finally realizes and/or accepts that they are gay.
Sexual Mismatch Is Often Nobody’s Fault
Sexual mismatch is often neither person’s fault, as both people are usually products of a culture where we don’t often have in-depth, meaningful conversations about sexuality when we’re younger. We must often figure out such things on our own, and it’s especially difficult for anyone who doesn’t fit within the most common categories.
When people start seeking support or other perspectives on their sexually mismatched relationship, they’re often hoping that they can keep their relationship intact. That was the case for me. Sometimes things do work out as initially hoped. It is always heartwarming to hear or read about these cases.
But sometimes things don’t work out. This is something that most of us naturally don’t want to think about. Those who are candid about this possibility aren’t always popular. We may be perceived as a threat to others’ relationships, or to others’ ability to find and sustain relationships. We may be perceived as purveyors of blame, even if there is no one to blame.
Don’t Compare Other Asexual-Sexual Relationships to Yours Too Much
There are many options for making sexual-asexual relationships work, if both people are willing. As discussed in I Fell in Love with an Asexual, I’ve researched and tried many of them. They do work for some couples. Maybe, hopefully, they have worked or will work for you.
But as some of us with experience in sexually mismatched relationships know, you often also need many other things working in your favor, beyond what more sexually matched couples require. Your relationship needs to have a strong foundation outside of the bedroom. If your differences in sexual interest are significant, one or both of you may need to make some pretty big compromises or sacrifices. These compromises and sacrifices will be in the same arena that serves as a mutual bond–a place of respite, reconnection, and renewal amidst life’s storms–for many other couples.
If you can’t find a way to relate in the bedroom that makes you both happy, you may both need to be willing to explore arrangements not yet accepted or understood by the broader public, such as open relationships or polysexuality. You will both need to be willing and capable of working through the additional challenges that often come with such arrangements, as well.
Some couples have enough of these other important components for success, or they manage to create them. These couples can help the rest of us to maintain optimism as we try to work things through. I enjoy hearing about these stories, and you probably do, too.
But don’t beat yourself up if you ultimately fail to do as well as some other couples do. Consider these possibilities:
- You may be comparing your asexual-sexual relationship to one where differences in levels of sexual interest aren’t as extreme as they are in yours.
- Maybe the asexual partner in that couple is among the small minority of asexuals or other ace spectrum people who enjoy sex, but your partner isn’t.
- Maybe the other sexual-asexual relationship couple knew about their differences early on, while your differences became apparent later in your relationship.
- Maybe the sexual partner* in that couple doesn’t need their asexual partner to reciprocate their desire as much as you do.
- Maybe they’ve been together only a year, while you’re five or ten years into a sexless marriage.
- Maybe they have friends and family who are more supportive of alternative relationship arrangements.
- Maybe they have had significantly more time, energy, and money to invest in relationship-related support, such as therapy and workshops.
Perhaps one of the biggest variables among asexual-sexual relationships is that as awareness of asexuality grows, a more diverse range of people are using the term. Many people now use the word ace, a shortened version of asexual, to describe the broader community. Within that community, people vary in the language they use, and some vary over time as they learn more about themselves.
One asexual partner may use the term asexual to communicate that they’re part of the group under the ace umbrella that never or very rarely experiences sexual attraction, and in which less than 5% feel favorable about personally engaging in sex.
Another asexual partner may use the term asexual but mean they’re somewhere else on the ace spectrum, such as graysexual (gray asexual) or demisexual. Graysexuals experience sexual attraction occasionally and see themselves as somewhere between asexual and non-asexual. Demisexuals experience sexual attraction only after forming a close emotional bond. Alongside experiencing sexual attraction more frequently, individuals who identify with these labels are, on average, more likely to feel favorable about personally engaging in sex.
Reflective of this increasing diversity and language evolution, there are dozens of pages of debate on asexuality.org regarding whether the site’s definition of asexuality should be broadened to include more people.
There are many variables. In short, two sexual-asexual relationships can look very different.
Manage Judgment & Criticism from Others
Despite having the odds stacked against us, sexually mismatched partners who eventually end our relationships may face criticism for not trying hard enough. Why weren’t we willing to make the compromises and sacrifices necessary to stay together? Why weren’t we committed enough?
In fact, this post was largely inspired by a comment on I Fell in Love with an Asexual that leveled the above criticism. Although it was clear that the commenter hadn’t read much of the book, that particular judgment stood out because I’ve heard it before.
The sexually motivated partner may experience judgment and feel guilt for failing to place “real” love and unwavering lifelong commitment above sex. How could we be so superficial and driven by our base, animalistic instincts? This judgment and guilt can be especially harsh if the couple has children, because now the sexual partner’s commitment to their children is called into question as well.
The presence of children in an asexual-sexual relationship may also make it more challenging for the sexual partner to process their partner’s coming out. It’s common for couples struggle with sex after having children, even when different orientations aren’t at play. They’re often able to work things out over time, especially if they enlist professional help. However, when someone comes out as asexual after they have kids, and reveals to their partner that they’ve never really been into sex and probably never will be, the sexual partner may feel used and trapped. They wonder: Why didn’t their asexual partner realize all of this before they had kids, and come out then?
The asexual partner may have been full of confusion and fear, and may feel terrible about not having had more clarity sooner.
For different reasons, both partners may feel like relationship failures–even if, by the time they reach a breaking point, they’ve weathered far more challenging differences than many partners will ever have to experience. They’ve already compromised a great deal. And much of the blame lies not with either of them, but with cultural taboos against learning more about our sexuality when we’re relatively young.
Some of the above are accusations I’ve faced from others. Perhaps you have, too.
When seeking relationship perspective online, you may encounter people who have had traumatic experiences. Some asexuals have experienced trauma at the hands of a sexually motivated partner or other person(s). This includes people whose asexuality was not “caused” by trauma or abuse, but who still experienced tragedies like corrective rape (attempted “conversion” via forced sex) or other sexual assault. It also includes people who identify as trauma-induced asexuals.**
Some asexual people have been through the pain of being in love with someone who left largely due to sexual incompatibility. Some have been through the pain of going along with things they didn’t enjoy because they didn’t want to lose someone.
As you talk about your sex-related desires and frustrations, particularly online, you may remind someone of a person with whom they’ve had traumatic experiences. Your opinions and experiences may trigger strong emotions, and they might project some of that energy onto you. It’s possible that they are calling you out on behaviors or statements that are indeed wrong or insensitive. It’s always important to consider that. But it’s also possible that it has little to do with you, and more with someone else who has caused them pain. Or it could be some of both.
If your sexual-asexual relationship doesn’t work out as initially hoped, you may need to choose which external input to consider seriously and which to discount or take with a grain of salt. Others may not understand the odds you have faced, the ways in which society bears some of the blame, or the specifics of your relationship.
Amidst these voices, grief, and other emotions, try to be gentle on yourself and your asexual partner.
Ironically, some of the harshest critics can be others who are also struggling in their relationships. If our relationship ends, they may feel like another piece of their hope is being swept away. But as we’ll talk about next, that hope doesn’t need to be lost.
There’s Rarely Such a Thing as a “Failed” Relationship
While it may sound cliched, it’s generally true that there’s no such thing as a completely “failed” relationship. It’s likely that you and your partner have enjoyed many types of love and caring beyond your sexual connection. Usually, there are many valuable things to learn from the experience, if you’re willing and able to look. This includes any ways you’ve developed your sexual and other intimacy skills–they will likely make your next relationship more fulfilling, even if they didn’t save your current one.
Also, even if a relationship eventually ends, you and your asexual partner still deserve credit for having made it last as long as it did.
Respectfully transitioning out of a sexually mismatched relationship is often a bigger win than continuing to tough out a relationship where one or both people are miserable. You and your partner have the opportunity to become better versions of yourselves, whether you end up as lifelong partners, friends, platonic co-parents, or even distant memories. It probably won’t feel like a win in the short-term, though, with all the grief to work through.
Years later, I still sometimes grieve my past relationship and miss what I loved about it. This is at the same time that I love and appreciate different things about my current relationship, and enjoy different things about my current partner. Also, my past relationship didn’t entirely end; it just took on a different form. We’re now friends who still speak and visit occasionally, even if we’re no longer life partners.
Your Experiences May Serve as a Resource for Others in Sexual-Asexual Relationships
Our closest relationships often provide us with some of our sense of purpose and value. So when a close relationship ends or shifts in form, it can be hard to fill that void. One of many ways to do that is to use our experiences to help others as we build new connections.
After you’ve made efforts to learn and grow from your relationship challenges, don’t doubt the potential value of what you have to share with others, even if your relationship ends. Although my writing was inspired by a partnership that ended and the experiences that followed, the lengthy process of trying taught me many things. In many ways, I learned more than I would have had the relationship continued. As I’ve written about elsewhere, I may not have discovered an ecosexuality conference, snuggle parties, ecstatic dances, intimacy workshops, and other horizon-expanding events.
For a while, I doubted what I had to offer others. Then I realized that some frequently cited experts in the arena had little or no personal experience with being in a long-term sexually mismatched relationship. While I’ve found much of their knowledge valuable, I realized that I could provide some important missing puzzle pieces. Likewise, while it may not be easy to see now, the knowledge and experience gained through your struggles could eventually prove to be a resource to others around you.
Whether you maintain your relationship or transition into something different, know that there are others like me who won’t judge you, however it turns out. We know it’s tough, because we tried and gave it our best, too.
Accounts of Mixed-Orientation Asexual-Sexual Relationships
Now that you’ve had the caveats about comparing your relationship to others, I’ll share several accounts of sexual-asexual relationships.
– I Fell in Love with an Asexual is the only book on mismatched sexual-asexual relationships written from the sexual partner’s perspective. It supports you in reintegrating your sexuality while understanding and accepting your partner. It aims to help you find loving and nourishing connection, whether you choose to maintain, modify, or transition out of your relationship.
The award-winning self-help memoir shares a wealth of tools, tips, and resources on sexuality, communication, and relating. It cites 120+ sources, including many by asexual authors. It is sex positive while also validating asexuality.
– The AVEN “For Sexual Partners, Friends and Allies” forum includes discussion of mixed-orientation relationships. Many individuals have shared about their experiences of continuing, modifying, or ending their relationships, including challenges, joys, and learning opportunities. The forum is hosted on a site created for asexual people.
– This writer describes part of their life journey as an asexual along with their efforts to relate to their non-asexual wife, who has also been doing reading in an attempt to understand them better.
– OurPath interviewed a woman who divorced her husband after 25 years. It included a sexless span of 10 years. After she had an emotional breakdown due to lack of physical intimacy, they finally realized he was asexual.
– This sexually-motivated woman describes some of their journey to arrive at understanding with their asexual partner, whom they describe as ace-fluid. When the writer shares concerns about their sex life with the asexual partner, they agree to “meet in the middle.”
* Within asexual circles, terms like allosexual and zedsexual are sometimes used to refer to anyone who is not on the ace spectrum. Because this article is geared toward non-asexual people who may not be familiar with such terminology, I use the terms sexual and sexually motivated interchangeably to refer to the non-asexual partner.
** Here I have no intention of debating the validity of trauma-induced asexuality, as I know there are mixed opinions on this. The relevant point here is that some people identify this way (see screenshot below), which may affect the responses and feedback you receive from them, especially in online settings. If your partner identifies this way, it’s up to them whether they wish to engage in the challenging work of exploring the trauma, preferably with the support of a qualified mental health professional.
Mismatched socks photo by Flickr user Olga. Size and resolution adjusted. License.