At an impasse

My girlfriend doesn't want to have sex unless we're engaged, and I don't want to be an emotional doormat.

By Cary Tennis
Published July 9, 2003 7:21PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My girlfriend and I have reached an impasse. It's one of the standard ones -- she doesn't want to have sex before marriage or at least an engagement, and I can't and won't do that.

The problem is we both come from extreme ends of the spectrum when it comes to sexual experience. She spent several years working in the sex industry, has cleaned up her act, and is involved in a 12-step program. After a few not so satisfactory relationships, I spent several years as a celibate Buddhist monk, have cleaned up my act, and am actively trying to engage in real relationships. (I haven't given up the Buddhist thing, just the celibacy thing.)

She comes from a background of abuse. Her history has a litany of men taking advantage of her for sex.

My background involves continuously being taken advantage of for emotional support. The last woman I seriously dated told me she wasn't ready yet to become intimate, hung out with me until she got her head together, and then slept with an ex-boyfriend while I was out of the country for a few weeks.

We've had several long talks and have come to the conclusion that she can't be in any relationship where she feels like she's put in the role of the whore, and I can't be in any relationship where I feel like my role is of the counselor or advisor instead of the boyfriend. Intellectually I think that we both know that having sex doesn't necessarily make her a whore, and not having sex doesn't necessarily make me her emotional snot rag. But, unfortunately it ain't the intellect that's making decisions here.

So where does that leave us? I figured that we should just break things off, because I can't figure out any way out of this dilemma that doesn't involve one of us doing something that is wrong for one of us. She really wants us to work things out. I don't know how. And the longer I'm patient with things, the more revulsion I feel for our situation, because I just don't want to become the nice guy again.


Dear Stuck,

Isn't it strange how trouble travels as the twin of salvation, how in trying to tame your own mind you always pick the wildest horse to ride, how the things you fear and the things you desire can't be told apart even up close? How when she finally decides that sex is the problem -- she's never again having sex without love! -- she passes a law: No intercourse, not yet! You have to marry me first! And it rules out the very thing she needs, which is the kind of love you have to offer but are refusing, because you've passed a statute of your own: No love, not yet! You have to have sex with me first!

What each of you has done makes sense in a way: You had some bad experiences, so you established some precautions to prevent a recurrence. Each of you has been exploited, and neither one wants that to happen again. The problem is that your precautions are too broad and inflexible and mutually exclusive. They rule out not only actual exploitation but also anything that even reminds you of exploitation, or sounds like exploitation, or could become exploitation in the hands of an unscrupulous person. I don't think either of you feels the other is unscrupulous. You're just having trouble trusting each other.

Trust isn't going to appear on its own. What you have to do now is identify the kinds of actual exploitation that could occur between you and solemnly agree to watch out for it, to try to prevent it, and to call each other on it when it seems to be happening.

Actual exploitation is a kind of theft. It's taking something from someone without adequate payment, either by coercion or deception. But between people who love each other, things are freely given and taken without a strict repayment schedule; the account is based on trusting that it will even out in the end. So you're going to have to learn to say, in the moment, this doesn't feel right, that doesn't feel right; I need a little more of this for that, a little less of that for this.

It may sound like too much work, but breaking things off won't make your problem go away: If you're suspicious and distrustful of women, any woman who wants emotional support might make you feel that you're being used as a doormat. Any man who wants to have sex with her may remind her of a john or a pimp or a player.

Your impasse has a fascinating symmetry. Why did your girlfriend do sex work? It wasn't just mindless degradation and victimhood; it was a bid for gaining control over the means by which she had been victimized in the first place. She tried a form of counter-exploitation, but it didn't work, because what she truly wanted for sex was love and compassion, not money. You tried to beat the system with a spiritual practice that offered escape from messy human relationships; if you could meet all your emotional needs by sitting zazen every day, then people couldn't hurt you or disappoint you anymore. I think you've both realized that the world isn't something to run away from or meditate into the void or fix or legislate into perfection: It's a grand, messy place filled with grand, messy people. Welcome back. This is how it is: You work it out as you go along, just like the rest of us.

Try trusting her with a penny's worth of compassion, and see if she'll let you touch her knee. Take it from there, a little trust at a time.

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Cary Tennis

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