“So, how does that work exactly?” is what everyone wants to know when they find out I’m asexual and in a relationship with a person who isn’t.
It was a question I couldn’t answer for a while.
People commonly believe mismatched sexual attraction or needs cause relationships to fail. Even within ace spaces, I’ve heard from many asexual people that romantic relationships with people who aren’t asexual are damn near impossible. So when I searched for answers for the challenges I was having in my own relationship, I didn’t find much encouragement.
When I realized I was asexual, I was in the relationship I’m currently in, with a cis het man whose feelings, desires, and need for sex are completely different from my own. We’ve faced many challenges because of our sexual incompatibility. Yet, our relationship is still standing.
To be honest, sometimes I’m surprised.
We’re almost four years strong and we’re figuring things out as we go along. After our ups and downs, I have a few explanations for the often posed question, “how does that work exactly?” in regards to our relationship.
Now, I’m not claiming to have all of the answers. A-spec (asexual spectrum) people have a variety of experiences, and I won’t be able to offer insight into every single experience (hell, I’m not qualified). And like I said, we’re still figuring some things out.
But I’d like to share a few things we’ve learned from trial and error, long conversations, frustration, and successes.
Here are five tips for people involved in sexual-asexual romantic relationships:
1. Accept and Understand Your Partner’s Asexuality
Acceptance is Phase 1 for enjoying a romantic relationship with an asexual partner. The fact that your partner isn’t sexually attracted to you can be a difficult concept to stomach, especially if you’re unfamiliar with asexuality.
But for some aces, their sexual orientation is an important part of their lives, and it’s important not to deny that experience.
I think two of the worst mistakes non-ace people in relationships with aces make are invalidating their partner’s experience and trying to change them. These actions reinforce the oppressive ideas that aces are broken, that something is wrong with them, and that their experience is because of some personal, mental, or physical flaw that they could get rid of if they tried hard enough.
Denial won’t change your partner’s sexuality. The sooner you accept the fact that your partner is asexual, the sooner you can move into Phase 2: Understanding your partner’s asexuality.
The Asexual Visibility and Education Network has a wealth of information available for anyone interested in learning about asexuality. Almost all social media platforms host ace groups, pages, blogs, and information for those who need it.
You just have to remember that asexuality is a varied experience. There are hypersexual aces, sex-adverse aces, aces who like sex, aces whose sexual desire and/or attraction fluctuates, and many other experiences.
Something you read online might not match your partner’s asexuality. The easiest way to understand their experience may be to talk to them about it.
Of course, there are cases where your partner may not fully understand their asexuality. That’s okay. I’ve been there.
Everything I experience may not have a label, but I could explain my feelings and my frustration of what I did and didn’t understand to my partner. Talking through it gave us somewhere to start.
2. Don’t Take Their Asexuality Personally
I can’t think of a more appropriate situation for the phrase “It’s not you, it’s me,” than in a relationship with an ace.
Someone might feel like it’s their own fault if their partner says that they aren’t sexually attracted to them. Within my own relationship, my partner thought he needed to change something about him. That wasn’t the case.
Your partner’s lack of sexual attraction or disinterest in sex is not about you. It’s not about the way you look. It’s not about your body. It’s not about your sexual performance.
They are asexual because they are asexual. That’s not something you can change.
Instead of taking it personally, you may have to address a few insecurities about your partner not finding you sexually attractive or not desiring sex. Our society places so much value on being sexy that it can make many of us feel inadequate when someone doesn’t find us sexually attractive (then, in those moments of insecurity, an ad up pop up on your TV or computer screen telling you to buy a body mist, a pill, or a hamburger that models eat in order to be sexier).
But the truth is, your ace partner doesn’t actually need to be sexually attracted to you. Likely, they’re into you for other reasons.
If you’re feeling insecure, it may help to remember that if you’re dating an ace, there are other reasons they’re interested in you. They don’t need to be sexually attracted to you because they’re attracted to you in other ways.
Many people forget, or perhaps, don’t know that there are various types of attraction. Maybe your partner is romantically, aesthetically, or intellectually attracted to you. These other forms of attraction can be just as, if not, more important in your relationship.
3. Avoid Pressure and Blame
In any type of relationship, pressuring a partner to have sex is unhealthy. Asexual people in relationships with sexual partners sometimes face a special type of pressure based on the stigma that says asexuality is not normal or unnatural.
Because the common narrative in our society is that sex is healthy and required for intimate relationships, asexual people are sometimes pressured by partners or by internal pressure to aspire to society’s idea of a “normal” and “healthy” relationship. And aces are often blamed when problems related to sex arise in the relationship.
No one tells my partner he needs to see a therapist to do something about his heterosexuality or his desire for sex. But therapy has been suggested for me several times. No one says, “Wow, he wanted to have frequent sex? How horrible!” But people have responded to articles I’ve written about asexuality with, “Wow, that must suck for your boyfriend.”
This type of thinking within a relationship can cause partners to place harmful pressure their ace partners and can lead to partners coercing and crossing sexual boundaries.
Instead of pressure and blame, opt for open communication.
4. Open Communication About Sexual Needs and Boundaries Is Vital
While it’s important to avoid pressure, non-asexual partners in relationships with aces need to be clear about their sexual needs.
For a while, my boyfriend had a difficult time bringing up his sexual needs because he didn’t want to seem like a jerk. He equated talking about his sexual needs with sexual pressure. So for a long time, he was very frustrated, and I would always wonder why he was so testy. His attitude affected other parts of our relationship.
A lot of drama could have been avoided if he would have been more open about his needs from the beginning.
He and I now have monthly check-ins to make sure we are both comfortable with our sex life. We talk about his needs, my boundaries, and what is or isn’t working for us. And every now and then, we have to discuss how his needs are not being met, or I have to school him on what is and isn’t appropriate to say to an ace (like referring to my feelings about sex as “childish” – do not do that to your ace partners!). It’s a learning process for both of us, and we’re constantly talking through it.
Partners should be able to address their sexual needs and their boundaries. Both are important. While non-aces need to understand their partner’s asexuality, at the same time, aces need to understand their partner’s sexuality.
However, it’s important to know the difference between sexual needs versus sexual entitlement. The former is a valid experience a person has, while the latter plays into our society’s normalized oppressive beliefs about who is “owed” sex. Sexual needs are okay in a relationship, entitlement is not.
The goal is to find the middle ground where sexual needs are met while boundaries are respected.
Sometimes, that involves getting a little creative. That’s where my last point comes in.
5. Expand Your Definition of a Relationship
When finding the sweet spot between sexual needs and boundaries is difficult, you may have to get a bit more creative.
Some kind of compromise is important in relationships where people have mismatched sexual needs. Some aces want sex with their partners, while others are willing to compromise and have sex every once in a while. Every ace is different so every relationship will look different.
Additionally, people in relationships can explore many alternatives to the “traditional” relationship: Maybe you can try out open or non-monogamous types of relationships. Maybe you’re willing to participate in other forms of intimacy. Maybe you connect in other ways (sexual compatibility isn’t the only factor that keeps relationships together).
Your relationship doesn’t have to conform to a certain expected standard. It’s your relationship, so it’s up to you to create the rules.
Again, this all depends on what partners in relationships are comfortable with. Sometimes this involves going back to the drawing board several times to revise a compromise or agreement in the relationship. Sometimes there is no compromise to reach and the relationship ends. Every relationship won’t be successful, and that’s okay.
Truth is, these five points are true for many relationships, not just those involving aces. So really, our relationships may not be too much different from any other relationship.
Yes, relationships where partners have mismatched sexual needs are challenging. Finding the compromise between fulfilling sexual needs and respecting boundaries can be tough. My partner and I haven’t gotten it down to a science yet. But we are trying and have been working it out.
It helps to remember that sexual compatibility isn’t always the glue that holds relationships together. I’ve seen tons of sexually compatible partners end relationships for various reasons.
All relationships require effort. But some are worth that effort.
So, good luck out there. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for all the aces looking for fulfilling relationships.
Shae Collins is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She enjoys educating and uplifting by aiming a black feminist lens at pop culture on her blog, awomynsworth.com. She’s been published in Ms. Magazine, For Harriet, and Blavity. Laugh with her on Twitter @ShaeCWrites.