3 Steps for Talking About Sex

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(Question has been modified for space and clarity.)

I’m 59, and the beautiful guy I’m seeing is 64. We’ve known each other for over 40 years. He was my first love. I moved away from our hometown in my 20s, but we always kept in touch.

A few years ago, long after I divorced and 10 years after the loss of my son in a traffic accident, I started thinking about moving back home. My now-boyfriend offered to buy me a house, and I would make mortgage payments to him. I didn’t take his offer, but I did move back.

That first year back I was out of sorts. But we’d go to dinner a few times a month, and he’d fix random things around my house or unexpectedly shovel my driveway. He never made a pass at me, and he never gave me more than a hug and kiss goodnight. I know he was seeing another woman at the time, and he’d sometimes mention it wasn’t going well. Eventually they broke up.

Since the end of last year, we started spending more time together. About two months ago, I finally asked him to stay the night. He did, but he told me we couldn’t have sex because he has herpes and was having a breakout. We just held each other and slept.

He is a workaholic and has a prestigious job. His work has been very intense the last little while, so much so that he’s reached the point of total exhaustion, sometimes falling asleep in his car. His workload is slowing down, and he says his life should get back to normal in the next few weeks.

I have tried engaging in physical contact with him on numerous occasions, and if he reciprocates, it’s only minimal. We did have sex once, but I initiated.

On a recent Saturday night, he took me a to a concert…I looked really good, damn near “hot.” When we got back to my house, he said he wasn’t going to stay because he hadn’t spent much time at home lately because of work and had a lot of things to do. We kissed some, but that was it.

I love being with him, and he seems to love being with me. But I really want to be with him physically. Of course, I don’t want to force him into anything.

He’s a beautiful man and is in great shape. He’s had some prostate problems in the past, but a doctor has declared everything normal.

So my question is this: WTF is going on here???
 — Give Me a Little Human Touch; Cleveland, OH

The first few paragraphs of this submission had all the makings of a fairytale. A young couple drifts apart, in pursuit of their own paths, only to rediscover each other in the second act of their lives.

Of course, this being an advice column, there had to be a catch.

You are wondering why your guy won’t sleep with you. How can he embrace every other aspect of the boyfriend job description, yet flee when tasked with the most enjoyable bullet point? Something doesn’t make sense.

Maybe he’s self-conscious about having herpes. Maybe his sex drive has decreased, and at this age, he’s resigned himself to the friends-with-no-benefits arrangement. Or maybe he’s guarding some sort of secret. I’d be lying if I said the thought of him being gay didn’t cross my mind.

As I’m sure you’ve done yourself, I could sit here and speculate and throw out one guess after another. But that’s all they’d be.

Which is why you need to ask him this question.

To this point, you’ve done everything within your womanly powers to make it clear where you stand. Yet you’re still taking cold showers.

This means a more direct approach is needed. And that’s having a conversation with your man about what’s going on and what’s holding him back.

Understandably, addressing something as sensitive as sex can be daunting for both sides. But if you incorporate the following three-pronged approach during the discussion, you can still find your happily ever after:

SINCERITY

It’s clear that you adore your boyfriend. Obviously I can’t see your face, but hearing (or reading) you describe him, it feels like it lights up. The word “beautiful” isn’t often used in reference to men, and you used it twice.

I don’t know what’s going on with your man, but something is. Healthy, active men typically don’t just stop having sex, even at his age. I’ve seen the Cialis commercials.

And whatever it is, we know it’s at least a rung above a sexually transmitted disease, because he’s already told you he has one. It must feel to him like a big deal, like if he tells you, he’s going to lose you.

This makes it imperative that, from the moment the two of you sit down, you make it clear that you care for him, that you want what’s best for him and that your concerns come from a place not of criticism and judgment but of love and respect.

The safer you make him feel, the more likely he’ll open up.

EMPATHY

When I was dating my now-wife, Emily, I had plenty I needed to open up about. My main issue was, predictably, how closed off I was. Years of hurt and heartache had mutated into emotional barriers, barriers I worried would prevent me from becoming the partner Emily deserved.

But once my back was against those walls, and I was at risk of losing the relationship, what gave me the freedom to explain — and keep explaining — what was going on was how empathic Emily was.

She was kind and compassionate, and she never demeaned what I was dealing with, even though she’d never dealt with it herself.

Some of the things I said, it couldn’t have been easy for her to hear, or given her hope for our future. But she listened, and she assured me she’d do whatever possible to help me, and us, work through it.

Which brought us that much closer together.

EXPLICITNESS

Not in a gratuitous, Cinemax-after-hours sort of way, though.

As much as you have to tell your boyfriend you support him, you also have to tell him what you want and need from him: a sex life.

And that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Beyond its pleasurable and biological benefits, sex is what separates romantic relationships from friendships. And you don’t want to just be his friend.

Whatever is holding him back is holding you back too. And he needs to know that.

How he will respond is anybody’s guess. He could reveal a secret that ends any shot at romance.

Or he could shed light on his hang-up, talk his way through it and prove the first few months of your relationship to be nothing more than an extended dry spell.

Though it seems out of reach at the moment, it’s still possible for you to get your happy ending full of happy endings. That’s the upside of the Sincerity — Empathy — eXplicitness strategy.

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This article originally appeared on the Good Men Project.