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Can You Salvage a New Romance if the Sex is Terrible?

It is hard enough to meet someone in this crazy world you actually like: You get each other’s jokes, find each other wildly attractive, and have undeniable chemistry over drinks and conversation. Then comes the sex part, and — aw fuck: It’s terrible. The kissing is bad, the touching is bad, your parts don’t fit together well, and it is all extremely awkward. How did that happen? Why does this happen? And now what?

Bad sex happens for any number of reasons — karmic justice, or the more likely either or both of you is nervous, drunk, inexperienced, or just incompatible sexually. The first few are solvable, theoretically: you can get more comfortable over time, and by simply being less drunk, you’ll de-sloppify the experience dramatically.

But the latter issue of sexual compatibility is a much trickier conundrum: is the bad sex a one-off that can be fixed with time, effort or just a do-over? Or is this bad sex proof you’re eternally doomed? Turns out, it’s a perennially asked question, and the answer is it depends on the following things:

Do You Actually Like This Person?

If not, no point in doing a damn thing about the shitty lay. Claim defeat and clear the field.

Why Was the Sex Bad?

Does he have a semi-soft dick? Did she have diarrhea? Sex expert Caroline Kent tells Marie Claire that first-time sex is often underwhelming due to booze, nervousness, or self-consciousness. But you need to isolate the motive for the crime or you can’t make it better. Therapist Elizabeth Perri tells the Chicago Tribune that there is a difference between having bad sex that “isn’t as mind-blowing as you’d hoped,” versus being “turned off by the experience.”

This is correct: Both being drunk and nervous, for instance, is a great reason to try again. Being utterly repulsed by each other is not.

Can You Be Honest About It?

Honestly is the best policy, or so people say when they aren’t the person having to deliver the sex-was-dogshit news themselves. Dr. Laura Berman tells the Chicago Tribune that you should “be honest with your partner” about the bad sex. She advises:

Don’t be critical or unkind, or place blame on your new partner. Say, “I’m so happy we finally made love, but I think my head wasn’t totally in the game because I was nervous.”

Hm, okay, but for the record, that’s not actually being honest, it’s more like falsely taking responsibility for the bad sex when it may or may not actually be your fault, and when you still have no idea if the other person thought it was amazing, so that you don’t hurt their feelings. Being actually honest would be saying, “I’m really bummed because I think you’re hot and great and all, but when we had sex just now, I was not feeling it because you ninja fucked me and I’m more of a slow burn.”

Do You Both Agree That the Sex Is Bad?

One upside to using Berman’s approach is it ultimately encourages the other person to give feedback about whether they also think the sex sucked. If you both agree it sucked, there may be hope for either an easy, clean break, or the mutual agreement to try again.

However, it’s entirely possible that both agreeing it sucks and talking about it will change nothing. Or that one of you thinks it was great and the other person thinks it’s terrible, which is very awkward. In response to a post on Reddit from a guy who loves his beautiful girlfriend but has no chemistry with her, a commenter told one such tale of precisely this, and it did not go well:

I dated a wonderful girl for nearly 2 1/2 years that I considered marrying…the main issue was sexual compatibility or lack thereof. I found her beautiful and was affectionate with her outside of sex…but after the first 6 months of our relationship…we probably had sex less than 20 times over the next two years.

I have had sex with close to 40 people…I was number 7 to her…and she had confided in her friend that, “I was the best sex ever.” You can imagine having a conversation with someone you love deeply and explaining you don’t feel the same way. It hurt both of us deeply.

She was non-vocal, slow and gentle sex person who didn’t get very “wet” due to the medicines she took for allergies. I’m a vocal, do everything and anything person (within reason). We talked about these differences multiple times but when one of us tried to satisfy the other in the way they wanted…the other partner knew the other wasn’t satisfied.


How Important Is “Great” Sex Is to You?

Glamour asked men and women whether bad sex is a dealbreaker or not, and all men said no, and all women said yes. Kidding, answers were all across the board and knew no gender. Some women said they’d put up with bad sex if a guy would listen to her and treat her well. Some women said even average sex is a dealbreaker, because it “has to be great.” One woman said she couldn’t keep sleeping with a dude if she couldn’t feel him inside her. Some women felt you could absolutely teach an old dog new tricks, whereas other women said, “You can’t teach someone to screw you hotter.”

Men had similar answers: Bad sex can get better, or bad sex can kill the spark. Two bad sex havers who don’t care about sex can find happily ever after, but your sex is only as good as the weakest link, and you’ll have to decide just how weak that sex link can be.

How Often Is the Sex Bad?

A post at Men’s Journal points out that temporary sexual incompatibility is common. The trick is figuring out if this is an occasional thing you can laugh about, or a result of fundamental issues you can’t resolve. Theoretically, anything could be resolved, were the two parties willing, with some nervous laughter and a powerpoint presentation. You could try to align sex drives better. You could maybe try to convince someone to become attracted to you (good luck). You could definitely work on communication and expressing what you like, or trying what your partner likes.

But it’s important to remember that even though you can do a lot of things to make sex better, there’s also an ineffable quality to chemistry you just can’t force. So even all that doesn’t mean it’s going to work.

How Long Are You Willing to Work On It?

Assuming you like this person, and you’ve figured out what didn’t work, and you’re in some kind of agreement to do sex again, you’ll have to figure out how much time you’re willing to invest on this. No one would blame you for giving it another few go’s, but if it’s still sucking after that, it’s okay.

Recently, a Dan Savage advice seeker (second question) was from a writer who said her boyfriend dumped her after her putting in a ton of effort making him sexually happy. She writes:

My now ex-boyfriend was interested in BDSM and a kink-oriented lifestyle, and I experimented with that for him. I attended several play parties, went to a five-day-long kink camp with him, and tried out many of his BDSM fantasies. The problem became that, hard as I tried, I just wasn’t very interested in that lifestyle and parts of it made me very uncomfortable. I was game to do the lighter stuff (spanking, bondage), but just couldn’t get behind the more extreme things. I disappointed him because I “went along with it” only to decide I wasn’t into it and that I unfairly represented my interest in his lifestyle. Did I do something wrong? What should I have done?

That’s a lot of trying! Savage correctly tells her that she did everything a willing partner should and cannot blame herself. “You gave it a try — you were good, giving, and game enough to explore BDSM with and for him — and sometimes that works, e.g. someone who always thought of themselves as vanilla goes to a play party or a five-day-long kink camp and suddenly realizes, hey, I’m pretty kinky, too!” Savage writes. “But it doesn’t always work.”

All this is a reason to have sex fairly early on in a relationship to figure out chemistry before you’re in way too deep. But consider another alternative: you could have a great sexual relationship but literally nothing else in common. And then you’ll be trying to figure out how long you can stand someone you have great sex with but can’t stand talking to.