Six months after escaping a toxic and tempestuous three-year relationship, 28-year-old Clara’s life had finally started to settle down. She’d left her emotionally abusive ex, secured a prestigious job and moved into a brand new apartment in a leafy suburb of London. She had also, completely unexpectedly, fallen in love.
He was tall, with twinkling golden eyes and broad shoulders. He was well-dressed, spiritually-attuned and financially stable. Sure, his hands were “a little small,” but that didn’t distract from their paranormal connection: He made her belly-laugh, and the pair could spend hours getting lost in conversation.
Everything was perfect. Until, suddenly, it wasn’t.
“The sex, at first, was totally catastrophic,” Clara, a pseudonym, tells me over a WhatsApp video call, her eyes glazing over. “I was lost for words the first time we did it, in the worst possible way.”
As soon as they hit the bedroom, the dream was destroyed. He prodded her body clumsily, jerked around erratically while inside her and made strange “chimp-like” expressions as he came to climax. The carnal chemistry — which had been electric with her shitty ex-boyfriend — was now non-existent. “I just felt like raising my hands up to the sky and screaming, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?!?!’” she says. “Everything else with us had been so amazing. I really, truly, didn’t know how to handle it.”
So, what do you do when your partner isn’t the best sex you’ve ever had?
Apparently it’s a question many of us are asking: Type it into Google, and you’ll be hit with over three billion results. A lot of these come from open forum sites like Quora or Reddit, with people — of all genders — loudly asking for advice about their lackluster love lives.
There are plenty of articles on the topic, too, which all offer consolatory platitudes about how best to handle terminal sexual chemistry. The common belief, particularly in women’s media, seems to be that you don’t actually have good long-term relationships with the best sex of your life. After all, as per the New York Post, “guys who rock your room don’t make great grooms.” Likewise, in the movie Trainwreck, the best-sex-of-your-life-guy is the “creepy” guy. (For what it’s worth, this topic doesn’t seem to be presented much in men’s media, despite the pretty even gender split on Reddit.)
In many scenarios, the blame tends to fall on an ex — a mythical past figure who probably gave you the most intense orgasms of your life, but who was entirely unsuitable in almost every other way. According to author and relationship expert Susan Winter, it’s only natural to start thinking of them as a benchmark. “We’re always going to have that one ‘perfect tango partner,’” she explains. However, they were unlikely to actually be perfect: “Interestingly, that former lover was most likely hot and cold, self-serving and avoidant. It comes with the turf. A flame that burns that hot doesn’t last.”
This was certainly the case for Clara, who left her previous partner after three years of gaslighting, screaming fights and “mind-blowing” sex. “I was just obsessed with him because I never really knew where I stood,” she says. “His emotional distance in the relationship is kind of what made the sex so good; it was like the only time he was ever really present with me. And it felt amazing.”
Maria, 31, from L.A., also struggles with ex nostalgia. “My ex-girlfriend was experienced, understood my body language and was open to different stuff sexually,” she writes over Reddit DM. “She wasn’t shy or uptight, and we were comfortable with each other.”
But earlier this year, Maria began seeing someone new, and although they get on well, the connection just isn’t the same. The problem, she says, lies mostly in her new girlfriend’s insecurity — she’s worried that Maria, a bisexual, will leave her for a man — which is making her more self-aware in bed. “The first time we had sex felt like a really bad cup of coffee,” she says. “Like, you have certain expectations, but it disappoints you.”
It’s not just the unsatisfied partner that suffers, either. There are plenty of dejected discussions on Reddit of people who have been told they’re disappointing in bed or “not the best their partner has ever had.” Sometimes, this news is broken bluntly and without fear (one redditor mentions feeling humiliated after his girlfriend complained about his size, before declaring that the sex in her “previous relationship had been way better”).
Other times, it slips out indirectly. Another redditor found out that his partner had been posting publicly on a “woman’s homemaking forum” about an “Italian guy” with “the thickest penis she [had] ever been with” (it gave her “jello legs”). A third overheard his fiancée gush longingly about her ex-boyfriend, calling him a comparatively better lover. “It fucked me up bad,” he wrote, in a post that ended up attracting more than 8,000 conciliatory responses (the majority of which called for him to end the relationship immediately). “I couldn’t sleep that night, and I went through a myriad of emotions while laying there. At first, I was angry. Then I was humiliated. Then I was depressed.”
But again, how exactly do you deal with this situation?
Given how common it seems to be, there isn’t really a clear answer. Some people, like Clara, just think the best thing to do is ignore it. “I’ve given up on trying to make [my boyfriend] better, and I’ve accepted that we’re just not sexually compatible,” she says. That said, she adds that the couple — who are still together — did slowly get more used to each other. “The sex isn’t as bad as it was, by a long shot,” she continues. “It’s still not anywhere near as good as it was with my ex, but it’s passable. I sometimes encourage him when he’s doing something right, and that works.”
Winter doesn’t condone this approach, and instead believes that the subject needs to be brought up tactfully. If your partner isn’t satisfying you sexually, tell them (just maybe skip your latent lust for your ex). Even if bad sex isn’t a dealbreaker for you, honesty will only serve to bring you closer — and the more upfront you are, the more likely the problem is to be fixed.
It’s working for Maria, who is also still with her girlfriend, “I told her that I faked an orgasm with her when we first started going out,” she says. “We just had a laugh about it and she told me to never do it again, and that was it.”
The candor is paying off: “The sex is getting better now. I started directing her in bed, and when she did something I liked, I’d moan and give her signals that she’s doing a good job.”
Of course, if you’re the one on the receiving end of this criticism, that kind of honesty can be hard to take. I mean, what the hell are you supposed to do if your partner thinks you’re a bore in bed? Can you handle knowing that you may never compare to a mysterious, faceless former lover? Or is communication just an overrated conspiracy, and should we all remain oblivious of our coital flaws?
It’s treacherous terrain. No one wants to feel inadequate, and even if you’re the most grounded person in the world, that pain is still going to sting. And while the majority of redditors seem to agree that being told you’re second best is ultimately unforgivable (“throw out the whole girl,” “would rather die,” etc.), Winter believes it’s ultimately for the best.
For her, the answer lies in trying to find validation outside of the bedroom, and to stop mythologizing any former lovers. Even if they did have better sexual chemistry with you than your current partner, they’re still an ex, and probably for a good reason. “The passion that your mate thought was so exciting may have been volatile and chaotic,” she hypothesizes. “The unbridled wildness of your partner’s ex may have been out-of-control, and ultimately, destructive to the relationship.”
Besides, she adds, it’s important to remember that no one’s perfect. “There’s always a give-and-take, and what you do offer to the relationship may be essential for your mate’s happiness. You may provide stability and emotional security. You may provide consistency and fidelity. The weighted average of your qualities should offset any lingering insecurities.”
It’s a theory that might not work for everyone, but Clara seems content with it. “I care about sex, but I’m also fully aware of how crazy I was with my ex,” she says, with an air of resignation. “Do I really want to be out-of-control like that again? No, thank you. So this works for me. He’s clumsy, sure, but he’s also my best friend, so I’m happy to make the compromise.”