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Should You Bail on a ‘Great’ Relationship if the Sex Is Blah?

More and more advice columnists seem to be saying yes. What ever happened to spicing things up?

Another day, another sexually frustrated reader writes into an advice columnist for help on a troubling, but seemingly pervasive problem: He’s in a great relationship, but the sex is meh — does he stay and suffer, or ditch for greener sexual pastures? More and more advice seems to be pointing toward get out now, before it’s too late.

The latest installment: A reader named Needs Advice, Wants Threesomes asks (third question) Dan Savage what he should do about his perfect relationship with not-so-perfect mediocre vanilla sex:

My girlfriend and I have been together for about 18 months. We’re both 29 and are in the process of creating a future together: We live together, we have a great social life, we adopted a dog. We’re compatible, and I do love her. However, our sex life could be a whole lot better. I like sex to be kinky, and she likes it vanilla. She is adamant about monogamy, while I want to be monogamish. I feel strongly that this is who I am sexually and my sexual desires are not something I can change. My girlfriend thinks I’m searching for something I’ll never find and says I need to work through it. Because we are so compatible in every other aspect of our relationship, should I keep trying to work past the unsatisfying sex?

Savage declares the patient sexually incompatible and tells him that “divorce courts are bursting with couples who made the same mistake,” stresses how important getting the sex right is with a likeminded person, and basically tells him to get out before they breed.

And a recent “Dear Prudence” question hit pretty much all the same notes, as did the advice. A divorced woman in her 40s writes in as “Safe or Sexy” to say that she has two choices: a boring lover with whom she otherwise has great rapport, or an exciting man who matches her kink for kink but is married to someone else. I Prudie tells her to split, pronto: “Dump them both and find someone who’s available and sexually compatible with you,” Mallory Ortberg writes. “This is not an either/or situation; there are plenty of unmarried men in the world who would be willing to have kinky sex with you and are capable of holding up their end of a conversation.”

Sometimes these letters are about differences in avowed or desired commitment in addition to sexual compatibility—a real concern. But whatever happened to working it out in the bedroom? We live in an era of sex positivity and pornified everything—it’s a sign of progress that we’re not too prudish to demand good sex as part of a good relationships.

Savage, for one, is a huge advocate of advising lovers to be GGG, or good, giving and game — meaning, to be open to doing whatever they can within their own limits to meet the sexual needs of their lovers. It sucks that these advice-seekers don’t seem to be with people who practice that attitude. But it also seems too easy, even lazy, to recommend ditching immediately if the sex isn’t great before we’ve even heard whether these people have really tried to improve their sex lives, or in what way, or for how long.

Of course chemistry is essential to a lasting partnership, but let’s also not treat that so simplistically as to miss the point of what it takes to make it go. Sexual compatibility is important, but only as much as you think it is. Some people need frequent daily sex, some people need it to be as automatic as rolling over; others want epic tantric performances that go the distance. Some people, for instance, don’t need sex at all. As the joke goes: They become lawyers.

But this advice to fuck great or keep searching perpetuates the idea that we should be looking for our sexual soulmates, when research shows that’s a recipe for disaster. Mismatched sexual desires are major relationship-killers, but people who treat working on sex as important report happier relationships.

Variety matters: Comedians can’t tell the same jokes forever; you should at least work on a new sex routine every so often — especially when everything else is so great. If you’ve tried whatever you think is truly adequate and you still can’t achieve liftoff, yes, it’s probably okay to stop resuscitating this otherwise fantastic-looking corpse.

This is not to diminish how magical it is to find someone with whom the sex is as great and reliable as a robust spring breeze: That is a form of winning the lottery. It’s just that relationships are about a multitude of factors that go well beyond getting each other off. Great sex is great, but it won’t keep the relationship growing or going through illness, boredom, diarrhea (unless you’re into that) or, say, losing your job. You still need the other stuff just as much. In a long-term relationship, the sex pretty much always gets at least somewhat less exciting over time. This is how our brains are wired, and it’s also what date nights, candles and vibrating eggs are for.

Savage acknowledges that no one gets everything they want in a partner, and obviously someone who is willing to toss something otherwise great just because the sex isn’t off the charts should probably move on. The risk is that next thing you know, you’re with someone you have great sex with, but realize you can’t trust enough to ever co-adopt a dog. How hot is that?