After a delicious dinner, a super entertaining movie, and a good cuddle on the couch, you and your partner may be ready to start getting a little steamy.
But even in a long-term committed relationship, certain things that happen during sex could be indicative of problems. Every time you get busy isn’t going to be picture-perfect in terms of your chemistry or your sexual pleasure, but there are some habits during sex that might mean your relationship is toxic. According to experts, anything from unequal effort to pushing boundaries can be a sign that your relationship isn’t healthy.
“Respect and consent are mandatory for both emotional and physical safety in a sexual relationship,” Christine Scott-Hudson, MA, MFT, ATR, a licensed psychotherapist, marriage and family therapist, and owner of Create Your Life Studio, tells Bustle. This doesn’t mean that every sexual experience has to be perfectly calm and polite, though. “Even if getting shamed is your thing in the bedroom, in healthy relationships,” she says, “there will be a discussion of consent beforehand to make sure both (or all) partners are on board with the parameters.”
If what you and your partner are doing in bed is having a negative impact on you, whether it’s feeling like you have to fake your orgasms or something as serious as nonconsensual violence, don’t hesitate to seek support from loved ones or a professional.
1. It comes with strings attached
“Toxic relationships thrive on the make-up-break-up pattern and use sex as a manipulative tool in the getting back together phase as a way to secure us once again into the relationship,” Dr. Sherrie Campbell, an expert in clinical psychology, inspirational speaker, and author of But It’s Your Family, tells Bustle. While she says that this kind of tumultuous sex almost always feels passionate, when it’s used to draw you back into a relationship, it most likely isn’t safe and loving sex.
If you are feeling trapped in a relationship, reach out to a friend for help creating some physical distance between yourself and your partner until you figure out what next step is best for you.
2. One partner is doing more work
The saying “it takes two to tango” sounds flip, but it contains an important truth. Both partners have to be consenting participants of sexual activity. In a healthy relationship, there must be a balance between partners during sex.
Both people should be both givers and receivers, Celia Schweyer, dating expert at Dating Scout, tells Bustle. “Sex, like all things, must have balance,” she says. “It is nice to pleasure your partner but if you always give without being pleasured in return, this could cause an imbalance in your relationship.” If you feel like your needs aren’t being met, have a serious conversation with your partner about what would work better for you.
3. It is never romantic
Regardless of what romance movies might make it look like, sex is not always romantic. Sometimes it’s rushed, or passionate, or even sleepy. But if your sex with your partner is never sweet, that could be a sign that the relationship isn’t healthy, Schweyer says.
“There is a difference between having sex out of love versus having sex for just pleasure,” she says. “There are small gestures of genuine intimacy that are usually only present when you’re having sex with someone you love.” Signs like loving eye contact, words of affection, and loving kisses can all point to a healthy relationship, so if you’re never getting that from your partner, you might want to check in and reevaluate how you’re both feeling about the partnership.
4. It feels degrading
“The only time it’s reasonable for a partner to call you degrading names is when you permit them to do so,” says Schweyer.
But unless the two of you have explicitly and freely agreed that this is acceptable behaviour during sex, it is a form of verbal abuse and a clear sign of disrespect, she says. If you haven’t brought up the way this habit makes you feel already, do so. But if they don’t respect your wishes again, you might want to reconsider whether you want to be together.
5. Someone is faking pleasure
For a partner with a vagina, it’s a little easier to pretend to have an orgasm than it is for a partner with a penis, but anyone can fake how they feel about having sex. “Either way, when a partner starts to fake either their orgasm or the way they feel about the sex, something is definitely wrong,” says Schweyer.
“This is a clear indication of a toxic relationship as you or both of you do not anymore look forward to making love,” she says. Ask yourself why you feel compelled to fake sexual pleasure with your partner, and bring up that issue to them. If you’re too uncomfortable to talk about sex with your partner, that might be a sign that you should end things, and you might consider speaking with a therapist for some professional help.
6. Your partner pushes your boundaries
It’s totally normal to learn new things in bed from your partner (and teach them a thing or two), because each of you has different sexual histories. But there’s a difference between teaching you something and fully disrespecting your sexual boundaries. This kind of pressuring during sex is a clear indication of toxicity, Brianna Marshall, M.S., a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Bustle. Any time guilting, pressuring, or manipulating you to perform a sexual act is abusive. If you are scared to leave your partner, the National Domestic Abuse Hotline can provide support through the process.
7. It doesn’t make you feel good emotionally
Crying is a normal part of being a person, but if you cry during sex or after sex, this could be a sign that your relationship is toxic, says Marshall. It is one thing to just feel overwhelmed (or cry because the pleasure was so intense), but if your tears are accompanied by any negative feelings — especially feeling “used” after sex — this could be an indication that your relationship with your partner isn’t very healthy. For more guidance about whether you should be feeling what you’re feeling during and after sex, it might help to speak with a therapist.
8. There’s violence without consent
Physical violence during sex can be part of a good relationship if and only if that is mutually agreed upon. “In toxic relationships sometimes the lines are blurred between violence and sex,” says Dr. Campbell. “Partners are left feeling borderline violated or extremely violated sexually because that’s what your toxic partner demands to feel satisfied.” The key word here is “demands.” If you and your partner both enjoy certain aggressive acts in bed, then do your thing. But if they are hurting you without your explicit permission, reach out to a loved one you trust, who can help you leave the situation. If you ever feel that you are in serious danger, do not hesitate to call 911.
9. You Are Being Criticized
Not everyone likes the same things in bed, and that’s totally OK. But if our partner ever criticizes, mocks, or exposes your healthy sexual desires or preferences, this is toxic behaviour, Dr Dana Dorfman, PhD, psychotherapist and co-host of the podcast 2 Moms on the Couch, tells Bustle. “By virtue of being separate people, partners’ desires and preferences differ and are not always aligned,” she says. “Healthy sexual relationships require emotionally healthy foundations like trust, vulnerability, and safety.” If you are consistently teased about what you want sexually, the relationship is not emotionally healthy. If you still feel safe with your partner, you might consider going to couples therapy, but don’t feel compelled to try to make things work if the relationship is harming you in any way.
If one or more of these signs have struck a chord with you, reach out to people you trust or any of the resources above for help and advice. Your safety and emotional wellbeing are more important than any romantic relationship.