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Background

I have been dating my girlfriend for about three months. We are both in our mid 20s, grew up in the mid-western United States, and now live in New York City. She has defined boundaries for physical intimacy (i.e. waiting until marriage to have sex) in our relationship based on her religious beliefs (I was raised in the same religion, but don't follow it as closely as she does). When we start to get too close to her boundaries, she will often start to pull away from me to prevent us going beyond her boundaries.

To be clear, I would never violate her boundaries, and she knows this. We have an established pattern in our relationship of her initiating all things physical (for example she initiated our first kiss because I was hesitant to do so). We have discussed this pattern and she has told me that she doesn't think I would intentionally cross the line.

The problem

She gets embarrassed and becomes very awkward around me when she pulls away. It doesn't bother me that she pulls away, but I would like to be able to understand her so that we can proceed with our relationship in a way that she can be comfortable with. The problem is that when I try to start a conversation she becomes closed off. Typically she will turn away from me and say something along the lines of

No, it's too embarrassing.

How can I open lines of communication in a way that she will feel comfortable talking to me about such a sensitive topic?


Note: I should point out that I am on the autism spectrum (my girlfriend knows this of course). This is important information to consider when suggesting solutions.

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+150

Background

Religious beliefs about this sort of thing are often deeply rooted in shame.

I was raised in such a strain of religion and have dealt with very similar issues, feeling like it was taboo to talk about such things. If you search "purity culture" you can get an idea of some things they taught girls. For instance:

  • doing anything physical is a slippery slope
  • talking about it is almost as bad, because it makes you think about it, makes you more likely to do it
  • guys have desires, and it's the girl's job to fend them off / not tempt them
  • not to mention many analogies about how doing anything with a guy meant giving part of yourself away irrevocably or otherwise permanently damaging your purity

So this made a very high barrier to admit that I, a girl, wanted to do anything, even when I did. (I mean anything: I even told my first boyfriend not to ask if he could kiss me, because I would be too embarrassed to ever answer "yes"...)
I think she may be in a similar predicament.

What can you do?

A major factor in my "recovery" was a boyfriend who was very patient about my issues, while still gently insisting that I address them. The specifics will depend on the dynamics of your relationship, but if I had to break it down:

  1. Give her plenty of time and space. When she gets embarrassed, let things calm down and don't press the matter. Remind her that you like and appreciate her as she is now. Don't talk about potentially upsetting things when she is already uncomfortable, and don't make it a big deal when she gets embarrassed.

  2. Talk about your boundaries and why they are, if you share those beliefs. Maybe she feels guilty because her standards are more lax than she perceives the religion's "best practices" to be? If you are open and unashamed of your boundaries, you can lead by example and boost her confidence.
    (Caveat: if your boundaries are significantly past hers, this could come off as trying to persuade her to cross the line.)

  3. Take the initiative to "time out" yourself. When you are together, letting her lead is a great idea, but make sure that it's not always her pulling back first. This is a way to show that you are paying attention to her boundaries and in control of yourself (myth busted!), which goes a long way towards building up trust. And in the event she asks "wait, why'd you stop?" -- you have an opening to clarify what those boundaries are.

  4. Ask for affirmative, verbal consent. That is, ask her directly "Do you want to do this?" and waiting for her to say "Yes, I would like to do this". (It sounds more natural the more you practice it, really!) To be clear, I don't mean to imply she hasn't been consenting, I just mean that it's harder to dodge the cognitive dissonance when you have to say it out loud.

    This was possibly the most significant step for me. When I really wanted my boyfriend to kiss me, but he wouldn't until I explicitly asked... eventually I had to own up to it. Little by little, this helped me internalize: yes, I do want this, it isn't a "dirty little secret", it's something I can freely and enthusiastically discuss with my partner (and when I do, I get nice things!)

  5. Some mild teasing or positive mentions when you're both in a good mood can help normalize it as well. For example,

    • "wow, I love kissing you"
    • "you like doing that?"
    • or the cheekiest (use with caution!): "hmm, I guess you like that! ;)"
       

    Yes, she will probably still be a bit embarrassed, but thanks to the other positive feelings of the moment, the effect is lessened and you can laugh it off.. while still chipping away at the mental barriers. Of course, use your best judgment, and be prepared to go back to step 1 if it backfires.

This will take time. She's not going to lose all her inhibitions in one conversation, she needs to build up trust with you. But with patience and support it can happen.

You could also see how she feels about text-based communication for discussion. It may be too much for her to see it written out plainly, but on the other hand it's sometimes easier to "say" things when you don't have to look the other person in the eyes and verbalize. It would also allow her to react and compose herself on her own time. So maybe this would be less intimidating for her.

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For sensitive topics, the process of opening up is generally pretty involved.

First of all, give her time to have you gain her trust and be comfortable with you. Obviously you aren't there yet with respect to this topic, but you will get there with time. The main point is not to push the issue - that will make it take longer to open up.

Be the first one to open up to her. Share things that you will find hard to talk about. Be vulnerable to her - that will build that shared sense of trust that is needed for difficult topics. Relationships are built on both trust and two-way communication; here is you start that ball rolling by slowly, gently, opening the door to both of these.

Next, be careful about what you tease her about. Every relationship I've ever seen involves a level of joking and teasing; the trick here is to not take advantage of her trust and tease her about something she currently finds embarrassing. For instance, if she tells you that she's afraid of frogs, do not give her grief about frogs. That only shows that you will take her discomfort and use it to your benefit and her embarrassment.

Be supportive of the things she finds uncomfortable. Let her see that she is "safe" talking about lesser things with you. As she gains comfort and trust in you, she will open up more.

Importantly, when she pulls away: don't choose that time to try to talk it out. She's already nervous. Let her pull away; be supportive and understanding. Even if you don't agree with her beliefs, those are an integral part of her and deserve respect. I would even encourage you to begin that conversation by having her open up about her beliefs. Again, don't abuse that or argue with her - take advantage to learn about this and about her.

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