Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones But Words Can Hurt Much Worse

by Leah McClellan

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candle flamesI spend a lot of time observing my thoughts. Whether I’m meditating, driving, waiting for sleep to come, walking, or doing routine tasks around the house, I watch them. I don’t necessarily engage with them; I simply pay attention to what comes up. It’s a meditation or mindfulness thing I do in many situations, not just formal sitting.

My thoughts are a combination of images, scenarios, conversations, and music—lots of music. Replays from the events of the day, items on my to-do list, what my flower gardens will look like in the spring when my tulips and daffodils bloom.

Sometimes my thoughts are reruns of things that happened recently or a long time ago. They might be issues that were never resolved, things that were confusing, things I might have done better, things that hurt.

I let them flit by. Sometimes I’ll engage and really think on what my part was in some situation and what I might have done differently. Or I’ll think on what I might do to resolve something current, if needed. But most of the time, I let past things float on by because there’s no point in focusing on them. The past is done, it’s over, I have no use for it. But the thoughts pop up from time to time.

Sometimes my thoughts are memories of things that people said that hurt.

This afternoon, while cleaning up my kitchen, a bunch of them came flitting by—I don’t know why. Maybe I was crabby because of the cold, wet weather. Nervous about changing my web hosting company. Irritated with small things, thinking over a conflict I had with one of my sisters awhile back, and I was hungry. I was really hungry but I wanted to clean up first before sitting down to dinner.

Maybe the current annoyances triggered and caused some bits of what Eckhart Tolle, in The Power of Now, calls the “pain body” to rise up and, with it, hurtful things that people close to me, people I have loved, have said to me over the years.

This accumulated pain is a negative energy field that occupies your body and mind. If you look on it as an invisible entity in its own right, you are getting quite close to the truth. It’s the emotional pain body….Anything can trigger it, particularly if it resonates with a pain pattern from your past. When it is ready to awaken from its dormant stage, even a thought or an innocent remark made by someone close to you can activate it.

I decided to intentionally search my mental data base, so to speak, to see what other little bits of hurtful words are lurking around in there, on the surface.

I found plenty. Some don’t bother me anymore, but others do. Even if I’ve forgiven and let go, they’re still there. Forgiving and understanding whys and wherefores doesn’t necessarily mean hurt goes away, particularly when you forgive in someone’s absence.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.

Yeah. Right. Parents teach their kids this little saying, and we say it to ourselves. Or we say it to someone who is trying to hurt us with words. Neener, neener, sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.


I don’t think I’ve ever used that saying because I don’t believe it’s true. Some people might believe that words can’t hurt us, but I doubt it. Others, like parents, may offer the saying to kids because they don’t know how to comfort a child who’s been wounded by words. Maybe they themselves have been similarly wounded and they don’t want to and don’t know how to deal with it. They want the kid to toughen up and quit crying because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do as parents. They don’t know what else to say. Their parents told them that, and they survived, right?

Still others may mean that we just have to be emotionally and spiritually strong and not let nasty words hurt us. I agree with that, to an extent. I don’t care what strangers say to me or about me, most of the time. If it does bother me, it doesn’t last long, and it’s soon forgotten.

But what about hurtful words from people we care about, love, and trust? Those can hurt.

Cruel, mean words can be every bit as damaging—and worse—as sticks and stones. Broken bones heal in a predictable way. Broken spirits don’t.

Emotional pain is like physical pain—emotions rise up in response to thoughts. One memory of hurtful words, as I watched those thoughts flit by, knotted up my stomach in a very brief flash. My heart rate increased slightly, I could sense anxiety rising up in my throat, and my palms became slightly clammy. Even though it happened a very long time ago, it still hurts. My body still registers the emotional pain from many years ago, even though it’s slight and I’ve let go of those things many times, in many ways.

I remembered things my parents said—my mother or stepfather—a very long time ago:

You’ll never amount to anything.

You’re no good.

You break everything you touch.

You little slut.

You eat like a pig. So go eat with the pigs.

I didn’t have that when I was a kid—why should you?

You have an answer for everything, don’t you?

There’s something wrong with you.

You’re too sensitive.

Repeat these over and over in various formats, add alcohol, toss with lies and broken promises, sprinkle liberally with F-words, and serve up with all the things I won’t say here and you get the picture.

I was abused: physically, emotionally, verbally, mentally. I was abused in many ways. But you know what?

I don’t remember what it felt like to be beaten with my stepfather’s belt, starting when I was three or four years old, for giggling when my sister and I were supposed to be asleep and other misdemeanors (though I have clear memories of how we outsmarted him by covering ourselves with pillows and curling up tight, covering our heads and holding on to the pillows as we heard him coming down the hall). I don’t remember what it felt like that time or the other time my mom beat the crap out of me or the many times she slapped me in the face or smashed a curtain rod or spatula over my head or slapped and punched and kicked me once I was down and had crawled into a corner, screaming, hands over my head in the automatic protection of head and face that I knew so very well.

I remember the scenes and what my dad or mom looked like and what I did or what started it, in general, but I don’t have distinct memories of specific physical pain.

I do remember the words my parents said to me, though. The really awful words, the words lashed out in anger and rage and the confusing words that, out of context, might not sound so bad. I left my parents when I was really young—only 14—because I didn’t want to hear anymore. I didn’t want to be hit anymore. I came back, with promises that things would be better, but they weren’t, and I left for good when I was 15. More than anything, I didn’t want to be like them. It was wrong, and I always knew it, but I had to wait until I was old enough to get away.

I remember other words, too, words that people I loved and cared about said to me: my ex-husband, an older sister, a younger sister, someone I thought was a friend.

Words hurt, and I’m not happy with how they float around in my mind when I’d rather focus on more positive things. I’ve forgiven these people, but that doesn’t mean the words go away on their own, and sometimes angry, negative energy lingers with us for a long time. I don’t want that either.

Do you have memories of hurtful things people have said to you?

Since I’m a Reiki practitioner, I’m going to do a specific exercise for releasing the negative energy associated with the words that are still floating around in my memory. I’ve done healing exercises or rituals before, but sometimes they need to be repeated.

There’s another, very simple little healing exercise I’ll do, and you can too, if you have any lingering memories of words people have said to you that hurt.

There are many variations of this, but here are the basics. You’ll need paper, pen or pencil, a fireproof pan or a glass dish (a fireplace, outdoor grill, or firepit is ideal), matches or lighter, and water nearby for safety if done indoors without a fireplace.

1. Set aside some time for a little ceremony. You might want to light candles and incense, play relaxing music, take a soothing bath, or meditate beforehand.
2. Choose a place. It could be your kitchen counter, your backyard patio, or a sacred space you may have in your home.
3. Write down troubling things that people have said (or done) to you on small pieces of paper (you could make a list and cut them out).
4. Say them out loud, then toss them into the fire or light them with a match, one by one, and let them burn in a safe place, perhaps in a steel pan on your stovetop with the exhaust fan running or an open window nearby (you don’t want the smoke to stay indoors). Be sure to have water on hand for safety.
5. As each memory burns and the smoke rises, release the memories to God, Goddess, the Holy Spirit, or the Universe according to your religion, faith, or belief system. Let them go and say good-bye.
6. Thank God or the Universe or say a prayer according to your beliefs. Know that love takes care of everything and heals all wounds.

Please keep in mind that this is only a suggestion based on my own personal experience.

This ritual or any of its variations can be very helpful when painful memories or negative energy seem to hang around when you know you’ve forgiven and you think you’ve let go. If you have memories or wounds that are very recent and/or very traumatic, and you haven’t done any previous healing work, consider seeing a professional counselor or therapist. If you’re not sure, having a close, trusted friend with you when you do this exercise is a good idea.

Broken bones heal easily, for most of us. I know—I’ve had my share.

Set the bone properly, immobilize it, and presto, bingo! It heals like magic. Wounds to the soul, the spirit, the emotions…not so easy. Those are much more complicated, and there aren’t any clear steps to take for healing because there are so many different ways words can hurt.

You may wonder: why worry about a few old memories floating around? Why not just think about something else?

My response: you can cover them up all you want, but they don’t go away if we don’t work consciously to heal them. And if we want to be more peaceful in all our interactions, we need to be mindful of little bits of negative energy that are within us and can affect us in many different ways.

Most importantly, when I (or you) have more peace inside of myself, I can love more.

Here are some interesting articles and additional information you might want to read.

Sticks and stones may break my bones – and words hurt, too!
- Another viewpoint

Verbal Abuse on Wikipedia

The Verbal Abuse Site – Author and verbal abuse expert Patricia Evans

Verbal beatings hurt as much as sexual abuse – Harvard University

Full Moon Release Ritual – Holistic Healing at

This is a part of the series “How Can We Love More in 2011?” It’s my belief that we can’t love completely when we have hurt and anger in us.

What about you? Do you think words can hurt? Comments, sharing, and stories are always welcome. I realize this could be a very painful topic for some and you might not be comfortable sharing, but if you think the message is a good one, please tweet and share on Facebook. Thanks :)




Words definitely hurt, especially the ones heard in childhood. Those are the words that can mis-shape our self-worth, and leave us vulnerable to the impact of words from people in our adult years. There are families that say the most outrageous crap to each other, yet if there are feelings of love and security and acceptance as well, the hurt doesn’t go deep and one’s skin thickens a little, which is a healthy thing. But too often the lousy words are not balanced with love, and we issue the same strength to all words, without taking them in context. This in turn puts too much pressure on the people close to us, who might say something in the heat of frustration and then destroy the relationship because we don’t have the emotional means of letting them take those words back. I hope you find a way to heal, to become your own loving parent, and not let words hurt you so much anymore.
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Leah McClellan

Hi Meg,
Thanks for stopping by and for your input! I don’t know about the value of a “thick skin,” since, in my experience, everyone I know who says they have a thick skin has a lot of wounds underneath just like everyone else. And behind the “heat of frustration” that you mention are hurts and unhealed wounds that get unleashed onto others. Peaceful people don’t unleash frustration onto others and destroy relationships; they develop other skills drawn from compassion. My goal is to be aware of even little things, old things, old wounds and hurts, and the negative energy that goes along with them that can affect my current sense of peace–to recognize them, and to send them on their way with love.

Unfortunately, lots of people say things with the intent to hurt, out of hatred and their own pain, and they don’t want to take the words back, even if they could. To my way of thinking, everything is forgivable, and anything can heal–and does–but I’d rather help people heal, be at peace, and be filled with kindness that comes from inner peace and love and compassion rather than grow a thick skin.

It’s sort of a minimalist thing–clearing the clutter in the house of the soul :)

Angela Artemis

I really enjoyed this. I’ve been living in through a “blast from the past” recently and re-experiencing old wounds. It’s so important as you point out to deal with them and not let them fester in the darkness of your soul. They will never stop haunting your subconscious and will indirectly control your behavior, especially your reactions, unless you deal with them.

Thanks so much for putting into words what I’ve been going through and for the great tips.
Angela Artemis´s last blog post ..Lessons from a Psychic Detective

Leah McClellan

Hi Angela, Glad this came to you at the right time! We all have old wounds of all sorts, and the good thing is to be aware of them. I like how you put it: “not fester in the darkness.” And yes, they will control our behavior if we let them, so it’s like a gift to become aware of them and deal with them lovingly. :)


Wow, Leah you articulate this emotional landscape so poignantly and vividly. Much better than I could have in the face of such terrible abuse – it pains me to think that parents can be so hurtful to their child’s body and soul. Words do hurt and they do stick with us for years. I wrote about this same kind of hurt this week. Maybe winter conjures up those dark places in all of us – Angela felt it too. I think it’s really amazing that you are listening to yourself, observing your triggers and thought patterns and working actively to heal your wounds. That’s a very loving thing to do.
Much love to you dear friend, Katie
Katie´s last blog post ..Let Love

Leah McClellan

Thanks Katie, I wouldn’t have been able to write about this years ago, except woven in through poetry, but after awhile I’ve got a lot of distance from it, which was my intention when I left. I did a lot of healing work, years ago, and worked through many things. But there was a lot to deal with, and unfortunately I get reminders sometimes from my siblings who choose to continue in the system and don’t understand why I don’t, and I think that was got me thinking about this. It’s a blessing, though, because I’m fortunate that I can sort of zoom in on lingering stuff and do something about it, heal it, work with it, love it. I read your post–beautiful stuff. Have to go re-read :)

Tess The Bold Life

Good for you for leaving, twice! How brave of you to write about this and how caring of you to help others deal with their pain. I think words create horrible pain. I also would like to add neglect to the trauma list. Not being touched or held at all is devastating. Being one of ten children I remember a piggy back ride on my dad’s shoulders…once, I remember my mom braiding my hair (it’s why I wanted it long) and then standing in between them in the front seat of the car when I was three.

My mom made up for this and kissed and hugged us as young adults on up…my dad, not so much.

I sure made errors with my own children and one of the four is still angry with me. I did my best…can’t go back. I get relief by believing what Louise Hay says, “We choose our parents.” That’s what let me to forgive myself.

About Tolle and the pain body. I forgot I read this in his book and a couple of years ago when my daughter and I were in therapy trying to work things out I got in a car accident. I then remember Tolle said something about car accidents happen when we’re in our pain bodies. That was an eye opener for me.

Forgineness has gone a long way in my healing forgiving family members and myself. There are still siblings I love from a distance.
Tess The Bold Life´s last blog post ..Running- Why My World Revolves Around It

Leah McClellan

Thanks Tess, I agree about the neglect–there are so many things that can be awful for a child. 10 kids–wow. For awhile there were 3 in mine, then bam bam bam came 5 more. There was a lot of neglect in some ways (child-parent reversal situation since I was 2nd oldest) , but also a lot of hugs and love sometimes–when my parents weren’t drunk or fighting or whatever. When their pain bodies weren’t in full force. It’s interesting to look at the cycle of abuse and alcoholism (the black clouds always on the horizon–when will it happen again?) in a family system from the Eckhart Tolle viewpoint!

Every parent makes errors. There’s no perfection in anything. And kids react as they do. Awesome that you’ve made such an effort to work things out! I’ve often wished mine would be like that, but they are what they are–pretty much the same as always minus the alcohol.

Funny you mentioned car accidents–I had a bad argument with my ex one time, and I was soooo upset I felt sure I’d have an accident if I wasn’t careful. I was, but someone back-ended me while in bumper-to-bumper slow traffic! He made a fatal error when we pulled over–told me to “calm down.” I snapped on him lol Maybe his pain body attracted mine lol

Forgiveness is what it’s all about. For me, I’ve forgiven whether anyone ever wanted it or not, and I love from a distance. :)

Jen Gresham

Good for you, Leah, for getting this out there and adding your voice. People need to know that words can often be more painful than the traditional abuse (physical, sexual, etc). I have encountered many who don’t really believe you were abused unless it fit one of the traditional categories. After all, we all had disagreements with our parents, didn’t we? But there is a big difference between a disagreement and abuse. It’s just a hard concept to understand if you’ve never experienced it.

Thanks for putting the detail to those wounds, so others may find solace in feeling the same way, or gain a greater appreciation of the damage done through emotional abuse. I know this was a hard post to write. I applaud you for it.


Leah McClellan

Thanks Jen, Yes, a lot of people don’t know about verbal and emotional or mental abuse. Just in the grocery store, I hear parents saying such awful things to their kids–”put that down you little brat or you’ll get your ass kicked when we get home!” Or worse. The kid starts screaming…hmmm wonder why (no, not really!). I used to know a woman who said such terrible things to her young son, around 10 at the time. I felt so bad for him–I could see him wince and grind his teeth together or his fists clenched up, and she just laughed it off. Nothing I could do but I couldn’t watch that.

Big difference between disagreements and abuse–definitely. Yes, hard to write this but of course it’s missing lots of details! But I think people who have been in this place know a lot was left out.

Thanks so much for stopping by :)

Sue T

Leah, I appreciate your posting this, especially the ritual/ceremony, which I believe would be marvelous and powerful.

I’ve been wondering lately about the following prayer, by Suzette Haden Elgin, the linguist author of “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense” and other books on communication. It’s a very simple prayer asking mercy and transformation for torturers and abusers and others “deformed of spirit” … :

It seems like a fine idea for the world in general, until I think about praying for an individual who abused someone I care about, or even just someone I know. That may be quite a different order of magnitude of difficulty. Do you think something like this could be any benefit in a personal healing ritual?

Leah McClellan

Hi Sue, I thought I recognized that prayer! It’s OK to talk about it again–it’s a lovely poem (looking at your other comment).

I’m not sure if it would be useful in a personal healing ritual or not–it all depends on the individual. My main thought is that in a personal healing ritual or ceremony we might want to just focus on ourselves. If we want to ask for healing for someone who hurt us, as part of forgiving someone, that might be fine too. But my sense of things says to keep things separate.

For myself, I’d want to reserve a special time for other people, such as this person who abused someone you care about. I’m just thinking of personal experience. I think it’s a good thing to honor ourselves and take care of ourselves–when it’s a big thing like this–and just focus on ourselves. We deserve time and love for just us sometimes. We can spend some time for someone else another time.

If at a loss for how to pray for someone, I think it’s always a good bet to simply ask the universe (or God etc) to bring healing to that person at the time and in the way they can best receive it for their highest purpose.

I hope that helps! I am sure you’ll have a wonderful healing ceremony(s) no matter which way you do it :)

Sue T

Thank you, Leah,
This helps tremendously. I wasn’t really finding a way to express my reluctance to incorporate healing for self at the same time as healing for an abuser. You explained it beautifully.

Leah McClellan

You’re welcome, Sue. Very glad I was able to help :)

Sue T

P.S. I see it was your most recent previous post I already mentioned this prayer on, sorry for repeating myself!


Sometimes, the words that we tell ourselves can be much worse than the words of others. It’s a shame, but the only person that can truly defeat us is ourselves, and we let defeat happen time and time again.

It’s great, Leah, that you’ve chosen to move forward and not become stuck in the past. I admire you for this. I also admire what you do here, and I think you’re doing an extraordinary job :-)
Stuart´s last blog post ..The Art Of Abraham Lincoln

Leah McClellan

Hi Stuart, I agree–the only person who can defeat us is ourselves. What other people say or do to us is one thing, how we react–and what messages we tell ourselves–is another. Have to think a little differently for kids, though. I’m not even thinking of myself so much, but kids live what they learn. My experience is nothing compared to what some kids go through, and plenty never realize they have any options as they reach adulthood. I was lucky–I had a few role models outside the family and some options that I could see and reach for. Others don’t. There’s a lot of stuff we have to un-learn when we’ve been inculcated with whatever we learned in our families.

Thanks so much for your kind words–it’s been a long journey and always working on not being stuck in the past. Gotta fine tune once in awhile, and share with others so they can do the same :)


Hi Leah, I’ve just seen this post and I really admire your emotional strength in dealing with such a tough and painful subject. Of course I understand that you could never fully describe the searing, soul agony of being an emotionally and physically abused child in a few paragraphs but you have surely captured its shadow and word-etched it for us here. I am familiar with Eckhart Tolle’s ‘pain body’ which rises up inside us, like a wounded beast, thrashing about in a turmoil of hurt. And I think your ritual sounds like such a beautiful way to deal with those reminders. Thank you for sharing and helping us to bring more peace into our hearts. Much love and light to you, Rosemary

Leah McClellan

Hi Rosemary, Thanks so much for understanding. Yes, there was a lot of agony and pain–when stuff happened but mostly later, with the loss of my family and all the times I wished I had one, but being alone–and finding family substitutes in friends etc–was better than what I had. I tried for so long to make things work, even while living on my own (actually the family fell apart not long after I left, but that’s another story for another day), but the longer I was away and the healthier I became, the less I could tolerate the family system. Eckhart Tolle really does a great job in helping us understand, doesn’t he? When I first discovered him it was like BINGO that’s it! On so many levels. It makes it so much easier to see beyond the anger and nasty words and see the pain, and love and forgive anyway–even if it has to be from a distance.

Sibyl - alternaview

Leah: I thought this was really a powerful post. I do agree with what you said about not just trying to cover up the emotions, but rather confronting with them. head on and dealing with them. I think once you are able to really sort through them, you can control and minimize the negative impact that they have on you. Really amazing post. Thanks for sharing your story.
Sibyl – alternaview´s last blog post ..How to Figure Out Where You Are Going Next

Leah McClellan

Hi Sybil, Thanks so much. One of these times I’ll do a post about “mole theory,” which is what I call the process of trying to cover things up: the more you try to plug up/cover up their holes, those little buggers pop up somewhere else in your yard! If we don’t deal with the moles head on, they’ll just destroy the lawn, so to speak.
Thanks :)


Leah, you offer a truly helpful way to process and heal from verbal abuse. I really don’t like the saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” – verbal abuse goes deep into the mind and physiology – it goes into our subconscious wrecks havoc. Often times affirmations can help and questioning those words and accusations can help – but your 6 part actin plan is more solid.

I love how brave you are – to be able to speak about your experience and share the healing process that helped.
Aileen´s last blog post ..How Inspiration Created A Golden Opportunity

Leah McClellan

Hi Aileen, So glad you like the action plan. I agree–affirmations are great, and thinking about things and questioning them are too, but when people close to us say things that really, really hurt (trust violations, boundary violations and so on), it’s not a matter of whether we believe what they say or not, or whether we have a different sense of self-worth and so on, it just hurts, as much as if we were struck (I don’t know how to describe it). It’s as you say: it gets into our subconscious and wreaks havoc, not only emotionally but physically, and we might not even be aware of it.

Thanks about the bravery–I just decided there’s so much I want to write about here that’s related in some way, and I figured I’d better set the groundwork (um, what WAS I doing out hitchhiking and getting hit by a car when I was 19 lol Lots of stories that need some sort of grounding–like this is who I am and this is my life, this is what I’m learning)



I only saw this now Leah…I’m sorry you had to deal with such abuse, and I truly admire you for sharing and suggesting a positive approach…
I think that everyone, at some stage, experiences the pain that words can impart…and your ritual sounds like a wonderful way to heal that pain and move forward.
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Leah McClellan

Thanks Cristina, Comments are welcome anytime! I know so many people went through what I did (and it wasn’t all bad)–and many have dealt with much, much worse. My hope is that people read stories like this and get the sense that it doesn’t have to be this way, whether they are victims or perpetrators, and that healing is possible.

I also believe that everyone has dealt with painful words, at one time or another, and we can take steps for healing even when there are just traces left.

jamie bell

how come whenever he wants sex i never say no cause i love him so no matter how i feel i always want him and every time i put the moves first he either pushes me away saying im tired tomorrow and never does tomorrow or goes with it like last night and many other times than stops halfway through starts yellina t me look at the time i have a business to run in th emorning now i will have hardly no sleep you are the most selfish person in the world youd ont care about the company at tall you only care about yopurself and noone else you should stay home from work tomorrow since you dont care. these words hurt alot we work togehther at the company he owns and i work my ass off and he never sees that he always saying how i dont care when i care the most out of anyone at that company than says this midhook up and actually stops having sex to say it and than tells me get outta here go sleep somewhere else it really hurts cause ya it alate at night but it doesnt matter he said this before so it ry early in the morning to wake him up with a bj thinking im doing something nice and he gets mad what guy doesnt enjpoy a A BJ only when it convenient for him try in th eafternoon early evening doesnt fail if i put the moves im pushed away or dont get ot finish cause he gets upset why when he starts it there no problem i ususally have a couple orgasms all cuddly and nice afterwards i would wait for him every time to make th emove so theres no anger but it been two weeks he can go a month with no sex after a week im begging him for it and pushed away ahhh help

Leah McClellan

Hi Jamie, and welcome,

I can’t say for sure why your husband or boyfriend acts the way he does. But I do know that sometimes men can be uncomfortable when a woman initiates sex. And it’s possible that he’s uncomfortable telling you this, if that’s the problem (he may not even be completely aware of it himself) and that’s why he acts the way he does. If possible. I’d try to talk with him about it in a very gentle, non-blaming way or non-accusatory way. See if you can find a nice calm time, when you’re both relaxed, and ask him if he wouldn’t mind talking about something you’re worried about. And then tell him what you’ve described here, that you notice this pattern, and if there’s anything you might do differently to make things work out better.

Remember, though, that we can’t change anyone but ourselves. So you could also think on anything you might do differently; for example, if you don’t feel like sex, don’t hesitate to say so, in a nice way. There’s a saying, and I think it might be true, that whoever wants sex the *least* is the one who controls the sexual relationship. So maybe you could try saying no sometimes, and gently switch things around a little, and let him chase you. I don’t suggest anything like “game playing” but if you honestly don’t want sex sometimes, say so. And if you basically have a good relationship, talking about it and being very honest about things should help.

Good luck!

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