How to Do It

Is It Fair to Ask My Husband for Sex While He’s Grieving?

I’m still pleasuring him; he just won’t return the favor.

Photo illustration of a frustrated woman with a sad man in neon behind her
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Wavebreakmedia Ltd/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions for Stoya and Rich to Nothing’s too small (or big).

Every Thursday night, the crew responds to a bonus question in chat form.

Dear How to Do It,

My husband lost a close family member and friend over the summer in a sudden and traumatic way, and the grieving process is messy, as expected. I’m trying to be supportive while also recognizing that I can’t fix everything. His appetite for sex has understandably diminished, and it wasn’t a huge appetite before—something we were trying to work on when this whole thing went down. He would not reciprocate oral and was working on being more attentive to my needs in bed.

Now, his sexual desire has become even less frequent and also more selfish. I’m trying to be as giving as I can be, and I want to show him he is loved and safe, but I am really resenting the lack of pleasure on my end and his lack of interest in it.

I want to help him in whatever way I can, but I do not want this to fester, and I feel myself feeling like I did before: lonely and frustrated. I just know that bringing this kind of thing up before made him feel like an asshole in spite of my issue-centered approach: “I feel” statements, etc. The last thing I want to do is make him feel worse than he already does. I know grief has no timetable, but it’s been months, and I don’t know how many more times I can blow him without so much as a cuddle for me, or keep my self-esteem from completely collapsing and my sexual frustration from ripping me up inside. Thoughts? Scripts for a talk? Or am I being too selfish for even writing?

—Wrong for Wanting?

Stoya: I feel like this is only superficially a sex question.

Rich: Agreed. The last sentence gutted me. I feel really bad for her.

Stoya: I think her next question should be “Am I minimizing my own needs?” or “why am I with this guy in the first place?” Do we know the writer is female, or are we assuming?

Rich: I guess I’m assuming.

Stoya: My gut says she’s female, though.

Rich: Same here. The oral sex disparity alone in terms of who’s giving and who’s refusing is a very hetero cliché.

Stoya: Yeah. So, first I want to tell her that female sexual desire is real, legitimate, and valid. We had a long period of sexual repression in the West and only started peeling that back in the past few decades.

Rich: So she is, in fact, not selfish for writing this. If anything, she isn’t selfish enough.

Stoya: That’s my concern. I think she’s got some deeply internalized garbage churning around inside her. She deserves sexual fulfillment if she wants it. She has always deserved sexual fulfillment. To start, get a few different kinds of sex toys. Experiment, see what you like, and get really good at getting yourself off. Develop a higher standard for what sex can mean.

Rich: I would love to know how the “I refuse to perform oral sex on you” conversation goes. I mean, I just don’t even think I have the constitution to take that for an answer? I would annoy my partner until he broke up with me during that very conversation.

Stoya: I don’t think either of us would get into a relationship with someone who doesn’t give oral. I do think she ought to firmly state that she now requires a certain level of sexual pleasure, and that she’d be more than happy to teach him how.

Rich: Yeah, call in, not out. But I have fears about that too. “I just know that bringing this kind of thing up before made him feel like an asshole … ” I mean, it didn’t make him feel like enough of an asshole if his behavior never changed. Can he learn? Does he want to? Is she secure enough to be persistent and not just defer to his brittle feelings?

Stoya: So, when he goes, You made me feel like an asshole!, she should stand firm, reject responsibility for his feelings, and return to her point of willingness to boost his sexual education.

Rich: Yeah. He needs a reminder that if you want to stop feeling like an asshole, you could try not being an asshole. It seems like he’s made her believe she’s imposing on him when she brings forth these issues.

Stoya: Yup.

Rich: Do you think he’s using the tragedy as an excuse? It seems to me to have exacerbated behavior that was already present.

Stoya: I’m worried that he doesn’t even have to at this point and she’s justifying it for him. But I’m open to the possibility that he really is torn up and has permanently damaged his tongue at some point in the distant past.

Since it’s such a wide range of possibilities, I want to talk about the worst-case scenario. This sex problem could—very possibly could—be symptomatic of a deeply unhealthy relationship. The best answer might not be “try to work it out.” But that’s not something either of us can judge on two paragraphs.

Rich: Agreed.

Stoya: Check in with friends who see you two casually, and think about whether his behavior is different when there are any kind of other observers. If he is different when there are people around, take a long hard look at those differences.

Rich: How would you say she should approach a conversation that might yield the best-case scenario? What’s troubling here is it feels like she has all the tools to do so.

Stoya: “Hey, is now a good time to talk? I love you. I want to be with you for the rest of my life. I’ve got some needs that haven’t been being met, and I don’t want to go to someone who isn’t you for that because I’m committed to you. I need more sexual fulfillment. I’d love to help you learn how to rock my world.”

Rich: “As much as you like it when I blow you is as much as I would like for you to go down on me. Imagine if I just stopped. How would that make you feel?”

Stoya: How could she explain her feelings gently there?

Rich: She could say something like: “It’s about pleasure, but also feeling close to you. I like how sex can bring us together, and right now I don’t feel like it’s doing that.” It’s so worrisome that he just won’t cuddle with her!

Stoya: Yeah. Like, to the point where I feel like we’re wasting our finger energy on best-case scenarios.

Rich: I mean, if he’s lazy in bed, is he lazy in general? Is sexual disengagement his silent way of telling her he’s no longer engaged with the relationship? It does seem potentially that dire. We can’t reasonably tell someone to leave a relationship knowing as little as we inevitably do via a letter. But I will say this one has me less hopeful than virtually anything else we’ve tackled.

Stoya: Agreed. Their inability to communicate is alarming, as is his disregard for her desires. Regardless of whether they’re sexual or not. In all seriousness, maybe consider describing the greater relationship to Prudie.

Rich: I hope she can find herself; she seems to know exactly what’s wrong with this picture, and yet she hasn’t figured a way to rearrange or leave it. It’s as though it’s on the tip of her tongue. Sometimes I feel like people really need to reread what they write in—gaze deep into the reflection you sent us. A lot of what you need is right there.

More How to Do It

I am a single 40-year-old woman. I have a friend whom I dated for five years in my early 20s. We broke up amicably and remained good friends; we were just too young to get married. I later married someone else but have been divorced for three years. He never married. I feel the romantic spark between us reigniting. It is mutual for sure. The issue: Although I’m wildly attracted to this man in many ways, I can’t conjure up any sexual attraction or desire for him. I remember that our sex life in the past was very satisfying and adventurous; he was great in bed. Yet I still don’t find him sexually desirable. I want to because he is the perfect man for me. Do you think it’s possible to develop sexual attraction for someone over time? If yes, do you have any suggestions on how to do this? Sex is very important to both of us, so being in a sexless relationship isn’t an option. I haven’t told him any of this.