How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions for Stoya and Rich to email@example.com. 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 recently had an affair with a co-worker. When I first discovered the affair and confronted him, he said it was just an emotional affair but they ended up having sex one weekend while they were traveling, and emotions ballooned further from there. The whole thing has been the most horrifying, destabilizing experience of my life. My husband has recommitted to our marriage and we are trying to heal, but dealing with the fallout has been horrendous, and I often find myself wondering how to put the pieces back together.
Of the many issues we are now facing, there is one in particular that I hope you can help me with. Though I don’t have many details of their romantic weekend sex romp, the ones I do have are killing me, and my imagination is running wild. He has already told me that he finds this other woman more physically attractive than me, and when I said I know the sex with her must have been better than it is with me (this comes out in fits of heartbreak and anger on my part), he is just silent and looks away. I know logically that it must have been very exciting to have sex with a new partner, whom he is very attracted to, under taboo conditions and while his brain was locked in the drugged infatuation of an affair. However, all the logic in the world won’t save me from the crushing insecurity and the fury that this brings in turn.
My husband is my only partner, we’ve been together since we were teenagers, and I feel utterly unequipped to handle this. A small part of me wants to go to have sex with someone else, partly to even the score but also just to see what it’s like and have a reference for what it’s like to sleep with someone who isn’t my husband. I can name many, many reasons why that would be a bad idea (including that I wouldn’t even know where to find a safe, casual partner). My husband does not seem to object to this idea, which in turn makes me feel worse that he wouldn’t care. I guess my question is, how do I get the images out of my brain? How can I regain confidence about myself and the sexual experiences I provide my husband? How do I move forward to rebuild a satisfying, monogamous, loving sex life with my errant partner?
Stoya: One thing that can provide immediate relief is redirecting thoughts. When the details of the affair pop into the writer’s brain, she can calmly tell herself, “I don’t need to think about that right now.” The tricky part is remaining calm when it inevitably returns, and repeating the process.
Rich: Yes, I find that meditation helps strengthen that thought-management muscle.
Stoya: I occasionally breathe, and do the thing I just discussed, but I don’t have much experience with meditation. Are there any types that are more useful than others in this situation?
Rich: When I do it, it’s basically practicing this very concept: I try to clear my mind as much as possible, and when a thought comes into my head, I push it out. My mind is constantly bombarding me with thoughts, so it’s an active process. And I’ve noticed that when I do obsess about something in daily life, I can much more easily put it out of my head. Before I started meditating, I felt somewhat at the mercy of my thoughts.
Stoya: In particularly difficult situations, I find it useful to also focus on something as a step two.
Rich: Like an activity or a movie or book?
Stoya: Either one, or a problem to think through possible solutions to, or some work.
Rich: You know what pretty much without fail clears my mind? The gym. I can walk in upset, and even if my feelings resume as soon as I walk out, the time I’m in there is almost always free of concern.
Stoya: Yes! So one suggestion for the two of them would be to get out and do things together. Spend time together when you aren’t thinking about the infidelity.
Rich: Right, consciously make your relationship about more than that. I’m really not into the way the husband acted, though, and I don’t know if he’s pulling his weight as much as he should be even now.
Stoya: Yeah. It seems like he has some thoughts inside him that he’s ashamed of. And, in his struggle to be honest, is hurting her with his words.
Rich: He should not have told her that he finds the other woman more physically attractive. I appreciate brutal honesty, but that was punishing. That’s the kind of thing you have to recognize ahead of time as something your loved one won’t forget. And look at what ended up happening: She can’t stop thinking about it.
Stoya: As a lifelong foot-in-mouther, I do feel empathy for the guy on that point. We don’t hear about whether he’s this honest about the other aspects of the situation. Why he cheated, how he felt then, how he feels now.
Rich: I find it disturbing that he was discovered to be emotionally cheating and then went further after that.
Stoya: Yeah, that part seems aggressively sucky.
Rich: Like, he had an out. He had a confrontation with reality that could have stopped him from being swept away.
Stoya: And yet … that brings us to a hard truth. It might not be possible to rebuild the relationship to the state it was in before the affair. It might not even be wise, since clearly something was off somewhere for this to happen.
Rich: Yeah. You know, now is the time to be focusing on each other, and he’s not particularly concerned about her sleeping with another guy?
Stoya: It may be a case of erratic thinking under duress on his part. I agree with you.
Rich: I’m obviously a huge advocate for opening things up, but now’s really not the time.
Stoya: But I also think he might be in a panic, thinking, “Whatever might help fix this.”
Rich: That’s true. I really have to give our writer credit for really trying to keep from letting an indiscretion blow up their marriage. But this seems like an extreme case.
Stoya: It does. And she seems so introspective, caring, and committed. I want her to have a partner who gives her those things.
Rich: Yes, I had a similar thought. I wonder if she could reframe this. It seems that’s interpreting his behavior as it relates to her shortcomings, particularly how she stacks up with the other woman. But what about his? Is he satisfying her? I mean, clearly not at the moment!
Stoya: She has no point of reference.
Rich: Right. And broadly, too, not just as a sex partner but a life partner.
Stoya: What level of commitment and care do you expect from your life partners?
Rich: You know, honesty is basically the be-all and end-all for me. Hopefully it’s delivered in a compassionate manner. And a sense of equality is crucial, even if the ways of achieving it seem sometimes contradictory. I think he’s still the center of this relationship in her head.
Stoya: Equality is really important to me as well. I tend to steamroll people, and things can get less than ideal pretty quickly when that happens. I know people who prioritize emotional and sexual monogamy, others who value communication, more who value equality. Everyone gets to have their own standards and preferences. Usually, we have a whole list of them. I think our writer should talk to her friends about the general concept of relationship expectations to get further data points. And think about what she wants. Who her ideal partner is, and how they treat her.
Rich: If she were my friend, I’d be telling her that she deserves better. He needs to atone. It’s not enough to pledge one’s commitment; he needs to make actual reparations.
Stoya: What do reparations look like here?
Rich: Focusing only on her, tabling any talk of nonmonogamy until she heals, showing her how much she means to him. He has to make his love as tangible as possible. I suspect that she’d have a much easier time dealing with this if he gave her the amount of attention and care that she needs, which is considerable. It’s about gestures—dates and gifts and cuddles—and a general refocusing after going astray. And I’m just not convinced that he’s doing the work.
Stoya: I think that does a pretty good job of giving her some data points to move forward with.
Rich: Besides refocusing her mind, do you have any ideas for them to move forward as a couple? Counseling is a pretty obvious one here.
Stoya: Counseling for sure. Possibly for him individually as well. The couple’s therapist will be in a better position to make that recommendation. Spending time together, maintaining eye contact, sharing intimate details of their day. That’s the kind of stuff that can feel really scary to do, but is a crucial part of a healthy relationship.
Rich: Yeah. Rebuilding sometimes means kind of retracing your early steps and falling back in love. Relearning what it’s like to be each other’s world. If that proves too difficult, well, there’s yet another data point.
More How to Do It
I never thought I’d be in this position. I am married and love my wife (30s). A gorgeous woman at work who works in a separate department (same office building) struck up a conversation with me one day at an after-work event, and she later added me on social media. I posted a photo one day and she replied flirtatiously in DMs, but she is also married and I didn’t think anything of it. She kept it up, and I barely responded, but then yesterday, she straight-up propositioned me for sex. No strings: a safe, one-time thing. I am an average guy, and women haven’t come on to me like this since I was in better shape in my late teens and early 20s. I don’t think I’ll get this opportunity again while I’m still young, and I don’t want to give it up. I know my wife would never give me a pass, 100 percent, but we barely have sex anymore post-kids. Is there any way I could do this, be happy it happened, and then move on, or am I kidding myself?