How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!
Dear How to Do It,
I had what could most accurately be described as an “emotional affair” a couple years ago during a very rough time in my marriage. I maintained strict boundaries with the person I had feelings for and didn’t tell them how I felt, but I had intense feelings. I “did everything right” in the situation in terms of telling my spouse what was going on, going to therapy together, doing the work to try to understand the underlying attachment problems I have, etc. No sexual or overtly romantic interactions ever happened with the Other Person. I eventually cut contact completely with them, and did ultimately tell them how I felt as part of cutting contact. They responded in confusing terms, which hurt a lot. It was very difficult, but with therapy (couples’ and individual), my marriage is better than ever, and I feel mostly healed.
Here’s the problem: I still think about the Other Person multiple times a day. I miss them and the friendship we had. Worst of all, I can’t seem to stop thinking about them during sex. Every single time. No matter what I do, no matter how good the sex is or how present I feel. I don’t want to tell my spouse because I don’t have any contact with the Other Person and things feel so good in our marriage … I just feel totally stuck, and I don’t know how to let go fully. I am positive it is absolutely not helping that I continue to have those thoughts during sex. I have the thoughts because I like them and enjoy them, and I have no idea how to turn that off. Will time help? It’s been a couple years already. How do I make this stop? That person really hurt me in the end, and I have no regrets about cutting contact. But here I am, crying with guilt after sex because I thought about them again.
—Ghosts of Affairs Past
Dear Ghosts of Affairs Past,
Sure, time may help. For many, it seems that the time it takes to get over someone is somewhat correlated to the magnitude of your feelings for him or her. However, there’s no exact science to love—at least none that we humans have figured out. So who knows, really? What might be useful, if only as a thought exercise, is acceptance: What if this is just who you are now, someone who has been significantly altered as a result of this association with Other Person? At bare minimum, recognizing this lingering love (or whatever it is, if it isn’t love) as a chronic condition might allow you to stop beating yourself up over your thoughts. They come reflexively and you have little control over them, at least at the moment. If you want to strengthen your mental muscle and attempt to achieve some mastery over the forefront of your mind, start a meditation practice. This can be really useful for mitigating anxiety, as well as for unseeing what you once considered can’t-unseeable.
I can’t help but wonder if the flame you carry is any sort of comment on your current relationship. Maybe not. You could very well have strong feelings for more than one person at a time. Plenty of people do. But the emotional affair and its resonance during sex, in particular, could also be data that is presenting itself to you and worthy of your attention. Check in with yourself and make sure that things in your marriage are actually as good as you like to think they are.
Dear How to Do It,
A little over a year ago I met “Matt” and we started a friends-with-benefits sort of situation, but quickly became very close. Around three months into things, I realized my strong feelings for him, and Matt decided to leave a job he started a few weeks before to pursue an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a startup. The 14-hour days he was working almost instantly shut Matt down to the point of mental breakdown, so when we spoke about my feelings, he was not in a place to entertain returning them, and we decided to stop seeing each other. A month later, we reconnected. When we talked about getting back together, I had already been thinking about what I wanted and said that I couldn’t do friends with benefits anymore—we’d have to be official, but that I would be interested in trying sexual nonmonogamy. I laid out what it would take for me to be comfortable with this, and told him that if he needed more freedom, that a relationship wouldn’t work.
I was clear in that for me to be on board, I would need to be the only person he was romantically involved with and that our relationship would always need to come first. He agreed. He mentioned that while we had been on a break, he’d met someone and while he hadn’t slept with her yet, he was interested. I didn’t have much a reaction to this until the next week when he said he was going to see this woman the next day and would likely try to sleep with her. I started crying and told him that I was less ready than I thought and asked if it was important for him to be non-monogamous at this moment. We were a new couple, and we were still getting back on our feet, including me waiting for him to show more sexual interest after the extreme anxiety caused by the experience working with the startup (from which he had been fired) caused him to lose interest. I told him I was still fine with doing things together, like threesomes, but didn’t want either of us going off on our own. He was fine with that, but has brought this woman up a few more times, or has mentioned sex outside of our relationship again. Most recently, he said that he thought it would work for us to sleep with different people because I go to bed a few hours before he does. Apparently to him, this time is a great open opportunity not being explored and he thinks because I’m in bed that I won’t notice or be as hurt. This seems like a jerk move to me. Does it to you? How should I approach this?
—While I Was Sleeping
Dear While I Was Sleeping,
Neither of you are really listening to each other, despite mutual articulation of your desires and needs. What is clear is that these discrete desires and needs are just not aligning. It does seem that you both like the idea of a relationship together, and that’s about as much as you agree on. You’re both in the car, but you can’t figure out how to get it to turn on. Not a good sign of how things will be on the long road ahead!
Because neither of you is inclined to bend enough to suit what the other is looking for in terms of how much (or little) monogamy is in the arrangement and what that actually looks like, this seems like a dead end to me. And all of this in the first year? Can you envision a realistic model of improvement here? What the work would entail and whether you’re actually willing to put in the hours? I know you’re supposed to be the one asking the questions, but I think attempting to envision what this all looks like could be useful for understanding how irreconcilable your differences may be.
I agree with you that his reasoning that he can play around while you’re sleeping is callous, but I’d expect many callous days ahead if you stick with this relationship. This guy is showing more sexual interest in someone other than you—and in full view, too. Pretty callous! This is your call, but unless one of you is willing to radically revise their philosophy—and that neither of you are so far is in itself telling—I can’t see this going anywhere. My advice is to move on.
Dear How to Do It,
My boyfriend and I have been together nearly two years now. We were each others’ firsts. Before he met me, he would go at it solo. He still does occasionally. There are … a few problems with our sex life. For one thing, he gets turned on like a switch, and it takes extensive foreplay for me. For another, sometimes he will initiate it, and I only go along to fulfill his needs, and I tell him so. But he says “I caused it, I’ll fix it.” On the other side of that coin he will come up to me while I’m in the middle of something and play around until I am hot and bothered, but then he will walk away and leave me, refusing to finish what he started. I have never masturbated; I have tried once or twice, but no matter what I do, I am unable to get any satisfaction without my partner. He will rub one out about every other day, and for some reason, that deeply bothers me … I’m unsure why. I feel like if he is going to get off, it should be because of me. Is that wrong? He enjoys oral, at least receiving it, but I dislike giving it, and it has gotten to the point where I just give him whatever he is wanting to be done with it as quickly as possible. Don’t get me wrong, I love making him come, but I hardly get anything back. When he does have sex with me, it doesn’t last long for him, and I am left sexually frustrated. And no matter what, the day after we have sex, we will go through a big argument. I feel like we need to talk about it and explain how we feel and what we need, but anytime I try to talk, he just changes the topic as soon as possible. Am I at fault? What can I do to be a better partner?
Dear Concerned Lover,
I’m going to attempt declutter your situation with a list of some things that I believe to be true. I think you have a lot of misconceptions born of inexperience. Not your fault! But here are some things to think about moving forward:
• Sex does not cure people’s masturbation habits. Quite the contrary. People who enjoy active sex lives with their partners also masturbate. They’re two great tastes that taste great separately, as well as together. Sexual chocolate and peanut butter, if you will. Masturbation doesn’t become a problem until it negatively impacts someone’s life in a concrete way like interfering with relationships. I’m not convinced that his is there from the evidence provided, because masturbating doesn’t seem to be impacting your boyfriend’s interest in having sex with you. Your idea that he “should be” getting off only with you is a constructed fantasy with no rational basis. With the same kind of dogged grip that one holds onto his dick, hold onto the reality that your man plays with himself and is going to keep doing it.
• You aren’t obligated ever to have sex when you don’t want to. You can turn down your boyfriend. He’ll be OK: As you well know, he can take care of himself. Your willingness to get him off even when you aren’t interested in sex is generous, and generosity is the cornerstone of a good partner. But this particular generosity is far from required.
• You’re giving up way too quickly on masturbation yourself. “Once or twice” is hardly enough to convince me you’ve tried everything. If you really want to try everything, try everything. Toys (vibrating and not), the handheld shower attachment, a Jacuzzi jet, your hand, whatever. Try it with your boyfriend, even.
• You’re giving him oral sex when he wants it; is the courtesy being returned by him? If not and you’re interested in receiving it, ask him for it the same way he asks you.
• It seems very clear that you’re willing to give him whatever he wants sexually, which involves physical contact, but what you need sexually right now is a conversation, and you’re entitled to that. For some people, men in particular (probably because of how they’re raised), expressing and receiving such matters verbally can be difficult. But it’s not impossible and he should at least try to hear you out. It might be time to get blunt and just tell him that you aren’t enjoying sex and that aspect of your relationship needs some major work. Don’t use sex as a bargaining chip, but perhaps you might pull away in the physical realm until you have this sorted out. That would actually reflect your experience, and it might get him to take you seriously to boot.
Dear How to Do It,
I’ve been with my boyfriend on and off for about a year or so. He’s a virgin; I’m not. We have fooled around before, but when I masturbate or have sex with someone else (while we aren’t dating), I don’t think about him at all. I have no urge to have sex with him. I love him, he’s been in my life since we were born, and he’s amazing. But like I said, I have no urge to be sexual with him. Any advice?
Familiarity sometimes breeds a disinterest in … breeding. And sex in general. This idea is the focus of Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity, a book I recommend frequently in this column. Perel shares stories from couples whose mutual sexual interest has waned over time, as well as tips for reengagement. This is an active process that requires a lot of work. I would imagine that it would require decidedly more work with someone that you’ve known all your life. I wonder if you were ever sexually attracted to this guy, and if not, why you feel like you should be. If the chemistry ain’t there, it ain’t there. Some relationships are romantic in many ways, but not sexual—and that’s OK. Some couples navigate this by opening things up sexually to preserve their romantic core while allowing for outside sexual outlets. Maybe this is your path (again: this requires a good deal of work). Maybe, though, you’ve found yourself in a dead-end relationship. Time to take a sober look at things and assess, or get used a sexless existence. Make your choice.
More How to Do It
My wife and I live in the same conservative rural town we both raised in. After having been married for about 12 years, my wife and I began the “hot wife” lifestyle and have been hot-wifing about five years now. I find it an incredible turn-on, and honestly, she has enjoyed it more than she ever imagined. “Jay” entered our life about two and a half years ago. It’s hard to describe him, but he’s pretty much the perfect “bull.” He is handsome, well-traveled, speaks a half dozen languages, teaches at a college, does fitness modeling, is well hung, kinky, and the man can literally have athletic sex all night. We’ve gotten very close with him. Because of COVID, Jay is now teaching online, and his wife is overseas for almost the next year. They had moved out of their apartment this summer, but since his wife is unexpectedly not returning (again, because of COVID), Jay just has been renting a room in town. My wife and I both work full time, but our children will also be learning online. My wife has suggested that we let Jay move in with us until next summer so that he can take care of our kids. Now I’m not sure what to do.