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 met a guy on a dating app in November 2019. We hit it off immediately and had a lot in common, and we were looking for something similar. We made several attempts to make plans that kept getting canceled (we both have busy, constantly changing work schedules), and then COVID happened. We ended up meeting in person finally in May (masked up and safe) and continued to see each other throughout the summer and into the fall.
About a week before he was supposed to start a new job out of state, he didn’t return any of my texts. We didn’t normally go more than a few days without texting, so I was worried. I knew he wasn’t on social media, but ended up searching for him on LinkedIn, and it turned out we had a shared connection. It also turns out that the name he gave me when we met (and on the dating app) wasn’t his actual name—he gave me a different first name. OK, now I’m curious. So I Googled him. I eventually came across his wedding website and pictures from the wedding on a photographer’s website. I’m gutted. He was married. And he had been married for only two months prior to when we started talking. TWO MONTHS. At this point, I am devastated and in shock, so I text him to say he owes me an explanation. The next morning, he sends me a flurry of text messages to say he’s sorry for not texting me back and tells me that his father (who he was very close to) passed away suddenly and that things are not OK. I text back my apologies and tell him to let me know if there’s anything I can do. I don’t let on that I know he’s married. As much as I’m pissed that he lied to me for a year, I didn’t want to add any stress to what he had going on. I was worried about his feelings. Messed up, right? I failed to mention that when I came across the wedding website and pictures, I also came across a baby registry. The baby’s due date was the week before I found all of this. He never mentioned this either.
I assumed I was dating a guy who wasn’t married with a baby on the way. When we first started talking, I also asked when his last relationship was and how long it had been since he had slept with anyone, and he said it had been at least six months. I didn’t really have any reason during this whole year we’ve been talking and seeing each other to disbelieve him. I will admit there were a couple of times I did think that I maybe wasn’t the only one that he was seeing. A couple times we got together he seemed like he was on a schedule, only able to spend a couple hours together and then he had to leave to go to work or run errands or see family. I never bothered to ask him point blank if there was anyone else. To be honest, I didn’t want to know the answer because it would have devastated me to know there was someone else. I was really into him and was starting to develop feelings.
It’s been about four weeks since I found out he was married with a newborn, and I still haven’t said anything. We’ve talked since then, but very minimally—mostly me checking in to see how he’s doing. There has been a complete absence of flirty messages like before; they are far and few between, and very perfunctory. He knows I know his name isn’t what he told me (he knows I viewed his LinkedIn profile), but I doubt he knows I know he’s married with a new baby. I don’t know how to bring it up and really want to talk about it in person, or at the very least on the phone, but I don’t know that I will get that opportunity. I have a feeling, aside from him grieving the sudden loss of his father, that he may know something is up and is just avoiding talking to me for fear that I will bring it up. I think I deserve answers and an explanation and never asked for any of this. The guilt and embarrassment/humiliation/shame, not to mention sadness and betrayal I feel, are unlike anything I’ve ever felt. and I can’t go on like this much longer without saying something. How do I do this tactfully? I’m worried that I will have a bad day and send a reactive text message that won’t land well.
—She’s Come Undone
Dear She’s Come Undone,
I agree with you that you deserve an explanation, but I’m not sure that you’ll receive one, and even if you do, I’m not sure that it will be satisfying. Through no fault of your own, you found yourself in a relationship (of sorts) with a dishonest person who mined your emotions until he depleted your resources. Forget compassion, care, or love—this is somebody who strung you along by deceit during a pandemic that has required social isolation and now is directly responsible for a secondary outbreak of loneliness. That’s a good indication of where this guy’s head is, or more precisely, isn’t. He just isn’t thinking about your well-being at all. He doesn’t care.
Perhaps an apology would help you move past this, but because this guy has given you no indication of accountability, you simply can’t expect it, and given his track record of dishonesty, you can’t expect sincerity, either. Even in the best-case scenario, in which he owns up to his behavior and explains why he felt so comfortable lying to you, he’s married with a newborn. He has a life he’s clearly chosen, which means that you’re still going to be left to tend to your own fallout. Might as well get a head start and attempt to get over him. Consider some teletherapy about why you remain fixated on him now that you know the truth. You write, “I didn’t really have any reason during this whole year we’ve been talking and seeing each other to disbelieve him,” then list the reasons you had to disbelieve him. You have the self-awareness to admit you “didn’t want to know.” Dig into that. That you continue to text him asking how he’s doing suggests you haven’t made any of the necessary progress. At the very least, it’s time to hang up on your hung up.
You ask for guidance on a tactful approach, but I suspect that you only want to handle this delicately so you don’t alienate him for good. I suggest you risk alienating him, and I hope you succeed. What politeness do you owe this guy at this point? A frank declaration of your discovery, which despite the shame you feel about it is entirely not your fault, would sufficiently transmit what you’re going through as a result of his behavior. A reactive text message that doesn’t land well might be for the best as it could once and for all incinerate the notion of a future for you two—you need this, I think, more than he does. The exact reason that he kicked you to the curb may forever be ambiguous. To pull yourself back up to base level, you’re going to have to do the same to him. Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t notice.
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Dear How to Do It,
I am a year and a half into being a widow, and nine months into a new relationship. That may seem offensive to some, but I ask that you stick with me without that judgment. My husband and I had had an intense BDSM relationship where I was the submissive. He died suddenly. Every single time I try to take the lead now (especially where I am on top), I cannot stop thinking about my late husband. It totally shuts me down. But I am not in a BDSM relationship now, and I have not always been submissive. I want to take the lead with my new partner. Where do I even start working through this?
—Saw a Ghost
Dear Saw a Ghost,
I cannot tell if this is an instance of something blocking your desire in the moment, or whether you feel some obligation to take on a role that is not coming naturally to you. I guess I’m confused about what “want” means here—sometimes our bodies have a way of refuting what we think we “want” in the abstract, which may be influenced by external forces (such as our partners’ needs and desires). Since this qualifying information is not quite clear in your question, I’m going to assume it’s not clear in your head either, and I urge you to sort it out. If you remain certain that you truly and straightforwardly want to take the lead in bed now, look into the concept of topping from the bottom, think back to whether you’ve ever experienced ambivalence in your own understanding of your power in the past sex you’ve had, and figure out then if that can provide a way in to expressing more straightforward dominance.
I’m not judging you, but it does seem worth a mention that perhaps your inability to stop thinking about your dead husband during sex has less to do with the contrast of your former configuration to your current one, and more to do with time. Not a lot of time has passed since his death, and you are almost certainly still going through a grieving process. That might not be something that you can just turn off and on like a switch, and you might need more time to process. That time need not be spent in celibacy and I think, actually, getting out there and getting busy could be an effective way to proceed with your life—it just may come with complications and I suspect that’s what you’re currently experiencing. Hang in there and keep trying.
Dear How to Do It,
I haven’t had sex in 15 years. No typos, 15 years. When I was 23, I realized I needed to step back from relationships, as I continued to be involved in domestic violence. While I was healing my heart, I went to grad school and worked full time. Life was overwhelming. This was followed by the need for various surgeries, including a new one recently. To say things are complex is an understatement. I haven’t dated this year with the whole COVID thing, but I started talking to a guy over Thanksgiving and everything seemed great until I had to decline his invitation to meet up, because I’m in quarantine for surgery. With one “I have to go hop in the shower now,” I was ghosted. Should I just resign myself to being single? I love my life, so no complaints there, but I feel as if I finally am in a place where I can share my life with someone else.
Dear It’s Complicated,
No, you should not resign yourself to being single—that would be allowing one person who you never met dictate your life. That’s giving him way too much power. In the digital age, particularly during these socially isolated times, rejection has gone through a diabolical evolution: Not only is it easier than ever, it can hurt more to receive when it shatters an illusion you had about the strength of the now-nonexistent connection. But this experience is part of the process, as shitty as it is. You’ll get used to it. Try not to waste too much time on potential dead ends, don’t get your hopes up before you’ve actually met the person you’re interested in, and hold onto hope. If you don’t try to find someone, you almost certainly won’t; if you do, at least you have a chance. It’s worth giving yourself that chance.
Dear How to Do It,
I’ve been with my girlfriend for almost three years now. Over the past summer, she briefly ended things because she wasn’t sure what she wanted. The whole situation started simply, with us talking about merging our car insurance. She said things started to feel real for her and that scared her, even though we had talked about a future for quite a while. It’s worth noting that she is in her early 20s while I am in my early 30s. She said she just needed some time to think, and because I didn’t want to lose her, I agreed. About two months later, she told me she wanted to get back together because she couldn’t be without me anymore. She told me it was so much harder on her own than she thought, and that no one else ever treated her as good as I did. Everything she said was basically what I wanted and needed to hear.
So we got back together. Since then, we have moved in together, but things don’t feel the same. Our situation before was very different; we were an hour apart and only saw each other a few times per week. We were very active sexually, practically every time we saw each other. She was also far more affectionate and loving. Since getting back together, and especially since moving in together, much of that has changed for the worse. Her level of affection is minimal, and our sex life has dropped off dramatically. She has almost no passion now. She claims it’s because she is depressed and is having body-image issues, but she has also said that I make her feel beautiful and attractive. I have tried to be patient, but it’s very difficult to not take this personally, especially considering what happened earlier this year with our break.
I will be the first to admit that I tend to romanticize things, so maybe I had an image in my mind of what living together would be like that cannot be achieved. At the same time, I feel that I was patient during our break and gave her time to figure out what she wanted for sure, so I shouldn’t have to wonder about that anymore. That period was extremely difficult for me, especially when she told me she had slept with someone else. There were no rules between us about that during our break; it just hurt me a lot. So my question is this: Am I out of line to want and need more love and affection and sex from our relationship? Should I be patient with her or make my needs known more clearly? I don’t want to lose her again, but my level of fulfillment in our relationship is quickly dwindling. I want her to be happy, but while we were apart, I realized my happiness needs to be just as important.
Dear Patiently impatient,
You’re not out of line, but neither is she. Dysfunction doesn’t always present in a simple binary, and its flow isn’t always a simple top-down motion from the aggressor to the innocent; it can radiate from all parties, creating interactions that elude easily identified fault and blame.
Your partner has, in many ways, asked you for patience. Ideally, you would have come prepared to extend it, as relationships with people in their early 20s tend to demand it sooner or later (even more so when you’re as older as you are and in a different stage of your life’s development). While it seems callous of her, after three years, to retreat when things started to “feel real”—were they fake in the years leading up to that moment?—it indicates that she has more growing to do and may signal future bumps on the road to settling down. She has so much life left to experience and you shouldn’t be surprised when she wants to do so. Again, this will require patience at a minimum—it may well end in heartbreak if she figures out the person she is or wants to be is not someone who wants you as her partner.
You also have some growing up to do. You should not be so naïve as to think that your love and affection can cure her issues; if all it took to eradicate body dysmorphia and foster self-esteem were some compliments, the world (particularly its population of women) would be much happier. Your diminished sex life may also owe to your increased proximity—in Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel describes how eroticism and intimacy are at odds. The amount of space that you had with your girlfriend in your previous configuration may have been keeping things exciting.
I think you may be experiencing your own moment of things feeling real: You have found yourself in a relationship that is not immediately satisfying your needs, that requires a fair amount of less-than-fun work, and whose future is anything but foretold. Is she worth going through this to you? The answer may very well be yes, in which case, buckle in. I think at the very least, it’s worth trying for another few months in the time between now and a potentially society-restoring vaccine. Use this period as a workspace and see if you can figure out how to live with someone you seem to love.
More How to Do It
I have been with my boyfriend for about two years. He is 37, and l am 49. I am so into this guy and enjoy our time together every day—he always makes me smile. I feel very secure and happy with him when we’re together. He is extremely good looking and has a smile and eyes that can light up a room, along with a very athletic strong body. He’s very intelligent, street smart, a good provider, and takes me nice places all the time. We never have sex, but he will orally stimulate me and is so good at that. It’s amazing sometimes.