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’ve been with my husband 14 years, married 11 of those. Before we married, I discovered he had female friends and exes that he kept secret from me. He “didn’t know how to openly talk with me,” he said, but he could with these other women. Yes, all these were people he was attracted to, but swore it was platonic. I forgave him and we moved forward.
Over the 11 years, I have again discovered “platonic” female friends that he has found on Craigslist, Zoosk, Fetoo, and other dating sites. One woman was a bike-riding friend (at my urging, he began long daily bike rides), and I later learned he told her he was single. She believed they were in a relationship and knew nothing about me. When confronted, his response was that I “was too busy dealing with my child’s mental health crisis to pay attention,” so he went elsewhere for companionship, but nothing was ever going to happen. More recently, I discovered other women who he told he was a widower, called and texted daily, and pushed for hookups within a week of meeting them. Luckily none of them have met up that I can tell.
So, I catfished him. I created a fake account on one of those sites, and immediately he was sending messages. At first it was basic chitchat that quickly moved to him sending pics, wanting to meet up, etc. He said his wife died a few years ago and he was looking to move on!
I was devastated. He has no clue it was me. He tried many times to arrange a meeting but I always canceled, and those were the times he made up stories at home about having to work, then suddenly the job for the time was canceled. I noticed a pattern that when he was sending sexually explicit messages with details of sex positions, and then those nights we would have sex with me in that manner!
I don’t understand why he feels the need to go elsewhere for companionship and friendship or go on those dating sites. We’ve tried couples counseling in the past and that helped for awhile. He’s even went to some local sex addict group meetings, but stopped because he said those stories he heard are way beyond his issue. I don’t know where to go from here. How can I save my marriage? Am I overreacting? Are these just normal tendencies for men?
Seems like the only thing left to do is shout at him, “All yours, Babooshka, Babooshka, Babooshka ya ya!” OK, maybe not those words exactly (in case you didn’t catch the reference, your scheme reminds me of a Kate Bush song), but you caught him again, and if you haven’t revealed it, you should. It might help the truth sink in.
You are not overreacting. I think your husband has betrayed you repeatedly, systematically even, and that is unacceptable. I think he is exploiting your forgiveness and understanding by continuing his deception. I don’t trust him regarding how his situation compares to the stories he heard in the sex addict group, because I don’t trust him at all! The true measure of severity in compulsion isn’t quantitative, nor is it based on individual acts of transgression—there is no unilateral standard there. It’s whether the behavior disrupts one’s own life. The person your husband is sharing his life with is disrupted, therefore his behavior is disruptive. It’s a huge problem.
Your husband may feel that he is innately nonmonogamous. He may believe that he will not be satisfied unless he experiences other people sexually. In that event, it is up to you to decide whether you’re comfortable with him pursuing that and what limitations and boundaries you’d need for peace of mind if you are to consent to such an arrangement. What he does not need to do is lie, and if he feels that way, he has more issues than he’s letting on. Ethical nonmonogamy is a possibility; ethical lying is not.
What I find most depressing about your letter is that you’re asking how to save your marriage when it is he who should be scrambling to do so. You’ve been burdened enough, to the point where I have to wonder why you want to save it at all. You’ve had success with counseling before, so you could try that again. But it sounds to me like you could do better, and I am absolutely certain that you deserve that. Yeah, you could pursue saving your marriage, but it might be more beneficial instead to reclaim your life.
Dear How to Do It,
My partner of 22 years is a good man. He adores our three children and takes good care of them. We’ve been through the wringer a few times—health and career crises, ailing parents, financial distress—but we’ve faced our challenges together and emerged more in love than ever. But now, we’re facing a problem on which none of our usual tools are working: mismatched libido.
It’s a problem, we know, that virtually all couples struggle with at some point. We’ve read the books, discussed it in counseling, and I’ve even tried medication in an attempt to increase my libido to something closer to his level. He’d probably like to have sex three times a week. At this point, in my mid-40s, I’d be content with once or twice a month. As a result of work we’ve already done on this issue, I am no longer willing to think of my libido—which is perfectly normal for a woman of my age and circumstances—as a problem that I need to medicate. I’m also no longer willing to submit to sex I don’t want to have. I’ve done a lot of that, and I realized it was undermining my love and respect for my partner. It also decreased my sex drive even further, making it so that I almost never experienced any feelings of lust or attraction at all.
We now have sex once or twice a month, usually still initiated by him. He asks for sex about 12 to 15 times a month, and we fight almost every time that I say no. Sometimes he just gives me the silent treatment (not cool), but it’s even worse when he doesn’t. He demands to know why I’m saying no, then attacks any reason I give. The thing is, I do enjoy the sex when we have it, so he feels like my disinterest shouldn’t ever win out over his very strong interest. I just don’t see it that way anymore. I talked to him years ago about potentially opening our relationship so that he can have more sex. He rejected it out of hand, which surprised me a little, but he’s very clear that that is not what he wants. Yesterday, he asked me to resume couples counseling on this issue. I guess I’m willing, but I fully expect to be told, once again, that I should just submit to sex according to some agreed upon schedule or try another medicine to fix my “low sex drive.” This will reinforce my partner’s ideas that he’s normal, and I’m somehow defective. Do you have any other ideas for us?
—It’s Getting Cold in Here
You come across as quite reasonable and self-aware in your letter. I don’t understand what your partner isn’t grasping. Surely, he’s aware that there’s a wide spectrum of sexual desire; some people have more, some people have less. Is he really so self-centered as to think that he can magically change you? Is he unaware that forcing you to have sex has only hurt his cause?
I think you should resume counseling, but not for the sake of changing you—for the sake of enlightening him. He’s throwing tantrums when he doesn’t get his way and, for effect, asking questions he already knows the answers to. He’s behaving like a child. He needs to be taught. Any counselor that is going to urge you to submit to sex or place all the burden on you to fix what’s going on between the two of you is not doing their job. You can take your time to search and vet.
At the same time, I want to encourage you to remain open-minded to the possibility of your libido increasing—it’s by no means a foregone conclusion, but these things sometimes shift. There are a lot of good suggestions in Ian Kerner’s newish So Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex: Laying Bare and Learning to Repair Our Love Lives using the accelerator/brake desire principle that Emily Nagoski’s Come as You Are does such a good job of articulating. You may want to check out both books if you haven’t yet. You might be surprised what you learn.
Regardless, you are correct: You’re not defective. Evolving is something humans do. Hopefully your partner will get with the program.
Dear How to Do It,
My wife had an affair, and despite the hurt it caused, I also find it erotic to know as much of the sexual details as possible. She feels ashamed of what she got involved with, but through some admitting and confessing of what happened, I find myself aroused by her sexual prowess. How can I make her feel comfortable sharing the sexual details with me now that we are one year from discovery of the affair?
You can’t make her do anything. Even if it affected you, her experience is her experience. Her shame about her infidelity may make it painful to revisit. Why put your partner through pain? You can tell her that by sharing details of her cheating, she is helping you process it, which seems like the truth. Assure her that it isn’t a trap, and that you’ve actually eroticized this experience and its details are exciting. Is this a jumping-off point for group or cuckholding play? Perhaps—if you’re interested, suggest it. Ultimately, you can only show her where you’re coming from. She will respond as she sees fit. Don’t badger her, and have patience. She may need to warm up, and she may never do so. In the event of the latter, cuck porn may scratch your itch.
Dear How to Do It,
I am a 36-year-old woman, and I think I may be asexual. In evaluating a failed 10-year marriage in which mismatched libidos were a contributing factor, and now a three-year monogamous relationship in which mismatched libidos are rearing their ugly heads again, I think I may be the problem. I really don’t have a sex drive. I understand how important sexual interaction is for a sexual person in a relationship, so I have been willing to “take one for the team” several times a week with my current partner. The sex is great sex, I just don’t care about it. My partner is giving and attentive, and I have orgasms—they just aren’t necessary for me. The sex feels perfunctory, like brushing my teeth. I would much rather have an intellectual or emotional connection to my partner with cuddling and conversation. When the mood is trending toward sex, I am starting to experience a sense of dread. Sexual flirtation that is a normal part of a relationship gives me anxiety, and it really never feels natural for me to engage in it. If I received a medical diagnosis that I could never have sex again, I would be relieved.
I want all of the other tangible benefits of a relationship: shared experiences and goals, love, emotional support, etc. And I love my partner and would love for all of these things to be with him. However, with my building dread and resentment of sex combined with his continued desire for it, I don’t see how that is possible. It seems that the vast majority of men want relationships that are largely sexual in nature, no matter how good the relationship is otherwise, and I am beginning to feel like I am sentenced to a life of having obligatory sex for my partner so I can have all of the aspects of the relationship that I want, too. How does one “come out” as asexual after a lifetime of sexual behavior, and how do I navigate this in the context of my current sexual relationship? Is it possible for an asexual and sexual person to be in a successful relationship?
—Let’s Just Cuddle
For the sake of streamlining, let’s assume that your suspicion is correct and that you are asexual. This may seem like a roadblock, but really it’s an opportunity to fine-tune your relationship. As Angela Chen puts it in her excellent 2020 book Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex:
Relationships should always be a game of mix and match, not a puzzle that you have to perfectly snap into, or a Jenga tower that will collapse as soon as you try to wiggle one block out of place. Customizability is the best part, yet most people try so hard to make their relationship stick to its premade form, a one-size-fits-all shape. Many people don’t take advantage of their own freedom.
That’s from a chapter specifically about mixed relationships consisting of “ace” and “allo” partners, to use the asexual community’s lingo. So yes, they do exist—Chen writes about her own as well as those of several of her interview subjects, in fact. And since that is the case, I reached out to Chen to see if she had any advice for your coming out. Via email, she advised, “When you come out to your partner, I suggest being really specific about what being asexual means for you, and what you want and don’t want. The key thing is that you two communicate from a place of emotional safety and good faith, where neither person is ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ for having whatever desires they have.
“That means you have to honor yourself,” she added. “You say both that ‘mismatched libidos are rearing their ugly heads’ and ‘I think I may be the problem.’ The first part may be accurate, but the second part isn’t. Mismatch is the problem—you are not the problem. If your partner had the same libido as you, there would be no issue. Plus, in relationships, both people have equal moral value; his desire to have sex should not override your desire to not have sex. You do not matter any less than him. The joy of relationships in the first place is that you can build them as you like, to suit the people in them. You don’t have to consider one person ‘normal’ and one person ‘abnormal’; you have to figure out if two different people can work together.”
Chen recommended that you start the conversation from a place where you are both equals and to “break everything down, including the definition of ‘sex’ and the ‘why’ of sex beyond horniness.” Clarity is of the essence here. Couples therapy may be useful, as might the online asexual community. In the meantime, know that Chen empathizes with your expectation-based anxiety. “We live in a world that centers sexuality in romantic relationships, and it can be alienating and lonely to discover that your values and desires lie elsewhere,” she. And while this may be a hard thing for your relationship to endure, it’s not impossible. As Chen wrote, “There really are options between no relationships and resigning oneself to a life of obligatory sex.” We both wish you luck.
More How to Do It
I’m a 39-year-old woman. When I was 20, I met my first very well-endowed man, who in a way “trained” me to take a large penis. Since then, I’ve been in two monogamous long-term relationships, both with average-size men. I hate to admit this, but I left both those relationships because the length just didn’t cut it for me. I needed more. I’m great at taking it, and it’s the most satisfying way for me to come. Currently I’m involved with two partners who more than measure up, but I don’t see either of them too often, and I’m still out there dating. My question is, how do I put it out there in the online dating world that anything less than a hard 8 inches will only disappoint me?