How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!
Every week, the crew responds to a bonus question in chat form.
Dear How to Do It,
My girlfriend (mid-40s) and I (50-year-old man) have been dating for 10 years: “Long distance for five, living together for four, and one year in the middle living in the same city.” Our sex life was always great, but it has started to slow down as my age creeps up on me. In the months before COVID, it slowed even more as I was dealing with some unrelated health issues. But then COVID hit. I work in health care, and between that and her already near-hypochondria, our sex life came to a halt.
Now we’ve been vaccinated, and I wanted to broach the subject of returning to our physical relationship. Not an easy thing to just bring up, and I wanted to be respectful, so I asked one night: “Can we maybe talk at some point about rekindling the physical side of our relationship?” And boy howdy, she was very unhappy with me for bringing it up. She said, “I never said anything when you didn’t want to do it, so why do you need to ask me?” She said she didn’t even want to consider thinking about it until some point down the road, so she can “concentrate on getting her son a driver’s license” and some other summertime activities. This struck me a little strange, because getting a drivers license doesn’t require that much headspace. There seems to be plenty of time during the day to watch television or scroll social media or text your friends about how I’ve wronged her by bringing up sex, so I’d think she could work in some time for thinking about “us.” She’s had some stressful family stuff happen over the past year and I know she’s dealing with that, and also COVID fears, and I respect all of that as well, but … at what point am I right in bringing it up again? We already discussed briefly that if she decides she isn’t interested in being physical (she says she has no drive at all, and how that’s a new thing for her and is kind of scary), we’ll have to figure out “what to do,” which won’t be good, ’cuz she will not be up for letting me find human touch elsewhere. I firmly believe she needs to talk to someone, a therapist, for a number of reasons, but I sure as hell am not bringing that up. She’s mentioned it herself but always has excuses not to do it. I get it; it’s hard getting that kind of help. But I feel really lost, not just about the lack of physicality, but her reaction just from me asking if we can someday talk about it.
Stoya: Before we officially started this chat, we were talking about how New York City is responding to high vaccine rates. And, from what you said, it sounds like people are largely back to sharing air with no compunction.
Rich: Yes, that’s what I’ve been breathing in.
Stoya: That resiliency is wonderful, but not everyone is shaking off the globally traumatic 15 months we just lived through that easily.
Rich: So true! Gotta leave space for people’s trauma. And I feel like the girlfriend is giving a shame response?
Stoya: As in, she feels she should be more sexual than she is and is experiencing shame because of that?
Rich: Yeah—some unwanted sense of obligation manifesting as anger.
Stoya: With any lingering COVID concerns, I’m wondering if fear is another emotion that’s manifesting as anger.
Rich: It really could be. Without having been there and being able to correct for tone/verbiage, it feels like there must be something underpinning what reads like an outsized reaction to a reasonable conversation about waning sexual activity in a relationship. We advocate direct communication frequently, and this question is an exercise in what happens when that doesn’t go the way we would hope. Personally, I want to be able to at least talk to my partner about these things, especially if they aren’t immediately fixable. And it sounds like our writer has been shut down.
Stoya: In what sounds like an illogical manner.
Rich: I mean, the “concentrate on getting her son a driver’s license” bit is the excuse of excuses.
Stoya: And it seems like that aspect really gets to him. Does our writer have a friend who they can vent his frustration to? Or would he be open to seeing a therapist himself?
Rich: I was thinking couple’s counseling, too, if the girlfriend is amenable to it. A third party may help get the communication flowing. That’s what I see as the biggest issue here. I’m trying to figure out their relationship trajectory: “Long distance for five, living together for four, and one year in the middle living in the same city.” Does that mean they aren’t living together anymore?
Stoya: Long distance for five years, living in separate apartments in the same city for one year, then living in the same apartment for four years, 1.25 of which have been during COVID, is my read on the timeline.
Rich: If they are in fact more proximally close than ever, that could be another contributing factor. Perhaps the distance was helping fuel their sex life, as it often does. Sometimes the closer people are, the less erotically engaged.
Stoya: The discussion our writer did have with his girlfriend revealed that she has no drive at all, and finds this unsettling. Given the slowdown due to our writer’s health, and then the total absence due to COVID, it’s possible that what would have been perceived as a gradual shift feels abrupt.
Rich: Very true.
Stoya: I’m not entirely certain that the girlfriend directly told our writer that opening up the relationship isn’t on the table, and in case he’s making an assumption—work on open communication and then ask.
Rich: To me, what will make or break this is her willingness to communicate. If she just won’t give anything, well … how do you work with that? And how does a relationship work with someone who refuses to work with you? (Spoiler: It doesn’t.) Still, I’m going to recommend temperance. What I’ve been advocating throughout the pandemic holds: It’s a rough time for people. Patience is compassion. Give it some time, and when he does bring it up, don’t necessarily make it about sex right away. Ask how she’s doing. Listen. And, hopefully, that will eventually lead to an openness to therapy, or at least some clues about how intimacy might work in the future.
More How to Do It
I am a straight lady in my mid-30s, and over the past year, I’ve gotten close to a 40-ish married man. We’ve started an online-only sexual relationship, with plans to connect physically in the future. For a variety of reasons, this sexual relationship appeals to me at the moment. I don’t believe it will be long term, and it’s quite hot. I also know he’s had other relationships outside his marriage. We’ve had conversations about discretion, but I’ve never explicitly asked what his wife knows or doesn’t. Should I? I can’t decide if it matters, and I only worry if it would get back to my colleague. Should I have figured this out, or is it his business?