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,
My wife and I have been married for a year. I grew up in a great household as far as talking about sex was concerned. All three kids in the family are bi, though my brother and I are in hetero marriages. My wife, on the other hand, grew up in a very conservative environment and didn’t really do much sexual exploring. I’ve been doing all I can (comfortably) to encourage her to think about what she wants out of her sex life. We moved in before getting married, so we’ve been living together for two years, though we’ve been dating and sexually active with each other for much longer.
When we moved into our new house, we started having friends over regularly. A friend of a friend started coming over and my wife discovered that in addition to her light sub kinks, she had a physical attraction to this person—who is also a woman. There was some initial discomfort for her talking about this, but it eventually led to us having a few threesomes with our new friend.
That was good! The problem is now with me. I’ve never been in a situation where sex was untied from a romantic, emotionally deep relationship. No one gave me a playbook for what’s happening. I’m trying to make sure I keep things strictly friends with benefits, but it’s a confusing situation. My wife, her friend, and I are very close at this point, and I’ve found myself sexting her on a regular basis (my wife isn’t much of a sexter). I don’t know what polyamory is supposed to look like, and I’m confused about whether I’m allowed to have romantic feelings for this new partner or not. Halp?
—Polyam or Amnot
Stoya: “Supposed to look like” is a tricky concept. Non-monogamy includes a huge range of possibilities. As does monogamy, but that isn’t usually as obvious or discussed. Ethical non-monogamy is supposed to have communication and consent. So, has there been some conversation about keeping things strictly friends with benefits with this other woman?
Rich: Yes to all of this. Tristan Taormino writes at length about the “supposed to” issue in Opening Up. She argues that there is no “supposed to” here—everyone does non-monogamy differently and traditional models (in media) are few and far between. So it’s really up to you. The “problem” here is also the solution: the freedom of being untethered from a cultural model of love is as exhilarating and terrifying as flying.
Stoya: Figuring out what you collectively want your relationship to look like is a process. It starts with self-examination.
Rich: From there, it’s a conversation/negotiation. Taoromino suggests sitting down together and writing up a contract to spell out your agreement. The process requires listening to each other, asking for what you want, and being willing to compromise.
Stoya: Does Taormino have anything to say about whether this is the married couple and then the friend or all three together?
Rich: Oh, I believe it’s generally framed as a couple’s/primaries’ agreement, but a discussion with all three parties would be beneficial to take out the guesswork.
Stoya: For sure. What’s your position on couples making decisions without the third? I mean, obviously “we’re leaving the arrangement” isn’t a consensus issue. But how emotionally connected they’re planning to be seems like a group call.
Rich: That’s a great point. I’m probably a little conservative here because of my romanticism. I tend to think of this like: preserving the initial unit/relationship (in this case, the letter writer and their wife) is the priority. However, this is a bit of a different situation than your classic, “We’re going to be non-monogamous, and here’s how we’ll go about this” preliminary conversation, as it seems the third person’s presence has really catalyzed the need for such a discussion. I think the kind of three-way conversation you’re suggesting could be extremely emotionally bonding. Depending on her feelings, the new friend might be extremely heartened to be included.
Stoya: Yeah, they’re already having threesomes. This is open. I think, with an eye toward your point about preserving the initial relationship, the pair should talk about how much involvement they’re comfortable with this woman having in their lives and then have a three-way discussion centering the third and prioritizing discussion of her desires and boundaries.
Rich: Yes, the question of how much our writer is “allowed” to have romantic feelings is a discussion that can be had with the wife. It’s important, I think, to understand the emotional boundaries of the existing relationship, whether this extracurricular stuff is just for fun or if it can turn to something deeper without igniting feelings of betrayal. Of course, by wondering if romantic feelings are allowed, our writer is all but confessing that they have surfaced.
Stoya: What do they do if those feelings violate their partner’s boundaries?
Rich: That’s when I’d back away. I’ve had a similar experience, and when it got too lovey with the other guy for my boyfriend’s comfort level, it was: “Fine. We won’t continue having sex with him.” And that was OK with me. I’ve been on the other side too. I was hanging out with a couple, and when the one clearly was developing feelings that the other wasn’t, I put my own aside and backed away. I wasn’t going to take part in adding stress to their shared life or risk being an accessory to a breakup.
Stoya: And how do you best handle that talk if backing away is what needs to happen?
Rich: I think in those cases, something that can really hurt is a lack of clarity. If people don’t understand the root cause, they can sometimes blame themselves, and that sucks. So explaining how you got there and why you feel the next step is necessary, I think, is the most compassionate way to go, even if it’s a tough conversation.
More How to Do It
My husband and I have been married for around 10 years, and have always had very mismatched sex drives, as well as different feelings about sex overall. I knew this problem existed from the outset, and I love him for a million other reasons. I adore him, we have young children, and I would never want to blow up our relationship—yet I am in a state of constant sexual frustration, and that undermines our relationship, and my quality of life. I develop crushes on just about any guy who holds my gaze for too long. I’m desperate, in other words.
Well. In the past year or two my husband has made comments to the effect of “I don’t mind if you cheat on me, just don’t let me find out. I’d get too jealous!” I also know that he has had friends in this situation, and he really did think it was OK for them to go outside their marriages, if it made the marriages stronger in the long run. So can I just … go ahead and cheat on him?