How to Do It

My Boyfriend’s Shocking Past With His Mom Is Ruining Our Sex Life

From the How to Do It podcast.

A woman cradling a man.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

How to Do It, Slate’s sex advice column, now has its very own podcast featuring Stoya and Rich. Twice a week, they’ll tackle their most eye-popping questions yet in short, fun, informative episodes. Subscribe to the podcast now wherever you listen.

This episode transcript is available exclusively to Slate Plus members. For a limited time, become a member now and get $25 off your first year.

Dear How to Do It,

I’ve been dating “Jack” for about seven months. He is sweet, caring, kind, brilliant, and lots of fun to be around. He doesn’t speak with his mother, but that’s understandable—given the shocking back story I learned recently.

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Jack’s mom is serving a prison sentence for attempted murder. We have not discussed it directly, but his family has made it abundantly clear that the person his mother attempted to murder was Jack himself.

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The problem is that I can’t be spontaneous in any way around him. If I reach to stroke his side when we’re cuddling, he’ll grab my wrist. When I reached into my pocket once, he took a step back and dropped into a defensive stance. And you can forget about anything during sex that isn’t announced in advance. He’ll have a full-blown panic attack.

I can’t deal with it anymore. I like him, and I don’t want to restrain myself around him. Impulsive and spontaneous is the way I’m wired, and he can’t handle that. He is in therapy about his various trust and sudden reaction issues, but he’s been in therapy for most of his life, and from the sense I get talking to him, he’s kind of given up on things ever getting better. Ordinarily, I would break up with him. But I can’t shake the feeling that I’m breaking up with a really great guy over what amounts to rejecting him for his traumas, which makes me feel like a terrible person. What can I do?

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—Jack Attack

Rich: I think there’s a lot of either/or, black-and-white thinking here that’s like, “Oh, I’m breaking up with this great guy because of his traumas,” but that’s assuming everything is neutral, basically, and the writer is somehow performing a disservice? You can not be the right person for this great person, and it doesn’t work out.

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Stoya: I’m going way out on thin ice here. So I love cats.

Rich: Not the musical, the actual … the animal.

Stoya: Felines. And I have rescues. They were born under a porch, and Pixel—one of his eyes was infected and had to come out. He’s only got one eye. So he startles much more easily if you approach him from his blind spot. I am a great home for those cats. I don’t wear shoes inside. I don’t have more than three people over at a time. I approach Pixel calmly from the side where he can see me.

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But someone who really likes to have lots of parties would not be a good home for Widget and Pixel, and that doesn’t make them a bad person.

Rich: And it doesn’t make those cats not worth loving or having.

Stoya: No.

Rich: It’s just about the fit.

So I think in some ways, when you see this mismatch happening, it can be crueler to stay in the relationship that you’re ill-suited for. And this is a guy who has a tremendous amount of trauma, completely justifiably, but firstly, they’ve been together for seven months. This isn’t decades-long relationship. It’s really at this time that these things start to come out and you start to say, “Hey, let me think of this future with this person. Do I see it happening? What is that going to be like?” Seven months is a completely normal time to evaluate this and say, “No, I actually can’t do this. Sorry, it’s my life here.”

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Stoya: But two years in, after putting myself in his shoes, you know when the person you’re seeing feels like you are a burden. You can sense it.

Rich: And that sucks.

Stoya: And it’s not necessarily a trauma thing. It can be…

Rich: All sorts of things. You start to annoy that person so much.

Stoya: … and you can sense it. And if Jack and our writer stick it out past the year mark toward the two-year mark and then our writer, after months of palpable resentment, is like, “I don’t want to do this anymore,” that’s so much more damaging than saying, “Hey, we’re a mismatch.”

Rich: Exactly. Seven months in.

Stoya: It’s the same as being a sexual mismatch.

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Rich: It is. And my real question for this is that seems pretty clear to me, and I understand that there may be some residual guilt because you feel like some things in this relationship are working, but sometimes, one thing doesn’t work and that overshadows everything else.

Stoya: Remember the guy who was in his early 20s that I dated?

Rich: Yeah.

Stoya: And then the pandemic hit, and life got very real. And I was like, “Oh, we are not on the same path anymore.”

Rich: No.

Stoya: You’re really great. You’re so nice. You’re lovely, and you’re going to find someone who’s walking through life with the same trajectory as you are.

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Rich: And I also think too, when you get with somebody who’s in their early 20s, for example, you kind of realize, “OK, this is kind of a crapshoot. Let’s see how long this can work out until it doesn’t, basically.” And it may. It very well may.

Stoya: For some people it does.

Rich: For some people it does. Absolutely.

I would like to say this feeling does not necessarily denote laziness or a failure of compassion unless it does. And I would just ask the writer if they feel that they’ve done everything, if they’re doing their best—that they’re not just giving up because, “I can’t be bothered,” right? It doesn’t seem like it to me, but it seems to me like some amount of guilt or uncertainty as to whether or not you’re doing the right thing is because of that selfish component or the perception of it.

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Stoya: I think one question along that line that’s useful for the writer to ask themselves is in other difficult situations, what have I done? So then they can get an idea is this a lifelong pattern of, “Oh, this is hard, goodbye, or is this me choosing where I’m suited to be helpful?”

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Rich: So think about it a little bit more, but don’t feel so bad for not continuing a relationship that you are ill-equipped to actually manage in the way that it needs to be done.

Stoya: And keep the emphasis on mismatch. Keep the emphasis on “we aren’t a good fit for each other” to avoid contributing to Jack feeling worse.

Rich: Rejected after dealing with all that he’s dealt with.

If you are in need of sex advice, you can write to How to Do It at slate.com/howtodoit. Or you can leave us a voicemail at 347- 640-4025. Remember, this is anonymous!

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