How to Do It

I Let My Husband Go on a Date With His Ex-Girlfriend. It Went Way Worse Than I Expected.

Woman clutching her head, a graphic of an open door.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by StockPhotosArt/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear How to Do It,

My husband and I have been discussing ethical nonmonogamy for months. We explored our boundaries through fantasy, reading books about it together, and it seemed like we were ready to advance to the next step. My husband envisioned this happening on a faster schedule than I did. But by last month, I felt ready.

Well. We tried it—and given all that’s happened since, I am in serious need of advice.

My husband went on a date with Kate, the girl he’d been dating before I met him. Over the course of a few weeks, it became a fixation. He wanted her bad. Our sex life died during this time. I had a boundary that I wasn’t ready for our dating other people to advance to sex yet, so they never did have sex—in part, because of this, and in part because she had reservations about dating a married guy. Through all of that, I was sort of OK.

But then, at dinner with some friends, he surprised me by inviting Kate along. That sent me into a tailspin. She was more beautiful, smart, and cool than I could’ve imagined. The worst part was that they seemed like the couple, not us. My self-esteem took a nosedive, and I’ve been in a very dark place ever since. I haven’t dated anyone myself; there just wasn’t anyone I felt a mutual connection with. He also only wanted me to date women, which is an area I feel a bit more shy about because I haven’t explored my queerness too much.

So maybe we need to drop the whole open marriage thing. But where did we go wrong, and how can we rebuild desire between us? I’ve been pulling out all the stops to look hot, but he doesn’t notice because it’s familiar. I feel like our romantic life is still so strong, but our sex life, and my self-esteem, are so damaged. Help.

—Tried and Failed

Rich: There’s a few places where I think they went preciously wrong.

Stoya: Shall we start from the top?

Rich: Sure.

Stoya: “My husband envisioned this happening on a faster schedule than I did.” Already I’m like, orange flag.

Rich: Yes, faster schedule. They should be keeping pace. I mean, it’s really important in the early days, especially as you’re considering this to be on the exact same page, if you want to stay in this relationship, if it’s not some kind of exit strategy

Stoya: “The girl he’d been dating before I met him.”

Rich: That’s a lot of baggage to bring into this situation.

Stoya: That’s who you choose to try ethical nonmonogamy with?

Rich: It makes me wonder: Was this always the plan? Is this some scheme? Is this an exit strategy then?

Stoya: Or is it not so much an exit strategy as a very specific desire for nonmonogamy? Not a desire for nonmonogamy in an open way, but a desire to specifically add Kate, the former partner?

Rich: Right, because of some unfinished business whatever.

Stoya: Yeah. In which case the husband should’ve been upfront about that.

Rich: But, obviously, hearing that, somebody is much more likely to say, “I’m not comfortable with that. I don’t like this whole thing. We’re not doing ethical nonmonogamy.” The suspicion of the husband’s imagination and his own selfish interest intensifies.

Stoya: Yes.

Rich: “So they never did have sex.” I don’t know if I believe that.

Stoya: I don’t know if I believe that, but also I don’t care just compared to all the other things. You have these huge flags festooning whole sides of buildings, and there’s this little toothpick in a cheeseburger.

Rich: OK, they have dinner with friends. My question is, are the friends aware of the ethical nonmonogamy? What do they know of the situation? Also, I mean, I wouldn’t appreciate it if my boyfriend brought a platonic friend to dinner without telling me. You know what I mean? Why wouldn’t you tell me that? That would just seem weird to me. Bring whoever to dinner, but what’s the surprise for? Unless you’re doing something you’re not supposed to.

Stoya: Even Steve, my utterly platonic roommate, we tell each other, “Hey, I invited so-and-so over,” even like, “I’m going to see so-and-so.” “Tell them I said hi.” We’re constantly communicating about our lives.

Rich: Of course.

Stoya: And that includes social goings on in a way that, I think, is pretty reasonable to expect from any significantly entwined relationship.

Rich: And if I’m reading this cynically, you wouldn’t tell somebody in advance, so that when you do bring your girlfriend to dinner, your wife is in no position to get mad about it. Unless she wants to make a scene, and then you make her the asshole.

Stoya: Right, yeah.

Rich: And I don’t like that.

Stoya: I don’t like that, at all. That’s one of the big ones festooning the side of the building, like a billboard. It’s a red billboard.

Rich: I also don’t like “he also only wanted me to date women,” when he’s dating women. Did she have any vision of what would be comfortable for her with his partners? And, again, I think that we can both agree that that stance isn’t probably ideal, in terms of discriminating and saying you can do this and whatever. But if one person’s going to make that claim, then …

Stoya: Once it’s introduced, it should have some equity.

Rich: Exactly. Now, maybe she said, “Well, I don’t care. You want me to only date women, OK. I don’t care who you date. I just don’t have it in me to make that distinction.”

Stoya: Yes. However, the phrasing here …

Rich: Yeah. “He only wanted me to date women.”

Stoya: “Which is an area where I feel a bit more shy.” I feel if there had been some further discussion, that would’ve been relayed, because the writer is pretty thorough.

Rich: Yeah. So this is just their framework of nonmonogamy. This isn’t even interfacing with the issues that come up, even when this is pulled off properly, which are that it’s really hard to compete with new relationship energy. And there’s a chance that even if there weren’t these red flags, and he did everything according to us right, that still the sex life with the wife would’ve dropped off because this new relationship is consuming him so much. This is a thing that poly people talk about all the time: NRE, new relationship energy. And it’s really hard to compete with it. The best advice I’ve ever seen is you’ve got to ride it out.

Stoya: It’s hard to compete with NRE. And if we believe that they didn’t have sex, not only is our writer competing with NRE, they’re competing with new relationship imagined energy. And what we imagine is always so much more perfect than the reality is. You can’t compete with someone’s imagination.

Rich: No. Their imagination is very personal to them. I mean, this is what so much of online dating disappointment comes down to—we were chatting and you seemed great. Well, why did you seem great? Because I’m filling all the spaces in with my head. I’m making you ideal based on my ideals.

Stoya: Yeah. We’re text-chatting and the voice in my head has all this expression, and intonation, and data that you didn’t put there.

Rich: Exactly. And then you meet the person, and it’s such a disappointment. Well, it’s not your fault, per se, but you did it. You created this impossible standard. Yes, there’s all of that, even in the best case scenario. To me, “maybe we should drop the whole open marriage thing?” Yeah. I mean, you’re not doing it well. Maybe you should, at least for now, or reconvene and really work out these issues that we’re talking about.

Stoya: Yes and are they really sure that they want to put more work into this marriage? Will the husband also put work in? Will they also concede? At the very least, they need to be prepared for any feedback given to the husband to result in divorce.

Rich: Yeah, definitely. The letter comes to us where this relationship is at a really delicate juncture, and it’s going to be touch and go from here. I think that you’re right, it’s a matter of, what you want to invest in this? How much time? Because there is work that needs to be done. Counseling with a sex positive therapist who knows about poly issues might be useful. I mean, rebuild is a word that she used. “How can we rebuild desire between us?” I think, “how can you rebuild trust in the relationship?” is the more pertinent issue even.

Stoya: Yeah. It’s the trust that will allow more intimate desire.