How to Do It

I Asked My Husband for an Open Marriage. Now He’s Being Completely Unreasonable.

I feel a little trapped.

Man and woman in bed, with neon signs above them flashing YES and NO.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by silverkblack/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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 was raised in a very religious home where sex and dating were completely taboo. I “saved myself” for marriage. My personal beliefs don’t align with this, but I thought I had no choice.

After a decade of marriage and hating sex, I asked my husband if I could explore sexual experiences and experiment with other people if the chance arose. He enthusiastically agreed, but said he didn’t want to hear details. A few months later, he said he did want to hear all the details. A while after that, he said he didn’t want me to do it. He keeps changing his answer.

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I’m not trying to cheat; I just feel like I lack any basis for having enjoyable sex, and it seems everyone I know who enjoys sex has tried a few things with a few people before getting to know their preferences. The result has been that I am not in the mood for sex at all, but he still badgers me for it daily. I’ve told him that if he needs sex so badly, he’s welcome to an open marriage. He says he refuses to have sex with anyone but me. I feel a little trapped and I’m always wondering, am I being wrong here?

— Feeling Stuck

Dear Stuck,

Daily badgering for sex is a big red flag. You feel trapped because you are trapped. He told you one thing, changed it, changed it again, and now seems to expect you to suddenly be happy with the sex you previously hated? A reasonable solution for him, since he refuses to have sex with other partners, would be to develop a robust masturbation routine. Does he have one?

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It sounds like your situation has gone completely off the rails. I’m wondering if your husband was raised in a similarly sexually repressed environment, and if some of his behavior is coming from the internalized idea that all couples should be a closed pair. It’s also possible that he wants to be open and for you to have the opportunity to explore, but is so deeply, naturally monogamous that he’s incapable and his feelings are exploding in awful ways. If you want to preserve the marriage, a couples counselor is top priority.

Badgering for sex is enough of a red flag, and more so if this behavior was the norm before your discussions about opening up your relationship. Take stock of the situation: Is your husband demanding and erratic about other aspects of your relationship? If you feel unsafe, there shouldn’t be any shame in going to a friend’s place or a hotel. Read your letter out loud to yourself. Pretend you’re a stranger reading it. Are you worried for the writer? If your gut says yes, go.

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Dear How to Do It,

I very recently started seeing someone new. Kissing him is fantastic; he’s so sweet, kind, attentive, complementary, and seems to communicate really well. I just feel so comfortable and safe around him (which, especially since I finally got out of a long-term abusive relationship last year, this is a pretty big deal).

Last night was the first time we went home together, and after a little while, he confessed that he didn’t think he could have sex with me, if that was what I was hoping, because he was “absolutely terrified.” I learnt that his last relationship, which was a long one, left him feeling incredibly sexually insecure, and outside of sex, what he’s told me about it has a lot of red flags for abusive behavior from her towards him. He feels that he drove her away by being “so terrible,” and as a result he’s clearly just so nervous and in his own head.

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In our very short time together, he’s been great. The way he touches me is so sensual, soft and empathic, and when we did fool around a bit, it felt fantastic. He’s such a great kisser, he didn’t seem to have any issue staying hard, and he made me feel so good about myself and my own (minor) insecurities. I tried to do the same with him but he said that unfortunately he finds it hard to believe me (acknowledging that that is a him problem, not a me problem).

So how do I help this beautiful, sexy person feel good with me, and with himself, again? I told him that I don’t expect him to perform for me, that there’s no pressure, just the two of us enjoying our bodies together, and that I just love being with him and being close to him. I feel that this is something that might just take some time and lots of communication, but do you have any tips in the meantime, or things to keep in mind that could be helpful?

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— OK to Move Slow

Dear OK,

I’m glad to see you mention your new partner’s acknowledgement that this is a him problem. To use one of Emily Nagoski’s frameworks, this is his sleepy hedgehog in his own lap. You can dim the lights, you can walk carefully, you can ask your new beau what he wants and needs, but at the end of the day his feelings and his healing are his responsibility. And this “so terrible” quote indicates that a therapist might be in order—anxiety around sex may be the tip of an iceberg. You can ask him if he’s considered mental health support, and even encourage a couple of times, but remember that taking his hedgehog to the vet is his choice.

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Walking carefully means being gentle with your praise. It can be hard to hear feedback that is at odds with how we think of ourselves, even when that feedback is more positive than we feel we deserve. Keep an eye on his body language and facial expressions, and take caution not to overload him.

Consistency in actions and keeping your word will, over time, help you prove your commitment, which should help him develop security in the relationship and trust in you. Say what you mean, and do what you say you will. Meanwhile, exercise patience as much as you can. Healing is rarely a direct upward progression, and can feel more like a bouncing ball. If he seems to be making progress and then reverses for a bit, that’s OK and expected.

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And make sure you’re taking care of yourself and your own boundaries. You say you’ve been through an abusive relationship yourself. Have you worked on that outside of this relationship? Are you in therapy? Have you talked through it with trusted friends? Do you know what your own needs are, and, crucially, are you getting them met? I think you’ve both got this.

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Dear How to Do It,

My wife and I are both in our 60s and have been married for over 30 years. We were both virgins at age 25, not because of religious or cultural reasons, but because we were both nerdy and awkward with the opposite sex, and we have been each other’s only sexual partner. Sex was good for a while (although we didn’t have anything to compare it to), even when our three kids were young. It was pretty vanilla, but we liked it. I never refused any request she made.

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However, in recent years, sex dwindled and disappeared. I happily got a vasectomy years ago when we were done with children because she had to go off the pill, but now we haven’t had any sexual contact in more than two years. She kept saying it was getting painful, and I believe her, but her promises to visit the gynecologist never happened and I got tired of asking. I think she just lost interest.

I want to tell her how much I miss it but I don’t want sex as some sort of “favor.” We took a romantic vacation but that didn’t get anything happening. Everything seems to be OK emotionally. We kiss and cuddle and spend time together. Our life is good. Our finances are in great shape. We already own a vacation home in a region we’re excited about retiring to in 5-6 years and our oldest son lives in another region we also want to visit (we’re close with all our children). We’re not in as great of shape as we were once, but have both started going to a gym and it’s paying off. Is sex something I have to learn to be done with?

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— Retired From Sex

Dear Retired,

I’m wondering how your wife’s experiences with the gynecologist have been, historically. If they’re anything like mine, she might be reluctant to even try with a category of physicians who are focused pretty narrowly on keeping people with uteruses in baby-making shape. You might look for a doctor with a specialization in sexual health—they’re out there, and they’re focused pretty narrowly on sexual function, which includes capacity for pleasure.

You can also focus on types of sexual intimacy that don’t involve her vaginal canal. I’m heartened to hear that you kiss and cuddle. I’m wondering if some boundaries might help her feel free to be a little more erotic. Have a conversation about how you’re taking penetration off the table, but want to engage in sensual touch together. Barbara Carrellas’ Urban Tantra is a great resource for what that can look like. Maybe you touch each others’ erogenous zones above the waist to start. You’ll have to find what works for both of you.

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Another book that might be useful is Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are. It talks a lot about ways to encourage desire, and it sounds like your wife’s desire has been low for a while. Understanding the mechanisms of sexual excitation and sexual inhibition might help you have a framework to talk with your wife about.

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As for how to have the conversation, you’ll know best how to phrase yourself and what to avoid. Communicate your love, commitment, and appreciation of the stability and family the two of you have built. Make it clear that you’re in this for the long haul. Tell her you’re nervous, or anxious, or whatever it is that you’re feeling, about what you’re going to say next. Then tell her that you miss your sexual connection. Follow that up immediately with a statement that you aren’t after vaginal penetration, but you do want… Well, you’re the only person who can fill in that blank, but I have faith in you. Good luck.

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Dear How to Do It,

I identify as a cis female in my 30s. Until now, I have exclusively dated men, but I have always felt attracted to more masculine-presenting trans and nonbinary people. I would like to explore this part of my sexuality but have no idea where to begin. I don’t even know if I’m using the right language for what I’m seeking. Can you help?

— Curious

Dear Curious,

I’m handing out book recommendations all over the place today. Kate Bornstein’s My New! Gender Workbook is a workbook that helps people understand gender. The focus is on our own relationship to gender, but there’s much to be learned along the way. Spoiler: By the end of the book, it feels pretty obvious that gender does not equal genitals, and that it’s a lot more expansive and slippery than heteronormativity holds space for.

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Ideally you’ll go through the workbook with a pen and paper in hand, doing the exercises, but since we don’t live in an ideal world, I’ll give you a shortcut: Think about the dudes you’ve dated. What attracted you to them initially? What got you hot? Make a list for each one, and then compare your lists. What qualities do they share? There’s the thing we’re trying to describe—what are you into? From there, do your best to think through whether each is more masculine or more feminine, in the standard binary definitions. You might have to do some thinking about what those definitions are, and while you’re at it, you might as well think about how you define each end of the spectrum. Then you’ll be in a place to say what I’m guessing will be “I’m into masc” and you’ll have an ability to converse about what that means to you.

Stoya

More How to Do It

I’m a guy, 24, predominantly straight but heteroflexible, I’d say—I’ve hooked up with guys but haven’t felt attracted to men lately. I’m married to a bisexual woman who’s 26 and who has been in (fairly) serious relationships with both men and women. My wife expresses desires to have a girlfriend, which I’m fine with for the most part. She says she’d be fine with me having a boyfriend but not a girlfriend, which is an issue for me.

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