How to Do It

I Moved Back in With My Parents and Made a Very Troubling Discovery About Their Relationship

I really don’t think this is healthy.

A woman makes a disapproving face at an older couple.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Damir Khabirov/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Halfpoint/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 am a 33-year-old lesbian. Three months ago, I lost my job, separated from my wife, and moved back home to live with my parents and their polyandry bisexual male partner. Since moving back home, I have come to fully realize my parent’s relationship dynamic with their partner, and it has made me both disappointed and disgusted.

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To explain, I first have to describe my parents and their life partner. My parents are in their 60s. My dad is retired military, raised in a different era, and gay. My parents married mostly out of a transactional arrangement, but they do genuinely love one another and are best friends. That arrangement has my mom covering for my dad’s homosexuality, and in return, my dad’s career advancement would provide my mom a comfortable living and the promise of having a son.
Unfortunately, my mom only had daughters. Their partner, who I will call DJ, is 23 years old and Asian (our family is Caucasian). The three of them had been together for five years and only in this last year did they agree to a lifelong commitment. I had known about their relationship since the beginning and was very supportive. My children and I get along very well with DJ, and I believe him to be a fine young person. But since living with my parents and seeing how they act with DJ, I have concerns.

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First, with my dad. I had always known he was gay, and as a lesbian, I respected him for having to live through a time when we weren’t accepted in society. Even though he’s still in the closet and stuck in his old ways, I never thought less of him for it. But it is his relationship with DJ that has made me disappointed in him. In public, my parents often tell strangers that DJ is their adopted son. Close friends only know DJ as the guy who is renting a room out back. At home, I see how much love my dad shows to DJ, but he would never do that in public, and that makes me sad. DJ has expressed to me his desire to be more public with their relationship, but he understands and accepts their wishes for complete privacy.

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As for my mom, her long-time desire to have a son has manifested with DJ. My mom acts very motherly towards him, often times reminding DJ to bring a jacket when he goes out, to worrying when he comes home late, to cooking and cleaning up after him. With strangers in public, he calls them Mom and Dad, but my mom isn’t separating the role she plays in public to the way she treats DJ at home. Based on the little information DJ had shared with me about his interactions with my mom, it’s gone beyond kink or a fetish. He stresses that there’s nothing harmful or toxic about their relationship, but I disagree. I’m not a psychiatrist, but I don’t know if this is a healthy relationship my parents are having with another person. If it isn’t, I don’t know where to start to address it.

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—Concerned Daughter

Dear Concerned Daughter,

Some of what you mention one might consider red flags … if one is a judgy busybody whose only course of action is meddling. Yeah, in an ideal world, every sexagenarian couple with a 23-year-old boyfriend would be able to live their truth, loud and unscathed, but your parents came of age in a different time and, regardless, a lot of communities do not receive open polyamory with kindness. You list a lot of idiosyncrasies, which are to be expected in such an arrangement. What would be really weird is if there were absolutely nothing unusual here beyond the relationship’s basic framework.

I’m not sure that DJ’s race is relevant to your concerns without any evidence that your parents have somehow predicated this relationship on fetishizing his Asianness, or are otherwise racist. I’m not sure that you can make the call that your mother’s relationship with DJ has “gone beyond a kink or fetish.” How? There are people who play out their kinks 24/7. I’m not sure that there is something harmful or toxic about their relationship, and neither are you. In the absence of a conversation with DJ, I might be more persuaded by your perspective, but he in fact seems entirely cool with this. Everyone else is but you, and would you look at that? You aren’t involved here. It’s telling that you report feeling the way you do backed by zero evidence. I’m always up for a good receipt reveal, but you, my dear, have failed to produce it. Because of this, your reaction to an arrangement, whose constituent parties all report happiness and consent, reads as a yucking of others’ yum. Your problems with the relationship seem to be of your perspective, perhaps deriving from this relationship’s failure to conform to what you think a relationship should look like. As usual, if you don’t like relationships involving married couples in their 60s and guys in their 20s, don’t be in one. Protesting the one you’re adjacent to will only alienate you from the people that you claim to care about.

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Dear How to Do It, 

My partner and I have been together for almost four years. We actually met through FetLife about seven years ago and were friends before moving into a romantic relationship.
Kink was a large part of building our friendship, and when we started dating, we had a really active kink life that we both really appreciated. For me, BDSM feels more like a need than a choice to spice things up.

This part of our relationship feels completely decimated by the pandemic. Antidepressants killed my sex drive for over a year, and when I finally ramped them down, my partners depression had tanked his sex drive. We have several nights each month blocked off for BDSM together, but I’m the only person that says anything when they come up, at this point. I’ve really stopped checking in about that very much anymore too, because the conversation tends to get stressful. When I do check in, I get a pretty uninterested response. He’ll say okay because it’s important to me,” but that doesn’t at all feel like enthusiastic consent, and I don’t want to make him do anything he doesn’t want to do.

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He says that BDSM is also important to him, but feels like a big energy drain prior. He enjoys doing it once we’re doing it, but doesn’t look forward to it ahead of time. It makes me feel pretty fucking unsexy, to be honest, and sad. We’ve tried very minimal kink, switching, etc … It all seems to be draining.

Maybe it’s a responsive drive for him? I feel like I’m getting mixed messages and just need to drop it. I feel like I’m mourning this important part of my relationship, AND I recognize we’re all exhausted all the time. Do you have ideas for what I could try on my own to help me feel more fulfilled here? Solo kink of some kind, if that’s a thing? Really appreciate your thoughts.

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—Morose Masochist

Dear Morose Masochist,

It’s understandable that you are in mourning, but I don’t see a good reason to take your husband’s current lack of interest in BDSM so personally. You’ve been there yourself! His reason—depression—has nothing to do with you. You realize this, and yet I’m inferring from your letter that you believe he should be able to overcome his depression by sheer force of his love for you alone. If that were true, taking his apathy personally would follow. But it’s just not how depression works. There’s no reason to believe, given the evidence submitted, that his sex drive has recovered. He will need to take initiative on that, with the proper treatment, but in the meantime, it seems like he’s willing to work with you. If I were you, I’d do my best to refrain from taking personally his lack of a 24/7 boner with your name on it, and continue to work with him. Sex may be less spontaneous and enthusiastic than you’d prefer, but it’s still possible and even enjoyable for him when you get it going. (Note that despite popular refrains, what’s important in a case like this is not so much that his consent has all the features you might associate with enthusiasm, but that it has one major feature you’d associate with enthusiasm, which is unambiguity.)

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Regarding solo BDSM, it is a thing, apparently, and here’s a Dame piece with suggestions from kink experts. Included suggestions for, uh, self-abuse include self-flogging, rope play, edging, and sensation play. Given how much BDSM has to do with power play, temper your expectations, but it’s totally conceivable that the feelings these acts alone provide might scratch your itch, so do give a whirl to whatever sounds good.

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Dear How to Do It, 

My male partner and I (female) have a recurrent technical problem: Condoms slip out pretty often. For medical reasons I can’t be on a regular pill, and I don’t love the idea of having a coil fitted. I end up taking emergency contraception and the worry of pregnancy drives my sex drive lower, although I really enjoy vaginal penetrative sex with him. In my experience, condoms always worked fine for me with other male sexual partners, with whom comparatively I had only sporadic issues (and mostly breakage but not slipping). I’d really like to understand what’s going wrong with the condoms here, and how we can minimize this problem.

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His penis is quite thick and we thought about trying larger than average condoms. He also produces quite a lot of precum and so maybe it’s natural lubrication that have them slip off? We pay good attention putting them on properly. I am at sea. Any suggestion? Any idea why this is happening? What could we do to mitigate if not solve this issue?

— Stop the Slipping

Dear Stop the Slipping,

For help here, I tapped Melissa White, CEO of online condom retailer Lucky Bloke (she also runs The Condom Review), who has appeared in this column previously. She knows her rubbers (even the ones that aren’t technically made of latex). White suggested that the condoms you’re using are too small, which could be causing them to roll down during sex (she compared it to tight knee-high stockings rolling down to one’s ankles). To tackle this, she suggested two potential remedies. The first is an internal condom (known in less inclusive times as a “female condom”), which is designed to stay in place in a receptive partner irrespective of the size of the inserter. And, as she did last time, she suggested the Unique condom brand, which come in regular, snug, plus, and XXL sizes. White compared the Unique Plus to the size of Trojan Magnums or Skyn’s large size. XXL are a step up from that, and larger at the base, which could help keep them on and working in your case.

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White told me that while the width of snug and regular sizes are pretty standard across the board (snug is usually 45 to 49 mm, and regular is 50 to 54 mm, maybe 56 mm), large-size condoms have the widest range of width, from 56 to 72 mm. That means you may have try a bunch to determine what works for you

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Dear How to Do It, 

My husband and I have been married for eight years. When we first met, it felt like we couldn’t keep our hands off each other (as is the case with new relationships). As the years have gone on, we’ve been intimate less and less, to the point that we’re only having sex four times a year, and I can tell you exactly when those four times are: his birthday (January), my birthday (April), a random day in either July or August, and our anniversary (October). The fact that I can name off the four days a year that I’ll be having sex with my husband is part of the problem! There’s nothing spontaneous or sexy about our love life anymore, and it feels to me like we’re only “doing it” when we’re “supposed” to want to do it. Sure, we’re both aging, and my husband has some health issues that make most positions uncomfortable for him to maintain for any length of time. I will admit that my sex drive isn’t what it was in my 20s, and as he’s approaching 40, he’d probably say the same. I should probably point out that we don’t have children, so that’s not a factor in the timing.

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But that’s only one part of the issue. The part that I’m truly struggling with is that even when we’re having these contractually obligated sessions, my husband’s heart doesn’t seem in it. There’s no foreplay (even though I’ve gently requested it on multiple occasions, for the simple reason that sex is almost painful for me without working up to it). A couple of weeks ago, on our anniversary, he literally walked into the living room, pointed in the direction of our bedroom, said “Do you want to go in there?” and that was that. Outside of a peck on the lips now and then, we barely have any physical contact. I don’t feel wanted, desired, or loved in a romantic way. We’ve essentially become roommates at this point. He’s a great life partner, friend, and person, and not only do I love him, I desire him! I want to know he feels the same way about me.

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About four years into our marriage, when I first noticed this trend, I tried to have an honest conversation with him about it. I was careful to frame things with “I” statements, to not blame him in any way. I genuinely wanted to know if I was doing something wrong, if there was anything I could do differently to make things better for him, and I may have even asked if he was straight (I was fully prepared to support him if he said no). He got angry, defensive, clammed up, and finally made the statement that he thought I was only with him for sex. Clearly, that’s not the case, because I’m barely getting any and when I do, it’s not great.

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His reaction to the last conversation has made me hesitant to bring it up again. First, I’m afraid that confronting him about the frequency will only make the problem worse, make him feel like he has to do it more often. Quite frankly I’d rather not have sex at all, if it’s going to feel like a task that has to get checked off for the month before moving on to something else. Second, I’m afraid that he might reveal that he doesn’t love me or want to be with me anymore, and I don’t know if I’m willing to sacrifice an otherwise wonderful relationship and marriage for the sake of my physical wants. Do you have any advice for how I might broach this subject without making things worse? And how can I approach the conversation in a way that will get honest answers (even though they may be hard to hear)?

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—Contractually Obligated

Dear Contractually Obligated,

It seems like he’s very sensitive about this issue, which could mean any number of things for him. For example, maybe he’s feeling diminished desire and is ashamed of that. Failing to meet the general expectations people have of men to be walking erections can make one feel pretty inadequate. That’s just one of any number of things that could be causing this. It, like many of these things, does not necessarily have to do with his feelings for you. Keeping things in the realm of “I” and not “you” is important for framing, yes, but don’t lean so hard on the “I” that you’re taking something personal that potentially isn’t.

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Your previous conversation was well-intentioned, but I suspect he’s too sensitive about this to have received you rationally. You inquired, yes, but you did so in a way that made things about you in terms of your shortcomings and your potential to improve the situation. Focus on him next time. Think of the process at a chipping away to uncover the issue. Start by asking questions: What does he think of your sex life? Is he satisfied? Interested? If you make headway, ask what thinks someone in your position should do? Assure him that you’re willing to work with him and that you’re open to couples counseling, if in fact you are.

I understand your fear of such a conversation revealing an insurmountable rift, but wouldn’t awareness of that be better sooner than later? How strong is your relationship if the Band-Aid of avoidance is holding together a gash that will never actually close up? Do you think it’s better to stay in a relationship that will never deliver what you’re looking for, or have the opportunity to seek satisfaction elsewhere via a better-suited partner? Potentially life-altering conversations are naturally uncomfortable, but comfort can be an anesthetic. This one might have to hurt in order to heal.

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There is, naturally, the option of allowing your sex life with him to remain what it is, while opening up the relationship, but that requires way more communication on the topic than you’re currently engaging in. See if you can make any headway with your probe, and keep that one in your back pocket. It’s only after he opens up that you can even consider being open.

— Rich

More How to Do It

For the first time in my life, I am dating a person who is very overweight—clinically speaking, I think a doctor would probably call him obese. While I am very attracted to him and enjoy touching him and being with him sexually, I wouldn’t say I am attracted to how his body looks. I don’t think this is a problem for me—if it feels good and I want to do it, I’m set. However, since he is insecure about his weight and has received a lot of negative judgment from past partners, he frequently asks me for affirmation about his body. For instance, he’ll ask if I like different parts of his body, or if I think they’re sexy. I think he’s sexy as a full human, so I just answer yes to these questions and tell him he’s gorgeous. That’s the right thing to do, right?

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