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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’ve gotten myself into this problem, but I don’t know how to get out of it. When we first started dating, my girlfriend’s sex drive was a huge turn-on, and we had sex nearly every day. This year, I was really stressed with work and other things. We had a blowout fight where I got angry and told her she was too much work, and that she needed to tone it down.
I know it wasn’t kind, but I was pushed beyond my limit with stress. That was two months ago. Since then, we’ve had sex three times. She will never initiate and, when I do, she always makes it missionary, often with the lights off. She doesn’t want to go with anything more creative, and the enthusiasm is totally gone. I’ve barely seen her naked since the fight, and I feel like she’s being passive-aggressive by changing at the gym or in the bathroom. I changed jobs and leveled out this stress in my life, so my sex drive’s back to normal, but how do I fix this?
Stoya: I cannot think about anything else until we address this, “I feel like she’s being passive-aggressive by changing at the gym or in the bathroom.” What exactly does passive-aggressive actually mean?
Rich: I think, in this case, he’s like, it’s almost like this egocentric reading of her actions: “Oh her behavior, she must be somehow sending me a message. She must be showing me how she feels, through her behavior,” and it’s not necessarily that at all. Right?
Stoya: That is definitely my feeling. This person, side note, doesn’t actually mention their gender. If I had to assume, I’d go with mid-20s cisman.
Rich: That’s what I thought.
Stoya: This person told their girlfriend that she was too much and needed to turn it down, which was probably hurtful.
Stoya: Women get all sorts of awful messages about their sexuality, including that expressing their sexuality at all is too much. Our writer quite possibly pushed a button there. And she has responded to what she was told, which was worse than “wasn’t kind,” by closing off. Now, our writer is labeling this passive-aggressive, which is so subjective and very murky, that it doesn’t tell us much other than that the person saying it thinks that this is unfair behavior.
Rich: Yeah, yeah. It very well could be that she’s just basically trying to cope in this situation, as opposed to trying to target the LW in a way that is not straightforward. I can’t help but wonder if we’re not getting the full story. She’s now closed herself off and doesn’t want to show her body. Did they insult that as well? Was there something there? That’s what it seems like to me.
It’s interesting that she’s hanging in the relationship, if it’s changed this much after that event.
Rich: I mean, this isn’t really something that gets solved without an actual conversation, right? Something happened. She received a message that she’s clearly taken to heart and that really disrupted the relationship. I don’t think you repair that without discussing it.
But the writer should know that the reason you want to keep from saying shitty things to your partner is it might actually change things. And you can explain your actions away with stress, but the fact is, you said what you said, and there are very sensitive people. Words can really shift things. There are consequences for your behavior and it seems like they’re experiencing a consequence.
Stoya: Yeah. And some statements, especially from people we’re vulnerable with, echo. One, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it,” is not going to be enough to counteract that echo.
It seems like a pretty standard response from the girlfriend. You hear something really hurtful, and it takes more than one, “I didn’t mean that. I apologize. I was stressed,” to let that heal.
Rich: Yes. It needs to be shown, over time, that this was a mistake, that this does not actually represent how you feel, for that to kind of untangle. So, patience, care, understanding, and this devotion to living contrary to those particular words, is, I think, going to be what actually pulls the relationship through. And that’s not a foregone conclusion.
Stoya: Stepping back and looking at the entire letter, I get this picture of the writer’s girlfriend as what she can provide to them sexually. “The sex drive was a turn-on. Then I was stressed, and we had a blow-up fight, where I told her to back off. Now, my stress is leveled off, so my sex drive is back to normal, and I want to fix the fact that we’re not having sex like we used to when I had space for it in my life.” So, is your girlfriend a whole person to you?
Rich: It seems really transactional. And look, I’m always willing to give a little bit of leeway here. This is a very specific column. People need to get to the point. You can’t send us a book, which any relationship could constitute. I get it. We’re compressing here.
But you’re right. Certainly, the presentation can be very telling. It seems like the writer’s emotions have dictated their interaction, and that’s not a tenable situation—not without risking a major fight like the one our writer describes. So, just like our writer needed tending to when they had their high-stress situation, now it’s her turn. And it’s an equal and opposite reaction.
Stoya: 100 percent. So, advice our writer can take action on. Spend some time taking stock of the blow-up fight. What exactly did they say to their girlfriend? What are the things they said that are probably the most problematic? And then some kind of apology that is direct and of an appropriate scale. It’s got to be something better than, “Those things weren’t kind of me to say, but I was stressed.” That’s unlikely to get our writer what they want, which is a path to repair the relationship.
Rich: Yes. It’s really time to reckon with, not what she is to you, but who she is as an emotional being, in and of herself. That’s what the time is calling for. So, do that. Again, patience and work. If you’re not willing to put in, don’t expect to get much out.
Stoya: Yep. Good luck.
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