How to Do It

I Made My Husband Agree to My Rules Before Marriage. He’s Broken Every Single One.

I know it won’t change.

Woman and man sitting back to back away from each other. The woman appears upset.
Photo illustraiton by Slate. Photo by Viktoria Korobova/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,

My husband and I have been together for five years with two beautiful boys. From the very beginning, I told him my boundaries and values which included not watching porn and being respectful of boundaries. Throughout our relationship he’s lied about saving photos of women, watching porn, and making fake accounts. Now, he’s even been looking at photos of our nanny online. I know most people would say leave him, and I’ve thought about it very long and hard, but I’m choosing to stay for various reasons including our boys. How can I navigate through something that I know most likely won’t change? Should I consider focusing my energy on my needs even if that means it doesn’t line up with his values?

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—Vicious Cycle

Dear Vicious Cycle,

Well, like the mysterious quorum of “most people” that you describe, I would also say leave him. Not because I believe watching porn is inherently bad, or because you were being reasonable when you set a boundary about his own media viewing and masturbation habits, but because the two of you clearly have very different ideas about how sexual relationships should be. You don’t specify whether he committed to your boundaries around his own use of pornography, but, since you say he’s lied, I’m going to assume that he did. Failing to honor commitments is another great reason to move on. (The nanny photos situation is a whole other potential can of worms: Is he occasionally liking a photo of her on Instagram or is his engagement more like scrolling through years worth of archives on a daily basis?)

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All that said, you’ve asked me for advice after declaring your intent to stay. So, I tried to work with that, and then I reread your letter, which ends with an implication that taking care of your own needs—which are unspecified—is out of alignment with your husband’s values. I doubt you’re referring to taking a lover. If you were referring to your need to have a partner who doesn’t watch porn or look at photos of other women, I suspect you’d be more open to divorce. Are you referring to time for yourself? Career pursuits? I’m wondering if you, your husband, the relationship, or any of the above are OK by any stretch of the imagination. Without further details, I’m reluctant to encourage you to continue navigating this marriage. A therapist, or, if you’re religious, a person of authority in your congregation, may be able to help untangle your situation and help you figure out what you think is best from here for, yes, your children, and—as importantly—for yourself. Sending you all the best wishes.

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Dear How to Do It,

Ten years ago, during a tumultuous time in our marriage, I cheated on my husband. Today, we are still together after working hard on our marriage for the last decade; we are a great team. When I look back on that time I feel like I had lost my mind. At the time it felt like something I was swept up in, but now I can’t believe what I did. I am so so so lucky that my husband was willing to stay with me. I love him so much and I know he loves me too.

The problem is that I can’t stop thinking about it. Every day I will remember something I said or did during that time and feel immense shame. At the beginning of repairing our relationship, there was a lot of space for me to express such things and I did frequently. But I can’t get over what I did and how bad I feel about it. I want to put this in the past. When I am reminded of the person I cheated with, I cringe. It’s the biggest mistake I have ever made in my life and I am haunted by it. I also feel like expressing this to my husband now would make him feel like he has to soothe me through this, that my expressing my shame is something he then becomes responsible for and I don’t want that. I just want to be able to live my life without the shadow of something awful I did looming over me. My husband has forgiven me, why can’t I forgive myself?

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—I Just Want to Move On

Dear Move On,

You describe your feeling at the time of your affair as “swept up,” and your current feeling as disbelief. I’m wondering if part of what you’re stuck on are unanswered questions of why you cheated, and how you’ve worked to prevent doing so again in the future. One resource which might help you think through the kind of personal examination and growth that can help you arrive at answers to those questions is Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World.

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Regardless of your husband’s willingness to discuss the shame you feel because of your actions 10 years ago (and the appropriateness of putting that in his metaphorical lap), I think you would be able to speak more freely with someone other than the person you cheated on. Based on what you’ve said about your concern that your husband will feel responsible for soothing you, I suspect you’re censoring yourself and aren’t voicing everything around the uncomfortable emotion you’re experiencing. Sounds like an awful loop. I’m also not sure that more soothing is helpful as anything other than a temporary bandage. Speaking everything out loud, with someone who can help you confront your actions, feelings, and motivations head-on by pointing out patterns and noticing when you’re avoiding an issue, could help you arrive at a better understanding of why you made the choices you did.

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This is something that therapists are trained to do. If there’s no way to fit counseling into your budget, you might ask a friend or family member with who you have a strong, intimate, and empathetic relationship whether they’re up for a series of big talks with a lot of emotional work. Consider whether the person you’re asking for help from will give you honest feedback, and communicate clearly that this kind of direct engagement is what you’re looking for. If you’ve got the resources, and people in your life who are willing to offer support, a combination might be your best way forward.

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Dear How to Do It,

I got married at 19. And I am now 29. I’ve been married to my husband for 10 years. We had consensual sex for about six months after we got married but then I began to lose interest in sexual activities with my husband. I still gave in to him for nine years for fear of not fulfilling my wife responsibilities (I know how that sounds) but I’ve had enough. Here we are a year later with no sex and I couldn’t be happier but he is miserable. He loves me and desires me but I do not feel the same. I am looking for someone I am attracted to that can give me all the passion I desire. My husband doesn’t want to divorce me with this knowledge but I do. He’s too jealous and insecure for an open relationship, so what should I do? Still bring it up to him?

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—Stale Mate

Dear Stale Mate,

Your husband doesn’t want to divorce you, but you want to divorce him. In all 50 states, you can file for divorce without the consent of your spouse. I won’t get into all the messy details surrounding divorce proceedings here, but you should get in touch with a family lawyer—they can help you understand what your options are. Laws vary state by state, sometimes very significantly, and you really want a lawyer to help you understand the full picture of your situation before you make any moves.

In an email, Caroline Osborn, Esq. sent me a few tips for finding a lawyer. Her top suggestion is to ask someone you trust for a referral, though she says, “If that is scary and depending on where you are in the separation journey, you may not be ready to ask a friend.” Web searches also work—check their reviews, like you would for any other service. “Many state and county bar associations have a referral service, which is accessible on their website. When doing so, I suggest narrowing your search to an attorney who practices only family law (divorce law) in your state and county,” Osborn suggests.

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Once you’ve narrowed down the attorneys you’re interested in, Caroline has a set of questions for you to ask yourself about the person you’re considering retaining. “Do you feel comfortable with this person when discussing personal topics? Is the attorney listening to your goals? Do you feel heard? Do you agree with this attorney’s approach to your divorce?” As with therapists, you might need to have initial meetings with a few before you find one who feels like a good fit. As Osborne says, “This is a life step,” so take your time and keep in touch with the people you’re close with as you make your decisions.

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Dear How to Do It,

My boyfriend and I are in a long-distance relationship, with a goal of moving in together in two years. In the meantime, I send him photos when I am feeling cute and sexy to keep him involved in my life. Most of the time he never says anything except “nice” or nothing at all. Rarely a “You look lovely,” “That dress is hot,” or anything. I know he loves me but is it wrong to also want to feel desired? It puts me in a place where I don’t know if I want to move if it’s going to end up being a relationship with no attraction. What is a constructive way of addressing the fact I feel as though he isn’t giving me the feedback I desire to feel like he is attracted to and finds me to be someone he still wants?

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—I Know I’m Cute But…

Dear I Know I’m Cute,

Have you and your boyfriend significant chunks of time together in the same room? If not, I’d be pretty wary and prioritize visits over moving plans.

If you do spend time together face to face, consider how those interactions go. Do you feel desired? Is attraction present? Does he communicate with you in response to other kinds of photos and messages? If not, again, be wary. Carefully consider the benefits of your relationship, and weigh them against the full list of what you aren’t getting and what you’d be giving up by relocating.

Presuming the answer to those three questions is “yes,” your boyfriend may simply express his desire and attraction in ways other than the appearance-based compliments you’re missing. He might generally avoid commenting on how other people look. He might be cautious of over-sexualizing you. He might be reluctant to get into a sexual conversation over text message, due to shyness or privacy concerns. The only way to know is to talk about it. Usually, I’d advise that this conversation take place in person, but, given the circumstances, a video chat might be the best you can do. Do take any time zone differences and each other’s schedules into account, and make sure you’ve got plenty of time without interruptions to talk through complexities. Acknowledge the ways your boyfriend does show his affection—highlighting the ones that feel best for you—and then segue into expressing your desire for words that describe your physical appeal. Follow up with your curiosity about why he doesn’t do that. You’ll have to craft your wording yourself, drawing on your experiences communicating about other issues. Once you’re on the same page, start figuring out if there’s a way for both of you to get what you need, while remaining within your boundaries.

—Stoya

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