How to Do It

We’re Avoiding Our Friends Over Their Unsettling New Relationship Dynamic

She can’t have wanted this, right?

Two couples eat at a restaurant. The woman facing the viewer looks concerned. A neon sign reading "open" flashes above them.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Comeback Images/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 partner and I are friends with another couple, and we mostly do things as couples together. We don’t usually get together one on one in any of the various combinations of the four of us. Recently, “Chris,” the male half of that couple, told us he’s always wanted an open relationship and that he’s gotten “Jane’s” permission. He’s been actively pursuing sex outside their relationship and was enthusiastic about these new encounters. We were polite and supportive, but it didn’t seem as if there were any real ground rules or definitions or as if things had been thought through.

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Since then, we’ve gotten together with Chris and Jane and something seems … off. Jane has made some comments that seem like jokes but also come across as a little bitter/angry and uncomfortable. She hasn’t made use of the open relationship yet. A combination of this, plus the over-the-top enthusiasm that Chris had about the new sex partners, has us feeling uncomfortable. Does Jane really want this? Did she feel pressured by Chris to open the relationship? Is Chris too enthusiastic because this is new, or is this a marker of his waning interest in Jane? We haven’t gotten to hear about this from Jane’s perspective, but these comments are concerning us.

It would definitely be markedly out of the norm to invite Jane to do something without Chris, but we’ve turned down the past two invites from them because we felt uncomfortable. I think if we know that she’s on board, we’ll be able to relax and have fun with them again, but if Chris has pressured her into this, there’s no doubt in my mind that it changes our opinion of him and it will affect the friendship. How do we get Jane on her own, and how do we open the conversation so that it’s clear we have no judgment about polyamory but are concerned about her in this situation?

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—Worried in Wisconsin

Dear Worried,

Some may think the perturbance behind your letter is judgy, and maybe it is, but your concerns are reasonable—at least according to contemporary discourse. Increasingly, people have been talking in mainstream media about how ethical “ethical nonmonogamy” can truly be, given the power dynamics inherent in most every relationship, and especially within patriarchal society. In Rachel Krantz’s memoir Open, which came out earlier this year, she writes about the coercion and gaslighting that were major factors in an open relationship that she theoretically signed up for. I get the sense that you and your partner are sincerely concerned about the well-being of your friend. This is right and compassionate.

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And yet. You are still two people that I feel comfortable assuming are in a monogamous relationship, which means you’re on the outside looking in. The reason I’m assuming this isn’t just our cultural default, in which people are presumed monogamous unless otherwise explicitly stated—it’s because during these conversations you’ve had with your friends, you didn’t chime in and say, “Well, as people in an open relationship, here’s what we’ve faced.” Monogamous or not, you actually missed a huge opportunity to extract more information during your conversations about this—asking Jane if she was OK (in a joking tone, even) when she made her bitter/angry/uncomfortable comments could have brought you some much-desired clarity. You fumbled there because, as you point out, getting Jane alone is going to be no easy task, since it would be uncharacteristic of your social dynamic. Also, whatever Chris and Jane’s issues are, don’t assume that you’re going to swoop in and get the exclusive with promises of confidentiality on Jane’s part. She’s still with Chris, which means that she will likely tell him, even if you’re successful in getting her alone. You might be Team Jane, but there’s no reason to assume she’s not still Team Chris. This is a person who has discussed her open relationship openly. Such an agreement can be difficult to navigate. It’s a process. They’re showing you their work. It might be disconcerting, but sometimes you make a mess before you get your shit in order.

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Getting Jane alone sounds like a production, and one that could amplify the drama. Not worth it. No matter where you stand with them currently, you should strive to avoid complicating others’ lives needlessly. I think the move here is to either hang out with them again so as to organically extract the answers you seem to need in order to move forward in this friendship; or one of you can reach out to Jane (err on the side of nonchalance), probably via text, saying that you were thinking about her and that you hope all is OK since she seemed a little iffy on the turn her relationship took. Basically, announce that you are there to listen, and let her decide to talk or not. Failing that, you’re much better off assuming that Jane is an adult who can handle her shit.

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Dear How to Do It,

Am I biologically sentenced to be a bottom? I’m a gay male that has had to seemingly settle into being a bottom, though I’d really like to be able to top.

I was a late bloomer and didn’t come out or start having sex until my mid-twenties. I wasn’t able to stay hard during my first attempt to top and have struggled ever since. At first, I chalked it up to inexperience, nerves, and performance anxiety. I also used to hold a lot of shame and anxiety about my smaller dick size. I knew I was small from a young age and unfortunately spent too many years with only pornographic images of enormous dongs as reference for what I should look like. However, several years of steady, casual hookups opened my eyes to the real wide variety of dicks out there. My confidence has grown over the years, and I have been able to find acceptance and be comfortable in my body.

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When I finally got to experience long-term dating with a loving partner, I thought the remains of those fears would melt away and I would be able to maintain my erections. I started taking Viagra to learn how to top in this relationship. He was reassuring, compassionate, and patient. But I still couldn’t quite manage to stay hard. I notice in him and in other men that they get to a point in arousal where their boner “locks in” and stays rigid through foreplay and switching positions. I have never been able to achieve that effect. I get to my hardest point and then settle at about three-quarters hardness for the rest of the session. The slightest shift in focus or position makes me get less erect, and I have to focus and use my hand to get harder again. I’ve tried using cock rings, but they haven’t been very helpful. Sometimes it feels as if my dick just isn’t strong enough to stay hard through the pressure. Ultimately, I never felt I was able to be a good top for him.

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I considered that ADHD might be contributing to the issue and looked into medication to improve my focus. However, all the information I’ve come across so far says these medications typically contribute to more ED, not less. Are there other options out there for me? Is there something else I’m missing that can help me keep my erections firm? Is reliable topping just not possible for all men? Do some of us have to settle into being bottoms by default?

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—Bonerless Bottom

Dear Bonerless Bottom,

Some guys do have persistent wood issues, which we can assume at least in some cases is due to compounded anxiety from all the previous times that he wasn’t as hard as desired. Are they bottoms by default? I guess it depends on how they’re bottoming. Settling for getting railed when you love it is hardly settling at all.

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But I hear you, and I feel your pain, because topping really is awesome, and I think of being able to do both as a sexual superpower. I think maybe you haven’t shaken the shame of your first performance, and it’s echoed in your subsequent anxiety. Working through that may require a counselor. You could also try another PDE5 inhibitor—Viagra is not your only option. There’s also, for example, tadalafil (generic Cialis). I don’t believe it’s always clear why, but some drugs work better than others, depending on the person.

What if you also didn’t set the expectations so high? What if you went into a situation thinking of yourself not as a stud with bottomless balls who’s going to pound your partner nonstop, but as someone who’s going to top for some of the time? Flipping, in which partners trade off topping and bottoming in a single session, might be helpful here. Top until your boner gives out, and then switch roles. If you get it up again, have at it. If not, have fun taking it. I think you’ve put a lot of pressure on yourself, and that’s going to be counterproductive here. Your task is finding relief.

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Dear How to Do It,

My husband “Jay” (38 M) and I (31 F) are both bisexual and have an open relationship. Right before the pandemic, one of our regular FWBs was “Tim” (26 M), whom we met on Tinder. Our relationship with Tim was almost entirely physical. We would usually meet at a bar and sometimes play darts or pool before returning to our house for sex, but that was it.

During lockdown, he reached out to say he was very isolated because he had only recently moved to the state before COVID. At the time, he worked from home and had no friends in the area and is estranged from his homophobic family. Jay and I were apparently the only regular social interaction Tim had, and he wasn’t coping well with lockdown. We decided it would be best to remove the sexual component because we didn’t want him to feel as if he had to trade sex for social support.

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Today, Tim has a social circle, but we are still his closest friends. Jay let me know that Tim was interested in bringing sex back into the relationship. I could tell Tim had been flirting lately but had been avoiding it because it’s emotionally complex. I think at this point, we have grown so close to him emotionally that to also have sex with him would bring him into the relationship in a more serious way. I don’t know if I’m prepared to be a good partner to more than one person at a time. Another thing that concerns me somewhat is the age gap. Tim is intelligent and confident, his life has stabilized, and he’s a grown-ass man, but he is 5 years younger than me and 12 years younger than my husband. At the same time, having sex with Tim was fun and hot.

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What should I do? Jay thinks we should just proceed with care. I’m not sure we should proceed at all. I don’t want anyone’s feelings to be hurt.

—In the Middle

Dear Middle,

You have listed so many reasons to not have sex with Tim. I suspect if these reasons were removed, or your fears behind them assuaged, you’d have more reasons. What I’m getting is you don’t want to have sex with him but feel at least a sense of obligation because of your history and your husband’s interest. This should be easy, not complicated—it’s sex with a horny 26-year-old! That the complications are coming from inside the house makes them no less valid. They’re worth minding. This is elective sex, and if it might create a mess you’re not prepared to clean up (or one you even want to look at), I think you’re right to avoid it.

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You could compromise with your husband and proceed with care, with no stated expectations. Maybe hanging with your husband and Tim some more will open you up to further contact, or make clear why it’s the absolute wrong thing to do. Time, in other words, may bring you clarity. Conversations could help too! What if you put this all on the table, and everyone, including Tim, understood your concerns? If your friendship is as close as you say it is, it should be able to withstand this discussion and remain intact no matter where things land. Another option: Let your husband play with Tim without you. He seems to have a sense that this would not be at all complicated for him, and given how men often have sex together, that’s a good possibility.

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Dear How to Do It,

My boyfriend and I have a wonderful relationship; he’s very emotionally supportive and a good guy. However, he has a problem. It’s one pump and done. Sometimes we don’t even make it past kissing. We have tried many things, and after two years, things are finally beginning to improve. He is now up to five minutes. He always makes sure to at least try to get me off, and I’ve had sexual partners before, so I know to be vocal … but he’s still pretty bad at that too. So, these past two years have left me feeling really terrible about our sex life. Even though the sex has improved, I feel like I’ve lost my desire for sex with him. Not in general: I’m still horny. I’m still attracted to him. Not looking at anyone else, not interested in anyone else. I’m just really leery about sex. Any advice?

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—One-Pump Chump’s Girlfriend

Dear Girlfriend,

You say that you’ve lost sexual desire for your boyfriend but you’re still attracted to him. This seems theoretically possible but practically dubious. At the very least, you should ask yourself: Are you sure? It sounds to me like you’ve reached a point where you’re no longer compatible but are unwilling to end things. Maintaining the relationship might be wise—sex is important, but it’s not the only component of a relationship, and it’s certainly possible to want to be with someone you don’t necessarily want to have sex with. But look at your situation: You don’t have sex with your boyfriend or anyone else, which means, despite your horniness, you are in effective limbo. You’re going to keep yourself there unless you do something. At the very least, you should take solace in having a partner who has shown enough consideration and determination to improve his performance, even if it’s incremental. Solace might not be enough, but with what you’ve given me to work with, it might be all you have at the moment.

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Rich

More Advice From Slate

My wife and I have been happily married for 14 years, and being that we were fairly young (20s) when we got married and in a pretty religious area, we haven’t been very exploratory with sex. Recently, during foreplay, I changed things up and asked her to guide my fingers while they were on her, and then we switched and I guided her fingers while she touched herself. It was new and fun! It’s now part of our regular business because I love watching her touch herself, and it frees my hands up so I can grab tight or wander when I know she’s going to finish. Masturbating is looked down upon in our religious beliefs, and she admitted she felt guilty the first few times …

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