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Dear How to Do It,
My boyfriend and I have been dating for two years and living together for one. He’s in his early 40s and I’m in my early 30s. Our sex life was very intense for the first few months of dating, and then we settled into a less frequent, but still respectable (if somewhat rigidly scheduled) routine. Think three times a week down from every day, always in the afternoon. I tried initiating a few extra times but was turned down most of the time, so I mostly stopped doing that and masturbated instead on the days we were not having sex. A year ago, my boyfriend started having a health issue, think of vertigo, that while fixable in time has greatly limited the range of positions he can comfortably assume in his everyday life and of course also in our sexual life.
The position that is most comfortable for him happens to be the one that reliably gets me off, doggy style, so I have had no problems letting him initiate when he feels physically up for sex and in the mood, which is about once a week. Now, the last three times we’ve had sex, he has not been able to finish. I don’t have an issue with that per se. But the last time it happened, he revealed some weird ideas he has about sex.
He told me that things became less physically exciting after I have had an orgasm, and that’s why he was not able to come either by penis and vagina or by fellatio. The comment really upset me. I tried to put on a brave face in the moment, but he caught me crying in the shower afterward and we had a discussion about it, which brought out some beliefs I find frankly horrifying.
In short, he thinks that it is normal to become less and less sexual with a woman the closer you get to her. He also thinks that what I consider playful behavior for a couple, and explicitly told him I would welcome (occasional breast or butt grabs outside of strictly sexual context, making out without it being foreplay, sexting), is childish. Am I wrong to think we’re nearing the Madonna-whore complex and he should try to unpack the whole thing with a therapist? He didn’t outright refuse to start seeing one, but reckons everything, meaning his ability to orgasm I guess, not my anxiety about waking up five years from now in a sexless marriage, will be fixed when we are able to switch to another position, his favorite being missionary. What do I do? The relationship is otherwise very good.
Rich: OK, I do find this writer a little bit dramatic. Horrifying is a really big word for something very, very, well documented. I mean basically, the foundation of Esther Perel’s fame and teachings had everything to do with the discordance between eroticism and intimacy.
Stoya: Yeah. Move in together, and the sex decreases.
Rich: Exactly. And this is what Mating in Captivity is about. And Perel’s antidote involves creating mystery. It’s about putting up certain boundaries, certain dividers, that can then be overcome in the sexual act. Because that mystery is sexually exciting to people, and it’s not going to be everybody, but it is something that has been observed a lot. It sucks that things go this way. The boyfriend is not wrong there in terms of how we define normal—meaning common. Yes, this is something that’s very, very common.
Stoya: I sign on to 95 percent of that wholeheartedly.
Rich: OK, and to the other 5 percent?
Stoya: So yes, it’s absolutely normal to become less sexual with a partner after you begin living together. Random casual groping is absolutely something people often aren’t into, and while the boyfriend could have used more neutral language, that’s his boundary and it isn’t even unusual. This is where the 5 percent is coming from. I don’t think making out without it being foreplay though, is childish or juvenile. I think it’s important. In this well-known dynamic of familiarity reducing desire, having time for sensual, erotic, and intimate engagement that is not sex helps the relationship. So I think he’s wrong about that one.
Rich: Yeah, I think that’s fair. I think he’s painting with a broad brush there. It sounds like those are just things he’s not interested in doing. Also, I get the overall argument about grabbing being childish. But it probably doesn’t need to be stated in such a judgmental way that will make your partner feel shame as a result of what they like and are interested in. That’s one of the issues here, too.
I think that because of the intensity of some of the verbiage here, we can assume that our writer is extremely sensitive and probably needs to be dealt with delicately in terms of sexuality and interests, which is fine. That’s how some people are. It’s what some people need. I don’t mean to completely align myself with him here. I don’t think he’s been perfect. I just think his overall point about intimacy is sound, unfortunate as it is.
Stoya: Yes. Based on the letter that I am reading, which is what the writer has given us, I question whether the boyfriend was saying that making out without it being foreplay was childish, or if this was a messy argument in which our writer walked away with the impression that all three of these specifics mentioned in the parenthetical are childish.
And that doesn’t mean that our writer is a bad person, or that their boyfriend is completely right. It might just indicate that this relationship is not a good match. It does mean that I wish I had a 90-minute phone conversation with this person to go back and forth and dig into how this exchange happened. What exactly do they remember? Was he really frustrated when he said that? Were they really anxious and upset? Were the conditions there for a serious miscommunication?
Rich: It seems like the exacerbating incident was him telling her that things are less physically exciting after she had an orgasm. There’s logic there, too. I mean, again, it seems like the issue is one of actual communication, one of the actual words that are being used, and the tone that’s being used. He is brusque with this sensitive person. That said, I stand to reason that if your partner is pre-orgasm, getting excited, and getting there, that might be very exciting for you, too. And when that subsides, you may find yourself less excited.
There’s a vicarious excitement that happens. Then she comes, and he’s already having this sexual issue, so it becomes more difficult for him. I guess then it could feel like, “OK, the climax has happened. Where I was getting to is just not going to happen.” He probably could have stated that a lot better. That, “You know what? Your orgasm is the main event at the moment. Good for you.” You know what I mean?
Stoya: I have this sense that saying, “Are you sure?” is usually unhelpful. But I feel like it’s warranted in this case. Are you sure the relationship is “otherwise very good”? Follow-up question, is sex the only stressful subject the two of you have ever navigated? Because what I really want to know is how the two of you communicate about other subjects that are stressful and cause heightened emotions.
Rich: Yes, totally. Because it really does seem like a verbal communication problem. His style of speaking to her just does not work with her sensitivity, and so I think that’s really the foundation here more than anything.
Stoya: And to be clear, it is not that very sensitive people are flawed. It is not that very direct and brusque people are flawed. But it generally is the case that when you have one at one extreme and the other at the other end, making a relationship work is incredibly difficult. And our writer mentions their anxiety about waking up five years from now in a marriage that they’re unhappy with. They’ve been dating for two years and living together for half of that.
She can save herself a lot of trouble by thinking through that now. If they decide to try therapy, try therapy now and wait on any further legal entanglement until they’ve really worked out whether they can communicate with each other effectively about difficult and emotionally sensitive issues.
Rich: That’s right, and so the writer is effectively saying at the end of the letter, “This is his problem to deal with. Am I wrong to point him in the direction of a therapist?” The answer is no, but you should be going with him because this is a matter of chemistry. This is a matter of what’s happening with the mix of these communication styles. And while I don’t mean to put any blame on the writer, the writer plays a major part in this as well. Of course, she does: It’s her relationship, too. So it’s about finding a way to communicate together, as opposed to, you’re the one with the wrong ideas, go get that fixed. That’s not going to work here.
Stoya: Yes. Less telling him that he should try to unpack the whole thing with a therapist, and more saying “We should see a couples counselor together to see if we can achieve functional communication on this and then slowly unwind our own respective issues individually and together” with the understanding that this process may be over the course of several decades. Because that’s what humans do. We’ve all got our own stuff. It all comes to bear on our interpersonal relationships. She’s afraid of waking up five years from now in a marriage she doesn’t want. She’s got agency. She’s not on a rollercoaster ride strapped in. She can get off at any time. And she can also suggest a detour to an expert who is trained to facilitate communication to see if they can make it work.
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