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 a decade, married for six of those years. When we got together, we were both healthy. But marriage is in sickness and in health, and my husband was ill for the past three years. It was one of those “we don’t really know what’s wrong” things at the doctor, meanwhile, he was in a lot of pain, depressed, and without a sex drive. I shopped around for specialists and became both his caregiver and our only income earner. Frankly, it sucked but I love him so I pushed on. About 18 months in, I gently broached the idea of opening the marriage for one-night stands so I could get my needs met. He was very uncomfortable with it, so I dropped it.
A few months ago, his specialist figured out what was wrong, and put him on a course of life-changing medication. While things won’t be exactly the same, my husband is feeling much better: He can work, he can return to his hobbies, he’s working out and looking the way he used to, and his sex drive came roaring back. But a few weeks ago, he said that he was enjoying the female attention returning, and wanted to “celebrate” being back to his old self by having “exciting” sex with other women. He was pushing for a threesome but mentioned he would like to have independent sex too. I can’t figure out why I feel so hurt. I’ve had happy open relationships before. And if we’d been open this whole time I think I’d feel different, but being only good enough for him while he was sick but not exciting enough now that we can do more fun things hurts a lot, and I don’t really want to have sex with other people if I can finally have him the way we used to. He’s been pushing hard about this. How do I talk to him about it?
—I Started It But…
Dear I Started It,
Wow. I’m guessing you feel hurt because he wouldn’t give you permission to have sex with people when he was sick and you were taking care of him, and now that he feels better he’s pushing to have sex with other people himself. If you have friends, family, or other people in your life you trust to talk to about this, reach out to them. None of us can be entirely objective about our relationships, and yours has been intense. Check in about how your relationship seemed to them before your husband’s illness, in terms of respect, equity, and general regard. Ask them for their perspective on your relationship now. Tell them about this issue and ask for their take. Is this occurrence more of a bizarre hiccup? Maybe that’s worth talking to his specialist about, in case it’s a symptom or treatment side-effect. Or is there a pattern of lack of regard that your husband’s actions are emblematic of?
Get an idea of the situation before you approach your husband. Then, firmly but gently, lay out how you’re feeling and what your perspective on the situation is. Ask him for his insight—to tell you what’s happening on his end—and then consider whether you believe what he’s telling you. Good luck.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m currently a single mom and struggle with the fact that I have genital herpes. That’s all I think about when my sexual life comes to mind. I’m currently seeing someone and he is a sweetheart. But every time we have sex I feel so horrible because I feel like I’m condoning him to “death” because I haven’t disclosed that I have herpes. I take Valtrex every day in hopes that he won’t get infected. I’ve played in my mind different scenarios of how I would confess this truth to him but make it play like I didn’t know it because I’m simply scared of rejection. I’m tired of feeling like I’m no good and I’m damaged goods because of this condition. I don’t know what to think anymore or what to even do. Any advice?
Dear Single Mom,
Herpes is tricky. The virus can lead to complications. For example, folks with active outbreaks can be more susceptible to other infections. But at the same time, so many people already have HSV-1 or HSV-2. (Remember, though HSV-1 usually causes oral herpes and HSV-2 usually causes genital herpes, both strains can also infect either area.) And, in addition to taking your medication regularly, by using additional barriers you can reduce the risk of transmission.
Experiencing rejection is something we often fear. And you’re disclosing after the two of you have already had physical interactions. The longer you let your omission go on, though, the deeper any feelings of betrayal or damage to trust are likely to be on his end. In this case, I say disclose everything: “I didn’t tell you this because I was afraid of rejection, and now I’m letting you know, I have a herpes simplex virus.” You need to mentally prepare yourself for the possibility that you might be rejected. And the fact that it might be done in a harsh and painful way. If he ends the relationship, do try to remember that almost all of us have details about ourselves that are deal breakers for other people.
In the future, disclose before sex and getting attached, and spare yourself potential pain. Consider it from this angle—you can continue perpetuating the secrecy, which directly leads to your shame and shame for other people who have herpes, or you can lay it out there and start helping to reduce the stigma.
If it’s possible to have a few sessions with a sex-positive therapist, make that happen. If not, spend some time thinking through this damaged goods idea. We’re all damaged goods, if that’s the framework we’re using. You don’t get through life and become an adult, without incurring damage. There is, however, something that’s throwing up a flag for me in your framing here, and also in the way you feel you’re “condoning him to ‘death.’” It’s worth figuring out where that idea came from. So I encourage you, whether it’s a professional or a trusted friend, to make sure you have a solid confidant and support as you start sorting through all of this. Tell him, and find out whether he’s right for you or not.
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Dear How to Do It,
I have a pretty low-stakes question but here we go. My wife (29F) and I (30M) have been married for a couple of months and we’ve been together for about four years. We have a pretty active sex life and we have good sex but I keep feeling like I’m putting added pressure on myself to make it “amazing.” My wife has said she loves having sex with me and it’s good no matter what but there are times when I feel I’m putting too much pressure on myself and then end up going soft, getting in my own head, and ending the sex session before I’ve ejaculated. This only really started happening within the last two years. Any advice to get out of my head and enjoy?
—Soft Due to Pressure
Dear Soft Due to Pressure,
One way of trying to interrupt the pattern you describe is by putting such extremely intense focus into sensations, or your partner’s enjoyment or your connection to them, that your mind is too consumed by those thoughts to wander into this pressure you’re putting on yourself. If you meditate, think about applying those skills—and if you don’t, you might give it a try. Pay attention to what’s happening right then, in the moment, and try to absorb information more than process it. Try using Barbara Carrellas’ Urban Tantra as a guide, or Annie Sprinkle’s Explorers’ Guide to Planet Orgasm.
Another possible route is to do some self-examination around this issue. Where’s the pressure coming from? What does “amazing” sex mean? Why are those details necessary for sex to be amazing? Is amazing always better? Are there instances where even mediocre sex might be better than amazing? (For instance, I don’t want to have a bunch of orgasms before a photoshoot. That’ll lower my leg strength.) Talk with your wife when you’ve got some idea of your own thoughts—ask what’s amazing for her, and why? I think these talks will help you feel more connected, and alleviate your anxiety. While we’re at it, though, why does ending sex before ejaculation merit a mention?
Dear How to Do It,
My boyfriend and I have been together for three years, and I feel truly happy and excited about our relationship. Our sex life has always been great—it started off well, and as we spent more time together it became the most mind-blowing, romantic sex I’ve ever had. When we had sex it wasn’t just physically satisfying, I felt so close and connected to him in a way I’ve never felt with a partner before.
That’s why I’m so confused: Something has suddenly changed, and I can’t tell why. For weeks now, our sex has been a bit awkward, and we’re lacking that chemistry and connection that was such a huge part of our sex life before. Suddenly, we’re not sure what positions to try next, and our foreplay feels totally rote because we rarely switch it up. It is as if the lights were off before and everything felt hot and heavy, and now the lights are on and we’ve noticed how weird everything looks in the daylight. The desire is definitely still there for both of us, we just can’t exactly stick the landing anymore. My boyfriend’s also been cumming a lot faster than he used to, so I don’t have enough time to climax and really feel satisfied. He was raised very religious and is much less experienced than I am—with another partner I would ask for them to get me off in another way if I didn’t cum during sex, but with this new awkwardness I feel like I can’t even ask for that, and like it’s not even worth it for me to broach the topic. He’s also pretty anxious when it comes to talking about intimacy, a genuine holdover from his abstinence-only upbringing combined with the fact that his first girlfriend cheated on him in a VERY public and hurtful way because she was unsatisfied with their sex life, so he’s always felt less-than in that department.
How can I raise my concerns in a way that won’t hurt his self-esteem? How can I switch things up, especially with a less-experienced partner who doesn’t always seem game for trying new things? It’s also not that I’m dissatisfied with him as a lover, I want to figure out how we can both improve things. We both need some direction on how to have this conversation in a mature and productive way that makes both of us feel supported, loved, and HORNY again!
—In Love But Awkward
Dear In Love But Awkward,
You might hurt his feelings in a way that abrades his self-esteem. No matter how carefully you craft your words, this is a sensitive subject. Meanwhile, you already wrote in with a few aspects of your relationship to discuss, and the longer you keep quiet, the harder it’ll be to talk about.
You know this person. You’ve dated them for three years. You sound like the two of you are close, and you’ve presumably had some kind of difficult conversation at least a couple of times. Choose your words based on what you know of them, and find a way to communicate that you’re happy to go slowly and do this in stages. But talking about sex is something the two of you need to start doing before this becomes the kind of problem that he—and you—are trying to avoid. Ask him what he needs, and what will make him more comfortable, but do make sure these talks keep happening.
It does seem like lots of people become less sexually engaged with, or immediately aroused by, their partners after some period of time or some level of domesticity. Ester Perel’s Mating in Captivity is one great resource, and what I’ve read of Cyndi Darnell’s Sex When You Don’t Feel Like It seems pretty useful here as well. Generally, intimacy helps, and having hard talks is one way of building that.
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I am a 30-year-old, single man. My best friend since I was a young kid and his fiancée have been my two closest friends for the last decade. Many of their friends party harder than I do, which often involves the use of hard drugs (not my thing). For years, the two of them have talked about opening their relationship. I was never mentioned in the discussion and assumed if they ever did it, it would be with the party crows. A little less than a year ago, after some drinks, the three of us had sex.