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Dear How to Do It,
After almost 14 years of living on different continents, my partner (51M) and I (40F) are finally living in the same house, sleeping in the same bed, and planning a wedding. I’m elated. It’s been a long time coming, and aside from some logistical weirdness, it’s been a wonderful experience, and we’re very happy. However, there’s one thing I don’t like.
I’m a very sexual person, and have been my entire life. In our long-distance relationship, we only had a few opportunities a year for in-person sex, and we relied a lot on masturbating on cam with each other, dirty texts, etc. He hasn’t always matched me in libido, but, for the most part, we’ve been on similar wavelengths. Now, though, he’s struggling significantly with desire, and even if he does feel desire, he’s having a really difficult time getting hard. In the unlikely event that he can get it up, he can’t cum.
Academically, I know that he’s of an age where this can happen, and that erectile dysfunction doesn’t necessarily reflect how he feels about me. In practice, though, I’m absolutely devastated, and it makes me feel like a hideous toad. To compound the problem, he’s uncomfortable talking about it (he thinks it’s an old man problem). I can’t seem to separate the facts from emotion, and I frequently feel disgusting and rejected, and cry.
When we have been able to have a reasonable discussion, there’ve been solutions that we’ve brought up—other types of sex besides penetrative, using a dildo, me having sex with another person while he watches. And all of those are beneficial, but I find myself really desiring having sex with him, at least sometimes. What can we do?
How do I convince you when even you can’t convince yourself to stop taking this so personally? I can only reaffirm your “academic” knowledge of these matters and add a little something: The screen sex you were having is quite different than IRL contact. If he has a particularly idiosyncratic masturbation technique, for example, it could be affecting his IRL response with a partner.
At your age, you must understand that not everything is a referendum on your worth or attractiveness. It may be worth repeating the facts to yourself—ED is common and commensurate with age—until you not just “know” them but internalize them. If after more effort, you still can’t shake the feeling that this is somehow your fault, at the very least, don’t share your insecurities with your guy. It’ll just add to the pressure, which is going to further obstruct the performance you desire.
Unfortunately, you won’t get that either if he won’t talk about it—if not with you, then with a doctor. Again, I see a flaw in logic—if ED is an “old man” problem, why wouldn’t he want to find a solution to reaffirm his youthfulness? Having an old man problem is one thing; hanging onto it is some real old-man shit. This may only persist as a problem as long as he remains inactive—impressing how important to you and fixable it is might start to crack him.
Also keep in mind that he’s recently undergone some major changes, including moving in with you—possibly across continents—planning a wedding, and navigating a new iteration of your life together. These changes can cause stress, which often hits people directly below the belt. Perhaps, too, the distance that was so long between you was fuel for eroticism—obviously, living together was the goal and you’ve reached it, but maybe something has been lost in your gain. Esther Perel writes a lot about how such distance can facilitate eroticism, so at minimum, you may want to synthesize some mystery (changing location of where you have sex can provide a great boost) or novelty to help explore any un-probed parts of your and your partner’s sexuality.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a bisexual woman who’s been in a relationship with my girlfriend for nearly two years, and we’ve never had sex that I actually enjoyed beyond a general sense of, “Eh, I don’t hate that this is happening.” We’ve talked about specific ways to improve our sex life (like more specific turn-ons and ways we like to be touched), but even with those incorporations, nothing has changed. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where I have to keep my eyes completely closed during sex because fantasizing about being somewhere else is the only way I can come at all. To my knowledge, she has yet to notice this. Aside from the sex, it’s not the most emotionally fulfilling or passionate relationship I’ve ever been in, but it’s amicable and I feel close to her as a friend.
So my question is, is this general but somewhat unspecific sense of dissatisfaction (both sexually and emotionally) a good enough reason to end this relationship? Or am I just being selfish? I’ve been thinking about ending the relationship for almost a year, but have never taken any action on it, primarily because I worry that I’m making these issues a bigger deal than they actually are. At the same time, I can’t help but think of previous sexual partners who consistently gave me earth-shattering orgasms and wishing that I could experience that kind of pleasure again. I also find myself thinking of partners that I shared a truly deep romantic connection with and feeling incredibly sad and guilty because she thinks we have that connection and I know that we don’t. What is the least selfish thing to do in this situation?
You should live your life in pursuit of the excellence you crave, which means not staying in a relationship that isn’t satisfying or shows no potential to improve. I relate to some aspects of your letter in that I left a relationship for similar reasons some years ago. I missed the guy’s presence in my life, but never regretted my choice. I suppose one could call this behavior “selfish,” but I don’t think it makes much sense to devote your life to the charity work of not hurting one’s person’s feelings. What’s more, if you aren’t satisfied in your relationship, you aren’t going to be an ideal partner to that other person. If you notice a lopsidedness to what you’re both getting out of your union, that, too, is an issue, and one that is not to be left unreconciled.
If this were just about orgasms, you could maybe make the argument that in the face of all of the other gratification you’re getting from the relationship, leaving it could be a foolish choice. But you see, it’s not that—it’s all part of a middling whole. (Sex is often referred to as a canary in a coal mine for relationships, which is to say that sexual issues often indicate larger lapses in communication or compatibility.)
You’ve been in this relationship for two years. That’s long enough to have given it a real chance, and it’s long enough to have reached a firm conclusion. All signs point to your arrival at that very spot … and by that I mean your departure.
Dear How to Do It,
I’m a 40-something heteroflexible man in a two-year relationship with a wonderful nonbinary person whom I adore and find very attractive. We have an active sex life—two or three times per week, typically. My partner can usually have multiple orgasms per session, and I love being able to provide that for them.
Meanwhile, I get hard, every time, and I start out stimulated—it feels great. But I can’t get to orgasm. The “feels great” sort of fades away after a few minutes, even though I can stay hard for a long time. We’ve tried different things and I’m happy I can last long enough to pleasure them, but I feel confused. This hasn’t been an issue in the past, even with sub-par lovers.
I love this person a lot and I love having sex with them—what is up with me? I thought this might be a precursor to erectile dysfunction, given my age, but my erections are fine, and I can still masturbate to orgasm (often thinking about my partner) when I’m alone. I don’t watch porn, and I don’t feel distracted or stressed out during sex. I don’t get it. They haven’t complained, but I’m worried my partner will think I’m not attracted to them at some point if this continues.
—Just Can’t Finish
Dear Just Can’t Finish,
If you’re getting hard and finishing by yourself, what you’re experiencing with your partner probably isn’t a precursor to erectile dysfunction, at least not that of which has a strong physiological foundation. More likely, it could have something to do with your masturbation technique or just the way your parts fit with your partner’s. Have you tried alternate ways of orgasming during sex? Have you tried to finish via oral or masturbation after intercourse? The good news is that your partner thus far has seemingly accepted your body in its uniqueness and hasn’t signaled that this bothers them. You might try extending that kindness to yourself—certainly the anxiety isn’t going to help matters at all.
I checked in with my indefatigable go-to urology source, Dr. Charles Welliver, director of men’s health at Albany Medical College, to see if he had any ideas. He told me via email that if you came in, he’d want to rule out “possible other causes like diabetes or neurologic stuff.” However, those tests are usually “a waste of money and time” in his experience. He said he, too, would wonder about whether you have an idiosyncratic masturbation technique, as it’s “WAY more common than you think.”
Welliver didn’t mention delayed ejaculation and I don’t recall having read about this specific arc as a typical manifestation of it (that is, sex going from feeling great to not feeling like anything), but I suppose your ejaculation is technically delayed and it can result from many factors like anxiety, depression, stress, or the discord between sexual fantasy and reality. Check this more complete list to see if any of these factors apply to you.
I have to wonder whether your partner’s gender identity is playing any role in this. Not that it should! But you mentioned it. I can’t tell if that was an ultimately extraneous detail in terms of your issue (this is not to say I want fewer details from writers—please lavish me with your multitudes), or if mentioning it indicates a hang-up there. After two years together, I would think that this would be something you’re comfortable with, but patriarchy’s grip is a motherfucker, so maybe there’s some reflecting/interrogating on your part there. If you’re somehow uncomfortable with how your partner identifies, it might be showing up in your performance. That seems unlikely, given how you rhapsodized them, but if you haven’t thought about that particular aspect of the dynamic, maybe it’s time to do so.
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Dear How to Do It,
My partner and I are in our 40s and have been together for 15 years. We’ve been practicing ethical non-monogamy for the last five. It was a good 10 years before someone pointed out to me that my partner has significant social anxiety. Since that revelation, it’s become clear to me that he really needs therapy (as do we all).
More recently, I’ve realized his anxiety distorts reality to the point where he’s unable to receive any information that contradicts his warped perspective. It causes him to shut down and spiral out. This was very apparent during a recent conversation where he pointed out that we haven’t had sex with each other in a while. I agreed, and admitted I haven’t been feeling very sexy at home. I then made some suggestions based on Esther Perel’s advice (spending time apart on our own hobbies and friendships to create space and mystery, making a concerted effort to go out on dates rather than just watching TV at home in our comfy clothes, etc.). I thought it was a really productive conversation and went to bed quite pleased.
However, the next morning I found him really upset because what he took from that conversation was that I’m not attracted to him anymore and am going to leave him. I tried to provide reassurance—I literally offered a solution because I want to fix it! If I didn’t want to be here, I would leave! But he wasn’t having any of it. I eventually snapped and told him that he’s a bottomless pit of insecurity and there’s nothing I can do to make him believe me, which makes me feel awful.
Fortunately, this seems to have been a sufficient wake up call for him to set up a consultation with a therapist. Yay! I have one, too. However, he’s not going to overcome a lifetime of emotional challenges overnight.
My question is, how do I deal with him in the meantime? Trying to support and reassure him is Sisyphean, and I just can’t do it anymore. How do I maintain communication and connection while withdrawing emotional support, especially while navigating non-monogamy with other partners? How do I determine when I should provide support versus when I should withdraw?
—Can’t Roll the Boulder Anymore
Dear Can’t Roll the Boulder Anymore,
If you notice any patterns of moods that make him less or more receptive (i.e. if bad moods bring out his apocalyptic tendencies), pick a time when he’s in a good mood and describe your exhaustion to him. Your “bottomless pit of insecurity” comment to him, effective as it was, came at an inopportune time, and he may not have completely been capable of understanding just how tired of this you are. The tone of a conversation can cloud its content.
Instead, it’s important to convey that you’re not going to pander to him anymore when you’re both clear-headed. Let him know that you’re still there for him in many other contexts, but you’re not going to engage in his spiraling. And when it comes up, literally withdraw. Tell him that you’re not going to have the conversation when he’s feeling so fraught, but that you’ll return to it when things are more stable and clearheadedness is at least theoretically possible.
I think you can draw the line at his irrationality. Some degree of insecurity is to be expected from everyone—we’re human, after all. But when you see him nearing a loop, leave him to take those laps on his own. This will require self-awareness on his part and mindfulness from both of you—it’s about sussing out what conversations are worthwhile and which ones are ultimately a waste of time and energy. The only way you’re going to do that is by paying careful attention and consciously resisting being sucked in.
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I’m a bisexual woman in my late 20s. I’ve dated about the same number of women and men. I hate performing oral sex on women (for what it’s worth, I don’t particularly enjoy receiving it either). I don’t mind going down on guys, though, and for this, I’ve been called a “bad feminist.” Is there some way I can learn to at least tolerate performing oral sex on women?