This column is part of Advice Week, Slate’s celebration of all things advice.
Sometimes, all you need is a different perspective. So this week, our columnists have swapped fields of expertise. In this edition, Michelle Herman, a Care and Feeding columnist, handles your sex and relationship questions.
Dear How to Do It,
I am a 38-year-old female who has recently undergone an IVF cycle after an infertility diagnosis. It was a horrible experience: The daily injections made me nauseous and extremely swollen, I had to wake up at 6 a.m. to do transvaginal sonograms and blood tests every morning before going to work for two weeks, and the surgery left me in so much pain that I still have difficulty sitting and standing. I have sacrificed so much, and, because of the medicine and surgery, I also cannot have sex for over a month. My husband only had to give his “sample” in a cup.
My problem is that, for the last five days, ever since I came home from surgery, my husband has watched porn for 2-to-3 hours at a time every night. I am so hurt and so angry about this. I have given up so much for a problem that is ours, and not only does his behavior seem clueless about my sacrifice, but it’s infuriating that he is enjoying himself (because he is enjoying himself!) while I slowly recover. I want him to feel at least one ounce of empathy or guilt—or even slightly as bad as I have been feeling physically and emotionally. How do I talk to him about this? Or should I not? Is this something I need to just get over? Do I just accept that men will always have it easier? It feels like he’s rubbing this in my face, and it makes me feel so sad and worthless.
— Infertile In Phoenix
Your husband is being an insensitive lout. (Thank god he hasn’t literally rubbed it in your face!) I don’t blame you for being hurt and angry. It would be much, much nicer if he had spent the last five days bringing you cups of tea and snuggling up with you while the two of you did the day’s Wordle together and binge-rewatched all six seasons of Schitt’s Creek (while perhaps taking care of his needs more quickly and discreetly). And it’s a bitter pill to swallow that he seems to have little-to-no empathy for you.
But allow me to very gently say that no amount of sacrifice on his part will balance the scales between you. And your fervent wish for him to feel guilty, “or even slightly as bad” as you do, isn’t a healthy one. If you are suffering and seething, and he (in the next room? lying beside you in your sickbed?) is watching porn and jerking off, and nobody is talking about what’s happening between you, your marriage is in trouble.
Is this unhappy, unhealthy dynamic between the two of you new? Has he historically let you down and have you suffered through it, either nursing your grievances silently or picking a fight with him? What about his porn habit, which does seem far more consuming than is reasonable—was it formerly a secret? Or did you not mind it when all was well and the two of you were having sex regularly? Or is he claiming it as brand new, a reaction to the current situation? Or have you two not talked about it at all?
What I really want to know is if this state of cross purposes, cluelessness, fury, and frustration is specific to the current circumstances or not. In other words, are you stunned by his self-centered response to what you’re going through, or do you deep down feel, “Well, it figures, doesn’t it?” It’s worth thinking this through before you sit down to talk to him, which you must do, since letting this fester will cause no end of further harm to your relationship.
I want to note, too, that no one can make anyone else feel worthless—they can behave so badly that they stir up such feelings, sure; but that will get them nowhere with someone whose sense of self-worth is intact. So steer clear of accusing him of “making” you feel anything. Concentrate on telling him how you feel, not only about what he’s doing but about what you have gone through. His response to you will tell you a great deal. Steel yourself: This might be a marriage-defining moment.
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Dear How to Do It,
My husband and I (female) are 69, married for 40 years. At 60 my husband experienced two episodes of ED and was unable to have penetrative sex. Since then, he has not initiated or responded to any sexual overture from me. He will accept hugging or snuggling or even a kiss, but won’t ever initiate it. He isn’t open to discussion about this. Periodically I’ve tried saying things like, “I want closeness,” or, “Don’t you miss having sex?” He does not respond. If our days of intercourse are over, I’m OK with that. But no physical closeness of any kind ever again? It’s like we’re roommates, and I don’t like that. I don’t put him down or criticize him—I just want a physical connection with him, even just holding hands as we walk. We had a very active sex life before this, so I don’t understand how he has switched to off.
— Missing Closeness
If you had a very active sex life before, I don’t think his sex drive suddenly switched to off. And if he shrugs off your attempts to hug him and refuses kisses, I think something else is going on. Is it possible he felt so humiliated, distraught, and disappointed in himself that he disengaged from you physically—and emotionally (are the two of you still intimate in ways other than physical?)—as completely as he could?
If his retreat from you is the result of his feeling ashamed and possibly depressed, asking him if he misses sex wouldn’t be likely to have the effect you intend. Nor would telling him that you “miss closeness”—a sort of pussyfooting (absolutely no pun intended) around that makes me wonder if, prior to this physical stalemate, the two of you were close and open with each other in non-physical ways. Nine years is a long time to go without a conversation about something that’s this important to you, and (again) that was once—it seems—equally important to him. I would tell him directly that it’s time for the two of you to talk. Ask him what’s going on. And don’t take “Nothing!” for an answer. (If that’s what he says, spell out why you’re asking.) The explanation I’ve floated isn’t the only possible one—I can think of several others. I’m not listing them because I don’t want you to start catastrophizing. But prepare yourself. This conversation may be a difficult one. But without having it, I fear this marriage has taken a turn that will leave you unhappy for the rest of your life.
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Dear How to Do It,
I’m a bisexual woman in her mid-30s dating another woman the same age. We’ve been together for six months and our sex life is good (I’m generally the more aggressive/dominant one, but not overly so), but I’ve noticed I’ve got one weird hang-up: I don’t really like it when my girlfriend initiates sex. For example, if we’re watching TV and she tries to make a move, I find myself getting annoyed and not really wanting to do it. But I don’t want to be like that! I want my girlfriend to find me attractive and to feel like she can ask for sex whenever she wants (within reason). I also have anxiety, and I wonder if that might be playing into this. Any thoughts on how I can let this hang-up go?
—Make a Move
Dear Make a Move,
I don’t think it’s a weird hang-up. We all have our predilections and inexplicable desires (like maybe paying attention to the show you sat down to watch). What’s so bad about leaning in to them? The “bad” part, I think, is feeling annoyed and keeping it a secret. Why not be frank with your girlfriend? Maybe if the two of you talk about it, together you can even find a way for her to signal her own desire in a way that does excite you? And who knows? Maybe this conversation will give you a chance not only to fill her in on your special turn-on but learn about some of hers that she’s been silently hanging onto?
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Dear How to Do It,
Help! I Was My Wife’s First Sexual Partner. I Told Her I’ve Had Better.
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Last year, I (early 20s, female) started working with a coworker (early 20s, male) and we immediately became very good friends. Our friendship had always been somewhat flirtatious despite him having a girlfriend, but we were never serious about anything happening between us—we were always just joking around. But after six months, the tone between us shifted. At first, I still thought it was innocent enough, but then late-night conversations became more frequent and flirting seemed to turn into plans to actually do something and light sexting. More than once I mentioned that it didn’t seem like he was joking, but he’d play that off. And then at some point he suggested that I was trying to seduce him—which I was not doing! I told him that, and we stopped talking in that flirty way. But a few months later it occurred to me that I did in fact have feelings for him. I told him this as soon as I realized it myself. We haven’t spoken since. He’s still with his girlfriend, and I’m seeing someone, but I find myself missing his company. I have no interest in getting him to cheat on his girlfriend. I guess my question is: How do we go back to being just friends? Should I reach out and apologize for putting him in this situation, or do I give up on this friendship despite missing him?
— Miss Construed
This guy is not your friend—he is your unavailable, coworker crush—and I would say that it is 100 percent unlikely that you will be happy if you try to get him to be your friend. You owe him no apologies, either. Move on. You’ll get over missing him, I promise. And even if you don’t—or if you don’t soon enough for your satisfaction—don’t give in to missing him. This will not end well. It never does.
More Advice From Slate
I’m a straight, divorced woman in my late 50s. My last sexual relationship was two years ago, when my ex-husband and I attempted to rekindle things after having been divorced for six years. It limped along for a while, but he broke it off. When we got back in bed during that time period, I was surprised to find that he had shaved the hair on his genitals—not a very happy surprise, I must add. He was never very hairy, but we’d been married for 19 years, and it wasn’t something I’d expected to find. He was pleased about it, and asked if I’d ever considered shaving my pubes. The answer is a resounding NO! It seems crazy that this should even be an issue, but in recent years it seems to be the trend. If I’m turned off by it, how do I express my feelings?