My husband and I have been married for ten years. The sex has always been okay, but around year five of our marriage, I realized I wasn’t totally satisfied and started fantasizing about other men. My therapist recommended I focus my sexual desire on my spouse, so I told my husband that I need him to initiate more and that I want him to go down on me. We’ve had many conversations over the years, but not much has changed. I have a much higher sex drive than he does and have been fed up about not having more and better sex.
Recently, I went on a work trip and downloaded a dating app for the first time. I met up with this guy and had the most mind-blowing sex. After that one-night stand, I decided to ask my spouse for an open marriage. He told me he supports this “journey” I’m on and doesn’t want to keep me from it, but he definitely hates the entire thing and says I have “backed him into a corner.” Since we opened our marriage about a month ago, he barely touches me.
My husband is a sweet and caring man, a good friend, and a great dad (we have one child together). I love him deeply and have built a life with him and would like to continue doing so. But I also want to keep having sex with other people. I’m tired of putting my desires and my sexuality on the back burner. What do I do?
Dear Openly Frustrated,
I won’t pretend to know what it’s like to be married, but I do know what it’s like to be in a relationship with mismatched needs. Dr. Megan Fleming, an NYC-based sex therapist, refers to a relationship as an “ecosystem” and explains that “if it works for one partner and it doesn’t work for the other,” then it doesn’t work for the relationship. Of course, this applies to both of you: You’re not happy with your sex life with your husband, and he doesn’t exactly seem happy with this new arrangement. It’s possible this is an insurmountable obstacle for the two of you. But I wonder if there are other things you could try before doubling down on an open marriage.
If you’re committed to trying out sex with other people, could you first try it out as a temporary experiment? That may help your husband feel less unsettled. Let’s say you tell him you want to try being open for six months. The two of you should clearly define what’s allowed and what isn’t and check in constantly throughout this period. When the six months are up, it will be more clear how each of you feels about the arrangement.
The reason I suggest a longer time period is that I don’t think it’s fair to compare ten-years-into-a-marriage sex with a month of novel one-night stands. Having random sex feels new and exciting to you now, but a few months down the line, you may feel different. You owe it to yourself to look into this more deeply.
Second, if you started desiring sex with other people because you were dissatisfied with sex with your husband, it may be worth trying to revisit those conversations. He clearly struggled to give you what you want, but he may be newly motivated to figure things out now that he’s faced with the reality of opening your marriage.
The way you talk to your husband about sex is critical, says Dr. Fleming. In her practice, she has seen people express their dissatisfaction in accusatory ways, like “You never go down on me” or “I always initiate,” which isn’t typically successful. It puts your partner on the defensive or makes them feel they aren’t good enough. She recommends instead focusing your language on the positive ways your partner could make you feel — for example, “When you initiate, it really helps me feel wanted and desired.” If your husband wants to salvage your relationship, he should want to make you feel good.
Unsurprisingly, as a sex therapist, Dr. Fleming thinks it’s useful to seek out sex therapy while you’re having these conversations. It sounds as though you’ve talked to your personal therapist, but it would likely be most helpful for the two of you to see someone who specializes in this stuff. And while you’re at it, you probably need to face the fact that you cheated. It’s unclear from your letter whether your husband knows or not, but it will be difficult to make real progress on your marriage if that’s swept under the rug.
What if none of this works? You can put forth all of these strategies and do your best to figure things out, but ultimately any of them will require your husband’s openness and participation. Dr. Fleming referred to the “lower-desire partner” as the “gatekeeper” when it comes to resolving sex problems. If he continues to keep the gate closed, you’ll have to decide whether it’s worth it to end your marriage over sex.
You wouldn’t be the first person to end a relationship on this issue. Take Laura, who dealt with a similar dynamic after being with her boyfriend for three years. She wanted to have sex several times a week, while her partner merely tolerated a weekly romp, which left her feeling rejected and dissatisfied. When Laura consulted her friends about her relationship, they told her “sex doesn’t matter” — but to her, it mattered a lot. Her partner refused to go to therapy or otherwise work on their sex life, so Laura ultimately broke it off. Don’t let anyone tell you sex isn’t worth it; only you can decide how important it is to you. At the same time, trying to pursue sexual pleasure isn’t a guarantee of happiness: Six years later, Laura wonders whether she made a mistake. “I’ve never felt that way about a person since,” she told me.
It’s certainly not an easy decision. That’s why it’s important to slow things down, communicate with your husband, and make sure you’re carefully considering all your options. No one-night stand with a stranger is worth blowing up your marriage.
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