Help! Two Partners And No Sex?

Louisa Leontiades Advice Column, Epic Relationships

Dear Louloria

I married my husband twenty years ago. But the sex in our relationship was always problematic, and although we had kids, my husband discovered that he was asexual, but since everything else was OK between us, we thought it would be a shame to divorce for such a (for him) meaningless reason. We eventually settled on this arrangement whereby I spend a couple of days at my boyfriend’s house every two weeks, and spend the rest of the time in celibacy at home.

It’s been getting easier over time: I’m good friends with my boyfriend’s wife, and we sometimes go out together all three of us, or just sit around the fire at their house and talk about life, the universe and everything. My husband actively takes part in planning of our dates, and although he’s never met my boyfriend he doesn’t have anything negative to say about him either. Yeah, life was really good.

Then, my boyfriend got sick (like seriously sick). His wife and I go with him to the doctor’s and we take turns helping each other out in other ways, and my husband is understanding if I need to take an extra trip to their place. Naturally my boyfriend is not interested in sex, and I totally get it. We speak every night to catch up, and I’m as encouraging as I can be, so I’m sure we’ll get through this, and life will go back to normal probably in the autumn some time.

But I’m not so good at celibacy. I need sex. I get really frustrated and irritable, which affects life here at home. It’s one of the things that my husband appreciates most about our arrangement: he can have a happy, balanced wife, without having to have sex with me.

“Right, but you’re poly, so this doesn’t have to be a problem,” I hear you say. Well, technically, yes, but being poly means that I must discuss this with my boyfriend before doing anything about it, and right now he’s not in a good place to have that kind of discussion. He’s the love of my life, and I don’t want him to think I’m going to abandon him in his time of need.  What advice, if any, can you give me? Am I just a spoilt brat?

– Ms. PolyButStillFrustrated

Dear Ms PolyButStillFrustrated,

First of all, congratulations are in order. You and your husband have managed to come to some sort of solution around an issue which would prompt many to break up. But as you were comfortable with the solution, you had no need to dig deeper. Now you do. It’s an opportunity, treat it as such.

Your solution not only allowed you to assert your desires, but exercise your agency in a responsible way. It was a conscious decision and as such has contributed to your self esteem. A situation has arisen which has thwarted your plans. It reduces your agency and renders you powerless. That you cannot follow what has proven to be a fairly good survival strategy, will necessarily hit your self esteem, unless you are mindful of it.

Where we feel powerless, we experience anxiety. Dealing with life or death sickness is likely to prompt anxiety. Juggling a double life, even if it is openly acknowledged, is also stressful. You don’t have the outlet of sex, which is one way of dealing with anxiety. Anxiety can make us take destructive decisions. I would recommend self-care and finding something which reduces your anxiety in a healthy way. Expression is one way, and therefore I am happy you have written to me.

You are not spoilt, you simply recognise that sex is important to you. It is also important that you do not shame yourself for this; acceptance of your humanity over denial or shame. But let’s look closer at the solution you found which seemed to work.

The tacit view of a partner as a need-fulfilment machine explains the way people often deal with problems in a relationship. Many relationships are predicated on the notion that if Alice is involved with Bob, and Bob needs something (particularly if Bob has an emotional need), it is perfectly acceptable for Bob to not only ask for it from Alice but to demand it–and pitch a fit if he doesn’t get it.

The need-based argument for poly (“one person can’t really meet all my needs, so I have more than one!”) is a direct statement of the notion that partners are need-fulfilment machines. 

Franklin Veaux (co-author of More Than Two)

Polyamorists have even coined a term for this practise – ‘frankenpoly’.

Frankenpoly: stitching together the perfect need-providing romantic partner out of bits and pieces of other people

– More Than Two

Whilst I am not suggesting that you objectify consciously or excessively, your solution seems to be based around the need-fulfilment perception. It may be the reason why you (and many others) chose polyamory in the first place, but polyamory as a philosophy actively educates against objectification. Objectification will erode your relationships; in the long run they will not be healthy.

Sex itself is not a need. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t important, just that we can choose to define it differently and this may be more helpful in figuring out what to do. It’s important that you reconsider your perception of sex as a need, because–in a hopefully hypothetical and extreme case–if you consider it a need you will have to add more and more people to your relationship if they stop having sex with you (for whatever reason!) and you risk treating them as objects to fulfil this ‘need’. Such a paradigm is unsustainable. 

What is sex?

  1. Sex is a survival strategy. It fulfils the psychological needs of security, connection, autonomy and self-esteem. These are really what we need to be happy. 
  2. Sex may also be a strategy you use to express and receive ‘love’. If physical touch is your language of love and you have no other way to get physical touch, then you will feel its absence more keenly.
  3. Sex is also a physiological drive (which is why so many people call it a ‘need’), but as you know first hand, people do not die without sex, even if you personally are less happy without it.

It is all three, but it is not a need. Reframing your mindset will mean you have more options to maintain your happiness, as the sexual component of your relationships fluctuates. If you consider sex as a need, and you do not have access to it, you will be less able to accept the reality of your situation and you will either deny it, or you will suffer.

As you say this situation is probably temporary and right now you have the choice of sucking it up (which might seem the easier way), or you have the choice of developing other strategies to help compensate for its absence, which I believe will make your life happier in the long run even when sex does reappear. Because whilst you cannot do anything much about sex as a physiological drive, you can develop strategies to deal with the first two criteria which will make you far less frustrated and irritable. Deconstruct your desire for sex into these three components and compensate as much as possible using other strategies where you can, to meet your needs where sex met them in the past.

You seem to have good communication with your husband. Share these thoughts with him. Discuss whether non-sexual physical touch, whether its massage, cuddling or something else could be on the table. Reduce the sources of anxiety where possible so that you feel less impulse to ‘calm’ through sex. Juggling a double life is stressful. Since your lover is not a threat to your husband, discuss whether it’s possible to integrate your families a little more. Use those strategies which you already have to maintain your agency so that your self-esteem is less impacted. Use other ways to connect with people, for example I find it extraordinarily helpful to be vulnerable and honest with people because it promotes deep connection. Deep connection even without sex, is very satisfying. Whilst these solutions do nothing to satisfy your sex drive per se, they will support you better when you hit situations like this.

And when the time is right, make sure you discuss all of this with your boyfriend and his wife as well.

Good Luck,

Louisa
PS. You may find this article by Mark Manson helpful: Sex and our psychological needs