I am 35 years old and have been in a monogamous relationship with a wonderful man since I was 16, with a half-year break in my early twenties during which we both dated other people. Being apart at that time was horrible and made us both see just how good we were together. He was my first boyfriend, my first kiss, my first everything, and I sincerely cannot and do not want to be without him… but there is a big problem with me. I think it has been a problem since the very beginning.

It is terrifying to write this, because I have tried speaking to polyamorous people online before, and I was practically destroyed. I was accused of all manner of things. But that was some time ago, and I have since met many people in discreet but non-monogamous arrangements within a community based on an unrelated interest. I recently reached out to someone who openly invited people to ask them questions, and their responses were far more kind and understanding.

And so, I should probably state, right off the bat, that I in no way intend to offend or use terms inadequately. I am doing my best based on what I believe I know and understand, and anything that may ruffle some feathers is not due to malice, but simply to ignorance, which is what I am trying to remedy. I am also aware that some of what I will say may sound incredibly selfish, but I am at a point in my life where my confusion over my sexuality is creating a severe amount of anxiety and depression in me, more than ever before. It is contributing to suicidal thoughts due to hopelessness and a sense of a loss of purpose and identity. I desperately need help.

I suppose I should begin with my long-term monogamous relationship. I am exceedingly grateful to have the partner I do. He is kind, considerate, intelligent, and loyal. He has, by all accounts, all the qualities that someone would want in a monogamous partner. However, I have never been physically very attracted to him. He has a handsome face, but, as callous as it might sound, he lacks both the physical appeal and the approach that does it for me.

He is physically smaller in stature and shape than I am, and because he is so gentle, he lacks confidence and the ability to get my blood racing. We have tried many things. It is an incredibly awkward experience. Sex is very awkward and I don’t enjoy it. In order not to pressure me into it, he refrains from so much as touching me, because I tend to flinch in fear that he wants sex. I don’t enjoy him touching me, because it feels so clumsy, but when it comes to my love for him, it is absolute.

This is not what I want in the least. My dearest desire is that I could be absolutely fulfilled by him sexually and for both of us to have our needs met. However, as amazing as he is and as much as I can’t picture myself being able to live with anyone else, I have always had an extreme weakness and desire for confidence, dominance, and experimentation. I have always had something in me that wants more.

I am ashamed to say it, but I must be honest. In the past, I have cheated on him (not to the point of intercourse) with men who were “not afraid” to show me how much they wanted me. They found and pressed all my buttons and I found myself extremely vulnerable to their charms. I never wanted to leave my partner nor did I not love him, but my blood was set on fire and I couldn’t help myself. I have all manner of fetishes and fantasies that could never be realized with my partner, because that just isn’t who he is. We’ve tried what we could, such as using restraints… but I just don’t feel it.

I can’t take him seriously. I don’t feel like a beautiful, sexy woman with him. Then, several years ago, I got his permission to engage in a threesome with a male and female couple that were friends of ours. Just bringing up the question to him had me fired up. We had amazing sex before and after the fact. The threesome did happen, and I enjoyed it very much and experienced no jealousy or need to pursue anything further.

Unfortunately, I went on to make some very bad decisions after that. The male of the threesome wanted more, and I gave in. I began a physical and emotional affair where I battled with myself to figure out if I was better being with this other man, who was practically my partner’s opposite. It was very much an abusive situation in which I was repeatedly raped and abused mentally and emotionally as well, but I still own my part in it. I ended the affair and told my partner everything.

Somehow, he found it in his heart to want to work with me through it, and we began seeing a therapist together. The affair brought to the surface the issues that my partner and I had never talked about or explored; childhood abuses, our sexual needs and hangups, and our great but not perfect communication. Ultimately, it was determined that we are a fantastic couple in terms of how we mesh, what we want, how we see things, and how we interact.

We did an incredible amount of progress and we are doing well. Better, even. However, the sex is still a huge problem, and deeply discouraging. Even though he says that he’ll forgo sex for the rest of our lives if he has to to stay with me, I know this wouldn’t help either one of us. We both want and need it.

Now, I have been trying to figure out what exactly I am. From what I can deduce, I am a fluid heterosexual. I thought I might be demisexual as well, because I never find myself attracted to a person right off the bat. I need to get close to them emotionally and mentally. In all of my dalliances, I have had a close relationship with my partner (other than with the threesome), and this trust and comfort is essential for me to feel both safe and willing to be intimate with them. It is practically the driving force, and this is usually stronger than what they may be like physically… for the most part. However, if this was true, I should have no problem being attracted to my partner.

I didn’t understand what was going on until I started learning more about polyamory. I didn’t even know that such things existed. For most of my life, it was either you’re monogamous or a cheater. I did cheat, I’ll never deny that, or try to spin it. I won’t try to make excuses. Even if I was blind with desire and SOME sort of love for the ones I cheated with (because I did truly feel something in my heart for them), I cheated.

I hope we can move past that, because if therapy showed me anything, it was that there’s something deeper under the surface that lead to me being able to do that, despite genuinely loving my common-law husband and not wanting to build a life with anyone else. Anyway, I learned about other types of non-monogamous relationships, and what struck me hardest was this: no one can do everything for you. One person cannot fulfill all of your needs, and your needs are valid and natural.

However, in my current situation, I cannot consider my needs valid. I have to keep in mind that there are pros and cons to everything. There is a cost to everything. An open relationship could destroy what I have… is a bit of fun sex worth it? No… I don’t think so. But… I’m miserable, and I know he is too, in that respect.

I don’t even know if I could be polyamorous. While he has expressed that he desires no one else, what if that changed? Could I handle it? And if I couldn’t handle it, what right do I have to expect him to do so? If the tension between me and another person, and in those cases when I was unfaithful, makes me want my partner more, makes me feel more free and sexy and happy, how can I channel that differently to take other people out of the equation?

He and I have hobbies that aren’t all mutual, so I travel and visit friends a lot. I’ve been faithful, but there are certainly one or two people I would love to be able to visit for a weekend and just… be someone else with… or is it be myself? Just let out the steam, be a little more daring, try things, have sex, and then go home, still loving my husband as much as I ever have, and able to give him amazing sex because I feel completely at ease to embrace my sexuality.

I don’t even know if this falls into polyamoury anymore, and I don’t know how much sense I’ve been making, but I dearly hope it’s been enough to get me some help. I’ve reached a breaking point where I’m considering using medication known to kill libido so I never feel those urges again. I’ve looked at so-called natural things, like certain teas, that inhibit your desires. I’ve reached a point where I’m willing to take those, kill my desire entirely, and just lie there on a regular basis and let my partner do his thing on top of me. I’m so unhappy, and I feel so trapped.

I often feel resentful, too, seeing so many others around me with the freedom to be with other people without losing their husbands, wives and families. It’s like I was short-changed… I didn’t even get the option to explore that and see if it could work for me. I signed on the dotted line of monogamous life before I could even drive, let alone know anything about myself and my sexuality.

I am sorry for the very long-winded message. Please… if at all possible, please give me some advice as to what I should do. I have broached the topic of me needing more with my partner, but it’s not something he’s capable of entertaining, and I honestly fear that it would destroy us by killing what little confidence he does have. I need him to understand that it’s not about him not being enough for me, and I wish I could show him how much better our sex would be if I could have more freedom.

The first thing I want to say is that I’m sorry that you’re going through such a difficult time and that you experienced abuse. It seems that you, like many people out there, were never given the choice or option to examine non-monogamy as something that would be more useful for them and you’ve entered into a relationship that you value but might actually not be compatible for your life.

Cheating and polyamory

It’s likely that the ire you’ve gotten online from polyamory communities has been because of your history of cheating. I can see both sides to this, as a lot of polyamorous people are frustrated by the fact that society seems more ‘accepting’ of cheating than ethical non-monogamy and that they constantly have to explain to people that what they’re doing is something their partners are aware of.

On the other hand, I do, and I will say this turning the lens on myself, believe that we need to examine the motivations we have for being so harsh towards people who cheat — especially given the social consequences that women and people who are read as women face when they cheat. Women are socially more disposable and historically have been so when they commit infidelity and this is one of the many, many reasons I’ve said that non-monogamy is not brand new. Men have had the freedom to ‘cheat’ for ages with little to no social consequences.

The point is that you and others should not continue to beat yourself up for cheating. We all make mistakes. We’re all human. And we all have to start somewhere. If we’re moving away from a culture of disposability and towards an acceptance of the fact we all have the capacity to do wrong, then we need to extend that to other things as well. You don’t seem to be someone who is unwilling to accept the consequences of what you’ve done. You have and you continue to do so. So the point is not worth belabouring.

The truth is that sometimes it’s cheating that leads people into recognising non-monogamy is much more of a valid choice for them. And I feel that’s true for you as well, but there are some things you need to consider.

Compromising with your current partner

It seems as though the primary source of your sexual frustration of your partner isn’t necessarily something that’s completely unchangeable such as a preference for frequency in sex or the like of a specific thing which another partner absolutely detests. Your partner sounds willing to try and meet your needs and willing to try, but I’m not quite sure that you’re both approaching this with compromise in mind.

Everyone starts off something new clumsy. I’m fairly certain the first time you tried anything, you were clumsy and not great at it. Everyone lacks confidence with new skills and most people who seem to have confidence can often fake that confidence in order to trick themselves. You don’t really explain how often you tried to encourage him to be more dominant, but I wonder if you both are expecting too much of yourselves too soon. You need to give him more time to come into his own.

You also don’t mention if you both have ventured out into the BDSM community, if you’ve sought out a Dom/Domme/Dommx mentor for him that might be able to give him some tips and tricks on how to be more sexually assertive. There are aspects of BDSM which could greatly improve his ability to be more assertive. And I’ve seen many, many physically small dominants who have absolutely no qualms about bossing around someone twice as big as they are.

There are lots of things one can do to mask their fear when trying new things. Blindfolding someone, for example, is a great way to hide that you aren’t quite sure what you’re doing, and it still works with the scenario. What’s likely happening is that he’s very anxious about having to play this role. It’s new and unfamiliar for him and you both are stuck in a feedback loop. He’s scared and nervous and it’s probably making it more difficult for him to be dominant, you are showing some disappointment (which isn’t anything to blame yourself for) and you feedback on each other and assume the situation is hopeless.

I don’t really believe that it is. And I wonder if spending a bit more time trying to give him the chance to grow in this role might be worth trying. You don’t really mention if you’re interested in polyamory or non-monogamy from the standpoint of really desiring a romantic relationship with more than one person. It seems like most of your interest lies in being able to have the sex that you want to have which brings me to the next point.

Demisexuality and one night stands

I don’t really think demisexuality is just about finding someone attractive right away, but rather that in order to feel any kind of desire for a person, you have to have some type of emotional bond with them. People often misunderstand this because a lot of people require some type of emotional bond before they are willing to have sex with someone, but that’s not the same. Being willing to have sex with someone and feeling sexually attracted to them is very different. Many people can feel sexual attraction to someone they have no intention or willingness to actually sleep with which isn’t the same as demisexuality.

Do you really require closeness with someone emotionally or mentally? Or are you valuing the emotional intensity that a dominant partner can provide because it’s something you’re not getting? In one situation in my life, after I had spent 2 years with zero romantic energy or interest from anyone, I ended up spending a few months talking with someone every night until almost 3 A.M. When I look back on that relationship, the ‘closeness’ I felt to that person had more to do with how desperate I was to exchange romantic energy with someone rather than him actually being vulnerable with me.

I wonder if the fact that dominance is a missing aspect of your relationship and because you have been living in a society which has encouraged you towards a monogamous-centric frame point if you are tagging more emotional and mental intimacy onto some of the things you aren’t getting that you don’t actually require. I can’t tell you if you’re demisexual or not. That’s up to you. But I would invite you to examine your needs and ask yourself what you do want from a partner outside of your partner.

What happens when feelings develop

Because from the outside looking in, it doesn’t look like you necessarily need to be polyamorous in that you crave a romantic connection and romantic relationship with more than one person. It looks like you’d be fine having friends with benefits or even a BDSM partner you can have sex with and returning home to your partner.

I would hazard you against defining a open relationship with your current partner where you explicitly forbid yourself from developing any romantic feelings for anyone but your partner — because you can’t help that. But rather, I would really think about, if you could be ethically non-monogamous, what would that look like with your partner.

Also, I do think sometimes people feel like they need to respond to romantic feelings developing with someone, but I honestly don’t think that always needs to happen. You might develop romantic feelings for someone, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily need to follow it up with commitment and a change in how you go about your life. It’s really up to you.

But overall, I do think you might consider, if your partner is unhappy with trying to be more dominant and it’s just not working out for him and you’ve given him the chance to try and sort that out, you might consider negotiating a situation where you are allowed to pursue a sexual relationship with someone else. You might pick one night over two weeks or a month where you can set aside the time to do this, maybe and ideally whenever he has a hobby that is keeping him busy. You can define your safer sex practices clearly and you can also figure out if that can work with him.

I do feel like the benefits it could bring to both of your happiness would be great. And I would also consider finding polyamory positive therapist to help you both work through things.

Stop beating yourself up

Most importantly, you both should try your best not to beat yourself up about anything going on here. You seem to be doing the best you an to try and work things out and so does your partner. I don’t see anyone acting on bad faith or refusing to own up to their mistakes.

At the end of this long journey, it may be that you both are not compatible and it might be best for both of your happiness if you separate, but I do think it’s worth trying things out and seeing first. If it should happen that separation is the only thing that works for both of you, it’s going to hurt and it’s going to be sad, but try to remember that it doesn’t mean that either of you failed. Monogamy-centric culture tends to make people think that if they haven’t ‘succeeded’ in a relationship, there is something wrong with them but sometimes things don’t work out. It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with either of you or that you’ve done anything wrong.

I hope this helps and good luck!

Note: I wrote this column in 2017, so it’s possible my perspective on this may have shifted or expanded. Please feel free to resubmit a similar question.

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