I’ve had vaginismus and vulvodynia for the past few years which made vaginal sex impossible for me due to the pain. I’ve been in love and a relationship through this with my partner who as a consequence of my health has also been sexually dormant for about 6 years. I feel such a strong sense of shame and failure in writing this. I have not had, not been able to have, sex for 6 years. It haunts me that that is who I am right now.
Through many different treatments and therapies I am now at a point where I feel confident about being able to have pain free intercourse and definitely need it. My partner, however, is not there yet. He isn’t being able to shake off the sexual dormancy. In the meantime, in an effort to refashion my sexual self, I began first with chatting up with strangers on naughty forums. That felt electric and made me reconnect with a version of myself I simply have not been — flirty, cheeky, aware of my desires, even giving them shape through words.
It helped me realise that I want to have sex with other men, not just my husband. At least for some time. Partly because my husband has no interest in sex, partly because the new relationship energy is thrilling and largely because after 3 years of a lonely journey towards becoming healthy again, I would like to know if my vagina works, so to speak. We are speaking with a marriage therapist weekly to figure out our boundaries. My husband is monogamous, and would much prefer I be monogamous. I need physical contact and I need to see myself through the eyes of multiple sexual partners to again feel like a desirable, confident, sexual beast; how I felt before the vaginismus.
I recently made out with someone, someone who isnt my husband, for the first time in 10 years, and it was a powerful experience for me. But then they ghosted and I’ve been feeling stung and deflated by it. Since then I’ve lined up a few more potential lovers but I feel scared of rejection, I feel scared of my vagina failing me, I feel scared of being bad in bed, I feel scared. And yet, I am aching for physical contact.
In therapy my husband expressed fear of me falling for someone else or finding sex with someone else much better than with him. These are valid fears. I’ve told him in many many many loving ways that I recognize it is easy for me to find someone to have sex with versus finding a man I love, admire and want to build a life with, i.e. him. I guess what I need advice on is how do poly[am] people manage rejection and heartbreak from their secondaries or casual partners? How do I get over the fear of being bad in bed or my vgina failing on me? How do I find my sexual groove again? My husband noticed I was glum but because he has a preference for a don’t ask don’t tell dynamic, I couldn’t reach out to him for succour. Even though no one reassures and comforts me like he.
I’m sorry to hear you had such a long struggle with your own body. There are a few things here I want to address.
- Ways we define ‘sex’
- Agreements on non-monogamy
- Options for exploration
- Rejection while polyamorous
Ways we define ‘sex’
This may be something you’ve long explored during your period of time going through so much pain, but I wonder if part of the way that our society defines sex has been a reason why you’ve felt so restricted from having it. While I don’t mean to say that it’s silly or wrong for you to want to have vaginal sex, there are other ways to have sex or be sexual that don’t have to involve something that would have been painful for you. And it may be that the archaic way of defining sex that society outlines for us may be affecting your partner’s way of thinking as well.
We live in a society that gives us a lot of messed up ideas about relationships and sex and among those ideas are that sex that involves penetration is somehow better or is the only sex that matters. It also gives us a lot of incorrect ideas about how vaginas typically work and also tells us that we need to behave in certain ways to be ‘good’ at sex.
Even if you don’t logically subscribe to these ideas, you might still feel a lot of self-imposed pressure on yourself to perform in certain ways and likewise your partner may also be experiencing some of the negative messages told to men about their worth as it’s tied to their performance in bed.
It’s hard for me to say without knowing your full situation if there would have been ways you could have explored other forms of sex or sexual touch that could have been less or not painful for you and therefore wouldn’t have led to you feeling like you couldn’t have *any* sex at all. You may have done that.
But I do know that asking for a non-penetrative focus or exploration can be a hard ask for many cisgender heterosexual men who feel like utilising toys or doing other forms of sex are somehow “less” than penetrative sex. Most people with vaginas can’t actually orgasm from penetrative stimulation alone (and you may already know that) so it’s quite normal for many people with vaginas to struggle with penetrative forms of sex.
If this isn’t something your current therapist has brought up as an option or highlighted as a concern, I would consider finding a new therapist because I do think that you could have had some exploration of other facets of your sexuality during this time — and can still now! And that may take a lot of pressure off you to ‘perform’ in other ways. A quality therapist should have pointed this out or explored this as an option for both of you to rekindle things without necessarily leaping to non-monogamy as an option.
Lastly, on the subject of the fear of ‘not being good enough’, I would tackle this the way I tackle any fear of not being enough and this may seem counter productive but… there are billions of people on the planet and with that comes the absolute certainty that, in every facet of your life, there is most certainly a person who is ‘better’ at any given activity or skill you could possibly have.
The same culture which teaches you that sex is only defined within certain rigid categories also tells you that that, in order to find the right partner, you must be the ‘best’ at certain things (and of course, conveniently, there is a nice product you can buy if you’re currently not the best).
The truth is that we don’t choose our partners because they are ‘the best’ at everything they do. And to be honest, I don’t know if any of us can say exactly and specifically why it is we find the people we do attractive. Certainly there are a combination of social influences and factors, but it’s in no way as simple as ‘this person was the best at everything’. If it was, well… let’s just say there are a lot of men out there with one or more partners who are *certainly* not the best at anything I can see.
What makes someone ‘good’ in bed is subjective. It’s okay to be nervous and it’s okay to be scared. Anyone who is going to reject you for not coming out of the woodwork, especially given what you’ve gone through, and being some type of porn star is a jerk who doesn’t deserve you. You may be nervous and that’s okay. You don’t have to be bubbling with confidence all of the time. What will help you overcome that fear is accepting that it’s okay to have fear instead of demanding of yourself that you be confident in a situation where it makes total sense for you to be afraid. Give yourself permission to be afraid.
Agreements on non-monogamy
I think non-monogamy can be a good option for couples that currently struggle with a mismatch of preferences or drives sexually, but I wouldn’t say it’s a good reason to open your relationship up in the first place, especially because there may be ways to solve the problems without necessarily opening a relationship up fully. What concerns me here is that your partner is fundamentally uninterested in non-monogamy — or at least, that is what I’m assuming from the preference for a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ setup.
What this preference tells me is that there is some avoidance of the real issue and while I understand you have needs and desires you want to explore, opening your relationship isn’t going to solve the critical problem here, which is that your partner and you are no longer sexually compatible for whatever reason. You were at once and something changed and I do think things can go back to what they were before, but that needs to be a desire you both have and right now it’s unclear if your partner has a desire to work on the problem. And them begrudgingly letting you sleep with other people isn’t a solution. In fact, it might just be you both avoiding the thing you don’t want to do — breaking up. Which you may actually have to do if you’re inherently incompatible or if he refuses to engage in some willingness to solve the problem.
So I think before you worry about coping with rejection and even necessarily before you consider dating other people, you need to solve the problem of whether or not this is the situation you and your partner want to be in. This is not about holding him hostage to have more sex with you or else you’ll see other people, but it feels like this problem remains unsolved and I’m unsure of whether or not it’s wise to really pursue non-monogamy in a way that might further erode your partner’s trust and confidence.
His fears are very understandable — but they are based in something real that’s not being addressed. Has his sex drive changed? It’s possible that he is an asexual person who has always figured that sex must be part of a relationship and only now, after the years of not engaging, he has figured out it’s not something he actually wants. This may not be a problem he really wants to ‘solve’ but you should know what the reason for it is and either come to a different understanding of what your relationship might become (he could very well be a platonic romantic partner of yours, but he also has to be interested in being non-monogamous and not be just doing it to keep you in his life in a way that means the resentment will eventually take over), understand that you’ve become incompatible and split up, or recognise and identify the problem and be willing to work towards a solution.
Options of exploration
It’s very understandable that you should be interested in exploring your sexuality and, regardless of your partner’s issues, you do have a desire to have different sexual experiences with other people. Polyamory isn’t necessarily the solution for this unless what you explicitly want is romantic relationships with others. There are lots of different forms of non-monogamy that could work for you including swinging or even hiring a sex worker.
In fact, I would highly suggest you consider hiring a sex worker, especially given the amount of pressure you feel to ‘perform’. It’s not to say an individual couldn’t be respectful and sensitive towards you, but a sex worker in particular might take a bit of pressure off you in terms of worrying about messing up the opportunity to have a continued relationship. You could also find a sex worker who has experience working with clients who have or currently have vaginismus or vulvodynia and may know some techniques for relaxation or other things that have helped other clients.
There may also be some other solutions to try with your partner, if he’s open to them, including hiring a sex worker together or going to swingers clubs together or on your own. He is understandably worried about being replaced because there is a base incompatibility between you two right now. If he commits and wants to work on the reasons he may be feeling dormant, this may be something that you can do now or in the future that might re-awaken things for him or might be something that will make him feel less scared or threatened.
Which isn’t to say he won’t be scared or threatened. He absolutely will be. It’s understandable — especially if he doesn’t really want to be non-monogamous. But I think that opting for full polyamory when it sounds like what you really want are other sexual experiences rather than full on relationships with others, may be additionally threatening in a way that can be prevented. If he also has an interest in other sexual activities, this is something you could do together in the right setting in a way that works for you both — so long as that’s his interest. And that may work out for you better than trying to date other people.
This is all said with the caveat that it seems unclear why he’s feeling dormant still. And fundamentally if he doesn’t want any form of non-monogamy, as hard as it may be, you both may need to come to the agreement that you’ve grown apart and go your separate ways. Forcing someone into a non-monogamous situation, even through don’t ask don’t tell types of scenarios, will only just build resentment and hurt until it’s impossible for you to be together any further and have to break up out of pain rather than choice.
Rejection while polyamorous
Even though I’m not sure if polyamory is really the solution for you right now, what I will say about rejection is that there really is no easy way to come to terms with that. Flat out — the more people you date, the more likely it is that you will get your heart broken.
One of the inherent risks of polyamory is more heartbreak than you would have if you weren’t polyamorous. For many people the risks outweigh the benefits, just like dating in general as a monogamous person risks heartbreak, but it’s up to you if you want to take the additional risk that comes with that.
What helps for me personally is just being annoyed about it and getting that out somewhere. I know logically that if someone rejects me, it’s not always personal. I know that I have rejected people who I just didn’t feel and they didn’t do anything necessarily “wrong”.
Some people I’ve rejected are really lovely and kind people, I just don’t feel anything for them and I can’t fake that. But getting rejected still hurts and it’s okay to be upset about that and be a little sad or a little angry. As long as you don’t turn that into a raging sense of entitlement where you assume that people are machines that you put kindness coins in and sex falls out — you’re fine!
Find a friend or a confidante — or go to your therapist! You should be able to talk with them about these things. Or find a polyamory group and post a whinge post. All of that is fine and acceptable — but rejection sucks no matter what your relationship style is or how many times it happens to you.
I hope that helped to address some of your issues and good luck!
Do you have a question?
If you have a non-monogamous relationships question to ask, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a voice message. Your question will be posted anonymously.
To read new columns, subscribe to the newsletter, follow us on Instagram or follow us on Twitter. You can now also pre-order The Anxious Person’s Guide to Non-Monogamy in North America and the UK/Europe.