Doctor’s Note: I’m at PAX East this year! If you’re coming to PAX, make sure to come to my panel: Video Game Romance – The Stories We Love, The Lessons They Teach at 8 PM EST in Arachnid Theater!
And now, your letters.
I am in a nearly perfect relationship with the most wonderful woman I’ve ever known. That “nearly” though, is kind of a big deal.
Background: I’m in my early 40s, she (call her “D”) is in her mid 30s, and both of us have been married to awful people in the past. We’ve been together more than two years and we’ve lived together for nearly a year. We communicate openly and honestly (about “nearly” everything; damn that word), treat each other with great respect and care, and can disagree without fighting.
The issue is sex. I was almost totally impotent for some time after my divorce, especially when another human was present. The issue cost me one promising relationship and led to a lot of embarrassment. I got over it by the time I started dating D, and things were very hot between us for the first nine months or so. Unfortunately, as we came out of the honeymoon phase, I started to have some issues again. D is very sexual, and she is particularly turned on by my arousal. When that became an issue, she started to feel badly about herself and worried that I was unsatisfied and not attracted to her anymore. I felt perfectly OK with taking care of her in other ways when I couldn’t get hard (in fact, I enjoyed it quite a bit), but she started to feel embarrassed by that, like she was using me. My reassurances and explanations did little to help, since her perception is that I will place her happiness above my own (correct) and say things that aren’t entirely true to make her feel better (not correct).
We went through a few more hot and cold phases, I talked to both my psychiatrist and a therapist (who offered no advice that I had not already considered and tried), then I got tired of feeling like a disappointment and got myself a Cialis prescription. This fixed the erection problem completely, and, for a while induced another hot phase. Unfortunately, while I still get hard readily (often when I haven’t even taken the meds), I have a lot of difficulty getting off when with her. I have no difficulty at all getting off alone while watching porn or whatever. This makes her feel bad (which she tries to hide), which makes me feel guilty and self-conscious, which makes it harder for me to get off, and so on.
After hedging around the issue a lot, we finally talked about it openly. Her feeling is that I am a lot more turned on by sexy things like porn (we both watch it, and there’s no judgement there either way) than I am by actual sex. I feel like I am turned on by actual sex, but my concern for her needs (her need to get off, her need for me to get off) makes it difficult to relax enough to get to an orgasm. I told her that I love having sex with her, even if I don’t get off (which is entirely true), but she feels like sex has become a chore for me, and that I only really enjoy the closeness and contact, not the act itself (not entirely correct).
In short, D is sexually unsatisfied because she feels selfish and awkward when I don’t get off, I can’t get off because I’m too worried about getting off, and we both feel bad for each other and for ourselves.
So, what do I do? I’ve tried the “No porn, no masturbation” plan, and it mostly just increased my feeling of frustration and urgency. We’ve tried experimenting in the bedroom, but I don’t have some fetish that’s not being satisfied. (My porn preferences go no further from the mainstream that lesbians and bondage, and the latter has proven more fun in fantasy than reality.) While we don’t think negatively of poly-type people, we aren’t comfortable with non-monogamy for ourselves, and I don’t feel any longing to be with anyone else. Any other ideas?
A Brave New World of Sexual Frustration
Here’s a fun thing about penises, ABNW: they’re really, really sensitive. I don’t mean in the sense of “the slightest bit of sensation gets you off”, I mean that in the sense of “if something upsets them, they’re going to quit working for a while.”
When somebody who’s generally healthy has issues with erectile dysfunction – no blood-pressure issues, not on antidepressants, no hormone imbalances, etc. – then more often than not the issue isn’t between your legs but between your ears. And in the course of what you’ve told me, it sounds like there’re two possible issues.
The first is whether you’re still attracted to D. Sometimes it happens; folks fall in and out of lust, just as they fall in and out of love. If that’s the case… well, there’s not really much you can do. It’s one thing over the course of a long-term relationship, where you have a fairly strong base of affection, trust and and it’s easier to rebuild that spark. When you’ve only been together for 9 months… well, that can be a bit harder. That tends to be more of an indication that there’s a fundamental incompatibility that you could ignore in the early, New Relationship Energy phases, but less so once all the oxytocin dropped off.
But from what you’ve told me in your letter, that doesn’t quite sound like your issue. What I suspect is going on is that you’re having performance anxiety. There’s no bigger boner killer than anxiety, especially when your masculinity’s been called into question.Emotionally-triggered impotence after a divorce isn’t all that unusual; you’re going through some emotionally tumultuous times and that can do a number on your head. You’re in a complicated emotional situation, especially if you were involved in a toxic relationship and you’re having to reconsider everything and redefine who you are. The fact that you can’t rise to the occasion calls your masculinity into question: after all, a rigid and ready cock is one of the most common ideas about what makes a man. So now not only are you someone whose relationship fell apart (whether it needed to fall apart, or had anything to do with you is completely secondary because anxiety and depression aren’t rational), but you’ve lost your man-card on top of things. It becomes a vicious self-fulfilling prophecy: you worry that your cock isn’t going to leap to action and that worry means that you don’t get as hard as you want it to and now you have more confirmation that it’s not going to work, which makes you more anxious and round and round we go with a saggy cock and an inability to get off with another person in the room.
When all that’s swirling around in your head, no wonder you can’t get it up. It’s also why Cialis didn’t do the trick for you; for a couple of months, it was your magic feather but that anxiety went from being unable to get hard to being unable to get off. Your anxiety around your ability to perform is making it harder (er… as it were) to do what you actually want and every minor failure just helps confirm that you’ve got a Limp, Uncooperative Dick, with all caps. And bless D for trying to help – she sounds like an incredibly sweet and understanding woman – but I think that she’s inadvertently contributing to the problem. By being frustrated that you’re not getting off, she’s putting more pressure on you to perform and when you can’t…
Well, round and round it goes.
The cure here isn’t to watch more porn, not masturbate or find kinky new things to do with D, it’s to ease the anxiety you have about whether or not you can get off. That’s why you’re able to orgasm when it’s just you and a box of tissues; there’s no fear of judgement, no feeling that you need to validate your manliness or perform as a sexual being, it’s just “wham, bam, thank you glans”. But with D feeling awkward and selfish because she’s not getting you off, now you’re feeling the pressure to perform. So what do you do?
You take your penis off the table for a while. Er, so to speak. Instead of worrying about whether or not you’ll be able to get hard or to cum or any of the million other little daggers in your mind, it’s just not an option. Your penis is, for the next couple weeks, strictly for show and reveling in the fact that the world is your bathroom. This isn’t to say that sex is off the table. You and D can and should make out like teenagers. Go down on her like you’re drowning and she’s hidden an oxygen tank in between her thighs. Roll around, play with one another, but take all the emphasis off your penis. Let Mr. Johnson do it’s own thing without your involvement and just be sexual and playful and enjoy yourselves without it.
The more you de-emphasize the need for your peen to perform, the less anxiety you’re going to have while the two of you are being sexual. It’s going to remind you that your whole body is a sex organ and that sex is more than just penis-in-vagina action or penetration in general. You’ll relax, you’ll feel more secure in yourself and you and D will be able to enjoy sex without feeling frustrated or selfish because you enjoy the fooling around time even if it doesn’t lead to getting off.
Now, after a week or two of taking your penis out of the picture, slooooowly reintroduce it. Maybe the two of you will masturbate together. Maybe she’ll give you a helping hand when the moment’s right. But don’t put penetration – or even oral sex – on the menu at first. Build back up to it. Find other ways of incorporating penis action in that don’t involve PIV but still let you get off. And as you become more and more reassured about your ability to maintain an erection and to get off with D, the more the anxiety and need to “perform” will lift; instead of this referendum on your attraction to her or your status as a man, it’ll be the two of you enjoying yourselves together. That’ll help rebuild your confidence and belief in yourself as a man and as a lover.
I’m a (relatively) happy single man, slowly transitioning from that post-college emotional hangover that (hopefully) precedes proper adulthood. I’m paying off my loans, I’ve got a steady job (soon to be two jobs), and looking forward to moving out into a place of my own in the next year or so. So far, so good. But in the mean time, I’m still living with my parents, I don’t have a car (I commute by bus to work most days, or else carpool.) and most importantly for the purposes of this story, I still go to the same church. Now, I’m not a pillar of our faithful little community, by any means. But I sing in the choir, I co-lead our youth music ministry for a while, and I volunteer at almost all of our events. Almost everyone who regularly attends the church knows who I am. This is a good thing, except for one problem: I’m beginning to suspect that one of our teenage members has a crush on me.
At first I thought I was imagining it, but the more I ran it past your signs of interest the more it seemed to be true. She seeks me out after church every Sunday, laughs at all of my jokes (even the ones that aren’t all that good), and uses touch in a way that (as far as I can tell) she doesn’t really do with anyone outside of her own family. Now the real problem (besides the obvious) is that I can’t be sure she’s consciously doing this. I’m obviously not going to make any sort of move on someone over a decade younger than me, and a minor to boot, but I’d be lying if I wasn’t flattered by the idea of someone as pretty as she is having a crush on me, and there’s definitely some wishful thinking that might be distorting my read of her. Further complicating things is that I know both of her parents, and bless their hearts but they’re so socially-inept it’s a wonder they found each other and got married in the first place. It’s easy to see how they might have raised a good-hearted daughter without even the semblance of the idea of the difference between friendliness and flirting. I’m worried about disabusing her of notions she doesn’t actually have and ruining my friendship with her, her family, and even (worst-case-scenario) the rest of our congregation. I don’t want to be that “creepy older guy” everyone thinks is preying on high-school girls.
So my question for you, Doc, is how do I figure out if this girl is into me or not, so I can let her down gently (or not)?
Not Humbert Humbert
Here’s what you do, NHH:
You don’t need to do any detective work to find out if she’s got a crush on you or not. You also don’t need to somehow disabuse her of her crush if she does have one. What you need to do is continue being an adult and a mentor and behaving as such. That means having some healthy boundaries: don’t talk about sex or relationships in inappropriate ways, don’t act flirtatiously with her, make sure that you aren’t alone with her in rooms with the doors closed or in secluded areas. If she acts flirty with you or drops hints (or what you think are hints) then just pretend like you didn’t get it. Be friendly and be a mentor, but also be a professional. That means keeping a certain necessary distance, a certain amount of “I’m the adult, you’re a kid” vibe.
Crushes come and go. If she has one, it’ll fade with time, especially if you aren’t playing along. And if she doesn’t… well, then you don’t have a problem and you don’t need to do anything.
Dr. NerdLove, this is an issue I’m too embarrassed to discuss with anyone, especially my boyfriend. We’ve been together a few months now, and I’m jealous of his dog.
The thing is, my bf is kind of a reserved guy. We’ve been taking things slow, which is totally fine by me, but his displays of affection are rare and almost always induced by a lot of alcohol or an argument. He doesn’t like to hold hands or cuddle after sex. He doesn’t even say good morning, partly because as soon as we wake up he’s cuddling and kissing his dog.
Any time we hang out at his place he’s telling the dog how much he loves her and doing that dumb baby talk thing that I admit I’ve done to many dogs, including my own. The dog sleeps with us in the bed. The dog is there when we’re having sex. The dog is the reason he doesn’t ever sleep at my place or even ever come over. The dog is his partner in life.
He doesn’t even touch me in any way unless I touch him first or ask him to. But clearly he’s capable of physical affection, because he’s piling it on for his damn dog. On the one hand, we’ve been seeing more of each other and sometimes it feels like we’re getting closer. On the other hand, is this fucking dog going to be the most important thing in his life no matter how close we get?
Jealous of a fucking dog
So I’m going to preface this with the fact that I’m a pet-owner and very much a “love me, love my cats and dogs” person.
Here’s the thing about pet ownership: they love us unconditionally. It’s much easier to be affectionate with our dogs or cats, because we don’t worry quite as much about doing the wrong thing or making a fool out of ourselves or misreading signs and pissing someone off. We’re comfortable around them, we can let our guards down around them and generally be ourselves with them in ways we often can’t with other people.
We also have our lives and routines based around them. It’s much harder to change routines with pets because we can’t explain why we’re changing things; they just know that what they were used to has changed and get upset. So generally dating someone with a pet, especially one that requires active care like a dog (walking them, taking them out to use the bathroom, etc), you generally have to accept that you’re going to slot into that routine.
Is it possible to be attached to a pet in a way that interferes with one’s relationships with other people? Yeah, it certainly is; I mean, I love my pets, but I close ’em out of the room when I’m having sex. That may be the case here. But I suspect that the real issue is that your boyfriend is still not quite as comfortable with you to be as open and affectionate as he’d like to be – the fact that being affectionate comes with booze is a pretty good sign that he finds it hard to let his guard down. It may take time for him to relax and trust you more and trust himself around you more.
But as a word of advice, from a pet lover: tread carefully around his relationship with his dog. It’s one thing to point out that he’s more capable of being affectionate to Fido to you or to ask that the pooch not be in the room during sexy times. It’s another to start trying to change his relationship with him. Making demands or issuing ultimatums are going to end with him siding with his dog. The dog was there before you, and if circumstances arise that mean he has to choose between you and her… well, the dog’ll be there after you too.