Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

Will Polyamory Save Our Relationship?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I have an issue that I don’t really know how to process. Well, it might be two, depending on how you look at it. It makes me feel icky, for lack of a better word. I wanted to write in to you because I have a few times before and I have come to value your advice. Now, for the matter at hand.

My boyfriend, Darren, and I have been together for just under two years. He is a trans man and has not yet had bottom surgery, meaning he doesn’t have a penis. When we started dating, it was not a problem. But, as time has gone on, I have realized I’m not sexually attracted to him anymore and I miss it. I miss the feeling of “I’ve gotta have you, right here, right now.” I miss the feeling of looking at someone and wanting to tackle them onto the nearest flat surface and have my way with them. I don’t know if I can get that attraction towards him back. We don’t have sex. I’m not getting my needs met and neither is he. I’m a gay man, I’ve gotta have the D.

He’s agreed to an open relationship, where if we don’t have sex, that’s fine. Where “I don’t care what you do, as long as you come home to me.” That’s all fine and dandy. However, if I stay in this situation with him, I feel like I’m being selfish. I don’t want to keep him from someone who’s gonna be attracted to him in every conceivable way. He has told me that, with guys in the past, the minute he tells them he’s trans, they ghost. So he’s convinced that that’s never gonna happen. Not to mention, if we keep this up, there’s a very good possibility that someone is gonna get hurt.

I know what you’re gonna tell me. You’re gonna tell me that if I’m not attracted to him, I should break up with him. I wish it were that easy.

I’m not gonna sugarcoat this: He spoils me. Not only does he buy me nice things, but he is unbelievably sweet to me. Like he worships the ground I walk on. I’m not so shallow that my love can be bought, but I feel stuck. I almost feel like I owe it to him to stay together. I know that’s nonsense but I do. Also, I love him dearly.

Now, Darren has a friend named Tyler, who is very cute and who Darren has floated the possibility of becoming a throuple with. I, along with my boyfriend, am going to meet him for the first time this weekend. (Just to clarify, Darren has met Tyler. I have not.) Just the idea that that could happen is making me very excited. Giving me butterflies I haven’t felt since my first couple dates with Darren. I’m not sure how to go about this issue. I’ve never experienced anything like this.

Your advice would be greatly appreciated,

I Feel Like an Ass

DEAR I FEEL LIKE AN ASS: Right, this is gonna be a tough one.

So first things first, IFLAA: let’s talk attraction. Sexual attraction is one of those issues that tends to be incredibly nuanced; sometimes it comes hard, hot and heavy, where someone just flips your switch and your desire for ’em hits like a goddamn truck. Other times, it’s a slow burn; the more you get to know someone and spend time with them, the more attractive they tend to become to you. But sexual attraction can fade on its own too. Sometimes it’s like a star going nova: bright and intense, but fading quickly. Other times, it’s a slow fade over time, especially in the course of a long-term relationship. Esther Perel has famously talked about how familiarity, predictability and even security can dampen sexual desire in long-term relationships. It’s a perverse paradox that the things that help our relationships last can also be the things that diminish our desire for our partners.

But there’s also the fact that not every relationship is meant to be long-term. Nobody is carved in stone; we’re all growing and changing, constantly. The relationship that worked for you two years ago may not be the relationship that works for you now; the person you were then isn’t the same as who you are today. That can also affect your desire; you aren’t as into your partner because you’ve changed, they’ve changed and the relationship doesn’t serve the needs of who you both are now.

Now that having been said: it seems that you’re pretty firm that the biggest obstacle in your relationship is that your boyfriend hasn’t had bottom surgery yet and you’re into penises. I would have a number of questions about how much this affects you; is it the visual aesthetic, or are you needing someone with a penis that can actually get erect? Does it necessarily need to be a biological penis? Would Darren having a strap-on (or a packer or both) make it easier to bridge the gap for the two of you, if and until he gets bottom surgery and a phalloplasty?

That’s something you should consider, especially if you haven’t explored those options yet.

Now the second issue is the idea of your becoming a throuple and potentially having a poly relationship with this new guy, Tyler. The way it’s making you feel actually ties into what Esther Perel has said about familiarity… and one of the most common ways to bring the spark back in your relationship. One of the reasons why passion tends to fade in relationships is because as we settle in and get comfortable, we tend to… well, settle. The novelty fades, you both get comfortable and — critically — you stop having as many sexual adventures together. Introducing a third party — either as special guest or as part of a poly pod — injects novelty and adventure back into the mix, reigniting feelings that had gone dormant. Small wonder you’re excited, even without having met the new guy; this is the sort of novelty and thrill you two haven’t had in a while. So that might — and I stress might — be a potential solution.

However, I don’t think it’s a long-term one, or even the healthiest one under these circumstances. In fact… I’m kind of worried that you’re doing a lot of inadvertent harm to your boyfriend.

It’s pretty clear that Darren knows you’re pulling away from him. It’s also pretty clear that Darren has something of an anxious attachment style, especially considering he — understandably — worries that it’ll be hard for him to find another partner. I worry that he’s tossing option after option out there in order to keep you around… even though it may be cutting his soul to ribbons.

Case in point: your opening up your relationship. Asymmetric open relationships, where one partner is free to find sex elsewhere and the other chooses not to, certainly exist and thrive. So do companionate relationships, where a sexual connection simply isn’t an important part of the relationship. If everyone’s cool with the arrangement and everybody feels that their needs are being met… well, that’s how they roll. More power to ’em. But in this case, I think your seeking sex elsewhere and NOT having sex with your partner is… going to cause damage. In a real way, this is kind of a confirmation of what Darren is afraid of: his being trans is driving yet another man away. Spoiling you, opening up the relationship, even bringing a third party in… these all sound less like “Hey, we’re an adventurous couple and this is how we roll” and a lot more of “I’ll do whatever you want, just please don’t leave.”

And to be perfectly blunt: that’s incredibly unhealthy… and it’s s--tty of you to do to someone you care about.

Ask yourself which you think is more damaging: giving Darren the freedom to find someone who loves him and wants him for who he is, or a relationship where he knows that you’re not into him and would rather be with someone else. How long do you think you could take it if you knew that someone you loved was quietly dying inside the longer they were with you? How horrible would that make you feel to find that out?

If you can’t bridge the gap with Darren on the penis issue, then frankly, I think the kindest thing you can do is to end things. Dragging it out is only going to do more harm than good. And while I get that you appreciate the way he treats you… that’s a really s--tty reason to stay in a relationship, especially a relationship that may be damaging to him.

While I understand that you don’t want to hurt him, the truth is that there’s hurt and then there’s hurt. There’s necessary pain — such as, say, the pain of breaking up with someone — and then there’s unnecessary pain. Dragging things out, even in the name of trying to avoid that hurt, is the definition of unnecessary pain. And as much as the pain of a break-up hurts, a quick and clean break will heal faster and cleaner than a prolonged death by a thousand cuts.

Now who knows. Maybe Darren and Tyler will hit it off. Maybe you can help Darren find a good man who’s gonna be into him as he is. But you can’t count on that, and trying to stick around until you can find someone to cushion the blow is only going to drag the whole mess out.

I think if you really care about Darren, you owe it to him to see if there’s a way of filling that need for sex with him… or set him free so he can find someone who’s right for him.

Good luck.

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