Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. "Concrete, explicit instructions in the time of emotional cholera."
My problem started innocently enough, a little white cLIEmax that rolled along and gained momentum until it became a large-scale inescapable avalanche of deceit-gasms.
Paradoxically enough, I met him at a bar on a girls' night out that a friend had organized for me as a "screw men" celebration following yet another breakup in a string of less-than-great short-term relationships. When we started dating, my expectations were down to zero and I was more interested in casual fun than a meaningful relationship. Maybe my relaxed openness is what made it work; we became best friends and fell in love, and a year or so later we are living together and planning an engagement sometime in the next year. The only reason I wish I'd had an inkling that it was going to become serious was that I didn't think twice about faking orgasms. Sex with him has always been very enjoyable, but I simply don't orgasm from his penetration alone. Initially, faking it just made sense: it met objective expectations he had for his own sexual performance; it made him feel good about himself; it created a dramatic apex during sex; it allowed for a shared feeling of contentment in the denouement coming down from it; and it made me feel like a woman of utmost sexual prowess.
The only downside is that I'm now being dishonest with my life partner and the wrongness of it is eating me alive. I've continued to pretend-orgasm when we have sex because he would surely notice a sudden stop. He is not lacking in stamina, and, in my several attempts not to fakegasm, he kept going and going ceaselessly until I put on a show. We talk about most everything, and in conversations about sex I am ashamed to say I have lied about my supposed fast and frequent orgasms. Now that I know him, I know that he probably would have been fine with this issue if I had been honest about it from the start. He is happy to pleasure me in other ways, and I think he would be caring and confident enough to overcome the socially conditioned expectation to get his woman off that way. It's the dishonesty that I don't know how he'd handle. We have an otherwise very sturdy foundation of trust, and I am scared of how revealing such a longstanding lie would affect our relationship. I am not distraught that I don't orgasm like that with him (although I have with ex-boyfriends), I love him and I just want to do what is right for us. Should I accept and continue to hide this little white lie from him for the rest of my life? If I really enjoy making him feel good, is there still some fundamental importance to revealing my orgasm fraud?
Help me, Polly!
You said yourself that the situation is eating you alive, and for a good reason: Honesty is fundamental to maintaining a healthy partnership. It's a truism because it's so goddamn true. Even lying about stupid shit—flirting with some old boyfriend, smoking cigarettes on the sneak, buying something you can't afford—can serve as the tiny fissure that eventually brings down the whole levee. And when the levee breaks, mama, you got to move.
You start lying about dumb stuff, and pretty soon you feel like two different people, The Dreamy One and The Liar. At first, The Liar is just trying to keep the peace. But soon, unethical choices become feasible: As long as The Liar does it, and no one knows, what difference does it make? The Dreamy One stays dreamy while The Liar graduates from little indiscretions (complaining to friends about his/her spouse, calling him/her secret names, lying about plans) to bigger crimes. As the crimes pile up, The Liar and The Dreamy One both start to tell stories about how their wife/husband is too rigid and inflexible to ever accept the very natural things that The Liar wants from his/her life. Enter: Alienation, frustration, distance, bad sex, lack of sex, confusion, cheating, anger, divorce, and finally? Driving your kid across town to spend the weekend with your ex and his new lady, Chloe, who mostly likes smoking heroin and playing Skyfall.
OK, just kidding about that last part! Chloe actually just likes weed and that Walking Dead game. (Or that's what your five year old says, anyway.)
I totally understand why you've found it so difficult to drop this act out of the blue. But who wants to doom herself to a life of faking it? Not only is that exhausting, but it eliminates the possibility of improving your sex life. How can you even focus on what's actually happening in bed when you're always about to pull the trigger on an Oscar-worthy performance? That kind of acting (and strategizing) seems likely to dull your physical response. You're singing this elaborate rain song while holding this giant umbrella over your head. Whether or not it ever rains, you're never going to feel it.
When you're playing the field, great sex can consist of a pair of really skilled performers getting in sync and bringing the house down. But those highs often go hand in hand with a limited run of shows. When you're in a committed, long-term relationship, great sex is less about having a fail-proof routine at the ready and more about improvising in the moment, with an open heart. Less thinking, more feeling. Less showmanship, more honesty. As the love and trust increase, the sex magically gets better. (That sounds creepy to the traveling minstrel, but it's true.)
You should come clean about your entire history of faking it. You started doing it because it seemed fun, and you haven't been able to stop without disappointing him or causing him engage in marathon sessions (something that probably warrants its own delicate discussion). Obviously, you'll have to be vulnerable and admit that you feel embarrassed by the whole thing, and you'll have to apologize for allowing it to go on for so long. He'll probably be upset for a while. But you'll open up the possibility of having a great relationship and great sex that gets better over time. Right now, those things are off the table, thanks to this lie. If the relationship is meant to be, it'll survive Fakegasmgate. (I would not necessarily mention that you screamed like a banshee with other men.)
If you're sure that the truth will embarrass or upset him too much to recover, I guess you could tell him that even though you used to love to vocalize (a lot!), you've started to feel obligated to make noise, and it's detracting from your actual enjoyment. You could simply admit to playing it up a little, which has lately made you feel pretty less engaged. That's a lie, but at least you could tell the truth moving forward. I don't know, though. You'd still be pretending, trying to glue together the past and the present and the future of your sex life without any of the seams showing. "You're the best, baby, but now I'm going to be very quiet about it." "I come all the time, but now I do it quietly! Which is better!" As awkward as it is now, my guess is that your sex life will be better (for both of you) if you tell the whole truth. And look, who knows? Maybe your boyfriend has some stuff he needs to let off his chest, too.
If you apologize and you're patient and respectful of his response, I have to think he'll get it and this might just be the beginning of a new kind of life together. Trying to be something you're not is a sickness, even if most of us have it until we hit our 30s. Once you shake it off, life gets much richer and more satisfying. My guess is that this one big moment of reckoning will mature you and make you happier in ways that you can't really anticipate right now. You'll start to think hard about the other areas of your life where you're just acting. I mean, you just told the smoothest version of this embarrassing story I can imagine. I bet you have lots of friends, and people dig you. But, are you always on? Do you feel like being less than perfect means that you're a total failure?
It's common for women to expect too much of themselves. The rest of the world does, so why shouldn't we join right in? Personally, though, I feel a lot happier when I accept that I'll never even come close to being perfect. This fakegasm situation is about you more than your boyfriend. Until you're okay with however you happen to feel on any given day, until you're comfortable showing up without fireworks guaranteed in return, you're cutting yourself off from your natural responses and feelings. You have to dare to be a regular woman, no better or worse than any other, with your own issues and weaknesses.
"When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her," writes Adrienne Rich. Regular, flawed women are much more interesting and lovable than perfect women. Why does that feel like such a well-kept secret?
Is it cowardly to decline someone romantically because they have kids?
Romance is on hold. I am a woman in my mid-20s who loved dating in college, but has found that pool of sexual energy shrunken since real life came to town and drank all that chlorinated water. My last relationship ended on account of me moving (very far) away to look for work. It was a decision wrung from cabin fever more than cold rationality. Although I have always secretly shunned those who put money before family, it was then that I found that as long as my self worth is vested in a career, having a good job really did influence my ability to make myself and someone else happy.
I've been in this new place for about a year. Economically I am standing on one foot and things are better than before, but still insecure. Occasionally I go on dates and four months ago I met someone who would grow to become a good friend. Nick. He is positive, energetic, involved, and intelligent, we share many common interests and I adore his friends. My life is suddenly filled with activities of all sorts and I feel like I have found part of the foundation I've been searching for.
Because we met online, I knew from the onset that Nick has a son. I told him I was not interested romantically before we met. We've gradually started spending more time together, and somewhere in there, I've also stopped dating around. Our relationship hasn't crossed that friendship-line, it is very much at the "so what is this" point. Yes, it got there last night.
I've never even kissed Nick, but when we walk down the street, people assume we are a family, and oddly enough I don't mind, I think I enjoy it. Two week ago I invited him and his son over for dinner, and as I looked out into the backyard to see them running circles on the lawn, this superb feeling of non-angstiness came over me. I think I felt for the first time what it is like to not be thinking of myself.
Two parts of my biology are butting heads. One of which can't help texting him first thing in the morning. I feel stimulated by him and incredibly grateful. Having been through enough relationships I acknowledge that it's special, but I also question whether it's prudent to take it further. My other self can't tell if I am playing house. I am terrified of becoming bored later on. I still ogle attractive strangers, sometimes in an apathetic way, but sometimes I feel like a cat in heat. I covet that immaturity, and the logical part of me doesn't want complexity.
Nick will ask me how I feel but I won't know what to say. I haven't experimented with him on account of him having a child, somehow that falls into my minds "you better be serious about this" category. More importantly I know that his last and first relationship was with his son's mother, and I don't want to be the second woman to break his heart. What if I kiss him and don't like it? I am happy with my social life, I don't yearn for the awkwardness of the wrong people sleeping together, but I sure as hell would be jealous when he moved on.
Dear On Hold,
Ah, the magic of biology! Sometimes I wonder what the male praying mantis must be thinking, at that fateful moment when the female praying mantis is making a light dinner out of his brains. As she chows down and releases the chemical that incites the bittersweet praying-mantis love-making, is the male praying mantis thinking, "Fuck yeah! Yeah! Like that, baby, just like that!" Or is he thinking, "Guess I should've known by the way you parked your car sidewaaaays that it wouldn't last"? With those last insecty thrusts (ew), is he mourning ("My world! My beautiful world!") or is he high-fiving himself?
The truth is, the praying mantis himself probably doesn't know until it's too late! He's probably all twitchy and ambivalent up until that fateful moment when that wily she-devil has half of his noggin between her merciless mandibles! Good kisses and bad kisses, feelings of non-angstiness, cat-in-heat urges, gratitude, jealousy—these things can rarely be predicted.
But whatever happens next, the kid should be kept separate from the deciding process. You can test the waters with the man without involving the child. Personally, I didn't even meet my then-8-year-old stepson until six months into dating my husband, because we needed to know we were serious first. Obviously single parents casually date around, they just do it without bringing their kids along. You should stop hanging out with the kid while you figure out what shape your relationship with his dad might take.
And look, if you really do covet immaturity and shun complexity, if you fear boredom more than anything else, then you should wait. Maybe you will break his heart. Or, maybe you're working through all of the possible negative outcomes at a point when more thinking won't necessarily provide new information. These pangs of "Oh, shit! I'm young and I need to be free!" and "I don't want a kid yet!" might be drowned out by something much louder, or they might not. Will your soul be screaming "Fuck yeah, baby!" or will it scream "My world! My beautiful world!"? You might not know until you try it. Maybe it'll scream one thing, then another. Personally, I had a lot of different, conflicted reactions over the course of getting to know my husband, but ultimately, the complexity and maturity required of me felt like a gift rather than a sacrifice. (Let the record show that I was a decade older than you are now when I met him.) If you feel sure that you'd mess up your whole life if you went for it, obviously you should stop yourself. Are you into him simply because he's the only guy in the picture? Would you still be into him if another nice guy were hanging around?
If you're pretty sure that your feelings about him are specific to him, and not just related to a general improvement in your circumstances (more friends, adorable family-like scenes playing out in your backyard), if you're anxious to find out more about him, to listen to him, to get to know him better, to kiss him (and not just kiss some guy sort of like him, but without the kid), then I would trust your instincts and kiss him. Will having a stepson suck? Will getting serious fuck over your entire career? How can you know that from here? Sometimes you can't control the outcome, or predict the future, or ensure a clean exit. Sometimes all you can do is lower your head between those mandibles, close your eyes, and hope for the best.
Previously: Ask Polly: Should I Make The First Move On My Dream Girl?
Did a mean old levee teach you to weep and moan? Write to Polly and learn some more marketable skills!
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by Christina Rutz.