Advice – My girlfriend gets aroused when stressed.

To sum it up, stress makes my girlfriend horny. This could be work stress, family stress, or studying for finals. Now usually I don’t mind this at all, right? We’ve been together about 2 years.

Well, we’ve hit some bumps in our relationship lately and we’ve been having some pivotal conversations about where the relationship is headed, what we’re realistically going to be, what we want in the short and long term. It’s not like we’re breaking up, but it’s a possibility; and it has made both of us feel pressure and stress as we work through it.

The issue with the stress is that it makes her want to get it on really frequently. I mean, REALLY frequently. Four or five times a day, and usually she wants to have sex right after a tense conversation. But, I’m the exact opposite of her. Stress kills my libido, and after a hard conversation I don’t mind laying down with her but literally the last thing on my mind is having sex.

This difference is creating a new level of issues during the hard time we’ve hit because she feels like I’m pulling away or don’t find her attractive or like I actually want to end things, despite the whole conversation we just had where I said I wanted to be with her. I’ve tried to explain that the stress is shutting me off, and she says she understands, but it’s clear she is still feeling hurt about it.

Any advice on what we, or I, should do?

Anonymous, Reddit.

Dear Anonymous,

Think of your sexual “drive” as composed of two different parts – an accelerator and a brake. Some people have really sensitive sexual accelerators – Sexual Excitation System (SES) – while others have insensitive accelerators that require a lot more to be activated. In short, the accelerator is reflective how fast you get turned on by your turn ons. An example of someone with a really sensitive accelerator is a person who gets aroused very easily with minimal input. Sexual accelerator operates under a completely independent spectrum than a sexual brake – Sexual Inhibition System (SIS). In short, the brake is reflective of how fast you get turned off by your turn offs. So an example with someone with a really insensitive brake is a person who doesn’t get turned off by something that might turn others off.

Our goal here is to “turn off the offs” and “turn on the ons”. We do that by identifying what our ons and offs are, communicating the essential expectations, and then managing the contexts around our ons and offs.

So first let’s parse your situation into to different parts: one for you and another for your girlfriend. This will help us identify what are your and your girlfriend’s turn ons and offs. After we discuss each of your perspectives, then we will talk about what you can both do to have a more fulfilling sex life together by adjusting the context around your ons and offs.

Let’s first talk about your headspace around arousal.

According to the dual control model, arousal is really two processes: activating the accelerator and deactivating the brakes … [I]t’s also a product of how sensitive your brakes and accelerators are to that stimulation.

Dr. Emily Nagoski, Come As You Are.

Based on what you have shared, it sounds like stress – particularly relationship stress – presses on your sexual brakes. That is a very common response to stress. Even if the actual status of your relationship is not in jeopardy, the sense of attachment in your relationship certainly could be. So when your brakes get inevitably hit, your body needs more time to acknowledge that this is still a safe connection that you can be erotically vulnerable with through intimacy. That does not happen on its own. You need time to heal and recuperate before you can turn off the offs – the relationship conflict points.

You said that your girlfriend’s behavior hasn’t been a problem for you in the past. I wonder if that is because the conflict itself didn’t pertain to you or if it was because the NRE overshadowed the brakes that were already being pressed. Has this been an issue in your previous relationships where you felt turned off immediately following a heated discussion with your partners?

This problem gets further exacerbated when your girlfriend keeps initiating sex even though you are not yet aroused. For you, this means that your sexual brake remains pressed, as a new iteration of the ongoing relationship stress. That is a problem. And one that perpetuates the existing set of issues.

So what does this mean for you?

You need a basis and a foundation of trust and safety in order to be aroused. Being rushed or pressured is not going to work for you because it is going to add to the stress that you already feel about your relationship. Even if the stressors are justified, well-intentioned, and on their way to resolution, there needs to be more of a space between the stress-inducing experience (like heavy discussions about the state of your relationship) and the erotic reconnection.

Now let’s talk about your girlfriend’s headspace around arousal.

Physiologically, anger and arousal have a lot in common. Psychologically, too. In your case, I think the anger emboldens you. It relieves you of compliance, and leaves you feeling more entitled. Anger highlights separateness and is a counterpoint to dependence; this is why it can so powerfully stoke desire. It gives you the distance you need. As a habit it can be problematic, but there’s no denying that it’s a powerful stimulant.

Esther Perel, Mating in Captivity.

I have two theories on what your girlfriend’s erotic headspace is like. And they’re not mutually exclusive.

The first possibility is that she has a very insensitive brake that allows for her to overlook the relationship conflicts in her arousal. In this possibility, her state of arousal is unaffected (or less than affected) by the stressors surrounding her personal life. This might be the case with your girlfriend if her normal libido maintains through times of conflicts as well as times of happiness.

The other and more likely possibility is that she has a very sensitive accelerator that allows her to get aroused with ease with her innately spontaneous sexual desire. In this possibility, her arousal is an outward manifestation of her stress mitigation effort. This arousal can come from a couple different places. Maybe she is able to switch gears really fast and easily tap into her fountain of spontaneous desire for sex with you. Maybe her arousability is a reflection of self-value affirming practice. Maybe her sense of stress is the heavy foot on that rests on her accelerator.

And the issue is not with any of those rationale. Her sexuality and desire is just as valid as your sexuality and desire. The issue is in how that conflict is resolved (or not resolved).

We also have additional data points to consider. When you communicate your current disinterest in sex, it sounds like her responses to this rejection is also layered. Whether she fears her own attraction or the stability in her relationship with you, the meta-feelings that she has about the rejection also shines a light on what she feels the most insecure about. Even though the rejection had nothing to do with her, her internal narrative around rejection unfortunately rewrites your stated intentions and desire for her. That is not only painful for her to feel through, but also difficult for you to overwrite her internal rewriting. And this in turn brings your caretaking to the forefront, which is also not conducive to an erotic mindframe for you. For her, her reaction might come from a complicated but powerful concoction of her sexual upbringing, self-criticism, and relationship doubt. Her feelings are just as valid and real as yours.

Now that we’ve touched on each of your perspectives, let’s do a deeper dive on how to bring both of you together.

When we feel distressed, our attachment object is our safe haven. Even – or perhaps especially – if our attachment object is the source of our distress.

Dr. Emily Nagoski, Come As You Are.

So far, we’ve covered that your erotic headspace and your arousal cues might be very different from your girlfriend’s erotic headspace and her arousal cues. That is normal. You two have led completely different lives before you met each other. Also, you each contend with completely different social conditioning around your gender and sexuality. Our goal here isn’t to bring the other completely over to one side. Instead, we should aim to understand where you are each standing, find out what makes each of you feel safe & supported, and settle on a happy medium where neither of you are dealing with a crisis of faith in your relationship.

For you, your goal is to turn off your turn offs. I think it would be beneficial to communicate your headspace and the meta-feelings around your relationship conflict points. This will create space for her to also relate with you about her own headspace and her meta-feelings about the recent stressors. Then reflect on what you need to feel safe to engage in intimacy with your partner. That can look like a soft verbal reaffirmation that she is just. as committed to work through this with you. It can also look like a long, intimate cuddle to start physically reconnecting before sex even comes into play. Or it might look like her giving you five minutes on your own to process your feelings and meta-feelings about the heavy discussion you two just had. Whatever it is, be courageous and reassure her that you are not abandoning her and that you also want to keep working on this relationship with her.

For her, she’ll also need to come up with a way to interrupt her negative feedback cycle upon rejection. The knives that she wields are sharp and context-dependent. If she has to leave you alone for sometime while you recuperate, it’s going to feel exactly like the wrong thing to do. That just isn’t how her attachment muscle is set up. But consistently doing so even if for five minutes will allow her to build trust that you will keep coming back, that you are going to keep choosing her. And that five minute break will help you switch your mental gears and get back into your erotic headspace with the person you’ve been working so hard to maintain a relationship with.

For both of you, it might be mutually beneficial to look to what intimacy really means for both of you. Eroticism and intimacy goes far beyond just the act of penetrative intercourse. A skin-to-skin cuddle can be just as erotically charging as PIV in the right context.

Good luck!

Tea Time with Tomato is an informative relationship and sex advice column for both monogamous and polyamorous folks. By submitting your post, you agree to let me use your story in part or in full. You also agree to let me edit or elaborate for clarity.

I want to hear your thoughts and feedback! Please feel free to send me your questions and comments at If you liked my advice for this post, please follow me on Facebook and Twitter. You can also subscribe below to get alerted when my next advice column is published!

Advice – My wife has high libido with other partners, but not me.

My wife [31F] and I [38M] have been together for 9 years, married for 2. We are best friends, communicate openly and honestly, make each other laugh, and are always physically affectionate. Our poly style is to date separately, and it’s worked brilliantly for us since we opened our relationship in 2017. We are both bisexual. My wife prefers to date women and has had tons of success. I am a man who prefers to date women and I’ve also experienced a lot of great things and success. Everything to everyone else looks, well, almost perfect!

Only one problem. I can’t for the life of me get her to have sex with me anymore! She always says she’s tired, or not feeling well. But when she visits her other partners (she dates two women separately) she’s a love-making machine! I would chalk it up to NRE versus ORE, but she’s been with these women for a while! I’ve even asked her honestly if she prefers women or if there is anything I can do to make her feel more comfortable being intimate with me – but she just apologizes and says “it’ll get better. we’re just going through a dry spell.” Well, this “dry spell” has lasted over a year now! We’ve made love maybe 8-10 times in the past 16 months. I do everything in my power to give my wife a comfortable life. I do most of the cooking, house cleaning, and rub her feet almost every night. I tell her how beautiful she is every day. Still nothing! I’d say maybe it’s all due to the crap couple of years we’ve had in the United States, but again, she’s getting down and dirty with her girlfriends regularly! I am starting to feel a little resentful because I am dating one other woman and I don’t get to see her as often. Maybe once every 6 weeks. And I have to “get in all of my sex” in the little one night only overnights we have. Help!

Fred, Reddit.

Dear Fred,

Learning to manage the surge of New Relationship Energy is one of the most critical skills to develop for any person exploring and engaging with ethical non-monogamy. Many of us learn to manage our NRE by channeling that initial burst of lust and desire back into our old relationships. That can look like harnessing the newfound sexual energy back into old relationships. Others prefer to manage their NRE by establishing proper boundaries around how much engagement they have with their new objects of sexual desire, as to not exhaust all relational energy in new relationships.

But one of the most common misconception is that there is a static timer on how long NRE lasts. The complicated truth of NRE is that it varies a lot from person to person. For some people, NRE is measured in months. Whereas for many others, NRE can last several years. Another complicating aspect of NRE is that its length and influence can vary from connection to connection as well. In many cases, the experience with NRE depends heavily on the context of that relationship. So for example, a comet-type relationship that might meet only once or twice a year might have a more drawn out expression of NRE, simply due to reduced exposure to the object of affection. Age can also play a significant role in how someone experiences NRE. So I think it is very important to keep these different factors in mind as it relates to your wife’s relationships with her other partners.

All of this is to say, it is very difficult to get to the root of your current sexual disconnect with your wife because there are multiple contributing factors to your disconnect.

And I think we need to elaborate on the degree of sexual disconnect and deconstruct the various “why’s”.

You say that you’ve picked up on the household chores as a way to lessen the emotional labor burden upon your wife, so that she may be enticed to be more intimate with you. While it is a wonderful thing you are doing, it might work better in a marriage where the imbalance in household chores manifests as a sexual brake in a relationship. In addition, if you dig deeper into your intentions you might find that you are doing those things with an implicit, unspoken intention for sex – that which your wife might be sensing through your actions as if your enthusiasm for household chores is contingent upon her enthusiasm for sex with you. In short, you might be trying to hard to address the problem by yourself when it should really take a collective effort.

I also want to touch on the dangers of keeping score. It is very easy to get in your own head if you keep tabs on the type of sex your partner is having with her other partners. This becomes a more fundamental problem if you end up comparing the dysfunctions within your sex life with your wife to the (assumed) vitality in her sex life with her two other partners. In reality, it might be more beneficial to ground yourself on the dysfunctions of your own sex life.

I also think that your wife bears some responsibility in the current sexual disconnect you are both experiencing with each other. While it is true that many couples do occasionally go through “dry spells”, it could be possible that your wife is less enthusiastic about sexually reconnecting with you because she has two other partners with whom she already has good sexual chemistry with. Dismissing the current sexual disconnect in your marriage as a temporary lapse unfortunately perpetuates the disconnect because that unintentional dismissal also dismisses your lived experience of erotic disconnection. In specific, I am really curious as to how your wife foresees her sexual relationship with you “getting better.”

So what does this all mean for bridging your erotic disconnect?

Esther Perel was once asked if it is difficult to be a partner to a relationship therapist as world-renowned as she is. She responded by saying that she has evolved over the thirty five years that she has been with Jack. She further elaborated that relationships constantly develop and change, and it takes an intentional effort on individuals to mind the inevitable disconnects, plan the reconnect, and celebrate the connection when you do reconnect.

It is clear that even though your wife acknowledges that there is a sexual disconnect, she doesn’t feel motivated to reconnect in the same way you want to. This leaves you with two viable options.

The first option is to address and reemphasize the importance of the reconnect. This might be the easiest to bring up if you can sit down with your wife in a monthly check-in like a RADAR where you can proactively establish action plans for the acknowledged problems. But it is important that you elaborate on the degree of disconnect you’ve experienced and ground yourself in the present pain. This will help your wife understand the gravity of the situation and be more conscientious about reconnecting with you in a more intentional, mindful way. This will also help each of you hold each other accountable in reconnecting with each other. This will allow you and your wife to get on the same page about not only what “getting better” really means, but also what each of you need to do to get better at being intimate with each other. Stated intentions are powerful!

The second option is to acknowledge that this disconnect will have to stand until your wife can independently acknowledge her own pain from this erotic disconnect without any further push. It takes two to tango. And if she really isn’t into bridging this gap, you need to work out a contingency plan to stay sane in your two relationships. You mentioned that you feel like your other partner that you meet once every month or so has to meet all of your sexual demands. And that is a lot of undue pressure filtering through one connection. If your needs are not being met by your current set of partners, it might be time for you to start looking outward to add new partners who can fill in that gap without adding any pressure on your existing partnerships.

Good luck!

Tea Time with Tomato is an informative relationship and sex advice column for both monogamous and polyamorous folks. By submitting your post, you agree to let me use your story in part or in full. You also agree to let me edit or elaborate for clarity.

I want to hear your thoughts and feedback! Please feel free to send me your questions and comments at If you liked my advice for this post, please follow me on Facebook and Twitter. You can also subscribe below to get alerted when my next advice column is published!

Advice – Balancing conflicting boundaries.

“My partner John [29M] and I [23F] have been together for around 4 years, we’ve been poly from the start. We’ve both seen other people on and off and been able to work out boundaries comfortably before.

Recently I’ve started talking to and getting involved (sexually, not romantically) with our mutual friend Peter [27M]. Peter and I are really sexually compatible and it has been really good to start playing with him while I get my libido back because it does feel like Peter and I are at a blank slate.

John and I have had a lot of issues with sex in the past. We played together a lot when we first got together. But the hormonal BC in addition to the two years on antidepressants completely killed my libido. I’ve recently switched to IUD which has somewhat helped with my libido. However, John has an enormously high sex drive; so we’ve been in a weird position trying to navigate that, because I still enjoy sex and want to have it, even if physically I haven’t been easy to arouse. Plus it’s something I like to give him because it’s positive for him, and really connecting for both of us.

Over the course of the past two years, my sexual attraction to John has diminished immensely, and I think there are a couple contributing factors as to why. I’ve had to tell him no a couple times because I could not match his libido. It could also be that we aren’t exploring kink together much anymore. We’ve also had a lot of sex together without me feeling physically attracted to him. Or it could just be the changing nature of our relationship in regards to our respective mental and physical health. I honestly don’t know.

I do know I still want to have sex with John. I just don’t find him physically attractive in the way I used to, and the way I do with my new partner. He wants to bring kink back in to our sexual relationship, but I don’t know if I want that because I just don’t really feel attracted to him in that way. He has sort of known that I haven’t felt sexually attracted to him in the same way for a while, but we only recently started really talking about it because I’m only just getting my libido back. Essentially, I don’t want him sexually in the same way he wants me sexually. I do want him. Just in a different way.

Here is where things get even more complicated. My first overnight with my new partner Peter was pretty unexpected because he said wasn’t ready for that a few days prior. My partner and I hadn’t talked much about boundaries because no one expected the overnight stay. And then it was a weird situation where the three of us were just hanging out. I was messaging Peter about what he wanted to do while John sat by, not knowing what was going on. After the overnight, I apologized and explained why things happened the way that they did, and we set boundaries for next time, that I would work out in advance who I was going to go home with. It was difficult for him to deal with emotionally at a time when he was also dealing with physical health stuff too.

Now things are a bit awkward with everyone. There were plans to go out all together this evening. I asked Peter if he wanted me to come home with him tonight. I let John know that I’m sorting sleepover plans with my new partner. Then John responded by saying he does not want to go out if Peter – our mutual friend – is also going because he doesn’t want to put himself in that situation. This put me in a difficult position of having to choose who I want to go out with. My partner knows I’m not comfortable being in this situation. Things eventually ended up working out when Peter decided he didn’t want me to come home with him. And things feel sorted out.

I’m still a bit upset because I want and need to respect each of my partners’ boundaries. But I am not okay with the way John put me in a difficult situation even if things ended up working out.

How should I navigate this situation going forward? I’ve never had to deal with John setting a boundary that he knows I’m not okay with him setting. I thought we were on the same page about maintaining friendship with everyone.”

TL;DR – Seeing new sexual partner who happens to be our mutual friend. My partner asked for boundaries that I am not okay with, which put me in a situation where I had to choose between my two partners.

– A Non Descript User, /r/polyamory.

Photo by Olenka Sergienko on

Dear A Non Descript User,

I am really sorry to hear that you were put in a difficult situation with very little maneuverability. I can see how challenging it is to manage your two relationships while maintaining your partners’ respective boundaries. You have handled much of your conundrum with a sense of respect and depth of experience I do not see many experienced poly folks conducting in their own relationships.

You are right. This situation is very complex. So I am going to break down my advice into three different bits. I’ll first talk about your sexual headspace and how it relates to your libido. Then I’ll do a deeper dive into your connection with your long-term partner John. After that, I will give you some advice on how to manage personal boundaries conflicting with your relational boundaries.

Sexual Headspace and Libido

Human sexuality is pretty incredible and increasingly diverse. There is much to the way we love that the science has not fully caught up to yet. But one of the most common questions that a lot of people ask for advice is to how to spice up their sex life as static eros fades into ambient pragma over the course of any long-term relationships. Dan Savage often recommends to diversify spaces in which you are sexual with your partner. And there is great value to that advice; to occupy new spaces in order to build new neural connections is a very sound way to revitalize your sex life in a long-term relationship.

It is very interesting to read and hear the way you phrase and defend the flow of your sexuality and libido – almost as if your libido is an entirely independent identity wholly separate from your own desires. Instead, you recognize and rationalize your libido as a way to determine what you desire.

It is as if you ate a fried corn dog at a county fair and suddenly realized you were hungry, instead of eating a corn dog because you were hungry. The retrospective justification is evident in not just the way you dance with your sexuality and kink space, but it is also present in the way you manage your relationships as well.

That leads to my next point.

Photo by Nika Akin on

Relationship with John

It does not sound like your sexual connection with John had to compete with Peter; you and John were already experiencing a form of sexual disconnect even before Peter entered your life as your sexual partner. You did well by stating your sexual intentions in regards to your relationship with John here:

He has sort of known that I haven’t felt sexually attracted to him in the same way for a while, but we only recently started really talking about it because I’m only just getting my libido back. Essentially, I don’t want him sexually in the same way he wants me sexually. I do want him. Just in a different way.

But I think it is time to really sit down and discuss what this means for your relationship with John.

Sit with him and be frank with each other about your respective needs. If you want to continue having sex with him but completely take kink off of the table, tell him so. He needs to know that information as soon as possible. You do not need to consent to kink aspects even if that has previously been a part of your sexual connection with John. Consent is ongoing. Please recognize that this is going to be a very difficult discussion where there will be a lot of pain emanating from mismatched expectations about your and his anticipated levels of sexual intimacy. Neither of you will be able to get exactly what each of you want, so compromising to a level of closeness both of you can accept will be necessary. Arrive to a mutual understanding instead of shouting from your respective individual peaks. And be patient in the recovery process. It might take months or years before you and John arrive to the sexual harmony you can both accept.

Ethical intimacy requires ongoing informed consent; and both of you can proactively talk to each other about non-pressing preemptive discussions before the situation becomes immediate. Proactively discussing the potential logistics of your overnight accommodations could have saved both you and John a lot of heartache.

My partners and I call it the Hypotheticals Game, where we do a deep dive into potential scenarios that have not yet happened in the present yet, but could very well happen in the future. Playing the Hypotheticals Game have allowed each of us to do preemptive emotional labor associated with the inevitable changes that come with polyamorous relationships. A real life example involved my partners and I all proactive discussing living together as a polycule months before that scenario unexpectedly became a reality. This might be a good tool that you can use with not just John but also with Peter to get ahead of that anxiety ahead of planning overnight logistics.

Photo by Pixabay on

Managing Conflicting Boundaries

You and John are not quite done yet. Y’all also need to discuss what happened recently, and how his assertion of his personal boundary could be a violation of your relational boundary. But let’s first distinguish a boundary from an agreement.

A boundary is defined as a self-enforceable statement of intention in order to create self-protection, to maintain internal balance, and to preemptively manage risk. An common example of a sound boundary would be, “I will not be sexually intimate with partners who do not maintain best safe sex practices.” Notice that in this particular boundary, the consent lies with the person who owns the boundary even though the assessment is externally driven. An agreement is a mutual, reciprocal statement of intention designed to protect the connection, to retain relational balance, and to insulate external risks. An agreement is different from a boundary in that boundary is wholly self-oriented while an agreement is managed by you and your partner(s). A common example of a similar agreement would be, “We agree to not introduce any new sexual partners who do not maintain best safe sex practices into our polycule.” Notice that a violation of either boundary or agreement could be relationship ending, but the consequences of a boundary violation is explicitly stated and self-enforceable.

You say that you and John have previously discussed that putting you in a position of choosing who to go out with would constitute a relationship agreement violation. But I would also point out that it is wholly within John’s ethical jurisdiction not to be around people he doesn’t feel comfortable with. Even if he did know about this particular relationship agreement, his personal boundary (“I will not spend time with people I do not feel comfortable with”) supersedes your relationship agreement (“We agree not to put hinge partners in difficult positions of choosing one partner over another on nights out”).

With all that said, John is putting you in a disadvantageous position of asserting his personal boundary which indirectly contradicts your relationship agreement. It is even more challenging because John and Peter were/are friends, and now you are put in a position of having to defend John’s boundary through the discomfort.

So I think you and John need to discuss how his boundary assertion made you feel. While he is completely within his right to establish and communicate such boundary (and generally boundaries do not need to be justified), he does need to elaborate on…

  • How long you need to be conscientious about John’s personal boundary when making future plans,
  • If John is actively working on rescinding the boundary at some point,
  • And if your relationship agreement need to adapt so that it is not constantly violated through his personal boundary.
Photo by Evie Shaffer on

I also wonder how this is going to impact John’s friendship with Peter going forward. You mentioned that the local poly community is very small and to ask you to fracture your personal community of humans even further is really asking you to do a lot of undue emotional labor. But the last point I want to make here is about the difficulties of being a hinge in a V-type polyamorous relationship.

It is your – the hinge partner – responsibility to manage the shared resources (i.e. time, money, space), to maintain proper boundaries & agreements with each of your partners, and to create meaningful spaces for each of your relationships to exist. It is also your responsibility to facilitate and organize logistics on who goes where whenever there is no full transparency. It can be very difficult to schedule and plan out in face of all these boundaries that seem to fly everywhere and the expectations that appear to constantly change. But you also need to recognize that John too is in a lot of pain and is constantly mired in a mountain of emotional labors associated with accepting your mismatching libidos, recognizing your new relationship with Peter, and managing his own health struggles. So please be mindful and compassionate that things might need to move at a slower rate than your NRE informs you so.

Good luck!

Tea Time with Tomato is an informative relationship and sex advice column for both monogamous and polyamorous folks. By submitting your post, you agree to let me use your story in part or in full. You also agree to let me edit or elaborate for clarity.

I want to hear your thoughts and feedback! Please feel free to send me your questions and comments at If you liked my advice for this post, please follow me on Facebook and Twitter. You can also subscribe below to get alerted when my next advice column is published!