What Happens When Your Sexual Awakening Hits — and You're Already Married
When I told my husband about the time I almost slept with a woman before we met, he got an intrigued look in his eyes, probably imagining threesomes in our future. And sure, we might try that someday — but I'm less interested in whether the possibility turns him on than what it means for me. At 32, with only straight relationship experience and less than a year of marriage under my belt, I've grown resistant to the idea of clinging to a certain sexual identity for the rest of my life. The prospect leaves me with a specific kind of FOMO: a fear of missing out on the sex I haven’t had, but might still want to. Though my husband and I are currently happy in our hetero, monogamous marriage, how could we know if that format will continue to meet our needs for the next several decades? (It seems presumptuous to pretend to know what my vagina will want at, say, age 64.)
I’m part of a wave of women seeing their sexuality through a new lens, one that renders it increasingly fluid and shame-free as we shed culturally imposed roles and explore new kinks and curiosities. But what if you’re already married when you do that internal accounting? Rather than begrudgingly accept a limited sex life as a condition of long-term partnership, a rising number of women are acting on a feeling of FOMO about sexual experiences we might not have had before (or after) marriage.
“Within traditional conceptions of marriage, women do not have the right to explore their sexuality,” says Sandra Faulkner, Ph.D, director of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Bowling Green University. “But for many women, the idea of marriage is changing. Wanting to be sexually compatible with a partner has delayed marriage or altered whether women want to get married at all.” Put simply, we’re prioritizing our pleasure more than ever, and are far less willing to sacrifice it at the altar of marriage.
“Many women weigh the fear of missing out on sexual pleasure against the fear of missing out on a long-term relationship and children,” says human sexuality expert Lexx Brown-James, Ph.D, LMFT, CSE, founder of the Institute For Sexuality & Intimacy. “Women often want to believe that if everything else in a partnership is good, they’ll be fine without great sex — so pleasure is often shelved until the frustration is overwhelming. But now, women are claiming their experiences more, and are less likely to be silent about their sexuality.”
A happy side effect of this reckoning has been the long-overdue light shed on what actually feels good for women, and the advent of new resources to that end. “I’ve witnessed more information, research and technologies focused on women’s sexual health and wellness,” says human sexuality expert Emily Morse, host of the Sex With Emily radio show and podcast. “Studies have shown that women, more often than men, get bored in a long-term relationship. Everyone craves variety, but women often blame their low libido as the problem, when really they need to explore their own desires in their relationship.”
For some women, doing that within the bounds of marriage is enough. Natasha, 32, of Raleigh, NC, didn’t start to lust (or ask) for new things from her husband until well into their eight-year marriage. “I realized that marriage came with a lot of compromise and sacrifice in many areas, and that sex could no longer be one of them for me,” she says. “I was absolutely short-changing myself before. The older I get, the more open I am to asking for exactly what I want — and who better to experiment with than the person you’ve vowed to spend the rest of your life with? I’ve gone from a meek, submissive lover to a dominant, demanding one.”
Other women scratch the sex FOMO itch by opening their monogamous relationships, often temporarily and within certain constraints. Naomi, 38, of New York, was in her mid-30s when she met her husband, and had already ticked most sexual adventures off her bucket list. “Having a threesome and being with a woman was the last sexual frontier I wanted to explore,” she says. “I brought it up to my husband, and for months we just fantasized about the idea. Finally, we made a plan to have drinks with one of his old hookup buddies — which led to us spending a weekend in bed together, then seeing her every few months for a year.” Naomi notes that setting expectations with her husband was key to making the arrangement work, and in general, constant communication keeps their sex life feeling safe yet exciting.
Sometimes, coming to terms with sex life FOMO is about accepting that a certain phase of your sexuality is over, and being OK with that choice. Leah, 32, of Burlington, VT, admits that though she’s incredibly happy with her husband of two years, she sometimes longs for the days of no-strings sex. “When I was single, I loved the freedom of sex without emotional baggage,” she says. “I could be whoever I wanted in the moment and play a new role sexually, no questions asked. I love my husband and his baggage, but sometimes it would be nice to have sex without the deep emotional connection. As young parents, we’re working on making sex less practical and more playful. Monogamous marriage is totally a sacrifice — but to me, it’s totally worth it.”
Still other women aren’t necessarily craving a different kind of sex with their partner, but rather, the space to explore their bodies and interests alone — space that can be hard to come by in the context of marriage and motherhood. That’s the case for Jenny Nordbak, 31, a Los Angeles-based writer who has two toddlers with her husband of five years. “It's important to stay connected with my husband, but it's equally important to prioritize my self-pleasure and embracing time that is solely about me,” says Nordbak, who did a three-year stint as a sex worker in her 20s, chronicled in her memoir, The Scarlett Letters: My Secret Year of Men in an L.A. Dungeon.
“We're taught that our sexual identity defines who we are as a partner, and we don't talk enough about how that can change,” adds Nordbak. “If you're with a committed long-term partner, it can feel like you're being untrue to the person they fell for if you express desires that reflect the internal growth you may be feeling. It doesn't mean you were being fake before if you're interested in exploring something different now. It simply means you're human.”
The process of facing sex FOMO is different for everyone, but for many, it begins with an honest talk about your sexual satisfaction, which married couples should be having on the regular anyway, experts say. While some women’s partners may be happy to go along for the ride, others might feel like the victim of a bait-and-switch — that their partner committed to a monogamous forever, and then asked for a way out of that promise. It’s an understandable reaction, but not one that should deter anyone from voicing new needs. Letting go of guilt about your right to pleasure — and its inherent fluidity — is key to getting the kind of sex you really want.
So, how to kick off a tricky conversation? Dr. Morse suggests that couples share sexual bucket lists or answer yes, no, maybe to a list of acts like spanking, threesomes, anal, or role play. Dr. Brown-James recommends trying conversation cards, books, and sex educator courses. Your partner might have their own sexual intrigues they haven’t yet aired, so make sure to open the floor to them, too. If you’re interested in experimenting with other people, give them ample time and space to process that idea.
If your partner isn’t open to exploring, you’ll have to consider whether you’re OK with leaving your fantasies in the realm of imagination. (“Fantasies are a valid and safe form of exploration — and it’s OK to keep those private from your partner,” says Dr. Brown-James.) There are plenty of ways to experiment alone, through literotica, porn, podcasts, and masturbation. You can also look into ways to amp up your pleasure with your partner through the slew of cutting-edge products available now, from high-tech vibrators designed to hit your G-spot to women’s health-focused organic lube. If you still feel you’re missing out on great sex because of your marital dynamic, it’s time to decide whether you can live with that trade-off.
Whether you tackle sex FOMO solo with a vibrator, by experimenting with your partner, opening your marriage — or all three — the key is to do it on your terms without shame. My own fear of being boxed into a limiting sexual identity began to subside just by talking to my husband about my untapped fantasies, and knowing that’s the first step to living them out when I’m ready.
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