Dr West replies: You are right. People might take this in several ways. Some might be understanding, given the circumstances, and some would view this as a deep betrayal, regardless of your partner’s permission. It’s a hard one to win but, to be fair, it really isn’t anyone else’s business as they are not the ones in the relationship. It might not be a conversation to have with your family and friends, but obviously you need to talk about it since you are writing to me. Keeping secrets or not being able to talk about a pressing issue can be a burden in itself, and when it comes to such an intimate matter, it can be hard to know how to manage this pressure along with the decision that you may make.
I’m not going to tell you what is right or wrong in this situation, as it really is between the both of you. However, I am going to suggest not acting on anything immediately. Your partner may have said this out of a sense of guilt or shame that they couldn’t ‘offer’ sex as part of your relationship. They may not actually want this but feel obligated to make the offer. If this is the case, your partner might be hurt if you do take them up on this offer, and this may lead to cracks in your relationship down the line. It might not be an offer made with full consent, but under duress and a sense of guilt. Many others do have this kind of arrangement and it works for them, usually due to a strong foundation, healthy communication and deep consideration of each other’s feelings. For others, sex is not a big deal and they are happy to go without it, once the other partner is present and engaged with the rest of the relationship. Out of sight, out of mind can work well for some but can be a disaster for others.
Sex and intimacy take many forms, but we often think of it in terms of physical sexual acts such as penetration, and when that is removed as an option, we can struggle to think about what sex can look like in our new reality. I’m reminded of an episode of my podcast with sexologist and cancer survivor Tess Devèze (episode 105). She spoke about how some of her clients struggle with sex and pleasure after life-changing diagnoses such as cancer, and how they often find new and more satisfying ways to connect with each other. Devèze has written a book on this topic called A Better Normal: Your Guide to Rediscovering Intimacy After Cancer, which is sex positive and non-judgmental of the many ways that people seek intimacy in difficult situations. While you don’t specify your partner’s diagnosis, I think that the advice in this book may be applicable if you want to work together to find ways to maintain intimacy on whatever level works for you both.
If you do decide to go forward and, after discussion with your partner about boundaries and what the reality of this arrangement would look like, there are several logistics to consider. You would have to get frequent STI checks, figure out where these encounters would take place, and who they will be with. It’s not fair not to be honest with potential partners, but you might also find that you don’t want to disclose your personal life to others. This is a tricky line, as people don’t want to be lied to or have hopes that an encounter might lead to more, so you will have to be honest that all you are offering is a once-off encounter. You will also have to prepare yourself and be honest with yourself about the potential to develop feelings for someone that you might sleep with and what this would mean for all involved parties.
As you can see, it’s not a black-and-white situation, and decisions don’t have to be taken right now. In fact, it would be better if they were not. While your partner may have made this offer, they might be hurt if you just leap into bed with someone else straight away. Or maybe they might feel relieved — or even happy for you. I don’t know how they will feel, and maybe they don’t even know themselves. Reality is often very different to our thoughts, and we often react in ways we don’t expect. This is why it isn’t a decision to be rushed, and hard conversations will have to be had. You can have these together in a space such as counselling, or find online forums of communities of people experiencing the same issues. You might find that these discussions bring you closer and help you establish the kind of intimacy that works for you both.
Dr West is a sex educator and host of the Glow West podcast, which focuses on sex. Send your questions to email@example.com. Dr West regrets she cannot answer questions privately