Recently, I was asked about ace and allo marriages, and I didn’t have any resources about marriage/partnership and asexuality, especially when one of those partners is allo. In fact, there really aren’t many resources like this out there in general. I’ve never been in a partnership like this as an adult, so I don’t have any experience in this area to draw from. However, aces and their allo partners on Twitter were eager to help and share what they have learned. We all hope these stories and links can strengthen ace/allo marriages and long-term committed partnerships of all kinds.
My thanks to M.J. Weissenberger, Mitchell Atencio, Grey, Loxley Blaine, Russ Walker, Case, Cody Daigle-Orians, Kate Wood, our anonymous friends, and everyone who replied to my tweet here.
Many mentioned setting boundaries, trying nontraditional things that work for you (separate beds or bedrooms, for example), honest communication, being willing to compromise when you can but be honest when you can’t, and learning more about various ace labels and experiences to have clearer language to communicate your needs and desires. While therapy in general is a good fit for this kind of relationship issue, many therapists are not ace-informed, especially marriage and relationship therapists, so be careful going in to choose someone who understands your situation and won’t pressure you into sex or relationship structures that don’t work for you. For example, some ace/allo partners found polyamory was a good fit and enjoy multiple relationships, but others didn’t and resented how it was assumed or presented as the “solution” to fix their relationship. Some of these answers may work for you and some won’t. They are not blanket solutions, simply lived experiences of those in these partnerships.
Here’s more of what aces and allos in relationships with aces had to say:
(Answers slightly edited for clarity)
1. What’s something you would tell an allo spouse whose partner has just come out as ace on how to be supportive of the coming out process?
Mitchell: First and foremost, I learned early on that it is important to say the obvious things. You know you didn’t marry your spouse for sex, but tell them that anyway (in a way that is kind and communicative). It can be good to emphasize the reasons you did marry/partner with them. Be honest about your own desires, and be honest that this is something you’re still learning about. Ask questions, and listen thoughtfully. Ask if they have any resources you should read to better understand them. Try to understand asexuality, all of the subgroups and categories and labels, without thinking they are end-all-be-all descriptors.
Anonymous ace man married to an allo partner: First, that they are valid. Secondly, to not be afraid to ask questions, but to also make sure they understand how attraction, love, libido, and romance are all distinct yet intertwined things. Thirdly, that they were drawn together for a reason, so—as with any coming out process—their partner isn’t changing nor asking the allo partner to change for them.
Russ: Communicate feelings, and try not to take it as a commentary on you, your looks, etc. They came out to you because they feel comfortable and want to be honest with you. It may hurt to hear that your partner doesn’t experience sexual attraction the way you do, but they’re not just saying that to get out of having sex with you in particular. One of the best responses is probably “Thank you for sharing that with me. I need to learn more about this and need some time to understand my feelings about what you told me. I love you, and once I’ve had a day or two with this, let’s talk about what this means for us going forward.”
Grey: Their partner coming out as ace has nothing to do with them, but it is a fact of life that might affect them in unexpected ways. It’s important to learn how to talk about different aspects of this coming out and its impact without centering yourself or how your partner’s aceness is affecting you. Affirm autonomy and the tremendousness of coming out.
Loxley: I think the best way to be supportive of an ace partner who’s just come out is to remind them that you’re there for them. Society has told them over and over that relationships require (or even are built upon) sex and they might be afraid of losing you. Reminding them that you’re there for them even without that aspect of the relationship is important, and that holds true even long after they come out.
Every asexual person is different. For my spouse, they’re sex-repulsed and have never wanted to do so much as kiss. Honestly, that took me a long time to adjust to, even though I knew early in our relationship. To be honest, I think your best bet is to let the ace partner lead the conversation. They’re going to know what they’re comfortable (or uncomfortable) with. They know what’s on the table and what’s definitely off. You can always ask about things, but pushing or pressing is not a good idea.
M.J.: First, they chose you for a reason. Being ace or discovering new things about themselves does not negate how they came to choose you as a partner. As they discover more about who they are, give them the space to acknowledge all the reasons they chose you. Second, not knowing you’re ace until you’re grown up and married can also mean that you didn’t have a long journey of knowing or listening to your body. Your partner may need the freedom to explore what brings them pleasure, and not just sexually. As their partner, you have the opportunity to discover their pleasures alongside them and celebrate the little victories.
2. Is there anything around adjusting expectations or communication around sex you feel comfortable sharing?
Mitchell: This advice works in really any situation, but I’d encourage people to embrace blunt communication. Discuss that first, don’t just start being blunt, but there’s been a lot of avoided tension by asking, literally, “Do you want to have sex?” And being open to whatever that answer is. Couples should discuss what types of sex are acceptable in their relationship. Is masturbation OK? Is pornography? Should masturbation be done alone or in the presence of the other partner? etc. I’d encourage couples to lean into letting their partner embrace their own healthy sexual desires or lack thereof. Masturbation doesn’t need to take away from your intimacy as a couple, it can allow a healthy and desired intimacy to blossom.
Anonymous: I think it is important that each partner figure out how best to “align” their expectations of sex (Will they have sex for pleasure, for fun, for both? How can the allo partner initiate in a way that is comfortable for the ace partner, and vice versa. Now or later?)
For the ace partner specifically, they need to figure out how sex favorable they are and how their libido works (does the ace partner always feel favorable to sex when turned on? Can they get aroused spontaneously, or does having help in terms of fetish play/fantasies help?) As in any relationship, I’d argue, both partners need to remain open about (mutual) masturbation and to try those as options for either partner at any point. Also, be open about how and what arouses either of them and if playing with that would be fun for either of them (for example, the ace partner may just like pleasuring their partner as its own reward!).
Russ: Different people’s mileage may vary. I’m pretty sex-positive myself, I just don’t want to engage in it, so I have told partners in the past that I don’t mind if they have sex with other people, so long as they were safe and it’s me they come home to at the end of the night. And it’s worked differently for different guys. Some were all for it. Some thought it was disloyal still. But it’s always a conversation, and I try to be as upfront as possible.
Grey: Become comfortable with irregularity surrounding sex, and expect it to coexist with sexual humor and bodies. I think people expect that ace people will suddenly lose all their sexual nature and ways of interfacing with the sexual that are not sex. That’s simplistic. It’s always important to keep checking in if there is consent and a desire to continue, start, stop, or slow down on sex.
Kate Wood: My research suggests avoiding marriage/relationship counselors. Sorry to say that they don’t come out of my study well, as a group. Poorly informed about asexuality and with a “sex is essential” attitude. Accept the level of sex that the ace partner is comfortable with. Don’t try to push it—allo partner, don’t push, and ace partner, do not push yourself. It is what it is. “Compromise” cannot mean a person consenting to sex they don’t want. That’s not healthy or helpful. If sexual needs are uneven, there are options, but they must be genuinely agreed upon. An open relationship can work, but only if there’s true consent and comfort for both of you.
M.J.: Coming from a specific faith community, the expectation that was placed on me was that I would a) want sex frequently and b) honor my partner by giving them sex when they wanted it. That was very damaging for me, and our journey as a partnered couple has taken years to figure out. It started with my partner’s willingness to not have sex frequently for awhile. I also had to walk through a long process of understanding what brings me pleasure and what comes naturally to me. I experience no sexual attraction, but I enjoy sex. This paradox means that I am not aroused by my partner, but when I am aroused, I enjoy sex with my partner. I had to give myself permission to play around with what arouses me and help my partner learn that as well. We no longer expect me to instigate having sex or to respond in any meaningful way to flirtations or foreplay. Instead, we gauge my interest in the idea of sex, and then play around with arousing me in a meaningful and playful way.
3. Did you receive any words of wisdom that you want to pass along?
Mitchell: Sex and intimacy are what you make it as a couple. I don’t mean the quality; I mean it can be whatever you make it. You don’t have to have penetrative sex together; you don’t have to do oral; you can be creative. Open up your brain and find ways to be intimate (sexually or otherwise) that appeal to you, and share them with your partner without expecting them to meet you there. Respect the autonomy of your partner. It’s hard, in Christian culture, to remember that two-becoming-one does not mean a violation of the other’s individuality but a mutual flourishing.
Russ: Not so much wisdom as Twitter and Facebook memes and groups that struck a bit too close to home. Aces are funny, y’all!
Grey: Lack of attraction does not equal lack of action.
M.J.: I fortunately was introduced to a sex therapist who is familiar with the ace world and she was the one who encouraged me to go on a pleasure journey—she suggested I start with other physical pleasures like food, baths, exercise, and wine, and to practice mindfulness to be fully aware of the sensations my body was feeling. Then she suggested I play around with a vibrator (if it felt comfortable/pleasurable) and pay attention to all the sensations in my body. This journey helped me understand exactly what I do and do not enjoy about the entire sex process. It also helped me destigmatize arousal since it was so wrapped up in attraction societally.
4. Any bad marriage advice you received that you want to make sure people don’t take?
Anonymous: Just the idea that a “loveless” marriage implies sex should be happening and isn’t. There are many, many ways to love and make love, and both aro and ace folks are capable of all of them when you consider all of their experiences; it’s a very wide spectrum!
Russ: Uh, the worst advice I can think of is “keep it bottled up, smile, and just perform your husbandly/wifely duties.”
Grey: I was told that my partner would be at a horrible disadvantage if he married me because I’m ace and he’s a cis guy. Your aceness is not a flaw. Your aceness is not a burden people have to put up with. It is a beautiful facet of being that ought to always be honored and celebrated as such.
Loxley: Bad advice is that “compromise is everything.” In a lot of cases, that’s true, but when it comes to sex, you always need to go with what the person who wants less wants. Saying “I want sex and you don’t, so let’s compromise with [insert thing close to their boundary line]” just isn’t good. If that thing was something they were okay with, they’d have said so, if you let them lead the conversation.
M.J.: “The more sex you have, the more you’ll be attracted to him.” This is just plain false. The more sex I had without understanding my body, the more I hated my body. And the less and less I wanted to have sex with my partner. It didn’t increase a physical bond, as I was promised, and it didn’t help me enjoy sex. It was detrimental to my appreciation of my body.
5. Anything else allos married to aces should know?
Anonymous: Tell your friends about us! As in, consider asexual and aromantic identities when you are talking to coworkers, friends, and family, and to be ready to define some terms if so.
Russ: A lot of us probably grew up without the language to help us explain why we felt different, so we may be making this discovery right alongside you. I never knew ace was an option until recently, and then everything clicked and I was like, “Oh. I understand now.” I never intended to hide it from my partner; I simply didn’t know myself. So if it’s news to you, consider that they may have just made the discovery too. They weren’t hiding it or lying; they just didn’t know themselves (in some not all cases)
Kate Wood: It’s really hard to know your partner isn’t sexually attracted to you, but remember it’s not about you. In fact, your partner chose you, regardless of the sexual attraction issue. You’re special, exceptional to them.
Case: I’m ace and married to an allo woman and I think it really comes down to communication and boundaries. Feeling like your relationship is a safe space to have conversations about sex and sexuality is critical to a healthy marriage, regardless of identity.
M.J.: We’re not a monolith—your partner is unique. Listening to your partner, asking open-ended questions, and supporting them in their self-discovery is one of the greatest gifts you can offer but also helps you find what works for both of you. No amount of internet research can replace the self-discovery your ace partner deserves and the journey you two can share together. Be ready to sit in nuance, and to decouple sexual attraction from other aspects of human love and relationship. Journeying with an ace partner can help you discover more things about yourself that maybe you hadn’t thought of before. But you have to be willing to be curious, not just assume. Your experience is yours and beautifully unique, just as your ace partner’s.
Loxley: Look, it can be difficult. It can be really hard. Wanting something you can’t have without hurting the person closest to you can suck. But remember that that person is important to you. I’m not saying to shut down all of your own needs to avoid disturbing them—look into polyamory, discuss what they’re okay with, find what works for both of you—but don’t try to force them to live in a way that’s not them. That’s not fair to either of you.
6. Anything ace partners should consider about being in a relationship with an allo person?
Anonymous: Assuming you aren’t extremely certain that monogamy is an ideal for either of you or you aren’t already entered into a strictly monogamous relationship with the partner, consider seeing how it feels for either of you to pursue other sexual partners, and your boundaries around that. It was honestly a major step forward in coming to terms with my own asexuality. We tried remaining a couple but being “open” and, while my wife found and enjoyed a few partners, I sort of realized I wasn’t really about sex with strangers. I wanted to share that with her! Cut to a bit later when we’d gotten what we wanted out of that arrangement—and we are glad we tried—it strengthened our love for each other if anything (and worse case, one partner ends up helping the other find what they want).
Grey: Especially if your partner is new to asexuality as a concept, you will need to communicate with them about what your aceness is like. it can be really discouraging and frustrating to have to explain, but with good communication, this enhances the relationship and makes it comfier for everyone involved.
Russ: I would say an ace person should consider being as upfront as they feel comfortable being as soon as possible. Communication is everything in a relationship, no matter how the partners identify. I personally have no problem with a partner enjoying sex with someone else, so perhaps think about if that’s a compromise you’re willing to make (we have particular rules around it that keep us comfortable). Also, ace is a big umbrella. Get to know yourself and your comfort level. I have demi friends who are happy to have sex with allo partners if the partner initiates but won’t ever think to initiate on their own. Learn who you are, learn your comfort levels, and talk to your partner. Language matters, and having the words to say “I am ace, and I know how to describe myself” can really help people.
A study published in Frontiers in Psychology showed asexual relationships need “the same ingredients as other relationships.”
A sex therapist in Psychology Today discusses mixed-orientation partnerships with a focus on allo-ace partnerships
How to be Asexual by Rebecca Burgess
The Invisible Orientation by Julie Sondra Decker
Ace by Angela Chen
On Sensual Attraction: Yes, sometimes people do “just want to cuddle.” by Michael Paramo
Articles on questioning and coming out as on the asexual spectrum by Elle Rose
Aubri Lancaster—asexual sex educator
A-spec voices on various intersectons via The Ace And Aro Advocacy Project (TAAAP)
Videos from Cody Daigle-Orians (http://AceDadAdvice.com):
Ace/Allo Relationships: Negotiating relationship boundaries as a sex-averse or sex-repulsed asexual https://youtu.be/2IALOL197n4
How to Talk to Allos: Negotiating Intimacy When You’re Asexual https://youtu.be/wb2hnpVXTxk
How to Talk to Allos: Setting Your Asexual Boundaries https://youtu.be/OA6101-5sHo