Dear Captain Awkward,
I’ve been in a relationship with a kind, caring man for the past two years. This is my first serious relationship (yay!) and his second. I’ve had some experience with casual dating and casual sex prior to meeting my boyfriend, but he hasn’t had as much, so his previous relationship is his main point of reference. “Stephanie” was his first kiss, his first sexual partner, his first girlfriend, the first girl he introduced to his family…and they still work together, 7 years later. I’m trying to be understanding since anyone’s first relationship is a formative experience, and they also have to get along because they work together. I’m monogamous but generally not jealous; I’m friends with most of my exes and I assumed he’s friends with at least some of his. However, I don’t understand what’s going on here.
Just a couple weeks after we started dating, he broached the subject with a text message: “I can’t wait to see you…I had a rough day. big fight with my ex/coworker. I was upset all day.” This was the very first he had mentioned her, and I thought it was inappropriate but he was trying to express affection, so I ignored it. Soon after he started explicitly comparing me to her really often and drunkenly told me that I had “stiff competition” from her. Now and then when the subject of exes came up in conversation in a group of people, he would say that she had made him come alive, that she taught him how to feel emotions, she opened his eyes and changed his life, etc. I think that’s the kind of puppy love stuff that people say while they’re in a relationship, but not 7 years afterwards. Certainly not in front of their current significant other. On the other hand, their relationship was a rocky one, so whenever he was gaslighting me (another issue we had) he would compare me to her and say, “Don’t cause drama. That’s the kind of thing Steph would do. I thought you were better than that. We don’t need drama.” She was simultaneously an angel whose example I could never live up to, and the epitome of a terrible girlfriend. Another red flag was that during their relationship they did a shit ton of drugs together, and I’m not comfortable with the amount of drugs he uses now. Last summer she sold him a bunch of LSD which he later pressured me into taking, and I worry that his nostalgia for her overlaps with his nostalgia for his crackhead phase.
After some rough conversations, he finally stopped comparing me to her out loud, and has really cut back on the gaslighting. I really appreciate both those things. I also have absolutely no doubts about his fidelity, and know he would never cheat on me or leave me for her or anyone else. He has told me that I’m better than her in every way, and he has no desire to have a relationship with her ever again. He said the comment about “stiff competition” came out wrong and he wasn’t comparing me to her, but he was comparing his relationship with me to his relationship with her. When I explicitly asked him if he
still has feelings for her, he said, “Oh, I’m totally over her. But, I mean, we see each other everyday, so I never got any closure and never really stopped thinking about it. She’ll always be a part of my psyche. But yeah, I’m over her.” I was still uneasy but didn’t see the point in repeating my question.
Months went by and he didn’t mention her, and I was feeling a lot better about the situation. We moved in together and started talking about a future together. Then about a month ago, I was having a really bad week with some family problems, and mentioned to my boyfriend my cat is the only source of emotional stability in my life. Two days later, I found out my cat had three weeks to live, and my boyfriend was super supportive. However, a day after that, my boyfriend came home drunk, woke me up and started sobbing about his ex and how badly she had hurt him. Then he said he doesn’t believe that I ever loved him, that I’m just using him for emotional stability and as soon as I get my shit together I’m going to leave him for someone else. When he sobered up he apologized and said those accusations were directed at his ex, because that’s what went wrong in their relationship, in his opinion. He said he’s afraid of being hurt in the same way a second time.
While he’s a good listener, he’s not very good at articulating his feelings while sober, which is why they come out while drunk. He also has a tendency to not take responsibility for things he says and does while drunk. I asked him if he would consider therapy (for some other reasons as well) and he got defensive and said, “I’m not crazy.” I don’t think he meant to imply that I’m crazy for being in therapy myself, but his comments about me ‘manipulating’ him by confiding in him really hurt. I’m trying to stay honest and open, but lately I’ve been keeping my thoughts and feelings to myself more and more.
This whole scenario, combined with another situation with a different ex of his, has really eroded my sense of trust and safety in this relationship. Which FINALLY brings us to my reason for writing to you: last night I was using his computer to check my email. He was logged into Gmail with one of his accounts, and I briefly saw his inbox before I logged out. I would never, ever deliberately read his email, but saw the subject headings for a few messages. Apparently his ex has regularly been sending him money. I have no idea what it’s for, but I have a really bad feeling about it. I don’t know how to ask him about
it. I feel guilty for even reading the subject headings, and know that if I tell him I saw his emails, he will understandably feel like his privacy has been invaded. He already resents that I don’t trust him like I used to, and gets defensive whenever I mention her.
Should I ask him about the money transfers? If so, how do I go about that? How can I learn to trust him again?
Thanks for your help, and thanks for writing such an awesome column!
Dear Humpty Dumpty:
Here’s what I read:
You’re dating a guy who is still obsessed with his ex girlfriend, who has a history of gaslighting you, making things that are happening to you (stressful situations, the imminent death of a beloved pet) about that obsession with her, using substances in a way that you don’t like and pressuring you to take them to in a way you don’t like, and then using being drunk or high as an excuse to not be accountable for his behavior.
I don’t like him, Humpty Dumpty. I don’t like him one bit for you.
I feel like a broken record. And I feel like these “Or, you could just break up?” letters always turn me into a bit of a dick. I’ve hung out in dysfunctional relationships long past their expiration date and put up with some truly bad, bad behavior in the name of preserving the relationship and/or the idea of the relationship over my own well-being and happiness. At the time, nothing anyone could have said would have gotten me to pull the plug on love or loyalty or inertia or whatever it was before I was ready. So I get it. I don’t want to act superior or treat Letter Writers like they’re stupid, and and I don’t want to be a dick!
But my honest opinion is:
1. You fell into the trap of trying to be the Cool, Understanding Girlfriend. We’ve all done it.
2. Whenever you’ve tried to break out of that trap, he puts you back in. “I thought you were cool. Not like Stephanie.” That whole “you have stiff competition” thing makes me want to vomit.
3. I think and you think that something Not Cool is going on, and I think that the coolest thing you can do is to not stew about it. Just talk about it with him directly.
“Listen, before I could close out of your email, I saw some of the subject lines, and it looks like S. is sending you money. I didn’t mean to snoop, but I can’t unsee what I saw. So, what can you tell me about that?”
This isn’t 100% true, but liars (and gaslighters) tend to do a few predictable things to derail conversations when confronted directly about something fishy.
1) They’ll answer a question with a question. “What exactly did you see?” “What makes you think that?”
Derail: You end up describing what you think you saw. He pokes holes in what you think you saw and tries to convince you that you didn’t really see it (p.s. that’s called Gaslighting). Notice how you’re not talking about the real issue, which is what is that money about?
2) They’ll get very self-righteous and accusatory toward you. “What were you doing snooping in my email?”
Derail: You end up apologizing for snooping. Notice again the lack of answer to your question about the money.
3) The story they tell will be too long and have way too many details, dramatic flourishes, and assurances that you didn’t ask for. Like they’re daring you to question them.
4) They’ll get very self-righteous and mad at you if you don’t immediately believe them and pick a big fight about your relationship as a whole. “What, you don’t believe me?” Watch out for ultimatums or “Well, you’re always like this, I guess I should have expected you to be like this.” Bonus if the exact quote is “Well, I thought you were different but I guess this shows me you’re just like Stephanie.”
I don’t want to give a short course on being a good liar, but a stand-up dude for whom there is a stand-up explanation will say something like “Ugh, obviously I don’t love the idea of you being in my email, but those are about (simple explanation) for (simple probably work-related reason).” A shady dude will make you feel like you’re in sweeps week on a reality show.
The best way to work with the derailing tactics above is to observe them, make note of them, and then, as if from a great distance, say “We will fully discuss trust and snooping later, but right now, can we talk about you receiving money transfers from your ex? Because the way you’re talking to me makes me feel *more* like something shady is going on. What’s up there?”
Probably nothing I say is going to convince you to break up with this “kind, caring man” if you’re happy with him, so let’s talk about this in terms of Dan Savage’s Price of Admission talk. Nobody’s perfect, and every partner is going to do some things that rankle that the other person decides to put up with or ignore because: Love.
So the price of admission for a relationship with this guy is:
1) He will probably always be a little entangled/obsessed with his ex Stephanie, and he will keep using her as a way to manipulate you into being either more or less like her when it suits him.
2) There will always be some trust issues around money, drugs/alcohol (“nostalgia for his crackhead phase“?), gaslighting(!), and Stephanie.
You “learn to trust him again” by making a decision that you don’t care about any of that and moving forward with the relationship as if none of it matters. You ask him about the money and he gives a satisfactory explanation and you choose to believe it (probably after apologizing 8 million times for your pernicious snooping and assuring him that you trust him). Or you choose not to ask him about it and bury it deep down and forget about it.
There’s no Advice Writer’s Code of Conduct (that I know of – maybe if I get syndicated somewhere they’ll admit me to the club and show me the secret book?), but I want to say:
There are guys out there who don’t have this particular cluster of issues and some of those guys will like you and treat you really, really well. They’ll have different issues, yeah, and you’d have to learn to live with some of those as they learn to live with yours. Two years seems like a long time to be haunted by the ghost of someone who dated your boyfriend SEVEN years ago.
If you want to keep paying the price of admission like you’ve been doing, proceed! I hope for your sake things get better.