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Dear Captain Awkward,

My question is one of those probably 60% of the people in the room have, but no one wants to ask. (I did check archives but didn’t find a close match.) The top line question is, is there any ethical way to build and test the viability of a romantic relationship when you and the potential sweetheart are both already in relationships.

Of course people do this all the time, ranging from “just getting to know as friends” and “grabbing a drink” to “flirting” and “cheating.” A purely puritanical response might be, “no nothing never, consider your partner.” A Francophile might respond, “oh course everything it’s natural.” There’s some comfort in rigid or absent rules. The most of us are somewhere murkier in between— an uncomfortable place.

The particulars of my situation are that I’m in a very long “boyfriend-girlfriend” relationship. It is overall emotionally positive, with the major quips being no sex for 4 years (he cannot get it to work with medical help), throwing out a stack of my love letters (he doesn’t like clutter), and never even considering proposing to me for 7 years (we’ve lived together for 5 yrs). Despite these difficulties, I have to say I have dealt with them with open communication and this is the one person I feel who has thus far been able to meet my emotional and cuddling needs while maintaining a ceaselessly patient attitude with my irregularities/failings.

However, I recently met someone with whom I quickly developed strong feelings. He expressed strong feelings first, and I found myself responding honestly. The fellow is 7+ years my junior, though he’s more of a man than most I’ve met. There are reasons to believe we’d be compatible romantically, I’ll spare you the details. Just suffice to say it’s not just infatuation. I love him and I would be inclined to marry him (no he hasn’t asked, our relationship is not anywhere close to that – I say that to express the trust, affection, connection, etc I feel for him). He has a girlfriend of 2 years. I don’t know what their level of commitment is, but she seems like a lovely person. We’ve known each other less than 2 months.

I have never physical cheated on anyone in my life (not a kiss, nothing). However, I have delved into emotional affairs, in the sense that I’ve shared a mutual crush. In those cases, the threat of something actually happening has sort of paralyzed me with fear and I’ve avoided contact with the person. After all, I have my sterling record to protect (and drive fear into me)!

But in this case, I do not feel either paralyzed or driven by fear. Primarily because the fellow puts me at ease and I trust him. This is not a rooster chasing the chicken scenario, wherein my fight-flight mechanism kicks in. If nothing happens (if we both do nothing and/or either one prevents it), I will just continue loving him (though hopefully the romantic element will dissipate, if there is a merciful God).

I’m 33 considering a guy who is 7+ years my junior, while I’m already in a 7 year relationship with a guy who has (yes finally) decided he wants to marry me. They are both wonderful guys, but I now feel for one what I no longer feel for the other.

These are high stakes tables for me. And anyways, I like to think things through before they get real and hairy. This is my life — I just want to live it. But analysis paralysis is a real thing. I want to do the right by everyone involved, but also love is the one thing that we’ll do anything for.

Getting back to the question, what’s fair game for getting to knowing one another better and testing the romantic viability of the relationship when we are both in a relationship (no one’s engaged, but in a boyfriend/girlfriend).

And also, side note, the statistics are against the longevity of relationships where the woman is significantly older. Although I know many long marital examples of 9+ older women who lived happily ever after. But I think most of society still raises an eyebrow. Perhaps that would impact your advice. I should say, I feel I could learn a lot from him and respect him immensely (he’s way more accomplished that I was at a similar age).

Sincerely,

Honest heart with serious doubts

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Dear Captain,

I think I’m bisexual. The problem is I’m not sure and I’m interested in finding out, but I’m in a committed yet rocky relationship with a man in the gay-unfriendly Midwest. I made an online dating account today to seek out other queer women in my area. There are like 5 of them. I feel simultaneously guilty about making the account, disappointed that my alternative prospects are so few, and frustrated about my relationship but not sure I should end it.

One problem is that I’m uncertain about my sexuality. When I was 12 I decided I was gay. I came out to my (male) best friend in middle school and later my mom. But later I had sexual feelings for boys. In college I have fucked men happily and continue to have satisfying but infrequent sex with my partner. I thought I was straight, though I’ve always had the occasional sexy dream about a woman. But I’ve had a lot in the last couple of years. It’s actually weird how often it happens. I never had this many dreams about men.

Now I think about women more. I fantasize about a romance of my own. However, I’m still afraid my attraction isn’t real. It really sucked to think I was gay for years only to have to admit I was attracted to men after all. I’m also afraid to break up with my boyfriend of four years, who shares an apartment with me, only to change my mind (although I’ve drafted a totally separate letter to you before about whether I should keep trying to save the relationship…). If I were in an urban area, I might be able to try out a chaste date or two to see if flirting with real women is something I’m into. But I’m not, and I don’t foresee being in a gay-friendlier city until I move away for a new job — probably with my boyfriend.

On problems with my boyfriend, a quick summary: lots of walking on eggshells on both sides. We both amplify the other’s anxiety. Just yesterday we fought about this and I told him if nothing changes, we need to break up when I get a job after grad school next year. For the record, he knows I’m bi but we are not in an open relationship. We tried counseling and the therapist was a bad match. I think Carolyn Hax would ask if I’m sacrificing too much to keep the peace and generally I would say yes. But things have also improved in the last few months. It seems clear that I should break up with him, but how do I kick him out when I’m not sure about any of this?

– Am I Even Fucking Gay???

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Hiya Captain,

I wrote in a while ago with a fairly incoherent question of the “I think I’m maybe asexual but I already got married with the usual implicit understanding that sex would be part of the relationship” variety with a hefty side of “what is wrong with me and how do I not be this way” and other identity issues… I’ve kind of come to grips with the reality that, my personal label issues aside, the kindest thing to do is accept that sex is something that will not be happening for the foreseeable future and figure out how to move forward with the practicalities of making this marriage with a man I love less of an extremely unsexy anxiety limbo.

My desired outcome: husband and I stay in our loving partnership, he gets his sexy needs met with a sexy friend (or a few sexy friends?), I stop feeling utterly horrible and like I’m holding him against his will in my frigid financial clutches (Ed. note: LW is the breadwinner right now), everyone wins. Now how do I start making that happen? I need a script to bring this up with my husband, that regardless of our history this is how things are now, and I love him dearly and want his sexy needs to be met however he feels comfortable… just, y’know, not with me.

I also feel like I should have at least a few initial strategies for how to find him a low-stakes sexy playmate (OKCupid? Craigslist? How does Tinder even work?), since pressure to make friends or otherwise put himself out there socially is a huge anxiety trigger for him. I don’t want to micromanage him through the entire thing (I’ve thought a LOT about what my boundaries would be for this), but it would be nice to be able to approach it with “look, this doesn’t need to be so fraught, people do this all the time, here are some options for finding someone.” He’s my first and only partner, and we met in college, so I’m a little inexperienced in the “arranging casual sexy things as an adult” arena.

How do I negotiate all this?

— Ace Wife

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Lady Sybil and Branson the Chauffeur from Downton Abbey

Lady Sybil and Branson the Chauffeur from Downton Abbey

Dear Captain Awkward,

I just read your response to the question of how a person can deal with disapproving parents in the relationship area. It was a very good response. I am now asking as a PARENT what we are to do when our daughter is involved with a person we do not approve of. Our main complaint is his lack of manners, a lack of confidence, and a lack of personal motivation. Our daughter is a beautiful 32 year old professional, and part owner of a successful small business that we, her parents built. Her boyfriend is 36, a nice unmotivated man who seems to us to be looking for an easy deal. They plan to move in together soon. He just doesn’t fit in with our family. We doubt that he could really ever provide for our daughter, and hate to see her waste time waiting for him to kick in. We have been very patient with our daughter in the past, always hoping she would find a strong confident man for a life mate. Should we just say nothing and keep hoping that this fairly new relationship will soon come to a graceful end?

Dear Parent,

It doesn’t sound like this man is mistreating your daughter. It sounds like your main concerns with him are about class, career, and/or economic standing (“doesn’t fit in with our family” “doubt that he could ever really provide for her,” “manners,” “unmotivated,” etc.) It sounds like she provides just fine for herself (and that you, by building a business, have put her in a great position to provide for herself), which leaves her free to seek out other priorities in a partner.

If things aren’t meant to be between them, trust that your daughter will figure that out for herself in time. At thirty-two, she is the sole decider of her love life, and even if she were making a mistake, it’s her mistake to make. I think that trying to separate her from the man she loves will only alienate her from you. So, what do you lose by being kind to him?

Ahoy, Captain Awkward!

Looking for some relationship advice and hoping you can help.

Background: Boyfriend and I met through a mutual friend, I’m in my mid 20s(first serious relationship) he’s in his late 30s(and been around the block a few times, though never married). It’s been an awesome two years and we’re looking into moving in together(though for the record, I haven’t slept in my own bed since March and it’s now July). I’m excited about the whole situation save for one major issue; his ex, M.

M and boyfriend basically grew up together and have always been very close. They dated for a couple years but broke it off because (according to him) it was too much like siblings dating.

She has a history of serious panic attacks and boyfriend seems to be the only one who can calm her. She was suffering so badly at one point that her baby daddy got boyfriend a job in their state(2 states away from where boyfriend was living) to help calm M down. While this was all before my time, it always struck me as odd that they were all so close.

M has always had constant contact with boyfriend the entire 2 years we’ve been together, whether it be emails, FB posts, texts, calls, kissy emoticons, etc. And now with another wave of serious panic attacks brewing, the phone calls are getting more frequent and the visits more lengthy. I’ve talked to boyfriend about maybe suggesting professional help for her as M’s constant contact is taking its toll on him(to the point where he says he’s exhausted and he’s starting to freak out a bit just listening to her freak outs). But he brushes it off with “People who’ve never suffered don’t understand” and “She’s family. I can’t just ignore it”.

Don’t get me wrong, M is super sweet but it also feels like she’s co-dependent on boyfriend and he either doesn’t see it or just chalks it up to being “family”. M, baby daddy and co have since moved back to their home state (5minutes away from boyfriend). And having been here for 3 or so years, M has yet to make any friends of her own, hence the tight hold she appears to have on boyfriend to help her deal with things.

All that to say, what do I do? I love boyfriend and I’ve always heard you marry the man, you marry the family, but am I wrong in thinking this is too much family? I want to build a future with this man but I don’t know if I’m ready to build a future with him AND M. Previous relationships he’s had he said “worked” because the women were “mature” enough to understand the relationship he and M have. So am I not being mature enough? Do I try and make some sort of ultimatum? Break it off til he gets his priorities back on the relationship?

-Sidelined In California

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Dear Captain Awkward:

I am 13, and the girl I love is 16. I have a higher IQ than I should at this age, so believe me I am 13. Anyways, I have been talking to this girl for almost 3 years. Throughout this she has had the same boyfriend, R. About 2 months ago she broke up with R, so I was kind of uneasy. I really wanted to expose how I felt to her, and I have flirted with her before, which she said I was cute. So anyways, I pretty much just vented my feelings to her and I think I might have caught her off guard. She declined my request to be her boyfriend even though as of now we have been best friends for 2 of the 3 years. She said she had a lot on her plate because she was moving from Texas to Tennessee. I live in Ohio, so this is sort of long distance. What do I do to show her I truly care for her?

Dear Letter Writer:

To show your friend that you truly care for her, believe her. 

Believe her when she says that she doesn’t want you to be her boyfriend.

Believe her when she says that she has “too much on her plate.” The translation for “I don’t want to/can’t be in a relationship right now” is “I don’t want that kind of relationship…with you.”

You were brave and honest when you told her how you felt. You didn’t do anything wrong when you did that, in fact, you did something wonderful and cool. But now that she’s told you that she doesn’t feel that way, it’s not up to you to make any more grand gestures to try to change her mind. If you need to take a break from talking with her or even stop being friends for a while because it’s too hard, that’s okay – limp off the field, lick your wounds and take all the time you need. Channel your feelings into writing songs or poems  or stories (that you don’t send to her) or finding another creative outlet and throwing yourself into it. Friendships can survive unrequited crushes, but they really do fall apart when one person won’t take no for an answer. You can’t win her heart right now, but you can respect her choices and show her that you do by giving her time and space.

Dear Captain and Crew,

Ten weeks ago I asked my husband why sex and some other things hadn’t happened on a long weekend at home. He out-of-the-blue responded, “I’ve been thinking I don’t want to be married to you anymore.” It took several days to sink in, by which point we were out of town on vacation. On the seventh day after his announcement, I couldn’t stop crying and texted my sisters, one of whom called back immediately and saved my sanity.

After we returned home and visited our couples counselor, I put an aggressive self-care plan into effect of daily exercise, masturbation, journaling, and eating well plus weekly time with friends, my personal therapist, massage, etc. The self-care is working. Most days I keep myself balanced on the two positive long-term possibilities: 1) we end up with a stronger happier marriage or 2) we head off to separate new adventures, reconnecting as friends after a break.

After an exercise break due to illness, I’ve been teetering, sometimes to optimism that he’ll stay based on his “I love yous,” warm hugs, and clear attraction to me and sometimes tripping into the short term “14 years, he doesn’t want to be with me; I can’t share this incredible pain” mud.

So far the only friends and family who know of our limbo are my sisters, his mom, his sibling, and one of his friends. I’ve waited to tell my parents, afraid mom will say “I told you to get a handle on your mood swings years ago,” or “Where’s your faith that he’ll stay?” instead of comforting me. Yesterday husband announced he bought a plane ticket to spend Mother’s Day with his mom, so my mom will want to know why I’m coming alone to visit her that weekend.

And I don’t want to be “the woman who cried divorce” asking for friend help she didn’t really need or to bias my friends against husband if he does stay. In a month – he says he’ll decide by then – a good chunk of far-flung Team Me has our annual gathering. I am really looking forward to it, but also wonder whether I should tell my friends about our marriage-limbo.

1. Do you have any script suggestions for when/what to tell my parents?

2. Do I wait till/if we separate to tell my closest friends? Is it self-centered to want to tell them before the annual fun times, even before I know for certain, just so they can support me? Is it fair to my recently widowed friend to feel sad in her presence about my Schrödinger’s husband?

Thank you.

(P.S. I have read 250 and 16, several times, which helped me to draft the letter to Team Me for if we separate of please this/not that.)

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