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#301: “Help me process my weird week of feelings.”

Dear Captain Awkward:

It’s been an interesting week for me. First, I found out that my abusive ex-boyfriend has gotten his new girlfriend pregnant. (Unrelated to the question, but adding to the weirdness: I’m a massage therapist, and she got scheduled with me for a pregnancy massage, I mean, wtf? I did not end up massaging her, but only because I happened to ask a coworker to take the massage.) This threw me for a loop – since I found out, I have been thinking about him a lot more, remembering the relationship, having weird dreams about him/the situation, and generally kind of being triggered? I’m frustrated. The relationship ended over 3 years ago, and the only contact I have with him is when I occasionally Facebook stalk him to see if I can find something to be superior about (mature, I know). I don’t want to think about him anymore, I don’t quite know why I still even care, and I REALLY don’t know why knowing that his girlfriend is pregnant is causing a resurfacing of the crazy.

Secondly. I’ve been in a relationship now for about 2 years with a sweet and gentle man who has made it his business to make me as happy as I can possibly be. He’s kind and sweet and blah blah blah I don’t want to gross you all out – you get the picture. Over the course of our relationship, we’ve discovered that neither one of us is all that sexually possessive, and so our agreement has been that if we find someone we really want to have sex with, we can go ahead and do it. However, until yesterday, I thought neither one of us had really taken advantage of it – I’ve done a bit of online flirting with his knowledge and approval, but nothing physical. And then yesterday happened.

(It’s not really as bad as that probably sounded.) What happened was, about 2 weeks ago, he slept with one of his old friends. According to him, he only did it once, he used protection, he didn’t like it that much and isn’t that interested in doing it again, the sex is better with me, he wants to be with me forever, etc. He didn’t tell me right away because he wanted to think about how he felt about it first. And I trust him! At least most of me does. He’s generally a terrible liar, and what he told me is consistent with what I know about his character and seems pretty reasonable.

I guess the problem is that I felt a bit knocked for a loop emotionally anyway, and then he dropped this bombshell on me. I’m not mad at him, I don’t feel particularly jealous, and I don’t want to break up with him. I don’t even really feel like this was a failed experiment and I don’t really think that we should close the relationship up. On the other hand, I don’t feel especially positive about this experience. I feel weird and unbalanced and like I maybe *shouldn’t* trust him even though I don’t have any rational reason not to. I think more than anything I’m concerned by the fact that he sat on this for 2 weeks and didn’t tell me – and I couldn’t tell AT ALL that anything was different or that he was hiding something. So maybe he’s not such a bad liar? But then, I didn’t ask.

So my questions: 1) Do you (and or the Awkward Army in general) think that it’s weird that I am freaked out by this abuser-spawn thing? Any tips on how to deal with this? 2) Um… how should I feel about this other non-monogamy junk? I mean… I don’t even.. ?!

Sincerely,
What a week

Dear What A Week:

I understand why you are thrown for a loop! Let’s speculate some feelings for you.

Re: Pregnant Girlfriend, I’d go with “relief that it’s not you” for starters. You were smart not to take her on as a massage client, because “Hi, I’m M., I’ll be your massage therapist. Would you like me to use scented or unscented lotions? Also, will you be needing a referral to a domestic abuse hotline or assistance faking your own death today?” isn’t the most relaxing way to spend a day at the spa. I would recommend continuing to avoid the entire scene and not interacting with her at all.

Either she knows what he is or she doesn’t. It’s not your job to save her from your ex or from herself or from her own decisions. So focus on the relief and delayed panic (“Oh god, what if he had gotten me pregnant? I’d probably still be with him! I can’t believe someone let him put a baby in there.”) that’s flooding your system and say “But I DID leave him.” Consider writing some journal entries about the whole thing and get all the feelings out, or, I don’t go to my therapist regularly anymore, but sometimes when something stressful happens I go in for a session or 3 because I don’t have to tell him the backstory. So if you had a therapist at the time, or a friend who knows the whole situation and who got you through, think about reaching out for a tune-up.

I think the shaky feelings and weird dreams will pass pretty soon. It’s completely understandable that having something, anything related to that part of your life invading your space – especially at work where you least expect it – would make you feel violated and full of feelings and memories. Take deep breaths and be really nice to yourself. Forgive yourself for the Facebook stalking. If there were a cobra in my apartment, I’d want to know where it is at all times. In this case it helped you avoid having to give this lady a massage and make awkward conversation about how having a demon for a father doesn’t *necessarily* result in an demon baby.

I can see why this and the revelation that your boyfriend took you up on your offer to open up the relationship seem related. You loved and trusted your abusive ex until you found out you couldn’t. So I can see why this opened up a feeling of “Oh god, what if I can’t trust you, either?”  The part where you couldn’t tell anything was going on from his behavior is weirdly a plus in these sorts of arrangements – him sleeping with someone else didn’t interfere with how you live your relationship in the day-to-day in any kind of noticeable way – but I can totally understand a feeling of “What ELSE don’t I know?

It sounds like your boyfriend didn’t break any of the rules as he understood them, and I can even understand him holding onto the information for a while to process it for himself, though I wish he’d given you a heads-up that he was about to activate your arrangement and given you the chance to say yes or no in practice and not just in theory. He took you at your word that you’d be ok with it, which is fair enough, but he didn’t do a good job taking care of your feelings around it. I’m going to send you to The Pervocracy’s Geek Sexual Fallacies post:

GSFS 1: People can voluntarily control their emotions about sex.
This manifests a couple different ways:
We’ve agreed this is casual sex, so as long as we decide not to develop feelings, we won’t.”
“Sex is just a physical activity, so adding it to our dating/friendship won’t change our relationship.”
“My partner promised not to feel jealous because I’m not monogamous, but they’re betraying me by feeling jealousy anyway!”  (Note that in this example both partners are apparently carriers of this fallacy.)

Pretending you can just decide whether you’ll feel any emotions at all is a geek fallacy stemming from the idea that you should be able to optimize your own brain to not do anything unproductive or unintended.  But geeks ought to know better, because come on, you can’t even get a computer to do that.  This stuff comes on you, it gets you by the heart and the gut, and it doesn’t ask you “pardon me, I’m an emotion, are you okay with experiencing me?” first.

What you can and should voluntarily control is how you express your emotions.  It’s okay to feel strong emotions; it’s not okay to attack people or break promises and use “I was emotional” as an excuse.  This is when it’s time to tell your partner “hey, we need to talk, I’m feeling an emotion!”  Solving the problem may involve changing your relationship boundaries, it may just involve talking it out, or it may mean you have to end the relationship.  But the solution is never “that is an incorrect emotion, please stop experiencing it.”

What was cool in theory might not feel so cool that it’s happened. My inbox is full of letters from people in poly or open relationships who get miserable and binge eat* and cry and get massively insecure when their partners go out with other people but they secretly pretend that they are ok with things because they AGREED to be the COOL PERSON who is COOL about things and they are afraid of appearing insecure and needy but really they are so, so sad. The letters ask me “How can I be cooler about this?” and my blanket answer is, I don’t know. What would happen if you just weren’t cool with it? (Probably they might have to break up with the person, which is hard and scary especially when there is genuine love and good intent involved. I get it!).

That trap of BUT YOU AGREED TO BE COOL is a hard one to get out of, and sometimes the partner who is out having all the sexyfuntimes is really good at throwing that one back on the partner who is having doubts in a way that I strongly dislike. There’s a lot of “But if you would just be honest with me about your feelings then I wouldn’t hurt them”/”Okay, my honest feelings are ‘I feel sad and weird about this’ and ‘put your dick** away and come home to me for a while'”/”Those feelings are really inconvenient for me. Plus we AGREED to be COOL and you’re the one who is violating that AGREEMENT re: my dick in other ladies”/”I want you to be happy, so I’ll try to be more cool”/”Okay, good. I knew you weren’t narrow-minded like the rest of society. See you later. Gotta date!”/:weeping:

Like, it was totally cool to renegotiate the relationship when one partner wanted to open things up, but now that the other partner wants to re-renegotiate things, it’s a TOTAL VIOLATION OF OUR COOL AGREEMENT WE AGREED ON. Not cool.

Letter Writer, this doesn’t sound like your situation at all , but I put this out there so you can see what a bad situation might look like (and to serve as an example to others). Fortunately for you and Sweet Boyfriend, the way you describe the dynamic indicates that you probably will be cool with it overall in the end and this is just the beginning of a messy and interesting experiment.

It’s not his fault that this thing converged with being reminded of your ex, so the more you can separate the two things the easier it will be to talk to him about it. It just turns out that you just had some (unwritten, unspoken) expectations about how it would go down that now have to be negotiated explicitly if you decide to keep going down that path. Stuff like “A little notice would be nice.” And “You didn’t do anything wrong, but I’m feeling a bit weird and fragile about it right now. Could we hold off on anything else like that until we’ve had a chance to talk more?” And “If we’re going to really do this, how do we make sure we take care of each other around it?” The commenters will recommend many books and websites and tell you hilarious and poignant personal tales. You’ll work it out.

Whatever you decide, remember, you get to decide. Whatever you agreed on in the past only works if you still feel like it’s a good idea. Make it up as you go along. Renegotiate. Be happy and respectful and gentle with each other. You don’t have to be cool.

I hope this helps.

This is the last day that I bug everyone about the Captain Awkward Pledge Drive. $1.00 gets you a feminist movie about how makeovers are weird and creepy. People have been incredibly kind and generous so far, to the point where a) every time I open my email it makes me cry in a good way from all the nice words and b) if I raise $600-$700 more dollars, I get to spend all of August and making stuff. You guys rule.

*This is basically your entire body saying NOT OKAY NOT OKAY. Consider it a sign. That things are NOT OKAY.

** People with dicks aren’t the only ones who do this, obviously.

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36 comments
  1. alphakitty said:

    On the second subject, I think it’s one thing to say “I don’t feel possessive” and another to say “I won’t feel vulnerable.” Jealousy is not the only reason to not like sharing the person you love.

  2. Hi LW, are you me? Past me? Because same story, different boyfriends.

    I want to second the suggestions to be gentle with yourself, don’t judge the weird and uncomfortable feelings you’re having, and consider this discomfort a message from your insides to renegotiate your boundaries. Beyond that, I have only the shared experience of bewilderment and being overwhelmed.

    With my gaslighty ex, what set me off about a year and a half after we broke up is that I checked his Facebook page (I KNOW RIGHT?) and saw that he’d listed himself as in a relationship with a lady. LW, that broke me open! Why? I don’t know. I could give Reasons, but the fact is that six months later, I still don’t know why it hit me so hard but I don’t feel that way anymore. So… pain is inevitable, suffering is optional, etc. Accept that you feel that way, but limit your exposure. (Stop that Facebook-checking right now. It may feel grossly good at first, like picking a scab, but it’s just as messy and unhygienic.) I used to do this magical-thinking thing where I’d tell three people about This Crazy Thing That Bothered Me, and, as in a fairy tale, the hurt would recede. Do what works for you.

    With the sort-of-open relationship (different boyfriend), it was a textbook case of negotiating some cool, sexy boundaries and then feeling fearful, insecure, and basically not cool or sexy. What I should have done was renegotiate–hey, boyfriend, I know you care about me and generally I trust you, but I’ve learned from this that I need The Conversation to happen before one of us hooks up, not after.
    What I actually did: got angry, wanted him to have known better than to trip my secret emotional wires in the first place, stored up this offense to bludgeon him with later.
    Yeah. Happily, we evolve.

    You’re going to be okay. There’s nothing wrong with your weird feelings. Feel them, listen to them, let them help you choose what to do next.

    • “Accept that you feel that way, but limit your exposure.”

      In some cases it may be wise to keep tabs on Abusive Ex/Cobra in the Apartment, particularly if they live nearby and have a history of violence toward you. I limit my own exposure to a once-a-month internet check; that seems to be a good balance for me.

      • RedJohn said:

        Seconded. I feel a lot more anxiety about the ex I lost contact with (she could be anywhere and I don’t know!) while the ex I check from time to time is still upsetting, but knowing I have several states between me and him gives me a bit of distance I can use to talk myself down. LW, maybe not keeping tabs will give you the whole “out of sight, out of mind” relaxation, or maybe keeping a wary eye out will be more soothing. I think the general consensus is “Do what makes you feel better”, which is a recurring theme in Team Awkward for good reason.

    • belle said:

      Ooh, I like your Tell Three People rule! Especially since if it’s a Rule (even one I — or you — made up), that makes me feel less guilty about Burdening All My Friends With My Stupid Problems.

  3. Lily said:

    Hey, What A Week, I’m hoping that things started looking up after you wrote this note, and if they didn’t, that sucks and you have my sympathy.

    I wanted to chime in on the open relationship part of your post.

    You two get to run your open relationship however you two want, just the way you got to when you were monogamous.

    When my partner and I first opened up our relationship, we went through a period where it seemed like there were no rules. This was, frankly, disturbing to both of us, which meant we sat home and watched DVD box sets of our favorite TV shows until we figured it out.

    Then we went through a period where we had Too Many Rules, none of which, it turned out, actually applied to any of the real-world situations we found ourselves in as we dated other people.

    While there are a few good books on open relationships — I particularly recommend Tristan Taormino’s “Opening Up” — society doesn’t hand you a whole lot of rules and norms about how to run your relationship when it’s not monogamous. We ended up running into a lot of situations we just hadn’t anticipated.

    Here are a few things it will probably be useful for you two to talk about.

    Information. What do you want to know and when? Do you want to know if your partner might go out on a first date with someone? Do you want to know if it looks like it might get sexual? Do you want to hear all the sexy details, or will that freak you right out?

    Safer sex. Do you want to agree to use barriers with all outside partners? Does that include oral sex? What about seeing STI test results? Now’s also a really good time to get a baseline STI panel for yourself.

    Time. How much time is too much time away from you? Example: I’m totally okay with my partner dating, but if I end up staying home with our kids alone more than a couple nights a week, I end up feeling lonely and a little put-upon. If he was out four nights a week it would be a huge issue for me.

    Special time: Is it really important to you that your partner hang out with you on your birthday, or to have them include you in holiday celebrations? How will you approach Valentine’s Day with more than one sweetheart? Do you want to carve out one day or evening for “just us” where no dates (or for that matter, work or extended family) happen? (My partner and I have done this every Saturday afternoon for the past ten years and I would rather lose a pinky than give it up because it’s so wonderful).

    When and Where? Do you want to agree to it being okay to have short out of town flings, or is it okay to date a local? How do you feel about having someone stay overnight at your place (if you two live together)?

    Long term. It’s worth talking about how this changes your view about the long-term potential for your relationship. If either one of you thinks opening the relationship makes it less serious, and at the same time one of you would like to get married and have kids someday, that’s an issue.

    • + a gagillion

  4. Esti said:

    I am not at all an expert on non-monogamous relationships, but something about this:

    According to him, he only did it once, he used protection, he didn’t like it that much and isn’t that interested in doing it again, the sex is better with me, he wants to be with me forever, etc. He didn’t tell me right away because he wanted to think about how he felt about it first. And I trust him! At least most of me does. He’s generally a terrible liar, and what he told me is consistent with what I know about his character and seems pretty reasonable.

    set off some alarm bells for me. If that’s how he actually feels, then it sounds like now that he’s tried it, he’s discovered he’s not actually interested in an open relationship. And if that’s what you need to hear to trust him in this arrangement (specifically, the part about not liking it and the sex being better with you), then it sounds like you might not be all that comfortable with an open relationship either.

    I mean, maybe from your end the issue was just that he didn’t tell you in advance/right after, and you can negotiate some ground rules about how things are going to work that will make you both comfortable with the openness of your relationship going from theory to practice. But as the Captain said: it is totally okay if you (or your dude) are NOT COOL with an arrangement in which you can both sleep with other people. You don’t have to be “sexually possessive” to want a monogamous relationship with one another.

    • MHM said:

      LW, I had the same reaction. If it is not sitting well with either partner (meh for him, weird feeling for you) maybe consider whether the poly thing works for you at all. It’s okay to be monogamous! Most humans are, for the mostpart, as are many bird species! Disclaimer: I’m kinda vanilla.

      Whatever you decide, it’s always good to trust your gut. I totally agree with the Captain. Don’t try to rationalize yourself to feel a certain way. The best relationships don’t require a lot of work to feel okay. Also what you “find out” by talking is not as solid is what you find out by doing.

      It’s an interesting comment thread as you have a range of perspectives here. In the end, go with your gut! Only you know what your gut has to say. It is wise and knows what you need.

      • TR said:

        Actually, birds cheat. They cheat a lot. Most species are monogamous for a season at most or they’re pretend monogamous (females get impregnated with the biggest, loudest, most colorful, most-whatever-est male while “mated” to the more average male who helps raise the kids.)
        Most, if not all, of the species we thought were monogamous from behavioral observations actually aren’t. .
        Doesn’t really have any relevance – there’s nothing wrong with monogamy (After all, birds don’t use the internet, either, but humans seem to do that quite well) – but that’s a commonly known “fact” that bugs me.

        • MHM said:

          If we want to get technical, just for fun, here are some different definitions of monogamy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monogamy

          The topic is quite fascinating! Didn’t mean to promote false bird facts, TR. Flying away now!

  5. Caito said:

    That link to the Pervocracy post is borked somehow. I Googled it though because I decided I needed it in my life. Thank you for sharing it.

    And LW, whoa. Jedi hugs because that emotional obstacle course you’re going through makes it sounds like you need cheerleaders.

  6. withywindling said:

    Big changes are an emotional trigger. My friend’s abusive stepfather died, and it threw her for a major loop, even though she thought she’d come to grips with it. I think it’s because it’s like they’ve suddenly forced their presence on you by virtue of having a major life change (um, like dying). It’s okay to be ~feeling feelings~ about it.

    As for the other thing — I think you’re feeling insecure. I know I’d be upset if my husband slept with someone and didn’t let me know what he was up to (and he knows that too). It would make me feel more insecure to have it sprung on me, but it’s pretty natural to feel like that for a while. He hasn’t dated yet so far, but I know I’m more jealous than he is; it takes me time to get used to it. He’s going on a coffee date this week. If he likes her, I know I’ll be pouty and sad for a little bit. But that’s okay. The lizardy Jerkbrain will get used to it. Rationalbrain knows he loves me, and it’ll be reinforced every time he comes home to me.

    For my dating, he always knows when I’m out with someone else (sometimes he gets texts reading “I’m gonna get laid!”). I keep him up-to-date with how I feel about Guy X, good or bad. I check in with him because I’d rather err on the side of too much than too little communication. Plus, if he knows I’m really liking Guy X and foresee staying with him enough to fluid-bond, he then knows that I’m still coming home happily to him. That’s pretty reassuring, I think.

    He has felt bad about a few things I’ve done, but that isn’t the biggest deal ever as long as you can talk about it. I think maybe that’s relevant to you? Now you know that the “surprise” method isn’t going to work for you. Tell him that; tell him what would make it easier on you, however that might look.

    Poly/open relationships are a bit of a process and require time to hit stride. You just hit the first part, so it’ll take some adjusting now that you have some concrete experience. Talk more about how you both feel, implement new policies for the future. I don’t think it’s immediately flowers and rainbows for the majority of nonmonogamous people (or for monogamous people, really). I’m in my second long-term poly relationship, and I’m much more comfortable with it all this time around.

    • Ethyl said:

      Yes to everything you said! I think sometimes that people think open relationship somehow = never jealous or weird feeling. It just ain’t so, and that is ok! It also takes practice and communication and learning.

      My story! My partner and I opened up our relationship about, oh, a year and a half ago, after discussing it for several years. I sort of dated/fooled around with a guy a couple times (who text message dumped me because I wouldn’t leave my partner for him even though he knew from the start what the situation was and is a whole ‘nother situation full of awfulness), and my partner *freaked right the fuck out* the first time we fooled around. Despite all the talking and negotiating boundaries and stuff. And that was ok! We talked about it, we came up with some additional boundaries to keep him feeling safe and secure, and his lizard brain got used to it. And then he could really be there for me when the other person turned into an asshole, plus he feels safe, which makes him excited to explore more! So there you go — you can totally get over weird feelings in relationships 🙂

      • maggie said:

        *nonmonogamous fist-bumps*! I myself stayed over at boyfriend’s apartment for the first time and was absolutely miserable being away from my husband for that long. This time around, I sleep over every week with my boy.

        My sweetie’s been upset over random stuff like when I went snoeshoeing (of all things) with my boyfriend. Totally okay to be lizardbrain, I just need to know so we can get over it! Feelings will occur, they’re sneaky like that.

        (I told him it’s just because I like snowshoeing in general, it’s not because I wanted to ruin the things we do together)

    • PomperaFirpa said:

      I think it’s because it’s like they’ve suddenly forced their presence on you by virtue of having a major life change (um, like dying)

      This has just left me thunderstruck. Yeah! Like– it doesn’t have anything to do with their intent, or your intent, it is just that there are some big life events that we are culturally (and sometimes primordially) programmed to pay attention to and that cause us to reflect upon our lives. (Which is why celebrity-based magazines seem to think that I care about the love lives, rumored pregnancies, and possible illnesses of celebrities. TEASERS FOR BIG EVENTS.) So we can move on, but still be blindsided by finding out that [person who used to be in our lives] has just [got engaged / got married / had a kid / died / etc.], and spend a while just completely off-kilter and then, on top of it, feeling weird that we’re feeling weird, and trying to figure out if that means something important. But it usually doesn’t; it’s just normal Life Event Fuckuppedness.

  7. When I started reading your letter, I swear, I thought I had written it and just forgotten. So I wanted to chime in about problem #1 with the ex. I went through a similar experience with my abusive ex, who, among other things over the course our relationship, tried to force/trick me (seriously, TRICK me!) into having unprotected sex with him so we could have a baby when we were neither emotionally nor financially prepared to care for another human being. Still, two years after our breakup, when I unsurprisingly discovered he had had a baby with another woman (via Facebook *facepalm*), it set me into full meltdown mode. It was hard for me to process why I was so upset because one of the many reasons I broke up with him was because I did NOT want to have children with him. I was afraid of the day that they would grow up and start to have opinions, and he would start yelling at them and berating them like he did to me. BUT, I’ve finally come to realize that I wasn’t really upset that he was “one-uping” me, because, frankly, my life has been much more awesome without him than it ever was with him. I was upset because I hoped that while my life was awesome, his was sucking. So, I finally had to be honest with myself in that this was (a) not a realistic nor fair expectation and (b) would not be presented as such in Facebook-land. Facebook presents what people want you to see. Yes, some people fill it with total drama, but others want you to think their lives are just freaking FANTASTIC, even when they’re not. So, if you can break the habit of Facebook creeping (and I’m not judging, because I’ve done it. I still try to make excuses like “Oh our mutual friend commented on his photo. It’s not my fault. I HAVE to see what he’s up to.” *creep, creep, creep*), try to stop. Even if it means blocking him so it’s as if he doesn’t exist in Facebook-land. Chances are you will never find something on his page that won’t make you feel like shit for days, and then you’ll be kicking yourself for checking his page. If his girlfriend tries to schedule another massage with you (seriously, wtf?), I would refer her elsewhere. What’s that song lyric? “Now you’re just someone I used to know.” That’s what they are. It’s normal to be hurt from past relationships, especially when there is abuse involved, and I don’t care what people say, I think some of that hurt always remains. But the more you keep them out of your life, the easier it will be to deal with it. *Jedi hugs* I certainly do with emotions would ask permission before flinging themselves at us.

    • CoolNewAnonymousNickname said:

      Oh, dude, THISTHISTHIS! “BUT, I’ve finally come to realize that I wasn’t really upset that he was “one-uping” me, because, frankly, my life has been much more awesome without him than it ever was with him. I was upset because I hoped that while my life was awesome, his was sucking”.

      I’ve also gone full-stop, reverse engines, abort mission on any & all online checking into who/what my abusive ex-husband is doing. Nothing pleasant can come of it. Even the potential for schadenfreude is not worth the risk of triggering memories and feelings that are better left shelved.

      The persistence of the need to believe in a Just World where evildoers are punished and good people are rewarded is not to be underestimated. But the sooner you can wrap your head around the fact that, quite often, bad people get away with it, the more at peace you’ll be.

  8. sasha said:

    Another member of the Awkward Army here to say “Yep. Been there.” S and I had been seriously dating for maybe 6 months, and had just entered that wonderful honeymoon phase where we first dropped the L word, and all was rainbows and unicorns and butterflies. All the more so because our relationship was based solidly on open and honest communication. Then I had to leave the country for 3 months for work. We agreed to open things up while I was away, that sex with someone else was ok so long as a) it was just sex (i.e., no emotional attachment), and b) we were honest about it.

    I never slept with anyone that summer, and when I returned S told me – unprovoked, unasked, totally out of the blue – that he had not slept with anyone. Fast-forward 6 months to New Year’s Eve. We’re out at a show and I happen to look over (honestly!) while he’s checking his phone, and I catch the last lines of a long string of texts: “I think I love you. Do you love me?”

    That triggered me So Hard. See, one of my abusive ex’s main modus operandi was stealing my credit cards, racking up expensive bills, and lying about it, even after I caught him. I had to watch him like a hawk, constantly, and still I’d regularly come home to find a stray receipt or packaging or some other thing that would lead to my going through his phone/email/pile of receipts/etc. and finding another long list of purchases we couldn’t afford that he’d hid from me, then we’d get in a huge fight, which might or might not end up with him slamming me against a wall or…you get the picture. So I see the text on S’ phone, and instead of asking him about it then as I should have, I got triggered and went into self-preservation mode. I got up early the next morning and went through his phone (bad, I know) and found a long string of texts dating back months, and I panicked and ran out of there.

    When I finally confronted him about it, it came out that he’d slept with her once over the summer, then immediately regretted it: “he only did it once, he used protection, he didn’t like it that much and isn’t that interested in doing it again, the sex is better with me,” etc etc. But rather than cut her off altogether, to “protect her feelings,” he kept talking to her, even as she developed feelings for him. And, for some reason, he decided to openly lie to me about it, rather than either telling me or just not saying anything.

    For me – and, it sounds like, maybe for you, LW? – the hardest part was the lying. Really, truly, honestly the fact that he slept with her once didn’t bother me – sex is just sex. But him blatantly lying to me about it, then continuing to talk to her for 6 months while hiding it from me, and leaving me to discover it in the same way I’d discovered all my abusive ex’s lies? MAJORLY triggering!

    As this was the first-ever red flag or major issue I’d had with S., I forgave him and we carried on, after many deep discussions of the critical importance of honesty. But, to be honest, I never 100% trusted him again…though he swore he cut things off with her, that woman still comments on his Facebook page sometimes, and S is often flirtatious with other women, and either can set off alarms for me now. We finally ended up splitting up two years later for an unrelated issue.

    I wish I had better advice for you, LW, but I hope this story helps in some way – at least to let you know you’re not alone, that others have been where you are. The best advice that I can give is the same advice given to anyone in a relationship: communicate, Communicate, COMMUNICATE! It sounds like your trust in your partner has been damaged a bit, and for good reason, and the only way to get past that is to a) maybe take a break from the open relationship for a bit, and b) talk, talk, and talk some more until you begin to rebuild that trust. Best of luck!

  9. Hi What a Week,
    That does sound really emotionally exhausting! I hope you’re able to take the time for some awesome self-care in the next few days.

    On the poly side – my partner and I have certainly had some false starts getting this to work for us; after some not-so-great experiences we were “poly in theory” for a few years and would occasionally talk about what would make outside relationships feel successful for both of us. I think a lot of what held me back was the fact that while I like to talk things through I am historically terrible at honestly expressing my needs and saying “no” or “not yet” to people, or asking for what I needed. It meant my first outside relationship went terribly because I wasn’t good at asserting my boundaries (which this person didn’t really respect), and the second one I spent trying to please everyone but not listening to what I really needed. And then I almost dated a friend but he died and I, uh, still haven’t really faced that issue yet.

    So when we moved to a city where my partner’s friend V had *also* just moved, and I knew they were into each other and found myself thinking “just kiss already!!” when they were spending time together, we changed our conversation from hypotheticals to “how we can make this particular relationship work for everyone.” And I realized – I HAD to say what I wanted. I couldn’t be a martyr suffering in silence. I couldn’t assume my partner would know if I felt left out. It was really scary! The first time I did it I actually agreed to something (automatically, because I am Agreeable and Helpful!) and immediately realized I actually wasn’t excited about it and forced myself to speak up and say “wait, let’s not do this.” And it was ok and not a big deal at all! I’ve had more practice in Using My Words since then and it really has made a huge difference in how my partner and I approach our outside relationships.

    I like to talk most things through fairly soon after they happen, but I know plenty of people want to take the time to do a lot of processing before they talk to other people about important issues. I can understand your boyfriend’s position, but it’s totally reasonable for you to say something like “I get that you might not want to talk about these things right away, but can you say ‘x happened, I’m still thinking about it and don’t know what to say yet, but I want you to know I feel great about you and our relationship and I’ll come talk about this more when I’ve thought it through.'” Or whatever script sounds good to you. That means you know what’s going on and he gets his processing space.
    In terms of going forward, if y’all decide to leave the door open for other relationships, it might be good to set boundaries for how you want to proceed with new relationships/partners? Like, “let the other person know before going on a date, but flirt all you want online without feeling like you have to talk about it” or “if you’re going to be sexual with someone, I don’t need details but let me know before/right after you do it.” Maybe this thing with your boyfriend feels worse because it came as a surprise and if he gives you a heads-up it will feel better in the future?

    Also, I know you said you are still probably open to an open relationship in your letter, but if it turns out you’re not, either now or sometime in the future? That really is ok. You get to decide what type of relationship style you want, and it doesn’t say anything bad about you if your feelings change over time.

  10. kaj said:

    A thing that might be helpful for all the people in your inbox who’ve written about confusion and poly and/or open relationships is the book “The Ethical Slut.” I read it when I was starting my first poly relationship and then had my partner read it, and it definitely helped us figure out how we wanted to organize communicating about things. It’s really helpful with trying to figure out what your feelings are and how you can work with them and communicate them to your partner(s). If I had my way, I’d have everyone who ever wanted to be in a relationship ever read it.

    • millefolia said:

      That book was very helpful for me, too. I’ve heard some people say they were put off by it–I think by the emphasis on sexual freedom when they wanted something that was just about relationships?–but for me it was great.

      There was another book (I’m blanking on the name) that in general didn’t do much for me but gave me one REALLY useful piece: “Jealousy is the fear that your needs will not be met.” That one line rings extremely true for me, and has made a huge difference in my ability to communicate with my partners.

  11. Nan said:

    Dear What A Week,

    I had a thought that may help you. I have two close friends who are in a long term, committed relationship but *do* have sex with other people they find sexually attractive. The way they work it, though, is that they always ask the other’s permission first, on a time-by-time basis. That means, even though she’s slept with this guy before with his approval, she still needs to ask again before she does it again, and same for him.

    They had originally done as you did and tried the just general permission to do the sexes waaaay before hand and then told each other about it after the fact. And that didn’t work for them and led to a lot of the feelings that you’re describing (if it matters, it was also the guy in this relationship that had sex and the girl that felt as you do.) It took a little while and new agreement to get over (and she slept with the same girl, which may have helped o.O) but they got past it and have been doing it this way now.

    So, maybe that will work for you, or maybe you want to end the sexual non-possessiveness. That’s totally your choice, I just wanted to let you know there are more options out there to explore than just go with it or quit. ^^

  12. JenniferP said:

    To people whose comments are now sitting in the trash:

    Abuse victims cannot prevent their abusers from abusing new people. It’s NOT HER JOB to get involved in this situation.

    • Srsly. I’m surprised people wouldn’t understand this.

    • Kaesa said:

      Ugh. My saving-people thing was a major stumbling block to getting out of an abusive situation. Abusers train their victims out of self-preservation by painting it as selfishness; we don’t need to hear it from everyone else, because WE ARE ALREADY HEARING IT FROM OURSELVES, THANKS.

      (Also, thank you for moderating this stuff.)

    • Lilly said:

      Damn right it’s not her job.

      Actually, LW, I think the feeling you had when you found out your abuser had a new gf and that she was pregnant is very common, or not too uncommon anyway.

      I’ve had a similar experience and since then I found some other women who had comparable feelings too (hey at least all of us have left our abusive exes!!).

      In my case, my abusive ex stalked me a bit after I dumped him and even after I moved far, far away he would periodically search for me on the internet and let me know he’d found me (Horrible, but I was not in physical danger and I ignored him, it works).

      Anyway then I found out that he had GOTTEN MARRIED OMG WHAT and like you I was insanely curious and found out his wife seemed like a nice person who OMG NO WANTED TO HAVE A BABY and was doing IVF with him. That’s when I realized it was none of my business, but it shook me and I wondered for a bit if I should warn her but no, no, no and I stopped reading their social media.

      I think the reason you are compelled to check him out on social media is because he is a THREAT and it’s totally normal to want to monitor that threat. But at the end of the day, it’s not worth it, because it makes you feel bad.

      Best to make it so you can’t check out his profiles etc, let it go, he can’t hurt you now.

      And it’s not your job to get involved.

  13. drst said:

    Dear LW – “things happen fast, but we live through them slow.” Wisdom from a soap opera, I know, but it’s pretty darn true. I think we kid ourselves a lot about “getting over” things, when we really never do. We move on, the things take up less of our energy and thoughts, but they never go away entirely, and sometimes out of the blue something will zap you right back into your old shoes. It’s disorienting and often inconvenient, but there’s not much you can do about it, except breathe and remind yourself it’s in the past, you have moved along in life from that point where that thing happened, and let it fade from your conscious attention again.

    On the relationship thing, as someone who is a monogamous person in relationships, I don’t really have any insight other than to say it’s perfectly okay to want monogamy and not want an open relationship and it doesn’t make you a bad person, just as being in or wanting a consensual open relationship doesn’t make anyone a bad person either. It’s also okay to change your position over time and depending on the circumstances. I’ve always been monogamous, so hopefully some of the poly folks will have more insight into your reactions to this situation and what to do.

    I have no idea of the background here or your history with open relationships, but I would caution that if your current partner or anyone starts to pressure you regarding wanting openness in the relationship by implying that you’re being closed-minded or “uncool” for not agreeing? that would be a giant red flag waving in the breeze that your boundaries aren’t being respected. Which is what the Captain was pointing out.

    Also relationships change all the time. They’re a constant work in progress. You don’t set out boundaries once and then spend the rest of your life twiddling your thumbs, so maybe a renegotiation is in order now, at least for a while, to help you both sort things out?

  14. If I can suggest a script:

    “Boyfriend, I understand you did nothing wrong when you did what I specifically said you could do*, but going forward I need you to do $THING because $REASON.”

    The $REASON part is an important part of the negotiation; it allows him to, if $THING doesn’t work for him, suggest $SORTOFTHING or even $OTHERTHING which will (in principle) also account for $REASON. Because the goal here is to get your needs met, not some particular behavior on his part.

    This obviously requires that you can articulate your needs first, but that’s probably to the good in any case.

    *Ideally, “I’m not mad that …” if you can manage it.

  15. CODA said:

    What helps for me is to know that the feelings will pass. That sounds like wishy-washy “This, too, shall pass” stuff which never works for me, but what I mean is: I give myself a concrete timeframe.

    I now know from experience that when I get triggered over rape stuff, it usually lasts about a week before the weirdfeelings go away. So, when I’m feeling awful and panicking that I’m about to go into a depressive spiral and never climb out, I can remind myself, “This stuff lasts a week. You can handle it for a week, right?” and then I can just wait for it to go away.

    When it’s bigger stuff, and I DO go into a spiral, I now know that the worst of that lasts about 6 months. That is CRAPPY because it’s a long time to slog through, but my main fear is always that it will never go away, so knowing there’s an end in sight is really helpful.

    Maybe you don’t know yet how long yours will last, but you can use this time to give yourself some timeframes that might help when something knocks you for an emotional loop in the future.

    • zayq said:

      Holy cow. This is going to be so so useful to me in the future, I think. Thank you!

    • withywindling said:

      I do that too. When I’m depressed it doesn’t help me *feel* better, but it does help me hold on!

      Now that I *know* I am/have been clinically depressed, it makes a big difference that I can recognize the sadblob coming after me. I tell myself — Yes, you are feeling terrible for no reason, that is the depression talking, and it’s okay to feel sad ’cause you can’t help it right now. You will get better again.

  16. Vicki said:

    It sounds as though, at least right now, having an open relationship isn’t something that either you or your boyfriend needs or strongly wants. Maybe you should ask him if that’s true, and how he’d feel about being monogamous. Or, as some people here have suggested, renegotiating things within a poly framework.

    I’m poly, and don’t think I could have been happy in a relationship that required monogamy. That doesn’t mean I’ve always had more than one partner. or felt deprived when I didn’t. I’m mentioning that for two reasons. First, because sometimes it’s worth making clear that there are poly people who don’t think everyone is or should be poly (I don’t think everyone is “really” bisexual either). Second, because it’s possible that if you and your boyfriend decide to be monogamous for a while, one or both of you will want to renegotiate that. Or that you’ll decide to keep things open for now, and then want monogamy five years from now. What you decide on this month doesn’t have to determine the rest of your lives, or the entire course of this relationship. (Commitments to multiple partners would make a difference, because at that point you’d be thinking about more than one relationship, but it doesn’t sound as though there’s anything long-term or committed in the relatively casual/friendly sex with other people that you and your boyfriend have discussed.)

  17. I just wanted to tell you that because of this post, I finally went and unfriended my first girlfriend on Facebook, almost exactly ten years after I met her and eight after the whole thing went up in flames. I’ve recently been struggling hugely with some of the bullshit she left me with, and I think this will help.

    Thank you.

  18. Keely said:

    I was recently introduced to the idea of a “poly-tax”, which refers to the idea that yes, being poly/open can be great, but you have to pay the price for that fun, which is constant communication about needs/boundaries/feelings, also sometimes referred to as “poly-drama.”

    Personally, I think most people, even monogamous people, could stand to do a little more using-their-words and discussing relationship terms/boundaries, but it’s probably true to say that polyamorous relationships will ALWAYS require MORE of this type of negotiation than monogamous ones, if only because there are more people involved! I’m poly and I love both my partners to death and I love that I’m able to have them both in my life and I’m more than willing to pay the tax. Heck, given that my past relationships/family life/mental health issues left me somewhat deficient in the boundary-setting arena, I actually find it helpful to have my relationships in the context of a model that actively encourages frequent discussions of boundaries.

    That said… the poly-tax is still a price to pay, and you have to decide whether you a) are at a point in your life/relationship where you feel ready/safe/capable of paying it and b) find the benefits of poly to be worth the price.

    Forgive me if I’m mis-reading the letter, but it sounds a bit like maybe you and your partner got into poly kind-of-sort-of by default? Like, you realized that neither of you was particularly possessive sexually and were therefore open to the idea, and you figured you might as well give it a shot? Please don’t think that I mean to be judgmental about this–I kind of stumbled into poly myself. A lot of people–even a significant number of the obnoxious type of poly person who acts like they’re somehow more enlightened/better than everyone else because they’ve come to an intellectual position on poly being super awesome–come to poly semi-accidentally.

    What I am saying though, is that when you decided to be poly, it sounds like you thought mostly about ways that it would be easy for you (you aren’t possessive sexually) but not as much or as deeply about the ways in which it would be hard. I kind of did the same thing. I don’t get jealous easily and I’m an introvert who needs a fair bit of alone time, so I figured poly would be easy enough–I wouldn’t be sitting on the couch crying while my partner went out on a date, I’d be cheerfully doing laundry while catching up on stupid tv shows! What tripped me up ended up being something I didn’t think about–how am I with being the partner being shared? I actually have a LOT of trouble dealing with the guilt of not being able to be there for both my partners every time they have a bad day, because sometimes I already made plans with the other one, or with another friend, or I haven’t had time to myself in over a week and I desperately need to clean/do laundry/catch up on sleep. My partners are awesome and helped me manage this, but it has been an issue I didn’t foresee being so significant.

    Basically what I’m saying is: you can’t always anticipate what will trip you up about poly. It’s great that you aren’t super possessive in terms of sex! (great as in convenient, that’s not a moral judgment against people who do get jealous–you feel what you feel) That will make one part of being poly easier. But there are lots of things that can make poly relationships hard, just as there are things that make monogamy hard. It’s up to you to figure out whether those things are worth the struggle, and it’s okay if making that decision is an ongoing process.

    It sounds like you’ve got a good thing going, poly or no. Sorry about the rough week, but I’m sure you’ll get through this fine. Best of luck and Jedi hugs. 🙂

  19. Hey Captain Awkward and All. I came here from a weird-poly-feelings headspace of my own, and this post and the comments have helped me work through it some, so thank you all.

    Jedi hugs to the OP. I’m not really in the headspace to add anything useful right now, so sorry to hijack. I hope things get better. Don’t ever feel bad about feeling bad. Take care.

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