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.. ?!
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.