Here there be dragons. And bees.
Dear Captain Awkward,
I’m trying my best to sort this out myself, and I am starting therapy in a week or two, but I feel like I’m flailing around, grasping at whatever I can tell myself to make me feel like things aren’t awful.
I recently discovered your website and I thought I’d run some of this by you. I suppose the root of my problem is this: I acted like a whore, but I am trying to convince myself that I’m not one. But then I decided that convincing myself of that would be selfish, and it makes me feel like a greedy whore, too.
Here is what happened. I am in a polyamorous relationship. My partner (let’s call him Nathan) and I did not communicate our boundaries well. My boundary for him was that he should tell me if anything sexual happens with a potential/new partner so that we can continue to have be safe sexually. His boundary for me was unspoken, so I assumed it was the same. That was a Huge Mistake.
I was hanging out with another person (let’s call him Peter). I really, really, really like Peter. We had hung out in his room twice, and this was the third time. I was coming over for the purpose of watching a movie. Of course, as evidently happens during “movie watching” (which I was not aware of but not opposed to), we cuddled and made out. Peter knew I was polyamorous and innocently and totally acceptably wanted to take things further. So I gave him a blowjob. Which at the time I did not expect was going to be a problem (I’ve since decided that if I wasn’t thinking selfishly, I’d have known it would be a problem).
While I was gone, Nathan, who I share a single dorm room with at school, was texting me asking me to come back soon so we could go to bed. I pretty much blatantly ignored his texts, and when I got back he was very upset. So, even though I had meant to tell him what happened between me and Peter, I didn’t. When Nathan gets upset at me, I tend to recoil. He’s intimidating, though he would never physically hurt me. So I wrote a note, saying I was sorry I left him by himself and that I should have answered his texts and left him my laptop so he could at least have Skyped his friends, since he was feeling lonely. I also stated that Peter and I had established feelings for each other, but not what exactly had happened.
That was another Huge Mistake.
Nathan was totally fine with Peter and I becoming partners as well, but he said that he thought it would be best if we didn’t do anything sexual yet. That created a lump in my throat and a questioning in my mind. After much stewing, the next night I told him what happened, and he Flipped the Fuck Out. He punched the wall, told me I cheated on him, and that I had totally broken his trust. I am no longer allowed to communicate with Peter or spend any time with any other hetero/bisexual men or homo/bisexual women (presumably because I’d totally suck their dicks, too). I came up with the idea of giving up caffeine so that I could prove myself able to devote to something. Also, I check in with him on my cellphone and tell him where I am and who I’m with whenever I change locations or company.
My heart is totally shattered. I feel like scum of the earth. Whenever I’m in public or don’t want to cry and I feel tears coming on, I have taken to scratching myself really hard. It keeps the tears away, but I know it’s not healthy and I can’t stop doing it. And I’m resentful and self-loathing and I wish I could turn back time and just not have given Peter a blowjob. But I did. I still see Peter around 3 times a week because he works in the residence hall that I live in, and we’re both members of the same Executive Board for an organization. Peter and Nathan used to get along too, but Nathan has been avoiding him and obviously has a lot of loathing for him. All I feel is that I have burned my bridges. My friends who are friends with Nathan would hate me if they found out. My friends who are not friends with Nathan all live far away. My family does not know I’m polyamorous and would also probably hate me. I am not allowed to talk to Peter.
I guess I’m just wondering: How can I fix these bridges? Can I fix them? Also, this isn’t a question but I miss both Nathan and Peter a lot. There’s a hole in my heart and I don’t know how to fix that, either.
Sorry this is crazy long. You can cut out some extra bits, but this is also the first time I’ve written any of this down…
Thank You for your help,
Dear Unethical (your name for yourself, not mine):
I see the words “I know he would never hit me/physically harm me” in a lot of letters I get. Far more than I could ever, ever, ever answer or publish.
Those words break my heart, every time, because the people who write them are offering them up as an example of how the relationship can be saved and how I shouldn’t judge their partner too harshly. They mean “he’s not ABUSIVE-abusive (even though he does all these abusive and controlling things to me). I’m not like those abused women, I would leave if someone actually hit me.” They break my heart because the letter writers have had to do the calculus, the calculus called Would He Hit Me? and they offer the answer up as proof that he wouldn’t but all I can see is proof that he almost did, that he’s thinking about it, that he’s a week or a year or a hair’s breadth away from it. It’s proof that she’s thinking about it, too, that she’s had to do the math. Nathan wouldn’t hit you, but he’d punch a wall in front of you, so you can see the force of how his fists slam into things., so you can see how hurt his hand is afterward, so you know that the damage is your fault. When I read those words about how the partner doesn’t harm or hit, I can hear the echo of the guy saying them, too, like “Well, it’s not like I physically hurt you! Come on! Be reasonable (and do what I say)!“(Mentioning how “at least you don’t hit” someone kinda sorta exactly like reminding them that you could hit them, that you might hit them, that hitting them is on the list of possible things that could happen, you are a fucking goddamn hero of a man for making the difficult heroic choice not to. Someone saying this to you should always make the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and prompt you to look around for the exits).
And then the letters, like your letter, contain the most heartbreaking question of all, which is how, how can I be better/fix it/make it right/not make him scary and angry anymore. How can I be perfect (give up caffeine), how can I show him (check in with him by cell phone every time I change locations or company) that I’m worthy? Because the abuser-logic has worked. “When you make mistakes it’s your fault, when I make mistakes (like scaring you) it’s also your fault.” Someone doesn’t have to physically hurt you to harm you.
People in non-abusive relationships don’t have to do this constant calculus. Non-abusive dudes don’t get described as “intimidating” by their girlfriends, because non-abusive dudes, even the big strong burly ones who might look pretty intimidating to a stranger don’t intimidate their girlfriends. They don’t punch walls, or throw things, or put 10,000 tiny conditions around everything, or monitor their movements or their phones. When those dudes feel lonely, they fucking call a friend, or they muddle through those lonely feelings. Non-abusive dudes don’t pat themselves on the back for not hurting women, because it doesn’t occur to them to hurt women. Once you are at “At least he doesn’t physically hurt me” as a standard for measuring someone’s behavior, the bees are already in the house.
I am not as sure as you are that Nathan “would never physically hurt” you. “Intimidating,””punching the wall,” not “allowing” you to talk to men or other women, the fact that you are using words like “whore” to describe yourself, the constant monitoring & checking in you’re doing add up to a picture of Something Is Not Right Here. You tell Nathan your boundaries for sex with others within your poly relationship. He never tells you his. You act within your own ethics about this, and suddenly he’s punching walls and flipping out at you and telling you who you are allowed to talk to? Nathan is ok with you and Peter becoming partners, but only if you do it exactly as he wants you to? A misunderstanding in how you do poly stuff does not make him the boss of you! This is one seriously controlling dude, and I don’t think he wants you to become partners with anyone else, honestly. A normal decent kind dude would be like “Hey, if you want to stop drinking coffee, cool, but the idea that it’s something you’re doing for me is honestly kinda weird.” A normal decent kind dude would say “Hey, I was hurt when you hooked up with Peter, but I realize now that you had no way of knowing what my rules for poly-stuff should be because we never actually discussed it. But this thing where you call me every time you go into a different room? That’s really weird, please stop doing that.” A decent, ethical, poly dude who loves you would most likely be able to express hurt that you got together with Peter without discussing it first and still try to find a way for you to have everything you want.
But for a controlling dude, these self-sacrifices of yours are right on schedule, putting him in the center of every aspect of your life, where he thinks he belongs.
My advice is: Run, gurl. Drink caffeine if you want to. Sleep with nice people who are nice to you. Get out of this relationship and this living situation with a dude who punishes and berates you because he doesn’t know how to fill his own loneliness.
Some concrete advice:
- Everything I’m saying here should happen on the down low, without consulting or informing or alerting Nathan until you are ready to leave. He is not a safe person to talk through your options with, and I don’t think you can trust him to be on your team about anything. The first comment at this link is about how to hang in with an abusive situation if you can’t get free right away, and there is tons of concrete logistical advice in the rest of the comments.
- You’re starting therapy, GOOD. Keep going to that. Please tell the counselor about your relationship.
- There is a book called Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft. You should read it, but you should not do it where Nathan can see, or have a copy in your room.
- Call a domestic violence hotline/helpline and talk through this with a sympathetic, trained person. They won’t think you are silly, they will listen to you, and if you’re far away from your friends this perspective can be invaluable.
- Tell at least one of your faraway friends, tell someone in your life that you trust what’s going on. And call your friends and family and catch up with them. Even if you don’t talk about your relationship, you need to talk to some people who love you and care about you and make you laugh.
- Secure your money, identity documents, computer, your phone. Don’t leave your phone or your computer lying around where he can snoop in them.
- Talk to someone at the school about moving to your own room/out of the room you share with Nathan. You need your own space ASAP, in a different building. You might need to get that space, move your things into it, and then break up with Nathan at a neutral, public location that is not your old room, with an RA or a friend present. You don’t need to tell every person every single thing that happened – “We had a fight, and he punched the wall in a way that scared me, and I think I would feel safer if I had my own space for now” is enough. Not everyone needs the whys and wherefores. Mutual friends can hear “We broke up, don’t want to go into it right now.”
Get some trained professionals in your life. Reconnect with your friends and family. Stop calling yourself names. You are a woman who wanted something, and you went after it in a way you thought was within the bounds of your relationship. You found out later that your partner didn’t agree. You didn’t do anything to deserve the amount of humiliation and worry and fear you are feeling right now.
Someday (hopefully) Nathan will be a distant creepy memory.