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).
Honest heart with serious doubts
Dear Honest Heart,
This is interesting, arriving as it does on the heels of yesterday’s question about the potential of new experiences and partners vs. the unsatisfying entropy of a long committed relationship that has maybe run its course.
Let me see if I can sum up:
You’d like to cheat on your long-term partner with this hot and interesting new person you met to see where it goes before you upend your whole life. Maybe not CHEAT-cheat, with sex, because that would be sordid and you’re not that kind of person. Just, Mr. Young Interesting has declared some feelings and you’d like to declare some feelings back, and you A++ might marry though you have a) known him only a short time and b) he has a girlfriend.
Developing feelings for someone else when you’re already involved elsewhere happens. Crushes can be beautiful things, even crushes that go absolutely nowhere, the ones you never tell a soul. Sometimes a crush is a wake-up call that there’s something missing in your current relationship, but sometimes it’s not about romance at all, like, “Self, do I want to make out with this person or do I want to BE this person?” Since yours is an “Oh crap, I might be in love” sort of crush, there are some ethical ways to proceed.
- Both you and Mr. Interesting could end things with your current partners and then decide to date each other and see what happens.
- You could talk to your partner about opening up the relationship and see what happens. The bulk of this response is about ethics in monogamous relationships, but I thought I’d throw the option out there.
- You could let this pass, the way other crushes have, and see what happens.This most likely means cutting off or severely limiting contact with Mr. Interesting and his charming girlfriend and avoiding “It just happened!” situations.
These options all involve risk. What if you blow up your life, and this new relationship doesn’t last, or isn’t better? What if Mr. Interesting won’t leave his girlfriend? What if you stay put, withdraw from Mr. Interesting, and the rest of your life is spent waiting for your current relationship to turn into the one you want, one with sex, and love letters, and big vibrant declarations of feelings?
The problem with Mr. Interesting isn’t necessarily your age difference, it’s that guys with girlfriends who make strong declarations of interest to women they’ve just met are kinda suspect. Maybe this is true love. Maybe this is a guy looking for a fix of drama and attention. To paraphrase Ask Polly at the link, you could say, “Mr. Interesting, why don’t you get back to me when you’ve been single and alone for a little while?” and see what happens. The trick then is to stop all contact until he does get back in touch and not keep checking in for a crush-fix. Which leaves you in the familiar-sounding territory of waiting for a man to make up his mind about you.
I’m being blunt with you because nearly every person who cheats on their partner ends up with you are:
- Wanting to be a good person and do the right thing, guilt-ridden about the pain and damage they might cause
- Wanting to keep seeing themselves as a good person even if they do the “wrong” thing,
- Tempted by excitement, sex, affection, novelty, fantasy, drama, the prospect of finding something that is missing, feeling “newly awakened,” altered, maybe even high from the rush of being with their crush. Escapade. Escape. Escape.
- Looking for signs that something is “meant to be” and permission to follow their hearts/loins.
- Simultaneously risk-seeking and incredibly risk-averse.
- Convinced that they are somehow different than the other people who have walked in these same shoes while knowing that they are depressingly the same. The Venn Diagram of “cliché” and “a thing that actually happens often in the world” has a lot of overlap.
I am being blunt with you not out of sanctimony but because I have cheated in the past, on my way out of dying relationships, the kind where you break up and then get back together and break up and get back together, where the problem of “do I stay or go” occupies years because the other person was “a wonderful guy” and I hadn’t yet figured out that “a wonderful guy” and “right for ME” can be different things, so I created situations where “I am a terrible cheating sort of person who doesn’t deserve such a Wonderful Guy, and now we HAVE to break up” to stop the relationship from knitting together like a badly set bone and limping on for another year. Or, as a friend aptly put it, “I cheated on boyfriends because I was a massive wuss either too afraid to leave the security of a relationship or too afraid to be the bad guy who ended it.” I fucked up, and then I grew up and learned that breaking up is not the Worst Thing In The World.
My older and slightly wiser ethics say that if you and/or your potential cheating partner is in a monogamous relationship you can’t cheat without dehumanizing someone else. When you cheat on someone, you stop treating them like an equal, because you remove their ability to give informed consent. For example, if you think you are someone’s only sex partner, you often take different precautions around sexual health than you would if you knew they have other partners. If your partner adds other sex partners to the mix without your knowledge, they are risking your health and possibly your life without your informed consent. If you mutually promise someone you’re in a relationship for the long-term, you both make big decisions with the other person’s priorities in mind. “If I knew you were going to cheat on me and maybe leave me, I probably wouldn’t have (agreed to stop using condoms)(bought that house with you)(turned down that cool fellowship)(moved away from my family to this city with you)(adopted that puppy)(had that third kid)(put you through grad school)(put myself through visa/immigration hell).”
Wanting to leave is enough, and you don’t owe somebody the rest of your life if you want to go, but it’s not like, *poof* (****see below for one big exception****), “Smell you later, person who rearranged their whole life with me in mind (because I asked you to rearrange your life with me in mind).” There’s a reason divorce agreements are negotiated and spelled out in court: serious commitments accrue mutual obligations.
[****EXCEPTION ALERT****]: Abusive relationships present a stark exception. When someone is controlling, scaring, and abusing you, they strip away any obligation you have to be up front with them about your plans. Sock away money, collect your important papers and possessions, cover your tracks, get out any way you can without regard to politeness or your abuser’s feelings. Formally break up from the next town or the next galaxy if that’s what you need to do. There can be no informed consent or equality when your safety is threatened. The LW’s relationship is not an abusive one, so I would prefer it if discussion did not get sidetracked into this exception, but I didn’t want survivors reading this thread and thinking I am talking about them. *Poof* away, my friends, and be safe].****
Back to you, Letter Writer. I’m tempted to take page out of the Bad Advisor’s handbook and ask, what are you hoping I will say? Are you hoping I’ll draw a line for you or reaffirm that you and this dude really have something so special that it overrides what you know to be right? Your heart is pure, your intentions are good, everyone (“60% of the people in the room“) feels like this sometimes, you’ve been sooooo good by letting past crushes fade away and not cheating before now even though you don’t have sex, you’ve waited soooooo long for boyfriend to wake up and propose, …
“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.”
MY DARLING LETTER WRITER.
You don’t want to marry your boyfriend.
You thought you did. You waited, and waited, and waited for him to ask you. You WAITED and you had other crushes but you DID NOT EVEN KISS THEM and you were SO VERY GOOD AND ETHICAL.
Y’all waited too long.
He waited too long.
After seven years together, five in the same house, you already know everything you need to know about whether you want to marry someone. You’ve both got all the info you need. He didn’t until quite recently. You did and now you don’t.
I have no idea what will happen with Mr. “I-Have-This-Girlfriend-And-Yet-I-Think-I-Love-You” and his beautiful 26-year-old lips. Perhaps you will blaze a Jolie-Pitt-like trail across the stars. As Dear Sugar says, “All sorts of bright shiny couples have emerged from enormous piles of reeking love crap.” Perhaps you will have an affair with him where he keeps forgetting to leave his girlfriend for you and emerge well-fucked and broken-hearted to rebuild your life. Perhaps you’ll be like “I dumped my boyfriend! My body is ready!” and he’ll be like “Oh crap, that escalated quickly” and disappear. I don’t know. Life is risk. You don’t need my permission.
I do know that some part of you freaked the fuck out when your boyfriend finally moved toward making your relationship permanent.This isn’t a “which ‘wonderful’ man do I choose” question. This is a Google “sunk cost“, find a therapist, get a journal, and write-down-every-single-thing-you-want-out-of-the-one-beautiful-life-you-have-left sort of question. Be honest with yourself about what and who you want. Be honest with the people in your life. Most of all, stop waiting.
Lovely pledge drive supporters and readers. There is still time to donate (there is always time to donate, this is just the week I bug people about it). Thank you so much for your kind donations and your kind words. Did you know that Dr. Sweet Machine has a newsletter where she sends feminism and poetry to your mailbox? Now you do.