#1387: “I’m dating a married man, help!”

Hi there, it’s me, Jennifer, Captain Awkward, down one pesky uterus and gingerly climbing back on my bullshit.

Today we have the classic tale of the man who might leave his wife someday, just as soon as he finds someone who can pass the lengthy audition process.

It’s not easy to become This Fucking Guy’s Next Ex-Wife. First, there’s the initial chemistry read, where you provide the sex he’s not getting at home, followed by a series of callbacks where you demonstrate skills like shrinking your needs to a manageable (invisible) size and listening to story after story where he is a helpless victim of circumstance without laughing and telling him to get lost. Should that all go well, and should you prove flexible enough to schedule your entire life around his convenience, there’s just one final step: Proving that you, yourself, alone, can personally make up for all the ways every woman he has met have let him down in the past. Are you ready for the challenge?

Dear Captain Awkward:

I started sleeping with a married man about 6 months ago.

He told me his wife was asexual and agreed to him having girlfriends. About 2 months into the relationship, we crossed the “I love you” boundary.

Now he’s going back and forth on how serious he wants to be. He says he’s going to leave his wife but he doesn’t know when. A few years ago, he separated from his wife and moved in with his girlfriend and a month later she left him and went back to her ex so he has trust issues. I told him I would never do that but he’s not making any future plans for us. I know we haven’t been together that long and I don’t want to break up his marriage but if I leave, I would have lied to him and I don’t want to do that either. I don’t know what to do.

Should I leave or stay? 

Hello and thank you for your question!

Hypothesis: I think you should leave.

Supporting evidence: Pretty much every word out of his mouth as related by you.

Method: Boundaries will set you free.

He told me his wife is asexual and agreed to him having girlfriends.”  “He says he’s going to leave his wife but he doesn’t know when.”

So…which is it? He left his wife once already, and is theoretically planning to do it again for you, but also, his wife is totally okay with him dating outside the marriage and has presented no obstacle to your whirlwind romance so far. Huh.

As mating calls go, “It’s okay, my wife says I’m allowed to have sleepovers!” has some pitfalls, one being that it can be used equally by ethical people who are openly seeking non-monogamous relationships, lying cheaters who lie, and by people who, even when truthful about their advertised status (separated, “consciously uncoupling,” non-monogamous, “it’s complicated,” etc.), manage to be juuuuuuuust available enough to tempt you into ignoring your better judgment, and just married enough that they can’t really make any big commitments or promises right now. They’re a little bit single, even when they’re not, and they tend to be very good at 1) keeping their options open and 2) using “honesty” the way Wonder Woman uses magic bracelets: to deflect.

Four panel Anakin-Padme meme, from right to left. Anakin: You are the love of my life. Padme: So I can meet your friends and family, right? Anakin: Stares Intensely Padme: I can meet your friends and family, right?

He told you, and you believe him, no problem, for the bulk of this post I’m going to believe him, too, mostly because he doesn’t need to be lying for this to still be a bad idea. But I think it’s worth a gut check. Aside from what he’s told you, what other evidence do you have that he’s not just cheating and lying about that? Independent confirmation from his wife, perhaps, or from the other friends and family members he’s introduced you to during the last six months?

You’re planning a “serious” future together, so you’ve met at least some of the most important people in each other’s lives, right? You’re in his phone under your real name, you can schedule hangouts without cloak-and-dagger, you know where he works, you’ve been to some of his favorite spots, you can hold hands in public without being danger of getting shoved into the shrubbery or introduced as a cousin if you run into someone he knows? Tagging him in a cute photo online doesn’t prompt a panicked search of fault vs. no fault divorce laws?

If asking those questions leads you somewhere you’d rather not be, are you truly okay with being in a secret relationship, where your partner lies about your existence and level of connection to someone he promised to cherish? To put it in terms of a boundary, if you decide, “I’m not interested in relationships where I have to keep secrets and tell lies,” where does it leave you?

Okay, from now on we’re officially assuming that he told the truth and his wife “agreed to” him having girlfriend(s). Technically I agreed to repay my student loans, doesn’t mean I’m wild about it. Did this agreement take place before or after he left her the last time? Was it an intentional, mutual decision from the start of their marriage or did he cheat on her first and decide later that she owed him this to “make up for” being asexual (in which case, yikes, dump him harder), so she agreed rather than lose him? Do you think he treats his wife with love and care, the way you would want to be treated if you were in her shoes?

Incidentally, how do you feel about monogamy? Does “getting more serious” mean that the two of you will be exclusive once he’s divorced? Is that what you want? (I think that might be what you want.) Does he know that? If you set “I want a committed relationship with a partner who will be faithful to me” as your boundary, does he still seem like a catch? If you were to decide on an open relationship from the start, what evidence do you have that he’d keep his promises to you, given that he’s secretly planning to leave the last person he made the same agreements with?

On all counts, I strongly suggest not making “what this guy has permission from someone else to do” into the measuring stick for what you want, need, and deserve from a relationship.

“…but he’s not making any future plans for us.”

My life got infinitely less confusing and stressful once I started applying a boundary called “I don’t plan my life around anyone whose plans don’t include me.” Until I learned, I labored under the fallacy that I could make plans that were so elegant, so superbly situated that the other party needn’t bother doing any planning at all, and all I needed to do was wait patiently for the right moment to give them their “gift.” Ta-daaaaaaa!

It didn’t work, mostly because people with healthy boundaries who were on a different schedule than I was were (rightly) freaked out by the sudden (to them) mismatch in intensity. It didn’t work even when it worked, because there’s actually a huge difference between actively wanting to be with me and being willing to follow the path of least resistance as long as it remains convenient or until something better comes along.

This guy told you outright:  “I am not making any future plans for us.”

I’ve never met him, nor am I particularly optimistic about his overall integrity, but on this topic, I believe him!

What happens if you take him at his word, and stop making future plans that depend on him? Apply The Sheelzebub Principle: If you knew things were going to stay pretty much exactly as they are, how much longer would you stay? Six more months? A year? Five years? If being able to plan a future with someone you can count on is important to you, it will soon clarify what must be done.

“About 2 months into the relationship, we crossed the ‘I love you’ boundary.”

Well, that escalated quickly!

I wonder. From the early stages of being together, did this guy talk a lot about the past, sharing intimate stuff about childhood traumas, dreams, fears (some of it inappropriately intimate relative to how long you’d known each other), and the future (daydreams for all the great stuff you’d do together someday)? And did he want to know absolutely everything about your past, and everything about your dreams for the future? And did it feel magical to be at once so fascinated and also so fascinating?

It’s a common trope that cis, straight men are imagined to be generally bad at talking about feelings, extremely avoidant of anything that even hints of future commitment, and may or may not know where the clitoris is (or care to ever find out). So if you meet one who is very open and vulnerable about feelings without the application of an oyster knife, quick to jump into the future, and who can reliably make you glimpse the face of god when you sleep together, it must mean something special indeed. Like, come on, you weren’t asking for his hand in marriage when you got together, everyone was a grownup who knew what this was, he was the one who kept bringing up how cool it would be to meet your family and visit every single place you’d ever dreamed of going. Why would anyone do that if they didn’t mean it? Answer: Because maybe he has nothing to offer you in the present tense.

How to say this? It’s not that he didn’t mean it. Chances are he did. You are wonderful and enchanting, you weren’t imagining it, it felt great to be in love. Just, sometimes “I love you” sounds likeI could be happy just doing laundry and taxes with you” when it really means “I want to binge you like a Netflix show.” A fascinating, novel escape from quotidian life, full of high drama and bright colors, with no need to leave the comfy couch that’s perfectly molded to your butt, and not expected to last more than a season or two, and way more interested than the laundry and taxes that are being handled by somebody else. The intense, lightning-in-a-bottle intimacy of wanting to consume the fantasy of you is not the same as the kind of boring, reliable, consistent intimacy of actually building that life. Sifting through all the little things he said and did to argue the case that yes, he meant it, absent any concrete action from him to make it happen, will make you feel unhinged. He probably meant it, but it doesn’t mean he’s going to do anything about it.

As a boundary? You can do worse than “Maybe I’ll take some action when I see some action.”

“something something about trust issues and if you dump him now you would have lied to him”

You are telling me that he left his entire wife, with all the attendant difficult conversations and expensive logistical nightmares of dissolving one household and making a new one, did all that AGAIN when he went back to her a month or so later, then he met you, is now secretly plotting to leave her again for you, and HE is the one with “trust issues” that YOU are responsible for managing? Who is the liar here? Not you! Who is the person who serially can’t make up his mind? Not you!

Oh, honey, no. No. Absolutely not. The lion, the witch, and the audacity of this man.

Let’s skip straight to the boundary: You are not responsible for how other people treated him in the past. If others treated him poorly, it’s not an excuse for him treating you poorly now, and you won’t agree to something that is not in your best interests as some kind of fucked-up reverse reparations for something you didn’t do. You have literally nothing to prove here. If you cut your losses now, and he blames you for breaking his “trust,” I guess you’ll have to add yourself to the very long list of women who couldn’t live up to his high ideals, oh well!

Please put this man back where you found him, preferably before you waste money and time on selecting a thoughtful holiday present and waiting around for him to sneak off to text you from the toilet at his in-laws’ annual holiday feast. You are not a placeholder, and he is not the one.