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Hello all you joyous porn badgers and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the dating column that helps you grind your social calibration meters.
This week, we're talking about relationships in crisis. The strength of your relationship isn't found when you're both happy; it's found when things go wrong. When the earth quakes, poison arrows fall from the sky and the pillars of heaven shake, does your relationship fall apart or can you fight your way through the hard times and find ways to cling to the core of your love?
Let's find out together, shall we?
So I'm in a bind here. I'm 4 years into a wonderful relationship with a wonderful girl. We had our bumps to begin with, but the last 2 years have been really good. Our relationship is traditional by most standards, in the sense that I am a man and she is a woman, and we have explicitly agreed to a monogamous relationship.
My GF recently told me she thinks she is bi (which as far as I'm concerned is a non-issue). I'm not entirely surprised, and have no issue whatsoever with who she's attracted to, so long as I'm one of them. The trick is she also told me that she feels she needs to explore that part of her identity, and in particular she feels she needs to have sex with another woman. BUT she said she absolutely doesn't want to lose me over the issue, and she'd much rather never have sex with another woman than damage our relationship.
So I feel like I'm caught between a rock and a hard place. As someone I love, I want to support her in this. I totally understand where she's coming from, and don't see this as a betrayal of trust, but at the same time I kinda liked the monogamy part of the relationship. I definitely don't want polyamory (although I don't judge those who do, just not for me). I could maybe do a threesome, but she's afraid she would get jealous, and I get that if I'm present in any capacity it could present problems for her exploration of herself. Maybe I could be fine if she slept with a woman just a few times? I just don't know until it happens though.
I for one would be OK if she broke up with me to experience this. I would be really sad, but to me that's a valid reason, and so I wouldn't hold any resentment.
OK last part, and the real reason I need advice. We had a discussion about a week ago where I told her all of this. She was very grateful that I was supporting her, but she hasn't told me anything regarding what she's feeling. The anxiety of it is really building up for me, and while I understand she needs time to figure out her own thoughts, I can't really sit around indefinitely waiting for her to tell if she wants to have sex with someone else. If I'm going to be able to do this, I need an explicit plan, with explicit agreements and rules, and consent from us both.
So, how do I strike a balance between what I need and what she needs? And am I being unreasonable?
No Win Situation
It's good of you that you want to support your girlfriend at a time that is, quite honestly, probably confusing and stressful as fuck for her, NWS.
It's also a tricky time for you in trying to be the support she needs. This is one of those times when there's rarely an easy answer, but there're a whole lot of ways to fuck things up. And one of them is to misunderstand what's happening here.
Sexuality can be surprisingly fluid. A number of people who've thought that they were pretty solidly heterosexual or homosexual have been surprised to find that they have been having sweaty thoughts about someone outside of their preferred gender. This can be pretty damn disconcerting; something you had considered a core part of your identity has come into question. Now you're left with any number of questions.
Is this is just random neurons firing off, and does it ultimately mean nothing? Is this specific person just the exception to your sexual orientation? Or does this mean that you're not exactly who you've always thought you were?
That can be difficult enough when you're single. When you're in a long-term, committed relationship? Now you're in a position where making the wrong move could potentially detonate your relationship… but not making a move might be just as bad. After all, there's the worry that if she tries to ignore this and it becomes a festering canker in her soul, that's going to destroy the relationship just as surely and a hell of a lot more painfully.
So right now, your girlfriend is probably as confused and worried as you are. In all likelihood, she knows what her ideal option would be, but is worried about the potential fallout. And I suspect that right now, she's worried that if she tells you what she really wants that you're going to have a bad reaction.
Of course, this puts you in a tricky situation. On the one hand, you love your girlfriend and want her to be happy and fulfilled. On the other hand, there's the non-zero chance that her happiness and fulfilment may mean the end of your relationship. How does one square that particular circle?
To start with: ditch the threesome idea. It was a bad idea in Chasing Amy and it's a bad one here. If your wife wants or needs to explore that other side of her sexuality, then the last thing that's going to help is having you in the mix. Even if everyone goes into it with the best of intentions, it's not going to teach her anything about herself. Same with her fooling around with a woman while you're there; that becomes less about her trying to learn about herself and more about putting on a show.
(And that's without the way that this sort of "experiment" can detonate any number of emotional landmines…)
Instead, let's talk about you for a moment, because sorting through your feelings will put you in a better position to help your girlfriend with hers. I know that right now the uncertainty is getting to you, so let's game things out a little.
Let us pretend for a moment that your girlfriend decides that the best thing she can do right now is actively date women. How does this make you feel? It isn't an idle question; if we want to find a potential solution, it's important to really interrogate your feelings and get to the core of what is bothering you.
Do you worry that you're not enough for her and feel like this is a failing on your part? Do you worry that, in sleeping with someone else, she may decide she likes them more and leave you? Or that she may be a lesbian, rather than bisexual?
You don't want a polyamorous relationship, which is perfectly legitimate. But what about one where she's allowed to date and sleep with women as long as it's just sex? Why would breaking up with her be more acceptable than giving her a certain amount of freedom? Do you fear that, if she were to date someone else, you'd end up being a secondary figure in her life? Would the clean break now be easier because you feel that you could compartmentalise those feelings away?
On the other side of things: does sex need to be a zero-sum game for you? Would knowing your girlfriend is feeling happy and fulfilled make you happy? Would you be able to take pleasure in knowing that your girlfriend is feeling better, even with another lover - something that the poly community calls "compersion"?
There really aren't any wrong answers here; you feel how you feel. Don't worry if the way you feel is possessive or that this brings out ugly emotions. Feelings are primal things, after all. Even "I worry I wouldn't be as special to her" is completely understandable. Feelings in and of themselves aren't bad things; it's how we act on them that makes things good or bad.
I ask you to really dig in and question how you feel because the more you understand how this makes you feel, the more you'll be able to talk this out with your girlfriend. One of the best ways to deal with jealousy is to talk it out with your partner.
And being able to talk about this with you — openly, honestly, without fear of judgement — is going to help her to feel empowered to open up to you about how she feels. By being open and honest with each other — not just about your desires but about what you are afraid of — you can work together to try to find a path that helps her without damaging your bond or causing unnecessary pain.
Right now, ya'll are in a no-win situation. A major reason why she's clammed up about things is that in all likelihood, she's afraid to bring things up for fear of hurting you. You, on the other hand, are finding the ambiguity of the situation intolerable.
So start with a long, open talk. Get your feelings out in the open in a productive manner. Focus on the "I feel" statements - "I feel that…" "I worry that…" which will let you express how you feel without putting the responsibility for those feelings on one another. The more that you two feel as though you can talk about this, the more you'll be able to start finding options, whether it's a sexually open relationship, time apart or breaking up.
Regardless of what options you take, I've got some homework for you. It may well be worth your time to read More Than Two: A Practical Guide To Ethical Polyamory by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert and Opening Up: A Guide To Creating And Sustaining Open Relationships by Tristan Taormino. Even if you choose not to try some form of non-monogamy (which, again, is decidedly not for everyone), these books can help give you the tools and vocabulary to try to find a path to happiness for the both of you.
You're in a tough spot, man. I hope you can find a way through it that works. Good luck, and write back let us know how things are going.
Big fan of your column, hopefully you can help me out!
I have been in a long distance relationship with a girl for around 2 and a half years, we met in the USA while I was working out there and then moved back to the UK. We met and it was an instant connection and we hit it off from the get go. We decided we wanted to give it a go long distance, neither of us had done it before but we were just so happy with each other.
We have been seeing each other quite regularly, we as regular as you can with the distance between us, each time was great and we would explore each other's cities together and even though they were only usually 10 day trips they were amazing. A few months ago though we took a big step, she decided to use the full amount of time she could on a visa over here and stayed for 9 weeks! We were both excited and worried about how this time together would affect our relationship as this was again a first for both of us.
Things started out really well, I would go to work and come home to her about her adventures and what she had seen and done and then we would make the most of the opportunities to have actual dates rather than skype dates! Nearer the end of the trip though things started to take a turn. She said she was feeling lonely with me going to work everyday and her not really knowing a whole lot of people over here so she felt very isolated and homesick, with regular calls and texts to friends and family back home.
She was spending an increasing amount of time on her phone and starting to reject any ideas I had to go out or any form of physical contact I was trying to show her. So I got a bit suspicious and eventually found out, via looking at her open phone that she had been having conversations with a few of her friends about when she gets back hooking up with them and having conversations with them that really only me and her should have conversations about.
I was so distraught and I confronted her about it and she said she had lost her trust in me as I had gone into her phone and snooped but only now since she has gone back to the USA has she apologised for what she did. We broke up but are still talking and are both harbouring the idea of getting back together, but I don't know if I can trust her with what I have now seen, it is making me very paranoid. She said she would never do anything and that she loves me and wants me back!
Can I trust the girl I love??
Signed Long distance and desperate for trust
Oh man, this is an ugly one. I'm really sorry you're going through it.
It's going to be a big tangled mess. As tempting as it is to make it a black and white thing — I mean come on, she was openly planning on hooking up with some other dudes — there're a lot of factors that have led to your current situation. Digging into it is going to have a lot of influence on what you decide to do next.
Let's start prying things apart bit by bit. We'll start with the big one: why did your girlfriend cheat or at least make plans to cheat?
No small part of the answer is: she in all likelihood was starting to have second thoughts about your relationship brought about by her stay with you. The isolation and homesickness you mentioned? Those can be relationship killers.
It's one thing to come for an extended vacation; a week and a half is pretty intense, but it's limited. You have the excitement of seeing your snugglebunny after so long apart, and that can carry you through times when they have to work and you're left to your own devices for the better part of the day. For a 10 days, it's easier to play tourist to keep yourself occupied.
It's a metric fuck-ton harder to do that when you're there for nearly three months. For a week and a half, you can grit your teeth through the hard parts because you know that you'll be going home soon. Three months gives you a lot of hours to fill and very little to fill them with.
She had no social circle in the UK, either to occupy her time or to get emotional support when she's feeling bored or lonely. And considering how a visitor visa drastically limits what you can do with your time ... well, yeah, odds are good that she's going to go a little stir-crazy. She's functionally dependent on you in a lot of ways.
That's a great way to build up resentment, and resentment is one of the things that will poison a relationship. Needless to say, two months of this is going to leave a lot of people in a very "don't fucking touch me" kind of mood.
So in all likelihood, a lot of those steamy conversations and plans to hook up when she got home were as much her deciding to slam her fist down on the "Relationship Self Destruct" button as they were her being a lying, cheating arsehole. Not that she wasn't that, too.
And blowing up on you for snooping? Part and parcel of it all. To be sure: snooping is a dick move and something that can only really be justified in retrospect. However, it also gives casus belli for someone looking for a reason to break up. (But let's be real: you snooped. That's a shitty thing to do, and if you hadn't found what you found, it would be especially dickish.)
Regardless: can open, worms everywhere.
Now she's home again and she's feeling regretful. This is not terribly surprising, all things considered. Her behaviour was based on her circumstances — she was isolated and lonely. Now that she's back in her comfort zone, she's realising that she blew things up and wants to try to fix things.
Which brings us to the big question: can things be fixed? I don't believe that cheating (or the threat of cheating) is necessarily a relationship extinction event, nor that not all infidelities are equal. Sometimes it's a case of someone being an arsehole; other times it's a combination of circumstance and weakness and there but for the grace of God go the rest of us.
Relationships can get past infidelities, if everybody is willing to and able to put the work in. But that's a pretty big if. So right now, you have some questions to ask.
First: is her cheating — assuming that it ever left the planning stages after she got home — something that is likely to happen again? Was it because of that perfect storm of circumstances that is unlikely to happen again, or is this behaviour something that she'll fall back to when she's upset enough?
Second: Assuming that you decide that you are willing to forgive her: what can she do to earn your trust back? What will it take for you to feel comfortable trusting her again without reserve?
Third: Can you forgive and let things go? If this is something that's going to always be eating at you in the back of your mind, even if/when she's making good faith efforts to make amends, then it's better to end things now.
If you do decide to take her back, you may need to reconsider the nature of your relationship or where it's going to go. Long distance relationships are hard enough without an end to the distance in sight. You've seen the difficulties inherent in to your relationship from both sides of the Atlantic. That will have to be something you both think about when the time comes to decide if this relationship is going to be more than just long-distance.
Have you had a partner come out to you while you were dating? Did your relationship survive cheating? Have you managed to make a long-distance relationship work? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. We'll be back with more of your questions in two weeks.
Dr. Nerdlove is Kotaku's bi-weekly dating column, hosted by the one and only Harris O'Malley, AKA Dr. NerdLove. Got a question you'd like answered? Write [email protected] and put "Kotaku" in the subject line.
Harris O'Malley is a writer and dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blog Paging Dr. NerdLove and the Dr. NerdLove podcast. His new dating guide New Game+: The Geek's Guide to Love, Sex and Dating is out now from Amazon, iTunes and everywhere fine books are sold He is also a regular guest at One Of Us.