Can we make this work?
December 29, 2010 11:37 AM   Subscribe

I told myself I would never post a relationship question, but here goes: My boyfriend had, what amounts to in my mind, an emotional affair that's been going on for the past 6 months. I need help deciding if this is worth salvaging. There are, of course, lots of details inside.

He and I have been together for close to 6 years, living together for almost 3. I'm 26, he's 30, and this only the second serious relationship I've been in. There have been trust issues from the very beginning on both of our parts, and we are both very insecure people. Despite that, we are compatible on many, many levels. We want the same things in life, agree on family and religion, and have discussed marriage. At our best, we have supported each other through really tough emotional problems and brought out the best in each other. At our worst, we are weak and avoidant and tend to let things go without addressing them. For full disclosure, I also had an emotional affair with someone online about 2 years ago, which he found out about. At that time, we were both so intent on things going back to "normal" that we never really addressed the underlying issues.

The Current Situation:
I looked at the messaging part of our phone bill and saw that he had been texting someone every day for the past 6 months. Sometimes for hours on end. When I confronted him about it, he tried claiming he didn't know who it could be (she has an area code for a city she doesn't live in, so he claimed he didn't know anyone from that city). He eventually admitted she has become a close friend, and that he didn't tell me about her because he knew I would be jealous. Since then, he's admitted that they had feelings for each other, that they had addressed these feelings with each other, but that it's never veered into anything sexual. He also (again, only after I asked) admitted that they saw each other at a convention in September, but adamantly maintains they were never alone together.

I believe him about 90% about it never becoming sexual, and them never being alone together. It's not his M.O. I won't go into details, suffice to say I think the close emotional bond is what he craves the most. He has extreme abandonment issues, especially with women, which stem from childhood. Since I've known him, he's been been extremely insecure, which has led to an almost addictive need for external validation. Because of his profession, he has a strong internet presence and is followed by a lot of people. These are usually the avenues he uses to seek validation because he knows that, unlike his real-life friends, these people only know his best qualities. He is also almost pathologically secretive, even about the most minute, innocuous things. This has not helped the trust problems.

Where We're At Now:
He's betrayed my trust in the past (never anything this serious) but I've never once heard him admit these things about himself until now. He is finally admitting that he needs help and has already started trying to find a therapist. He said that this relationship was out of his need for attention and affection, and admits that he thinks he is addicted to validation, especially from women. He knows he will continue this pattern unless he addresses these issues with lots of therapy. He is 100% willing to go to couple's counseling, and says that he will work with me in whatever way I need him to. He says he genuinely wants to become a better, stronger person, and that he wants to be the type of person who "can be happy with the great life I already have" instead of this endless quest for affirmation.

The thing is, I can't help but feel like one of those girls that says, "Oh, but he's going to change." I've been lied to (or deceived) for a very long time by someone who supposedly loves and cares for me. Before this, things had become sort of stagnant and I was in this "break up or get married" mindset where I felt like we either needed to step up or move on. Part of me feels like this is the answer I needed. Another part of me feels like this was the impetus necessary to force us to address the problems in our relationship so that we can make it healthy again.

Actual Questions:
Does this sound like a salvageable relationship? Am I a total idiot for wanting to work things out? Am I stupid for believing him? Has anyone overcome anything similar and had it work out for the best? We are broke, so couples counseling is a big decision, and I want to know if it'll be worth it. I'm worried things will be great for a while and then a few years down the road he will do the same thing again. I am hurt, confused, angry, and sympathetic all at once. I'm having a hard time looking at this clearly, for obvious reasons. I am obsessing about this other girl, and am absolutely sick with grief. Any tips on dealing with that are also appreciated.

Boyfriend of 6 years has an emotional affair with someone that never becomes sexual. Has hidden it from me for 6 months. Now that he's been caught, he seems genuinely remorseful and, for the first time since I've known him, is admitting he needs professional help. Is this a sign he's really ready, or is he just trying to keep from losing me?

Sorry for wordiness. Throwaway:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (42 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
In my admittedly simplistic mind, all relationship questions can be resolved using the following question.

Does being with this person make you happier than you were when you were alone?

If the answer is yes, then you might as well try and salvage the relationship. If it's no, then give him the ol' heave-ho. You don't need to make things any more complicated than that.
posted by sarastro at 11:45 AM on December 29, 2010 [18 favorites]

You got a reprieve when you did it, why shouldn't he get the same benefit?

That's not to say you two are really right for each other, that's something you have to decide for yourself. I suspect that either one or both of you might just be too terrified to leave the other anyway because you are both so insecure.

Bottom line: do you still want to be with him? If yes, then next question. If no, break up. Do you think you can trust him again in the future? If yes, next question. If no, break up. Is he worth it? If yes, nothing else matters. If no...well, you make the call.
posted by inturnaround at 11:46 AM on December 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think it would be helpful if you guys saw a counselor. One thing you want to work on is what expectations each of you have for each other's friendships with people who, if either of you were single, would be an appropriate match in terms of gender and sexuality (sounds like, in this case, his friendships with straight and bi women and your friendships with straight and bi men).

Because I am not such a fan of the whole "emotional affair" concept--I think it is often bandied around as an excuse to proscribe people having any friendships with people of their desired gender/sexuality cohort. Not saying that that's what's going on here, but I think it's something you want to explore with the counselor.

A marriage where you don't have any straight or bi male friends and he doesn't have any straight or bi female friends might be a marriage that feels strained or claustrophobic to either or both of you, so I really want to encourage you not to adopt that solution (which is one that is often recommended in magazine advice columns, etc.)

A better strategy is to explore, with the help of a counselor, what has made each of you uncomfortable about the relationships you each describe as "emotional affairs" now, and what kind of principles you want to lay out as you're going forward.

It's really okay to have guidelines about this stuff. There is a pretty toxic mythology that monogamy should just come easily, but I think it has to be negotiated with detailed agreements. When I find myself saying to my husband "You should have just known that that wouldn't be OK" it's a wake-up call that there is something I haven't been clear about.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:52 AM on December 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

From what you've said, it seems that neither of you is getting what you need or want from this relationship. He only admitted to this connection with the other woman when you found out about it, and only then in stages. You feel you can't trust him, and he's looking for emotional support elsewhere. If it were me, I would end the relationship.
posted by essexjan at 11:54 AM on December 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

He's afraid to tell you that he's talking to somebody, because you're that jealous of a person?

You've described in a negative matter throughout the question, even where it was completely irrelevant to the issue at hand.

"The thing is, I can't help but feel like one of those girls that says, 'Oh, but he's going to change.'"

This sentence is directly contrary to everything in the rest of your question, not to mention that asking somebody to fundamentally change their personality after a 6-year relationship is unusual and abusive.

Are you asking our permission to dump the guy? Go ahead --- you didn't mention a single positive attribute about him in the entire (quite long) question, which is usually a pretty big red flag when it comes to these things. You've already dumped him in your mind. Formalize it, and move on -- regardless of whose fault it was, it seems pretty clear that you're far beyond the point of no return. You're not doing anybody any favors by choosing to remain in a doomed relationship.

Next time around, you should probably set out your criteria for relationships a bit more clearly, and start holding yourself accountable to the same standards. Clearly, you do not want your partner to have any opposite-gender friends, which is something that he needs to know right from the start. You'll also want to explain to your partner what exactly constitutes an "emotional affair," given that most of us refer to this concept as "being friends."

DTMFA. For his sake.
posted by schmod at 11:56 AM on December 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

Your relationship with him sounds very unhealthy, since both of you (prior to even getting married) have been looking outside the relationship for companionship. You admit that you have sneaked around on him. What is so special about this relationship (given that it hasn't fulfilled either of you) that is worth preserving?

And frankly, a lot of the resolutions and goals you're describing sound like bullshit:

He says he genuinely wants to become a better, stronger person ...

Doesn't everyone?

I am obsessing about this other girl, and am absolutely sick with grief.

Does it temper your obsession or grief at all, to remember that you did the same thing to him?

I'm tempted to say "you deserve each other," but I really think you both should move on. This relationship isn't working for either of you, obviously.
posted by jayder at 11:57 AM on December 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

You've described in a negative manner

*You've described him in a negative manner

sorry. typo.
posted by schmod at 11:58 AM on December 29, 2010

It seems like you have a good handle on the underlying concern driving his actions ("abandonment issues"). What do you think is the underlying concern driving your reaction? Are you worried that you will lose him? Are you afraid that this means his feelings for you have changed?

I'd advise having a conversation with him that starts with your concerns -- not with a solution like "stop texting this person or we're through." Check to see if you understand correctly what his concerns are. Is he even aware of his need for external validation? Does he see this as an emotional affair or as something else? Does he feel bad because he thinks he did something wrong or because he see that you are hurt?

Then share your own concerns. Tell him why you are hurt, and the underlying feelings that have caused that hurt. Don't ask him do do any specific action yet -- If you care about each other and are both invested in the relationship, you should eventually be able to find a solution together that meets both of your concerns.

Point is, try to go deeper than this incident. Consider the texting thing a symptom of underlying problems that need to be addressed. Don't brush it off like it didn't happen, but don't treat it like its the problem by itself.
posted by cubby at 12:01 PM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's not clear to me that he's done anything wrong, and it's also not clear to me whether you even like him or not.

I think counselling is in order, if only to clarify your thinking. There seem to be a number of odd assumptions underlying your thinking, but it's hard to unpick what they are.
posted by tel3path at 12:02 PM on December 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

I've never once heard him admit these things about himself until now. He is finally admitting that he needs help and has already started trying to find a therapist. He said that this relationship was out of his need for attention and affection, and admits that he thinks he is addicted to validation, especially from women. He knows he will continue this pattern unless he addresses these issues with lots of therapy. He is 100% willing to go to couple's counseling, and says that he will work with me in whatever way I need him to. He says he genuinely wants to become a better, stronger person, and that he wants to be the type of person who "can be happy with the great life I already have" instead of this endless quest for affirmation.

The thing is, I can't help but feel like one of those girls that says, "Oh, but he's going to change."

He actually might change. People do, sometimes, especially people who want and are willing to. But it sounds like you're worried that if you give him the chance to, it'll stamp a big glowing 'IDIOT' on your forehead visible to everyone but you.

Nobody can tell whether or not the future's going to work out the way you'd like it to, but it really doesn't sound like you're a fool for even considering giving this a chance. Make your decision one about whether or not you want to give this another try, not whether or not you're gullible for considering it.
posted by Catseye at 12:03 PM on December 29, 2010 [5 favorites]

End it. He lied at length about something that, if it were innocent, he'd have no reason to lie about; so you know you can't really trust him. Plus you don't seem to respect him much, or desire him. Your description of his various qualifications sounds like you are making a case for him being "good on paper."

Also, if your description of his need for attention from random women is accurate, then therapy isn't going to change it. Therapy is not magic and it is way less fun than attention from random women.

(I know a guy like this well, and his wife has made her peace with it somehow, but his behavior vis a vis his female friends and coworkers is often bizarre and obvious even to casual observers. Can't imagine what it's like for her.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:08 PM on December 29, 2010

"For full disclosure, I also had an emotional affair with someone online about 2 years ago, which he found out about. At that time, we were both so intent on things going back to "normal" that we never really addressed the underlying issues."

That sticks out to me the most. So for two years you guys have been carrying on this relationship with unresolved issues related to infidelity? Was it forgiven, is he still angry about it, was it never fully discussed, etc? I think we need way more information about this bit of your history. It sounds very relevant to your current situation.

You are placing a lot of blame on him for what he did (and, I mean, yeah--it was a shitty thing to do) but it sounds like you did the exact same thing to him. So...there's not a lot of respect or trust going on here, on either side. You both went outside the bounds of the relationship for love or validation. Do you know why you did it?

All told, it sounds like it would take a tremendous amount of work to get this relationship to a good place, and that neither of you is committed enough to each other to do that work. It might be healthier for both of you to move on.
posted by tetralix at 12:18 PM on December 29, 2010

Mod note: This a followup from the asker.
My question was so long already that I've apparently left some important things out. First, I love my boyfriend very much. I didn't list all the positives because I thought the fact that we'd been together so long would let that go without saying. When things are good, they're really good, and there are PLENTY of things I love about him. I've considered proposing and I can honestly see myself spending the rest of my life with him. I can elaborate if anyone thinks it's relevant, but no, it's not all negative in my mind.

Secondly, we're pretty progressive and both have lots of friends of the opposite sex with whom we talk to and hang out with regularly. His closest friendships are always with women, and I am totally okay with that. Those of you who are saying that I obviously haven't been clear enough about my boundaries are absolutely right. But I think he knew he was crossing boundaries to have kept it from me. I am not so jealous that he hasn't told me about other female friends. I use the term "emotional affair" to mean a relationship in which one is giving/recieving the type of attention usually reserved for your partner, if you're monogamous.

As much as it hurts to hear, I do appreciate the honesty. I just wanted to add those things, because they were obviously unclear. I am also going to therapy myself to work on my own issues, so this is not something where I expect that it's his responsibility to "do the work," so to speak. We both obviously need to change, whether we stay together or not.

Thanks again for the advice. It all helps, even the things I don't want to hear.
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:24 PM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

You know what? I don't think this goes any deeper than that it is simply time for both of you to move on from this relationship.

Neither one of you is getting what you need, so at various times you are both seeking it outside. No amount of therapy or horse beating or bean plating is going to magically fulfill one or both of you. I don't know why folks are always so scared to take what they've learned and start over with someone new (especially when they are young) but you both seem like you are falling into that trap.

Just because someone is nice, or you've been together for X number of years, or you are mostly compatible, etc. etc. etc., it doesn't mean you must work things out with them. Sometimes the best answer is to move on amicably.

You should both move on amicably. I'm sure this relationship has been great for both of you. But now it is time to find someone that you know is the one for you. Your bf should move on and do the same, or work on his issues first, or do whatever it is he needs to do to get fulfillment. But you guys should move on from each other amicably.

The reason you need to move on isn't because of the emotional affairs, it's because they were necessary for both of you to have while you were living together. Do you see the difference? It's not about betrayal, it's about the two of you being not quite right for each other.

FWIW - I found this answer very harsh and off-base. No where in your question does it say you and current BF have forbid each other particular friends, or friends of any given gender. I think folks are reading that answer and ascribing things to your question that just aren't there.
posted by jbenben at 12:30 PM on December 29, 2010 [20 favorites]

I use the term "emotional affair" to mean a relationship in which one is giving/recieving the type of attention usually reserved for your partner, if you're monogamous.

You have to spell those things out. The "types of attention usually reserved for your partner" is a meaningless phrase. The only thing "monogamy" actually means as a word is "having one sexual/romantic partner." Everything beyond that is connotation, and everyone has a slightly different vision of what those connotations are.

You need to say what specific things bug you about this incident, and what specific "types of attention" you want him to reserve for you. Similarly, he needs to do the same.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:33 PM on December 29, 2010 [5 favorites]

My gut tells me your relationship has much larger problems than his texting a female friend. I will admit a generational/ethical/perhaps religious bias toward 6 year relationships that don't result in marriage seeming like a dead end to me. If neither of you want to get married, fine I guess, but my big question is - is this by mutual assent, or are one or both of you commitment phobic? That seems like a bigger issue to resolve than this "affair," which seems like a minor speedbump in the road of life.

About so-called "emotional affairs" - I'm sure they come in all shapes and sizes, just like full-blown sexual affairs, but I think among heteros our relationship with the opposite sex always divides into two camps:

- people we don't want to do: hopefully our own relatives, people we have no chemistry with, people whom we consider too old, too young, too ugly, or too impossibly attractive, people we either don't like or don't know very well, and sometimes (here's the tricky part) people we really like/love, but as William Gibson's Cayce Pollard says about a male friend: "the boy/girl lego just doesn't/didn't click"
- people we DO want to do. Regardless of opportunity, likelihood, or ethical dilemnas, someone who, when we meet, our reproductive bits become all sweaty and tingly.

Yeah, there's a little grey area, but usually people we know fall into one camp or the other, if we're really honest. The first type should be no issue in a committed relationship (at least sexually; your boyfriend's brother could take him deer hunting 7 days a week and you'd still get pissed eventually, but for different reasons); the latter type really want watching, and it's no good giving it a fancy name. An emotional affair worthy of the name generally is a sexual affair where the matter hasn't resolved yet.

Now, it can resolve by one or both parties deciding to act like grownups and not betray a higher-priority relationship, or it can resolve by the deed being done. It's up to those in the priority relationship, such as the marriage, to decide how honest they're going to be and what's going to be the outcome. But generally the thing to do, assuming we're not talking about poly relationships, is when you find yourself in one of these relationships you need to start avoiding contact with the 3rd party. Otherwise, let's face it, unresolved sexual tension is just going to wreak havoc

I speak from some experience. About ten years ago, which was about ten years into my marriage, I became friends with a woman, and became attracted to her. I never acted on it, but in all candor if she had been as attracted to me as I was to her, I probably would have had an affair. She was more the grownup in the situation than I was, and started avoiding me. To this day, I feel chagrin about how I acted, even though there was never physical contact beyond the kinds of hugs hello and goodbye that my wife and I share with others all the time. It really sucks when this starts happening in a relationship that might otherwise be perfectly fine, but it doesn't alter the fact that there's a limited number of ways it's going to end. You might as well complain about the ocean being salty. I should have severely limited my contact with her.

The fact that this happened to you should instruct you in how these things happen. It's not a Good Thing, and understandably it raises trust issues, but it doesn't automatically mean that he doesn't love you any more. Even total sexual affairs don't always mean that. What these kinds of things are are symptoms. It doesn't worry me so much that he became attached to this woman, it's how he handled it, both in terms of not breaking it off and a lack of honesty about it that worries me. That's what you've got to decide if it's worth working on.
posted by randomkeystrike at 12:36 PM on December 29, 2010 [12 favorites]

Being together forever is a long damn time. Sometimes shit happens during the course of it. It's really entirely up to you to decide what is and isn't a deal breaker. To me, none of this sounds so evil that there's an obvious right or wrong to be found.

Chuck the part where you're worried about being "one of those girls." Seriously, who cares? Anyone who does is seriously out of touch with the reality of life - that it is a lot less clear cut than any of us would like it to be. The inside of your relationship is no one's business but your own, and only you know what you would win or lose staying or going.

You seem willing to explore the situation a little while longer. You won't know if the relationship can be saved until you try to repair it. I say honor the six years you've spent together and see if it can be salvaged. Eventually you'll know the answer for yourself loud and clear.
posted by amycup at 12:44 PM on December 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

i was in a relationship where i was the jealous one. i was insane - checking up on him, berating him, getting angry if he "lied", getting angry if he told the truth. he was untrustworthy and i was untrusting. once, i caught him in a lie and in the middle of all the yelling he said "look, i just didn't want to deal with your reaction tonight." that relationship ended.

a few years later i was in a relationship with a jealous partner. we did not see eye to eye on friends, on maintaining connections to exes, on when hugs were appropriate, on keeping mementos of our past - really, we fundamentally disagreed on every single point related to monogamy. he walked into a room where i was hugging a good friend who was having a terrible night - he flipped out. a friend made a saucy joke about my low cut top - he flipped out. i would mention an ex in passing - he flipped out. so, i stopped mentioning, stopped telling, stopped sharing. our communication lines were destroyed. we couldn't trust that the other would see us in our best light. we couldn't trust anything, really. and that relationship ended.

i learned that sometimes one partner lies because the other is so insecure and so sure it's all about to end that they fight like it's the last fight every single time. sometimes the standards one partner holds aren't the same as the other and instead of learning how to bring those in line, one pretends to become more accepting while resenting it the whole time and the other pretends to become more devoted and again resents it the whole time.

if you want to fix this relationship, you're gonna have to pull the rug all the way back to your emotional affair. you're going to have to face up and take blame and talk candidly about what drove you there, what you felt during it, and how your guilt is informing your reaction to him. this problem is so nested and hidden that i think you're either in "get a couple's counselor" or "get out" territory.

as an aside - now i'm in a relationship where no topics are forbidden, no pasts are shameful, no secrets are kept. it's wonderful to feel free and secure and loved. i would have never been able to even conceptualize this amount of happiness from my previous relationships. i didn't think it could be this easy and encouraging and wonderful. it's hard to convince someone that's never had it, but it's utterly true - you don't have to settle and neither does he.
posted by nadawi at 12:55 PM on December 29, 2010 [8 favorites]

To my ear, this set of problems suggests that neither of you is especially good at being in a committed relationship. I know from experience that it's absolutely possible to learn to be better at this stuff, if one cares to learn. I have no idea whether you or your boyfriend cares to learn. I suggest you trust but verify. 'Already starting to look for a therapist' buys him maybe a week. If he hasn't made an appointment in that time, he's not really looking. Stick with it as long as you see steady improvement in your relationship. If he balks, make other plans.
posted by jon1270 at 1:00 PM on December 29, 2010

Of course the relationship is salvageable. The question should be whether you want to do the work to salvage it.

I affirm your feelings of being cheated. Emotional affairs are real affairs. They take a lot of work to heal. There are breaches of trust, of course, to work through. But underlying issues of communication and intimacy in relationships that lead to these affairs are the sources of the real work that has to be done. Yes, you will have to get to a place where you can examine your role in this too, and that's a tough thing to do when you are hurt and angry.

Research shows that committed relationships that heal from infidelity tend to come though stronger and happier -- if they do the work. Is that what you want? Are you willing?

Also think about this -- the kinds of skills you would need to learn to heal a wounded relationship are the kind that make you a better, happier person in the long run. Life requires healing.
posted by cross_impact at 1:02 PM on December 29, 2010

You are both young and have much to discover in the world. At some point you will come to understand what is important to you above all else. Until then, base your decision on what "sarastro" suggested or you can ask yourself, does being with him enhance my life or make it harder? Either way you should be able to figure it out. My mother always taught me that if you look hard enough for a hair in the egg, you will always find one. Perhaps you are looking for reasons to shake things up a bit.....?
posted by DeniseH at 1:03 PM on December 29, 2010

He's betrayed my trust in the past (never anything this serious) but I've never once heard him admit these things about himself until now. He is finally admitting that he needs help and has already started trying to find a therapist. He said that this relationship was out of his need for attention and affection, and admits that he thinks he is addicted to validation, especially from women. He knows he will continue this pattern unless he addresses these issues with lots of therapy. He is 100% willing to go to couple's counseling, and says that he will work with me in whatever way I need him to. He says he genuinely wants to become a better, stronger person, and that he wants to be the type of person who "can be happy with the great life I already have" instead of this endless quest for affirmation.

I don't think you'd be stupid for believing him. I find the bolded parts very persuasive. People do change, and a process like this is how it happens. Sure, he could be lying, but you -- who know him well and are surely in a skeptical mood -- nevertheless believe that his statements are genuine. And sure, he could try to change and then fail. That is a risk that you'd be accepting. But people do make mistakes and then learn to avoid them in the future, by examining the deep causes within oneself and then working to address that. So I don't think you need to second-guess yourself out of fear of being "a total idiot." Have faith in your own judgment.

Of course, as nobody can see the future, you have to make a guess here based on the information available. When I'm in situations like this, I accept that I really don't know the outcome and pre-forgive myself if I turn out to be wrong. And I ask myself "if I'm making a mistake here, would I feel better if I erred on the side of A or B? If I did Option 1 and I was wrong, what would that be like? If I did Option 2 and I was wrong, what would that be like?"

But your fundamental question seems to be "am I totally an idiot for thinking someone can change?" and I'd say, on an issue like this, with him doing the kind of self-analysis he's done and making a commitment to get help, that no, you would not be an idiot; there is a chance that his approach might work.
posted by salvia at 1:16 PM on December 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think it takes a special type of person to deal with a secretive partner who may or may not sleep with others at conventions, perhaps one who could sort of mild-mannerly ignore it as long as he uses protection and always comes back to you, or someone who also does it. Secretive people want your blind trust so they have more control and flexibility over everything.

I don't think you are that sort of person. I think you would be better off with a warm open committed partner.
posted by meepmeow at 1:18 PM on December 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

With your response, and your question, frankly, it doesn't sound like you want to end it. Doesn't sound like he does either. I've said it before, but like - sometimes I wonder what sort of perfection people have (or are searching for...) in a relationship who always jump to the DTMFA thing. I mean, people live long lives these days, and the possibility of being with your SO for 60+ years - and in that time there's going to be a lot of problems, issues with straying a little or a lot, change. I mean, you wonder if he might change? Oh, you'll both change; that's without doubt. How will you change? That's something you can sort of steer. To me the crux of this whole issue is this:

we are both very insecure people

Insecurity breeds jealousy which begets all sorts of relationship problems - hiding, lying, shame, resentment - and these things will quickly destroy even the most solid relationships. I think working out your own individual insecurity issues is the first and primary step to rebuilding your relationship. Therapy will help. Letting yourself be secure will also help. Yes, you have to let yourself.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:21 PM on December 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

By the way, I think the whole thing would be most successful if you take him up on the offer to go to couples therapy together, in addition to his individual therapy, if you guys can afford it. You speak to some chronic relationship issues, and addressing those while he's also addressing what made him want to cheat will cover all your bases.
posted by salvia at 1:21 PM on December 29, 2010

a question i have - did you change after your emotional affair? did you go to counseling? did you do any of the steps he's taking now?

i guess i'm wondering - if you did change and recommit to the relationship - therefor proving it can be done - why do you trust so little that he can do it? or - is that you didn't change and so you don't think he will either?

i don't mean to be harsh - but i really think if you want to fix this - you have to look at your emotional affair and come at this with a "we both messed up and here's why and here's how we're going to fix it" instead of "you fucked up, now prove to me that i should stay."
posted by nadawi at 1:22 PM on December 29, 2010 [6 favorites]

You have no way of knowing what will happen years down the road, period. People mess up, in big and small ways, and you don't get a guarantee no matter what.

This isn't the worst set of circumstances I've ever heard, and if you were my friend I'd probably tell you that you and he need to get all of this out on the table now and work through all of your issues. It sounds like you both want to, and after six years I think it's reasonable to give it a try if you are both willing.

It is worth couples counseling if you both feel like it is, which is a backwards way of saying again that you two are going to have to commit to working it out. You're going to have to be willing to be ready to move on from the fallout from this emotional affair though - so work out whatever you need to work out because you can't let that linger while you try to heal the relationship.

My gut says that you guys need to be done - your issue two years ago, his issue lasting six months/with a meetup at a convention/with the lying when confronted - there's a lot to unravel there. I am inclined to think that he knows he is in big, big trouble and is trying to backpedal, especially since he knows that couple counseling will be a stretch affordability wise. But honestly, I don't know a damn thing, your judgment would presumably be better than mine.
posted by mrs. taters at 1:29 PM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Honestly, this sounds like what it probably is - a relationship spawned when you were both young and immature, still grounded in those patterns, mindsets and insecurities. The traits you describe yourselves as having - his need for validation, your jealousy - seem to be a part of that and I suspect will be impossible to change with the partners you have now.

Is the person you are in this relationship who you want to be? Because honestly, forever is a really long time and it just shouldn't be this fraught with recurring drama.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:18 PM on December 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

Couples counseling isn't just about working things out. You might choose to have a few sessions to figure out exactly whether the relationship is salvageable, and whether you truly want to salvage it.
posted by lollusc at 4:17 PM on December 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

In describing your past emotional affair, you implied that the reason for it was an "underlying issue" that you felt needed to be addressed. In your boyfriend's emotional affair, you seem to believe that there is no underlying issue but rather a flaw in your boyfriend. This seems to give the message that you feel your past actions were justified, which could definitely breed resentment in a person too insecure to leave you the first time. Could this be as simple as his acting out to "get even", or at least acting in such a way that was previously validated by your failure to accept responsibility?

I guess I am at a loss at how you can doubt that a person has the ability to change when this exact situation has happened in your relationship before. Did you change? If so, why would it be silly for you to believe that he could? If you didn't change, why should the impetus be on him to do so?
posted by Willie0248 at 4:28 PM on December 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think people are being too hasty with the DTMFA here. We live in a throwaway culture which is unforgiving of human flaws, and this is often reflected in AskMe relationship questions when people are told to just dump someone if they're not happy.

Long-term relationships have their ups and downs and people have their flaws. You can't expect to be happy all the time. I think in your case you guys aren't ready to decide whether this is over or not and professional help is in order.

First, try counseling. Make sure it is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). If money's a problem, try finding an intern/pre-licensed counselor. They charge less but are often just as good as more experienced counselors. And read the book Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson. The above link will give you info on counselors in your area and the book.

After about six months, re-evaluate the relationship. You'll probably have a lot clarified by then. And you'll know whether your bf means all the things he's saying, and/or whether you are being more jealous than is warranted.
posted by xenophile at 4:38 PM on December 29, 2010 [5 favorites]

6 years is a make or break period.

I'd say give him another chance... try it work it out, and in 4-6 months time if it's not working, move on.
posted by wtfomghilol at 5:10 PM on December 29, 2010

There are both individual and couples issues at play here, as there always are in relationship problems. Each partners' individual insecurities wrap around each other and create a couple with all kinds of unspoken rules. Everything's basically fine until a boundary is crossed and then there's this crisis which brings up all these questions about staying together or not. These crises are an essential part of these relationships and provide their best opportunities for growth, if people can deal with the anxiety of not knowing whether they should stay together or not.

My advice would be to allow yourself to not know if the relationship is going to survive or not. It's nice to have hope, so have it, if you can find any. But at this point, you don't know whether you will choose to be with this person or not. That's ok - don't feel the need to resolve that uncertainty too quickly. Give yourself (and each other) the time you need to figure it out.

It sounds to me that couples counseling is a really important first step toward resolving your questions here. As mentioned above, you don't have to commit to the relationship before the counseling begins. Use the counseling as an opportunity to figure out whether you want to stay together or not.

Just make sure you get someone who has actually been trained in couples counseling, and who works with couples as a reasonably large part of their practice. Some therapists do lots of individual therapy and think that they can do couples work because they took a class a while ago. Couples work is quite different than individual therapy - you may decide to do both, but it sounds to me that starting with a few couples session around the question of whether you want to stay together or not could be immensely helpful.
posted by jasper411 at 5:26 PM on December 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'm writing this as a person who left a 6-year relationship, after 6 years of little mutual trust, repeated violations of trust on both our parts, and persistent thoughts of "but... he might change..."

I think it can be very easy to fall into thinking that because you care about another person a lot, you should stay together in a relationship. You can still care about him, love him, very much--and recognize that the relationship isn't working.

It's ok to step outside of "but I love him very much" and look objectively at what is going on, the ways you are treating one another, and assess that it's just plain not working. Life is far, far, far too short to spend six more years feeling like you can't trust someone who breaks your trust, and breaking the trust of someone who doesn't trust you. Either this is the time to radically change the foundations of this relationship together--with strong and fully-willing efforts from both of you, or it's time to leave it and move on so that you can both create healthy, trusting bonds with other people. "Because I love you [with the expectation that you'll change]" isn't quite enough glue to keep the thing stuck together.
posted by so_gracefully at 5:40 PM on December 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Make sure it is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT).

There are lots of good modalities of, and approaches to, couples counseling. It's great for people to share their good experiences of one modality or approach, but the whole ACCEPT NO SUBSTITUTES business is counterproductive imo.

On the other hand, a million "agree!"s to jasper411's point that, whichever modality (-ies) and approach (es) the counselor you choose to work with uses, the most important thing is that they have experience and training specifically in couples counseling.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:57 PM on December 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have two married friends whose relationships have withstood actual sexual infidelity. One was an affair that continued emotionally long after the sexual part was broken off. The other was serial infidelity.

It's NOT easy to rebuild. And there is no way for any of us to tell you if it will work out in the long run. But certainly, if you love him and he loves you, you both want to try, and you are both willing to go to counseling, you should do it. It is not foolish to try; it's forgiving and mature.

I agree with jasper411 that you will have to allow yourself not to know whether this will work out or not. Neither of my friends went back to their relationships dead-set on making them work whatever the cost; that's not healthy. They did go back, wary and hurt, and just did what they had to do day-to-day (lots of communication, first and foremost) to give their marriages a second chance. Both are happy today, several years later (though, again, we can't know the future).

And yes, as some posters upthread have suggested, you'll need to get a better understanding of what you yourself did to contribute to the weakening of the relationship. Not that you accept responsibility for his affair (that is all his), but that you understand clearly the "underlying factors" that have led both of you to be dissatisfied so that you can both work on them.

Best of luck to you.
posted by torticat at 7:10 PM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

He has some pretty serious issues he needs to work on. It may take him months, maybe years, to change. Are you willing to wait for him?
posted by joeyjoejoejr at 8:21 PM on December 29, 2010

I don't have an answer about the overall question (Can we make this work?), but I will cherrypick one aspect of your post to comment on, since I do have an opinion about this: Before this, things had become sort of stagnant and I was in this "break up or get married" mindset where I felt like we either needed to step up or move on.

It seems that this is not an uncommon feeling for people to have, but I don't understand the "get married" part at all. To me it's like saying ''Things are really not going so great between the two of us, so maybe we should get married." In my experience marriage does not instill any new feelings or level of commitment or security that were failing or lacking before marriage, other than perhaps for a temporary romantic "high" period related to the focus on couplehood.

I believe in marriage, and I believe in "thick or thin," but I also feel very strongly that when things are thin already, marriage won't change that. I've been with my partner/husband for 20 years, 13 years married, and the marriage was only a confirmation that our relationship was already a life commitment (in fact, stellar procrastinators that we are, and childless, I wonder if we would have even ever bothered if we hadn't needed to for immigration reasons; in our hearts and minds, we already were married). Before this marriage, though, I was married before, in my early 20s, in a situation where things were not going so great, and my partner really wanted to get married ... to lock us in, I think, or "step it up." Out of fear over the downward trend. And that was a mistake.
posted by taz at 2:36 AM on December 30, 2010 [6 favorites]

I'll be inhuman for a second and talk about your relationship as if it's a business: you've made a significant investment in it. Do you really want to just give up on it? I am NOT in any way saying that you should stay together. What I'm saying is that you don't yet have the data you need to make that decision. It's like you're working for a company that's not making money, and though you know a guy who can sometimes help companies that are in trouble, you're not hiring him. Instead, you're saying, "Maybe we should just cut our losses and go out of business." Why not at least talk to the guy, first?

I think I know why. Going to couples counseling seems like a choice to continue with the relationship. And people often frame it that way: "Do you want to break up, or are you willing to work on it with me in therapy?" But counseling doesn't mean committing to the relationship. It just means committing to counseling. IN counseling, you'll discover whether the relationship can work or not. In your shoes, having made the investment you've made, I would at least give counseling a shot.

He knows he will continue this pattern unless he addresses these issues with lots of therapy. He is 100% willing to go to couple's counseling, and says that he will work with me in whatever way I need him to. He says he genuinely wants to become a better, stronger person

IF that is true, it's FANTASTIC. Most longterm relationships hit speed-bumps at some point. So, to me, the issue isn't "should I be in a relationship that has problems?" because if the answer is no, I probably won't ever be in any relationship. Rather, the question is, "should I be in a relationship with this guy who SAYS he's willing to work hard on the relationship?" For me, the answer -- given the love that you two have for each other -- is "Yes, IF he's (a)telling the truth and (b)really does the work!"

And you're not in a great position to judge his intentions or his follow-through. Well, you CAN'T judge his follow-through if you don't give him a chance to follow through. A good counselor (a neutral observer) is in a better position to call him (and you) on bullshit and to determine whether you and he are really working to safe the relationship.

I'd say that IF he does the work -- and proves that his vow was an honest one -- you'll wind up with a better partner than many other people have. To me, that would be worth the risk of getting burned after sticking it out, in therapy, a little bit longer.

We are broke, so couples counseling is a big decision

That is a non-issue. I feel bad about saying that to someone who is broke, because I know how scary it is to worry about money. But you clearly can (somehow) afford it, or you wouldn't even bring the option up. Instead, your question would be "My boyfriend and I can't afford counseling, but we need help because..." So I'm assuming this would be a hardship but not an impossibleship.

Now, I can totally imagine saying, "You know, I just don't trust the guy. I'm not going to bother with counseling. I'm just going to break up with him." But I can't imagine saying, "I'm on the fence. Maybe I'll be able to trust him eventually; maybe I won't. But I'll need counseling to figure that out, and that's too expensive for me." NOT in a six-year relationship! That's like saying, "It's going to be expensive to have my broken arm fixed, so I'm not going to bother." Sell your laptop (or whatever) and go to counseling. It's that important. Or don't. But don't choose not to go because its too expensive.

Does this sound like a salvageable relationship?

I know of plenty of relationships like this that have been salvaged. In my experience, they are the norm. So, yes, it's definitely possible -- with work. There are no guarantees.

Any tips on dealing with that are also appreciated.

YOU need counseling, whether you break up with him or not. You need someone to talk to about this, and while friends will be helpful, they probably won't be enough. Friends tend to either be willing to listen at first but, after a while, get sick of it, or they never call you on your bullshit. You need to work through this so that you can have a good, trusting relationship again, either with this guy or with someone else.

Good luck!
posted by grumblebee at 6:57 AM on December 30, 2010

Since you both had emotional affairs, I'd like to at least raise, for your consideration, the possibility that 100% emotional monogamy isn't for the two of you. Nobody can answer this but you, but is it possible that the two of you are just wired in a way that you can't get all your emotional needs met by one person? After all, an emotional affair is a violation and a betrayal of trust, unless you agree on ground rules for a certain level of emotional openness, in which case it's not a betrayal of anything. I'm not even suggesting full-blown polyamory here, just that you entertain the idea that, rather than view this sort of thing as a fatal threat to your relationship, you can build it in to the structure of your relationship.
posted by Ragged Richard at 6:58 AM on December 30, 2010

Speaking for myself, I found honesty in others when I became honest. It took me a long time and work on myself to learn what honesty even was. I'm not referring to cash register honesty, I mean the kind of honesty where my partner asks how I feel about something and I don't say what I think he wants to hear. I used to keep things to myself a lot, thinking I was protecting myself, protecting others etc etc but really I was truly just afraid of the consequences of being honest. Strangely, in doing this work on myself, any jealousies dissipated as well. My suggestion is to take care of yourself, focus on you, and the rest will fall into place.
posted by heatherly at 10:45 AM on December 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Mod note: This is another followup from the asker.
I just wanted to come back to thank everyone who has left comments and favorited comments. This thread has been immensely helpful in ways I really didn't expect it to be. Honestly (and I think this comes through in the way I worded the original question) I wrote it mostly to do something constructive with all the confusion and pain. Despite the fact that it was pretty muddled, you guys have picked up on so many issues that are really spot-on. I wish I could favorite comments and reply to every person individually.

I wanted everyone to know that my boyfriend and I have both been reading the thread and talking about the comments together. It's been so helpful, even the replies that sting. He's already contacted a therapist, I've contacted my old therapist, and we're looking for a couples counselor. I really like the idea of going into counseling to figure out whether or not we should stay together, instead of committing right away to working it out. And I'm taking full responsibility for my past affair, and the ways in which I've contributed to the problems in our relationship (lest anyone think I've placed the burden of fixing things onto him).

You've given us things to think about that I'm not sure would have been addressed if I hadn't asked this question. So again, a gigantic "Thank you" to all of you who've taken the time to help us out with this.
posted by cortex (staff) at 3:06 PM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

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