How to tell my longterm boyfriend I've been having an emotional affair?
March 11, 2011 12:35 PM   Subscribe

I've gotten myself in a relationship pickle involving my long-term boyfriend who doesn't know about my long-distance mutual feelings for a good friend. We live in a developing country so no therapist/couples counseling available and uprooting the relationship (aside from not being what I want) is logistically very hard (but of course it always is.) How to come clean and recommit to boyfriend but also be allowed to keep in touch with new friend?

Ok, the particulars, then the questions:
I have been with BF for almost 5 years now. We are a great team, we've been through the threat of serious illness, several moves, different jobs together but still I am not without my doubts about our sustainability/am often afraid we're just in it because who ends a five year relationship for no reason? Like I said, we live in a developing country so professional, unbiased help is not an option.

I am currently racked with guilt and uncertainty because for the past 6 months or so, I have been carrying on basically an emotional affair with a friend from home. The last time I was home, I was working in a remote-ish field setting with a close knit group of coworkers (spending 6+ months together). One man (who was also doing a temporary long-distance thing with his SO) and I struck up a really close bond. Neither of us admitted it was more than that until a day or two before our project was over and the team was set to go their separate ways. We "told" eachother by ending up in a dawn, post-camping make-out session which was passionate but didn't go beyond kissing and holding. We went our separate ways but processed what happened on the phone later. We were both happy about what happened and he didn't see our remaining in touch and being "in love with each other" as a threat to HIS relationship because he and his lady have a sort of open, non-traditional philosophy (they're still together.)

Anyway, since then I've been back abroad with my mate but I've never managed to tell him about what happened and I feel like a dirty cheater. I've also been keeping in touch with #2, the connection is still there and we both hope to meet again. I think about him a lot, I fantasize about him sexually (though we don't talk about this) and he has invited me to visit him though never pressures me. So, yeah, I love him, he is unlike anyone I've ever known and hate the thought of him not being in my life but I'm not being fair to anyone by keeping it a secret. Of course, I'm sure the escapist appeal of this emotional affair is strong too.

I used to think that what I needed to do was broach the subject of polyamory with my longterm boyfriend so that I would be allowed to love both him and the lover with no consequences. I've read this question and agree with the general assessment. I don't really think I'm deep down poly but I have often wondered about my ability to settle down with one person for my whole life and I don't think I'm going to just stop falling in love with people at some point down the line. I want to continue being in a relationship and living together and work this out and close the distance I have helped create. Obviously, though, I understand splitting up may be a result of my coming clean.

So, I'm sorry for rambling, but I have no one in my life I can process this with.
Bottom line: I have realized (I think) that I need to lay this all out with the longterm boyfriend if we're going to keep going. I'm terrified of his reaction and the hurt it might cause. We're not the best communicators, I'm afraid of him shutting me out and me making unreasonable promises to get him back. I also realize I need to at least temporarily cut off contact with #2 but I would like to be able to communicate with him as openly as I want and maybe see him in the future.

Sooooo, questions:
Any good resources besides MeFi for processing this sort of subject matter online with peers or a venue for receiving professional long-distance advice/therapy/counseling?
Any advice on how to broach this with the longterm boyfriend? How do I fix this?
And sadly, do you have any logistical splitting advice? I know you just have to figure this sort of thing out on your own when it happens, but how do you split up in this sort of situation, I can't really even move out and won't be able to leave the small community we live in for months (nor do I really want to)?

Throwaway email at:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

I have been carrying on basically an emotional affair with a friend from home

ending up in a dawn, post-camping make-out session which was passionate but didn't go beyond kissing and holding

i think the first thing you have to do is actually accept responsibility personally before you can bring this out into the open. it is an emotional and physical affair. you didn't "end up there," you made concrete choices that led to you cheating on your boyfriend and are continuing those choices to keep cheating on your boyfriend. come to grips with that first.

secondly, you can't manage your boyfriend's reaction. you can't tell him how to feel. he will feel how he feels and then you have to come together and decide what happens next.

it's not impossible, but i do think it's unlikely that you'll be able to keep both of these men in your life in an open an honest way. it might help the situation along if you decide first which one wins in a tug of war.
posted by nadawi at 12:50 PM on March 11, 2011 [28 favorites]

A. We're not the best communicators, I'm afraid of him shutting me out and me making unreasonable promises to get him back.

B. I also realize I need to at least temporarily cut off contact with #2 but I would like to be able to communicate with him as openly as I want and maybe see him in the future.

See how you're already contradicting yourself? Sure, you're kind of winding down with the long-term boyfriend and excited by the other person, but come on! This isn't fair. You already know that your communication skills aren't super with one person, so why transfer them to another, particularly amidst this angst? (Yeah, you may be talking about deep conversations with one person and "hi, how are you" e-mails with another, but communication is communication.)

This is how cheating (or an unhealthy poly relationship) starts -- you give up the energy you'd normally use for your partner, to whom you've made a commitment in one way or another, and spend it on someone else. Lord knows that everybody gets bored, but that transfer of energy, affection, whatever is soooo not okay -- not for your existing partner, not for you.

Let's revisit this statement again:
I would like to be able to communicate with him as openly as I want

That would be nice, wouldn't it? NO. You've already gotten into this mess by following what you want instead of a) what you need or b) what other people might want or need.

It sounds like you're in a difficult life situation right now, what with being far from home and without a lot of the resources you might otherwise use for support. From your brief history up at the top, it looks like you've gone through a lot in the last few years. I can imagine that any kind of comfort might be nice right now.

But from the rest of the post -- advice for splitting up, etc. -- it seems like you know the right thing to do, and what's leading you there.

You can't be a good partner until you're okay with yourself. You certainly can't be a good partner to more than one person if your commitment to the first person is in danger. You can't begin a monogamous relationship with someone else until you've made peace with the first relationship and its effects, either.

It'll suck, and I'm sorry, but you need to be honest with yourself so you can respect yourself the next day.
posted by Madamina at 12:54 PM on March 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Regret to inform, Anon, but the two things I'd suggest you do are two things which you specifically mentioned (or alluded to) NOT wanting to do.

- You need to break off all contact with Emotional Affair Man. Right now. Being in contact with him in ANY way is like shaking a soda can... you know you shouldn't, you think you'll be able to resist... but you won't, and it's only a matter of time before the situation explodes and douses everything in sticky horribleness.

- Depending on your relationship, I'd probably advise NOT telling your boyfriend. Me? I'd tell my boyfriend. But we maintain an almost-creepy level of total honesty (which honestly wouldn't be advisable for most people). In the vast majority of cases, the whole coming-clean-to-the-cuckolded-partner routine serves ONLY to unburden the cheater. It's for your benefit, not his, not both-of-yours. You want to feel better about the situation. You want closure. And you can have that... but it shouldn't be at your boyfriend's expense, dude.

Sorry if this sounded harsh. I've grappled with similar issues myself. The whole "wanting to keep in touch with the new friend" thing made my heart ache a little... I've done that, too - and it only served to make a messy, destructive situation messier and more destructive. Cut it off NOW, no matter how painful.
posted by julthumbscrew at 12:55 PM on March 11, 2011 [9 favorites]

Look at it this way:

Even if you do have this lengthy conversation with your boyfriend about Having An Open Relationship and hammering all that out, and even if he thinks about it and then agrees to it, you're STILL going to have to tell him, "well, great, but there's one thing....I kind of started something like this up before you and I talked about this." And that's kind of not cool.

You may need to give serious thought to whether you really are poly, or whether you're just trying to get away with this scenario. (I'm desperately trying to think of a less-harsh way to say that, but I'm afraid I'm coming up short.) And...being able to "come clean and recommit to boyfriend but also be allowed to keep in touch with new friend" may just plain not be something you can do.

Again, I'm trying not to sound way harsh with this. But I urge a sort of examination-of-conscience here, to help you sort out what's at the root of your playing around with this other guy; is it because you think you may be poly, really? Or something about your relationship with your boyfriend that's subconsicously always bugged you? or...Or....or...? Because once you figure that out, it'll help you cut through the paralysis you're feeling now and start figuring out how to broach this with your boyfriend -- because you'll know exactly what to tell him.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:58 PM on March 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is all you, you, you, and nothing about the needs of the partner of five years that you are cheating on with long distance dude. This should give you a clue about where you're placing him on your priority list. If you really don't care about what he needs, just move the hell on.
posted by crankylex at 1:00 PM on March 11, 2011 [17 favorites]

This isn't really a choice between the two of them. It's the choice between staying with your current boyfriend or not.

Even if you break up with your boyfriend and decide you want to be with this other dude, that doesn't mean you'll get that. Especially with the "open relationship" talk, which is a bit of a red flag in my opinion. This other guy doesn't seem to be saying that he wants to be with you, just that his girlfriend doesn't care if he gets something on the side.

So... do you want to be with your boyfriend or not?
posted by Sara C. at 1:00 PM on March 11, 2011 [14 favorites]

Are you able to get books from Amazon where you are?

I recommend these:

The first one is more of a "how to" than the second one.

I really support your decision to get honest with your boyfriend, regardless of what the outcome might be. Depending on both of you and your feelings for one another, things could go a variety of directions. The conversation might expose un-talked about (even un-thought about) issues in the relationship that could be resolvable or could be reasons for moving on. Breaking up is one possible outcome, but a deeper, more satisfying relationship is another.

Good luck.
posted by buddylove at 1:03 PM on March 11, 2011

he and his lady have a sort of open, non-traditional philosophy

Real quick I just want to say: he should know better than to encourage you to twist the rules of your own relationship. Polyamorous people can sometimes be a little cavalier about assuming what strains other people (and their relationships) can and can't bear. Being "open" is not the same as "doing whatever you want."

As for your questions, I think that if you break up without moving out, you are going to both be in a world of hurt. You are both going to feel sad and you both deserve the privacy to deal with that on your own, otherwise you're probably just going to swelter and pick at each other and grow more confused. People who are very close are susceptible to each other's moods and patterns, so you'll be hampering each other's growth at a time when that growth requires the most effort and concentration.

You need to make a better case for why you "can't really even move out." It would be expensive? Inconvenient? Unsafe? Tell us. Because really, sometimes things are just tough, and you have to bite the bullet and make an unfortunate sacrifice, even if it means changing your plans or your standard of living. That's what happens when committed long-term relationships end, and yours probably won't be any different.

I heard a saying, that goes something like, "When your car breaks down, you can either get out and push, or you can sit there fretting and complaining and THEN get out and push." Most of the people I have known who lived together for a significant time after breaking up fell into this latter category -- they wound up having to make the same hard choices and painful sacrifices that they'd been hoping to avoid, but also won a few extra months of total misery in the bargain.
posted by hermitosis at 1:05 PM on March 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

I would suggest that this is a false choice because of the *dynamics* of the situation. The other person is far away, and you have no real understanding about what it would be like with that person day to day.

This isn't really a choice between the two of them. It's the choice between staying with your current boyfriend or not.

Sara C. is right.

I would also suggest (from painful experience) that if you pursue the person you are not with right now, you would likely end up with neither of them. Which (again from my experience) might be one of the best things that has ever happened to you.
posted by Danf at 1:09 PM on March 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would avoid speculating further about poly relationships, anonymous.

Initiating a polyamorous relationship is trying during the best of times. It's something a couple should decide on together because it's what they both want, ideally during a time when nothing is seriously broken.

Increasingly people use this as a last-ditch effort to try and make up for something they're already missing, and that's not really fair to the open-minded people out there who are actually interested in the real principles of polyamory.
posted by hermitosis at 1:15 PM on March 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

You say you don't really want to be in a polyamorous relationship. So work on being with your boyfriend. Get 100% over New Guy and then tell your boyfriend what happened.

Do not let the new person be your excuse for breaking up and moving out. That isn't fair to you, it isn't fair to your boyfriend, and it isn't fair to New Guy. If you need to break up and move out, then do it. After you're over your boyfriend, then you can consider pursuing New Guy. Keep in mind that New Guy is not monogamous. Since it sounds like you tend toward serial monogamy, keep in mind that if I read things right, New Guy is probably not about to break off his current relationship to be with you, so you'd have to be ok with that.

It sounds like you might be somewhere where you haven't really established a community of friends and hobbies for yourself yet. If this is the case, work on being where you are. Focus your energies where you are and you'll probably enjoy life a whole lot more.
posted by aniola at 1:17 PM on March 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Addendum to the second paragraph: If you need to move out, you'll be able to figure out the logistics.
The second paragraph stands on its own, and the first and third paragraphs share a common theme.
posted by aniola at 1:21 PM on March 11, 2011

I personally think you have to decide whether you want boyfriend or Other Dude. Hands down, that's it. Then proceed.

Keep the boyfriend? Come clean, tell him in specific terms how you'd like to move forward. Give him time to process, and then see how he'd like to proceed—if at all.

Go for Other Dude? Well, where there's a will, there's a way. It'll be tough/expensive/stressful/whatever, but if this what you want for your life, then it's your life.

But I think there's a third option. If you don't want to be with boyfriend, then don't. If Other Dude turns back up, cool. But you CAN just do your thing and live your life happily solo for a while.
posted by functionequalsform at 1:42 PM on March 11, 2011

I think polyamory is something you have to start a relationship with, not throw out there after you've already cheated on your boyfriend (I'd say most people consider making out and holding cheating, if it wasn't, you wouldn't have to hide it from him). You can't go 5 years of monogamy and be like "no, actually, I'm poly and I think we should try that."
I think you need to tell your boyfriend. If he ever finds out, the longer you wait to tell him, the worse it will be. If you break up, you need to move out. Don't stay with you boyfriend just because you live in a place where it's inconvenient to be single or live alone. That's really, really unfair to him and is just wasting his time.
posted by elpea at 1:51 PM on March 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

I agree with almost everything everyone else has said, with the exception of any advice that might be intended to encourage you to solve this by becoming polyamorous. I don't know much about polyamory, but I'm pretty sure the right way to do it is not by confessing an affair to your boyfriend with whom you've been in an exclusive relationship (er, what-was-supposed-to-be-an-exclusive-relationship) for 5 years, when your real goal would be redemption and/or rationalization.

As functionequalsform says, the first thing you have to do is: decide. Yes, I know it's hard. But you have to do it. Decide. Do you want to be with your boyfriend? Or do you want to leave your boyfriend and have some possible chance (far from a certainty) of continuing things with the other guy? That is the overarching question that you have to answer.

As the first comment said, this isn't a merely "emotional" affair; it's an emotional and physical affair (a.k.a. an affair). Needless to say, you can assume your boyfriend would be extremely unhappy to hear about it.

If you do want to stay with your boyfriend, what do you think would be the most effective way of staying together: not revealing what you've told us, or revealing what you've told us? I'll leave that question for you to answer.
posted by John Cohen at 1:55 PM on March 11, 2011

How to come clean and recommit to boyfriend but also be allowed to keep in touch with new friend?

You can't have it both ways. You need to accept that. You might as well ask how you can eat tons of chocolate but not absorb any calories.

Also, this isn't an emotional affair; you crossed the line into physical territory. If you want to keep your relationship (it doesn't seem like you actually want to) then you need to cut off all contact with the other person for as long as you are in this relationship.
posted by spaltavian at 1:58 PM on March 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

something something cake something eat it too.

It just won't work. You need to make an adult decision. I hope you make the right one.
posted by tomswift at 2:14 PM on March 11, 2011 [9 favorites]

As I see it you have two choices:

1.) Stop talking to this dude completely. Accept that you're not able to be normal friends with him and you need to recommit to your current relationship. Don't tell your boyfriend about your infidelity. Only do this if you believe that you will really do this completely. Even a 2% lapse makes you a cheater.

2.) Break up with your current boyfriend and leave everything else in your life the same. You're off into the great wide open to enjoy your life, and your boyfriend is free to find a mate who is going to be more suited to him.

Honestly, reading your question, I would suggest option #2. Yes, it might be messy and difficult, but people in solid, happy relationships don't do what you've done. There might not be anything wrong except that you're just not ready to be in this level of a committed relationship. THAT is okay. Carrying on a charade with your current boyfriend is NOT.

I firmly believe that the worst thing that you can do to a person is shatter their trust in other people. Don't do that.

The answer to your "who ends a 5 year relationship for no reason?" question is: "nobody". But you have a reason. You have feelings for someone else, you and your current boyfriend want different things, and you both deserve better.
posted by pazazygeek at 2:21 PM on March 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

I scrolled down here to say, essentially, what tomswift and pazaygeek just said...

I've been where you are, albeit without the complication of living someplace remote from friends and support. I'd lean towards pazazygeek's second option for you, if only because it says something that you were emotionally available enough to get involved with this other fellow... Things like that don't just HAPPEN.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 2:52 PM on March 11, 2011

Oh my gosh, please don't think that polyamory (at least right now, and at least between you and New Guy and Boyfriend) is going to fix things.

You were emotionally available enough to get involved with the New Guy -- that, I think for many people is a harder thing to take than physical cheating. Because that's hormones and chemicals and whatever -- the other part is about personalities and soulmates and the day-to-day of Being With Someone.

You need to assess what you love about Boyfriend, what's keeping you in the relationship, and how long-term you think it can be. Without New Guy being part of the equation, as much as is possible.

You can't do that while talking still with New Guy, no matter how innocuous. You need to cut him off (he should be able to understand, and wait, or let you go) and think about your relationship with Boyfriend with New Guy being as little a factor as possible.

Take away the rush of a new someone telling you you're great. Do you just want to be with SOMEONE? Or do you want to be with Boyfriend? What is New Guy offering that Boyfriend isn't, and can you work together to fix it? Do you want to?
posted by blandcamp at 2:57 PM on March 11, 2011

You had a physical affair and are continuing to have an ongoing emotional affair. You are asking how to recommit to your boyfriend without giving up your emotional affair.

Read that. Re-read it. Sorry to say, you can't.

I wonder if you have trouble telling the difference between having a crush and being in love.

In any event, it's pretty clear that your current relationship with your boyfriend isn't doing it for you. I wouldn't tell boyfriend about other guy unless you really think he'll be okay with that -- he won't. Just tell him it's been a great ride but the sparks have faded and the relationship has run its course, or something to that effect. Telling him about the other guy will just be hurtful and for no reason.
posted by J. Wilson at 3:32 PM on March 11, 2011 [7 favorites]

this post is all about you and what you want. like others have said, you want to have your cake and eat it too. which you can do for a short period of time but then it will pretty much result in one or both relationships going down in flames. so you have to decide who you want in your life: your bf or this other guy, and you have to cut off the relationship with the other. your affair didn't "just happen." you made decisions that led to it. for your bf's sake, take responsibility for your actions.
posted by violetk at 4:36 PM on March 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

You only have Affair Guy's word that he and his GF are in an open relationship. I've seen "open" mean two radically different things to the primary folks in a (supposedly) poly relationship.

Just wanted to point that out because I agree with an above comment that it is unfair of Affair Guy to participate in anything poly with you since you have a non-poly relationship.

IMHO, people worth being in an open relationship with usually have higher standards for their romantic interactions than Affair Guy has demonstrated if I read your description accurately.
posted by jbenben at 9:56 PM on March 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think you're polyamorous -- you just like cake.

From my position outside the poly fold, but with friends who identify as such, I can tell you that the unhappy poly people I know are invariably in stale longterm partnerships where one or both were already involved with other people and reluctantly went along as an alternative to selling the house. They're not so much polyamorous as opportunistic, and their definition of "open" is closer to that of a wound care nurse.

The happy poly people I know are some of the most honest, emotionally strong, and truly caring individuals I have met. None of them started out by icing the shitcake of infidelity with the idea of polyamory while confessing a partnership breach to an unsuspecting longstanding monogamous companion. Their definition of "open" is complete honesty with their primary and secondary partners, including setting rules, checking in regularly to ensure everybody is emotionally okay, and supporting each other in times of stress.

I can see how much you would get from a network of loving emotional support right now, and it looks like this is the absolute least likely benefit offered by your New Guy. It makes me sad to see how separate you are from any help. You can't tell your boyfriend (unless you know you want to leave him) your New Guy's position doesn't offer very much (rumoured after-makeout tacit approval from primary partner? eh.) and you're a long way from home. In your situation, I would want somebody to advise me to distance myself from New Guy and open myself up to Boyfriend, while building some kind of friendly local support (not TOO friendly, mind). It doesn't hurt anything to pine one-sidedly for New Guy for a while, but this sesquimutual lustfest is going to break your life.
posted by Sallyfur at 10:21 AM on March 12, 2011 [5 favorites]

How to come clean and recommit to boyfriend but also be allowed to keep in touch with new friend?

Committing to someone means excluding romantic rivals. Committing means not staying in touch with that friend.

Sometimes our heart tries to make us believe we can defy reality. We cannot.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:20 AM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

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