Deep online relationship - what to do?
December 11, 2012 11:31 AM   Subscribe

Over the past 5 months, I've fallen into a deep relationship. I'm not sure where to go next and would like your thoughts.

As context, I'm a mid-30s woman in a relationship and have children. We are no longer in love, but we don't fight and manage our household and co-parenting together in the same home. Everyone (neighbors, family) assumes that we're a normal in-love couple. But we haven't been in love for a number of years. We stay together for the kids and household management and finances. We are friendly with eachother, don't argue, but don't enjoy spending time with eachother in a couple-way. (And yes we've tried counseling, it didn't work.)

I know that this isn't working for me and that at some point we're going to need to go our separate ways. I have dreamed about being in a happier situation for a long time. But I put my kids' needs (as well as my own financial and logistical benefit) first.

5 months ago a professional acquaintance and I got to know eachother better on a business trip. There was an immediate spark between us during a week long business trip. It was (and remains) mostly platonic, although with a bit of sexual tension. We did not come close to acting on anything.

He is early 30s and single.

We live on different continents.

Since that trip, the acquaintance and I have developed a deep friendship. We chat online for much of the day. We enjoy eachothers' company like neither of us have ever experienced before.

For the first time in years, I AM SO HAPPY. I am incredibly happy. I forgot that I could be this happy. Chatting with him makes me feel so good. And he feels the same. It has revolutionize my mental health to have someone care about ME and my feelings and my thoughts this much.

I totally acknowledge that this chat relationship/emotional affair is an escape from my current household situation. Because of this, I have consciously tried to not idealize my chat buddy. I know he isn't perfect.

Yet I fantasize about what my life would be like if I was partnered up with someone that makes me happy and whose company I enjoy. I also think that he'd be a fine step-parent based on his attitude and things he says. He is, for someone without kids, fairly comfortable with the fact that I have kids. He wants kids himself.

Complications abound though. We live on different continents and have family and friends that we care about a lot in our local areas. We both have careers which we are very passionate about that we have worked for years to develop, and both of them are quite location bound. (Think cancer research that only takes place in 3 labs globally - and we're both in different specific careers like this. It would be difficult for either of us to find other work.) In my fantasies, we maybe could make it work residing in the same location, but it would mean tremendous professional sacrifices for one of us. Me moving to him would be more doable professionally, but I want my kids to continue to be located near their dad and there is no way that their dad would move to the other continent.

Our attitude right now is to continue chatting, enjoying eachothers company and see what happens, take it day-by-day. We don't flirt very heavily in our chats, probably subconsciously to keep the intensity manageable.

My not-in-love spouse has no idea that I'm chatting like this. I don't think that he'd be pleased to know. Despite us not being in love, it would probably annoy him. (Even on a simple level like - why am I washing these dirty dishes while you're chatting?)

Leaving my not-in-love spouse is not feasible at this time. It is better for the kids (and for logistics and finances) to reside in one home and I'd only want to end the residing in one home when either my kids are a bit older (the original plan) or if chat guy and I got a lot more serious (I think? I'm not really sure on this.)

So what can I do? He makes me so happy. I make him so happy. Stopping our chats is not something that we're interested in doing. We're considering meeting 1/2 way in person to see if the online spark translates to real life.

Please be kind to me on this. I'm really fragile right now.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Your spouse will find out eventually, so you have nothing to lose by being honest and telling him that you want to explore romantic emotional and possibly physical attachments while continuing to stay married for convenience and ease of co-parenting (or whatever your reasons are).

Let me recommend the book Opening Up by Tristan Taormino as a good resource on negotiating healthy non-monogamous relationships.

Maybe your spouse will be pleased by having the opportunity to pursue romantic interests for himself?
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:35 AM on December 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

What if the sparks do translate to real life? What then? You've already said that you don't want to leave your spouse, so what options do you have? An affair? Being miserable? The first will quite possibly lead to a divorce and the second is something that the kids will pick up on.

I've never been divorced and my parents are still married, but I've seen it with other people and, I have to say, staying together for the kids doesn't always seem like a great idea. If you aren't happy and your spouse isn't happy, then the kids know. An amicable divorce when you are still on speaking terms is better, IMHO, than waiting. And how long are you going to wait? Do you want to spend your 30s married to someone you don't really like all that much?

That's not to say that this guy you are chatting with is the right one for you. I'm sure there is a certain amount of "grass is greener" going on, but it is possible to be with someone who makes you happy, even if it isn't this dude. But as long as you remain with spouse-you-don't-much-like then that's mostly theoretical.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 11:41 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

You and your spouse need to be honest with one another. That's the bottom line. Maybe you work together on parenting and maintaining a household and nothing else, and that's fine, but you both need to do this on the basis of a conscious decision and not default into it. It's time for a lengthy, serious discussion.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 11:54 AM on December 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

I think it's fine to fantasize and enjoy the thrill for now. Just keep it under control, try to be rational about the situation. It's an intense feeling for you now, but the intensity will fade, and you'll be able to think more clearly soon.

Hopefully this is a catalyst for negotiating new arrangements with your spouse - an open relationship, working on a separation, or whatever you think is best.
posted by ergo at 11:56 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are you both on the same page that you are no longer a couple? If you are no longer in love and no longer are spouses in any sense but legal, then I think the others have made excellent points. Why can you both not pursue other romantic relationships? Unless your spouse would be opposed, and that would be another issue to talk about altogether.
posted by Lescha at 12:02 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

From what you've said, there's pretty much zero chance that you and this man will ever be able to live together. I wonder if this is part of what makes him so appealing to you: he gives you room to fantasize without reality intruding too strongly. This could be a good thing. I honestly think that a little bit of escapism is healthy.

That said, is this really making you happy? It sounds like you're getting wonderful, delicious jolts of pleasure and attention, but in my experience genuinely happy people don't tend to end descriptions of their lives with things like "Please be kind to me on this. I'm really fragile right now."

Are you happy? You are married to someone you don't like, staying together for children and practicality. You have perfectly valid reasons for staying in your relationship. Could you be happier while still taking care of your children? Divorce is hard on kids, but so is growing up without seeing your parents model healthy, loving adult relationships.

In the long run, is your (mostly-online) relationship going to make you happier, or is it going to distract you from doing things that will actually improve your life?
posted by catalytics at 12:02 PM on December 11, 2012

I would make a conscious choice between your spouse and the other person and mentally commit to one or the other. It's hard to do. Sometimes it's easier to hedge your bets and keep the status quo. But you're probably going to wear away further at your connection and any possible intimacy with your spouse if you have this massive secret in your life. If you don't want to just choose, then at least have an open conversation with him and be honest about what is happening. Then you can decide to either work through it together or mutually part ways, but at least both of you will be in it together.

And it might also be helpful to have a fairly direct conversation with the other man and ask him how he feels about the fact that you're married and talk about whatever romantic feelings are there. Communication.

I don't think it's necessarily better for children to see their parents living distant, parallel lives. It's not a model of intimacy and love and communication.
posted by mermily at 12:03 PM on December 11, 2012

It is better for the kids (and for logistics and finances) to reside in one home

Not necessarily. My parents had a relationship that sounds like yours for several years, and it was very unpleasant for my brother and I. Kids can detect when there is no love between their parents, and it is confusing and stressful, because they don't understand why there would be no love between two people who are married, especially now that divorce is so common. Please rethink your position about splitting up. Once my parents were divorced it was a huge weight off my shoulders and made them both so much happier. Now they are remarried to wonderful people and I have 4 parents not 2.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:04 PM on December 11, 2012 [10 favorites]

Since that trip, the acquaintance and I have developed a deep friendship. We chat online for much of the day. We enjoy eachothers' company like neither of us have ever experienced before.

You are having an emotional affair. You need to come clean with your husband immediately.

I have never seen a couple successfully transition into non-monogamy when one partner has already fallen for someone else. By that point, the bounds of trust are already broken.

The relationship you're modeling is not good for your kids. It's a relationship built on betrayal and lies. Do you want to show your kids that, as adults, they should stay in relationships where they're not loved--only merely tolerated?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:16 PM on December 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

nthing you should tell your husband, and discuss what future options you have together.
posted by commitment at 12:24 PM on December 11, 2012

The only way you can really manage this which will not be a total shitshow, given your constraints, is to talk to your husband about this and Come to an Arrangement. You both need to have the freedom to pursue relationships outside the marriage, and you both need to establish clear, strict boundaries (no bringing dates home, etc, or whatever you feel works best for you and him and your children). The way to start would be to sit down with him and kind of lay it all out. Your implicit arrangement needs to become explicit.

Or reconsider some of your constraints. I agree with the above sentiment that divorce is probably better for kids than living with parents who don't love - or even like - each other. Kids are smart. They can tell.

I assume it came out in couples therapy but just to be safe, you should also be completely certain that your husband feels the same way: that you're in a loveless marriage where you don't even like one another.

As for this online guy? Once you've either explicitly spelled out an Arrangement with your husband, or once you've split up, I'd say you can go ahead and enjoy chatting with him and flirting and maybe, if you've got the spare money, one of you can fly out for a hookup once or twice, but that's basically it. There's no relationship here. Practical considerations mean that either he'd have to start his career over, or you'd have to move to a different continent than your children. It's a fantasy. It's a nice one, but - with this specific guy - it's a fantasy.

I would consider making such a huge change for someone with whom I was very intimate and close and for whom I knew the practical considerations were worth it. If you make this leap for someone you spent one amazing weekend with and have only talked to online since, that's kind of a different thing.

Also, what do you mean by "mostly platonic?"

Yet I fantasize about what my life would be like if I was partnered up with someone that makes me happy and whose company I enjoy

This is the crux of it right here. Your first step needs to be to come to a solution with your spouse, whatever that form may take. Beyond that, I would suggest that you should go ahead and fantasize about such a person but understand that it does not need to be this other guy. It could be anyone. This one dude feels so electrifying because it is so freeing, so wonderful to feel wanted and feel that passion for another person. I know you won't believe this, but that feeling isn't limited to this one guy.

Figure things out with your husband. This will involve a lot of uncomfortable conversations, and you need to have them. Then just date for a while. Let yourself enjoy the freedom of it.

Good luck.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 12:24 PM on December 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

I have seen couples negotiate balanced open relationships when they were already not having a sexual or romantic relationship with each other, and were together for convenience's sake only. Only you know if that's really the case in your marriage.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:35 PM on December 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've seen that too, Sidhedevil, but what I'm saying is that I've never seen that happen when a partner has already selected (and fallen for) a third party. Because really, what OP wants here is a fully committed relationship with her colleague--and this is likely going to be apparent to both her and her spouse. If she wanted to date around, that could have easily been negotiated a long time ago, before she began to fall for someone else.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:41 PM on December 11, 2012

What you're doing is really unfair to your spouse because you're denying him the chance to pursue his own happiness while pursuing yours. It's arrogant of you to assume he doesn't have people similarly interested in him whom he has turned down for the sake of your marriage. Letting him know what you're planning would give him the freedom to romance other people, but it seems like you're not doing that because on some level you're using your spouse as the "fallback option" in case things don't work out with your colleague.

Asking us to go easy on you because you're fragile doesn't change the fact that what you're doing is morally wrong. And speaking as a child of divorce, "staying together just for the kids" is just... well, it's just dumb. I would have been so much more emotionally healthy today if my parents had just divorced when they realized it wasn't working out, instead of staying together for my sake.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 12:53 PM on December 11, 2012

My parents stayed in it for the kids. All of us fell into bad relationships, of varying degrees, after we left home. One of us is in a relationship that exactly mirrors our parent's.

There wasn't abuse, or anything extreme, but the undercurrent of simply not liking each other very much was ever present. It took me a long time to figure out that romantic relationships should make you happy, that a partner should be a part of your joy. Seems so obvious, but when all you've seen is the opposite it takes a while for that to break through all the garbage you were simmered in. I've stayed far too long in poor antagonistic relationships because it feels normal. It shouldn't feel normal to not like your partner.

I'm really not sure where this "stick with it for the kids" comes from. I know about statistics on how divorce can hurt children, but those are just statistics, and it's my understanding that it relates mostly to an uneven distribution of wealth. You and your family are individuals. Is modelling a bad relationship as normal really a good thing?
posted by Dynex at 12:53 PM on December 11, 2012 [7 favorites]

Agree that it doesn't sound like they've handled this well. The time to set ground rules for dating other people was when they decided not to continue their own romantic and sexual relationship.

I just don't think the OP's current virtual relationship is actually going to go anywhere, but if it inspires her to actually do the important work of talking with her spouse about what their ground rules are going to be, it's better than nothing.

I also agree with everyone who said that in many, probably most cases, parents splitting up is probably better for children than parents having a marriage of convenience. But there might be other factors the OP hasn't shared that mean it makes sense in her case.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:54 PM on December 11, 2012

You have two separate problems. The first and biggest is that your marriage isn't working as it is. Counseling didn't work, you say. So basically you're selling out your idea of happiness for comfort. I think that is fine, but the problem is that this kind of thing is likely to happen to you. If it's not this guy, there will be another down the line. A lot of people actually live their lives this way, though for me it would be torture.

The second problem is what to do about this guy. This is not a big or serious problem right now. The "relationship" is a chimera. It doesn't exist. You have zero idea what it would be like to date, live with, marry, raise children, or grow old with the other guy. He is just a lovely distraction at the moment, a place it's all about you and nothing can be lacking because it's the realm of fantasy. The main thing that's important about it is that it showed you a kind of attention or connection that you are missing and want back in your life.

Your options are: (a) carry on like this for the rest of your life, perhaps serially cheating secretly with a succession of guys, maybe with your husband doing the same, and never having the relationship you think you want, but remaining secure unless your husband finds out; or (b) come clean to your husband that this is going on and explore your options together. I guess (c) would be to chuck it all and run away with the other guy if he'd have you, but since you're giving it this much thought I don't think you're the type.

I think the potential directions of your future after you've talked to your husband have been represented in this thread: either you return to counseling, more seriously this time; you continue to stuff it under the rug and find yourself stuck back here again; you split up so you're both single; or you work out some sort of arrangement that lets you pursue romantic relationships with people of your choice, and all the negotiation/discussion/introspection that entails.

I would just really encourage you not to view this as a problem of being in lurve with somebody else. That's a byproduct. The central problem is that you don't have love or a partnership with your actual partner. Solve that problem first, and you'll find the second problem becomes insignificant, because you will already have what you really want, and know it.
posted by Miko at 12:56 PM on December 11, 2012 [9 favorites]

P.S. You don't have to know what the ultimate solution is before you have the conversation with your husband. The solution is something that will emerge between you as you talk. You might have to make some decisions on your own, but you don't have to know what those are now. Just wanted to add that it's probably better to enter that discussion without an outcome already defined, unless you're flat-out ready to leave.

Another option is that you could end it with the other guy, while saying nothing, and rededicate yourself to reviving your marriage. But it sounds like you would need to create a sense of urgency or a crisis in order to get your husband's full attention/participation, and he might not get that a fire is being lit under him if he doesn't understand that the prompt for your attempt to preserve the marriage is the actual temptation of your emotional (and maybe more) affair.
posted by Miko at 1:05 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Life is too short to spend any part of your life in a relationship in which you are unhappy. There are wonderful ways to co-parent and to arrange your logistics and finances but that don't compromise your happiness.

You have two distinct things going on here:

1. You're in an unhappy marriage that hasn't worked for you for quite some time.

2. You have a crush on a colleague.

You need to sort out 1 first. You've been putting off the icky for years now, and it's time to face the fact that you want a happier, better life. You're allowed to have this and it's not selfish of you for wanting it.

Go to a counselor to discuss strategies for how to extricate everyone from the morass that is your marriage/family life. Perhaps you can get your husband to come along, not to mend your relationship, but to break up in the healthiest way possible.

As for 2, I think once you have your life back on track, you'll enjoy your new friend, but you'll be in the market for a relationship that's realistic and meets you where you are.

Let 2013 be the year that you declare independance from your crappy marriage. What wonderful things will await you?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:11 PM on December 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

But I put my kids' needs (as well as my own financial and logistical benefit) first.

You know how, in case of an emergency on an airplane, parents are supposed to put on their oxygen masks first? This is the same deal. Get your financial and logistical ducks in a row to where you can provide a stable, happy home for your children solo, then pursue a partner that better suits you. That's really what I think you should do - make that "at some point" happen at a more determinate, sooner, point in time.
posted by sm1tten at 5:24 PM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

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