For being an open relationship, it's getting pretty closed in here.
August 6, 2019 5:22 AM   Subscribe

Am I the a**hole for insisting on maintaining an emotional affair when it makes my boyfriend uncomfortable? Caveat: I'm married and in an open relationship.

It feels like this is an obvious answer, but I legit can't see past my own nose on this one. I've been dating a man for about 8 months now. He knew from day one (it was in my online profile) that I was married and in an open relationship. When we started seeing one another, I was also casually seeing other people and, when he and I were casual, this was fine. But then over the course of a few months circumstances and my own introvert nature happened, and I stopped looking for new partners and most of my previous paramours petered out. Boyfriend and I became a bit more serious and I fell into a routine that my only intimate relationships were with my husband and my boyfriend.

Then a previous relationship came back into the picture and it makes my boyfriend really uncomfortable. I don't like to cause my boyfriend discomfort, so I was okay with not being physical with the previous relationship guy (or anyone else) while boyfriend and I figured out how to navigate this, but while boyfriend and I continue to talk it through, we're realising that it's the closeness of my friendship with the previous relationship guy that's causing the real anxiety. If I were monogamous I'd say it was an emotional affair, it's that level of closeness. But I'm not monogamous, and that's the trouble.

So here's the question: Am I being an a**hole to my boyfriend in saying that I am not going to give up this intimate friendship? Essentially it feels like I'm saying, "eff you and your anxiety, I'm going to be doing this anyway." But to stop my close friendship seems unfair to myself. I can't expect him to change his feelings when I'm so unwilling to try and change my own. What am I missing here - how do I be true to myself and kind to my boyfriend?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total)
No, you're fine, he needs to manage his own feelings. It's okay to have anxiety, but it's not okay to try to rupture a meaningful relationship because he has anxiety over it. He will adjust over time if he stops trying to make controlling you into the solution---his belief that he "needs" to control your behavior makes his anxiety worse.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 5:37 AM on August 6, 2019 [16 favorites]

Also, think about why you see "eff you and your anxiety" as being equivalent to "I love you and care about your feelings, but I am not letting you control my behavior." They are two VERY different statements. One is contemptuous and distancing; the second is loving but setting a reasonable boundary. I assume you're being loving and kind about setting the boundary---and doing so is nowhere near "eff you."
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 5:38 AM on August 6, 2019 [39 favorites]

It's great that you want to be considerate of his feelings, but you are the person who gets to decide who is in your life and what those relationships look like. He does not get to tell you who to be close with.
posted by bile and syntax at 5:42 AM on August 6, 2019

For context, I'm super monogamous. If this were your husband saying it, I would think you should be more considerate. But this is a boyfriend who knowingly entered into your open relationship situation, knew your rules, and has to play by your rules. He doesn't get to change your rules because he's decided he wants you all to himself. If I were you, I'd be seriously considering whether he is going to be able to handle your open relationship status without making your life hell.
posted by DoubleLune at 5:46 AM on August 6, 2019 [47 favorites]

You can be true to yourself, but that doesn't mean you get to keep your boyfriend, too. He might be prepared to be a secondary relationship to your relationship with your husband while not being prepared to also be secondary to another new (/old) relationship. He doesn't get to decide for you whether you see this other guy, but he does get to decide whether he still wants to be with you while you see this other guy.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:56 AM on August 6, 2019 [50 favorites]

I can't expect him to change his feelings when I'm so unwilling to try and change my own.

Wanted to address this, too...naw. This is not how it works. He has to work on his feelings or he can keep feeling them or he can do something else to fix it that doesn't involve telling you what to do with your time and body.

From a strategic point of view, you fucked up a bit by telling him you wouldn't sleep with this guy. You have to start from a firm belief that you own your body, your time, and your relationships, and that you're not interested in treating them like they are an entitlement of his.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 6:37 AM on August 6, 2019 [7 favorites]

Once long ago I was engaged to my now-husband, in an open relationship, dating a man in our home city, and seeing, very casually, another man who lived far away.

During a pillow talk session I asked far away man if he would ever visit me in my home city. He said, "I could never be the second man in anyone's life." I wanted to say, "You aren't even the second most important man I am sleeping with right now." But I didn't, and I wish I had.

My point is that even people who know what they are getting into with open relationships still experience jealousy. But for non-monogamy to work, each person has to take responsibility for their own jealousy rather than expecting others to manage it. Each person has to learn to make requests with the acknowledgement that others might say no to those requests. And each person, ideally, should believe that jealousy can pass, it doesn't last forever.

It doesn't sound like your boyfriend has any of these mindsets. He might be willing to work on it, if so, that's his work to do. If he isn't willing to try, I would suggest that you end it.
posted by mai at 6:47 AM on August 6, 2019 [25 favorites]

People you're fucking get to express opinions that need consideration about whomever else you are fucking. Nobody gets to say who your friends can be.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:47 AM on August 6, 2019 [7 favorites]

it's a curious irony I've observed that folks who are happy to have room be made for them (with permission or not) in their married lover's relationship with the putatively boring ol' spouse, are not at all happy to then be demoted to a role where they're the one having to make room for a shiny new person. Know what I mean?

I think your boyfriend has been happy being the shiny one. He may not be happy going forward as his status changes. He has the right to draw his own boundaries with how he wants to live, and you have the right to draw yours.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:32 AM on August 6, 2019 [32 favorites]

The useful conversation to have with him might be "What else can I do to alleviate your anxiety?"

You get to do what you're going to do. He gets to feel how he feels about it. Managing his feelings is his job, and you aren't required to do anything about it. But it sounds like you might want to do something to help with it. If that's where you're at, okay, keep maintaining your boundaries, keep doing the thing that works for you — but also try to find out more about what kinds of words or actions would be reassuring to your boyfriend, and do those things.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:01 AM on August 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

Kindness is not always necessarily nice. The distinction for me is that kindness is honest and validating, but niceness is just giving people what they want. You have a situation here where you have your feelings, and he has his, and they do not point the way toward a single action that will make both of you happy.

You're not an asshole for prioritising your desires over his, because that's what you desire and to your point, you can't really change that.

But it's all in how you approach it and talk about it. On reddit they'd say there's "no assholes here", which is reductive because the actions you take and the way you behave towards people is what's important, I think, not how people label you, but hey. You might be as kind as is humanly possible, to yourself and to him, and people might still think you're an asshole. The point is that he has the right to his feelings as do you and the situation is going to play out as it will. So how can you handle it with grace?

When my husband and I were dating, we were in a relatively complex open relationship and we sort of slowwwwlyyy meandered into a monogamous one. I realized along the way that a monogamous relationship was what I wanted, but I didn't fully admit it to myself, and I was kind of watery about what I actually did want because I feared rejection. I forgive myself for this, rejection is painful, and heartbreak sucks, and everything was kind of going the way I'd hoped it would.

Then he started dating someone else and when I found out, I was furious. He tried to tell me that I couldn't be, because that wasn't our arrangement. Basically he implied that I didn't have the right to feel the way I was feeling. To which I remember saying "well guess what, THIS IS HOW I FEEL!" and it was very eye opening to me, about how we were talking about our relationship and what we "owe" eachother.

It is ok have unexpected emotions that change the landscape of your relationships. It has to be ok, because that is how relationships go, that is how emotions work, and that is life. So relationships, emotions and life aren't ok, you're gonna have a worse time out of a bad time. In any relationship, you have to negotiate this space with kindness for yourself and the other person. And only you really know what that looks like!

In my opinion, handling this with grace means being accepting and validating of your boyfriend's feelings, recognizing that doing what you want is painful for him, but not doing what you want is painful for you. If he wants you to change how you feel, be plain and clear that you just... can't.
I'd being willing to let him go with love and respect. That includes letting go of the narrative of who did the "right thing" or who the asshole was here. If he wants to make you an asshole in his mind to feel better about the situation, that is his choice, sometimes that's what people need to take the edge off. It doesn't make it true.
posted by pazazygeek at 8:09 AM on August 6, 2019 [15 favorites]

I think it's unethical for anyone who's not in a particular relationship to have any control over the relationship. If anything, you're not treating the previous relationship guy right by letting someone else define the terms of your relationship.
posted by metasarah at 8:16 AM on August 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

I don't think he's allowed to decide what you do, but he is allowed to determine the terms of his side of his relationship with you. I would communicate to him that pursuing this relationship is important to you, and that it's likely to continue. He can choose to no longer be with you, however, if the anxiety and upset are too much. That's his right, too.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:36 AM on August 6, 2019 [8 favorites]

No, you should not give up your intimate relationship because it makes him uncomfortable. That is not a reasonable position. Your boyfriend should examine why he's anxious about this friendship and not about your husband.

This all makes me wonder how experienced he is with open relationships, and what his expectations are for his role in your life longer-term.
posted by desuetude at 10:13 AM on August 6, 2019

Hypothetical comparisons are awful, but with that caveat, I'm going to make one anyway. If it were a family member that came back into your life as a close, emotionally intimate relationship, would he feel anxious about that? He probably wouldn't feel that it was his right to interfere, right? Well, then this is probably really about sexual jealousy.
posted by desuetude at 10:28 AM on August 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Boyfriend needs to really think hard about whether an open relationship is a good fit for his emotional needs and desires.
posted by sallybrown at 11:47 AM on August 6, 2019 [6 favorites]

Yeah, you get to have the relationships you want, and your boyfriend gets to decide if he wants to be in a relationship with you. That's about all he really gets to control.

Were there any other shifts in your relationship with your boyfriend when you re-connected with the old friend? Maybe less time or attention for him? Fewer texts? His anxiety could be because he's sensing a shift and that's scary to him. You might get him a copy of The Jealousy Workbook and work through it with him.

You also might find it useful to read this piece on brutal polyamory. I'm guessing that your boyfriend isn't dating others? Is he generally monogamous? He might not just be suited to an open relationship. Good luck.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:50 PM on August 6, 2019

Oh god, I was exactly on his end of the situation (except it was physical too). Her husband doesn't make me jealous but the addition of a third serious relationship drive me absolutely nuts with pain. I think it was mostly around her stretching herself too thin to meet my needs, and her handling things in poor ways. They eventually ended up breaking up due to other factors. I had been trying to decide to leave for months before that, as I was in a lot of pain, but I just couldn't bear to lose her.

We are both definitely poly but I'm not sure whether I think she was selfish and heartless for continuing the relationship despite my pain. It's hard to feel like someone who truly loves me could hurt me like that, even if it was "fair". Looking back, I often think I was crazy for not leaving her, but we have a fabulous relationship now.

To the folks saying he might not really be poly---I'm an example of a poly person who acted like this, so it does happen. Right now she and I have each other and one other spouse/partner (this was the original setup and has worked for 8 years). Casual sex with other people has happened but neither of us want another relationship.
posted by mkuhnell at 5:24 PM on August 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

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