Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Mistress in a Moral Quandary

Dear Viny,

I have been involved with a married man for the past 2 years. I haven't told many of my friends about this because it's something you're not supposed to do. And, because some of them are married – and hate the idea of cheating or being cheated on – I'm just not bringing it up. I met this man online after putting out an ad for a 'friends with benefits' relationship on Craig's List. I do not know his wife and he keeps his life with her completely separate from me. I don't know – and don't want to know – what she even looks like. He and I meet downtown for lunch or at my house several times a week. A lot of early mornings on his way to work. The sex is quite amazing.

Aside from the social stigma of the relationship, I personally have no problem with seeing him like this. If I knew his wife, worked with her, even saw her somewhere, I wouldn't do it. But I have no relationship with her. I guess I'm writing you because worrying about what others think about me is the problem for me, and not the relationship itself. I want to know your opinion on extramarital affairs and whether you think they are just wrong, period. I've had feedback from friends who tell me it's dishonest and/or hurtful. I want to resolve this for myself, but obviously I'm spinning my wheels and need an objective view on it.

Please be kind,


Dear Janice,

I wish I could invite you to cozy up to my kitchen table with a mug of ginger tea and a slice of leftover Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, so that we could have this conversation in person. Sometimes, electronic communication can feel so cold.

When I give you my opinion, please picture me giving it warmly. My subjective view – there is no such thing as an objective view – is that what you are doing is wrong.

That said, you're hardly the only person out there involved in what I consider to be an unethical relationship. Fifteen years ago, I myself was in the middle of a steamy affair with a married man. (Well, half an affair, anyway: my husband knew about the relationship, but my lover's wife did not.) And in the time since then, I have heard a lot of confessions from friends and acquaintances who are fucking someone technically off-limits to them, or who are madly in love with someone they “shouldn't” be, or who have engaged in some kind of sexual behavior not sanctioned by their partner(s). Mr. and Ms. Wrong can be extremely compelling, and a lot of us are going to end up doing them.

I will further concede that good can come of bad choices. For all I know, your affair will end up resulting in more good than bad, on balance. In her book Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel argues that “an illicit liaison can be catastrophic, but it can also be a liberation, a source of strength, a healing.” She also points out that different cultures have different ideas about how to perform ethical calculations. In American culture, cheating is bad, and lying about it adds insult to injury; in other cultures, cheating is considered more acceptable, and “a protective opacity....not only maintains marital harmony but also is a mark of respect.”

It's possible that your lover's wife will never find out about you, and that what she doesn't know will never hurt her. Or maybe she sort of senses what's going on, but prefers a “don't ask, don't tell” arrangement, and has subtly managed to convey this to her husband, whose discretion is actually in line with her wishes. Or maybe she has the female equivalent of a cuckold fetish, and her husband regularly thrills her to orgasm by recounting the lurid details of his latest dalliance with you. Maybe you only think you're a big secret. I don't know, and it sounds like you don't know, either.

You don't want to know.

And for me, that's the sticking point in your story. I can try to wrap my head around the idea that not everyone values honesty and transparency to the degree I do. However, you have made it pretty clear that your relationship depends on maintaining a level of ignorance that has the potential to cause real harm, regardless of the cultural backgrounds or personal predilections of the people involved.

You admit that if you knew your lover's wife – or even saw her somewhere! – you wouldn't be doing what you're doing. Your relationship is thus contingent on treating a fellow human being as an abstraction, not a person. It's not just about keeping your world separate from hers: you actually need her not to matter. But she is a real person, and she does matter.

We're all wired to behave as though the humans we know matter more than humans we don't know. That's fine, because it has to be fine: at present, we aren't capable of re-wiring ourselves. However, when we actively cultivate thoughtlessness – when we refuse to set foot in the sweat shop, because we want to keep buying the shoes – we know we are behaving unethically, by our own subjective standards.

I want to leave you with a story. It's the summer of 2000, and my married lover and his wife are on the verge of divorce. For months, they've been in couples counseling, but it isn't working. At home, safe in my own bed, sleeping beside my sweet, supportive, totally-in-the-know husband, I'm having recurring nightmares. In these dreams, I am always in her house, and she knows. So I'm hiding in the blueblack dark of the upstairs TV room, hoping she won't find me. I hear her come in the front door, talking angrily. Then she climbs the stairs. Then she walks down the hallway. When she enters the room, I can't hide any longer, and I know I have to save myself: it's kill or be killed. So I step out onto the balcony. She follows me. Then I scoop her into my arms and toss her over the railing. Night after night, when she hits the ground, she fails to die.

You didn't ask for my advice, Janice, but I'm going to give you some anyway: make love, not war. You can put a hippie headband on the old cliché and disregard it if you like, but I think it's imminently applicable to your situation.

Hearts & stars,

Sunday, November 24, 2013

For the New Poly Couple: Establishing Boundaries

Dear Viny,

I recently started dating a former boyfriend again. We dated in high school and then broke up in college, but kept in touch for a few years while we were living in different cities. Now we live in the same city, and when we first met up he told me that he only wanted an open relationship, and that this was something he'd been considering for a year or so. I had never considered it, but I decided to take an interest and see if this was something I would enjoy because we have a history and are able to communicate.

When we started, a couple of months ago, he didn't have very strict boundaries and he has slept with significantly more people than I have. He also recently found someone else he'd like to date and I realized I was having trouble overcoming jealousy so I asked if we could come to some agreement as to boundaries. I asked him if he would be alright keeping this new metamour as the only other person he has sexual contact with and he said he would do that.

Last night a female friend of his came into town who he has a sexual history with. He told me that at the end of the night they kissed, and I was very upset. He said he didn't realize kissing wasn't allowed. I felt as if it was a big betrayal because I thought we had a clear agreement. We got into an argument and he's "emotionally drained" and suggested spending some time apart. I went home and decided that what I needed was important and he needed to do at least one of the things we agreed upon if he wants this to continue. I feel like he didn't respect what I needed and I'm concerned that this won't work if talking is draining for him. I shouldn't feel bad for communicating what I want.

Do you have any advice? I'm currently reading "The Ethical Slut" and trying to get input from more experienced polys because I want to enjoy this type of relationship as much as everyone says I can!



Dear M,

It sounds like you and your boyfriend could both use a break – not from each other, necessarily, but from aspects of your relationship that are becoming problematic. You seem genuinely interested in exploring polyamory, but you need a break from your boyfriend's parade of new sexual partners. And your boyfriend seems genuinely interested in connecting with you, but he needs a break from conversations that focus primarily on your hurt feelings.

Of course you have a right to your emotions, and it is important for you to be able to communicate how you feel. However, your boyfriend has the right to set a boundary if he starts to feel overwhelmed by the amount of emotional processing you want to do right now. Try to respect his request for some time apart as a legitimate attempt to take care of your relationship, rather than worrying that he doesn't care about you enough to engage.

For his part, your boyfriend has a right to his own body, and it is important for him to be able to express himself sexually with consenting partners of his choosing. However, you have the right to set a boundary if you start to feel concerned that his choices are taking a toll on your physical or mental health. In my opinion, he needs to honor your request that he slow down and stop introducing new sexual partners into the mix, at least until you have time to sort out your feelings and come to clearer agreements.

My advice is for the two of you to pack your metaphorical knapsacks and retreat into the wilderness of your separate souls for, say, three or four days. Go ahead and text each other “good morning” and “good night” if you can't bear to be completely out of contact, but give each other some serious space. With the gift of space comes the gift of time: time in which you are not hashing and re-hashing who did what to whom; not stewing about the most recent insensitive or controlling or hypocritical thing the other person did or said; not crying into your cocktails while you argue and fret and try to problem-solve; and yes, unfortunately, not having passionate make-up sex – at least not yet.

I suggest you use all this freed-up time to think about what you want out of your relationship together. He can think about what he wants with you, and you can think about what you want with him. You've each had a few months to explore what it's like having an open relationship, so now is also a good time to think about what you hope to get out of this type of arrangement in the future. What gifts and challenges have you encountered so far? Where do you hope to be in six months from now? How about a year? Five years? I recommend actually writing these things down, so that you aren't tempted to change your story when the time comes to reconvene and compare notes. It takes real courage to share who you really are and what you really want, so agree beforehand that you will receive each other's revelations in a spirit of compassion, without judging them. Also, be prepared for discrepancies: the two of you probably don't want exactly the same thing, and that's okay. The goal of this exercise is simply for each of you to develop a clearer picture of what you want, so that you can better identify the areas of overlap.

Once you understand how your separate pictures match up, you can focus on the goals you have in common. Relationships always function better when you are working as a team to achieve something you both want. Of course, there is the scary possibility that you will find out there isn't much overlap in your separate visions of the future. But if that's the case, wouldn't it be better to find that out sooner rather than later?

Finally, I want to leave you with a few thoughts on the difference between boundaries and rules.

A boundary is something you set for yourself. A rule is something you agree to follow for someone else's sake.

When you are in a relationship, it is important to understand each other's boundaries so that you can try to honor them whenever possible – but you have to realize that the only boundaries you can actually control are your own. When there is a mismatch – that is, when your partner's boundaries lie outside your own comfort zone, or vice versa – you might want to agree on some rules that will enable both of you to feel more comfortable. But beware: every rule invites interpretation and every interpretation invites misinterpretation and every misinterpretation invites conflict.

That sounds ominous, doesn't it? Let me explain: whenever you make a rule, you are in effect drawing a line in the sand. Then life happens, in all its complexity: a breeze picks up, the tide comes in, and pretty soon, all that's left of that line is your memory vs. your partner's, adorned with broken seashells and rotting bits of kelp. You thought “no sexual contact between you and anyone but me and one other person” meant one thing; he thought it meant another. Voilà: you feel betrayed – and he probably feels betrayed, too!

So, don't make rules lightly. In particular, be very careful about making rules that change other people's already-existing relationships. In this specific instance, your partner's friend, the visitor with whom he has a sexual history, was affected by a rule you and your partner agreed upon – but that she had no say in. That's a set-up for a conflict of interests. Your boyfriend was in an awkward position: on one side, the Scylla of his friend's expectation of affection; and on the other, the Charybdis of your prohibition against it. Kissing his friend at the end of the evening probably seemed like the safest route to take!

That's my two cents. Don't spend it all in once place. ;-)

Heliotropes and Isotopes,

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

My Wife Wants to Open Our Marriage -- Help!

Dear Viny,

My wife and I have been happily married for more than a decade, but recently she approached me wanting to discuss the possibility of turning our monogamous marriage into an open marriage. I've struggled through almost every emotion imaginable: hurt, anger, heartbreak, betrayal, fear, jealousy, and even a bit of excitement. I've spent a lot of time doing some serious soul searching, and while I feel that hypothetically I'm actually all right with the idea of an open marriage, things start to get messy when I begin thinking of specifics. The thought of my wife doing specific things with a specific person makes me very uncomfortable. As I've tried to figure out what feelings are at the root of this discomfort, I've come back time and again to the feelings of jealousy or envy. I've leaned more towards using the word envy because it feels less negative to me. It's not that I want to stop my wife from experiencing these things, I just keep wishing that I could be the person she was experiencing them with. Do you have any advice about how I can approach dealing with these strong feelings of envy?

An Envious Husband


Dear Envious,

Almost twenty years ago, back in the days when we still had a land-line phone with an actual cord, my husband got a call from a mystery woman. She said she'd seen him around and had looked up his number because she thought he was cute. Then she asked if he was married. He said he was. “But are you happily married?” she pressed. He said he was. They talked for a few minutes longer, and then the conversation ended.

A couple of days later, my husband was still thinking about that phone call. We were sitting on the lawn underneath the old walnut tree in our back yard, and he was speculating about his mystery caller's identity. He thought she might be the new undergraduate assistant in the genetics lab where he worked. I asked if she was pretty. He said she was. Then he said, “I wonder sometimes what it would be like to touch someone else the way I touch you.” He paused. “Like this,” he added, tenderly tucking a strand of hair behind my right ear. 
Something in the pit of my stomach plummeted.

A moment earlier, I had been strolling down the sunny sidewalk of my pedestrian life, and now, suddenly, I felt like I was teetering on the brink of a dark chasm.

I quickly regained my composure, but I can still remember that feeling of emotional vertigo. It was caused by imagining my husband making an intimate gesture – a very specific gesture, one I could picture only too clearly – toward a specific woman, one who wasn't me.

My visceral reaction surprised me. After all, my husband and I had agreed to an open marriage before we tied the knot. Or, at any rate, we had agreed that infidelity wasn't going to be a deal-breaker, so long as we were honest about it. This seemed rational, given that we were only nineteen when we married each other. I mean, what were the chances neither of us was ever going to want to experience sexual intimacy with someone else?

However, it's one thing to have a theoretically open marriage, and quite another to actually open it. Theory is tidy, and keeps certain inconvenient details at a distance. Reality is messy, in-your-face, and fraught with emotional peril.

Although nothing ever came of that mystery phone call, my husband and I did end up actually opening our marriage a couple of years later. The first time I fell in love with someone else, my husband went through the kind of turmoil you describe in your letter. Then, when my husband fell in love with someone else, it was my turn to experience jealousy – which, I quickly realized, is a confusing melange of anxiety, anger, and grief, alternately heated by arousal and chilled by exhaustion, topped with a big dollop of self-loathing.

In a word: YUCK.

You are not alone, Envious. A lot of other people have gone through the yuck-fest you are going through right now. Having experienced it myself, I can promise you this: if you want to get over your negative feelings, and you are willing to work hard and wait patiently, you will get over them.

Here's the crucial question you need to answer for yourself: Do you, in fact, want to get over your strong feelings of envy? Do you want to get over them badly enough to go all the way into them? Because I can also promise you this: it's going to get worse before it gets better.

I'm sure you realize that your envy may very well be the only thing stopping your wife from engaging in those scary specifics. If feeling terrible is the only form of control you have left, in a situation that seems like it could so easily spin out of control, what incentive do you have to feel better?

I can't answer this question for you. Your wife can't answer this question for you. No one can answer this question but YOU.

I'm not going to lie to you: if you choose this path, you'll be headed straight into the fire swamp. That's why it's really, really important for you to do the choosing. If you can take responsibility for your choice, then you can take responsibility for your feelings – and that, right there, is the shortest route out of the swamp. On the other hand, if you approach this passively, allowing yourself to be dragged along but never actively choosing your way, you're going to be tempted to blame your wife for every bad feeling you experience – and the two of you will probably walk in circles, getting more and more bogged down with every step.

Since you could probably use a bit of encouragement right about now, let me tell you what's on the other side of the swamp: freedom from fear.

It's a place worth getting to. Absolutely.

Although I can't tell you which path to choose, here's some advice you can take along, wherever you decide to go:

Get Centered. Get Educated. Get Connected.

Getting centered means taking charge of your own emotions. Yes, emotions often arise in response to external stimuli. The truth is, we often have very little control over the way we feel. Someone says something that “pushes a button,” or a sad song comes on the radio, or the sound of rain on the roof calls up a memory from childhood. We can, however, choose how we experience our emotions. So, when you are feeling bad, just allow yourself to feel bad. Don't judge the feeling. Let it be – and then, when you're ready, let it go.

Getting educated means approaching each experience as an opportunity to grow. Learn everything you can – about yourself, your wife, your relationship, and relationships in general. Who are you, and who do you want to be? Who is she, and who does she want to be? What kind of relationship do you have, and what kind of relationship do you want to build together? How have other people answered these kinds of questions?

Getting connected means putting the pieces together, whether the “pieces” are ideas or things or people. Right now, the pieces are in disarray, and your life feels chaotic. However, sometimes a major shake-up can be a good thing: it gives you a chance to re-evaluate and re-arrange. Take stock of what you have, and be grateful you have so much to work with.

Bouquets and Sobriquets,

P.S. If you do end up deciding you want to see what's on the other side of jealousy badly enough to go slogging all the way through, you can find some practical tips for navigating the swamp here.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Love Triangle with a Lukewarm Twist

Dear Viny,

I'm developing feelings for a guy (let's call him "Evan") who says he's into both myself and my partner. My partner seems more ambivalent about Evan, which is frustrating me. My partner and I have been doing "V" relationships in a couple of different directions for a while now and I'd really like to try a triad for once. Evan is super-cute, really into both of us, and a great kisser. While my partner hasn't rejected him outright, he pushed for a 3-way with a new guy over a date with Evan last weekend. Even if my partner continues to be ambivalent, I still plan to see Evan and see where it leads. I know that if my partner and Evan are going to make a connection it's got to happen organically, but do you have any suggestions to (a) help them connect and/or (b) help make sure Evan doesn't get hurt by my partner not returning his feelings?

--Angling for a Triad


Dear Angling,

Have you asked your partner why he feels ambivalent about Evan? It could be that your partner simply doesn't feel an attraction to the guy; or the issue could be more complicated than that. How does your partner feel about triads? Does he share your desire to share a lover, or would he prefer to keep your threesomes casual? If your partner's ambivalence stems from underlying feelings of jealousy, he's going to have a tough time feeling enthusiastic about any guy you're really into.

Don't proceed on assumptions. Give your partner the chance to express himself directly, and reassure him that you will do your best to listen with an open mind. Once you are reasonably sure you understand where your partner is coming from, you will have a better idea of what, if anything, you can do to facilitate a connection between him and Evan.

If your partner is attracted to Evan, but doesn't want to have to watch you getting all lovey-dovey with him, then you might consider encouraging your partner and Evan to go out without you a few times. Meanwhile, you and your partner can talk more about what it would mean to expand your dyad into a triad. If it turns out that he just isn't ready to take that step, you will need to accept how he feels and stop trying for triangles.

However, if the real problem is that Evan leaves your partner limp, you definitely shouldn't push for a sexual connection between the two of them. You think Evan is super-cute, but the smile that sends you into the stratosphere might remind your partner of some douchebag in his freshman gym class. Romantic chemistry is often a mystery. Assuming your partner finds Evan basically likeable, you could arrange for the three of you to spend time together at venues where there's very little opportunity for a hook-up. (This is the best way to spare Evan's feelings, by the way: avoiding situations in which your partner feels pressured to reciprocate.) It's possible that, over time, your partner may warm up to Evan, but he's probably never going to get hot for him.

Triads are tough to get just right. What are the chances you and your partner are going to find the same person equally appealing? I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but your partner may be actually unlikely to like the guys you pick, and you might not be any more likely to like guys he picks. The two of you share a lot in common – and that's precisely why you are both going to be drawn to people who have something different to offer, something the two of you aren't already getting from each other. Let's say you and your partner bonded over a mutual love of anime and ice-skating. Enter Evan, whom you like because he's into, say, astronomy and home décor – but your partner is bored to tears by conversations about whether or not you should order those “Moons of Saturn” throw pillows. If your partner had his 'druthers, he would prefer to date someone who's all about health food – but, unfortunately, the mere mention of a chia-flaxseed-spinach-spirulina shake makes you ill.

I'm not saying triads are impossible, mind you. I know one MF couple that became a MFF triad after the woman fell in love with one of her female friends. It took a little while for the man to bond with his partner's new lover, but he did end up developing feelings for her, and the three of them have been living together happily for several years now.

I understand your desire to close that “V.” For me, one of the deepest delights of being in open relationships is being able to share someone I love with someone else I love. Even when jealousy comes up – and, if there's sexual chemistry involved, it always does – it doesn't stand a chance against the “all's right with the world!” euphoria I get when everyone is getting along. There's a flip side to that coin, though. I tend to feel disappointed when two people I love fail to make any sort of friendly connection – or, even worse, actually disapprove of each other. In these cases, I sometimes have to remind myself that their lack of enthusiasm is not some kind of personal affront to me.

You're wise to realize that a connection between your partner and Evan will have to develop organically, if it's going to develop at all. It's one thing to foster friendships between other people by creating opportunities for them to interact; it's another thing entirely to insist that their feelings follow your agenda.

Bangles and spangles,

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Lament from the Sidelines: Do Poly Men Get Less Play?

Dear Viny,

I'm a heterosexual guy in an open marriage, but over the years I've had few occasions to take much advantage of my freedom. It's not that I don't want to; it's more that I just don't know how. You see, women don't really flirt with me or think of me as potentially anything but a friend. I often think that if only I were a woman, I would have a very clear idea of what sorts of clothing, body language, etc. would communicate sexiness and availability, but for a man I can't seem to see any equivalent. It seems the situation is a lot worse for poly guys, because to single women we're that creepy married guy, and to partnered women most of us are unnecessary, because poly women can take their pick of hundreds of willing single men, PLUS all the studliest poly men, who are also available to them. Do you think, Viny, that in the Brave New Poly Paradigm, there's any hope for all of us invisible surplus males?

– W.E.


Dear W.E.,

Yes, I think there's hope for anyone – male or female, cis or trans – who is willing to set aside a narrative that's functioning primarily as an excuse.

It sounds like the story you're telling yourself is some version of, “There's nothing I can do.” Well, maybe it's time to get off your duff, sugar puff. You say women don't flirt with you – but do you flirt with them? You say you don't see any way for a man to communicate sexiness and availability – but have you even tried?

Here's an idea: why don't you find a few poly studs, and ask them how they do it. Who knows, they might even introduce you to some of their female friends and lovers. See, this is one of the niftiest features of the poly playing field: it's big enough to accommodate more than one winning team. True, the ground still isn't level. It may never be completely level. But male-male competition just got a lot less ruthless.

(I know, I know. Let's say you actually got around to interviewing some other guys for pointers. Your take-away would probably be, “Ten reasons why what works for them won't work for me.” Then you'd wriggle back down into the squelchy mud at the bottom of your comfortable rut and wait for Princess Persistent and her Siren Sextuplets to come and rescue you from your own passivity.)

Look, I don't mean to be insensitive here, but I just don't think you need any help feeling sorry for yourself. You're right: you would have better luck in the dating arena if you were a gorgeous 23-year-old vixen with a compassionate heart, a bubbly personality, and amazing tits. But how many of us fit that description? And also: what happens when that lucky girl becomes a 53-year-old with a double mastectomy? Will you still envy her then?

No matter who you are, if you want others to see you as a person worth dating, you first need to see yourself that way. As long as you keep thinking of yourself as surplus and invisible, that's what you will inevitably project in your interactions with others.

I bet you a pontoon of purple primroses that there are people in your life who consider you indispensable and irreplaceable. I have no doubt that if you asked these people what you might have to offer potential lovers, they could name all kinds of gifts – insights, experiences, talents – you have shared with them. If you're good enough for them, you're good enough.


Kisses & misses,

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Cheating, Twice Removed

Dear Viny,

Am I morally responsible for my significant other's bad relationship decisions? For example, I have a standard that I won't date people who are cheating on someone. But my significant other doesn't share that value--he has no moral problem dating people who are cheating on their significant others. To what extent am I responsible for his decisions? Should I support relationships that he has with these people? Should I get to know them as friends?

Juana B. Ethical


Dear Juana,

Oh, goody! An opportunity to play armchair philosopher! Hang on just a sec, while I pack my virtual Meerschaum with virtual tobacco and adjust my virtual pince-nez.

Let's suppose Person B takes $100 from Person A. Then, Person B and Person C blow the stolen cash on a sumptuous dinner. Person C didn't steal the money, but – it could be argued – s/he really shouldn't be eating all that escargot at Person A's expense. The question you are asking is essentially this: are you, as Person D, somehow culpable if you allow Person C to nosh on fancy edibles with Person B? That is, are you somehow indirectly harming Person A? I think the answer is a pretty clear No. You are not morally obligated to body-tackle Person C at the door of the restaurant.

Okay, that was fun. Thanks for indulging me. Unfortunately, cheating and stealing aren't analogous, real-life ethical dilemmas can't be solved in a pithy paragraph, and we're going to drive ourselves nuts if we have to start thinking about what it would look like if letters of the alphabet could fuck each other.

I sense, beneath your questions, palpable concern about the fact that you and your significant other do not agree about whether or not it is okay to date cheaters. You're not just wondering whether you should support his relationships with people you yourself wouldn't consider dating; you're also wondering, “What does it mean that we disagree with each other about something as seemingly fundamental as morality? And do you have any practical suggestions for how I can reduce conflicts that might arise, given our differences?”

I'm guessing that you have a problem with dating people who are cheating because: 1) you don't want to feel as though you are benefiting at someone else's expense; 2) you don't want to be complicit in a lie; and 3) you don't want to be involved with someone whose actions seem unethical to you.

I'm guessing that your significant other doesn't have a problem dating people who are cheating because: 1) he doesn't think anyone is being actually harmed; 2) he himself isn't breaking any promises, given that you and he have agreed that dating other people is fine; and 3) he doesn't feel it is his place to dictate how other people should conduct their romantic relationships.

Your position is perfectly reasonable. Your partner's position is also perfectly reasonable. Each of you has trouble accepting the other's position not because it seems unreasonable to you, but because you worry that accepting the other's position means you will have to re-shuffle your own ethical priorities. For example, your significant other seems to share your belief that people should be honest – it's just that, for him, “respecting others' autonomy is good” may outweigh “cheating is bad.” You, on the other hand, seem to agree with your partner that adults should be allowed to make their own decisions – after all, you don't like the idea of policing his dating life – but for you, perhaps, “encouraging ethical behavior is good” outweighs “controlling others' behavior is bad.”

In other words, both you and your significant other most likely share many of the same fundamental values. You just disagree about how to rank these values relative to one another. I assume you've heard the phrase, “The devil's in the details.”

You can minimize conflict between you and your partner by focusing on the values you share, and attempting to conduct yourselves in ways that honor your shared values. You can minimize conflict within yourself by avoiding situations in which you are forced to choose between two moral principles you hold dear.

I really value honesty. I also really value loyalty. Years ago, I had an experience (described in greater detail here) that showed me which of these principles I value more.

In my mid-twenties, I fell head over heels for a man who was engaged to be married to another woman. He wasn't being honest with her, but I told myself that his lies were none of my business. I figured I was being honest in my own relationships, and I was therefore in the clear, ethically speaking. Well, that approach worked just fine – until my husband and I were invited to my lover's wedding, and I had to sit there during the ceremony, feeling like a dirty little secret. It got worse, too. Eventually, my lover's lie became my lie: his wife called me up and asked me, point blank, whether I had checked into a motel with her husband on a certain night, and I made up a story to cover his ass.

Forced to choose between loyalty to my lover and honesty to his wife, I went with the loyal lie. After my lover and his wife divorced – over his infidelity, although it was never made explicit – I told him that I was determined to avoid another Sophie's Choice scenario: if he wanted to date other people, he had to tell them about me. At that point, I was willing to put our relationship on the line for what I thought was right.

Usually, when we want our significant other to toe the line, all we can really say is, “If you do X, I'll be mad at you.” It is only in extreme cases that we are willing to say, “If you do X, I'll leave you.” And when we say that, we have to mean it. Most of us don't mean it. Most of us are consistently going to put loyalty to our partner above our other moral principles – with one exception. Faced with a choice between loyalty to one's old partner and a smorgasbord of sexual delights with an exciting new partner, many of us will choose the sex. It may not be ethical, but it's human.

So, Juana B., here's my advice: choose both.

Polliwogs & periwinkles,

Monday, November 4, 2013

Learning to Let Go in Open Relationships

Dear Viny,

I have been in casual open relationships the majority of my dating life, and believe that some version of openness will always make sense for me in relationship. However, I recently became involved with someone who I feel more emotionally and spiritually invested in than I have in the past, and could see spending my life with this person as a romantic partner. Acknowledging this level of intimacy and connection has brought up insecurities and fears around being open. I have not experienced these feelings of insecurity or jealousy in the past and it feels uncomfortable and unnatural for me to be worried about my partner sharing a sexual or intimate experience with another person. How do I work through and let go of these feelings while maintaining an open relationship that is based in love instead of expectation?

Unexpectedly Attached


Dear Attached,

It's fascinating to me that you use the word “unnatural” to describe the anxiety you feel when you contemplate sharing your partner with other lovers s/he may have, either now or in the future. Yes, it's true that, as a former English teacher, I get all tingly when I see an opportunity for textual analysis. Maybe I'm reading too much into that one little word.

However, I'm pretty sure that a lot of people – and not just those in the monogamous mainstream, either! – would say it's only natural to feel worried about your partner being sexually or romantically involved with anyone who isn't you. The more invested in the relationship you are, the more you stand to lose; and the more you stand to lose, the more worried you're likely to feel. That's the nature of attachment.

Even though I have been in multiple open relationships for most of my adult life, and even though I haven't had a single lover I haven't had to learn to share with others, I still experience jealousy – sometimes over the stupidest things. Like, for example, when one of my partners was having a rough time recently, and he unburdened himself in a long email he sent to someone else: my kneejerk response was a pouty, “How come I didn't get a long email? You could have at least cc'd me!” Or just last night, when I got a text from my boyfriend about what a great visit he and his wife were having with some friends of theirs: as crazy as it sounds, I actually experienced a moment of unexplainable panic.

I agree with you that jealousy is an uncomfortable feeling. No, wait, let me rephrase that: jealousy SUCKS. And not at ALL in a good way. Nevertheless, my experiences of jealousy have taught me something valuable:

The only way to get over a negative feeling is to go through it.

Last night, when I noticed that my heart rate had gone up – over someone else's dinner party – I could have fought my panicky feelings. If I were the type of person who tended to blame others for my jealousy, I might have gotten angry at my boyfriend: “If you really loved me, you wouldn't do things that make me feel anxious!” More reasonably, perhaps, I could have directed this anger at myself: “What's wrong with me?! I am such a lame-o! Why can't I get a grip?” However, I didn't get angry. I simply noticed my anxiety and allowed myself to feel it. Luckily, my jealousy has a pretty short half-life these days. It's taken some practice, but I have learned that accepting my negative feelings – just letting them be – is the shortest route to a better state of mind.

It sounds like you are used to thinking of yourself a certain way: as a secure person, one who doesn't get jealous. Maybe that's why these new feelings seem “unnatural” to you. I can certainly understand your dismay. But I wonder if you are expecting too much of yourself. Letting go of an outmoded self-concept, and loving yourself for who you are right now – even if that someone isn't quite as cool with sharing your partner as you'd ideally like to be – might be a good first step.

We're human, so it's natural for us to fear losing someone we love. We can protect ourselves from this fear by refusing to give ourselves completely, or by giving ourselves only after we have secured the perimeter with razor wire and stationed guards in every tower. Or we can choose to open ourselves to love, knowing full well that we are also opening ourselves to loss.

Not just the possibility of loss. The inevitability of loss.

It's difficult to let go of the desire for some kind of guarantee, a promise that those we love are never going to leave us. But since no one can promise anything on behalf of a future self, and since no one lives forever, there is no such guarantee. We are all adrift in a sea of uncertainties about the future, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. Make yourself at home in that ebb and flow, trust in your own ability to swim, and the water will buoy you up. 

Love and luck,