Monday, September 1, 2014

I Wish My Girlfriend Had Another Boyfriend

Dear Viny,  

I am a 17 year old male, with a girlfriend about my age. We've been dating for just over a year, but in the past few months, things have been getting worse and worse. We fight more and more about little things, and she seems to always need more attention than I am capable of providing. I love her, but she turns to me to solve all of her problems, which I struggle to keep up with. I can't be too sure, but I think it has something to do with her fear of abandonment, most likely fostered by her alcoholic and emotionally unavailable parents, as well as her verbally abusive older sister. She has no emotional support other than whoever she's dating. As a last attempt to fix our relationship, I have recently been considering the idea of suggesting polyamory, something that has worked for several people (of all ages) whom I know, in the hopes that it might help us both to have other people to be intimate with. Maybe if we had some more support and new perspectives, it could help to take the pressure off. Do you think this is a good idea? And if not, what should I do instead? 

- The Rambler 


Dear Rambler,

I think you are wise to see that you and your girlfriend could both benefit from expanding your support network. One of polyamory's great contributions to popular culture is that it provides a radical validation of the not-so-radical idea that people do better when they are able to cultivate close, meaningful relationships with more than one person at a time. However, polyamory is certainly not the only way to avoid dumping all of your emotional needs on one overburdened partner – and thank the glutenous appendages of the Great Spaghetti Monster for that, because I think polyamory would be a really bad idea for you and your girlfriend right now.

There are probably polyfolk out there who would tell you that polyamory isn't on the Relationship 101 syllabus, and therefore you'd be better off sticking with monogamy until you've learned the basics. I think that's patronizing. It puts down young and inexperienced people, who are presumed to be incapable of choosing the relationship dynamic that's right for them, and it puts down people who choose to be monogamous by implying that monogamy is super simple, a piece of no-bake cheesecake right out of the box.

The reason polyamory isn't right for you right now isn't because you're still a teenager. It's because you are approaching polyamory as a means to an end. And I mean that in two ways: 1) you want to fix a problem, and are considering polyamory as a last-ditch means to accomplish that end; and 2) you seem to be hoping that polyamory will somehow provide you with a way out of your current predicament, an end to your discomfort. Maybe I'm reading too much into the phrase, “As a last attempt to fix our relationship....” And maybe you chose your pseudonym without ever having heard the lyrics to the Allman Brothers song that's currently looping through my brain: Lord, I was born a ramblin' man / Tryin' to make a living, and doin' the best I can / And when it's time for leaving, I hope you'll understand / That I was born a ramblin' man. 

Yep, call me crazy, but I have a sneaking suspicion that you've got at least one foot out the door already. 

No matter what age you are, bringing other people onto a sinking ship is a bad idea. It's not fair to them, and it's not fair to you. I'm not saying you have to have a perfect relationship before you can consider opening it up and dating other people. No relationship is perfect. What I'm saying is there's a big difference between telling your girlfriend, “There are so many great things about us as a couple, and I want to work on the long-term sustainability of our relationship by making sure we each get the breathing room we need,” and telling her, “We're so fucking miserable we might as well add a couple of other people into this messed-up mix and just see what happens – 'cuz it's not like it can get any worse than it already is, right?” (Wrong. It can get worse. A lot worse.)

In other words: polyamory is not a good exit strategy.

So, what do I think you should do instead? Well, for starters, I think you should listen to your heart. Do you want to be in this relationship, or don't you? If you're unclear about the answer to that question – if you feel an ambivalent mix of “yes” and “no” – then make a list of all the reasons why you want to stay, and another list of all the reasons why you want to go, and see if you can find any patterns. As you're reading through your lists, please remember this: fear is not a good reason to stay. (It's also not a good reason to go.) Once you're clear, communicate. Share your thoughts and feelings with your girlfriend, gently and compassionately.

Secondly, from what you've said, it sounds like your girlfriend might need professional counseling and/or a support group to help her deal with the problems she is having at home as a result of her parents' alcoholism. Alcoholism is a serious disease, and it wreaks havoc on relationships. Fear of abandonment is just the tip of the iceberg! There's also low self- esteem (typically the result over-estimating one's ability to control someone else's drinking, and utterly failing), and co-dependence, and enabling behaviors – and the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, Rambler, your girlfriend has grown up in a pretty dysfunctional family. She will have to work hard to unlearn the lessons her parents have unwittingly taught her about what it means to be in a relationship with another person. I strongly recommend that she check out Al-Anon/Alateen, which provides fellowship for friends and family members of alcoholics. There is probably a group that meets in your area (you can find out here). You could consider attending meetings with her, if you feel that would help. Be advised that there's a religious element to most 12-step programs, which some people might find off-putting (I know I do, anyway!) – but at least it's a starting point for building a support network of people who are dealing with similar issues and can recommend other good resources.

Finally, whether you stay or go, one of the nicest things you can do for this girl you love is to model healthy relationship habits. So be true to yourself, and be honest with her. That may mean acknowledging that the relationship is over, and moving on. It may mean taking a break for a while. Or it may mean setting some boundaries, so that you each have the space you need to become strong, independent people, and you each have the time you need to cultivate other interests and friendships.

Thanks for writing. I'm honored that you consulted me, and I wish you both the very best.

Summer Shade & Lemonade,

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