I have been in a long term relationship for the last 10 years, most of my adult life. We are recently married, and have always been very strong together. About 4 months ago my wife asked if we could open our marriage and try polyamory. She also indicated that she had developed a crush on one of our friends. I had thought about poly before and had imagined we might end up there one day. I also imagined that I could get some benefit from it. My wife came at it from an angle of being in a strong place in our relationship, but feeling like we could get more, if we opened ourselves up to love beyond our marriage. With all this in mind I agreed that we could try it. She had been thinking about it for a while and reading quite a lot. Within a week she had kissed the friend and struck up a relationship. I busied myself with reading and thinking but was not quite happy. There was a lot of fear, jealousy and unhappiness – too much to really get into the details, but I imagine you know the deal. I was mainly afraid that she was so excited by this new man and by this new lifestyle that she would realise she didn't actually need me. She always denied this though and insisted that she really does want me, but also wants a polyamorous relationship. At one point it got too much for me and I asked her to call it off while I spent time getting my head right. I also have a very stressful job that is at its worst and is really damaging my happiness and self-esteem, and it is mingling in with this relationship stuff to really make me an anxious wreck. It is one month later and we have done a ton of reading, talking, thinking, fighting, and crying, and we have also had some good times within that. She would now very much like to go back to her lover, and I want her to be happy. I also do feel like I can get behind us being polyamorous, but it is very difficult to adjust to. The feelings of fear and jealousy are stronger than ever and I am not sure what to do. I feel so conflicted, because I want to be the type of person who is ok with this, I want to be less jealous, possessive and weird. I want her to be happy, and I want to be happy too. I want to meet new people, but I am not quite there yet from a confidence point of view. I have now told her that it is ok for her to go back to the lover, but I am conflicted. I think that part of me is letting her do that out of fear of her resenting me for not letting her do it, part of me really wants to be ok with the whole thing and thinks I can get ok with it, and part of me really doesn't want it. I am also not sure if it is just because of who it is with – the friend is someone I respect and feel inadequate in comparison to, and I also have to see him quite a lot because of our friendship circle.
Really, I am just wondering if I am a fool for thinking that I can adjust to this and get ok with it, even though I feel quite scared. Is it better for me to tell my wife to break it off completely, rather than toying with her emotions while I am uncertain? Or should I just let it happen and attempt to sort myself out while it goes on? Any advice would be most welcome.
- Space Ghost
Dear Space Ghost,
In your travels through the ether, have you by chance come across an article titled “Lasting Relationships Come Down To 2 Basic Traits”? If not, read it. It's interesting. But in case you're not in the mood for clickbait right now, I'll do you a favor and give you the Cliff's Notes version: the two basic traits are kindness and generosity.
Please keep those traits in mind as you read on, because we'll be getting back to them.
This morning, I read your letter aloud to my husband. We were still in bed, and I didn't have my contacts in, which meant I had to hold my cell phone practically against my nose to read the words. Parker was holding the sheet to his nose, as he often does when he's in bed, awake, and deep in thought. I'm telling you this so you get the picture: two sets of naked shoulders; two noses, both covered by something; two sets of eyes; two heads of messy hair (his looks much better messy than mine does, though). We've known each other for thirty years, Parker and I: we met in sixth grade, when we were both eleven.
“This person sounds so much like you would have sounded, if you had written a letter back in the early days, when I was first with Scott,” I said. “So, I'm curious: if you could say one thing to this Space Ghost guy, what would it be?”
“Hmmm – one thing?” Here Parker's voice descended about an octave: “Dude – it sounds like you got 99 problems, and your b*tch ain't one.” Then he added, in his normal tone, “You did want the ultra masculine perspective, right?”
He explained that your actual problems, as he saw them, were these: 1) your job is stressing you out and damaging your happiness and self-esteem; 2) you don't have a crush on anyone (which means that opening your marriage has not brought you a sense of excitement or heightened possibility); and 3) you are using your social network to fuel your own feelings of inadequacy, rather than as a source of support.
So, okay, only three problems, not ninety-nine. I hope that softens the “tough love” blow.
Is it possible, my dear Casper, that your relationship with your wife is the One Really Good Thing about your life? It sounds like you've pinned all of your happiness and all of your self-worth to that relationship. If so, that's a BIG reason why this new development is driving you to distraction and despair. Not because your relationship with your wife is a problem, but because it's the only thing that isn't a problem. What happens if you lose your One Really Good Thing? You'll be left with nothing, that's what. No wonder you're so scared.
I'm not much of one for trotting out Biblical parables, since religion is a sore subject with me (I grew up Mormon, and am still recovering), but have you heard the one about the three servants who got different amounts of money? Their master was going away on a business trip or something, and he wanted them to steward his money, with the hope that they'd increase his wealth in his absence. He gave one servant ten talents, and another five talents, and the last he gave one talent. The guy with ten talents went and bought something, like probably sheep (I'm getting this all wrong, but it's the basic gist that matters), and the sheep had lambs, which he sold for a profit, so when the master returned, he had twenty talents to show. And the second guy went and bought, I dunno, let's say grapes, and made them into wine, which he sold for a profit, so when the master returned, he had ten talents instead of just five. But the guy who only got one talent was so worried about losing what little he had that he buried the money – and then forgot where it was.
I don't see kindness or generosity in that parable, but it is a cautionary tale about what can happen when we are so afraid of losing our One Good Thing that we in fact cause our worst fears to come true.
Here's my advice. I think you should believe your wife when she tells you she still loves you and needs you. I think that instead of treating your relationship with her like it's the problem, you should tackle your real problems – your shitty job, your feelings of inadequacy, your competitive crappola – with a “can-do” attitude. I think you should work on strengthening your capacity for kindness and generosity in all your relationships – with your wife, and with her new lover (who is also your friend, after all), and definitely, most definitely, with yourself.
Whenever you are faced with a “how do I deal with this?” conundrum, and you are evaluating possible action steps, just ask yourself, “Is this approach as kind and generous as I am capable of being?” Telling your wife and your friend to break things off completely? Not so much. Toying with their emotions while you are uncertain? Um, nope. Just letting it all do whatever it does while you flounder and flail, even though that is going to make you feel like absolute shit, because the other guy is better than you and beggars can't be choosers and all that? Also a big fat “En Oh spells NO.”
You're a thoughtful person, S.G., and you have good intentions. You're also clearly struggling with feelings of low self-worth. That's a normal (albeit super sucky) side-effect of jealousy, but it also sounds like you're self-critical even when you are not feeling jealous. Use this as an opportunity to work on becoming a better you – namely, someone you yourself can depend upon to be kind and generous – and I promise you, it will get better.
Yes, unfortunately, it may get worse before it gets better. And after it's gotten better, it may get worse again before it gets better again, but overall, it does get better. (Yes, I'm borrowing a phrase, because it's perfectly applicable to your situation.) Please remember that I'm saying this as someone who has been in your position. I'm saying this as someone who knows many other people who have been in your position. I'm saying this as someone who is intimately familiar with the conflicting thoughts and emotions you describe, and I am telling you, it gets better. I hope that helps.
Spring rains & slow gains,