Wow, this is weird, but my whole life turned weird a year ago, so maybe this is normal. Quick stats: 48, stay-at-home mom, 21 year marriage, monogamous to the core, husband dropped the polybomb a year ago. I'm still sifting through the rubble trying to find anything worth saving. We've been in therapy for a little over 6 months, but I'm still struggling and I'm afraid I will never be comfortable with this. I went from a tight, loving secure partnership to having doubts and fears and insecurities out the wazoo. I know I'm absolutely not interested in sharing the kind of deeply intimate emotional and physical relationship I have with my husband with any other man. And I can't understand why he wants to. I'm battling the "why am I not enough/good enough to keep you interested in me" demons. I'm also deeply squicked out about the physical aspects of sharing my husband's body with someone else. The thought of touching, kissing, making love with him after he's been inside someone else is deeply uncomfortable.
So after that rambling mess, here's the issue. In therapy, I was asked "What can your husband do, in lieu of emotional and physical fidelity, to assure you of his love and commitment? What can he do/say/give you to help you feel safe/loved/comfortable?" I'm having a really hard time coming up with anything tangible when the voice in my head keeps screaming "NOOOOOOOO!!!! Don't do this!!!!!"
We're not one of those couples joined at the hip, we both have separate friends and hobbies as well as the multitude of things we share, so it's not like I expect him to be my everything. But I did expect him to be my only deep love and intimate partner. And I was really hoping he felt the same about me. Now I feel like I'm being demoted and that I'll eventually be dismissed. You know, First Wives' Club. "Yeah, honey, thanks for raising my kids and helping me build my business and restore our kickass Victorian home, but this is Vicki and I really want to bone her now, sooooo…."
Dammit, rambling again. I guess, two things, how do I trust him in this when it seems like our whole marriage was a lie, and two, how do you get over the ick factor of your beloved having sex with other people?
My heart goes out to you. You’re putting on a brave face, but you are clearly in a lot of pain — and I can totally see why. Your situation is tragic, in the classic sense. Like a person whose spouse was diagnosed with cancer, or someone whose house was leveled by a tornado, you are in an emotional tailspin because your life has been permanently altered, in a way that you would never have chosen for yourself, by a force beyond your control. And to make matters worse, it was your loving husband who set that destructive force in motion. From your point of view, he might as well have said, “Honey, I’ve been praying for cancer,” or, “What I think this place really needs is a natural disaster,” and BAM: a year later, you’re still picking up the pieces, shellshocked, going, “How do I put this back together?” and “What the hell were you thinking?”
Obviously, I do not mean to imply that polyamory is a bad thing. I am simply recognizing that your husband’s revelation — “I think I might be poly,” or “I would like us to open our marriage,” or whatever he said to you — was a life-changing event you wish had never happened.
For that reason, the first thing you are going to have to do is to work through your anger and grief and come to a place of acceptance. Your husband is not exactly the person you thought he was. The relationship you had, which felt right to you, did not feel right to him. Going forward, you and your husband do not have entirely matching visions of the “good” life. Those are the stark facts, ma’am, and regardless of what the two of you decide to do about dealing with your differences, you desperately need to come to terms with this new reality. Only after you have accepted your life, as it now is, will you be able to think constructively about how it might be.
Getting your old life back is not an option. As soon as you’ve made peace with that, you will be in a position to think about how you want to move forward. Moving forward always requires saying “yes” to something, and you can’t say “yes” to anything as long as you’re still screaming, “NOOOOOOOO!!!!”
I’m not going to try to convince you to say “yes” to what your husband wants. But I do think you ought to start by saying “yes” to what you want — not in some imaginary world, in which your husband’s polybomb never exploded, smashing your sweet heart to smithereens, but in this world, the weird and wackadoodle place where you — you, of all people! — have been reduced to asking some Viny chick for “alternative” advice online. Whether you like it or not, this world is now your world.
So, now that you’re here, how do you figure out what you want? That’s a tough question. I can’t answer it for you, but I can give you a good starting point to begin soul-searching: imagine yourself, twenty years from now, telling a good friend, “That polybomb my husband dropped on our marriage back in 2014 turned out to be a blessing in disguise.” If you can imagine anything good — good, according to you — coming out of the wreckage of the marriage you once thought you had, then there’s a “yes” you can feel good about working toward.
Now, to answer the two questions you actually asked.
Question #1: How can you trust your husband, given that your whole marriage now feels like a lie?
In my opinion, your inability to trust your husband isn’t the real problem here. The real problem is your inability to trust yourself: you thought your husband wanted the same kind of marriage that has always appealed to you, and you turned out to be wrong. It doesn’t matter why you believed what you did, only that your belief turned out to be false, and now you’re afraid: if you were wrong about him once, what’s to prevent you from being wrong about him again? The answer is: nothing. You will probably be wrong about him, yourself, and everything else in the world in lots of ways before all is said and done. And that is okay. You see, trusting a partner is just a choice you can make — not because that person has proven, beyond all doubt, that he or she “deserves” to be trusted, or because you’re sure you can’t possibly be wrong, but because you have decided it’s the best choice for you. And in order to make a deliberate choice to trust someone else, you have to trust your own ability to make good choices.
I am sure there is evidence both for and against the story you’re currently telling yourself, the one in which your husband was lying for twenty years, while you played the part of his dupe. So, it’s time to decide: do you or do you not want to believe that awful story? May I suggest that the “tight, loving secure partnership” whose loss you are presently mourning was not a complete fabrication? That it was in fact based on mutual attraction, respect, and positive regard — and that all of these things are still possible, if you choose to believe in them?
Question #2: How does one get over the “ick” factor of sharing one’s lover with another person?
This question surprised me, because I have never felt grossed out by being with a partner who has recently been sexually involved with someone else. (Emotionally threatened, yes; physically revolted, no.) Sex is inherently sexy to me — so, although I seem to be more paranoid about STI risk than many non-monogamous people I know, I really don’t mind the idea of this or that beloved appendage having been in some orifice that doesn’t belong to me, so long as reasonable safe-sex precautions have been taken. I have never been the type to insist on showers and clean sheets after my partner has been physically intimate with someone else. Honestly, it’s never occurred to me, before now, to wonder why not — but I guess I simply assume that a person cherished by my partner is worthy of my love as well, at least by extension. It doesn’t bother me to think there might be some symbolic or energetic “trace” of a foreign body on my lover’s body, because I do not perceive my lover’s lover as foreign, like a pathogen or a noxious weed. It’s more like, “Your invited guest is my invited guest.”
Then too, I have never thought of anyone else’s body as mine, to share or not share, as I see fit. I firmly believe that each person’s body is his/her/their own. Another person’s body may be shared with me, for a period of time, as a gift; my sacred task is to appreciate that gift without expecting to keep it for myself.
Although you and I are coming from very different paradigms, I suspect that you will feel much less squicky about sharing your husband’s body if you do in fact choose to share him, for reasons that feel right to you. It’s amazing what a little agency can do. I also think that if you can shift your perspective just a bit, “Vicki” (the hypothetical home-wrecker in your First Wives’ Club scenario) will turn out to be, on closer examination, a person — just a person, much like yourself, with needs and hopes and fears (and maybe even a few stretch marks). Are other people so gross, really?
There is one final part of your letter that I would like to unpack. You say you are “absolutely not interested” in sharing the kind of relationship you have with your husband with anyone else, and that you “can’t understand” why he would want to share that kind of relationship with anyone other than you. I have a couple of reactions to these claims of yours. First of all, I am suspicious of how emphatically you state your disinterest. Are you so sure? Is there no circumstance under which you might feel differently than you do now? But even putting that objection aside, and assuming that you are 100% correct (not only about your present self, but also your future self), I smell a two-faced rat. On one face, the sneer of smug superiority (“I would never consider the horrible thing you are considering; I am so much more loyal and loving than you are!”). On the other face, eyes squinched shut (“I refuse to look at your reasons for wanting to share love and sex with anyone else, because I’m terrified of what I’ll see. What if you don’t love me anymore? What if it's because there’s something wrong with me?!”)
Faithful, it’s obvious to me from your letter that you are smart, sassy, and supportive — which is a truly kickass combo of womanly virtues, in my opinion. Your husband is one lucky guy. And guess what? He probably knows it. I can’t tell you his reasons for dropping the polybomb, as you put it, but I have a hunch they’re mostly about him. Have you ever tried asking him why he wants to be intimate with other people? I mean, really asking him, and really listening — curiously, compassionately, without judgement or self-defensiveness — to what he has to say in response? Perhaps if the two of you could approach each other in a spirit of open communication, you would be able to explain yourself, and he would be able to explain himself, without either of you having to make the other person wrong. You’re monogamous; he’s polyamorous. You love the shade; he loves the sun. To-may-to; to-mah-to.You get the idea. Can you love each other the way you are?
Thanks for writing. I admire your courage, and I wish you the best of luck.
Panache and Penuche,