Tuesday, March 22, 2016

My Wife Is Upset about My New Girlfriend. How Do I Help Her Feel Better?

Dear Viny,

My wife is really struggling with a new relationship of mine. I...don't really know what to do about it. It's true that I've fallen hard, and it's only been a month, but there is nothing family-threatening going on here. Not even remotely. And, I think my wife knows that. We have been happily poly for years now. Yes, I am in love, but I'm definitely not going anywhere.

I'm trying to be supportive, but it's difficult. My wife is all over the place.

For example, last weekend, my wife was obviously super-upset. She said some...unkind things. (Fair enough. I let her say them.) All very understandable, all things considered. So we talked, and we cried, and I thought things ended really well.

A little while later she says that she should meet my new girlfriend, and doesn't even know what she looks like. So I start trying to see when would be a good time for them to meet. But apparently I was being way too pushy.

So, ok, fine. I dropped it.

Then, a few nights ago, my wife is again really upset, and we talk, and we cry. And again, I feel like things are really good! We're solid. Life is returning to normal, she and I are spending quality time together. But...something is still wrong. What is it??

She says it's not about me. She says it's not about us. Part of it is flashbacks to a relationship I had a long time ago, which ended badly (which, ok, I fully get that). But there's some other part that I don't get. But she doesn't want to talk about it.

In fact, she doesn't want to talk about my new relationship at all. Something wonderful and magical is happening in my life, and my wife doesn't want to hear anything about it! That's her request.

So now I have all this stuff on my mind, but I have to keep it all from her. And that is starting to trigger me. I don't want to be sneaking around! My wife and I have always talked openly about our other relationships in the past. “Don't ask, don't tell” always seemed like a fucked-up arrangement to us. I don't want this to be fucked up... but if she refuses to talk to me and makes me hide this...that's just not going to go anywhere good.

But I can't say any of this to her, because she doesn't want to talk about it. She says she just needs a break from thinking about this.

Lay it on me, Viny: What am I supposed to do?

– At Wits' End


Dear AWE,

Be patient. And then be patient some more. And then continue to be unrelentingly patient, for as long as it takes your wife to get over the crisis of confidence she is currently experiencing.

If you're wondering, “But how long will that be?”, just take whatever you believe to be a reasonable amount of time, and triple it. People in the flush of NRE are notorious for being on the fast-track to fantastic. I suspect that you have been bombarding your wife with “hurry up and be happy!” demands in every conversation you've had with her thus far, whether you mean to or not. Please, back off. Give her the time she needs to work through her difficult emotions.

Physiologically, the acute phase of jealousy (yes, I think your wife is struggling with jealousy) is kind of like being love-sick – except that there is no hand whose touch will make it better. There's no relief in sight. And it is accompanied by feelings not of openness and expansion of self, but of smallness of self: the fear (or, worse, a feeling of conviction) that one is not enough.

This is not about you. It’s not about your new person. It's about your wife. I'm guessing that the reason she “doesn’t want to talk about it” is that she wants a break from being herself. Right now, her life feels like it's out of her control – in a very bad way. But her previous life, the one she was living before you fell for this other woman, seems colorless and boring – not worth returning to. She wants to feel better about herself, but she doesn’t know how. And unfortunately, there isn’t much that you can do to help her.

And yet she needs your help, or at least she needs to feel like you want to help her. She probably wishes she didn’t. She probably worries she's being a drag, and if so, the last thing she wants to do is remind you what a drag it is, dealing with her – except that she can’t help herself. So, you are going to get the hot & cold treatment. You are going to get the “I need to meet her, ASAP – no, not NOW, I can’t handle it!” tap-dance. Count on it. Prepare accordingly.

Be patient, and then be patient some more, because your wife needs TIME to see that there is nothing family-threatening going on here. There is no way around the several months (or even longer) that it will take to prove this to her.

Be way more than your fair share of patient, because you have resources she doesn’t have right now. You have reserves of self-esteem you can tap into. You have a sense of excitement about the future. And you have the support of someone new, someone who sees you at your best, someone who is going to see your failings as adorable quirks and who will feel honored by your vulnerability when you lay the worst parts of yourself bare, as opposed to thinking, “Oh yeah, here’s this thing about my partner that I’ve been banging my head against for years.”

One final suggestion: please, while you are being patient, remind your wife why you love her. It's not enough just to tell her that you love her, because right now she can't imagine why anyone would love her. She's too busy disliking herself.

This is the only thing you can do for your wife besides simply being patient while time goes by: help her rediscover what is lovable about her. (And not just lovable, but also exciting, potentially, to someone who has yet to discover her, in the way you and your new partner are currently discovering each other.) Your wife may protest that she doesn’t need this kind of attention and reassurance from you, but chances are, that’s only because she wants not to need it. Tell her what you love about her, specifically her, anyway. It will help. It may not seem like it’s helping, but I promise, it will turn out later to’ve helped.

Compassion & Kombucha,

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Prioritizing the Family Ecosystem

Hi Viny, 

I saw your blog post a while back and had meant to write in, but of course got distracted - anyway really I don't have a question for you particularly but I wanted to say that your advice got, and continues to get, me through some very dark and confusing times. I really wanted to thank you for doing what you do. I'm so grateful that you lead a life that has its ups and downs like the rest of us, because you're able to give real advice as a result. This loving people thing isn't always straightforward and I'm so glad I have you out there blazing a trail and reporting back on how to handle it.

Thanks again! 

-- A Reader


Dear Reader,

Your kind words are much appreciated. In evaluating what I want to do with this blog in the future, and what other venues might exist for advice-giving, I have been thinking a lot about two questions:

1) Given that there are a limited number of activities/pursuits/goals I can reasonably expect to cram into my "spare" time, what are my priorities?

2) What is the value of making my private experience public? Do the benefits outweigh the risks? And what about the fact that my stories are almost always other people's stories as well, and that I cannot always get their permission/buy-in?

The topic of priorities came up in a conversation my husband recently had with his mother. 
My mother-in-law has done a pretty good job of accepting our unconventional approach to marriage, and she's made a point of welcoming my boyfriend Cam into the family. But she was upset that on our recent family trip to Utah, Cam and I booked a Bed & Breakfast for one of the nights we were there. She would have preferred for us to stay at her house for the entire vacation, since it was such a short visit. Yes, she'd given me and Parker the guest bedroom, and Cam the living room couch, but handling the sleeping arrangements any other way would have felt awkward to her. Surely, Cam and I could stand to sleep apart for four measly nights, right?
She complained to Parker, "It's clear that Viny's first priority is Cam. And her second priority is [Parker's and my 8-year-old daughter] Sienna. But I don't even know where you fit in, Parker -- it seems like you're pretty far down on the list of priorities."

Granted, she was frustrated and angry when she said this; she was also probably worried about Parker feeling left out, given that he wasn't spending the night at a cool B&B. But I figured I'd better address her concerns directly. So I asked her about what she had said to Parker, and asked her for an opportunity to explain what I think my priorities are.

I told her that my first priority is actually what I call the family ecosystem. This system is made up of individuals, yes, but it is far greater than the sum of its parts, because it also encompasses the dynamic interplay of the relationships between those individuals. Put more simply: I try to make decisions based on what is going to be best for group functioning. Sometimes that looks kind of like utilitarianism (maximizing happiness by thinking about which choice is likely to result in the greatest good for the greatest number). Other times, it may seem on the surface to be favoritism. Or even pure selfishness. Maybe sometimes it is favoritism, or selfishness -- but I try very hard not to indulge in either, unless I feel that doing so will ultimately be in everyone's best interests.

Mind you, I don't always succeed in prioritizing the family ecosystem. But it's always my intention to put the overall healthy functioning of the group first.
Luckily, my mother-in-law seemed to appreciate both this explanation and the intentions behind it. Family feud averted. Whew!

I still have to finish packing for yet another family reunion -- my side of the family, this time -- so I'll have to post this in its half-baked state. Thanks for giving me that little nudge, and a reason to reflect.
Applesauce & Dental floss,

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

A Confession

I find it difficult to pose as a “relationship expert” whenever I am feeling uncomfortable about how I am handling one or more of my own intimate relationships, or when too many other people's relationships seem to be going really badly, or when I'm pessimistic about the likelihood of human beings ever learning how to get along with each other for long enough to build anything worthwhile.

All three of those are operative right now. (It's Super Tuesday here in the U.S., and our country was desperately in need of therapy before this divisive primary election.)

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you might have noticed that I haven't written a real post since early December 2015. I'm pretty sure that's due, in large part, to the fact that on December 11, one of my most dysfunctional relationships came back to bite me in the ass. That day, the friend I wrote about in my post The End of a Relationship surprised me by sending me a long string of texts. She had read the post, and she thought I had not represented her fairly or accurately. She was hurt. I was thinking about responding with an apology, but wasn't sure it would be wise to re-engage. I decided to sleep on it. I woke up to another volley from her, sent in the middle of the night while my sound was off, which began thus:

“You throw fucking quotation marks around whatever you want as if you are expressing another verbatim. How would you like to be treated like that? Do you think you are the only person who can create a public space in which such liberties exist? How about I create a blog in which I quote you however the fuck I want? Would you like that, [Viny]? Let's find out. You took the step. You created the challenge. I accept.”

Although I seriously doubt that she has made good on this threat – since I assume she has better things to do with her time than post vitriol on whatever VinySux platform she might have been envisioning – it did take the wind out of my sails.

So, since then I've been focusing on showing up for my friends, and friends-of-friends, either in private emails, or over the phone, or in person. Most of my Dear Viny questions come from people I know, or from people who know people I know, anyway, so not showing up on my blog hasn't made much of a difference in terms of what I do.

Then yesterday I got a message from one of my cousins, who doesn't know I write (or used to write?) an advice column, and who may not even know that I'm not monogamous. He was just writing to me as his cousin, filling me in on the last three years of his twenty-year marriage, because I had noticed a strange first-person singular in a Facebook post about him moving to a new house, and had written him a private message to inquire about his relationship status. He thanked me for checking in, and told me he was “tired of pretending” and had decided to “acknowledge reality” – namely that his wife, after “multiple affairs with multiple men in multiple parts of the world” had chosen “freedom over relationships.”

There are only a few things one can do to help people who are in emotional pain: distract them (with amusing prattle or interesting stories, or by engaging their senses in some way, or by giving them an activity that shifts their focus); listen to them; remind them of the temporary nature of all experience (“this too shall pass”); help them breathe through it, moment to moment; and just be there with them, so they know they aren't alone.

I'm grateful to my cousin for inadvertently reminding me that my real goal for Dear Viny is to help people, and that I can't help people if I'm pretending to be better than I am – if I'm so wrapped up in my persona that I forget to be a person. The fact is, no one gets to be a relationship expert by getting things right all the time. I've made a lot of mistakes, and I'm going to keep making mistakes.


I'm still not sure what I'm going to be doing with Dear Viny in the future. But do feel free to write me (jakartaviny@gmail.com) if you've got a relationship problem that's been puzzling you. Chances are, it has puzzled me, too.