DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’ve got a situation that would really benefit from your advice. You know how you say monogamy is agreeing to not bang other people, not an agreement to never want to bang other people? Well, this is pretty much that. Buckle up, it’s background story time:
Back in 2013 I met a guy called Pete*. We fell into a FWB set up from the beginning, which was what we both wanted. We bonded quickly and the sex was phenomenal. I had been going through an awful time for several years, pretty much everything from finances to a burgeoning drug and alcohol problem. Pete was my rock, and going to his place was one of the few calm, sane moments of my life. So obviously, I catch feelings.
I didn’t stop sleeping with Pete. I did put out the feelers to see if a relationship was on the cards, but for some very good reasons, he didn’t feel capable of being in a relationship. My feelings aside, Pete was a great friend and I’m good enough at compartmentalizing that I can be happy with what we had. Meanwhile, I had several other FWBs and I was parting hard and banging a lot of dudes.
Start of 2015, I moved across the country. I was still partying, and got some new FWBs and some casual relationships. Only one serious relationship, and that ended in utter heartbreak. Pete and I are still talking, still friends. He felt ready to start dating again, which was hard to deal with, but I made peace with it and felt like I’d successfully moved on. Completely unintentionally, we both kept having breakups within months of each other, and sleeping together post breakup became our “thing”.
He was never using me, and he’s always been honest with me. He’s a great guy, there was just bad timing. Besides, there’s a lot of reasons we’re much better off as friends. We really wouldn’t last if we had a relationship, believe me.
After a few years in my new town, I met Carl* on holiday. After talking for months, we realize we have feelings for each other, and now I live in his country. We’re getting married in August. He’s absolutely the guy for me, and we’re brilliant together. I’ve not had a lot of serious relationships, but this is the best I’ve ever felt with someone.
We have one issue, and that’s sex. It’s regular, and it’s improving, but it’s not quite there. There’s a few reasons why that is. Firstly he’s only just getting confident and comfortable. We also temporarily live with his parents, which puts a bit of a dampener on things, and he’s away every other week for work.
Then there’s my past. I was self destruction partying for 10 straight years, and my hobby was essentially drinking heavily, upping my number of sexual partners, and getting into wild, crazy situations. I was very good at it. My number got to the triple digits and snorting coke of a stripper mid foursome doesn’t even make my top 5 of crazy. A bit before I got with Carl, I was trying to sort my life out, but sudden monogamy has still been a bit jarring. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been and I’m genuinely enthusiastic about monogamy, but I’m kinda having to relearn sex and distinguish between stuff I enjoyed and stuff that was just for the craziness.
Anyway, Pete met a woman around the time Carl happened, and was even taking about marriage. We’re pretty much best friends by now, and I was happy for him. But just after New Years, Pete told me they’d split. We got talking, and soon started joking about the break up booty call situation, as well as reminiscing about non-sexual time together. Neither of us pushed it, but the conversation slipped into flirting and alluding to memories of sex. Somehow, the conversation resulted in me giving him the go ahead to bash one out to old photos and videos of me.
We’ve been talking more regularly since then, and the conversation invariably goes at least somewhat that way every time. And obviously, this has gotten to be an issue. In our latest conversation, he told me that his ex had photos of him on her Fetlife account. We joked about forbidden fruit, the conversation itself was above board. But I made a huge leap over the line, not to mention stalker-ish and a bit mental. I made a fake account and searched for the ex, scrolling though member lists of people in her town. And I found the pictures. Not only are they ridiculously hot, there’s also a few of them involving a kink that I never knew he had, and it’s one of my biggies.
The chemistry between us is definitely not dead, I feel like I used to when I was driving to his place. I’m getting giggly, I’m getting giddy, just his name popping up on my screen is starting to turn me on, and I’m having fantasies of banging him or of him professing his undying love to me. It’s 2014 all over again.
I’m in no way planning on cheating on Carl, and it’s not making me doubt the future marriage. Carl and I have maybe gotten a bit too comfortable with each other, we need to spark up again and make sex naughty instead of a nice end to the day. It’s an area that needs work and I’m happy to do it. Pete wouldn’t sleep with someone in a relationship either. And even if we did actively want to bang, I’m a four hour flight away, and a 4 hour drive from the airport. Basically, there’s zero risk of anything happening.
That said, I’m messing myself up a bit with this. The Pete issue was dead and buried, and now I’m waking it back up again and with no good reason. I know fantasies aren’t cheating, but I think a lot of this is at least in a grey area. I’m also finding that part of me doesn’t want to stop, and that’s not good, is it?
How do I cut this off, Doc? I don’t just wanna freeze Pete out, he’s my best friend, and we easily managed to talk non-sexually with each other since we both got into relationships. We can be “just friends”. Is there a way to switch this off and go back to considering him a bro? Can I bury this again? Or am I gonna have to lose a best friend?
PS: I have a therapist and I am talking to her about it but your perspective on things like this is always great.
DEAR SIMMER DOWN: It’s times like this that I think of The Happy Pervert’s Prayer: “Lead me not into temptation because I know the way just fine, thanks.”
There’re a couple of issues here that feed into one another, SD. The first is that you’re in something of a transitional period. It’s good that you’re getting your crap sorted – one of the most important parts of any relationship is to make sure that you’re in good working order – but as I’m sure you’re learning: it’s a process. You’re having to unlearn old habits and carve new grooves into your brain. And even though you know intellectually that some of the stuff you were doing was just craziness for craziness’ sake, it takes a lot of effort to break out of old patterns. The human brain is lazy, and it prefers to do what it’s used to. Trying to start new patterns requires energy and effort; the old and familiar means that you can coast on autopilot.
Plus, there’s the addiction angle; even self-destructive behavior can trigger a dopamine rush, and your brain wants more of that. So when you start to change those patterns, your brain will fight you every step of the way so it can keep getting that happy dopamine buzz. It will deliberately flood you with cravings to make you go get that rush. Anyone who’s ever tried to change their diet or give up things like sodas or caffeine know that feeling; you’re fine, you’re fine, you’re fine OH GOD GIVE ME ALL THE DIET DR. PEPPER RIGHT THE HELL NOW NOW NOW.
This is what’s known as an “extinction burst” and it’s an insidious way our brains sabotage us because brains just don’t give a damn.
So that’s one part of the puzzle.
The next is the sexual side of things between you and your fiancé. As you said: things are rocky right now. There’re a lot of understandable reasons for it, sure… but it’s still rough. And once again: the fact that you recognize intellectually that issues aren’t your fault doesn’t change the fact that your brain (and your junk) doesn’t care. You essentially have to muscle through the tough times; you have to be reminding your jerk brain that things are doing better and the reason why it’s not all four alarm fires and crazy rodeo-banging is because hey, timing sucks right now!
And then there’s Pete. Pete is known. Pete is familiar. You’re having to work with Carl, but you know things with Pete was relatively effortless. And once again, we have the intellect vs. the sensual: you know intellectually that things can’t work between you but GODDDAMN the sex was fire. Thus the problem: Carl takes work. Pete is the easier looking path. If you’ll forgive an inelegant metaphor, Carl is a delicious salad that you’re making at home while Pete is the fast food cheeseburger with large fries from the drive through.
And believe me, I understand. I have partners in my past where we could never make it as a couple but hoooo damn all those reasons disappeared when the clothes came off.
But of course, understanding the issue is only one step. The next is: “what do you do about things”?
And well, I’m reminded of the old joke.
“Doctor, doctor, it hurts when I go like this.”
“Well, stop going like that.”
The reason these temptations keep flaring up is… well, y’all keep flirting. And while I’m a firm believer that micro-cheating is bulls
t, that you can be friends with people you want to bang and that there’s nothing wrong with flirty friendships… there’s a flirty friendship and then there’s crossing the line. And honestly? With the life you’re trying to live right now, you’re not just tip-toeing up to the line, you’re playing “just the tip” with it.
If you really want to let the attraction between the two of you fade, you really need to stop feeding it. Your friendship can’t be strictly platonic if you keep poking at it and saying “hey, remember how great the sex was? Hey, wanna spank it to my pics like you used to? Man, if only we could bang like we used to BUT WE CAN’T but what if we could?”
And for real: you may have some inconveniences now… but I am willing to bet no small amount of money that one of you is going to end up in a situation where you just happen to be within a reasonable drive of one another. I’m not saying you’re going to go out of your way to make this happen… but I amsaying that you may take the opportunity when it comes up.
You’ve been putting yourself into temptation’s way and dude, I totally get it. It’s hot, it’s fun, it gets your engine running in ways that just aren’t happening with Carl right now. But the longer you do this, the easier it’s going to be for accidents to happen. Like “Oops, my finger slipped and here’s a new photo” accident. Or “Oops, I may have accidentally booked a ticket to your city”.
If you want your friendship to last and you want to maintain your relationship with Carl, then you need to start setting some boundaries between you and Pete. That means no flirting, no looking up sexy pics of each other on FetLife, no talking about how much you two still love to rub one out to the memory (or old souvenirs).
One thing that may help is adding extra layers that you have to navigate through to get to those old temptations. Remember what I said about our brains being lazy? The more inconvenient you can make it to fuel those fantasies, the less likely you are to indulge them. Doing things like putting those souvenirs out of reach and using an app to block FetLife adds extra steps to getting to those spicy pics. Yeah, you can totally turn off the app and get access… but that’s still another step to go through and there’s all the porn on the Internet that’s easier to get to.
By all means, keep talking, keep being friends, even joke about the old break-up pattern you had. But leave the sex out of it. It’s too easy to fall into old patterns and let those old habits come back. And since I know it will happen – because been there, done that, printed the t-shirt – you will hit the “Oh, we’re over this, we can totally flirt a little, it’ll be fine” wall after a few weeks. Trust me: you’re not and you can’t. That’s just the extinction burst hitting back.
Oh and while you’re at it, devote some time to having some crazy adventures with Carl. It’s good that things are improving, but you may want to devote more time and attention to solving that side of your relationship. It’s a lot easier to resist old temptations when you’ve got something new and tempting right in front of you.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com)