DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: My boyfriend and I have been together for six years. I am 40 and he is 50. When we first met, I was attracted to him but I thought he was not available. We worked together for a few months. The nature of the work is that we spent nearly the whole day together in the field each day, and we got to know each other well.
When we met, I had been divorced for about six months. During that time, I had a few casual hookups and short relationships. One of these casual relationships happened while we were friends. At the time, I confided in him about it. Time passed, my boyfriend and I started dating, and I haven’t thought about being with anyone else since.
The issue is that he frequently brings up the fact that I had sex with this other person. Sometimes it is in the context of me giving him a criticism or a complaint, and his response is “Well, you did this thing.” Sometimes, this connection seems, to me, to be illogical and unfair. For example, the most recent time was a few days ago when I said something to him about being careful because of the virus (his job requires him to be go out in public every day). He was moody for a few days and then told me that it was hypocritical of me to tell him to be careful of getting sick when I apparently think nothing of sleeping with random guys who could have diseases. In fact, I probably have all kinds of diseases I don’t even know about, according to him. Sometimes, when he starts thinking about this past incident, he will say (text) pretty nasty, slut shaming-type things to me.
The other piece to this is that I believe he has some kind of undiagnosed psychological condition such as depression or bipolar disorder. I’ve suggested that he go to a psychologist, or that we go to therapy, but he has never wanted to do that.
The end result of all this is twofold:
1) I feel like I hesitate bring up many issues for discussion because I’m afraid it will become about how I slept with someone six years ago before we were dating.
2) I get confused by the way he does this, because I think, Why is he with me if he thinks I’m so trashy? But also, I think that sometimes he gets into his head and maybe it’s more about how he’s feeling than it is about anything I have done, and I can just ignore these episodes.
So should I treat this as something that he does that is irrational and maybe an expression of his mental health? Just let him vent and then forget about it? (I have sometimes just temporarily blocked him for the night and by the next morning everything is fine). On one hand, I have a pretty forgiving temperament and I can easily overlook it. On the other hand, I feel something like despair when I think that in five years, ten years, etc., he’s still going to be saying “In 2013 you did x” every few months. I just want a better way to communicate with each other, especially when we are in disagreement.
Past Is Prologue
DEAR PAST IS PROLOGUE: This one is easy, PiP: your boyfriend is an a
hole. It’s possible he has an undiagnosed mental disorder but — keeping in mind that Dr. NerdLove is not a REAL doctor — I know of no mental illness that makes someone cling to a six year old grievance like a dog with a bone. And even if he has, say, obsessive-compulsive disorder, which can manifest as intrusive, unwelcome thoughts… that doesn’t excuse him from being an a
Before we get into what the hell is going on in his head, let’s start with the obvious: you didn’t do anything wrong here. You were single, newly divorced and dating around, as many do. You, as a grown-ass woman, decided you wanted to sleep with somebody you had a casual relationship with. That’s your call and nobody’s business but your own. That is where your responsibility for this situation starts and ends.
The problem exists entirely in your boyfriend’s head.
I strongly suspect that, were someone to ask, they would find out that your boyfriend was interested in you that time when you were single and assumed he wasn’t. Maybe he wasn’t available and couldn’t act on that attraction. Maybe he hesitated and couldn’t bring himself to make his move. Maybe poor timing meant that whenever he did muscle up and was ready to ask you out, you were dating someone else. I don’t know and ultimately, it doesn’t matter. What’s key here is that he has been nursing this resentment for six years.
No, I’m not getting over that part any time soon. He has been angry about this for six years. Think about that. Roll it around in your mouth a little. He has been angry about something you did, that didn’t affect him, before you were together for six. Goddamn. YEARS. And more than just angry about it: it’s his go-to move whenever you have any sort of conflict. He didn’t take out the trash: “yeah, but six years ago you f
ked some dude.” You ask if you could maybe pick the movie next time: “Yes but you’re a goddamn slut”.
That ain’t normal. That ain’t healthy. That’s not how healthy adults who love each other resolve conflicts. That’s one guy — someone who’s emphatically old enough to know better — acting like a passive-aggressive squirrel who’s been hoarding hate-nuts for winter. It’s certainly possible to hold both love and resentment at the same time. Healthy adults however, understand that the first rule of making a relationship work is “Handle Thine S
t,” and he won’t. The fact that he can turn “hey be careful out there, try to not get sick” to “yes well YOU’RE A GODDAMN DISEASED WHORE” is not someone who’s healthy or in good emotional working order.
I’m not surprised that you’re afraid to bring things up, if this is what happens every time. Dude has a chip on his shoulder about this that’s grown so large and dense that it’s collapsed into a singularity and sucked his brain out his ear.
Now, we can debate and theorize why he keeps going back to this particular well at any sign of conflict. We can argue about whether he’s intentionally abusive or just lashing out at any instance of conflict because his resentment is just that close to the surface. Here’s the thing though: why he does this doesn’t matter. Intent may give you an idea about why, but intent isn’t magic. Even if it’s completely unintentional, it still hurts you. Even if he has an undiagnosed case of OCD that makes these thoughts bubble to the surface every time you all argue, that doesn’t make it ok. It’s still something he’s doing that manifestly damages you and your relationship. And that needs to stop.
This has been a boil on his soul for so long that it’s festered, and unfortunately, the only treatment is to lance it… preferably with the Chair Leg of Truth. Repeatedly. He’s been holding you responsible for his hang up for six years now and that’s not healthy for you or the relationship. Frankly I think you should be angry about this, not cowed. Hell, I’m in favor of your telling him, straight up: “I am not responsible for your fantasy about me when we weren’t dating. I am not responsible for your feelings from before we got together. I did nothing wrong, I’m not going to accept blame for your problems and if you want to stay in this relationship, then you need to build a bridge and get the f
k over it.”
If you want this relationship to work — and that’s a mighty damn big “if” — then I think you need to make his talking to a counselor a condition of staying together. You can start with seeing a relationship counselor, but I think he needs to see someone on his own too — especially if there some emotional disorder underlying all of this. The way he’s behaving is utterly unacceptable and it has gone on for far too long. You don’t deserve this and you shouldn’t put up with it and until he actually grows the hell up, every disagreement you have will look exactly like this.
And if he won’t let go of his weird hang up or put in the work to get over it… well, I hate to say it, but it’s time to love yourself enough to demand better and kick him to the curb so hard that his great grandparents feel it.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org