DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: your column has helped me tremendously, and as a result I now have a beautiful, smart, geeky, and honest girlfriend. But is is possible to be too honest? She’s currently doing some moving around the country, seeing family, trying to find a good art college to attend. We’re trying the long distance thing, which I’ve done before, unsuccessfully but I’m trying to learn from my mistakes, and she’s worth sticking around for. I’ve spent a lot of time being introspective and listening to this blog and other podcasts on having healthy romantic and sexual relationships. I’ve tossed around the idea of having sex with other people, her as well, and have come to the conclusion that as long as I remain the romantic relationship, is safe, and she’s honest with me, then she can have sex with other people and I won’t get but hurt. At least I thought that was the case.
As it turns out, there’s an old flame who she’s now living close to. She’s explained to me that she can’t ever have a romantic relationship with him again because, well he’s an a
hole and not good boyfriend material, but apparently the sex they used to have was other-worldly. I give her props for being honest and telling me this before hand, because now she’s asking me for a pass to be f
k buddies with this guy. I told her to give me a few days to think it over.
I’m trying not to let my ego cloud my thoughts with jealousy of this supposed sexual master, or to worry that she’s not being honest when she says it wont turn into anything romantic.
Something is still bothering me about this, and I’m not quite sure which is the best course of action. Should I give her a pass, should I not? It seems like she’s doing all the right things by letting me know, but why do I still feel squicked about this? Is it right to think that this may be a threat to my relationship, and what would be the best way to handle it?
Stressed By The Ex
DEAR STRESSED BY THE EX: Ok, first let’s address the obvious: an open relationship during a pandemic is… not the best or smartest of practices. It’s one thing to have a Quarantine Pod — as it were — of a small group of friends who are the ONLY people you socialize with, because you know that they’re being as safe as folks can be.
No-strings hook-ups, especially in the context of ethical non-monogamy, on the other hand, is a different beast. More often than not, you can’t be sure if the people you or your partner are sleeping with are being as safe and secure as as they would need to be.
Now, if we had reliable testing (that was occurring at such a volume that it didn’t take 10 days to get your results back) and active contact tracing… well maybe it’d be easier to work things out. Get a negative COVID test, practice safe sex practices (no kissing, get kinky and leave the masks on, use positions that keep your faces apart from one another) and hey, you might be able to make things work.
But another thing to keep in mind is that open relationships can be tough under the best of circumstances. They’re very much a varsity level relationship that requires a lot of communication, comprehension, trust and a willingness to be open and honest about your feelings for one another… and that still doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to be able to stick that particular landing. When you’re long-distance as well… well, now you’re playing on hardcore mode, to be perfectly honest. It’s one thing when you or your partner is given the permission to slip the leash while travelling or to have outside partners while you’re in the same city. When you’re living hundreds or thousands of miles apart, with no firm indication of when the two of you are going to be back in proximity again, it’s going to be tougher by orders of magnitude. If you’re prone to jealousy or anxiety regarding who your partner is seeing, and your partner is hundreds or thousands of miles away, it can be hard to ease those feelings and feel secure in your relationship with them.
Part of what makes non-monogamous or monogamish relationships work is the primacy of the core relationship – maintaining that bond of love and emotional intimacy even when one or both of you are seeking sexual intimacy elsewhere. Maintaining that bond while in a long-distance relationship is tough under the best of circumstances. Plenty of couples who do amazingly well while in the same city discover that they can’t make it work when there’s hundreds of miles between them. Trying to maintain it WHILE you’re both actively courting other people… well, thats going to put both of you in a tough spot.
It gets even more complicated when an ex is involved. Now I’m all in favor of remaining on good terms with your exes (presuming that you’ve honestly gotten over them). Exes can — they aren’t guaranteed to be but can be — the best guest stars for threesomes. Depending on your relationship to them and how well you’ve handled the break-up, AND processed your feelings for each other AND you’re both definitely over one another, they can make for a great hook-up partner for those times when you need that itch scratched.
However, returning to an ex for (supposedly) no-strings-attached sex while your significant other lives across the country is another issue entirely. The risks of things getting emotionally complicated start to go up dramatically.
Even if she’s correct and there is just no romantic attraction any more (on her side, at least) the fact that he’s there and you’re not makes it extra complicated. It’s almost like having two boyfriends for the price of one – one to provide emotional intimacy and the other to provide the physical intimacy she craves. Now, I know a lot of folks in the poly community don’t like the idea of hierarchical relationships, but part of what can make an open (if not a polyamorous) relationship work is respecting the primacy of your relationship together. If you are really uncomfortable with her hooking up with her ex, then be honest with her about it. Let her know that you’d rather she not hook up with him; it’d be one thing if you were there or he wasn’t the OMG mind-blowing orgasms ex. But he is, you aren’t and if you’re being perfectly honest with yourself, you know damn good and well that jealousy is going to be rearing it’s ugly head on you pretty soon. The last thing you need is to be spending nights trying to get her on the phone and imaging that the reason why she’s not picking up is because she’s too busy with Studly Good-Night.
And now for the hard part:
I hate to say this, Stressed, but it’s not impossible that she’s already banging him and what she’s really asking for is retroactive permission. I’ll freely cop to being overly suspicious and cynical — especially having been burned this way before, myself — but her explaining that no, he CAN’T be a threat to the relationship is setting off my Spidey-sense.
Hey, maybe I’m wrong and she really is being upfront and honest about it. I hope she is.
But the fact is: it seems pretty clear to me you feel uncomfortable with this guy, specifically, and that’s real. So don’t tell ME, tell HER how you feel and that you wouldn’t be comfortable with her starting something up with him again. She can find other guys who don’t represent the past creeping into your present.
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