DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m in a mess. I was supposed to get married this summer until we postponed for COVID; then two months ago my fiancé confessed to cheating on me. Not like once or twice, but probably twenty times with maybe a dozen different women, from one-night stands to hookups with a friend of his who I always distrusted to paying for oral sex at a strip club, happy endings and prostitutes, to more one night stands and bar make outs, to an acquaintance of his (I had seen him flirt with her which feels awful), and lastly with a friend of mine several times after he moved in with me!! Ha!! This was mainly in the first three years of our relationship though earlier this year, while in pre-marital counseling, he ditched me to hang with some poly friends of friends and made out with a woman, though he confessed after.
My last ex cheated on and gaslit me terribly, which fiancé knew. Meanwhile, I knew my (ex?) fiancé wanted to explore sleeping with other people and I did try to have the conversation about how to make it safe for me. Obviously it was never going to be because he was dishonest and had disrespected me and been unethical. Also he never responded to my many efforts to open up a conversation around it, the most serious of which all happened after most of the cheating. Now he says he still needs an open relationship, and he seems to not want reconsidering that to be open-ended. We are living separately and in couples counseling; I’ve told some friends and family but my parents still think I’m engaged. Also, I’m about to be 37, and we were off birth control when he told me and in theory moving on to being open to having kids. I certainly can’t see opening anything up unless I feel radically safe and heard and prioritized which I never have been, and what’s way more important to me is having a secure foundation for being parents. I in theory can be down with sexual exploration but in all honesty it’s just not a priority. (I should also say that in our relationship I had the higher sex drive for years before lowering my expectations, and I almost never said no and I believe when he tells me I gave him the best sex of his life).
Obviously I loved him and wanted to be with him before I knew; when I found out I could clearly see the behaviors I had been ignoring and looking past and could kick myself for tolerating it, and him for letting me go down this path with someone who was being dishonest. I honestly don’t know if I can forgive the laundry list of betrayals, which still make me mighty mad.
Can I forgive him and also deal with his sleeping with other people in future under some theoretical framework that I question he could honor? Even less unsure! I guess I’m just looking for an outside opinion on what to do. He confessed out of guilt and has been willing to apologize and work on things, though some projection and resentment have popped up from him along the way that haven’t helped. He fundamentally shuts down when I need support a lot of the time, so maybe I just can’t at all be with him despite the other times together he made me happy. It sucks and I kind of can’t believe I have to deal with something this egregious again (but like, more so).
Heart Needs a Second Chance?
DEAR HEART NEEDS A SECOND CHANCE: So let’s get this out right off the top: dump the dude. Dump this guy so hard his grandparents divorce retroactively. Dump him so hard that the break up echoes through the galaxy and tens of thousands of years from now, aliens in Alpha Centauri pick up on this and collectively go “daaaaaaaaaang”.
Now with that out of the way, let’s talk about the whys and wherefores about your situation.
As many long-time readers know, I’m pro open relationships and pro ethical non-monogamy. I’m also an advocate of the idea that cheating isn’t the worst thing that can happen in a relationship, nor is it always automatically a relationship extinction level event. But both of those come with fairly hefty caveats.
For example, I have long said that not all infidelities are equal. There’s a world of difference between a one-off, never-to-be-repeated mistake that the cheating partner sincerely regrets and, say, someone who thinks that monogamy is something that happens to other people, even after they’ve made a exclusive commitment. Your fiancé is rather clearly the latter. The fact he’d been cheating on you repeatedly, with many, many women is pretty much all that needs to be said on the subject.
While there are people whose chief mistake is that they keep making a monogamous commitment — especially if they know they are incapable of keeping it — there are also folks who just plain don’t give a s--t. For them, it’s not a case of someone who shouldn’t promise to be monogamous, they’re someone whose life philosophy can be summed up as “got mine, f--k you.” Sometimes they like the thrill of doing something “wrong”. Others like the feeling of being sneaky and clever and not getting caught. And of course there’re always the ones who just don’t give a s--t as long as they get their rocks off.
(And to head off the comments: no, I don’t think your fiancé is a sex addict… primarily because sex addiction isn’t a thing. The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists, the Center for Positive Sexuality, the Alternative Sexualities Health Research Alliance and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom have all released statements: from a medical and scientific perspective, there’s no such thing as sex addiction. And studies agree with them.)
Your fiancé’s behavior makes it fairly simple: dude’s an a--hole.
Similarly, open relationships can be wonderful… but not only are they not for everyone. Open relationships require trust, emotional security, strong boundaries, commitment and open communication… all of which your partner has very clearly failed at. Part of making an open relationship work means being able to maintain a relationship with your partner, especially if you have a primary partner rather than a “relationship anarchy” style form of openness. The fact that your fiancé shuts down when you need support, can’t seem to discuss things openly and clearly and has, y’know, been going behind your back for most of the time you’ve been together are all pretty good indicators that, monogamous or not, this is not a dude you should be marrying or considering scrambling your DNA with.
Also, just for the record: an open relationship is not a “get-out-of-cheating-free” card. You can be non-monogamous and still cheat on your partner… and I strongly suspect he would still have cheated on you, even if you had been open.
Now, I can have some forgiveness and understanding for someone coming to realize that they can’t make a monogamous commitment. That still would require them doing a lot of work to both earn forgiveness and trust back, as well as making things right… but I can see that happen. Similarly, there are plenty of folks who’ve realized that monogamy isn’t right for them (but haven’t cheated) and want to discuss the possibility of transitioning into an open relationship. There are many, many relationships that have made that switch and survived, even thrived.
However, if your fiancé knew from the jump that he can’t do monogamy, then that is a conversation you both should have been having from the jump. It wouldn’t mean that you had to start as non-monogamous; he should be willing to prove his commitment to you to help build that trust and security before having the series of discussions about when and how you’d open up. He didn’t do that, and I suspect he didn’t because he either didn’t respect you enough to try, or had a “better to beg forgiveness” philosophy which is some next-level bulls--t.
If this relationship were to have a snowball’s chance in hell of surviving, it would require your fiancé to be going above and beyond to earn your forgiveness and to prove worthy of your trust. To be perfectly frank: it doesn’t sound like he’s doing that, nor does it sound like he’s even willing to try. He sounds like he’s trying to retroactively make his cheating ok by getting you to agree to an open relationship, as though that could be backdated and magically make his betrayal of your trust go away. It can’t, and it’s bulls--t for him to even try, especially knowing how your previous ex treated you.
So dump this dude with a quickness, call the Whole Man Disposal Unit and get him out of your life. Whether you’re ever willing to explore some form of non-monogamy in the future or not — and either of those options is perfectly fine — he has proven definitively that he is not the person you want to be spending your life with.
Break up with him and find someone who will treat you with respect. You’ll be much happier for it.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org