DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: My first two marriages ended badly, with my first being abusive and the second him being unfaithful. I’ve been with my current partner a few years now, but we got off to a rough start – long story short when we got together he had a drug issue that I wasn’t aware of. I found out when he tried to quit cold turkey and nearly died. I chose to give him an opportunity to enter a treatment program, and have no reason to believe he hasn’t been 100% compliant, but I still struggle with trust.
He has also remained close with many of his exes, which in general I think is a positive. There are times where it makes me a little insecure (like him keeping a pic of him and an ex on his nightstand, or him making slightly over the top comments on his exes Facebook posts) but haven’t considered it a big deal, and I don’t want to ask him to change if that’s just who he is.
A few weeks ago, something happened that made me nervous about his past drug issue. I was freaking out a little and I looked at his phone for the first time in over a year (he provided me the passcode towards the start of his recovery as a sign of trust, but did not give me explicit permission to look at that moment). Good news was no sign of a relapse, the bad was that a message caught my eye while scrolling through that contained graphic sexual content. I opened the convo – it was between him and an ex and was along the lines of them hashing out a sexual issue they had while they were together years earlier.
I then opened a couple of other convos between him and exes (I know, I know). While I found nothing that indicated there was any current activity or plans in that direction, there were things that made me uncomfortable. Examples include references to things he and an ex did sexually while they were together, comments about how beautiful and sexy they were/are, and in one case a description to the ex of a sex dream that he’d recently had about her.
I tried to bring the issue up in vague terms and he acted confused. I don’t know if I can trust my own judgement here – I am prone to making excuses for others and deciding that if something bothers me it’s my fault. Also, I don’t think a little flirting is necessarily a problem in an otherwise healthy relationship, I just think some of what I saw crosses a line. I don’t even know if confronting him would make me feel better, I don’t want to constantly police his phone, but at the same time I don’t know if I can 100% trust him and with my past, I don’t want to go back to a situation where there are gut feelings I’m ignoring. On the other hand, though, I am generally happy in this relationship and part of me thinks this is just something he doesn’t see the same way I do as I am definitely more sexual conservative.
Another note is that he referenced me frequently (and in positive terms) with all of these same exes, so I know he’s not being dishonest about our status together, and many of them are in committed and seemingly happy relationships as well. Do you think there is a possibility that this is just a difference in boundaries and comfort levels? Is there a possibility that he would find it genuinely surprising that something like this would bother me and if I brought it up as an issue he’d just be more careful? Am I making too much of this or am I, once again, ignoring a huge red flag?
Lines Lines Everywhere A Line
DEAR LINES LINES EVERYWHERE A LINE: I’ll be honest: when I first started going over your letter, I thought it was going to go in a different direction. I mean, dude is keeping a picture of him and his ex on his nightstand? Ok, that’s a bit sus, not gonna lie. I mean, in fairness, inertia is a thing, addiction does f--ked up things to the brain that can affect issues like “object permanence” and it’s certainly possible that this is a “I keep meaning to do something about this but I keep forgetting,” sort of situation. God knows I can relate to that; my ADHD means that a lot of stuff vanishes into the background as soon as I put it down and I will actively not see it, which means a lot of s--t I mean to put away just ends up in the same spot for weeks.
But it’s still a little odd to do, especially when you’ve been with someone else for years. Doubly so if — and you don’t say one way or the other — you live with your current partner. In fact, depending on who moved in with whom, it gets especially weird. Did he put this up on his nightstand after moving in to your place? That would seem like an oddly aggressive move — especially if he were going to go sneaking around behind your back.
So, yeah, I was a little primed to wonder if this was going to be a “yeah, if he’s not already doing something sketchy he’s pushing boundaries and getting close to the line and you need to do something about it” kind of letter. Even through the filter of trust issues, there’s enough front-loaded to push my expectations to one side of the equation over the other.
But then I got to the rest of your letter and… well, again, I’ll be honest: this is starting to sound like the issues are more on your side of things. Especially after you went through his phone.
Now, I know he had explicitly given you permission to have access to his phone as part of his accountability process. That set precedent for you having access to go through his stuff. But there’s a difference between making sure that an addict hasn’t fallen off or isn’t about to fall off the wagon and going through his private messages. The funny thing about checking your partner’s messages, LLEAL, is that you’re often gonna see things that you wish you could unsee. But I don’t mean “finding damning evidence of infidelity” or “proof that he’s doing something untoward and you should dump him,” I mean “things that will just needlessly upset you for no good reason.”
Case in point: you’ve found out that he’s still close to his exes, and this is triggering your particular anxieties in a very specific way.
Here’s the thing though: while his conversations may be sexually explicit or using language and describing things in ways that you might find unusual or off-putting… nothing you describe sounds particularly suspicious or an indication of anything that you should be on the look out for. It mostly just sounds like he’s got a frank, emotionally open and intimate friendship with his exes. Contrary to what a lot of people would believe, being friends with your ex doesn’t mean that you’re not over them or you’re trying to get back with them. In fact, as a general rule of thumb, that’s actually a good thing; the fact that someone is friends with their exes tends to tell you a lot about who they are as a person and how they handle their relationships. The romantic or sexual relationship may have ended, but the two of them have enough affection and respect for one another that they were able to pivot to being good friends. That’s a fairly solid indication that they’ve got high emotional intelligence, that they handle conflict well and that they’re able to deal with complex and possibly uncomfortable emotions.
And hell, the fact that he and his ex were working through issues they had during the relationship, even afterwards, is telling. It suggests that he’s willing to put in the work to resolve issues with people he cares about and either help provide resolution and closure or get it for himself. That’s actually fairly mature and admirable.
Now the question about the exuberant compliments or telling an ex about a sex dream he had… well, again, it’s the sort of thing that, absent context, could raise an eyebrow or two. But within the context that you’ve provided… I have to be honest, I wonder how much of this is being filtered through your anxiety and the fact that you’re relatively sexually conservative compared to him. What may seem untoward or out of bounds to you may well be mundane and normal to others. Hell, if you look at how women support and compliment their female friends and you weren’t familiar with how a lot of folks roll, you could be forgiven for thinking that there was attraction there. But complimenting someone’s attractiveness or sexiness isn’t automatically a sign of interest; you can find someone sexy or think they look good without actually wanting to do anything with them or to them. It may seem unusual coming from a straight guy… but honestly, aren’t we often hearing about how we should normalize guys being more open and expressive and not assuming that men can’t be friends with women because of sex?
In fairness: I can understand why this would set off alarm bells for you. But context changes everything, and there’s a lot of context to parse. On your end of things: you have (understandable) trust issues, and you’re more conservative than he is. On his end: it sounds like this is how he rolls with at least some of his friends which would put it in the realm of “normal behavior” for him. It may not be the normal you’re used to… but that’s not the same thing as signs of trouble.
Honestly, the only trouble is that you overstepped your bounds. You went from looking for signs of a potential relapse — something he’s specifically asked for your help with — to poking around through his friendships and now you’ve triggered your own anxieties. It also sounds like you didn’t actually tell him what was bothering you or why. If you phrased things in generalities or vague references to what you saw… well, I can understand why he might be confused. That confusion may well have been less “wait, why is this bothering you” and more “what the hell are you talking about?” Clarity and specificity are keys to effective communication.
And if you were doing so in a way to brush past having poked through his messages that had nothing to do with his addiction issues… well, that goes more towards your feelings of guilt than his.
You say you want to confront him about this. My question is: what, exactly, would you be hoping to get from that. Are you hoping for reassurance, so you can settle your anxieties and he can walk your emotions back from the edge? That’s actually in bounds; it’s good to say “hey, my anxieties are flaring up and I could use a little TLC and comfort to help calm them back down again,” especially when you’re feeling jealous or insecure. But if you’re hoping to dictate who he talks to and how — which is what this kind of sounds like — then that’s not going to fly, even under the best of circumstances.
The problem here is that what it sounds like you’re asking for his for him to manage your trust issues. The problem is that they’re just that: your issues. He isn’t the cause of them. He hasn’t violated your trust, he’s not having to prove his trustworthiness with regards to fidelity. He’s trying to manage his own demons. Asking him to manage yours too is asking him to take on responsibilities that aren’t his and try to address issues that he didn’t cause.
There comes a point where we all have to be willing to recognize and accept that sometimes the things that bother us or that afflict us are our issues. While it’s one thing to ask our partners not to exacerbate them or make them worse… it’s another to start trying to control their actions to manage our feelings. It’s the difference between saying “hey, could you maybe move the photo of you and your ex to someplace other than the nightstand” and “look, I went through your phone and now I want you to change how you behave with friends in ways that didn’t affect me before now”.
The question of whether you can 100% trust him is a little unfair to him; going by what you’ve shared, it doesn’t sound like he’s given you reason not to. Putting the onus on him isn’t fair because… well, if the mistrust is because of your anxieties and not his behavior, then it’s virtually impossible for him to achieve. If there’s nothing untoward going on and you’re still feeling oogy, what exactly is he supposed to do? While it’s generally good to trust your gut… first you need to be sure your gut is trustworthy. Sometimes that gut feeling that something’s wrong is more about past trauma than present circumstances.
(I would also point out that going through his phone and reading his messages is a bit of a consent violation. He may have given you permission to have access to his stuff, the people he’s talking to have a right to not have strangers nosing through their communications.)
Now all of this being said: it sounds to me like this is a difference in values and comfort levels, rather than an actual reason to be upset. I don’t think you’re missing any red flags here. But that doesn’t mean that you need to swallow your discomfort and pretend that it didn’t happen; being able to actually discuss and express how you feel with your partner is important in a relationship. But it’s also important to know the difference between an anxiety attack and something wrong with the relationship. It may help to talk to a couple’s counselor; not because the relationship needs “fixing”, but as a way of finding effective ways to communicate a need for reassurance. It may also be good to talk to a counselor on your own about your past relationships; you’ve been hurt and you clearly have scars from it. Talking to somebody would be a positive thing for you regardless of things with your partner. You could use some healing, and you deserve a life that isn’t racked with anxiety because of the s--tty things your ex-husbands did to you. And I suspect that this would help ease your troubled mind far more than policing your partner’s phone for signs of trouble.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com