'Help, My Boyfriend Wants an Open Relationship!'
What do you want and why don't you mention that part as much?
Pelvis IV (1944) by Georgia O’Keeffe
Like much of the world, I find myself back at home this holiday season with plenty of time for self-reflection. I sit in my childhood bedroom, far from the confusion of my life across the country. In this place and season, I am finally addressing whether to stay or leave a partner who remains elusive more than a year into our relationship.
Don't get me wrong, Polly, there is so much I love about him and our relationship. He is kind, adventurous, and independent. He has a full life of hobbies, interests, and friends. He is unwaveringly authentic and has never changed himself in the company of others (even his family, with whom he has a complicated relationship). I admire these traits because they're not strengths of mine. Therapy has helped me understand my people-pleasing nature, especially the ways in which I have shape-shifted in order to stay safe and get along. A lot of that stems from my childhood: I often interrupted or refereed my parents' arguments when I was young. In adulthood, I tapped into that muscle memory by working very hard (read: too hard) to sustain fledgling and imbalanced relationships. I've since recognized my role in these partnerships, including how I suppress my own needs and sacrifice too much for the sake of others.
However, recognizing this pattern did not stop me from falling for my current partner. We fell in love quickly but progressed slowly. I tried to keep my emotions at bay because I was afraid I would scare him away. I joked that he kept his emotions at bay because he was also afraid I would scare him away. Still, we were very enamored with one another. As you might suspect, reality struck after our first argument. Although our disagreement was pretty tame and respectful, I learned that my partner could be quite cold, aloof, and detached in conflict. To his credit, he admitted he hates arguing and has a tendency to shut down and run away. His excessively logical and dispassionate demeanor was infuriating for a person like me who naturally overflows with emotion. I did my best not to demonize him for this behavior, since he has been called heartless and robotic by previous partners. I told him that I also hate conflict (who doesn't!) but have a tendency to resolve things *immediately* lest I stay anxious for one minute more. I had hoped that sharing my own weaknesses might reveal how we are more alike than not, but it backfired. Instead, he shut down even further and suggested that our differences might mean we should break up and find more suitable partners. He has occasionally said things like this when he's stressed. I've largely disregarded these comments with the understanding that he pushes me away when he's worked up, and I've done fairly well managing my own anxiety without chasing him.
That streak ended recently when, after a disagreement about our plans for the weekend, and without any context, he said that he will need to open our relationship at some point in the future. His decision to raise the prospect of separation or sexual non-exclusivity threw me for a loop. I'm ashamed to admit that I entertained his proposal, even though I already knew (without any judgment toward non-monogamy) that it was simply not for me. I spent a week doing mental gymnastics. I wondered whether this was just a misguided attempt to create space between us or to lessen the stress of our relationship. I asked several follow up questions to determine what he wants and needs to be happy. Are we open now? (No, but he wants to be eventually.) When? (He doesn't know.) What does non-monogamy mean to him? (He doesn't know.) After several more vague answers, the conversation fizzled out and we haven't discussed it since. Whatever his motivation, the damage to my self-esteem and self-worth was done. I let that happen as soon as I considered a life that I did not want. It had such an effect on me that I felt compelled to ask him whether he still loved me. His response: "Last month, yes. But now, I don't know." I was crushed and confused and exhausted. I went home for the holidays to center myself.
Now, I sit in my childhood bedroom and feel the precise anxiety in my romantic life that I felt during my childhood. I have spent so much time betraying my own boundaries in order to keep a relationship alive. And while I'm proud that I am now able to see the pattern for what it is, I am utterly lost as to what to do about it. My partner says that he will always be there for me, is disappointed in how he has affected me, and has offered to transition out of a relationship to a friendship if that would be better for me. I gag at the thought, but do not necessarily disagree that our relationship is not working. I wish that we could work through these issues together, but my partner noticeably left that off the list of options. I also question the commitment of any partner who so easily is willing to let someone go, but I know I have a lens molded out of an unhealthy level of loyalty and I am tired of forcing reconciliation and effort when some things really should end. Where do I go from here?
We Always Go Home Again
Dump him. I hate to say this, but your boyfriend’s exes are right. He isn’t just distant or avoidant. He isn’t just ambivalent. He’s a broken robot who doesn’t know what love is. It’s great that he’s able to maintain friendships, but the truth is that he doesn’t understand feelings, so he can’t comprehend your value to him. When he says, “I want an open relationship,” without any warning, reasons, preamble, or reflections on what shape that would take, it’s like you’re hearing a small child getting sick of a toy and then saying, “WAN MORE TOY!”
I am not against open relationships, to be clear. Some days, I even think I might want to take one out for a spin, just to see how it feels! Wheeee! Why the fuck not? I’m not against impatience or wanting more sex the way you want more toys. Toys and sex and sex toys are all fun and exciting! But your guy can’t even string together the sentences I just wrote in order to express to you what he wants and why he wants it. And instead of asking himself WHY CAN’T I SAY WORDS ABOUT WHAT I WANT AND FEEL?, he tells you he doesn’t love you anymore.
Nooooooooooooo, motherfucker. No, no, no. You don’t know how to use your words or feel your feelings but somehow this is all about an implied deficit in MEEEE? NOPE. NO, SIR. BAD ROBOT!
Lug this heap of frayed wires and malfunctioning processors to the junkyard, because it’s over. This guy can’t feel a thing. Not only that, he doesn’t comfort you or talk about the things that matter to you or really say anything at all about your relationship that makes the slightest bit of sense. The fact that you’re acting like there’s a puzzle to solve or some elusive plan of action to take here really speaks to the depths of your confusion around the validity of your needs.
Which also means that this isn’t just a run-of-the-mill break up for you. This is an important moment in your life. Right now you have a chance to move beyond the simple concept that your pattern is to give too much in a relationship, into the realm of BROKEN ROBOTS FEEL LIKE HOME TO YOU.
Because it’s not just that you give too much to people who don’t give back. It’s not just that you like to work very hard. It’s not just that spending time with someone who only seems dimly aware of your presence feels maximally romantic and exciting. It’s that you are deeply drawn to the conditions of your childhood in subconscious ways. Until you dig into the depth and passion of that attraction and really understand it, feel it, and even honor it in situations where it doesn’t hurt you or eat away at your self-esteem, you will never be breaking these patterns. You’ll just keep saying to yourself, “Gosh, I feel like I’m doing that thing I always do” instead of saying, WHAT DO I DESERVE? HOW DO I WANT TO LIVE? WHAT DO I WANT FROM MY SHORT LIFE ON THIS PLANET?
You love a broken robot because you think you can fix him, thereby repairing all of these broken aspects of your childhood, thereby finally achieving the obscene maturity and perfection and self-control your parents expected you to have at a young age because they were too childish and sloppy to manage it themselves, thereby finally feeling like the magical perfect overachieving invisible partner and daughter and lover and student and friend and worker that your entire upbringing (and then your own brain!) told you was the goal of your whole existence.
And when you dump this broken robot and you tell him “I love you but you need to learn more about what love is, because you are very confused!” and you move the fuck on, you will actually break your behavioral patterns in a real way, because you’ll be saying YOU FEEL LIKE HOME AND HONESTLY, THAT’S A BIG PART OF THE PROBLEM HERE, BECAUSE HOME IS NOT RELAXING FOR ME.
You need someone who’s relaxing, grounding, attentive. Think not of your childhood home and the experiences and anxieties you had there (a challenge, since you are actually home right now!). Think of the ideal home, a place where people honor each other for exactly who they are, flaws and all. You need someone whose kindness and listening ear FEELS UTTERLY EXOTIC AND UNFAMILIAR. You need someone whose adoring attention FEELS A LITTLE UNNERVING AND SOMETIMES EVEN UNATTRACTIVE, BECAUSE THAT’S NOT HOW MY CLAN BEHAVES! WE ARE DISAPPROVING AND IMPATIENT UNTIL YOU SERVE US WHAT WE NEED!
Your extremely happy romantic future – and I do think you’ll have one – will not be all about self-control and becoming better to make someone who is elusive feel more attracted and comfortable, more in love and more loyal. Your romantic future will be about showing your vulnerable heart, rambling on for hours about your feelings, revealing your flaws without shame, and sometimes saying ‘BLECH I NEED A MINUTE!’ when your future partner talks forever and shows his heart and reveals his own stupid irritating flaws without shame.
Your happy romantic future is not a replica of your neglectful but somehow also perfectionist childhood home where waaaaay too much was expected of you, a child. It’s a new kind of a place where everyone lets their guard down, and flowers are growing in one of the bathtubs, and dogs are allowed to sit on the couch, and sometimes you cry about dumb embarrassing things and sometimes you cackle at ridiculous things and sometimes you fuck up, and it’s all okay because no one is hiding from each other or trying to seem better than they actually are.
OKAY HOLD IT, I HEAR SOME GRUMBLING FROM THE BACK. Don’t tell me that’s not romantic! Believing that the TRUTH of two flawed, loving, irritable, needy, and yes, occasionally confused, sometimes conflicted people is somehow NOT ROMANTIC is the curse of our very very very stupid culture. Romance is not filtered lenses and perfume and saying the right thing at the right time and shutting up a lot and creating new illusions and keeping everything fresh and exciting forever and ever. Only little babies and broken robots believe that! And listen to me: Most of us don’t need more toys. We just have to enjoy the toys we have. We just have to learn to feel more deeply. We just have to understand what we own. We just have to be capable of gratitude, and desire, and honesty.
I’ve heard a lot of stories lately about straight men who announce that they are no longer in love out of the blue in long-term relationships, as if something about their partner has shifted and no longer pleases them, so the fault lies with her and not with them. When a man characterizes the end of a relationship that way? Get the fuck out and don’t look back, because you’ve been dating or living with or married to a broken robot or a baby or a jittery squirrel who experiences all trouble as external to himself. THERE ARE SO MANY OF THESE MEN OUT THERE! THEY ARE NOT FUN OR GOOD! Likewise, when someone says “I am no longer attracted to you,” like you’re some rusted out appliance that no longer works? This is a human who does not know how to feel his feelings or understand his own desires. He is confused and what’s worse, he’s blaming you for it. WHO IS GROWING THESE BAD MEN AND WILL THEY PLEASE STOP?
Love depends on feeling and belief. Many grown adults understand this perfectly well! When you believe, you get the feeling back. In order to believe, you have to be capable of feeling, and you have to understand your own values, and you have to reflect thoughtfully on the parts of your life that matter to you the most. When you’re with the same person for a while, you sometimes feel less and other times you feel more. You sometimes believe in what you have, and other times you believe in it a little less. The goal is to keep feeling good, and to use those good feelings to keep believing. The goal is also to keep believing, and to use those beliefs to keep feeling good.
IN OTHER WORDS, love is not something you eat and then you want something else to eat right after that. Love is a practice and a leap of faith and a mysterious echo that rattles through your bones and also a storm of desire. Honesty and openness are essential to love. A functioning processor is essential. A recognition of what you’re drawn to and what feels familiar and what will crush you like a bug is essential. And WORDS are essential to love. MAKING WORDS COME OUT OF YOUR FACE is a must!
You can’t just try to avoid old patterns. You have to believe in your right to your own needs and desires. You have to voice those desires without shame. And you have to know that when you truly find a home in someone, it will feel nothing like your childhood home.
Every day you stay with this broken robot, this sputtering imitation of a man, who actually thinks that he loved you but then that love disappeared, who actually believes that if he feels less it must be your fault somehow? You hurt yourself. It’s time for you to figure out how to believe in love, real love, and notice the people who are capable of experiencing it instead of just pretending most of the time.
And look, I hate to say this, but pretenders are fucking EVERYWHERE. People are self-protective and unreflective and they can’t feel anything. This world doesn’t help much, either. It’s hard to feel things right now! But these robots are not your tribe. You need to find your REAL tribe.
How do you do that? By believing in yourself and your desires for the first time. By asking yourself WHAT DO I WANT FROM MY SHORT LIFE ON THIS PLANET? And by celebrating the big, beautiful, romantic, exciting, boring, thrilling, deeply flawed life you’re going to have with another deeply flawed person who is not a robot, who feels things, who is nothing like your parents, who wants you to be who you already are and nothing more.
You’ve worked hard to build your faith in this man, and now you’re losing your religion, because it was built around a false god. Drag this crumbling idol out to the trash and build your faith in yourself instead.
Man oh man, why are mens so absurd? Let’s talk about mens in the comments today, sexy mens and stupid mens. A pre-holiday festival of perplexing time-wasting absurdly unseeing mens that also celebrates the good ones! Because they do exist! But my god it’s taxing how many of these mens are just automated replicas of the real thing. What is happening out there? Tell me your tales of woe (and whoa!). Polly is going to be extra free to all for the holidays, but that won’t last long so…