I fooled around while I was away and my boyfriend can't get over it

We have a very principled relationship, and we tell each other the truth -- but he's being jealous and insecure.

Published March 6, 2007 12:10PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I have been with my boyfriend for more than five years now. We met when we were both very young, and indeed I never expected it to last very long. I was always placing qualifiers on our relationship: "If he doesn't go to college I will not remain with him." "If he doesn't move with me to where I intend to go to school we are through," etc. Not very nice stuff.

But he always came through, and after a while I stopped placing qualifiers on our relationship. But after our move he became so focused on his area of study that he no longer paid much attention to us. He realizes this now, but while it was going on I became both bitter, guilty (had I created this monster with my high expectations?) and in need of someone else. Around this time I met a woman who was there for me in all the ways he was not (emotionally, not sexually, although that was absent too) and I began to like her. As a note: I have never before been sexually interested in another woman. I even told him that I thought I would leave him for her, but as she was only an exchange student that had no real possibility. Long story short, I realize now I was displacing my feelings onto a person who was more willing to be there for me than my own boyfriend was.

OK, here is the problem: About six months ago (only shortly after he realized the ways he was hurting our relationship) I decided to move to Montreal for a month and then go to Europe to visit a college friend. Things hadn't been fully settled between us, and I took this break as a way to figure out if I was remaining in this relationship out of fear of being alone (a major issue for me) or if I really thought these problems could be resolved. While I was away I became sexually intimate with some people.

My boyfriend instead viewed this period as a time to really work on our problems. But how is that possible when I am so far away? He had no clue of my activities, and when I got home we resumed being with one another without any conversation about what really occurred while I was gone.

That is, until recently. About two months ago, while we were in the car, he straight out asked if I had been sexually active with other people while I was away. My tears and refusal to answer told him all he needed to know.

But in truth I don't feel guilty about that time, as I needed to figure stuff out, and when I came back I had a clearer understanding of what I wanted/needed from a relationship (remember we met at a really young age, and I had no prior relationship knowledge). One thing that we promised one another was to be really present in the relationship. I would stop placing qualifiers on him, and he would have to be sure to be there for me, or else why continue a relationship?

But rather than being there he has become increasingly insecure and jealous. I make sure to tell him daily (and more!) that I love him and find him attractive, yet he continues to ask if I still desire him. Often three times a week these questions are posed to me. Additionally, whenever I go out with my male friends he becomes very suspicious, and when a male friend of ours recently invited me to travel along with him to Turkey, my boyfriend became enraged that I would leave him. (Mind you, he is gone almost this entire summer doing research in Tibet, and I have been nothing but supportive.)

Finally, I couldn't handle the mistrust anymore. In order to go out with a male friend that my boyfriend had never met I had to lie and say that I was instead going out with a female friend well known to both of us.

Now don't get me wrong. I understand how he understands that I engaged in infidelities, and so these thoughts are not necessarily shocking to me; but rather than discuss them, he bottles them, becomes angry easily, and then becomes insecure -- all things that quickly kill a relationship. And in so doing, he is not keeping his promise to be present in the relationship.

Am I staying due to my selfish fears and needs even when I know that this is a broken relationship?

Got No Trust

Dear Got No Trust,

This relationship doesn't seem to be broken. It seems to be bent.

If it were broken you would not be talking. You wouldn't be struggling. You would have reached an impasse.

But you have good communication and some agreed-upon principles. You have dedicated five years to each other already. And you both seem to want to make it work.

Yes, there is a good deal of mistrust now, and hurt feelings, and selfishness, and a power struggle, and some differences of opinion and probably some blind spots and misunderstandings on both sides.

And, as you say, you got together when you were very young, so it's understandable that things would be rocky. There were some experiences you believed you needed to have. Naturally when you pair up early there's some growing you need to do that just doesn't fit within the confines of the relationship. But you can't really "pause" a relationship in order to go and have some sex, or other kind of experience, as though you were picking up some undergraduate credits you needed for postgraduate work -- though people try to do just that! And you did your best -- you "took a break" -- by leaving the country. To be fair, you couldn't make an agreement with your boyfriend about what you would and would not do because you didn't know exactly what you were going to do. You had to follow your instincts.

So you did, and you sort of tried to hide it but not really, and it came out, and your boyfriend is hurt. It's caused some conflict and mistrust. But you are still together. I think that's pretty remarkable.

And you're reaching out for some help. That too is remarkable.

So I don't think you're ready to let this go. You just want to know what to do.

I would say this: Recognize that your boyfriend has been hurt by your actions. That doesn't mean your actions were wrong. It just acknowledges reality. You did what you had to do, and he is hurt, and he's trying to deal with his hurt. He's not dealing with it as quickly or as smoothly as you wished or expected. But he's dealing.

This may run counter to your inclinations, but I suggest that you let up a little on the struggle to resolve every issue and instead try to bring some kindness and forgiveness to the relationship. For while you're focused in a principled way on the ideals of the relationship, your partner is sort of psychically crippled, unable to articulate his pain and perhaps, moreover, afraid to try to articulate it for fear of rejection. You, after all, hold most of the power in the relationship. So he is in a bit of a bind. So let up a little and forget, for the time being, who is doing the right thing and who is in the wrong and what is fair.

Overall, I admire the way you have approached this relationship, trying to work in a principled way and and agreeing to high standards of emotional conduct, i.e., that you and he have agreed to be "present" for each other. And you're willing to tell the truth, i.e., you don't feel guilty about what happened on your trip, and it's important to know that.

But telling the truth has its downside. Frankly, your talk of traveling to Turkey with some guy can't be helping your boyfriend regain his feeling of security and trust in the relationship.

As a guy, I have to say, if my girlfriend tells me she's thinking of traveling to Turkey with some guy, I'm going to be a little uncomfortable with that. Right or wrong, mature or immature, not many guys would just go, Wow, cool, are you going to learn some Turkish?

Also, to delineate another area of pressure and conflict, you seem to have more power in this relationship than your boyfriend. From the beginning, it has been you who set the conditions, and he who met them. In any long relationship, you are probably going to find that people don't deal with things as well as you would like them to. What can you do?

Well, you can move from relationship to relationship, leaving whenever your partner fails to live up to your expectations. Or you can stay in one relationship with a person you want to be with, and try to practice patience and forgiveness.

So, like I said, this sounds like a relatively healthy relationship in which you both have struggled in a principled way to deal with the problems that have come up. It doesn't sound broken to me -- not yet, anyway.

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