I've been a dedicated follower of your column for many years, and I never thought I'd have to write to you. But here it goes anyway.
I'm in a loving, stable, four-year relationship, of which the last three have been long-distance. I'm talking the 24-hour-plane-rides-in-two-different-continents kind of long distance. We've made it a point to visit each other every five to six months for a couple of weeks.
I'm currently pursuing my MBA in the U.S., and I graduate in May, after which I move to yet another continent. Our relationship will then be 10-hour-plane-rides-in-two-different-continents kind of long-distance, at least for the next couple of years. My boyfriend has just started a new job and doesn't want to move to the city I'll be moving to, and I won't get a better offer than I currently have, given the unstable economic climate. So the earliest we can think of converging is both of us moving to another city in a couple of years once things get better.
When we started our relationship, we weren't sure whether we'd eventually end up getting married, and thought we'd see how things turn out. We are both 28, and my clock is ticking. In my society, a 28-year-old unmarried woman is long past her shelf life. I want to get married. We had a number of mildly unpleasant discussions about this, and four months ago, I issued him an ultimatum: Either we take our relationship to the next level and discuss a firm commitment, or we break things off so that I can be with someone who wants to get married soon. He eventually came around to it and said that he can only see himself with me in the long term, but he ideally does not want to settle down before he's 34 or 35. However, he's willing to make that compromise for me, and we can get engaged at the end of 2009, with a possible wedding date a year from then.
Now here's the clincher. He wants to sow his oats before marriage. Given that our relationship is long-distance, and will remain so for the next couple of years, he doesn't see the problem in sleeping around with random women, so that he can fulfill his needs. We are each other's first serious relationship, and I know that his sexual history is not particularly extensive. He says that it's better I give him the option to sleep around -- which he may never use, but it's an option nonetheless -- than have him cheat on me either now or in the future. In return, I have the option to sleep with other people as well. The only condition is that we should not get emotionally attached to the person we are fooling around with, that it should be a purely physical fling.
Cary, I have no doubt that he loves me very much. We are absolutely in love with each other. He's a very caring individual, and he would never want to hurt me. I don't even know if he would act out on this whole open-relationship thing.
I don't know what I should do, Cary. I don't know if I pushed him into committing to a formal union, as he didn't ask me to marry him; instead I issued an ultimatum. He says I'm the only one he can see himself married to, but he admits that it was difficult for him to contemplate the M-step in the first place. I'm not even sure what my question is, but what should I do?
Dear Waiting Mode,
It surely happens that people have casual sex and do not become attached. But it equally happens that people have casual sex and do become attached. They say, "I did not expect to become attached." That is how it happens. It happens unexpectedly. That is the charm of it.
So, whatever you ultimately decide, please beware of the faux rationality at the heart of this irrational proposition. Romance is found in the unexpected, the not-consciously-wished for, the forbidden, the problematic and complicated. Part of desire's requirement is that its object be, in some sense, unattainable. Love and plans are mortal enemies. Desire thwarts expectation. It thrives on thwarting expectation. That is where it finds its satisfaction.
Intent is no guarantee. Intent may even invite its opposite.
Be aware, too, that in such matters, he, the subject, who thinks of himself as nominally in charge, is, like all of us, hopelessly outmatched not only by the schemes, desires and entrapments of others, not only by fate, unknowable happenstance, plot, the erotic nature of our world, the lures and entrapments of other cultures, etc., but also by the entire subterranean complex and apparatus of his own psyche. Even if he had been undergoing a rigorous program of psychoanalysis for years he would still not be reliably able to say that he could enter into sexual relationships with women with no danger of emotional attachment.
Besides, isn't it patently un-wild-oatsy to sow wild oats with permission? Are the oats thus sown even technically wild? To qualify as wild, ought they not be sown with autonomy, with no duty of disclosure?
But wait. This sounds almost dismissive. I do not mean it to be. Rather, I am somewhat in awe of you, of your demonstrated capacity for planning, forbearance and patience, which puts my meager efforts at controlling life's maelstrom to shame. I just don't want to see it all blow up. Perhaps you and he have a control of your emotional attachments quite beyond my ken. But I worry.
Then there is this: If he is proposing with confidence to perform the near-impossible, perhaps he is indeed perfectly capable of it. But how would he know? Unless he is seeking permission retroactively for a course of action already under way?
The bottom line is that he is proposing to put your plans for marriage at risk by proposing to have romantic encounters. To him this may be the price of promising to marry. But either he is already engaging in such affairs and thus has confidence that they are trivial, or he has no idea what he's getting into and is proposing a dangerous risk.
All in all, there is much to wonder about here, much to admire and much to worry about. Can't you two just go live in the same city together and get married?
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