My husband, Ben, and I have been together for nearly three years, married for one, and are in our late 20s. This story begins about six months before we met, nearly four years ago.
Ben was in an art collective of about eight people, among them an unmarried male-female couple, Erica and Luke. Erica and Luke had an open relationship and asked Ben to "join them for a night." Being an analytical, some would say "reasonable" person, Ben thought this through, and sought the advice of a philosophical, reasonable friend, Andy, who was also part of the art collective.
Andy recommended against Ben taking the opportunity, citing friendship confusion, damaging the collective's closeness, and the chance that this experimentation might not be acceptable to someone Ben meets in the future. Ben, being single and overall curious, decided to be a part of it. He ended up not finding it to his liking, and talked with Erica and Luke about how he couldn't do it again. Six months later, he was still in the art collective, and he met me.
Our relationship wasn't a whirlwind romance, but quick on conversation and opening up to each other. Within a week of spending time together, I learned of this part of his past, and we discussed whether or not open relationships or bisexual experimentation was something he was still seeking in his life. I told him it wasn't something I was interested in, and we weren't compatible if he felt otherwise. It took many more discussions before I believed that he had no interest in that lifestyle, nor Luke and/or Erica.
I felt problems coming, but I couldn't place them yet. I didn't expect this past from someone who was so corn-fed and "normal" compared to my past of rocker boys, ravers and "freaks." We continued talking regularly about my issues with this as our relationship grew. I felt uncomfortable about him maintaining his art connections as I learned more about the people involved. Because I knew I couldn't handle it, I refused to meet any of them aside from Andy, which included not meeting Luke and Erica.
Over a couple of months, I learned about Erica. Nearly 21 at the time, she had a child when she was 18 and married to a man named Kevin. She soon met Luke and began an affair, eventually leaving Kevin and her child for Luke and an open relationship. She was still married to Kevin when Ben became involved in the collective. I don't know when she got legally divorced, but I had a problem with Ben sleeping with a possibly married woman. About two months after Ben and I met, after all of these issues surfaced, Luke and Erica broke up. Erica cheated on Luke. How one feels the need to cheat in an open relationship, I don't know. I don't understand what compels someone to betray a partner that is accepting, open and experimental.
At the time, I felt that she was trying to make Ben her next partner, and he reassured me that he wouldn't let that happen. I still feel I was right, as she had been asking him to hang out alone a lot lately, which he refused. Still he carved a bit of time out to help her move out of Luke's house.
The night she moved, Erica told Ben that she had the wart-causing strain of HPV and didn't know when she'd gotten it, but Ben didn't need to worry because they'd used a condom. Livid upon learning this, I explained to Ben that condoms don't protect from HPV and it's ignorant for her to say so; that there's no test for men; and that he and I were basically SOL until one of us develops symptoms or not. We had already been tested and safe together at this point, but the facts still stand. Erica agreed to share the rest of her STD results with Ben, but never did so, and instead called him to hang out a few more times. Whenever Ben would ask for her results, she'd avoid the topic. Ben refused to see or speak with her again and left the collective, and things with us improved greatly. I was no longer worried; Ben and I were safe.
Andy became roommates with Erica when his lease was up. I told Ben that Andy was next on Erica's list. Ben said that Andy was too rational to get involved. Both Andy and Erica had other suitors at this point, and besides, Andy was the one who had warned Ben about getting involved in the first place. A few months later, Andy moved out, while maintaining separate friendships with both my husband and Erica. Andy even hosted our wedding at his new home when Ben and I got married last year.
At my request, Andy has kept Ben up to date on Erica's whereabouts, so that we could avoid running into each other. Erica was just as mad at Ben as I was disgusted with her. Since leaving Luke, Erica has had a few relationships, in which she has cheated on one boyfriend with another, times three. She got married again in March. I sincerely hoped she had changed, and was having a good relationship, but I also felt otherwise, and now I know it. Ben has told me that things are rocky with Erica and her newest husband, and that she has cheated again. With whom, he did not say, but I believe it is Andy.
You see, it turns out that I was right about my prediction a couple of years ago. Erica and Andy did consummate their friendship, which led to Andy having a bit of a depressive breakdown, which is why he moved out of their apartment. Ben didn't tell me then, but now claims he alluded to it. I believe he didn't tell me because it baffled him that I was right. I can read situations, and I've been predicting these sorts of no-brainer things for most of my life. I fear I'm about to be right again.
Andy recently blew off a road trip with Ben, opting for a vacation with Erica, sans husband. He claims he forgot that he and Ben made weekend plans. I'm pissed on behalf of Ben for that, and pissed on behalf of myself, because Andy put Erica on the phone to Ben the other day, against both my and Ben's wishes. Things seem to be moving back into the old, negative direction.
Erica does not show that she is a changed or a good person, despite Ben or Andy saying she means no harm. My definition of a good person does not involve cheating with one partner after another, including your good friends; nor not making any effort whatsoever to see or support one's young child from a first marriage; nor trying to "refriend" someone who has decided they cannot see you anymore. Just because she doesn't kill people for fun doesn't mean she hasn't hurt people, doesn't mean that she is a good person.
I also don't understand how Erica maintains this lifestyle. This may be jealousy going back into my own past of being rejected or un-chosen as a romantic partner. But how does such a shoddy partner have a steady stream of suitors? How dare Andy not respect the boundaries that Ben had drawn? Is he so vagina-mesmerized that he'll no longer advise Erica not to call my home? If Andy has no romantic interest in Erica, what the hell is he doing? Though I believe that Ben has no interest in cheating on me or pursuing a relationship of any kind with Erica, I do not believe she or Andy will stop trying to involve Ben in their new, nebulous life. I don't know what to do. I feel like telling Ben he needs to reinforce against Andy, but of course that will cause problems with us. With what I know, and what I feel, what should I do?
Don't Want to Be Right
Dear Don't Want to Be Right,
You need to think about things that directly concern you.
Ignore these other people for the moment and think about Ben. Do you trust Ben? If you trust Ben, then accept what has already happened and try to grow closer with him. It's about you and Ben. It's not about these other people.
The HPV virus either was transmitted or was not transmitted. You can work out the possibilities by referring to Stephannie's amusing and informative flow chart. Learn as much as possible about the HPV virus, and do what you can to minimize the associated risks of cervical cancer. But there is nothing you can do to change the past.
And there is much you can't control. You can't control the social lives of others. You can't control this woman. You can choose not to see her, but others in your circle will associate with whomever they please.
Whenever we focus with especial intensity on the interactions of other people, whether those people are close to us or distant from us, we are already in some kind of trouble. We are already in a game we cannot win; often we have been drawn into this game by unconscious motives; we become vulnerable to the upwelling of all our own unsatisfied desires -- desires that can never be satisfied by the dramas we observe, but only by actions we take in our own lives.
So at such moments we ask: Where is our own attention right now? We are either centered in our own lives, alert to our own tasks and working toward realizing our own vision, responding as best we can to whomever we are with at the moment, whether it be a clerk in a convenience store or a lifelong romantic partner ... or we are fretting over lives that might as well be as distant as the moon.
I mean, I admire the maturity and complexity of your moral thinking and the way you and your husband have conducted yourselves. But I wonder about your inner life. What do you need that you are not getting?
We are mortal and interdependent and cannot control everything. Nor, in my view, no matter how vigilant we are, can the course of disease be eradicated. We may have the best medicine and the best education but determined diseases will still find opportunities to infect us. They will ride the highways of our passions. They will wait until we make a mistake.
You, too, are human and therefore imperfect but I must say nevertheless you have an impressive, may I say dazzling, grasp of the intricacies of this drama. You demonstrate an impressive ability to portray a web of relationships and to ferret out hidden motivations in complex social behavior. The portrait you paint is so detailed, in fact, that it might distract all of us from your existential situation, which remains fundamentally the same as it is for each of us.
You need to detach from this social drama.
Either that or produce a reality TV series.
Now that sounds flip, doesn't it? I don't mean to be disrespectful. But to live sane lives we must avoid entanglement in the psychic lives of others. That may sound hypocritical, coming from a guy who spends five days a week inside other people's heads. So I try to treat this as just a writing gig. It is not therapy. I don't know you. I am not solving your problems. I am just writing.
When we find ourselves deeply enmeshed in the dramas of our friends, there is often something more pressing in our own lives that we are avoiding. When we face our own deepest concerns, the moral problems of our intimates become secondary, and we see our friends with new compassion: They are imperfect creatures just like we are. This brings some humility and some peace.
I feel certain that at this very moment you face decisions and emotional concerns that you have been avoiding. You need to turn to these things and give them your full attention.
Leave these other people alone. Let them be. Turn to things over which you have some control.
Mow your lawn. Paint your kitchen. Write your novel.
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