I met my partner 18 years ago. On paper he is the perfect guy (charming, witty, smart, good cook); unfortunately it turns out he’s in some sort of open relationship, while I’m not. We clearly should have discussed the kind of relationship we wanted when we started dating, but maybe by shyness, we didn’t. In our first years, we were living apart and I was so unhappy on the job front that I chose to ignore the truth. I moved to his place 12 years ago hoping things could fix themselves, but the reality is I’m just an average guy: I can’t compete with the fresh material readily available on dating apps. I’m overall happy with the rest of my life. So many years have passed, I don’t know how to bring the subject to the table. I’m not a complete prude and wouldn’t oppose having some fun, but I mainly want to have an honest relationship. I want him to know that I know. I’m not looking for drama or tears, just for an adult discussion to decide what we do now.
I’m intrigued by the dynamics described in your letter, and I’m curious about what discussions or acknowledgments – if any – have happened around you partner sleeping with other people. From your description, you have known about your partner dating and/or sleeping with other people since the beginning and never addressed it – and your awareness also implies that he hasn’t been particularly discreet about it. It’s also interesting to me that you don’t explicitly describe this as cheating, nor do you refer to you both as having an open relationship, just him. This feels accurate to the dynamic that you have both created, where you have tacitly accepted this as part of your relationship for this long without and addressing or setting boundaries around his behaviour – but also don’t feel that the relationship is a fully and consciously open relationship because you have never talked about it. I also wonder whether he assumes that you are also sleeping with other people, or whether he knows that he is the only one doing so.
There are a few important things to note here. The first is that many couples create their own rules around fidelity that don’t adhere to the more rigid ideas around monogamy assumed and enforced by heteronormativity, which can be wonderful and healthy and empowering for people. Secondly, there are various ways to exist in a non-monogamous relationship, and many couples have a version of what you do now, where one partner dates and has sex with other people more than the other. But healthy, ethical and sustainable non-monogamy only works if both people agree and feel good about the arrangement, which does not seem to be the case for you.
The third thing I want to note is that attitudes around infidelity are not one-size-fits-all. Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel has written extensively about the topic, researching couples who experience infidelity but stay together. She writes about cultural differences in how we think about infidelity, noting that for Americans, for example, “infidelity is wrong. In France, it hurts. There is a moral element more present in Anglo-Saxon culture than in Latin culture where infidelity is experienced not only as a betrayal, but as the expression of an existential dilemma between love and desire.” Perel also notices different approaches in therapy, observing that “in the United States, transparency is the key to redemption, while in Europe, we have more respect for the unsaid”.
It’s clear that you love your partner, are also battling some feelings of insecurity and unworthiness, and have spent too long betraying yourself to prioritise his needs
The reason I bring up these different ideas around monogamy and infidelity is that I sense some ambiguity and uncertainty in your feelings around this. You have silently accepted your partner’s behaviour for 18 years and it’s important to explore this part of yourself. Did you accept it because you would rather a non-monogamous relationship with this person than being with anyone else? Did you also want to sleep with other people, but feel that your relationship doesn’t have a sense of equality where you can both enjoy the same freedoms and respect? Did you feel hurt, betrayed and undermined but didn’t feel like you could express this, and if so, do issues of low self-worth and self-betrayal manifest in your life and relationship in other ways? Did this arrangement work for you before in ways that it doesn’t work now, and what has that change been?
You have, through your silence, contributed and created this dynamic. I don’t say this to blame you or to undermine your emotions, but so that you can open up an important exploration of how you and your relationship dynamic led to this point – so that you can start to consciously change it. Your instinct to have the conversation with your partner is the right one. You do not need to continue accepting something simply because you accepted it before. You do not need to remain silent forever. All relationships grow, evolve and change, and a change is clearly needed.
It’s clear that you love your partner, are also battling some feelings of insecurity and unworthiness, and have spent too long betraying yourself to prioritise his needs. So take some time to think about what you actually want. If you were starting over with your partner tomorrow, would you want monogamy? An open relationship with more honesty and transparency? Do you want to sleep with other people and want your needs and desires to be prioritised that way your partner has prioritised his? You don’t need to know the answers to these questions immediately, but it’s important to think about what you need and want before talking to your partner, so that you don’t fall into the established pattern of giving him what he wants without protecting yourself. Individual therapy would be helpful here, and a good couples counsellor could be invaluable in helping you both explore both the dynamic that led you here, and how to move forward.
But you do need to open up the conversation. Think about what you want to say, what boundaries you want to set, and where you are able to be curious. Tell your partner you want to talk, and carve out some time for the opening conversation – because this will just be the opening conversation, there are many more in your future. To start, simply tell your partner the truth: that you love him, you’ve always been aware that that he hasn’t been monogamous but that the silence no longer works for you. Tell him that you need to talk about your relationship openly and decide how to move forward. See what he says and whether he is ready, willing and able to have this discussion with you. If he is, ask can you go see a counsellor together.
But if he is not able or willing to have this discussion, then you need to finally prioritise yourself and refuse to remain in a relationship without honesty, transparency, respect, open communication and a shared vision of the relationship.
You have been silent for too long. Start expressing your needs, and only staying with people who are able to hear them.