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Valerie L

Hi there, it’s me, Jennifer, Captain Awkward, down one pesky uterus and gingerly climbing back on my bullshit.

Today we have the classic tale of the man who might leave his wife someday, just as soon as he finds someone who can pass the lengthy audition process.

It’s not easy to become This Fucking Guy’s Next Ex-Wife. First, there’s the initial chemistry read, where you provide the sex he’s not getting at home, followed by a series of callbacks where you demonstrate skills like shrinking your needs to a manageable (invisible) size and listening to story after story where he is a helpless victim of circumstance without laughing and telling him to get lost. Should that all go well, and should you prove flexible enough to schedule your entire life around his convenience, there’s just one final step: Proving that you, yourself, alone, can personally make up for all the ways every woman he has met have let him down in the past. Are you ready for the challenge?

Dear Captain Awkward:

I started sleeping with a married man about 6 months ago.

He told me his wife was asexual and agreed to him having girlfriends. About 2 months into the relationship, we crossed the “I love you” boundary.

Now he’s going back and forth on how serious he wants to be. He says he’s going to leave his wife but he doesn’t know when. A few years ago, he separated from his wife and moved in with his girlfriend and a month later she left him and went back to her ex so he has trust issues. I told him I would never do that but he’s not making any future plans for us. I know we haven’t been together that long and I don’t want to break up his marriage but if I leave, I would have lied to him and I don’t want to do that either. I don’t know what to do.

Should I leave or stay? 

Hello and thank you for your question!

Hypothesis: I think you should leave.

Supporting evidence: Pretty much every word out of his mouth as related by you.

Method: Boundaries will set you free.

He told me his wife is asexual and agreed to him having girlfriends.”  “He says he’s going to leave his wife but he doesn’t know when.”

So…which is it? He left his wife once already, and is theoretically planning to do it again for you, but also, his wife is totally okay with him dating outside the marriage and has presented no obstacle to your whirlwind romance so far. Huh.

As mating calls go, “It’s okay, my wife says I’m allowed to have sleepovers!” has some pitfalls, one being that it can be used equally by ethical people who are openly seeking non-monogamous relationships, lying cheaters who lie, and by people who, even when truthful about their advertised status (separated, “consciously uncoupling,” non-monogamous, “it’s complicated,” etc.), manage to be juuuuuuuust available enough to tempt you into ignoring your better judgment, and just married enough that they can’t really make any big commitments or promises right now. They’re a little bit single, even when they’re not, and they tend to be very good at 1) keeping their options open and 2) using “honesty” the way Wonder Woman uses magic bracelets: to deflect.

Four panel Anakin-Padme meme, from right to left. Anakin: You are the love of my life. Padme: So I can meet your friends and family, right? Anakin: Stares Intensely Padme: I can meet your friends and family, right?

He told you, and you believe him, no problem, for the bulk of this post I’m going to believe him, too, mostly because he doesn’t need to be lying for this to still be a bad idea. But I think it’s worth a gut check. Aside from what he’s told you, what other evidence do you have that he’s not just cheating and lying about that? Independent confirmation from his wife, perhaps, or from the other friends and family members he’s introduced you to during the last six months?

You’re planning a “serious” future together, so you’ve met at least some of the most important people in each other’s lives, right? You’re in his phone under your real name, you can schedule hangouts without cloak-and-dagger, you know where he works, you’ve been to some of his favorite spots, you can hold hands in public without being danger of getting shoved into the shrubbery or introduced as a cousin if you run into someone he knows? Tagging him in a cute photo online doesn’t prompt a panicked search of fault vs. no fault divorce laws?

If asking those questions leads you somewhere you’d rather not be, are you truly okay with being in a secret relationship, where your partner lies about your existence and level of connection to someone he promised to cherish? To put it in terms of a boundary, if you decide, “I’m not interested in relationships where I have to keep secrets and tell lies,” where does it leave you?

Okay, from now on we’re officially assuming that he told the truth and his wife “agreed to” him having girlfriend(s). Technically I agreed to repay my student loans, doesn’t mean I’m wild about it. Did this agreement take place before or after he left her the last time? Was it an intentional, mutual decision from the start of their marriage or did he cheat on her first and decide later that she owed him this to “make up for” being asexual (in which case, yikes, dump him harder), so she agreed rather than lose him? Do you think he treats his wife with love and care, the way you would want to be treated if you were in her shoes?

Incidentally, how do you feel about monogamy? Does “getting more serious” mean that the two of you will be exclusive once he’s divorced? Is that what you want? (I think that might be what you want.) Does he know that? If you set “I want a committed relationship with a partner who will be faithful to me” as your boundary, does he still seem like a catch? If you were to decide on an open relationship from the start, what evidence do you have that he’d keep his promises to you, given that he’s secretly planning to leave the last person he made the same agreements with?

On all counts, I strongly suggest not making “what this guy has permission from someone else to do” into the measuring stick for what you want, need, and deserve from a relationship.

“…but he’s not making any future plans for us.”

My life got infinitely less confusing and stressful once I started applying a boundary called “I don’t plan my life around anyone whose plans don’t include me.” Until I learned, I labored under the fallacy that I could make plans that were so elegant, so superbly situated that the other party needn’t bother doing any planning at all, and all I needed to do was wait patiently for the right moment to give them their “gift.” Ta-daaaaaaa!

It didn’t work, mostly because people with healthy boundaries who were on a different schedule than I was were (rightly) freaked out by the sudden (to them) mismatch in intensity. It didn’t work even when it worked, because there’s actually a huge difference between actively wanting to be with me and being willing to follow the path of least resistance as long as it remains convenient or until something better comes along.

This guy told you outright:  “I am not making any future plans for us.”

I’ve never met him, nor am I particularly optimistic about his overall integrity, but on this topic, I believe him!

What happens if you take him at his word, and stop making future plans that depend on him? Apply The Sheelzebub Principle: If you knew things were going to stay pretty much exactly as they are, how much longer would you stay? Six more months? A year? Five years? If being able to plan a future with someone you can count on is important to you, it will soon clarify what must be done.

“About 2 months into the relationship, we crossed the ‘I love you’ boundary.”

Well, that escalated quickly!

I wonder. From the early stages of being together, did this guy talk a lot about the past, sharing intimate stuff about childhood traumas, dreams, fears (some of it inappropriately intimate relative to how long you’d known each other), and the future (daydreams for all the great stuff you’d do together someday)? And did he want to know absolutely everything about your past, and everything about your dreams for the future? And did it feel magical to be at once so fascinated and also so fascinating?

It’s a common trope that cis, straight men are generally bad at talking about feelings, extremely avoidant of anything that even hints of future commitment, and may or may not know where the clitoris is (or care to ever find out). So if you meet one who is very open and vulnerable about feelings without the application of an oyster knife, quick to jump into the future, and who can reliably make you glimpse the face of god when you sleep together, it must mean something special indeed. Like, come on, you weren’t asking for his hand in marriage when you got together, everyone was a grownup who knew what this was, he was the one who kept bringing up how cool it would be to meet your family and visit every single place you’d always dreamed of going. Why would anyone do that if they didn’t mean it? Answer: Because maybe he has nothing to offer you in the present tense.

How to say this? It’s not that he didn’t mean it. Chances are he did. You are wonderful and enchanting, you weren’t imagining it, it felt great to be in love. Just, sometimes “I love you” sounds likeI could be happy just doing laundry and taxes with you” when it really means “I want to binge you like a Netflix show.” A fascinating, novel escape from quotidian life, full of high drama and bright colors, with no need to leave the comfy couch that’s perfectly molded to your butt, and not expected to last more than a season or two. The intense, lightning-in-a-bottle intimacy of wanting to consume the fantasy of you is not the same as the kind of boring, reliable, consistent intimacy of actually building that life. Sorting through all the things he said and did to make the case that yes, he meant it, absent any concrete action from him to make it happen, will make you feel unhinged.

As a boundary? You can do worse than “Maybe I’ll take some action when I see some action.”

“something something about trust issues and if you dump him now you would have lied to him”

You are telling me that he left his entire wife, with all the attendant difficult conversations and expensive logistical nightmares of dissolving one household and making a new one, did all that again when he went back to her a month or so later, then he met you, is now secretly plotting to leave her again for you, and HE is the one with “trust issues” that YOU are responsible for managing? Who is the liar here? Not you! Who is the person who serially can’t make up his mind? Not you!

Oh, honey, no. No. Absolutely not. The lion, the witch, and the audacity of this man.

Let’s skip straight to the boundary: You are not responsible for how other people treated him in the past. If others treated him poorly, it’s not an excuse for him treating you poorly now, and you won’t agree to something that is not in your best interests as some kind of fucked-up reverse reparations for something you didn’t do. You have literally nothing to prove here. If you cut your losses now, and he blames you for breaking his “trust,” I guess you’ll have to add yourself to the very long list of women who couldn’t live up to his high ideals, oh well!

Please put this man back where you found him, preferably before you waste money and time on selecting a thoughtful holiday present and waiting around for him to sneak off to text you from the toilet at his in-laws’ annual holiday feast. You are not a placeholder, and he is not the one.

Valerie L Yesterday, 05:25PM · Tags: connect, fusevy, love, relationships
Valerie L

Edit: cancelled sorry, too few RSVPs. Let me know if you’re interested in coming in future, and any changes which would help

Hello everyone!

I haven’t run this meetup for a while, as a combination of my own health issues going on, plus what looked like reduced interest, but here we go again. Please can you definitely RSVP if you are coming, and I will cancel if there’s not enough people.

Obviously I will cancel if the situation changes or the rules change

5th November, 1pm, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, SE1 8XX.

We will be on Level 2 (the upper levels are closed to non-ticket-holders), but I don’t know exactly where on the floor. It will depend on where we can find a table. I will have my plush Chthulu which looks like this:

Please bring your masks/exemption lanyards, and obey any rules posted in the venue.

The venue has lifts to all floors and accessible toilets. The accessibility map is here:

The food market outside (side opposite the river) is pretty good for all sorts of requirements, and you can also bring food from home, or there are lots of cafes on the riverfront.

Other things to bear in mind:

  1. Please make sure you follow social distancing rules. This particularly includes respecting people’s personal space and their choices about distancing.
  2. We have all had a terrible time for the last two years. Sharing your struggles is okay and is part of what the group is for, but we need to be careful not to overwhelm each other or have the conversation be entirely negative. Where I usually draw the line here is that personal struggles are fine to talk about but political rants are discouraged, but I may have to move this line on the day when I see how things go. Don’t worry, I will tell you!
  3. Probably lots of us have forgotten how to be around people (most likely me as well), so here is permission to walk away if you need space. Also a reminder that we will all react differently, so be careful to give others space if they need.

I will cancel this meetup if government guidance changes, so keep an eye on this space.

Everyone who’s coming please make sure you take a lateral flow test (or PCR) the previous evening or that morning

Please RSVP so that I know there’s enough people not to need to cancel, and so I know to look out for you!

kate DOT towner AT gmail DOT com

Valerie L

Hello everyone!

I haven’t run this meetup for a while, as a combination of my own health issues going on, plus what looked like reduced interest, but here we go again. Please can you definitely RSVP if you are coming, and I will cancel if there’s not enough people.

Obviously I will cancel if the situation changes or the rules change

5th November, 1pm, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, SE1 8XX.

We will be on Level 2 (the upper levels are closed to non-ticket-holders), but I don’t know exactly where on the floor. It will depend on where we can find a table. I will have my plush Chthulu which looks like this:

Please bring your masks/exemption lanyards, and obey any rules posted in the venue.

The venue has lifts to all floors and accessible toilets. The accessibility map is here:

The food market outside (side opposite the river) is pretty good for all sorts of requirements, and you can also bring food from home, or there are lots of cafes on the riverfront.

Other things to bear in mind:

  1. Please make sure you follow social distancing rules. This particularly includes respecting people’s personal space and their choices about distancing.
  2. We have all had a terrible time for the last two years. Sharing your struggles is okay and is part of what the group is for, but we need to be careful not to overwhelm each other or have the conversation be entirely negative. Where I usually draw the line here is that personal struggles are fine to talk about but political rants are discouraged, but I may have to move this line on the day when I see how things go. Don’t worry, I will tell you!
  3. Probably lots of us have forgotten how to be around people (most likely me as well), so here is permission to walk away if you need space. Also a reminder that we will all react differently, so be careful to give others space if they need.

I will cancel this meetup if government guidance changes, so keep an eye on this space.

Everyone who’s coming please make sure you take a lateral flow test (or PCR) the previous evening or that morning

Please RSVP so that I know there’s enough people not to need to cancel, and so I know to look out for you!

kate DOT towner AT gmail DOT com

Valerie L

Dear Captain Awkward,

I was estranged from my father, who emotionally abused me as a child, for nearly a decade. I was told he was dying of a terminal illness last year and his last wish was to talk to me. I figured, hey he’s a dying man and I’ve processed this in therapy. I can give him some closure. 

He ended up receiving a life-saving operation and has been given several more years. His recovery from the operation is grueling but he is stable and out of the hospital.

My problem is that I only came back into his life to say goodbye. I don’t want a relationship with him. I don’t want anything to do with him. I am occasionally re-traumatized by his behavior and even if I weren’t, I don’t like him. He’s still recovering and has a long road ahead. He needs support. I don’t want to even text him, let alone keep him company. 

I’m at a complete loss. It seems needlessly cruel to tell him the truth (“I only reached out because I thought you were dying so hmu when you’re at that point again”), but I don’t see an alternative. Ghosting just makes him pester my mom, sister, and husband. Low contact, even very low contact, is low-key triggering. I’m dealing with too much other shit to come up with a good script. Can you help?”

Hello!

If you feel like you must say something to your dad before doing whatever you were doing before to gain peace and distance from him, maybe try this:

“Dad, I am so relieved that your recent health scare wasn’t the end, and I appreciated the chance to give you and Mom some peace of mind during a difficult time. But that doesn’t mean our relationship has fundamentally changed. I wish you well, but I plan to go on keeping my distance now that we’ve had a chance to say our goodbyes.”

This doesn’t have to be a conversation or negotiation where he gets to have his say. You’re not asking permission, you are communicating a decision that you’ve made, so if it helps, put it in a greeting card and drop it in the mail. Done.

If (when) he tries other tactics, you can adapt that same script to set boundaries with your mom, sister, and husband: “I was grateful that I could grant Dad/you some peace of mind in a terrible moment, but that doesn’t mean anything has changed about the reasons we are no longer in touch. I wish him well, but for my own well-being, I plan to go on keeping my distance now that I’ve said my goodbyes.”

With these other family members, you might add something like “I realize that Dad is putting you in an uncomfortable spot, and I’m sorry about that, but I’m not going to change my mind. There is nothing you can do to fix what’s broken between us, and I am asking you directly to stop passing on messages and pressuring me to be in touch with him. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve said our goodbyes.”

These scripts are for you, to help you say what you need to say so that you can close the book for yourself. They aren’t about convincing anybody of the rightness of your decision or persuading anybody out of their hurt. There is no version of this or any script that your dad wants to hear or will accept, and he will likely take it out on anybody else in your family who will still take his calls. So once you deliver them, you’ll need to adopt or adapt all the boundary-maintenance measures that you already know how to do: Not responding to communications from or about your dad, changing the subject whenever he comes up, and cutting conversations short when you need to for your own peace of mind.

If your mom and sister are acting as his caregivers, consider that there are lots of ways to show up in their lives and be supportive of them without having to engage with your dad or spend every moment rehashing the latest details of his condition. Depending on your capacity, that could mean material support with meals, housekeeping, babysitting any niblings to give your sister a break, making sure mom and sister are taking good care of their own health, or arranging treats and distractions now and again. It could also mean words of encouragement, such as “I’m glad Dad has you in his corner, and you’re doing such a good job” as you change the subject to literally anything but That Fucking Guy. The same will be true when he eventually dies, since nobody has to feel any certain way about the un-dearly departed in order to keep hot coffee and casseroles flowing to the grieved and bereaved.

Estrangement is painful and lonely. There is always the “But what if the person DIES?” pressure from people who haven’t lived through what you’ve lived through, and people who don’t realize that nobody cuts off contact with a close family member as a passing whim, without exhausting every possibility for repairing the relationship. So whenever I hear of someone cutting ties permanently, I ask myself how bad would things have to get for me to never want to speak to someone again, and I generally try to assume that whatever happened to them was at least that bad. Letter Writer, now that you’ve lived through the “But what if he DIES?” scenario, and the answer is “He’s still exactly the same crappy person who caused me no end of grief.” If the pain of not having a dad anymore is still less than the pain of having to keep dealing with that specific, nightmare dad, then I believe you, and encourage you to keep doing what you need to do to protect yourself from abuse. You did a very kind, generous thing when you didn’t have to, and I hope you are giving yourself a lot of love and credit for that.

I’m wishing you peace and comfort in the days ahead.

Valerie L

Hello, I’m not sure how to start this off but here goes.

My wife of 20 years was caught sending nudes to an older man and I found out she had been riding around with him while I was at work. When I confronted her about everything she said they were only talking and it wasn’t sexual at all. But everything in me tells me otherwise. Also she has cheated in the past. Should I believe her?

Oof, hello, I’m sorry that we’re meeting under these circumstances and I hope you are doing okay.

I can’t confirm whether your wife’s ride-alongs with Pop-Pop involve the *full* Early Bird Special, and there is no universal “What counts as cheating?” standard that I could apply from this distance. But I’ll tell you what I observe and see where it takes us.

Your wife seems to be making the case that *nothing* counts as cheating or as being “sexual at all” until or unless the parties mash their genitals together and make them kiss. I tend to think of this as the N Minus 1 Gambit within the larger Cheater’s Defense, where as long as there is one forbidden thing that the relationship partner and potential affair partner are not doing (yet), then nothing they are doing could possibly be sketchy, and actually you’re the one who is out of line for even suggesting it. As the relationship progresses, and more and more formerly off-limits things happen between them, the value of N (for that final, off-limits act that would objectively constitute Actual Cheating) keeps growing progressively absurd, until you’re firmly in  “Well, it’s not like we fucked in front of everyone at the family reunion and sent the video to all of your LinkedIn connections, come on, be reasonable! We just did all the things I promised I wouldn’t do, one by one, until we ran out of Things. Quit overreacting just because I made you feel paranoid and crazy this whole time!”- territory.

You’ve found out that your wife is sending nudes to someone and hanging out with him behind your back in a way that feels “off” and reminds you of other times she has cheated on you. You could decide to believe her and ignore the whole thing unless it crosses a certain line, but you don’t have to solve for N (or accept the framing that it’s not cheating until she says it is) before you’re allowed to question your relationship and your happiness and security within it.

Please allow me to pose a series of questions that might help you think through what you want to happen next.

Are you happy with your wife, in general, or were you before you found out what’s happening? Can you be happy, knowing what you know now? When she denies cheating, but everything in (you) tells (you) otherwise,” what is the cost of ignoring your own instincts? What happens to your peace of mind, to your sense of integrity?

In a perfect world, where all of this gets resolved to your satisfaction, what does that look like? When you ask her that question, what does she say? What happens if you let yourself be hurt and angry about this? “We’ve already had to work so hard to rebuild trust in our marriage, it’s both astounding and alarming that you’d push boundaries like this and put everything at risk, again.”

If it’s not cheating, then what is it? “Please help me understand. Why are you sending photos like that to another man? If it’s “not sexual at all” then what is it? Is it only him, or do you trade explicit photos with other friends? What do you enjoy about it? Do I need to be worried that you’ll cheat on me or leave me for someone else? Is there something you’re not getting from our relationship in terms of attention, or wanting to be seen, or even playing around with exhibitionism that we could work on together?” If there’s a reasonable explanation here, or something you’re missing, here’s her chance to offer it.

Do you trust that your wife is looking out for your well-being? Around this situation? In general? [Bonus Question: When’s the last time you got screened for sexually transmitted infections? STIs don’t discriminate and can happen to anyone without it necessarily being someone’s fault, but also, in my experience, people who aren’t careful with solemn vows and other people’s hearts aren’t always super careful about other stuff, either. It’s better to know than not know.]

When you talk to her about how this makes you feel, is she accountable and direct? Especially given the history of past cheating, does she acknowledge why finding out about the photos & secret hangouts might make you anxious and uncomfortable, and does she do her best to reassure you and make you feel safe?

If it turns out she is cheating, or it turns into cheating down the road, what do you want to do about it? If you both agree that whatever she’s doing doesn’t meet the threshold of cheating, are you allowed to say that you’re still not cool with what is happening and would like it to stop? Just because other people would be okay with what she’s doing doesn’t mean that you have to be okay with it.

If your wife won’t agree to curtail the photos and hangouts (or if she agrees but keeps going in secret)(or if she straight up tells you that she’d prefer to open up the relationship), what does that mean for you? Would you stay, regardless? Do you need to at least locate the nearest exit in case of emergency? What kind of support system do you have, including people who you can really talk to about what’s going on?

Even if your wife is telling you the truth (technically)(like, really, really technically)(hair-splittingly, rules-lawyeringly technically), it still might not be enough to build a happy future on, especially when she’s already broken your trust at least once. As boundaries go, “I only stick around in relationships where I don’t have to worry about being cheated on” isn’t a ridiculous one.

P.S. Pledge Drive Update: THANK YOU. Thank you to everyone who donated and thank you for all the kind messages. I have read them all.The last few weeks have been even more chaotic than I was anticipating when I put out the tip jar, due to Mr. Awkward having a sudden health scare that required a stay in the ICU. (Gory “Lithium toxicity? What the….?” details here, good “he’s out of the hospital and expected to fully recover” news here). Thanks to all of you, it was such a relief to be able to get back and forth from the hospital to be with him and summon food at weird hours without added stress. I’m especially relieved that I’m still on track for uterus-eviction next month as scheduled. If you can and want to chip in to the recovery fund/eventual comic staged reading of our itemized medical bills, you can sign up to be a monthly patron or use PayPal, Cash.me, and (new!) Ko-Fi. Thank you.

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