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Sunday, November 28, 2010

He's so great...but so is he...

D writes: Hello What If.

Here's my problem. I have been in a relationship with a really nice guy for 4 years now. We are good friends, we have lots in common and get along really well. He is super sweet, the ice to my fire. He's just fine, nothing at all wrong with him. I'd describe our relationship as vanilla pudding.


Recently I came into contact with someone I've known since 4th grade. We were friends, but then he had to go do his bad boy thing and we fell out of contact.

Now I'd just like to take this opportunity to say that I had a kiddie crush on him in elementary, and then a huge crush on him when I got older, but as things never worked out I just kind of gave up hope. Also, I'd like to say that I have never ever stopped thinking about him the whole time we were out of touch (7 years). In fact, I have had dreams about him over the years, and from talking to him recently, found out they were true dreams!

Anyway, I was ok with my relationship with my boyfriend until I came into contact with my old friend. Now I have the opportunity to see if we could work out. But should I?

I've spent so much time with my current boyfriend. We have so many threads of our lives entangled. All my family and all my friends just love him. We have cats together. And we do get along pretty darn well, and in case you're thinking I'm not attracted to him, that's not true, I am.

But I know that I don't love him as much as he loves me. I actually told him that once, and he's such a sweet man he just thought it was nonsense. But even though I feel affection for him, I know that I'd be just fine and dandy without him around.

This other guy, my long lost friend...I just adore him. I know a lot of the mistakes he's made in his life (and he's made some big ones) but I love love love him. I don't love him for who he may be someday, I love him as he is now. I don't care about his past, it's what makes him who he is. The problem is, we're not really as compatible as me and my boyfriend are!

I would describe my relationship with my boyfriend as the most excellent arranged relationship in the world. If for some reason I was being forced to be with him it would be ok. If we got married, we'd be fine. Moderately happy. I'd resent him sometimes because I'd feel like I sold out for convenience, but overall we'd have a happy enough life.

On the other hand, I can try with my long lost friend, see how it goes, and possibly get my heart broken or have it all lead nowhere and lose my good, safe relationship in the meantime.

What do you think?? Stay with my sure shot, who I do care for? Or go out on a limb, see what could happen in the scenario I know already will be rocky?
~D for Dichotomy

Hello, D.

This is a question with more than one right answer. In no particular order, here are some scattered thoughts about it; see if anything strikes a chord. No matter what you choose to do, you will learn something.

Something to consider: the potential relationship you have with your old friend is pure fantasy. And the most compelling thing about fantasy is that it is perfect, perfect, perfect. Chances are, if you dump your boyfriend and pursue the old crush, even if it turns out the crush reciprocates, you’ll find yourself in another relationship with fading excitement. 4 years of anyone is enough time to settle into a routine. Keep that in mind when you’re evaluating potential futures.

One thing to do at this point is take this opportunity to check in with your current relationship for its own sake.  You sound bored. Try talking to your partner about it. If you let him know you’re feeling restless and mundane in your relationship, the two of you might be able to stoke the fire you’re craving.  If you’re feeling brave, let him know about your crush. While it might hurt him, it might also provoke the kinds of conversations that unearth whatever is subtly dissatisfying about your relationship. The way a relationship handles stress can either strengthen it or bust it apart—and it sounds like you need one or the other right now, and it doesn’t really matter which.

If you leave your boyfriend, you may or may not end up with the new guy. It’ll be hard and complicated and painful and difficult to explain, and then everyone will eventually heal. Something you will certainly gain is some freedom. Maybe that’s what you’re looking for.

Consider being with your current boyfriend for the rest of your life. Does that make you feel peaceful and happy, or filled with slight dread?

An option to consider, if you’re willing to be a little unconventional: some couples choose to maintain a committed relationship with each other while permitting other romantic relationships on the outside. It’s called polyamory, and it works very well for some people and absolutely horribly for others. If you and your boyfriend are open to it, it’s definitely something to enter into slowly, with much conversation and communication and patience, and a commitment to taking care of all parties involved and stopping if it gets too painful. It’s not an easy road, but if navigated successfully, then you get to have both your perfect relationship at home, and the thrill of satisfying your curiosity about the man you know isn’t right for you but you’ve dreamed about for years. If you choose to try, google it and spend some time together learning about ways to do it and common mistakes.

So…there are three right answers:
A) Stay and work on putting raisins and cinnamon into your current vanilla pudding relationship. (Yum!)
B) Leave, chase the delicious-looking molten chocolate cake that might give you food poisoning, fling yourself on the winds of fate, brace yourself for tears and see what happens.
C) Try to have your pudding and eat cake too, in an open, honest, consensual way.

There are two wrong answers, which I didn’t cover but may as well mention:
D) Pine silently and grow bitter.
F) Cheat.

As long as you stick with one of the first three, you’ll be fine. Really. Let us know how it goes.

As always, leave me comments! And write your questions to!


Friday, November 19, 2010

Whose job is that?

Tangled writes: Let's say, hypothetically, that I was in a relationship with someone who was also in a relationship with someone else.  Let's call my partner Brook and Brook's partner Chris.  And let's say that I knew Chris but we weren't close.  I think it would likely be in my best interest to support Brook and Chris' relationship and accommodate it as much as possible while still maintaining my happiness with my relationship.  

This question is about morality though.  What level of responsibility do I have to Chris and their relationship?  Is it immoral if I don't actively engage with Chris so I know what Chris wants and needs?  Is it immoral to ask for things from Brook that I want but know will hurt the other relationship?  What if I don't need them but they would be nice?  Most importantly, is it wrong to consider my feelings more important than Chris' feelings?  


As a pragmatist, this is what I’ve observed: when people start taking unbidden responsibility for other peoples’ relationships, good things rarely happen. I’m inclined to believe that the impulse to do so is misplaced and shows a lack of respect for the people whose relationship it actually is, while breeding resentment in the heart of the responsibility-taker who probably has enough to deal with in his or her own relationships.
However, you do have a relationship with Brook, and Brook does have a relationship with Chris, and there is a certain kind of emotional transitive property operating there that puts you on the hook for taking care of Chris. But it has to come through Brook.
Since polyamorous relationships aren’t as common as monogamous ones, there isn’t a standard cultural contract that can be assumed to be in place. In a monogamous relationship, certain things are taken for granted (no sleeping with other people) that don’t even need to be explicitly addressed; they are the default and everyone in this culture more or less understands that, whether or not they uphold them. A poly relationship has fewer default settings in that regard, so the burden is on the participants to carefully delineate what, exactly, they expect from each other with regard to other partners.
How much moral responsibility you have for Brook and Chris’s relationship depends very much on two things: the contract that exists between Brook and Chris, and the contract that exists between you and Brook. You are only responsible for upholding the latter, but Brook needs to insist on drawing up your contract such that it honors the former. (Or, if that isn’t possible, Brook needs to alter the former such that it honors the latter. This isn’t a simple process; it involves time and back-and-forths; it is worth everybody’s patience to find agreement, or one of the relationships will give.)
So: What level of responsibility do you have to C&B’s relationship? You have exactly as much responsibility to Chris as your contract with Brook states. There is no absolute, objective moral requirement for what goes into that contract except that you and Brook agree on it; and I would say the moral burden is on Brook for ensuring that the two contracts are not mutually exclusive. Of course, you can and should help with that, and engaging with Chris directly is a great idea that will probably make everyone's lives easier, but it isn’t your job (unless your contract with Brook asks for that.)
Is it immoral to ask for what you want, knowing it may hurt the other party? No. It is never, never immoral to ask for what you want. It is Brook’s responsibility to behave in a manner consistent with both contracts (which may involve saying ‘no’ to you), or, if that is impossible, to attempt to change the contracts. It’s your job to be patient and understanding with that process, which may be full of missteps and take a while to figure out; this shit is complicated and emotional and there’s no handy cultural blueprint for how to do it.
This is important: the worst thing you can do, ever, is say that you approve of some aspect of your contract that you are not okay with. If it feels unbalanced or bad or is something that doesn’t feel right to you, you have not just the right, but the obligation to say no. It’s very tempting to say okay when it isn’t, for a variety of reasons; to seem strong & cool, or because of feeling bad for having caused pain, or having pushed too far on another point, or… I’m here to say that signing up for things that don’t feel good is cruelty to both yourself & your partner, and it’ll getcha in the end if you do.
This is also important: If you break the previous rule, which is sometimes hard to keep, you need to forgive yourself and try again. Not everyone knows what they want right away, and being in a poly relationship can involve occasionally finding out what you don’t want in somewhat painful ways. That’s ok. Take a deep breath, shed some tears, try to figure out what you learned and communicate it. If you can do this together in a positive way, you’ll be stronger for the mistakes.
Your last question: is it wrong to consider your feelings more important than Chris’s? That’s one that I would try to rephrase. Objectively, your feelings are not any more important than Chris’s, and Chris’s feelings are not any more important than yours. But because you are stuck inside your brain, with your heart and your perceptions and your knowledge of your relationship, you are only ABLE to deal with yours. Trying to take Chris’s feelings on is a disastrous idea, because you have NO IDEA what’s going on in there. It would be rude of you to try. It’s like being the general manager of QFC and making decisions for the neighboring Safeway. What are you doing in there? You don’t know shit about Safeway. Take your pricing gun and your spreadsheets back home and talk to your own damn employees.
Right? Good luck, Tangled.


How’d I do? Leave your additions, complaints, and/or expletives in the comments. And please, for the love of God, write me a question! So far I have answered 100% of the questions I have received!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Besotted Instructor

Unnamed Querent: Ok, so my yoga teacher here is awesome. He's kicked my ass three days a week for the last two years, is inspiring and full of all sorts of sound life advice, and I generally adore him and love taking his class. His wife teaches in the studio next door, they've been married for 25 years or so, and they are both high up on the list of Oklahoma's redeeming qualities. 

Recently a gorgeous exchange student and some of her friends started taking our class. I think everyone of any gender in a ten mile radius is magnetically attracted to her, myself definitely included. Unfortunately my teacher wasn't spared, has totally succumbed to her hotness, and now spends most of class giving her various assists as an excuse to touch her - which she seems way less into than he is. I'm sure this is one of the perks and hazards of any yoga instructor's life, and I don't really begrudge him the occasional crush on a student, but it's getting a little out of hand - he forgets cues, ignores everyone else in class, and generally makes the normally very restful and centering yoga experience kind of awkward and uncomfortable. A bunch of other people in class have complained about it, including this student's friends, but I don't think anyone has mentioned it to our instructor. 

I feel very loyal to my teacher, and it would take a lot more than this to make me stop going to his class. It's also a temporary situation, since she is, like I said, an exchange student, and won't be here for that long. So... do I sit tight and ignore it, try to breathe through my irritation, and wait for her to go away? Do I lovingly tell my teacher "hey! You're making me uncomfortable, and your teaching is suffering." ? He hasn't done this with anyone else since I started class, so I don't think it's a habit for him, but I'd hate for it to become one, and I really would like to be able to pay attention in class again. What would you do?

Good question! This really depends on your comfort level with intervening and your relationship with your teacher. Given that the situation is inherently temporary, it is not at all a bad idea to use this as an excuse to practice deepening your focus in the face of irritation. The stakes are low, and things will go back to normal eventually, and it is neither your responsibility nor your business, really. Breathe deep and wait.

But if you, like me, relish awkward, head-on, over-honest communication and the growth that it inspires, you should totally clue your teacher in. Here’re my thoughts about that.

Chances are good that he’s unaware of the obvious and distracting nature of his crush. By alerting him to the effects on his class, you’re doing him a favor, and, if he’s as good a teacher as you say he is, you’re doing your whole class a favor, because any teacher who cares will course-correct when confronted with a mistake. And if you can alert him in a compassionate and understanding way, you might just have a chance at alleviating a serious emotional pressure on him.

/Wild speculation interlude: The fact that this is interfering with class to the extent you describe may indicate that his feelings are intense and perhaps a little out of his control. Since most adults, particularly those who have made it into marriage, have experienced intense crushes before, there may be something else at play that’s causing him to react so overtly. What if he’s feeling guilty for his reaction to this woman? The forbidden nature of his feelings and his refusal to accept them may be the reason that he’s spiraling into uncomfortable levels of attentiveness to her—nothing seduces us into losing control like the idea that something’s off limits. If that’s true, a casual, normalizing approach (“hey, dude, everybody’s got a crush on this woman, yours is impinging on class time, no big deal, totally understandable, just thought I’d mention that it’s noticeable”) could help him recognize that his feelings are acceptable and normal, if humility-inspiring, and that his reactions to them are controllable. /speculation

Regardless of whether he’s guiltily burning with desire or just being clueless around the pretty girl, it will be useful for him to receive the message. If you have the opportunity to wait after class and speak with him alone, you can address him about it then—if there are too many people lingering after class, send him an email.

Let him know that you think he’s awesome and you’ve loved his class for two years. Let him know that you need to communicate with him because you have the perception that he’s spending an abnormal amount of time working with this woman since she joined the class. Tell him that the imbalance in time spent, and the fact that other people have noticed it and mentioned it too, makes you uncomfortable during class. Ask him to redistribute his attention to the rest of the students. Tell him, as you wrote me, that this isn’t something that would make you stop coming, just something you have noticed often enough in class that it is prompting this feedback. Thank him for listening, let him know it’s not that big a deal, react to any defensiveness with understanding.

Beware: by doing this, you will risk making classtime doubly uncomfortable for you for a little while. He’ll be more self-conscious around you next class, and maybe for the rest of the classes that contain the exchange student. However, you stand to gain a much stronger friendship with him via straightforward communication, and you have a very good chance of having a more balanced class.  Your classmates will be grateful for the change.

If he continues this behavior even after such a direct confrontation, then he’s not as good a teacher as you say he is. If he’s simply the dirty-old-man type who’s completely unrepentant of his preference for the supermodels, you may just be out of luck, but at least you will have made yourself heard.

Confronting him won’t be socially easy or risk-free, but it’s one of those juicy encounters that carry the potential energy for real change for both participants. It’s not the only way to handle the situation, but it would be a brave, cool move and I’d salute you for it.

Good luck! If you do it, leave a comment and let us know how it went!
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