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How to be human: being open vs. being adulterous

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Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column "Ask Leah" ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. During the day, Leah is Slack’s user researcher, but her views here do not represent her employer. How to be Human runs every other Sunday. You can write to her at askleah@theverge.com and read more How to be Human here.

Hey Leah,

I am married and have been for eight years. We also have two children, two and four years old. I am a stay-at-home mom and my husband works two jobs. We are happily married. He recently took me on a kid-free weekend getaway to the town where we met for the first time. It was very romantic.

The town just happened to be where I went to college so it also has other memories for me. We had a great time, nice dinners, even discovered a new bar we wanted to check out. Well, at that bar I thought I saw someone I had a history with, but I didn't get a chance to talk to him to see if it was the same person. So for the next few hours this person was on my mind, but I didn't let it ruin rest of the evening. My husband and I went back to our hotel, had a passionate evening, and went to bed, but the other guy was still on my mind. I had looked at his Facebook profile in the past but never contacted him. That night I thought I would sent him a message just asking if he happened to be at the same bar that night. To be completely honest, I wasn't even sure he would have remembered me, since it had been 12 years since we last had contact.

The next afternoon he replied to me. It wasn't actually him at the bar the night before but he did remember who I was. We continued messaging for a couple hours just reminiscing. (I know, red flag right there!) I told him right upfront that I was married with kids now, but he is still single. He proceeded to flirt with me throughout the conversation and I continued to remind him I am married now. I must admit it made me feel really good that after 12 years he still remembered me and that he couldn't stop flirting. It made for some very passionate lovemaking between the husband and me for the rest of our getaway. But even though I didn't do anything and didn't even see the other guy in person, I felt extremely guilty.

Now that we are back home and back to the reality of real life, work, kids, money problems, etc. I still find myself constantly thinking of this other guy. I'm assuming it’s because he came into my life at a much more carefree time then what I have going on now. It was later in my college years where I was already adjusted to living on my own, and my biggest worry in life was finals. We weren't really boyfriend/girlfriend, it was definitely more of a friends with benefits relationship. My favorite part was the spontaneity of it all as well as no strings attached. We could see other people or have a real relationship if we wanted. That is actually what ended our "friendship.” I met and started dating my now husband. We were starting to get serious so I ended it with the "friend" and hadn't talked to him for the last 12 years until now. I really want to see him again (I know, red flag again!), maybe because I very abruptly ended it so long ago or maybe because he is a reminder of simple times in my life. Either way he is a genuinely nice person and we are both mature adults now. I, 100 percent, would never have sex with him even though I have fantasized about it. Even if I tried to have sex with him, and I know we wants to have sex with me again, he would never let that happen because he knows what that could do to my life now.

So if that is not all bad enough my husband and I had an interesting conversations the other night. (By the way my husband did know about this person from before, he just didn't know I contacted him on our weekend getaway.) I guess you could say my husband and I have become a little too comfortable with each other. We still have sex regularly, anywhere between one to five times a week, but it has become very routine and boring. Since we had so much fun that weekend we brought up the idea of doing another weekend getaway but this time finding other people to have fun with (red flag, red flag, red flag!!!). So I would find another guy and he could have another girl, we would both be together the whole time so each other would know everything that the other does. I guess you could call it a foursome. I think the idea interests him so much because I am the only women he has ever had sex with and I know deep down inside he wants to try it with someone else. Now I did mention this other guy and the husband says he would be okay with that. Looks like I found a way to have my cake and eat it too!

I just worry because even though everything would be in the presence of the spouse and we have talked ground rules, I think we might regret it. That said, even talking about it has spiced up our sex life, it's like we have passion again. We have said we would go back to the town we met, always be in the presence of each other, and leave it all behind when we left town. Could this be just what our marriage needs or is this the biggest mistake we could ever make? Please give me your take on the whole situation with fresh eyes.

Thank you so much.

J

Hey J,

Sometimes I like to think about all the ways a person justifies and excuses the thing they want, even if they very much know the thing they want is going to lead to a lot of trouble and heartache. This sort of thing is much clearer when you’re outside the situation, either because you’re not at all involved or because your own bad decision is far behind you and you can enjoy the benefit of hindsight.

The problem, though, is that you’re deep in it right now. That you wrote me and asked for my take is hopeful, because it tells me that you want someone to sit you down and give it to you straight. But I don’t know if you’re really ready to hear me yet, because it’s very clear you’re not ready to hear yourself. And you’re the one who’s going to have to make this decision.

Let me back up a little bit. I am not an expert on open relationships, swinging, or polyamory. But I’ve been around long enough to have learned that long-term partnerships and relationships, like marriage, are enormously complicated in ways that other relationships aren’t. Each type of relationship has its challenges, right? I’ve also been around long enough to understand that social norms are often based as much in how people talk about their behavior. This is true both because saying you adhere to a social norm means you avoid stigma and because there is often a very striking difference between what people say they do and what they actually do.

For example, it’s easier for many reasons to say you’re monogamous when in fact you’re not. One reason is that marriage, a major social institution that affects many aspects of our society, is based on the idea of lifelong monogamy, so it’s expected. Saying you’re not monogamous requires you to answer questions, feel scrutinized, have to justify your decisions and behaviors, and so on. Another reason is that how people define monogamy can vary wildly. If you cheat on your spouse, do you consider yourself non-monogamous? What constitutes an affair or a relationship to you? What’s the difference between an affair that’s solely emotional or solely physical, and what do you call it when your peanut butter gets on your chocolate? I think a lot of couples have more relaxed boundaries around their relationships than many people think, but they don’t talk as openly about them — maybe because it’s more a fuzzy sense of what they’d be okay with than an actively defined way of being, or because talking about it is deeply personal and they don’t want to have to explain their choices to other people.

Like almost anything humans do, monogamy is easier for some people than others. I realize that we’re animals and so driven by a variety of instincts we can’t always intellectually understand, but I also think it’s dumb to say things like “swans are monogamous,” as if we’re somehow failing as a species by not imitating waterfowl. I mean, male swans will also chase away and even kill a baby if it’s unable to feed itself and keep up with the rest of the cygnets, but you don’t see everyone insisting humans do that too. Plus, humans are also social animals and we have a wide range of different cognitive abilities. Nature, nurture, and so on.

My opinions on monogamy have changed a lot. Is monogamy for me? When it comes to cats, yes, but humans, I don’t know. I do know I’m much more secure in myself, now that I’m in my 40s, and that makes me feel less jealous and possessive. They’re really tied into one another! I also know no one person can be another person’s everything. Sometimes this means only one romantic partner but lots of very close friends, and sometimes this means a primary romantic partner with a variety of other relationships, some of which may be sexual, romantic, or both. Humans are regularly intrigued by and attracted to lots of other humans, and it’s dumb to pretend we’re not, or that we’re not delighted and energized by attention and unfamiliar chemistry.

It’s also dumb to act on that attention and chemistry without consideration for your partner. This is where we return to you, J. Like I said, I am not an expert on open marriages. But I do know good relationships require honest communication, and this is especially true of open relationships. By honesty I don’t mean full disclosure. I do mean being truthful, though.

You need to start by being honest with yourself. Why did you contact that guy the weekend your husband took you on a romantic getaway? It’s one thing to say you can’t stop thinking about someone else during your day-to-day life and routine existence. But you reached out to him and couldn’t stop thinking about him when your husband was making a solid effort to lift you two out of that existence. This is the part that bothers me the most, not only because it is deeply unfair to your husband, who seems like a good guy, but because it’s the snowball that starts the avalanche of your justifications. I don’t think you want to spice up your marriage. I think you want to sleep with this guy in a way that allows you to do so without guilt. That’s what makes this whole situation the biggest mistake you are in the process of making.

You spent part of that romantic weekend with your husband messaging with this other guy. Of course it spiced things up — you felt excited and re-energized by the attention. I want you to re-read the paragraph in which you tell me about how “up front” you were that you were married. This is not the behavior of someone respecting boundaries, which is very necessary in all relationships and particularly in open relationships. Reminding this guy you’re married is not the same thing as saying “hey, I am married, so as nice as this is, I shouldn’t flirt with you, so I better go.” This is why you felt guilty. Because you were crossing a boundary, and you knew it.

If you’re not convinced yet just how much justification is going on here, please look at the part in your letter where you tell me you would “100% never have sex with him” and he would not have sex with you, because you’re married. That is an exceptional moment of denial. I’m sure he’s a nice guy! Nice people cheat on their spouses and nice people sleep with married people. Plus, you end your letter telling me you are thinking of having sex with him. Your husband is the gateway to make this happen.

Maybe it feels like I’m being harsh, but that’s because I want you to sit up and pay attention to what you’re doing. If you came to me and said “hey, we’re thinking about this, do you have any advice?” I’d have been supportive. But I don’t think you are anywhere near ready to have the kind of open discussion and understanding of boundaries necessary to have sex with this guy in front of your husband, or to watch him have sex with someone else. You specifically want to have sex with this guy, and you need to be honest about that with yourself. You need to be honest about your relationship, what makes you happy, what’s missing from your life, what you want. Do you want to strengthen your relationship with your husband? Or do you want, as you say, to have your cake and eat it too? Because in the history of humankind, that sort of cake-related behavior rarely ends well for anyone.

One of the things I did when I got your letter was look up information about open relationships. I know a lot of people in open relationships, and I’ve talked to and observed them plenty, but I wanted to be absolutely sure I wasn’t totally off the mark in saying the following: an open relationship means a lot of things are up for discussion, sure, but with the baseline understanding that both partners are being honest and respectful. How would your husband feel if he knew how the truth of when you got in touch with this guy and why you wanted him to be the one you invite in? What will you do if, in some future hotel room, your husband freaks out and says he can’t do it? What if you can’t do it? What if your husband fell for someone else? How are you going to be supportive emotionally in the after if you’re not being supportive emotionally in the before?

It is normal to feel bored and like you want a change. You take care of two very small children all day. Your husband works two jobs. You’ve got a full-blown case of “adulthood is good but also boring, I want freedom.” This is not weird or unusual! But trying to reconnect with the past in order to rejuvenate your present is going to make you pretty miserable in the future. Be honest with yourself. Then you can be honest with your husband. That way you’ll know what path is best for you.

Lx