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How to be human: I want a monogamous relationship, my partner doesn't — now what?

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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. You can write to her at askleah@theverge.com and read more How to be Human here.

Hi Leah,

I wanted to get your perspective on something. About one year ago I met a sparkly man at a funeral, of all places. We had some mutual friends, and sadly one of was the person who had just passed. The evening ended in a large celebratory party, many connections were made, the spirit was intimate and loving all around. Let’s call the man I met Jasper.

Jasper is a chef. He travels frequently and is often in the area where I live. For a year, every time he came into town he would look me up — about once every one to two months — and we would meet for dinner. We did this about three times, and there was no physical contact, no hanky panky, just old-fashioned dating, conversation and dining. Lovely food, interactions, verbal generosity, chivalry. You could call them perfect dates.

After a few rounds of this, the next time he was in town, I finally went up to his hotel room and spent the night. We had a lovely evening. A month later he was in town again, this time for three nights, and he invited me to all of his dining events, public talks, and filmings. He also invited me to stay with him for those nights at his hotel. I did. It was lovely. It was as if we were beginning a coupling, exclusive relationship. I'm basing this on feeling, not facts necessarily.

Here's the thing and on what I need advice. Whenever I saw him, it was as if we were in the most romantic connection one could ever find. As soon as he left, I would not hear from him much. Here and there on Whatsapp, but not much. Unless I initiated. Or, it would be on on on, and then off off off.

Last week he came into town and this time I said, "I have to ask you Jasper, what is it you want from me?" He dodged the question a little and said he would love to make love and talk about it the next time I am in the city where he lives, if I needed some space. What!!?

In short, I tried to ask a few times about his status, and he would tell me he’s had two long-distance, long-term relationships in the past. He said he wanted to fall in love but not talk about the present. My woman's intuition told me either he was in a relationship already, maybe married, or in love with someone married, or... what? Through vague conversations (I would ask but he wouldn't really reply directly) I assembled that he is "multi-modal" as he called it. Or rather, polyamorous, and has a few women he hangs out with all around the world and he probably just shuts off as soon as he goes on to the next. That is, until he circles back to your city. For some reason, this all kind of hit me as a surprise as I started to piece it together. He had been so gentlemanly, in public with me, lavish even, and I thought, he was pure old-fashioned courting me.

A year has passed since we met. I told him last week that something wasn't adding up, and I didn't want to spend time together any time soon and that I was discouraged to learn that maybe there was no weight at all to our interactions, sexual intimacy and time spent together. Like, it was so in the moment, ephemeral, than over. He said he understood, almost backing down as if to avoid, again, any kind of real conversation.

Leah, I am left feeling confused. A friend said I was being controlling and sabotaging. Is it too much to expect someone to tell you early on if A) they have multiple sex partners actively, B) if they are seeing many people, C) what their intentions are. Was I being controlling by inquiring? Should he have been more upfront with me earlier on? Is society getting to my head, and I just think I am being controlling for wanting to know the sexual and intimate landscape? Or really, does this woman have a right? And finally, what the heck do you think is going on with him?

Thanks, Leah.

Confused

Hey Confused,

Thank you for giving me the chance to finally hand the reins of this column over to two of the few people on this earth whose advice we should all live by: Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey.

Yeah, I know, you’ve heard it a thousand times. Or at least seen it take the form of a thousand memes across a thousand Pinterest boards. But I think that if it’s something that took Oprah herself a long time to really learn, then the rest of us mortals can keep repeating it to ourselves through every possible medium until we, too, finally get it.

When people show you who they are, believe them.

I highly recommend you click that link, because you will get to see Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou lying on a bed chatting about this in pajamas. Frankly, if you didn’t come back to this column after that, I wouldn’t blame you. But I really want you to watch because you’ll hear what they talk about beyond that one vital quote. And that’s what I want to focus on.

Right after the clip of the pajama party, when Oprah remembers how Dr. Angelou would ask her, "Why are you blaming the other person? He showed you who he was." I don’t know about you, but when she says that, it hits me really deep. I spent a long time doing this very thing, and almost everyone I know has done it, too. It’s one thing to get mad at someone for what they do, but it’s another thing to keep getting mad at them when they do it over and over — to get mad at them, rather than to look at why you’re allowing it to keep happening.

(Important note: I am not talking about abusive situations here. Staying in an abusive situation is very different. I’m talking about something very specific, which I’ll get to shortly.)

Set aside your ideas of what he should have done, or what you wished he’d done, or even what you felt was happening at the time. Think about who Jasper showed himself to be. What did he do and how did he behave toward you? From the outside, based purely on your description, it sounds like he looked you up every time he came to town, took you out to lots of fun things, spent time with you, and treated you very nicely. In short, it sounds like he did court you!

What's the goal of courting someone? Is there one?

Now, I know that courting comes with it a set of assumptions for many (most!) of us. Namely that courting has a goal, an end result in mind. This person is showing regular, sustained interest in me, so they must want a relationship. Specifically, they must want the same relationship I want. But sometimes people want different things. And sometimes people have different definitions of what a relationship is. You and this man did have a relationship, it just wasn’t the relationship you wanted.

Do I think he should have told you what he wanted? He did, just not with words. He told you with his actions and with his evasiveness in talking and defining. He wanted to see you when he was in town. It doesn’t matter why he did it, it just matters what he did: He showed you who he was and what he wanted.

The question is whether you wanted to see it. I say this with an enormous amount of kindness and understanding, having been in many situations similar to yours. I know how it feels to meet someone who is exciting, successful, attractive, fun—who offers what seems like an entrée into a special world. I know too how it feels to be around someone who seems to think you’re amazing but then disappears when it’s not convenient. The combination of these two things is a perfect(ly terrible) emotional rollercoaster. You’re holding tight to this thrilling ride while also wanting to scream a lot. You’re also so caught up in the idea of the thing that you can’t look honestly at the reality of it. Or maybe you can, but you explain it away or ignore it. I have had this willful blindness on so many occasions, Confused. And I’ve asked all the same questions you ask in your letter: Is what he did okay? Did I sabotage it?

It took me a long time to figure out these aren’t the right questions. Do you know what the right question is?

It’s this: What do you want?

Look at the point in your letter where you tell me you asked him what he wants from you. You know what he wants! He wants to take you to fun events and have you stay with him in his hotel when he’s in town. But asking him what he wants is a less scary way of telling him what you want, which is a committed, monogamous relationship. When you started sleeping together did you say, "Hey, something that’s important to me in a relationship is being open and honest about sex. I want to be safe, both physically and emotionally. I’m someone who prefers to only have one sexual partner at a time, and prefers that the person I’m sleeping with be the same." Because it’s okay to want and need that! In fact, it’s necessary to know this about yourself. If the person says "I can’t give you that," even if it sucks in the moment it means you can make the choice to sacrifice a really great moment for not feeling shitty in the longer term.

Look, I get it. I know very well, from personal experience and from observing, talking to, and listening to a lot of people, that talking about sex and relationships (and about many things) is hard. Knowing what you want is hard. Making good choices is hard. I mean, if it weren’t, I wouldn’t be writing a column about it! I wouldn’t have a wealth of my own personal bad choices to refer to! Like, for example, I can tell you that one summer I briefly dated a young man who seemed very much to be courting me, too. It was lovely! Until we slept together a few times and then he tried to ghost on me. I got upset with him — not because he didn’t want to date me, but because he didn’t communicate to me that he wasn’t interested in anything serious. Like, even after we slept together, he could have just told me. (Personal note to that guy: If you’re reading this, I’m sorry I yelled at you about being a jerk. You were kind of a jerk, but yelling about it wasn’t right.)

We know how he feels. Question is, what do you want?

Confused, I think all along you had a pretty strong suspicion of what was going on. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have written me. And if you were okay with what was going on, you wouldn’t have made note of how infrequently he talked to you when he wasn’t in town, or the patterns of his communication. I know how scary it is to be honest about a situation and recognize that as much as you want the sparkly things in it, you can’t really bear the price of those sparkly things.

It’s counterintuitive, but what’s controlling is demanding someone else behave the way you want them to. Yeah, relationships are full of compromise, but that’s the point: Compromise is about working together. It’s not an expectation of someone else conforming to your needs and wants. Out there is a guy who fulfills your deeper emotional needs and wants much better than Jasper. And you know what? Out there are women who are happy and satisfied with what Jasper offers.

God yes, Confused. A woman has a right. She has a right to know what she needs and to be upfront about it. She has the right to articulate these needs and desires, to walk away from situations that aren’t healthy or enjoyable, or simply don’t give her what she wants. But in order to exercise those rights, she has to be willing to be honest about the relationships she’s in and the people she’s connecting to. She has to separate out what she wants from what she sees as the potential of a situation, or from the expectations she has of someone else’s behavior and communication when that someone else is clearly not communicating clearly. You know how they say with power comes great responsibility? It’s true: You can’t fully embody the power of who you are if you’re not willing to be also responsible to and for yourself.

You’re not confused, Confused. You’re scared. You know what you want. You know what Jasper can give you. Make a choice that honors him as a separate person, and most importantly that honors you.

Lx