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Q: I’m 24 years old. My girlfriend (I think she is still my girlfriend, I guess) is 24 years old too. We met during our first year in university and started dating a few months after that. We have been together for 6 years now. She is the only woman I have been with and it is the same for her. We don’t live together right now, because we have jobs in different cities, but we have been seeing each other almost every weekend, we keep travelling together, etc. I had a sense that she had feelings for someone in her group of friends where she lives; I understand that it’s normal to be attracted to other people, she loved me and we were together, so I didn’t really care.
Then, three weeks ago, she told me she would like to be in a open relationship with me. She said we have been together for so long, and we were so young when we started dating that she needed to know that it would be OK to explore new things at some point. Now, I guess it’s maybe a bit traditional, but the way that I love does not really work that way. Anyway, she explained that she wanted to “end up” with me, that there would never be someone else that would make her feel so loved and so at ease. That it didn’t mean she was going to hook up with someone the next day, or that she was actively looking for someone. She just wanted to know if that door was open. So I said yes, because I love her and I was willing to try and I want her to be happy.
We had plans to spend Valentine’s Day together, but on Wednesday she called me and said that she needed to tell me something. She had a date for the weekend. With someone she had liked for a while. A male co-worker that she would like to date at least for a while, so she wouldn’t have the same amount of time for me.
And I completely broke down. I feel betrayed. First of all because she obviously lied to me three weeks ago. Secondly because she told me on the phone, and that was shitty when taking into account that three days ago we had been together. Also because she already had a date when she told me that there wasn’t a specific person on the horizon, and on a weekend she supposedly wanted to spend with me.
And last (but oh-god not least), she is going on a date with someone from a group of friends that doesn’t know I exist. I mean, we are out to our families and our closest friends, but her co-workers do not know that she is dating a woman. And what makes it even worse is that if she keeps on dating that guy, everyone from her workplace will know. But no one will know about me. She said that he does know I exist, but, really, what does he know? Does he know how long we’ve been together? Or what we’ve been through? I just feel completely tossed aside.
[question edited for length]
Oh holy mother of cabbage, this sounds so painful, and you sound so sad. I’m sorry that you’re going through this, and that you’re feeling so much pain because of someone you love and trusted. You must be feeling really terrible right now! This is so much. Maybe make yourself a cup of tea first and then come back here and we’ll talk.
The thing that I can’t get over, and what seems to me to be the root of what’s happening between you and your girlfriend, is that she seems to be looking out for herself instead of looking out for your relationship. Not because she wanted an open relationship, that’s not an inherently selfish thing — for many people that’s a healthy choice that strengthens their relationship as well as fulfilling them personally. But it doesn’t seem like your girlfriend really checked in on that first point. From what you’ve described about your conversation, your girlfriend wasn’t trying to make a case that being open would be better for your relationship; she was making a case that it would be better for her.
Which, again, isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker! Compromises in relationships happen all the time, and that’s how life works. Sometimes you end up making big relationship decisions that are centered around one person’s needs — you move across the country for their job or come out to your parents because they don’t want to be closeted — and that’s okay. I’m 100% certain that there are relationships out there where openness was negotiated because one partner wanted it even though the other partner didn’t, and that was the right decision and it went great. But it doesn’t seem like that’s what’s happening here.
Even though your girlfriend did enter into a conversation with you about opening up your relationship, a conversation in which you could have said no, she still wasn’t honest with you, and she didn’t continue to start conversations with you about things going forward — she just informed you. It’s not clear from your question how you responded, but it doesn’t sound at all like these were decisions that were being made with your participation. It doesn’t sound either like your girlfriend necessarily considered how they might make you feel. Major relationship changes, and the sub-changes that come with them, should never be unilateral decisions, and your right to weigh in on how your relationship functions doesn’t disappear once you agree to open it up.
This is all to say that it doesn’t sound like your girlfriend is super invested in your happiness or the health of your relationship, and is more interested in adjusting your relationship such that she’s technically “allowed” to do whatever she wants while still having you as a girlfriend. A decision as major as opening up a relationship after 6 years isn’t one conversation, it’s a series of conversations again and again to continue talking about it and seeing how well it’s working and how everyone feels. If your girlfriend had initiated a conversation rather than a declaration, and said “I’m interested in seeing this guy at work; what do you think?” in good faith, you could have brought up your (extremely valid!) concerns about outness. And something could have been figured out, maybe a lot of pain could have been averted and we could all be having a picnic right now. The fact that your girlfriend hasn’t seemed interested in these latter necessary conversations sucks, and I’m really sorry.
The bottom line is that a good relationship requires everyone in it to think about how things will affect 1. them, 2. the other person, and 3. the relationship as an organism. Even though we live in the real world, and there will be times when at least one of those things has to take a hit, that should never be business as usual. It’s really, really awful to feel like your partner is only concerned about themselves, and the life you’ve built together is an afterthought.
I’m not gonna mandate what you need to do in your relationship with your girlfriend — it’s up to you what next steps you want to take. But your girlfriend has certainly been advocating for her own wants and needs, and now you need to do the same. Your hurt, your fears, your concerns, about this situation and about your relationship as a whole are important; you deserve to have them reckoned with as much as your girlfriend does hers. I think you need to at least confront your girlfriend with the fact that she’s been making decisions based on her own desires and not the health of your relationship, and set some real expectations about what you deserve as a girlfriend and as a person. Whether or not your girlfriend can meet those expectations and be what you need, regardless of who else you two are or are not dating, is really what will determine whether you “end up” with her.It’s possible that even if you do get to a place where you’re having healthier conversations about an open relationship, an open relationship just isn’t what you want, and it won’t be possible to find a compromise that will respect her wellbeing, your wellbeing, and your relationship’s wellbeing. Maybe it will be. I hope that whatever happens leaves you happy and never ever feeling tossed aside.
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