feature image via shutterstock
Welcome to You Need Help! Where you’ve got a problem and yo, we solve it. Or we at least try.
Q: I have been exclusive with my sweet gf for 2 years and lived with her for one. I moved to be in the same city as her because I felt so strongly about our future, came out publicly, and haven’t regretted it for a minute. I was honest with her from the get go about dating and sleeping with men. She is my first same-sex partner, I identify as bi when pressed (hate labels), and never hid that. She has had multiple heartbreaks when lovers left her for men, and she gets upset about my previous experiences. I guess I trust myself more than she does because I know our bond is stronger, our sex life better than anything I’ve encountered before, and she’s the kindest person I know. When I try to talk to her about my sexuality, she reacts badly and hasn’t come around to the idea that someone can be truly and permanently bisexual no matter their current partner. She will only be 100% comfortable with me if I identify as “lesbian” but I don’t want to lie about who I am! (Even if I imagine myself with women from here on out.) Instead, I now just avoid talking about my past so that I don’t hurt her feelings. I don’t want to think that our otherwise stellar relationship is doomed because of this difference in opinion, but don’t know how to move forward as candid conversation isn’t working. I long for her acceptance. I basically hope that her opinion changes with time. Am I in denial? Should I view this as a total dealbreaker? What is a girl to do?
This is a doozy, darlin’ — it’s both something that’s both highly specific to you, your girlfriend and your histories, and a tale as old as time. There’s a short answer to this — it’s not healthy to pressure a partner into an identity that isn’t theirs, and it’s unfair and biphobic to distrust your bisexual partner just because they’re bisexual, no matter what past partners have done. I think you probably already know those things on a base level, though, and you’re still here and still feeling conflicted. So let’s take the long way around to talk about it.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that we all carry irrational beliefs around with us, even and especially into relationships. This is just how humans work! We’re all just trying to keep ourselves safe in a variety of ways, and our brains and bodies are doing their best to work towards that goal. Sometimes the things we do to try to keep ourselves safe are a bit mismatched with what the situation actually calls for. Sometimes the way we respond to something to try to keep ourselves safe is actually counterintuitive and makes something worse instead of better, often because we’re reacting to an extreme situation from our past rather than to a more moderate or even totally nonexistent one in our present. The challenge, both in life and in relationships, is to try to be constantly correcting for this, finding a balance between instinct and reality.
This was a long-winded way of saying: everyone has baggage and irrational fears in relationships — everyone! — and figuring out how to deal with them is part of the work. Sometimes, you compromise and agree to treat someone’s warped belief about how the world works as reality, because it turns out to be the easiest way to keep everyone safe and happy. My partner is terrified of flying, just totally 100% cannot do it. Instead, we take long road trips or Amtrak trips to visit family, sometimes up to 24 hours long, even though I am constantly aware that statistically we are actually in more danger in a car or even a train than we would be in the air. It’s stupid, objectively; but I don’t mind.The happiness and peace of mind I get from his peace of mind about the situation outweighs the inconvenience. This is a choice I’ve made, and right now also it’s the choice you’re making. Your girlfriend is wrong, and you know she’s wrong, but you’re agreeing to act as if she isn’t out of a desire to compromise.
Except in your case, it isn’t a compromise! In a compromise, both people are giving something up and both people are getting something. I get the pleasure and relief of knowing that when we spend time with our loved ones, it’s a purely positive experience for us both, not one that’s grounded in terror and resentment for my spouse. What are you getting out of your compromise? From here, it seems like what you’re getting is implicit rather than explicit reminders that your girlfriend doesn’t trust you and rejects part of who you are. And if that were enough for you out of the compromise, if this arrangement was working for you, I don’t think you’d be writing us.
Here’s another story about my relationship (which isn’t, you know, perfect! But it’s the only one I’ve got to reference, really, so here we are). I spent a lot of time growing up living with the constant threat of my father’s scary, violent, arbitrary anger. It could come out of nowhere, a thunderbolt from a cloudless sky — everything seeming fine, then all of the sudden my father refusing to speak to us, his young children, leaving the house for hours and leaving us on our own before finally coming back at night to scream at us for the some minor, randomly chosen thing. As often happens with children who grow up in environments like that, I’m hypervigilant about people being angry at me; so vigilant, in fact, that I can see things that aren’t there. If my partner is in the next room over and hasn’t spoken to me in 15 minutes, I can easily convince myself that it’s not just because he’s reading but because the last thing I said to him was wrong somehow, and he’s stewing and ready to scream at me any second now about how awful I am. This belief, though, is wrong. He doesn’t get upset about infinitesimal things, and when he is upset, that isn’t how he handles it. He’s not my father.
It absolutely makes sense for me to process information this way — in many situations I’ve been in, that instinct would have been correct, and helped me stay safe. But it isn’t correct anymore, and it would be unhealthy — and unfair — to act as if it were. I’m not wrong for feeling the way I do, but if I forced my partner to treat my feelings as reality — if I called him five times a day while he was at work to have him reassure me he wasn’t mad at me, if I forbade him from ever taking time to himself without reminding me it wasn’t about me, or ever being outwardly upset about things like having a bad day at work because it makes me anxious — that would be a terrible relationship for him to be in. I’m not wrong for feeling how I do, but it’s on me to make a plan for how to cope with it: to remind myself to look at the evidence and ask whether there’s any suggestion that I’m actually about to be harmed, to develop my own coping strategies, to be self-aware of my own history and the way I map it onto my present. I can certainly ask my partner for support in this, or to make some concessions to my history that he agrees are both fair and healthy for him, but I can’t ask him to bend over backwards for me because I’m not willing to do the work at all. We can’t justify harmful things we do to others by pointing to the ways they’re related to how we ourselves were harmed — a reason isn’t a justification. Even when bad things have happened to us, and even when those bad things influence how we see the world, we’re still capable of respecting other people’s autonomy, their needs and wants and identity, and treating them as they deserve. To think otherwise is, I think, to insult ourselves a bit.
The difference between these two scenarios, the plane and the imaginary fight I’m afraid of, is what’s being asked of each person; the cost. In the first, I am asked to pay the price of an extra day, day and a half of travel for my partner’s sense of safety and happiness. It’s a price I’m perfectly willing to pay a few times a year. In the second, what would be asked is a constant and profound level of performance during interactions that should normally be totally free and vulnerable — what’s asked is to obscure real and honest parts of one person so that the other never has to experience discomfort or do any inner labor of any difficulty. That’s something that should never be asked of anyone in a healthy relationship, I don’t think. It’s not something that should be asked of you.
Which is another long-winded way of saying: It sucks that your girlfriend has had these negative experiences with other women! It really does! But her ex-girlfriends aren’t every bisexual woman. And more importantly, you aren’t her ex-girlfriends. You’re you. And your girlfriend has a responsibility to deal with the baggage she’s brought into this relationship; while you can certainly support her in doing that, it’s not your job to contort yourself to fit how she’s feeling.
You’re hoping that her “opinion” will change; that’s certainly possible, but not if she never tries to change it. The bottom line is, you’ve never given her any reason to think that you’ll cheat on her or leave her, and it’s HER task, not yours, to remind herself of that every single time this comes up for her. It’s normal to feel anxiety and insecurity when you’ve had a traumatic ending to relationships like that, but she has to clock in every day and do the work of seeing it as anxiety and insecurity, not a fact, and to lessen it over time by checking it against how you really are as a partner and seeing how false it is.
You asked if this was a dealbreaker. I don’t know! That’s up to you. And maybe more importantly, up to your girlfriend. I’m not going to tell you to leave her, but I am going to suggest that you at least ask her to step up to the plate about this. If you can’t expect your partner to believe in your basic trustworthiness as a person, what CAN you expect of them? Ask her in a kind, firm way what reasons you, personally, specifically, have ever given her to doubt your faithfulness; what kind of person and girlfriend you’ve shown yourself to be. Tell her that you need her to treat you like that person: the real one, not the one she fears you could be. You’ve spent two years now patiently bearing her displaced distrust of you; it’s time for her to start taking on some of the work herself. You said she “won’t be 100% comfortable with you” until you identify differently and disavow the parts of your life that she wasn’t in. If you had a friend whose partner was still asking them to do penance (for something they hadn’t actually done!) before they would be “100% comfortable” with them — and who, when asked, wasn’t willing to work on changing the part of themselves that needed that from their girlfriend — would you advise them to stay? Why?