Affairs, Throuples, and Big Monogamy: Your Relationship Questions Answered
Anna Sale: This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I'm Anna Sale. Over the last couple of years, we've heard from many of you as you've navigated all kinds of shifts and decisions on top of living through a pandemic. Even the smallest choices have become complex and paralyzing, and today we are turning our attention to decisions you're trying to make specifically about your romantic relationships.
Listener 1: Hi, Death, Sex & Money gang. I'm here with a relationship decision about--
Listener 2: I don't know whether I'm the one and whether I should be waiting around for this.
Listener 3: Whether or not we should have another kid or not.
Listener 4: I think a, a lot of that time that we spent together with no distractions, no work travel, uh, brought up a few things in our relationship that I think maybe we weren't really addressing.
Listener 5: COVID definitely changed the trajectory of my marriage.
Listener 6: This is literally the first time in my life that I've experienced heartbreak, having to let go of somebody that I had fallen in love with.
Listener 7: I decided that, um, instead of waiting for my long-term partner to show up, I was gonna have a kid on my own.
Listener 8: Oy, anyway-- Oh, that beeping, the backup noise is actually him. So, I guess, I'll wrap it up.
Listener 9: I just wanted to share that. Um, thank you so much.
AS: These are just some of the voice memos you sent in with your relationship dilemmas and questions over the past few weeks. Today, we have gathered an esteemed semi-qualified panel to help advise you, and I am excited to introduce you to all of them. I wanna start with Heather Havrilesky, a writer who just published a new memoir all about marriage. It's called Forever Land: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage. Heather, you have also written the wonderful Ask Polly advice column for years, and it is now one of my very favorite Substack newsletters that I receive. Hello, Heather. Welcome to Death, Sex & Money.
Heather Havrilesky: Thank you, Anna. I'm so happy to be here.
AS: Sure, and George Civeris is an editor at Gawker, a Brooklyn-based comedian, and the co-host of the podcast Straightiolab with Sam Taggart. George, thank you for joining us. I wanna point out Straightiolab, we love that you pay homage to our colleagues at WNYC at Radiolab. It's a podcast that pokes and prods at all things weird and strange in straight culture, the choices we make as straight people.
George Civeris: [chuckles] It's an honor to be here. I'm definitely the semi part of the semi-qualified panel, but--
HH: I thought that was me.
AS: And Tuck Woodstock is a journalist, educator, and audio producer. They're the host of the podcast, Gender Reveal, which I also really love. He's from Portland, Oregon. Tuck, welcome to Death, Sex & Money.
Tuck Woodstock: Thank you so much for having me. It's an honor to be here.
AS: Um, before we jump in to the listener questions that we've received from a lot of Death, Sex & Money listeners about relationship dilemmas, I wanted to just hear from you, if any of you have noticed something that has shifted in what you want from your romantic life during these pandemic times that you did not expect.
GC: So, I, uh, I have been in a relationship for a little over two years, and we started dating December of 2019. So, I was kind of one of these people who was in the beginning of a relationship when the pandemic started and kind of within a month, went from feeling I was on month three to feeling like I was, you know, married to-to my boyfriend. And so, I think in terms of how my attitude changed during those months, it was just kind of, like, a fast forward where it felt like I went from being in the beginning of a relationship to being smack in the middle of one. Um, and it almost felt like then afterwards we went through different relationship milestones in-in kind of a funky order, you know. I mean, to have to-to go through something like that, but then still be learning about the other person and-and still be, like, you know, suddenly feel like you're almost living with someone before you are through the dating phase. It made everything feel all the more profound, but it-it was certainly-- I'm sure that the relationship would've been different if the pandemic had not hit basically, four months in.
AS: Yeah. And I noticed there how you-- It looked like you were about to say in the wrong order, as far as the milestones, and then you changed to say funky. And I appreciate that. I like that you're, like, it was not what is expected or that made sense necessarily according to some script, but it was just different.
GC: Yeah. Like, I-I didn't wanna say wrong, because it didn't feel incorrect in any way. It was just, I'm very aware of the fact that if circumstances had been different, it would've just been a much more traditional courtship.
AS: Do you live with your partner?
GC: I don't, but we are- there are plans for us to move in together.
AS: Okay. Okay. And anyone else have any surprising shifts that you're getting used to?
TW: I mean, I think that COVID was a plot by Big Monogamy to sell more monogamy. And so, it definitely has, like, affected the way that I think about the stakes of dating someone because, in the past, making out with someone is virtually meaningless or can be. But during COVID, making out with someone was just as high stakes, if not higher stakes, than having sex with them and committing to them in like a meaningful way, because that was, like, the most trusting and high-risk thing you could possibly do.
And so, there's one person that I dated during COVID, where we were hanging out for, like, an entire year before we hooked up, which is a very, like, middle school to high school energy, I feel, to bring to a relationship. Uh, so that was definitely different, but that's not something that I have, like, realized that I want to bring into my future, you know. I mean, like, that's something that I've figured out how to navigate and deal with, but it's not something that I'm like, "And going forward, I will always treat making out with someone as the most intimate and trusting thing one could possibly do."
HH: That would be interesting.
HH: I should try that out.
AS: And-and Heather, how about you? The-the sort of, uh, the structure of your relationship has not changed during the course of the pandemic, but have other things changed?
HH: First of all, I'm-I'm really wishing my book were called not Forever Land, but Big Monogamy because that's an excellent title. Um, I am such a victim of big monogamy on every level. Um, and when I-- I sold a book about my marriage right, uh, in 2019, in the Spring. And then immediately a man hit on me, and I laughed it off and told my husband about it. And then, um, and then I became obsessed with this man and why he had hit on me and wanted to know what that was about. And solving that- solving that mystery, uh, occupied my mind, and in some ways, my body for quite some time.
And, uh, and then, uh, COVID hit. Uh, so-so, then I'm-I'm trying to write a book about my marriage while I have a crush, and then COVID, um, COVID hit and I'm trapped in my house with my husband, and then I got cancer. So, yeah, uh, some thing- aspects of my-- Some aspects of my marriage have been tested by COVID and many other things, um, but yeah, I think that all these- that all these stress tests were actually great for my marriage. Um, I think that a lot of people found that CO- you know, COVID either- the pandemic either brought them clo- much closer to their partner, or really kind of tore them apart. It was a major stress test of how-how good your communication was, how-how well you could live inside your head at times when you needed to escape and there was nowhere to go, um, and many, many other things.
So, but I feel like we've sort of come through this insane s-s- fire. And some of it is self-imposed. I mean, why did I sell anyone a book about my marriage? Is a good question. Um, but now the book is out and it's good, and I'm, uh- and everything- and my marriage is amazingly still intact. Thank you big monogamy for the- your many gifts and blessings.
AS: Yeah. I mean, the thing that I really loved reading your book is you made me think a lot about some- a question that I have had in my head a lot in-- Yeah, I am also a married person, and is-- It was like, does this feel off, because it's pandemic times or does-does this feel too constrained because I'm now a middle-aged person who turned 40 during the pandemic? Is this middle age or is this pandemic or is this both? And how do they compound one another? Yeah.
HH: Yeah. And also- and also what is here is a que-- You know, wh- you're- when you're in a house with someone, looking at someone, you say, "This is who I chose," you start to say, "What do we have? What is here? What role can my imagination have in my life?"
GC: I-I'm sure the pandemic encouraged a lot of, kind of existential thinking among many people, myself included, but it's kind of this double bind where on the one hand, it's almost like nice to let your imagination run wild, because it's a completely different world, but on the other hand, it feels like such a tenuous time to be making any kind of big decision. Because once again we are not in the normal world in some capacity. What if, in the real world- i-in the normal world, whatever that means, somehow there's some unexpected issue that we would have had that we now won't discover until four years in?
AS: Well, this is why we have gotten a lot of relationship dilemma questions from our listeners, because that question of like, how do you make a choice in a time that feels so tenuous and unstable? Uh, people still have to make choices. Um, so let's listen first to this listener question from Liberty, who sent this in from Washington, DC. She has been with her boyfriend for a year, and she is not sure about how to know when to commit.
Liberty: Hi, I'm Liberty. I'm at university in Edinburgh, but I'm on a semester abroad right now in Washington, DC. Uh, I've been with my boyfriend for over a year, and I just really miss him. And I feel like if we talk more, then I just miss him more, but then if we talk less, then I also miss him more. My boyfriend's gonna graduate this year, and then I will, and we don't know where we'll get jobs. And I know that right now, I wouldn't wanna turn down a job based on where he would be. I think being 22 is too young to s- to start doing that, but at what age or length of relationship do you think it becomes acceptable to make career decisions based on where your boyfriend or girlfriend is?
HH: 35 and four months. Uh, before that, you're wrong, you're an idiot. Don't do anything. No. Um, I think you just-- I mean, I don't know. I'm a romantic. I feel like you f- you follow love off a sheer cliff if you need to. Um, I don't think there is-- It's like, you know, a pro-- What is appropriate? I don't know. I feel like you just you follow your passions wherever they lead. And you-- Maybe you make a mistake, and-and that's okay. That's-that's always been my, uh, my method. Now granted, I moved across the country with my, uh, senior year boyfriend from college, and that was a disaster. I mean, you know, my life has been in some ways, a series of disasters, but I-I can't imagine not following my heart.
AS: Well, I think what Liberty is getting out there is it's not just, "should I make this decision, because of love?" It's, "what other choices that would be driven just by me might I be foregoing at this age when it's a time of building things?" Like, will I look back and feel regret about that?
AS: And I think- I think the other thing that embedded in it is if I decide to make a choice to be with this person, is it- am I then marching down a path that you can't undo? Then do you need to be in the same place with this person and what might that mean missing out on? Who has thoughts on that?
TW: I mean, I have a lot of different thoughts on this. Obviously, there's not, like, a specific age or specific length of time, uh, that determines what your choices should be. And to some extent, you're just going with your gut. I was dating someone when I was 24, who was applying to PhD programs and we had been together for like, less than a year. And I was talking to my friends and I was like, "Oh, it's such a bummer that if he goes to Yale, then we will break up." And they were like, "Why wouldn't you just go where he goes?" I'm like, "Why on earth would I follow a 22-year-old boy to Yale?"
TW: Like, what would I-- What? Um, and so, I think you just know. I mean, my girlfriend moved to Seattle a year ago. And at no point where- did we talk about me moving to Seattle. And I'm not 21 or 22, and I can work from anywhere. And so, I think that to some extent it's just like, what do you feel in your body, uh, is most important. For me personally, I wouldn't- I would try to not make a big life-changing decision in NRE, which is new relationship energy.
TW: Like, those good-good brain drugs that, like- that's like the drugs for your brain, um, because, like, you're at- you're on drugs. And it's, like, not a great time, uh, to make life-changing decisions.
But also people do it all the time, and it's fine. And so, I don't think it's wrong to do that. Uh, and it's just about literally what your priorities are, and-and you always have the opportunity, especially if you're 21, 22 to change that down the line. The other thing I'll say really quickly, is I'd be interested if Liberty is like, "What if I gave up something to be with my partner?" Is that partner willing to give up something to be with you? Because if it's a very one-way street, I would be more concerned than if that's a conversation they're having together about how can we both compromise to make sure that we're both getting what we want.
AS: I love NRE. I just love that.
GC: Yeah. I do think you're on drugs. You're also on drugs just when you're 22, even if you're not in a new relationship.
HH: That's right.
GC: But I also think-- I just want to say, like, as someone who has, in the past, been in long-distance relationships, like, honestly, it's - once you kind of get the hang of it, yes, it's difficult, but, like, if you're- if you're to do that for one year or two years when you're in your early 20s, it's actually really not that bad and it actually is, like, a great way to get to know if the relationship has legs.
GC: So, I would, like-- I would-- If I were recommending something, I would much more recommend try long-distance for a year and then decide, rather than put everything on hold and move to- move back to Edinburgh or whatever.
HH: But see, don't you think that sometimes long-distance relationships create that NRE thing also? NRE is funny.
AS: It's-it's LDE. Yeah. I think it's a whole- but it's a specific kind of energy, the long-distance energy. That longing--
HH: Oh, nice. LDE.
AS: Yeah. And then you still get to flirt. You get to, like, make eyes on the subway and then call your partner when you get home. It was- it was great for me. I loved it.
GC: Well, it's almost like you're basically, constantly- you're constantly comparing, like, what would it be like if I were single? What it- would it be like if I were in a relationship? And, I don't know, hopefully, you can reach some conclusion, but I also just- general-- I mean, I dated the person I was with when I was 22 for six years. And then, it felt like the most- the biggest decision ever when we broke up, but it's, like, looking back, I don't- A, I don't regret the- anything about the relationship, and B, none of the choices I made either to stay with him or to accommodate his- either of our careers. None of them now feel in any way permanent or that they changed my life in some way that I can't go back and unchange. So, I think, like, oftentimes it's overstated how grave a decision can be if it's partly for someone else. It's not, you know, you're not destroying a part of yourself if you accommodate someone else's life.
HH: I mean, it's really hard not to encourage people as an advice columnist to do all of the bold things when they're younger, in particular. Not because-- And even when they're older. I feel like all I ever say now are- is just, "Yeah, yeah. Try it." Like, if you're t-- If you're obsessed with living in Italy, go live in Italy. If you can manage that. I had a letter this-this week that was like this, and it was like, you know, I-I'm living this very safe life, I'm in a great relationship, but I really wanna live in Europe, you know? And I'm like, you're gonna find out so much by just expressing these desires to your partner, talking about the possibilities, and maybe making a bold choice. Yes. Maybe under new relationship energy, maybe, um-- I mean, it's interesting because the new-- I wanna say the new relationship energy thing, not trusting that, because you're on drugs. Having a crush while you're married is actually kind of a similar thing where--
TW: And that's where it comes from. NRE is, like, from non-monogamous relationships, right? And so, it's about navigating, like, a long-term relationship while also having, like, brain drugs for someone else. So, yes, that's absolutely where it comes from.
HH: Oh, okay, because I-- I mean, for me it was, like, I could imagine all kinds of insane twists and turns in the road based on this crush. Like, "Whoa, this could change my whole life." And part of it was just- part of having the crush was just like, "Oh, I love being on this drug, and I love imagining changing my whole life." Like, "This is hot." And it turned into-- I mean, what was interesting was it was really delicious and delightful to try on all of the possibilities and to talk to my husband about them. I mean, part of-- I feel like part of these-- I think- I think, you know, a lot of what we're talking about with this, with- for Liberty an-and for, you know, a lot of the people who have relationship dilemmas is just, can you have a conversation about it that's honest and where will that conversation lead? It's not like there's a-- There's not-- No one's gonna give you a solution. Sometimes the solution just comes out of communication and ex- you know, examining your truest desires and then stating those desires as clearly as you can.
AS: Um, I wanna move to the next question from a listener. This is from Lauren, based in Minneapolis. And Lauren is writing about how they're coming into their gender identity while in a long-term relationship. Um, let's listen to their tape.
Lauren: I grew up in a conservative, rural working-class area in Nebraska. And, you know, my entire life has been guided by this idea of get married, have kids, go to college- but not too much college- and have a career. As somebody with a female body, was also given a very narrow definition of who I was supposed to be based on my genitals, and I have struggled my entire life to be that person. Um, but I've been trying to get over this idea that I'm too old at 32 to change my gender identity, and I've been introducing my pronouns as they/them. And honestly, it's felt liberating to not feel this need to be confined as a woman. And I also happen to be in a long-term relationship right now, and I'm trying to navigate this coming out, so to speak, with my cis-het male partner. Thankfully, he's been incredibly receptive and supportive, and I'm so lucky to be with somebody who doesn't question what I'm trying to figure out or who I'm trying to be. Um, but, you know, on the other hand it's meant some difficult recalibrating in some aspects of our relationship. Um, so I guess, to wrap this all up back to your question, what conventions and rules am I trying to keep or let go of? All of them. Literally, all of them.
AS: I love the way that question ends. I'm trying to let go of literally all conventions and rules and also wondering about whether there's room for that inside a long-term relationship. Um, Tuck, on your podcast, Gender Reveal, you talk to mostly trans people about their lived experiences, their language, embodiment, organizing family planning, and more. And I wonder if you could just, um, do you have some thoughts for Lauren about how to think through this question of like, what stays and what do I let go of as I embrace this gender identity?
TW: Sure. The first thing, just because I did a physical wince, is just to note that the phrase "female body" just describes any woman with a body. And so, if this person is non-binary, they have a non-binary body. So, maybe just to sort of check these notions that we have and sort of reframe the way we're thinking about ourselves is a good start. Uh, but in general, this question or I guess, this statement- there's not really question in here, but this statement reminds me a lot of the question that we get the most on the show, which is, "I'm coming into my gender identity. I'm worried that my partner will be less attracted to me or less interested in me if I pursue this gender transition. Uh, what can I do to sort of get over this fear of the fact that me changing into a person that I am will disrupt my romantic relationship?"
And the advice that we always give for that is just that it is absolutely always, uh, the most important thing to try to explore who you are rather than limiting yourself based on whatever your relationship is. It sounds like this person is in a really good place because their partner is already really excited, uh, about what's going on, they've been really supportive, uh, but I still think that fear can creep in. We get a lot of questions that are like, my partner is supportive and says that they see me for me but I can't help but think that they don't see me for me so what can I do and to really make sure that they are seeing me? Uh, and I think that's just actually a combination of direct communication and therapy or otherwise working through your own sort of internalized transphobia that makes you feel like people couldn't really truly accept you, uh, for who you are.
But in general, when we're going through any kind of gender journey or exploration, uh, I think the best thing to do- and I'm very much just taking from Mattie Lubchansky, uh, giving this advice on our live show in Brooklyn a few months ago. Uh, the best thing to do is always just fuck around and find out as long as you are in a place where you will be safely housed and are not at, like, acute, like, personal safety issues, um, for experimenting with your gender or playing with new things that you wanna explore. Like, the best thing as-as Heather said about going to Italy, uh, is just to try it and see what happens, and you'll know pretty quickly if that's what feels good or bad to you.
AS: Hm. I love that advice, "fuck around and find out," after paying attention to, like, are-are you in a safe environment and is your environment feeling more or less safe as you fuck around and find out, then you might need to change your environment.
TW: Right, because we get letters from teenagers that are like, is it worth coming out if my parents could disown me? And it's like, I'm not going to tell you to maybe make yourself homeless, but if you're an adult who's in, like, a stable situation, um, where your personal safety isn't at risk, then give it a shot.
AS: I guess, the other question that I hear embedded in Lauren's question- in Lauren's message is-is like, as I'm thinking about letting go of all of these conventions and scripts that I am aware that I have-have inherited, like, what is the way when you're at a point in life when you're like, "Oh, wait. I wanna put a lot of this down. How do I imagine possibility in my life?" Like, what are-what are some ways to just kind of think about that? Finding new models.
GC: I feel like I'm in a period in my life where many of my friends are, um, either embracing their gender identity for the first time or kind of actively interrogating it in some way. And it kind of reminds me of where I was like when I was in high school, in early college, and I was younger and the culture and-and the, like- you know, media was different pop culture was different. And I was- everyone around me was coming out as gay at that time. And, you know, there was kind of this communal element of many people discovering a part of their identity together, anyway. But I think what, um, what can be very good and this is obvious but is just to seek out, um, not to use a very cliché word, but representation. Like, seek out basically, narratives of people that have gone through something similar or that have, um, that can kind of act as an- as a potential example as you're trying to navigate a period of life that seems like, uh, uncharted territory. 'Cause I-I think it's very easy to default to feeling like you're the first person that ha- like you're alone in-in an experience.
TW: Yeah. Like, you can listen to the hit podcast Gender Reveal, for example.
GC: I was about to say, yeah.
TW: You can go-- Please, George, say nice things about my podcast.
TW: Um, but no, I mean, but seriously I do think something that we talk about all the time on Gender Reveal is that trans people tend to sort of move in similar trans age groups, by which I mean, like, people who are newly trans hang out with other people who are newly trans. And one of the best things you can do is remember that we did not just invent being trans in the last, like, two to five years. And we can seek out people as George said, who have gone through this before and have a lot of wisdom to share. And thus not only do we have more insight for us, but we can stop having the same arguments on Twitter.com every three months because we know that they've already happened.
AS: They've already happe-- [laughs] I don't think that's gonna stop the Twitter.com arguments, Tuck. I'm not sure. Maybe. [laughs]
TW: I-- We just-- We have to try, you know.
AS: Coming up, more advice for your relationship dilemmas, including talking about caregiving with a partner. And how one listener is coping with the fallout from their first attempt at being a throuple.
AS: This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC, I'm Anna Sale. Let's move to Dina who lives in Maine, is 42 years old, and she is trying to navigate a moment in her marriage and caregiving for her parents. Let's listen to her relationship dilemma.
Dina: I've been married to my loving husband since 2011. Um, in 2014, we had our first child, a son named Everett, and he died of cancer at nine months in 2015. Um, after that life was pretty hard. I left my PhD program, my husband didn't have a steady job for a while, so we really struggled. And at that time, my parents came to the rescue and offered to purchase a large home with us that we would share. And now, we're looking at five years of living together, and my husband and I have steady work. So, things are going better for us. We are busy working parents, um, of now a daughter who is five. So, lately, we've been talking about what our next step will be, and whether we can purchase, uh, our own home.
Um, but that comes with a little baggage, because my parents bought this enormous house for us to all share and they don't need a house this big and are getting to a point where they really do need our help sometimes. This is a little scary for me because I never really pictured myself as their caretaker, but I think that's what we're facing now. And I just feel this sense of guilt for having my husband sort of trapped, uh, in this position of living with parents that aren't his. And I'm scared, but it's just about time for me to bring this up with my parents and try to find a solution for all of us, um, where there's no hard feelings, and, uh, my husband and I can have a little more freedom in our life.
AS: Oh, I feel like this is a relationships dilemma, because there are so many relationships, um, that Dina, is-is trying to take care of all at once here. Um, who has thought about what would be helpful for Dina? George?
GC: I mean, you know, the first thing I'm thinking of is-- So, my-my family's Greek and ev- everyone except me and my sister still lives in Greece. And, um, it is-- in Greece, it is in fact, very common to live in multi-generational homes. And when I was growing up, my grandmother lived above- in the apartment above us. And currently, my both sets of grandparents live with each of my aunts, like, the daughters that are not my parents. Um, and it is interesting to hear these questions because I can tell you from experience that they don't go away when it is a kind of canonized part of the culture. It's not like, "Oh, people in Greece or other cultures are more enlightened or something."
They don't go away but they just become kind of part of the daily- um, part of your daily life in the way that, you know, even the most perfect relationship of course has some things you have to negotiate. That's just what it's like to live in a multi-generational home. Um, w-- So, I don't know if that provides an answer to this but it's- it-- All-all I am saying is that it's-- kind of like, it is simply a different way to live with a different set of kind of day to day values, so to speak and I think like you kind of just have to make the decision of whether the pros outweigh the cons.
AS: Yeah, I like what you're saying there, that it's not- it's not necessarily like there's no tension or difficulty in multi-generational households where that's more the cultural norm. It's just one of the other ways it's-it's just a-a more built-in way that people have gotten used to feeling trapped and not just feeling trapped in monogamous marriages where you just live with your partner. Like you-you feel trapped in a different way but it's more common to feel trapped. Um, I-I-- There's-there's two things that I wonder Heather or Tuck if you have thoughts on that-that line that Dina said about, "I feel-- Speaking of trapped, I've sort of trapped my husband in this position of living with my parents." So, that-that difficulty of navigating families of origin inside a long-term relationship and also that idea of, um, living apart presenting more freedom.
HH: I was wondering if feeling guilty about her husband... She didn't say her husband felt trapped, and then- and then at the end, she said, "I'm looking for a solution where there'll be no hard feelings." So, I kind- I kind of- I kind of got stuck on those two things,-
HH: -because I wondered, has she talked to her husband? Does her husband really feel trapped? Does she feel guilty about her husband or sh-- Can she not? Is she-- does she feel so guilty, because she doesn't want to take care of her parents that she's putting this guilt... She's putting all the feelings of not wanting this scenario onto her husband and then saying, I am trying to take care of him here. Um, and then the second thing is if you want to navigate something with other people, um, who you love a lot, a big challenge is to show up and say what you want and what you don't want. And if she truly doesn't want to care for her parents, she's not going to be a good caretaker for her parents, um, and that's okay, you know. It's- it-- But-but in order to solve the problem, that's in front of her, that a lot of really hard feelings and hard conversations have to happen where we find out whether her husband- how her husband feels about living with, uh, her parents, how-- And then we also find out what she- how she feels about living with her parents and everybody talks about their fears. I mean that you know, by the end of-of-of listening to her story, I just really wondered how she felt, what were her feelings about the whole thing?
AS: Yeah. Well, let's move ahead to Johan who sent this in from Kansas. He is 33 and, uh, he has a dilemma. Let's listen to this.
Johan: Um, my partner and I have been together for five years now and we got married just-just about a year ago now. Um, one thing that we did not discuss leading up to our marriage and even during our marriage until recently was my interest for being in a triad, in a throuple. Um, I don't have any interest in an open relationship but being in a triad is something that I've always been interested in. So, we met an individual that we both, um, were very fond of and we met him online just through a friend. We made this connection. And had him over for Christmas, um, but before he came over and I proposed, almost in a joking way, proposed the idea of being in a triad with him. Then that conversation evolved into me expressing that this is actually something that I've always wanted. And although we did not extensively discuss this, he seemed on board to at least see where things would go. Well, needless to say, after two, three weeks of him being in-in our homes, sharing our life with us, um, my husband decided that this was not for him. Um, meanwhile, I had madly fallen in love with him. Of course, the agreement was that if both of us didn't like him, then we were gonna let it go. Uh, that was, um, harder after the fact than I realized it-it would be or had prepared myself for. And so all of that being said, um, I feel like the decision to be made as-as I heal from this is whether or not being in a triad is something that's a make or break deal for me, and then where does that leave me and my relationship with my husband?
GC: Uh, this is a tough one.
TW: I mean, I think generally, it's very, very difficult to sustain a successful, happy, non-resentful relationship when people want two opposing things. And this is especially true in my experience when one person wants to be some form of non-monogamous, and the other person wants to be monogamous. Uh, so there's not a ton of successful models I've seen for that. But I do think that I'm biased because my roommate is a trans couple's therapist, but I do think some kind of like queer couples therapy with people who are experienced in these exact issues, um, could be beneficial because that is, like George said, a very tough one.
No one is doing anything wrong here. No one messed up. You're just having a lot of feelings and those feelings aren't easy to navigate, uh, on your own, perhaps. Uh, so that's the only thing I can really suggest in this context, but I feel bad. [chuckles] Everyone seems really nice and sweet and I hope that something works out.
HH: That's-- Yeah. I think, you know, that NRE thing kind of comes back into play too because, um, he's madly--
AS: New relationship energy. Just to- just for the listeners keeping up.
HH: New relationship energy.
HH: That energy, I mean, he's madly in love with this man who now is not together with him and his husband. And, um, you know, sometimes, I mean, uh, from my personal experience, talking about what- and-and trying on imagining what it would mean to, uh, leave-leave someone and, you know, looking at what you're getting out of your marriage, I think is an important thing, whether you're-- I mean, at no time did I think I'm leaving my husband, um, when I had this crush, there was no way. Um, but I did look closely at what-why am I staying?
You know, like I kind of already know I'm gonna stay, but I- but I wanna know what it is that I have. Um, and I think sometimes when you really apply pressure to the person you're obsessed with or have a crush on or are madly in love with, and you look closely at just how would my needs be met by this person exactly? If-if that's a priority for you, um, you may find that, mm, you know, my husband meets my needs, this other person just adds excitement. I don't know what his specifics are. Um, but I don't know. I-it-turning it over in your mind can help, and talking about it openly.
AS: Mm-hmm. Yeah. That was something I was struck by with the message of like this has all happened under a pretty compressed timeline. You know, they had the-
AS: -flirtation, then the third person was living among them very quickly, and then it started to feel uncomfortable to one of them. And, um, yeah, just, it-it's-- These are intense feelings with not a lot of space to process. George, did you have something you wanna add?
GC: I was-- Yeah. I was a bit-- I was trying to figure out, um, the timeline of it as well because it seemed like there was no kind of dating part of it.
GC: Like it went from a flirtation to them being an official- in an official, uh, relationship. You know, oftentimes having a period where you're trying something out helps you to figure out if this is something you want to commit to long term. But, uh. but that aside, I feel like, um, I feel like the three of them talking it out [chuckles] would-would-would help as well, which I'm sure they-they have done. But I-I think oftentimes in these situations, the thing that hasn't happened is each person stating in clear sentences what they want out of something. Um, like that is the most helpful thing.
AS: Yeah. Well, and then I think what they want, and then also sometimes you might have some really big feelings that are contradictory and like so-
AS: -giving yourself a walk around the block to figure out what those big feelings are and then sort of sort through like, "Oh, what is this? Are they leading me somewhere to a decision, or am I feeling big feelings? I need to sit with them for a minute."
TW: I'm also curious, maybe he said and I missed it, but I'm curious what the third in this situation is feeling because I would hate for this person to pull a situation where they like run away from their husband to be with this new guy, and then the new guy's like, "I actually never wanted this, like this isn't something I'm interested in." And so just making sure that everyone sort of understands where they're coming from I think is also important.
AS: Coming up, more advice about negotiating the aftermath of an affair and handling avoidant partners.
AS: This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I'm Anna Sale. Our next listener question came in from Laura who sent in a voice memo from Oakland. She submitted it just days after finding out her partner was having an affair. This is what she told us.
Laura: Hi, Death, Sex & Money. You guys really put this out at the right time. I found out on Friday that my partner of eight years and fiancé of two years has been actively seeking out an affair and had been having affair for two months. And now we're at this point of how do we proceed? Can we heal? Can I heal? It feels like I'm lost in the storm and I can't see anything past it. And I'd really like some help. Thank you.
AS: Um, when you're in like that time of deep pain and having acknowledged, having found out about a betrayal, um, what's the first thing to do?
HH: Eat. [chuckles]
AS: Eat, yeah.
TW: I mean, I would suggest getting yourself to a place where you feel safe. And so if you live with your fiancé and being around your fiancé is making you feel really destabilized and lost in a storm, can you stay with a friend for a while who will make sure that you are eating and you are sleeping and you are able to like process this with someone that doesn't make you feel nervous because you now do not trust them? Uh, so, yeah, I think just getting to a place where you can feel grounded back in yourself, uh, in some way would be hopefully the first step to sort of reconfigure what you want your life to look like looking forward.
GC: Yeah. I completely agree because this is presumably the person you would go to if you had a problem. So I think the feeling of destabilization comes from the fact that, you know, the call's coming from inside the house, so to speak. Like the person that you would normally go to if you were betrayed by someone to talk it out is the one doing the betraying. Um, yeah, I mean, I think to that point, so often, romantic relationships are privileged above all else as the be-all-end-all. And I think this is a instance where you have to rely on your friendships and your- and your relationships with your family members. And, um, obviously, this feels like such a crushing disappointment, and I completely relate to that, but at the same time, think of all the other strong relationships in your life that you can lean on as you kind of figure it out.
AS: Mm-hmm. And something else Laura told us, um, as she asked, "Can we heal? Can I heal?" She also said she'd found out that her partner had been seeking out an affair. This had been something her partner was looking for outside of the relationship. And does that- does that affect any of the advice that you give to her that somehow her partner had this, uh, need- that was- this didn't just fall in her partner's lap, this was something her partner was looking for?
GC: I mean, it's interesting because just to be-- I mean, Tuck, I don't know if you agree with this or if I'm projecting too much, but I feel like, you know, in queer communities, often it's-it's just quite simply monogamy is not as-- Um, basically like the idea of cheating is not the worst possible thing that can happen, like to put it bluntly. Like it-it is as someone who like, [chuckles] you know, spends a lot of time talking about "straight culture," we actually had an episode that was on the idea of cheating with Cole Escola who's very- who's a brilliant comedian if anyone wants to go listen, but it wa-- They were making this argument that like cheating as a concept, like, "He cheated on me," is kind of-- It's-it's such a straight-- And I, again, I-I'm not saying this to minimize anything, but it's such a-a straight thing. And the top-line thing that I will say is ultimately it is a- it is a betrayal of trust, and it does sound to me like a pretty major one. Like Tuck, what would you say is like the equivalent kind of betrayal that you--? Do you know what I'm trying to say like--?
TW: What's so funny is I listened to that Cole Escola cheating episode like last week and so very fresh in my-
TW: -mind. Uh, and when I was listening to it, I was thinking about how I think you're absolutely right that, in some ways, it is not seen as the worst thing in the world in queer culture. But for me, it has always felt almost more unnecessary because queer culture has, uh, such a looser like expectation of monogamy. And so if you're someone who was actively searching out an affair, that you had time to go to your partner and be like, "Hey, I am interested in seeing another person, either I wanna break up or I wanna be non-monogamous. Can we talk about this?" Uh, you didn't have only the choice to cheat on your partner or be unhappy forever. That's never the situation that anyone is in, but I think coming from sort of queer world, like my reaction if someone is cheating is-is like, "You could have just talked about it." Um, and so I think that's maybe sort of related to what you're speaking to.
GC: Yes. Basically, my advice to someone that is u-unhappy in a monogamous relationship and wants to open up the relationship is like talk to your partner and figure it out. And so when that- when the very act of that is kind of taboo, then-then it becomes more--
HH: It causes problems. Yeah.
GC: Yes. I think that's what I'm struggling with.
GC: Um, And, but-but I-I will say, I mean, I don't think this necessarily means there is no way back from this. Like what if in the future rather than go-going straight to the forbidden action, we can first discuss it.
AS: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And I-I just-- I keep thinking about what Laura was saying, "It feels like I'm lost in the storm. I can't see anything past it." And I just want to, uh, say to Laura, you don't need to right now. Like you-- This is a moment in life you get to fall apart and be taken care of by people who love you. Um, and-and give yourself some time to absorb the hurt.
Um, we have one last question from Matt who is 46. He sent in an email and he says, "My relationship dilemma's that my partner and I have been talking about marriage for over a year, and it has been difficult. The problem is she will say all kinds of things on the phone and then faced with me, she won't talk with me. I've asked her to go to couples counseling multiple times. She'll leave me after a few weeks only to want to make up in a few days or a week. I can't tell you how exhausting it is. I dare say it feels like we enact revenge upon each other, and we're 46. It feels like a teenage relationship. Please help."
HH: This sounds like a-a job for, uh, The Power of Attachment, the book about attachment theory, because what we're describing here is, uh, avoidant, an insecure attachment style, avoidant attachment style. Um, and, um, yeah, I don't- I'm not an expert in attachment theory at all, but, uh, but avoidance is- this is just strikes me as an extreme form of-of avoidant, um, attachment. Um, I-I personally am, uh, definitely insecurely attached. I am anxious and avoidant. I guess they call that, um, disorganized attachment style, meaning that I can very much enjoy and focus on chasing unavailable, uh, love interests, and also friends. And, um, but I also become, uh, avoidant if people chase me too much, which is so I'm just inconsistent and awful in every way.
HH: Um, [chuckles] ve-- I'm ve- I'm a very exciting person, a very exciting, unpredictable. a thrill ride of a person. Um, but I think that in some ways, um, it's po- it is possible to become someone who can act from a secure place even though you're still sometimes avoidant, sometimes anxious. The question is, does this avoidant person want to grow or not?
AS: I also wonder if marriage- if the talk about marriage is, uh, what would happen if you put that down? What would happen in your relationship, Matt, if instead, you talked about how you wanna be together? It doesn't sound like from the email that they live together. It doesn't sound-- It sounds like they have this sort of on and off connection, so maybe there could be a different model for what-what their romance could look like.
TW: Yeah. I don't know. I heard this question, I'm just like, "Matt, buddy, you're having a bad time." Like there's- [chuckles] there's just nothing good happening in this question. And I, you know, I was thinking about that with Laura too, not the same thing, but just the fact that like you can leave a relationship. And like when we're in relationships, I think it's so easy to be like, "Wow, if I left this relationship, I'd have to rethink my entire life and I'm so scared to step out of this thing that I have that is unpleasant, but comfortable to me, uh, because there's this big unknown out there."
But like being single is not bad and also there are other people to be in relationship with who might have not damaged you yet in the same way and they may damage you in exciting fun new ways. And so I just sort of wanna remind people that like if your relationship is making you more unhappy than happy, you have an option to not be in it. Uh, and I don't think that's always like a last resort. That can just be a thing that you do, uh, because it's just simply not improving your quality of life. We can sort of like Marie Kondo it, right? And be like, "If this is not sparking joy for me, I don't have to do it." Uh, so I don't want people to like feel like they're stuck in fixing things that seem hard to fix.
AS: For someone who's listening who is in that place of like, "Uh, this feels like it's not working but I'm afraid to leave," does anyone have a nice memory to share of when you left a relationship that had stopped working of what came next?
TW: I just always feel so relieved because I feel like there's like this dark cloud over my head trying to make it work, trying to make it work, being terrified that we're gonna break up. And it's like the worst thing that could happen is we're gonna break up. And then once we break up, I'm like, "Oh, thank God." Like, "The worst thing has happened and now I get to move on." Uh, and that has always felt better to me than like the worst final days of a relationship. So, hopefully, it brings you after like the first day where you just like lay in bed and cry and eat whatever and watch the worst TV you can think of. Like after that, um, hopefully, it feels better than what you've been in right now.
HH: Yeah. I've broke it up with so many people and-and been dumped so many times. And the-the-the high that you get [chuckles] once you're finally-- When you're working at something that isn't working for a long time, and then you finally stop trying to make it into what it does not wanna become, um, it's such a good feeling. I had a-- I had this boyfriend that I lived with that I- that I- that just drove me insane. He just-- Uh, insane isn't the word. He just-- We were just not a match at all. And I-- It was like I couldn't just look at the facts on the wall at any point. About a week after I moved in, some part of me really hated this guy. I mean, it was messed up. I mean, it was my fault for not understanding that. But anyway, I moved my stuff out and I still remember getting to my new apartment all alone. And I did a dance in the middle of my apartment.
HH: I was so-- I was like, "Yes, I'm alone. This is amazing." And you don't know until you land there. I'm not saying all breakups feel that good, but, um, but yeah, you don't really know until you pull the trigger, and sometimes you're just amazed at how much happier you are.
AS: George, um, maybe you should start doing some dances in your apartment by yourself before you move in with your partner, get that out of your system. [laughs]
GC: Some dances in my apartment, yeah. [chuckles]
AS: While you have your own apartment. [laughs]
GC: I mean, it-- I-- Last-last time I went through a breakup, it was the- after that, it was them the first time I had ever lived alone and I can say that was like-- It just felt almost comically kind of Eat Pray Love.
GC: Like to be like living alone for the first time after this relationship, but I remember like everything I read or watched had such like added meaning to it as though I was like, you know--- And then I look back on those things and it's like, some of those books were not very good. [chuckles] I just like happened to be in a space where I was like especially open to any and all ideas.
GC: But, um, I just think you don't have to feel immediately good after a breakup for it to be justified. Like it is- it is a very difficult, uh, position to be in. And I think the most difficult breakups are the ones that- where you're kind of like, you know-- I think the most difficult place to be is in a relationship where you sense the chemistry is maybe a little off, but you have no- you can't put it in words.
It's not-- Uh, there's not like one specific thing. It's not like one person is being especially cruel or anything, but when it's not- when there is a clear problem that you can name and you can put words to and you feel legitimately trapped, it almost-- I mean, I hate to say it, but it almost makes it easier to make a decision like that because it feels more clear cut even though it-it can- it seems more painful at-at first sight.
HH: Yeah, I had-I had a breakup where I broke up with my boyfriend, and he walked away down the street and I remember feeling like I had abandoned my child. There was a way that he was so dependent on me in such an effecting and beautiful way really, that, um, that I felt so guilty and so- and so heartbroken. Like this person, I felt like he was supposed to be part of my family no matter what even if we weren't right for-- You know, there was- there were times when, uh, in my next relationship, I was like, "I wish my ex could come and live in the spare bedroom with us because I miss him." You know, it was like I'd want him to be- to, uh, to, uh-- I just-- I could-- I-I couldn't believe that I need- I had to let him go. I-it's like the relationship, I still wanted, uh, kind of, um, like a sibling-like relation. I wanted to live with this guy for the rest of my life, I just didn't want him to be my husband.
GC: Well, it's just so funny because what you're describing, it-it's like to, uh, I-I literally know people who like live with a significant other and an ex. [chuckles]
TW: Oh, yeah. I mean, my household is me, someone I briefly dated, and their partner of 12 years who they have now broken up with. Um, and we all live together and it's wonderful. And I never really think about it in those terms but technically, that is the definition of who I live with.
HH: That sounds more logical than straight culture by far because the-the-- You know, we're done, goodbye forever of-of straight cultures. You know, they're all arbitrary and strange. I mean, this boyfriend that I wanted to live with me, uh, I invited him to my wedding and then he didn't invite me to his wedding because they decided that no exes should be at the wedding. And it was sort of like, "Ugh,-
HH: -so straight." Like, "Jesus, you know, I'm part of your family."
GC: I mean, I'll tell you, there is drama like that in gay weddings too.
GC: We're not all that evolved.
AS: Um, George, did you have one more thing you wanted to add?
GC: I mean, it's barely a point but I was just- I was thinking back to our conversation about multi-generational households. And it's like that can be a model for- like a-a broader model for how to live your life. Like to be kind of in a communal environment where, you know, not everything has to be black and white, you can be romantically involved with someone then kind of become more friends, become whatever. Uh, you know, I think, um, as long as everyone is on the same page, you know, not every label has to be, uh, uh, you know, that strict. That's all.
AS: Yeah, and I love how you-you've pointed out how that makes way- that-that makes room for like change can happen and also it like allows you to hang on to your history instead of having to sort of create these like, um, uh, chapters that-that straight culture can define as like having healthy boundaries but also means cutting things off.
GC: Yeah. Well-well- it's-it's just like many things-- And I'm sure Tuck would be more articulate about this, um, but like many things, it is just like another way to reject some sort of binary where like either someone is this thing to you or they are nothing to you. They can have-- you can have like a, you know, an evolving relationship throughout your life.
TW: Right. And it also just comes out of necessity for queer people, right? Like if I don't date anyone that anyone else I know has also dated, I simply will never date anyone. There's a limited-
TW: -finite quantity even in a major city, uh, and so it's just out of necessity we sort of all are looking out for each other and/or sleeping with each other. One of the two, possibly both.
HH: I love that model. I-I-- Let me into that- let me into that universe, please.
TW: You can come. I keep thinking about how you're like, "If you wanna go to Italy, go to Italy," and I'm like, "You can just do this, Heather." [laughs]
GC: It's true.
TW: It's very available to you.
GC: Yeah, being gay is the ultimate- is the ultimate going to Italy.
TW: I'm always saying this George.
GC: It's-- I-I know. Yeah.
AS: [laughs] Well thank you all for joining us today and for answering our listeners' questions. And thank you listeners for sharing some of the things that you are dealing with in your romantic lives. Um, I hope this has been helpful and I hope it has made you not feel quite so alone in your dilemmas. Um, I wanna thank our panelists. Tuck Woodstock is a journalist, equity educator, and the host of the podcast Gender Reveal. We will put links to some of the episodes that we mentioned in our show notes. You can follow them on Twitter @tuckwoodstock. And the show is @gendereveal that's with one R on Twitter and Instagram.
George Civeris is an editor at Gawker and a comedian and the co-host of the podcast StraightioLab with Sam Taggart. You can follow him @georgeciveris on Twitter and Instagram. That's C-I-V-E-R-I-S. And author and columnist Heather Havrilesky writes the wonderful Ask Polly advice column on Substack, and the author of the new book, Foreverland, which is out now. And you can follow Heather on Twitter @hhavrilesky and on Instagram at, it's different, heatherhav, H-A-V.
I wanna give a special thank you to Afi Yellow-Duke who produced this episode with special thanks to Emily Boghossian for their help. Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. The rest of our team is Katie Bishop, Caitlin Pierce, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. You can subscribe to Death, Sex, and Money, to StraightioLab, and to Gender Reveal wherever you get your podcasts. And if you've got a story for us, email us anytime at email@example.com. Heather, George, Tuck, thank you for joining me. And I wish you a weekend of a lot of hot love and romance.
GC: And same to you.
TW: Thank you so much.
HH: Back at you.
AS: [laughs] I'm Anna Sale and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.
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