Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't.
Dear Ms. Opinionated.
Last night my boyfriend and I were drunkenly walking to our train, stopping in the middle to tell each other how much we love one another, and giving mushy, drunken kisses. Then all of a sudden, he told me that some people, I think from work—who he insisted on keeping anonymous—asked why he stays with me and say that he can do better. I suppose he told me because he was drunk, and because he wanted to let me know that he thought those people were wrong, but I can't get over it.
First of all, when we first started dating about four years ago, some of my friends said that *I* could do better. My boyfriend is not as mature as I am, and at the time he was overweight. But I never told him what they said because I knew it would hurt him. Since then, he's lost weight, and I've gained weight. I still have pretty good body image, and I don't usually care what other people think. Naturally, however, there are times when I'm hard on myself, and I've wondered if my boyfriend thinks he can do better.
It's also important to note that a couple of months ago, I caught him sexting some girl he met at a bar with his best friend one night. I was livid and I was hurt. I went away for the weekend and when I came back to talk about what happened, he profusely apologized, said that he had a terrible weekend without me, and regretted what he did. He said he didn't know why he did it, blah blah, the same things that most guys say when they get caught. But I really believe him, especially since he has truly kept his promises. He's been faithful to me, and he's also worked on the things I said needed to change: He's more communicative, he doesn't shut me out when he's upset, and he stopped holding grudges for stupid things.
I know that he didn't meant to hurt me when he said what he did last night, but I'm so hurt and I can't just get over it. I don't know how to talk to him because I don't think he understands how much it hurts. He thinks that what other people said shouldn't matter, it only matters what we think of each other. But then why would he tell me?? If the sexting situation has anything to do with letting other people get in his head, how am I supposed to trust that he won't let it happen again? Is it time to cut my losses and break up with the man I plan on marrying?
First off, let me say: You have every right to feel hurt, and to have trouble getting past what he said to you. I don't think there's a person in the world whose ego could come away unscathed after hearing, "Some unnamed friends think I could do better than you." As you rightly point out, on it's own it is hurtful to hear that your partner's friends feel that way about you, and it's worse to find yourself running through in your head which people with whom you might be regularly interacting think you're "not good enough" for your long term partner. And, when it's about your physical appearance rather than the quality of the relationship -- things like whether you're kind, supportive, make your partner feel cared about and loved -- it's really just entirely shallow (as it was when your friends said it about him, though one suspects in hindsight that the maturity level might have had just a little bit to do with it).
It's frankly a total shit sandwich of a thing to hand to someone -- and, no, he doesn't totally think "that what other people said shouldn't matter," otherwise it wouldn't have come tumbling out of his mouth when his inhibitions were down. Actually, to me, it sounds like a pretty shady, albeit maybe subconscious way (if I'm being generous), to try to change the power dynamic in your relationship. Anyone with a lick of sense knows that saying that is hurtful, and that it's bound to make the other person feel insecure in social situations if not the relationship -- and that anything in that vein is among the last things to do during a happy-drunk, lovey-dovey moment unless you are actively trying to ruin that moment. I mean, I am not prone to a lot of mushy romantic walks nor do I have a particularly thick filter between my brain and my mouth at the most sober of moments and even I have avoided saying stuff like that to romantic partners. (Exes, on the other hand, I make no promises.)
I think it's likely that, between the aforementioned maturity level of your boyfriend, the length of your relationship and the sexting incident, your boyfriend is having -- if not second thoughts -- questions about your relationship and your future. And rather than communicating those concerns and feelings -- which, yes, would be hard for him and probably painful for you both and could lead to a life-changing and sad decision for both of you -- he's doing other stuff that hurts you and makes you sad. And rather than talking about it with him, you're telling yourself (and me) that he can't understand, and questioning your relationship, and contemplating a unilateral end to it.
He might be more communicative after his flirtation with infidelity, but this is still not great relationship communication. (Not holding grudges and explaining to the other person why you are upset are kind of like bare minimums, by the way, not high standards for communication.)
So, look. It's time for some real talk conversation between you guys -- one with cleared schedules, phones off, eye contact, hard questions and a lot of self-examination before, during and after. Bring some tissues. Maybe it's one to have with a counselor, if that's something you want and can afford (or get covered by insurance or find low-cost options to pursue). But it's time to think about more than just how much you love one another and start thinking about what you each want from a relationship and this relationship, one another and how much and what you each can give.
Maybe it'll help to make a list, before you agree to talk, of questions you both need answers to and agree to answer honestly and receive the answers without arguing or interrupting. You could ask him to answer things like, as you asked me, "Why would you tell me that?" or "What did you get out of the sexting relationship?" or "How did the conversation about how you can 'do better' start" or even "Why are you friends with people who insult me?" -- all kind of valid questions, in my opinion. He might ask you whether you can not just forgive but forget the sexting incident, or why you chose to leave for a weekend after it rather than stay and talk about your feelings and the relationship -- or harder things, or more hurtful things.
And, you know, "I don't know why I did it," can't be the end of the discussion here, for either of you. Maybe you guys don't want to say, maybe you don't want to admit it to yourselves, and maybe you haven't really wanted to examine what is at the core of a given reaction or a certain pattern of reactions and interactions. But your relationship has come to a tipping point, between his sexting and your contemplating a break-up, and it's time to either get really into the nitty-gritty stuff that you've both let go in between the shmoopy I-love-you-walks or probably watch this fall to pieces without knowing why.
And, you know, maybe you can work it out. Maybe you can't. Things happen, people change, love evolves beyond romance and the world doesn't end. But if that's what's happening here, having a loving, honest, respectful but unhappy discussion might leave you both hurting -- but it can also help give you closure and even build the foundation for a future friendship, if that's what you both want and are willing to work on it together respectfully. But, if there's one thing I've learned, ignoring problems, not talking about them when you have them, assuming the other person won't understand, arguing and acts that are disrespectful to the boundaries in your relationship are a one-way ticket to Ugly Breakupsville -- and a lot of both of your friends declaring that they always knew one of you wasn't good enough for the other.
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Photo credit: Kate Black, kateblack.com