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,
I feel that sex is only valuable to me when I'm sharing it with someone I love and trust completely and I can't enjoy it when I don't feel that my heart is safe. It's something I only share with the person I'm with, and it distinguishes the difference between friendship and love for me. My boyfriend, however, has been with tons of women, and a couple of them were and are his best friends. He has told me that he would probably start having sex with them again if we don't work out. He doesn't really say anything inappropriate to them, and I don't think he'd cheat on me physically. But the fact that they remain so close makes me feel threatened.
The fact that he's done all the things with these fuck buddies that he does with me makes me feel cheated in a way. We go to the movies, go to dinner, come home, have sex, hold each other and talk, etc. All things he did with them, and yet somehow he says it's not the same to him and I don't understand. He leans on them emotionally and (when he's single) physically... It sounds just like a relationship to me. And just because he isn't actually having sex with them currently, I still feel like they might as well be because the intention/desire is still there, like they're just taking a break for a while and I'm part of the intermission. I feel like a joke to these girls because I want to think our relationship is special when they've had him this way for years. I feel like as long as he remains friends with these women, he'll never be truly committed to me. He says that it shouldn't bother me because he's not doing anything with them, that I should just trust him.
So what is the difference between a relationship with a friend and your relationship with a boyfriend/girlfriend (aside from sex) that lets a boyfriend/girlfriend know that they have nothing to worry about? How do you explain it to them or make sure they feel secure? I feel like as long as he remains friends with these women, he'll never be truly committed to me. My boyfriend and I have worn this argument to the bare bones, but we still don't seem to understand each other.
[Adapted with permission from this comment, click through to read in full.]
Well, let me start by saying to anyone, including your boyfriend, that when your partner is even a little insecure about you being friends with people with whom you used to bump uglies, the appropriate thing to do even when specifically asked whether you would ever trip the light fantastic with them again if not in a relationship is to say, "No." It's never going to help, it's always going to cause problems and whose genitals with which you might or might not engage at some hypothetical later point were your current relationship to be over will be, at that point, none of your hypothetical-ex's business (unless it's a family member or maybe a good friend of their's) so it's sort of not their business now. Just shut your mouth.
Sadly, in your case, he's said it. So you need to deal (or not, as you decide). But let's break down the real problem: you two have very different conceptions of what sex means to each of you. And in some relationships, that's fine as long as the two of you have trust in one another and respect for one another's different points of view. But the fact of the matter is that you don't respect what he's done, you don't accept his point of view about what sex and intimacy mean to him in various circumstances and you don't trust either him nor his friends-who-he-used-to-bone. If you were writing me about your boyfriend not trusting you because of your sexual history and attempting to isolate you from close friends to make him feel more secure about your relationship, there wouldn't be much of a question about what you should do.
So, look: no amount of fighting about it going to change what he's done with other people and it's not going to change about how he feels about sex and the consistency of its relationship to emotional intimacy. And nothing he can say to you is going to make you feel secure about his friends or comforted about his personal morality when it comes to physical intimacy, because that sense of security is something you need to work out in your own head. Other than the foolish admission that he'd probably bone them again if single, by your own admission, you don't think he'd cheat on you, he doesn't behave in a more-than-friends way towards his former fuck buddies and he's told you that he's not interested in doing anything with them because he's with you. In fact, he has drawn boundaries with his friendly former fuck buddies: he doesn't fuck them! What you want is for him to cut off contact with his friends, which is totally unfair, in the hopes that you feel more secure -- but even if that works temporarily, it's no permanent solution to the bigger problem that his past in general makes you feel insecure about his commitment to your current relationship.
So try this thought exercise. You know what he hasn't done with his fuck buddies? Date them. Fall in love with them. Presumably argued until he's blue in the face that they need to trust him and that he wants to be and is monogamous with them. Attempted to make them feel secure by opening up about his past and how it relates to his present relationship and what he wants in his future. Considered the possibility, even though he dismissed it, of ending close friendships that provide him with a level of emotional support because they wanted him all to themselves emotionally and physically. Maybe they went out and did stuff like go to the movies, maybe they talked about their feelings, maybe they did so before and after they had sex here and there. But they weren't his girlfriend, and you are -- at least for now. That's the difference. And that's really the only difference he can give you, because he can't change the past, even if he wanted to. (And if he did, he'd be a different person and maybe not one you could love.)
The real deal is that you're quite uncomfortable that your boyfriend doesn't share your values about sex, and you're that much more uncomfortable that he has these close female friends with whom he does share those values and friendships of which you're not a close part. In fact, you've allowed that discomfort create a whole situation in your head in which they are conspiring against you, treating you as an "intermission" to their no-strings-attached bonefest and considering you a laughingstock, with no evidence. You don't even actually know if they'd ever bone him again, if they'll still be single (or single again) at some future point after which you two might have broken up, or what they think of you (other than, I assume, that you aren't very friendly, unless you're an Oscar-award winning actress). But in your head, they are waiting in the wings and rubbing their hands together like evil cartoon villains, just waiting to get back into your boyfriend's drawers.
You need to get your head screwed on straight, or get out of this relationship for his sake and your own. You have your values about sex, and your boyfriend has his. You need to accept what he's saying at face value and given the evidence of his current behavior: that your relationship has meaning to him, that he is being faithful, that his friends-with-benefits situations with his friends were not Relationships no matter how you understand friends-with benefits, even if he's had sex in both situations and gone to the movies in both situations. You need to stop pressuring him to create enough distance with his friends for your peace of mind (is there enough distance for that?), because he's said he's not willing to and because it's hurting your relationship. And you need to consider that his friends are his friends for reasons that they might be (or might have been) yours, too, if you let your defenses down and thought about them as individuals rather than women-your-boyfriend-used-to-bang.
And then you need to look deep within yourself and separate out that piece of all of this which is the socialized understanding that women are in competition with one another for the supposedly scarce resource of men. His friends are likely not your enemies -- or, depending on how you've acted toward them, they didn't start out as your enemies -- and your boyfriend's ability to have close friendships with men and women isn't a sign that he has less intimacy to give you. Emotional intimacy isn't necessarily finite, and, in fact, being able to maintain long-term relationships that include emotional intimacy, even if it's not partnered-intimacy, with other people is a good sign of his ability to maintain an emotional intimacy as a partner.
At some point, only you can choose to feel secure. Only you can create a situation in which you feel like you have nothing to worry about. You need to stop focusing on how the circumstances in which he had sex differed from ones in which you would have and what that means about how he feels now, and start focusing on the present of your relationship and what you do have and what he's giving you now. And if you can't do that, it might help to find a therapist to help you tease out why you are so focused on someone else's past at the detriment of your combined present and future (and maybe where this paranoia comes from that people are laughing at you behind your back with no evidence).
I know all of this stems from you not wanting to get hurt. No one wants to get hurt but, at the end of the day, intimacy means giving someone else the ability to hurt you, and you can't control that. But at this point, you're creating a situation in which you're increasingly likely to get hurt because of yours efforts to control the minutiae of your boyfriend's other friendships to keep from getting hurt. You know that makes no sense, but the person who can stop it isn't your boyfriend, it's you.
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Photo credit: Kate Black, kateblack.com