Dear Dr. NerdLove,
I have been with my boyfriend for over 12 years. We are happily in love, our sex life is great, and we are truly best friends as well as romantic partners in life. We bought our own home together in 2020 after living together since 2010. He does not want to get married due to his parents’ messy divorce left a sour and lingering taste in his mouth. I used to daydream about being married to him because he has been there for me in the worst times and best times. He knows how to make me happy when I’m having a bad day and he loves and is loved by my entire family and friends. I look at it more of a loving commitment –not a ring and a party. I have respected his decision about not getting married and I am now OK not being married (and honestly, after seeing how loyal, loving, and committed he is to me this entire time, what’s a piece of paper going to change?)
However, recently the last 2 of our big and close friend group have gotten engaged. And we are now the only couple still together within our entire friends group and family who are not engaged. People used to bother us about getting married but that fizzled away thankfully. I’m afraid this obvious elephant in the room will now rear it’s ugly head once again. I also can’t help but feel the tiniest pang of jealousy. I know I shouldn’t but it’s there no matter how much I try and push it away. What the hell is wrong with me and how do I deal with this?
Always The Bridesmaid
This is a type of question that I call “the problem that isn’t actually a problem”: when you know, intellectually, that nothing’s wrong, but you’re bothered about it anyway. These are often some of the most frustrating problems because… well, why in pluperfect hell is it upsetting you so much? Does this mean that there’s something wrong that you’re missing? Or are you just being weird about this for some benighted reason?
If you dig down into it, then what you often find is that the thing that’s bothering you isn’t the problem so much as the trigger or the excuse for the problem. What’s actually bothering you tends to be very different, and only latched onto that particular issue as a means of rationalizing why you feel that. The real issue often turns out to be something different, often external and many times it’s cultural or relational – things that you often don’t realize are there until it’s a problem. It’s very much a “fish don’t know what water is” sort of situation.
And hoooo boy does that apply to marriage and marriage culture – especially for women.
I suspect there are two things that are eating at you, ATB, and I suspect that much of it comes from the cultural significance around marriage, particularly within the US. The first is the significance placed on marriage and being married.
One of the things that gets drilled into all of us, almost constantly, is the importance of marriage. While there are legal benefits that come from being officially married – that is, having your marriage certified by the government – marriage in and of itself doesn’t actually mean anything. When you strip away the legal benefits (joint filing of taxes, next-of-kin and power of attorney laws, inheritance, etc), marriage is basically ultimately just symbolism. There’s no significant difference between the relationship that you and your boyfriend have and someone who’s been married to their spouse for as long as you and your boyfriend have been together. Their love isn’t any stronger or more significant than yours, their relationship isn’t inherently more stable or meaningful, nor does it mean that any children you may have are more or less important to you.
However, culturally, we’ve been taught that marriage is the ne plus ultra of relationships, the thing that we’re supposed to aspire towards. This is something that we’ve been soaking in all of our lives. Even the cartoons that we grow up watching as kids treats marriage as the end goal of any romantic relationship, and something that we’re supposed to see as having dire importance. If you marry the wrong person, well that’s awful, because marriage is supposed to be the endgame for Twu Wuv. Not wanting to be married is supposed to be a sign that something is wrong – either with the person or with the relationship. Being married is, theoretically, more “real”, more “important” than other unions. Yes, you could get at least the majority of legal benefits of marriage with enough time and legal effort, but having the stamp of “marriage” on your relationship confers validity and affirmation.
This is part of why right-wingers and bigots lose their goddamn monkey minds over things like gay marriage; in their minds, it puts queer relationships on the same level as hetero ones. That’s also why there were so many who tried to push for “civil unions” as a sop; here, have the same contract benefits, but we get to keep the real relationships, the valid partnerships for straight cis people.
This is one of the reasons why folks will poke and prod at long-term couples who aren’t married yet; don’t you want the official Seal of Approval on your relationship? Would that seal actually change anything? Well, if you’re strictly honest about it… no. Not really. The biggest material change would be “well breaking up is now more complicated/expensive than it would’ve been otherwise”. Otherwise, it’s ultimately about the baggage and beliefs people assign to the label.
I mean, you can see it in the very language we use to describe relationships; calling someone your boyfriend or girlfriend has a different weight or heft than calling them your husband or wife or spouse.
You and your boyfriend are, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same as a married couple. The only difference is that seal of approval. But it’s hard not to feel at least a twinge of wanting that sort of recognition and validity, even when you know it’s stupid. Cultural upbringing is a motherfucker, and when you’ve been told something’s important all your life and everywhere you turn people are throwing it in your face, it’s hard to uproot. So I’m not surprised you’re feeling a slight twinge of envy over others… you may know it’s stupid, but wanting the same validation for your relationship and the acknowledgement of how important, meaningful and significant it has been for you is entirely understandable.
The second is… well, honestly, weddings are one of the few times when someone is allowed, even expected to be celebrated and to be the center of everyone’s attention. It’s a hideous faux pas to upstage the bride and groom (and if we’re honest, mostly the bride) at a wedding. Seeing other people getting to have that party that brings everyone together to basically celebrate them and feeling like you’re not “allowed” that same celebration… it’s hardly surprising that someone would feel envious. I mean, weddings are demonstrably overpriced and planning them can be a nightmare, but when done well they can be an incredible experience.
I suspect the combination of those two things are what’re bothering you, ATB, especially since you came to being ok with not being married eventually. There’s still all of that cultural programming and supposed significance piled onto the idea of marriage and weddings and you’ve chosen to forgo those. So you may intellectually know that it’s not a big deal and emotionally you’re also cool with it… but there’s still that lifetime of indoctrination hanging out at the fringes, and every once in a while it pokes its head up and waggles its fingers at you.
As for how to deal with this? Well, a lot depends on just what you would want. If you and your partner (see what I did there?) want that ritual and celebration, but without both the wedding tax and the emotional scarring that your partner has over his parents’ divorce, you could always do some form of a commitment ceremony. There’re plenty of commitment rituals out there – hand-fasting, for example – that you could adapt for your own purposes, that aren’t weddings in the traditional sense, nor do they carry the baggage (or cultural weight) of marriage, but they do allow you to have that celebration of the two of you and your love.
But if it’s the social and cultural imprimatur of validity that “marriage” conveys that you’re missing? Well… unless you want to reopen the marriage discussion with your partner, then either you can let some form of not-a-marriage-technically ceremony stand in – and most folks will accept it as that – or you can just acknowledge that this is just a complex and not terribly pleasant thing you feel on occasion. When it does raise its head up and you feel those twinges, you can note it and name it and let it pass, because it will pass. You can also take a moment to reaffirm just how much you and your partner love and support one another, and remind yourselves that other people’s opinions don’t dictate the realness of your relationship.
And then the next time someone bugs you about marriage, you can always ask how marriage can be so serious and sacred when Larry King can have gone through seven of them and nobody gave him shit for it.
My boyfriend has openly come out to me saying that he is polyamorous. I have tried opening up to this by letting him kiss a few people, but every time I try, I get infuriated with jealousy, I just can’t handle it.
I want him to be happy, but I don’t want to share him. I don’t really think I can open up like this. I’m very emotionally attached to him and I don’t want him to be miserable if i cant do it, but i also really don’t want to lose him.
What do I do?
Poly Under Duress
So, I realize I’m Captain Monogamy-Isn’t-Our-Default-State and all and I certainly think that monogamy should be an opt-in, not an opt-out arrangement… but not everyone is or can do polyamory or non-monogamy, and that’s fine. And hey, full credit, PUD, you gave it an honest chance with a low-stakes trial and it turns out that it’s like scrubbing your soul with sandpaper. I think we can say with some degree of certainty, that it’s just not a place you could go, and trying to do so would be bad for you and your relationship.
But that, unfortunately, leaves us in a bind.
I hate to say this PUD, but you basically have two choices. Well, really more one and a half choices depending on if your boyfriend is using polyamorous when he means non-monogamous.
Your first choice is: he lies to you and you choose to believe him. He gets tacit permission to have what’s often called a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell relationship, where he can go and discretely date and sleep with other people and does his best to keep you from learning about it. You, for your part, do your best to deliberately overlook things when he’s going out and choose to believe him when he tells you he’s going out with the boys or something.
Unfortunately, if he’s actually poly, that’s not going to work – not for him, probably not for you, and certainly not for long. Non-monogamy is just that: not making a monogamous commitment to one another. Polyamory, on the other hand, means having multiple romantic – and often committed – relationships. If he’s poly, then just getting a hall-pass to screw around likely isn’t what he ultimately wants or will be able to accept in the long-term.
The other choice is that you both recognize that this is a fundamental incompatibility between the two of you and you end this relationship.
I totally understand that you love him, and he loves you. His wanting to date or sleep with other people doesn’t take away from his feelings for you; love, despite what folks keep insisting, isn’t a zero-sum game. But you can love someone to pieces, and still not be right for one another; like the song says, sometimes love just ain’t enough. And just as importantly, sometimes loving someone and wanting what’s best for them – or, for that matter, wanting what’s best for you – means being willing to let them go. It may feel like an inherent contradiction, but sometimes the most loving thing you can do for someone is to set them free, precisely because you can’t be what they need.
But also – and I can’t stress this enough – sometimes you need to love yourself enough to let them go too. You may love him until your teeth ache, but that doesn’t mean that you should rip yourself to pieces to try to fit in a space that you weren’t made for. And honestly, if he loves you… he wouldn’t want you to do that either.
I hope you can take some comfort in the knowledge that you tried to be ok with it, you really did. And I hope you can accept and be comforted by the fact that your love for him and his love for you is real, and valid and important, and that his being poly doesn’t take away from that. But at the end of the day: staying in this and trying to force yourself to be ok with something you clearly aren’t is going to be bad for both of you. You can love each other and be important people in each others’ lives without being together like this.
I’m so sorry that you’re in this situation. I wish I had easier or happier advice for you. But at the end of the day… I think breaking up would be the best decision for both of you.