Hi Dr. NerdLove,
My partner (he/him) of five years violated the boundaries/understandings of our monogamous relationship by receiving a one-way sex act from a friend of his. While I’ve agreed to stay and try to move past it, I haven’t decided the long term and taken off the engagement ring. I’m having a having a really fucking hard time moving past the intrusive thoughts and the wanting to really understand why. Please help me?
Some context: my partner and I (she/they) are both queer, but ended up in a hetero relationship with each other. I am very sex positive but struggle with polyamory as a choice for myself because of certain past traumas. I actually see the benefits and could maybe come to an agreement after some targeted therapy and lots of communication. But for now, monogamy is what feels safe for me. My partner, at the beginning of our relationship and throughout, has said he feels the same. And consent-based relationships are incredibly important to me. My partner had a friendly acquaintance who is a professional barber who has cut his hair for about 7 years, the barber (he/him) is gay and very openly sexual with everyone. When we’ve run into out in public like at a restaurant, he’s treated me the same as he treats my partner (on the surface), which is to talk openly about his sex life and ask questions if they’re welcomed. I had no issues with their friendship until earlier this year but thought my partner respected my wish for him to not to put himself in situations that would be weird/inappropriate with the barber or accept his sexual advances (which came pretty frequently but I never felt much jealousy because I thought my partner wasn’t interested or at least wouldn’t agree to any of it).
The infidelity and messy aftermath: First the timeline that I know now, then how I found out. We moved from our apartment to a house in August last year, and some problems both old and new surfaced, but I thought we were working through them. Back in late September/October, the barber started asking about my partner’s plantar fasciitis that he mentioned during his last hair cut and saying that he had some sort of massage/reflexology training (the barber is just a barber, not a massage therapist) and thought he could help and offered a foot massage. My partner took him up on it, and they me. Sometime between that initial “let me help you” kind of offer and his next haircut in October, the barber offered him a happy ending along with the foot massage. My partner went over to his apartment after that haircut, stripped down to nothing (including underwear) and got in the barber’s bed. The barber then gave him a foot massage and then a hand job. My partner was supposed to be picking up groceries that time, and I called/texted asking where he was at some point (he’s not the type to stay somewhere longer than he has to). He said he got caught up at the store but was on his way home, and was home 45 minutes later. Didn’t think anything more until late March. We share a car, and he dropped me off to get a beer with a friend while he went to his hair cut appointment. He got his hair cut then, went to the barber’s apartment for a repeat of last time, stripped down and got on top of the covers, except this time it was a full body massage and a hand job. In between these two incidents, there was some flirtatious texting and an exchange of homemade porn (not featuring any of them, but some of the barber’s acquaintances) and a text discussion about the porn a month or two after the first incident.
He was supposed to meet me somewhere after his hair cut after the last incident in March, and we ended up fighting because he blew me off and didn’t answer his phone for an hour when I left where he was supposed to meet me and walked to the barber shop (I was taking up a whole table at the bar by myself and I didn’t know where else to go because he was my ride). He said at first that it took longer than he thought it would and that he had been looking for parking. I told him I walked past too many open parking spots for that to be true. He then admitted he went to the barber’s apartment after his hair cut but said it was just to fix his bike. He said he lied because he thought I wouldn’t have been comfortable with him going to the barber’s apartment alone. He said it was just to fix his bike and he was sorry for blowing me off. I told him the whole thing made me uncomfortable and I’d prefer if he found a different barber. He said he wouldn’t and that I needed to trust him to set boundaries.
After our fight, he turned down the barber’s next request for a naked happy ending massage and then later told him outright that he would just be getting hair cuts. But then I found out after seeing messages on our shared iPad that were incriminating that a massage had been involved and that the barber had seen my partner naked (I didn’t snoop. I was trying to add recipes to an app, the messages came up all at once when I turned the iPad on and I saw weird stuff on the display before reading the whole exchange to confirm I wasn’t crazy). Then, he told me it was just a massage, he was covered the whole time, only happened once, and he didn’t do it again. Then the barber sent me a DM that was apologetic to me but made it clear more had gone on. I told him to tell me everything, or that I would leave. Only then did I find out all of the above.
The lying is obviously an issue, and even if he’s done the “right things” since it all finally came out, I told him that’s the hardest part to get past and the part that is going to be the biggest obstacle for whatever decision I make in the long run. But that at least seems to make sense to me. He lied, I don’t necessarily trust him the way I did before. If he avoids lying to me in the future, I could learn to retrust.
But I’m still struggling to wrap my head around the why, even after several very open and honest conversations in the last couple weeks. He said he’s finally seeking therapy for self esteem issues and said he never initiated, but followed through because the attention made him feel good when things weren’t going well with us and the massages were genuinely fun, felt good and helped his feet (I asked him to be completely honest). Specifically what I’m having trouble getting past is the fact that he blew me off and took that risk of getting caught (why was it worth the risk, especially when he hates being late?), that he seemed proactive in enabling himself to do this by doing things like telling me he mixed up his appointment time so it would take longer (if you’re just passively accepting the attention, why be so proactive in deceiving me and setting things up so he could?), why he wanted to keep seeing the barber for hair cuts (if my partner says he’s just someone who pushes boundaries and cuts his hair, why can’t he just cut contact?) and that he knew on some level that it was wrong but let it go on for almost a year (started talking about the first massage in September, maintained sexual interactions a couple times in person and several times over text between October and the end of March, drunkenly called the barber at the beginning of June and then decided to cut it back to completely platonic.
I don’t know. I can acknowledge he’s genuinely been trying to fix it for the last few weeks, and it was honestly pretty seriously out of character for him. And if I haven’t reflected that in the paragraphs above, I am always deferential and want to believe people. And I want my partner to have meaningful, deep, affectionate connections with people that aren’t me. But that feels like a minefield of anxiety now. And how do I get past this deep wanting ache to really understand why, when he’s already answered for that for the most part?
Cuts Like A Knife
Hooo boy, there’s a lot to cover here, but before we get to your partner, let’s talk about the barber for a second. I get why you’re upset at your partner, but goddamn if his barber isn’t as up to his neck to blame here. It’s one thing to be flirty, even aggressively flirty and even open about your sex life, but your barber seems to think that boundaries are for other people. I’d be willing to believe he’s the type to realize that maybe some folks aren’t interested in hearing about an acquaintance’s sex life and would dial things back… if it weren’t for the fact that he had absolutely no problem moving on a dude in a monogamous relationship. And it’s not like he can claim ignorance of your existence or your partner (presumably) failed to inform him that you two didn’t have an open relationship or a DADT thing; he knew, he didn’t care and that, to me, seems like a pretty good reason to kick this dude clear out of your lives.
(Also, if he didn’t have permission from the folks involved to share their porn, then the barber’s crossed a whole lot of lines with a lot of folks, and that makes everything even squickier.)
Now, let’s get into what’s up with your partner and where you go from here. The first thing to know about infidelity is that logic rarely enters into it. Very, very few people approach affairs and infidelity from a place of logic. While there’re definitely folks who could give less of a shit about monogamy and fidelity and will actively pursue affairs regardless of their relationship, when most folks cheat, it’s usually a crime of opportunity. It’s rarely something planned, especially the first time. More often than not, it’s a matter of impulse, a moment when temptation presented itself and they failed their Wisdom saving throw.
Now there are people who go out of their way to make it possible for that “oops, I tripped and fell inside of you” moment happen. They want the plausible deniability of it being a momentary lapse of willpower, but they’ve also cut the emergency break and set the stage that’ll allow for that “oops, look what just happened” to occur. They may not have actively planned to cheat, but they were at least open to the possibility if it was offered… and they sure as hell made sure the likelihood of it happening was high.
Which, if I’m being honest, kinda sounds like what your boyfriend did. It sounds like he was at least willing to take a disadvantage on that saving throw and was cool with at least going along with circumstances that would allow it.
Everything after that, however, comes straight back to the fact that logic doesn’t really get involved here. If it did… well, fewer people would cheat; the risk vs. reward ratio is rarely in favor. It’s an uncommon person indeed who sits around, does the math and tries to plan things out to maximize opportunities to cheat and minimize the odds of getting caught in a lie. But then again: a lot of infidelities aren’t about sex. More often than not, they’re about other issues, and sex is either the symptom or the outcome. Sometimes affairs happen because our biological makeup dictates that the passion that we feel early in a relationship ebbs as time goes by; it’s part of the human condition. When somebody new expresses interest, that feeling of being desired can be powerful, and the surge of dopamine folks get from a new sex partner is intense. Other times, it’s a way of addressing internal issues; if someone has low self-esteem, knowing that somebody else is into them acts like a temporary balm. Or they may address that sense of low self-esteem by pursuing folks in closed relationships, getting off over being so desirable that they’re able to bang someone else’s partner. Still others may like the risks involved and get a thrill from the chance of getting caught or feeling like they’re pulling something over on folks.
But again: it’s not logical. The logic is usually a post-hoc understanding; in the moment, folks tend to be reacting to the emotional and hormonal charge they’re getting from it.
Case in point: why your partner took so many risks, and why those risks kept escalating the odds of his getting caught. He wasn’t thinking straight or logically; he was thinking about how exciting things were. In all likelihood, the reason why he was so sloppy about explaining things was because he was taking advantage of those stolen moments with the barber whenever the opportunity arose, rather than planning out assignations. There was an opening in his schedule, he could dart over to the apartment and “oh shit, what have I done” would wait until the post-coital regrets, when the prolactin surges and the desire rolled back. Now he was in more of a mindset to realize “oh fuck, I’m gonna get caught” and had to figure out how he was going to frame things so that you wouldn’t question him too closely.
Now as I’ve said many a time before: I don’t think all infidelities are equal, and I don’t think all of them are automatic relationship-extinction level events. There’s a difference between someone who, for example, gets drunk on a business trip and hooks up with a coworker, or who goes and gets a massage with a happy ending and someone who couldn’t care less about how their actions affect others, as long as they gets theirs. That having been said: everything depends on how the person who did the cheating handles things after being caught or coming clean, and how (or if) they take responsibility for their actions.
In the case of your partner, it sounds like this was closer to somebody who got caught up in something exciting and taboo and let it go to his head. I don’t think he was malicious or that he didn’t care if it hurt you, just that he wasn’t thinking until after the deed was done. That doesn’t make what he did hurt less, mind you, nor does it make it less of a violation. It just offers insight into the why of it all. The thrill, combined with whatever else he was getting from this (assuaging self-esteem, feeling desired, etc.) carried him along until after he got a load off, and then regret would set in and he’d try to avoid the fallout for it all. But then after time passed and he felt like he got away with it, that feeling would come on him again and… well, here we are.
So where do you go from here?
Getting therapy is a good start; often if folks don’t deal with the underlying issues that lead to them cheating, then at best all that happens is that they find a different way to self-medicate. But he needs to do more. This isn’t a case of his being on double-secret probation and his next screw up means he’s out. It’s not going to work if this is just you monitoring him and imposing boundaries from the outside. Under the best of circumstances, this just breeds resentment. At worst, it means that he’s got incentive to find new ways to be sneakier and get around whatever strictures you put in place. He needs to actively be earning your trust back.
That means that from here on out, he’s going to have to be the proactive guardian of your trust and your comfort. He’s going to have to be going out of his way to be trustworthy, to not just resist temptation but to avoid the circumstances that caused it in the first place. That doesn’t mean not having close and intimate friendships with folks, nor does it mean that he no longer has a right to privacy. It does, however, mean that he’s going to be the one to establish boundaries and maintain them. He needs to be going out of his way to let you know everything is on the up and up. How that’s going to work is going to depend on you and him, but he’s going to have to take the lead.
Now the one thing that I would say is critical to all of this is something that I didn’t see in your letter: that he’s ended his relationship with his barber. Not just the personal, after-hours one involving hand-jobs and amateur porn, but professionally, too. Like I said: it takes two to tango and the barber in this case has demonstrated that he doesn’t give a shit about other people’s relationships or who might get hurt. While I don’t automatically lean towards “cut the affair partner out of your life like a tag off a shirt”, in this case it’s definitely necessary. Continuing to go back to him is going to be like an alcoholic keeping a bottle of vodka in the freezer; it’s too easy to fall back into old patterns. If your partner wants to prove he’s worthy of your trust, that dude’s gotta go. I promise you: there’re other barbers in town who can give a good hair cut… without all the extras.
And for you? Well, I’d recommend talking to someone too. One of the things that’s important to realize is that you’ve been hurt and you need time to heal. Talking things through with your partner and getting everything out in the open is a start; that’s how you debride and clean the wound. But it still needs to heal, and that can take work too. If you aren’t already, then talking to a relationship counselor is a good idea. Not only will it help you and your partner work things through, but it’ll also be helpful for finding ways that you can recover and that your partner can help facilitate that healing. This would also go a long way towards helping assuage your anxiety and addressing those intrusive thoughts.
But also, in the course of healing, you’ll have a better idea of what you want to do next and where you go from here. It’s hard to know if you can trust again when you’re still in pain; a lot of times the pain of the past can obscure the reality of the present. But as you recover, you’ll know whether you can trust him again, or if the wound is just too deep and too scarring. It’ll take time — more than a few weeks — but you need to be willing to give yourself that time and the grace to give yourself the self-care you need. You’ve been hurt, and badly. You should acknowledge that, and that the betrayal is what hurts so much.
In the meantime, I’d also suggest reading Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs. These can go a long way towards answering the “why”, and possibly give you the language you need to help process your feelings… or at least, to ask the questions you need answered.
Dear Dr. NerdLove:
This may be a simple answer or maybe it’s a bigger bag of cats than I give it credit for, but a thought occurred to me and I wanted to run it by your expertise.
I’m in the slow process of getting over a long-term infatuation with someone I’ve known for about six years but became highly infatuated with over the past two years to the point where it became a full on crush that has really lived up to the name.
And, as the crush has finally started to break under the weight of the reality that “she’s just not that into you”, I started to wonder… does the reason I get these long term fixations have to do with how limited a social circle I maintain?
I am a cyclic habitual offender of getting a crush on someone I know, finding out they’re not into me and taking YEARS to recover to the point where I am open to being interested in someone else, only to start the whole process over again. And today, the thought occurred that maybe I just don’t have the social net that would support NOT suddenly becoming hyperfocused on someone I know the moment I’m finally over the last person I knew who I happened to like.
While my social media network of friends feels extraordinarily vast to the point where I have to cut myself off from doing follow backs because I just don’t have the bandwidth to keep up anymore, my in-person friends are few and far between…and the people I find myself attracted to in that group are even fewer, which I think probably contributes to that hyperfixation when I find someone who does hit the right buttons for me.
…but it just never works out. One way or another, I always find myself falling for someone who’s either unavailable or just not interested in me that way.
I know that finding someone is at least partly a numbers game — barring the daunting prospect of internet dating, if you never leave your house, you’re hardly likely to find a partner. They don’t DoorDash soulmates (to my knowledge; have they added that to the menu?) While being introverted and reclusive by nature makes it hard to contemplate — much less put into practice — it seems like the only effective way to mitigate these long-term infatuations that eat up years of my life is to expand my social contact by a BROAD margin so that I’m not just inflicting my romantic focus on friends who never see it coming and are just not interested.
Not sure how cohesive this was. I am prone to ranting. Thanks for listening, Doc.
I wish you, as always, a…
When we talk about why we fall for the people we do, we tend to focus a lot on factors like physical attraction. It’s part of why, for example, so many dudes get hung up on the idea of “leagues”, or folks become convinced that only 20% of men get laid or can find casual partners. What we don’t do is pay attention to the other factors that are involved.
One of those factors is propinquity. It’s very easy to forget just how powerful familiarity and exposure is. The more often that we’re exposed to a particular stimulus — a song, for example — the greater the odds are that we are going to start to like it. This is why, for example, you’ll catch yourself humming that pop single by the singer or band you can’t stand and have to grudgingly admit that it actually slaps; you’ve heard it so many times, you’ve started to like it. This effect has been documented in a host of areas: in music, in art… even in people. The more time you spend with folks, the greater the odds of forming a friendship or becoming attracted to them. This is one of the reasons why, for example, we tend to develop crushes on classmates and coworkers; we spend a lot of time with them, often in close physical or psychological proximity to one another. It’s also why, for example, folks in the service industry develop fondness for their regulars, why we tend to make friends so easily in high-school and college and so on.
But it goes beyond just being exposed to a person over and over again; it’s also about the quality of the interactions we have with them. If we consistently have positive interactions with somebody that we see often or are regularly in close proximity to, then we have more opportunities to interact with them. And if they’re people we’re on good terms with — friends, coworkers, classmates, etc. — then those interactions are much more likely to be positive experiences. The more of those positive experiences we have with a person, the greater the likelihood that we’re going to develop positive feelings for them. It’s The Reward Theory of Attraction in action: their presence makes us feel good and so we unconsciously prioritize our relationship with them. By being someone often (propinquity), getting to know them (familiarity) and having positive experiences with them, we start to build attraction.
This, incidentally, is why personality tends to win out over looks in the long-run. Looks help when we first meet somebody, but personality is why people stick around and want to spend time with us. We very rarely start relationships with folks we’ve just met; we tend to start them with people we’ve gotten to know.
So yes, it’s understandable that you develop crushes on your friends; they’re folks you spend the most time with, and so you’re more likely to develop feelings, platonic, romantic and sexual.
However, another factor that we often don’t take into consideration is avoidance — that is, we fall for people because we’re avoiding the possibility of a relationship. This sounds like a contradiction in terms at first, but there’s actual logic (of sorts) behind it.
A lot of times, when we fall for people that we know, on some level, aren’t interested in us, it has far less to do with being a hopeless romantic or that person being The One and everything to do with fear. The most common expression of this is the fear of success — again, something that seems inherently contradictory. However, what’s going on here is the difference between fantasy and reality. An impossible relationship is safe, because it can’t happen; it means that this is forever a fantasy, not reality. Because it’s only ever a relationship in potentia, it can be exactly what you want it to be. You are free to imagine it to progress in whatever direction you want because it’s ultimately never going to happen. It’s never going to be more than a fantasy. As a result, it’s safe; you know it will always be perfect, it will always be romantic, it will always go exactly how you want it to.
However, if your feelings were returned and you were to actually date that person? Well, now shit gets real… with everything that entails. If a relationship is real, then that means it can fail. A real relationship with someone means that you now run the risk of ruining it. You can break someone’s heart or get your heart broken. Your partner can cheat on you, leave you or die. The relationship can fail and your love can wither into bitterness and resentment. Or you might do something wrong and cause it to fall apart. At least when you’re dealing with an unrequited crush, you know that the pain can only so bad. Yeah it sucks, but it’s not as bad as the pain of having what you wanted and losing it.
And so, falling for someone you know is unavailable or uninterested represents safety. It’s a way of protecting yourself against the greater pain of a real relationship and all the slings and arrows that come with it. This is one reason why a lot of guys get “stuck” in the Friend Zone or act like Nice Guys; they know that their crush will never like them back the way they want, which is why they never actually try to move the relationship forward. To do so would end the fantasy and collapse the quantum waveform where she both does and doesn’t reject them into the reality where… well, where they get shot down in flames. But by that same token, they don’t move on because doing so would mean running the risk of actually dating someone, with all the risks thereto. And so they choose the comforting fantasy and the lesser “pain” of being in limerence with someone who doesn’t like them back.
At the same time, another reason why people get hopeless crushes is about self-esteem. Specifically, folks will get unrequited crushes or fall for people who are unavailable or uninterested because they don’t believe they deserve to date somebody. They don’t believe in their own worth or value, they don’t feel like they have the right to be happy or to be loved and so they choose to take steps to avoid it. They will fall for people precisely because they know on a deep level that this is an impossible relationship; that person will never love them back, and so they are protected from the risk of dating while being unworthy.
Now, as I’m often saying: you’re the common denominator in every relationship you have. If you’re consistently crushing on folks who aren’t into you, especially if it’s almost always exclusively people in your social circle… well, that’s a sign that it’s time to start digging into just why. And in your case, GJ, that’s pretty easy: you’re stuck in a repeating pattern. You aren’t going out and meeting people; you’re relying on people to come to you and that’s not a good way to find partners. Not if you’re not proactive about it and certainly not if you never leave your apartment. Even online dating requires having a life — both to make a more attractive profile but also because the first question folks ask about potential matches is “what would my life be like if I were dating them?”
The problem here is that you’re in a stalemate. If the only significant change is which of your friends you have a crush on, then that’s an indication that you’re stagnating. You run into the same situation constantly because you’re doing the same things and… well, how’s that working out for you?
If you want different results, you have to do things differently, otherwise nothing will change. And nobody can start that process except for you.
(Quite frankly, I’m about yay close to getting a stamp made that says “sgniht tnereffid od ot evah uoy ,tnereffid eb ot sgniht tnaw uoy fI”, so I can stamp it on people’s foreheads and they can read it in the mirror every morning.)
And while I realize the joke is “how do introverts make friends? They wait for an extrovert to adopt them…”, blaming a lack of socialization on introversion is unhelpful at best. Being an introvert doesn’t mean someone’s incapable of socializing or too delicate to be out in the wild world or whatever, it just means that they gain energy by being on their own and expend energy out in public. That doesn’t mean going out and socializing is impossible, it just means working with and around your energy levels. I know plenty of introverts who are extremely social; they just Batman out earlier than others when their social batteries get low. I also know folks who have fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, but who have active social lives; they take that into account and shape their plans so that they can go and be social and then have time to recharge. That may mean husbanding their energy so they can go to a friend’s party or making sure that they’ve cleared the deck afterwards so they can have some recovery time the next day or two. But they still make it happen.
So my recommendation for you is to start doing a deep dive into yourself. Figure out exactly what’s going on here; how much of these hopeless or unrequited crushes are because of the limited number of folks you interact with in person, or if there’s a deeper psychological issue going on. If it’s the former, then you’re going to have to make a point of meeting more people and building your social circle. If it’s the latter, then you need to start addressing the underlying issues; otherwise, all you’re doing is putting a bandage on a paper-cut while ignoring the internal bleeding.
But either way: things can’t change until you start making changes. So if you want things to be different… you’re going to have to decide how you’re going to do things differently.