Dear Dr. NerdLove:
My first two marriages ended badly, with my first being abusive and the second him being unfaithful. I’ve been with my current partner a few years now, but we got off to a rough start – long story short when we got together he had a drug issue that I wasn’t aware of. I found out when he tried to quit cold turkey and nearly died. I chose to give him an opportunity to enter a treatment program, and have no reason to believe he hasn’t been 100% compliant, but I still struggle with trust.
He has also remained close with many of his exes, which in general I think is a positive. There are times where it makes me a little insecure (like him keeping a pic of him and an ex on his nightstand, or him making slightly over the top comments on his exes Facebook posts) but haven’t considered it a big deal, and I don’t want to ask him to change if that’s just who he is.
A few weeks ago, something happened that made me nervous about his past drug issue. I was freaking out a little and I looked at his phone for the first time in over a year (he provided me the passcode towards the start of his recovery as a sign of trust, but did not give me explicit permission to look at that moment). Good news was no sign of a relapse, the bad was that a message caught my eye while scrolling through that contained graphic sexual content. I opened the convo – it was between him and an ex and was along the lines of them hashing out a sexual issue they had while they were together years earlier.
I then opened a couple of other convos between him and exes (I know, I know). While I found nothing that indicated there was any current activity or plans in that direction, there were things that made me uncomfortable. Examples include references to things he and an ex did sexually while they were together, comments about how beautiful and sexy they were/are, and in one case a description to the ex of a sex dream that he’d recently had about her.
I tried to bring the issue up in vague terms and he acted confused. I don’t know if I can trust my own judgement here – I am prone to making excuses for others and deciding that if something bothers me it’s my fault. Also, I don’t think a little flirting is necessarily a problem in an otherwise healthy relationship, I just think some of what I saw crosses a line. I don’t even know if confronting him would make me feel better, I don’t want to constantly police his phone, but at the same time I don’t know if I can 100% trust him and with my past, I don’t want to go back to a situation where there are gut feelings I’m ignoring. On the other hand, though, I am generally happy in this relationship and part of me thinks this is just something he doesn’t see the same way I do as I am definitely more sexual conservative.
Another note is that he referenced me frequently (and in positive terms) with all of these same exes, so I know he’s not being dishonest about our status together, and many of them are in committed and seemingly happy relationships as well. Do you think there is a possibility that this is just a difference in boundaries and comfort levels? Is there a possibility that he would find it genuinely surprising that something like this would bother me and if I brought it up as an issue he’d just be more careful? Am I making too much of this or am I, once again, ignoring a huge red flag?
Lines Lines Everywhere A Line
I’ll be honest: when I first started going over your letter, I thought it was going to go in a different direction. I mean, dude is keeping a picture of him and his ex on his nightstand? Ok, that’s a bit sus, not gonna lie. I mean, in fairness, inertia is a thing, addiction does fucked up things to the brain that can affect issues like “object permanence” and it’s certainly possible that this is a “I keep meaning to do something about this but I keep forgetting,” sort of situation. God knows I can relate to that; my ADHD means that a lot of stuff vanishes into the background as soon as I put it down and I will actively not see it, which means a lot of shit I mean to put away just ends up in the same spot for weeks.
But it’s still a little odd to do, especially when you’ve been with someone else for years. Doubly so if — and you don’t say one way or the other — you live with your current partner. In fact, depending on who moved in with whom, it gets especially weird. Did he put this up on his nightstand after moving in to your place? That would seem like an oddly aggressive move — especially if he were going to go sneaking around behind your back.
So, yeah, I was a little primed to wonder if this was going to be a “yeah, if he’s not already doing something sketchy he’s pushing boundaries and getting close to the line and you need to do something about it” kind of letter. Even through the filter of trust issues, there’s enough frontloaded to push my expectations to one side of the equation over the other.
But then I got to the rest of your letter and… well, again, I’ll be honest: this is starting to sound like a “you” problem, not a “him” problem. Especially after you went through his phone.
Now, I know he had explicitly given you permission to have access to his phone as part of his accountability process. That set precedent for you having access to go through his stuff. But there’s a difference between making sure that an addict hasn’t fallen off or isn’t about to fall off the wagon and going through his private messages. The funny thing about checking your partner’s messages, LLEAL, is that you’re often gonna see things that you wish you could unsee. But I don’t mean “finding damning evidence of infidelity” or “proof that he’s doing something untoward and you should dump him,” I mean “things that will just needlessly upset you for no good reason.”
Case in point: you’ve found out that he’s still close to his exes, and this is triggering your particular anxieties in a very specific way.
Here’s the thing though: while his conversations may be sexually explicit or using language and describing things in ways that you might find unusual or off-putting… nothing you describe sounds particularly suspicious or an indication of anything that you should be on the look out for. It mostly just sounds like he’s got a frank, emotionally open and intimate friendship with his exes. Contrary to what a lot of people would believe, being friends with your ex doesn’t mean that you’re not over them or you’re trying to get back with them. In fact, as a general rule of thumb, that’s actually a good thing; the fact that someone is friends with their exes tends to tell you a lot about who they are as a person and how they handle their relationships. The romantic or sexual relationship may have ended, but the two of them have enough affection and respect for one another that they were able to pivot to being good friends. That’s a fairly solid indication that they’ve got high emotional intelligence, that they handle conflict well and that they’re able to deal with complex and possibly uncomfortable emotions.
And hell, the fact that he and his ex were working through issues they had during the relationship, even afterwards, is telling. It suggests that he’s willing to put in the work to resolve issues with people he cares about and either help provide resolution and closure or get it for himself. That’s actually fairly mature and admirable.
Now the question about the exuberant compliments or telling an ex about a sex dream he had… well, again, it’s the sort of thing that, absent context, could raise an eyebrow or two. But within the context that you’ve provided… I have to be honest, I wonder how much of this is being filtered through your anxiety and the fact that you’re relatively sexually conservative compared to him. What may seem untoward or out of bounds to you may well be mundane and normal to others. Hell, if you look at how women support and compliment their female friends and you weren’t familiar with how a lot of folks roll, you could be forgiven for thinking that there was attraction there. But complimenting someone’s attractiveness or sexiness isn’t automatically a sign of interest; you can find someone sexy or think they look good without actually wanting to do anything with them or to them. It may seem unusual coming from a straight guy… but honestly, aren’t we often hearing about how we should normalize guys being more open and expressive and not assuming that men can’t be friends with women because of sex?
In fairness: I can understand why this would set off alarm bells for you. But context changes everything, and there’s a lot of context to parse. On your end of things: you have (understandable) trust issues, and you’re more conservative than he is. On his end: it sounds like this is how he rolls with at least some of his friends which would put it in the realm of “normal behavior” for him. It may not be the normal you’re used to… but that’s not the same thing as signs of trouble.
Honestly, the only trouble is that you overstepped your bounds. You went from looking for signs of a potential relapse — something he’s specifically asked for your help with — to poking around through his friendships and now you’ve triggered your own anxieties. It also sounds like you didn’t actually tell him what was bothering you or why. If you phrased things in generalities or vague references to what you saw… well, I can understand why he might be confused. That confusion may well have been less “wait, why is this bothering you” and more “what the hell are you talking about?” Clarity and specificity are keys to effective communication.
And if you were doing so in a way to brush past having poked through his messages that had nothing to do with his addiction issues… well, that goes more towards your feelings of guilt than his.
You say you want to confront him about this. My question is: what, exactly, would you be hoping to get from that. Are you hoping for reassurance, so you can settle your anxieties and he can walk your emotions back from the edge? That’s actually in bounds; it’s good to say “hey, my anxieties are flaring up and I could use a little TLC and comfort to help calm them back down again,” especially when you’re feeling jealous or insecure. But if you’re hoping to dictate who he talks to and how — which is what this kind of sounds like — then that’s not going to fly, even under the best of circumstances.
The problem here is that what it sounds like you’re asking for his for him to manage your trust issues. The problem is that they’re just that: your issues. He isn’t the cause of them. He hasn’t violated your trust, he’s not having to prove his trustworthiness with regards to fidelity. He’s trying to manage his own demons. Asking him to manage yours too is asking him to take on responsibilities that aren’t his and try to address issues that he didn’t cause.
There comes a point where we all have to be willing to recognize and accept that sometimes the things that bother us or that afflict us are our issues. While it’s one thing to ask our partners not to exacerbate them or make them worse… it’s another to start trying to control their actions to manage our feelings. It’s the difference between saying “hey, could you maybe move the photo of you and your ex to someplace other than the nightstand” and “look, I went through your phone and now I want you to change how you behave with friends in ways that didn’t affect me before now”.
The question of whether you can 100% trust him is a little unfair to him; going by what you’ve shared, it doesn’t sound like he’s given you reason not to. Putting the onus on him isn’t fair because… well, if the mistrust is because of your anxieties and not his behavior, then it’s virtually impossible for him to achieve. If there’s nothing untoward going on and you’re still feeling oogy, what exactly is he supposed to do? While it’s generally good to trust your gut… first you need to be sure your gut is trustworthy. Sometimes that gut feeling that something’s wrong is more about past trauma than present circumstances.
(I would also point out that going through his phone and reading his messages is a bit of a consent violation. He may have given you permission to have access to his stuff, the people he’s talking to have a right to not have strangers nosing through their communications.)
Now all of this being said: it sounds to me like this is a difference in values and comfort levels, rather than an actual reason to be upset. I don’t think you’re missing any red flags here. But that doesn’t mean that you need to swallow your discomfort and pretend that it didn’t happen; being able to actually discuss and express how you feel with your partner is important in a relationship. But it’s also important to know the difference between an anxiety attack and something wrong with the relationship. It may help to talk to a couple’s counselor; not because the relationship needs “fixing”, but as a way of finding effective ways to communicate a need for reassurance. It may also be good to talk to a counselor on your own about your past relationships; you’ve been hurt and you clearly have scars from it. Talking to somebody would be a positive thing for you regardless of things with your partner. You could use some healing, and you deserve a life that isn’t racked with anxiety because of the shitty things your ex-husbands did to you. And I suspect that this would help ease your troubled mind far more than policing your partner’s phone for signs of trouble.
I’ll start from the beginning. I am a sophomore in college and during my freshman year, I was in a abusive relationship. It got extremely bad and there were legal issues so we broke it off. The guy was taking a lot of drugs and so he eventually had to go to a psych ward around December-January.
I recently got into a relationship around February and my boyfriend is a great guy. He is everything that I’ve ever wanted, in terms of compassion, and kindness. He is not possessive but restricts me from doing things at parties. In my previous relationship, my ex would be okay if I kissed other girls and just had fun. But, my boyfriend now doesn’t approve and would get mad that I kissed my best friend. I feel restricted because of this and I just want him to be okay with it and how I am.
Also, my boyfriend and I got into a bad argument because he was mad about me kissing my best friend (this was two weeks later). I thought he got over that, but he was so disrespectful that it started feeling like my old relationship. He kicked me out of his apartment at 3AM, when we are in a long distance relationship. I live around 3 hours away driving so I did mind going back home. But for those two days, I felt like I was reliving my previous relationship because of the lack of communication.
I found out my ex got into a psych ward around January (he called me to tell me) and my boyfriend was extremely supportive about the situation. Now, my ex wants to hang out and talk after he completed his meds. My boyfriend and I were okay with this at first, but now, my boyfriend doesn’t feel comfortable with it anymore.
For some reason, I don’t think I should be in a relationship. I feel restricted, but I care about him a lot. I want to be able to have freedom, but also have him by my side. I know I should not hang out with my ex, but why do I feel so restricted?
Well speaking of trust and controlling behavior…
So, you have a classic BUT letter, QQ. That is, it starts out with “everything is great…” and then there’s a “but” that goes to undermine everything you just said. In this case, it’s “my boyfriend is a great guy who’s everything I ever wanted in terms of kindness and compassion, BUT he also dictates my actions and controls what I am and am not allowed to do.”
I mean that’s a “call 1-900-Mix-A-Lot” because that’s a REALLY LARGE but.
And frankly, other shit you bring up makes me wonder just how kind and compassionate your new boyfriend is. I mean, kicking you out of his place at 3 AM when you were presumably staying there (since you mention this is a long-distance relationship) is not cool at best. Neither is having a yelling fit over how you behave with your best friend. Like I was telling Lines Lines, there’s a difference between saying “hey, I’m feeling a little insecure, I would appreciate some TLC and reassurance” and “I demand that you never do X, Y or Z again because it displeases me, even if it was what you were doing before we started dating.”
Telling you how you’re allowed to behave, what you’re “allowed” to do at parties or how you interact with your friends not cool and, honestly, it’s a big ol’ red flag. It would be one thing if, say, you had asked for his help making sure that you didn’t accidentally drink too much and act a fool at parties. It’s another thing entirely for him to say that you’re only permitted to do X or Y but not Z, because he’s in charge and he doesn’t want you doing those things. Or, more to the point: he can want things but he’s not in a position to demand them. Especially when these are things that were part of your life beforehand.
Now in the name of fairness and consistency: context changes everything, and there’s context we’re missing here. You mention that he has issues with your kissing your best friend. What kind of kissing are we talking about here? Are we talking about an affectionate peck, or are we talking about open-mouth sloppy make-outs? If it’s the former, then he’s definitely being a controlling dick and it’s a big goddamn warning sign. If it’s the latter… well, I could understand why this would bother him if he was expecting a monogamous commitment. But at the same time, that’s the sort of thing that needs to be talked out in advance. One of the reasons I tell people to really discuss what monogamy and infidelity mean to them during the Defining The Relationship talk is to avoid these precise conflicts. Everybody has different ideas about what “monogamy” means and what is or isn’t permissible; assuming that your partner is on the same page as you without actually discussing it is a great way to blow up a relationship. It’s also the time that you establish what you are or aren’t willing to give up for your partner. If being physically affectionate is part of your friendship with your BFF, demanding that you give it up for someone else’s insecurities is a pretty good sign that you and they aren’t compatible. And if they’re dictating how you conduct friendships that existed before you and they got together, then that’s a good sign to take off like all of hell and half of Hoboken were after you.
(I will say that I’d be uncomfortable with your hanging out with your ex too. Frankly, I have a hard time imagining a scenario where I’d be comfortable with my partner hanging out with an abusive ex who either got committed or sent to court-mandated rehab. Not, mind you, because I’d be worried about their cheating but more about their physical and emotional safety.)
Like I said to LLEAL, it’s good to trust your gut, as long as your gut is trustworthy. Right now your gut is telling you that being in a relationship is a bad idea. I think in this case, you should listen to your gut. To start with: you leapt from one emotionally fraught (and potentially traumatic) relationship straight into another with what sounds like very little time in between. If things were as bad as you say — and you hint at things being pretty goddamn bad — I think it would’ve benefitted you to have time to recharge, heal and process everything that happened. Taking the time to just recover is incredibly valuable, and helps make sure that you don’t go from one awful relationship to another, just because it doesn’t immediately resemble the first awful one.
Y’know. Like you did with your current beau.
Like you said: you’re feeling incredibly restricted and held back by your boyfriend. I think you should listen to that feeling. That feeling is trying to warn you that this isn’t a relationship you want to be in. I know you say he’s everything you want, that he’s kind and compassionate. But compassionate people aren’t known for having weeks-long tantrums that culminate with throwing people out in the street, nor do they insist on dictating what other people are and aren’t allowed to do in their lives. And let’s be real here: abusers and toxic shitheads don’t go around wearing signs that say “Hi, I’m a Toxic Shithead!” Quite the opposite really: they’re Crouching Nice Guy, Hidden Douchebags, hiding their shittiness behind superficial charm and love-bombing their targets. And to be frank, that sounds like your boyfriend. The little you’ve shared may be missing details that could change things, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that he’s setting off my Spidey-Sense pretty damn hard.
My advice: go with your gut and dump him. You should be single for a while — both to give yourself time to recover from your ex, but also because your current boyfriend doesn’t sound like a prize either. Taking some time to figure out what you want in a partner and — importantly — what you are or aren’t willing to put up with is going to be incredibly important for you. If your being physical — to whatever degree — with your best friend is important to you, then you don’t want to date someone who’s going to have a problem with that. If going to parties and getting wild is important to you, then, again: you want to date someone who’s cool with that. You’re a sophomore in college; you don’t need a babysitter and it’s incredibly presumptive (AT BEST) for a guy you’ve been dating for a handful of months to take it upon himself to “protect” you from your own choices. That’s clearly not something you asked for, nor something you want.
So my vote is wash your hands of him. Dump him with the quickness and live your life. But I also would say that you should kick the other dude to the curb as well and ignore his requests to get back in contact. Both of these dudes sound like a world of harm that you absolutely don’t need; better to let them both get taken out with the trash and you go on to live your best life without either of them in it.