Obsessing on November 23, 1998…
Dear Breakup Girl,
I’m a very lucky 35 year old guy. Married six months to a wonderful woman (she’s 33). M and I are compatible in all ways, and enjoy each other’s company immensely. We’re from the same small town, went through school together, pleasant friendship, both left town to go to different universities, different lives, different cities, no contact.
M called me out of the blue four years ago. She’s in promotions, I’m in TV, she had a pitch. Pitch failed, met for dinner. I was happily married (I thought) with two kids. Pleasant dinner, promised to keep in touch. Neither did. Two years ago, another call, another pitch. Pitch failed, met for dinner. I was six months single, with two kids living with me Monday to Friday, and weekends with their Mom. M and I agreed to keep in touch. This time, both did. Rapidly progressed to constant companions. Joined at the mind, hip, and soul. Dated eight months, she moved in, assumed and accepted stepmother role, got married six months after that. Very happy.
So what’s the problem? Her past lovers. When we went through that (normal?) stage of discussing/revealing our sexual pasts, she lied about a couple of partners. We discussed it again. And she lied again. We talked about it again, and she lied again. And then again. It complicates matters further that four of her old flames (two serious, two flings) are still in her circle of friends. (A terrific row, by the way, over inviting Mr. Significantly Serious to our wedding. I gave in.) Anyway, this whole issue bothers me to the point of obsessing. (I should say that we have each had 20 + partners, which strikes me as a lot. Is it?)
We have talked and talked and talked about this issue, sometimes heatedly, but always with the intention of understanding each other, and trying to deal with it. Yes, I know that the past cannot be changed. And that I have no right whatsoever to question or criticize decisions she made years and years ago, and I also understand that I have made her feel persecuted at times, and resentful of an attitude that has been, yes, at times, judgmental. It would be easy to explain my feelings as 1) inadequacies (Were they bigger than me? More stamina? More satisfying?) or 2) chauvinistic (good girls don’t - except with me). I suppose there is some truth to both.
But there’s more to it. My own sexual past has been reckless (my first wife and I even engaged in a swap), and some of the things I did, the way I treated some people, were unforgivable.
M and I did not have sex for four months, despite spending four nights a week together. We were having a great time. Sure, we were physical, but never went “all the way,” her playfully rebuffing my attempts. Because of this, I suppose I let myself believe something about her — her values — that was not true. At the same time, I was going through a process of what, moral re-alignment (?) in the wake of the collapse of my first marriage. And I was gradually reaching a decision to change my ways, and to seek someone who, among many other things, had the kind of morals I wanted to have (i.e. sex is a fun and joyous expression of love, between two people who are IN LOVE).
So M I were in love before we started having sex. The way it’s supposed to be, no?
Before we did, she told me she had herpes — which I accepted, as she told it me it was the result of a casual fling from years ago. So I was under the impression that she felt she had made a mistake (i.e. a casual fling), and had learned a lesson from it. Now, as the truth about her sexual past has (and is) still dribbling out, it is not that way at all. She has had five serious relationships the rest have all been short flings, one-nighters and so on. Contracting herpes did not really change her outlook at all. She continued having casual flings for years, usually safe sex, but sometimes not without telling her partners that she had herpes. The last fling was only a month or two before we started dating. She regards none of this as wrong, or mistaken. And it has come out that the only reason she did not “go all the way” was that she felt there was a spark. And she wouldn’t want to tell me about the herpes until she felt she could trust me. And she didn’t want to have to say to me someday “Oh, by the way, there’s something I should have told you before we started having sex four months ago.”
Breakup Girl, I obsess about this. And I fear that I have either made a big mistake, or that I am crazy. The mistake would be believing something about her that was not true (whether this is something I unfairly imposed on her, or whether she led me to believe it is an arguable point, I suppose), and not finding a way to deal with and accept this. Crazy would be splitting up a relationship that is, in all other ways, great, because her sexual past does not fit my new found moral standards. What’s your take on this?
Ethics, good. Manners, absolutely. Kindess and compassion, yay. But “morals,” hmm. The concept is a bit limiting, a bit misleading, to say the least; for one thing, sex as a “joyous expression of love” sounds to me like an excellent plan, not a moral standard. Not to mention: virgins can be a-holes, sex-lovers can be saints. So: morals?
“Morals,” to Breakup Girl, are like some sort of divine duct tape. As in: “I feel really bad and guilty and inadequate about something in my life/past. Rather than repairing the actual damage, I will pull myself together simply by making myself look better, by comparison, than other people.Yep, that oughta hold it.”
So here, as far as I can tell, are the fibers of your morals:
1. Your first marriage didn’t work (and I am totally sorry about that); your “realignment” is part of an understandable “never again”/”this time things will be different” vow. Like a big sponge that soaks up guilt and anger, but doesn’t get wrung out.
2. There’s some psychobabble in here somewhere, but: whatever it was (“recklessness?”) that you’ve fist-clenchingly renounced in yourself — well, it’s hard for you to tolerate in others.
3. The stuff you say about “inadequacy” and “chauvinism:” check, check.
4. And yes, you’re right, #3 is compounded by the herpes thing. And that is where you have a totally valid outside-of-your-own-head point. M’s non-disclosure (to others) about this condition was bad behavior. We are talking poor, dangerous, selfish lack-of-judgment. Right you are. Absolutely. Not okay. Bad. BUT. Here comes the in-your-head part, where your obsession/chauvinism/inadequacy/whatever gets compounded and shaped into Moral Standards. You still feel crappy about whatever crappy things you think you did, whenever you did them. But by harpingon the herpes thing, you get to be less evil than thou, as in: “I was a lout, but at least I didn’t get a DISEASE!” As in: she is not “pure;” you have medical evidence. As in: some other guy is not only in her past still, like, with her. I can see why this (oh, plus her lying) would drive you nuts.
Again: BUT. Does M’s behavior NOW demonstrate poor, callous, selfish, irresponsible judgment? If so, then we’ll talk. See, cause it does seem to me that M handled the STD disclosure to you just fine, timing- and emotional-closeness-wise. And it does seem to me that you’re crazy about her. I like you, I like this marriage. So get counseling or — some other kind of support — if you must. Let latex, not morals, come between you.
PS Is 20+ “a lot?” Who’s to say? That’s math that Breakup Girl doesn’t do. I mean, depends what’s behind it. I mean, if there’s some kind of predation or tallying going on, then , like, 1 is a lot. Don’t bother running the numbers.