A married woman in an open relationship wrote about how to handle the most important man in her life who isn’t her husband: he’s her best friend, her husband’s friend, and a coworker. They started hanging out and making out several years before when he was in an abusive relationship and she was just beginning to open hers up with her husband’s support, but they never had sex — at his insistence. Even though he has since broken up with his girlfriend, they haven’t had sex, though they do have drunken makeouts. They’ve both declared their love for each other, but it causes her pain when he makes out with her but refuses to consummate the relationship. Even worse, he blames her for the situation when he pulls away, only to resume flirting and wooing her … or even exposing himself to her.
“I am in love with him. I am still very much in love with my husband too. I realize I am able to love more than one person. He is definitely a soul mate. What I really want is to be able to be consistently intimate with him, in a romantic and sexual way, when we are alone together. Having to bottle my feelings all the time is difficult.”
Her friends say that he is either “playing me, really messed up from his bad relationship, or just a drunk. I would love your take on a) his inconsistent behavior and b) whether I should try to have a calm conversation with him about our friendship, or just go with the flow.”
What you two have right now is not a relationship. You’re not friends and not lovers. Rather, if it is a friendship, it’s off balance because he’s not taking your needs and feelings into account, and he’s allowing you to continue in a painful situation that he could remedy by making a decision that would benefit both of you: either cutting off all sexual contact or giving in to desire. Let’s call it a Friend Without Benefits (FWOB).
Your FWOB is using you even though he might not realize it. He’s happy to hook up with you in some convenient instances, and he’s happy to enjoy some of the perks of a relationship. That said, all of the original barriers to the two of you having an intimate relationship are gone, and he still is not willing to take the next step that would lead to an actual romantic relationship: actual sex.
Since he won’t make a choice, you have to be the one to do it here. You say that you don’t want to lose the relationship you have, but it’s not a healthy one as it stands. The best thing for you to do would be to confront him—not angrily, but lay it out for him. Tell him the extent of your feelings, the pain it’s causing you, and make it clear what an intimate relationship with you would look like. There are no rules for this, so you have to hash them out in a way that works for you and for him. As the person in the open relationship, you also have to think of your husband, so the burden falls on you. In fact, before confronting your friend without benefits, talk with your husband first and decide what would work for both him and you, as that’s the most important relationship to maintain here.
It’s okay if your FWOB needs some think time after that, but he needs to give you a definite answer within an agreed upon period of time: just friends (with none of physical intimacy, flirting, and hanky panky you’ve described) or physically intimate lovers on the terms you’ve laid out.
Let’s pause for a minute and talk about terminology here. Although it might seem we’re just talking about words, terminology is empowering: it helps us to understand ourselves and our situations better, and a shared vocabulary gives us tools for working with our partners … or family, friends, coworkers, and advice columnists—all of whom are involved now in this predicament.
You identify yourself as being in an open relationship. Generally, open relationships are about the primary partners being open to each other having sex outside the relationship. True emotional intimacy, however, is closed in an open relationship. You and your FWOB both love each other, he is close with your husband, and you have professional connections, which means that he’s almost fully integrated into your life. So much is at stake here, so I can appreciate your distress. In fact, so much is at stake that what you’re really talking about is cementing your FWOB into a real partner—someone you love in addition to your husband, as you describe it. The term for that would be polyamory.
In that light, I can think of two possibilities for why your FWOB is acting the way he is, though I don’t know which is correct. In either instance, Sally’s analysis that he isn’t a good friend or a lover is true, and you need to talk with him about it.
First is the ungenerous possibility, and even within this there are bad and worse scenarios. Your FWOB is a sadist who enjoys toying with your emotions by offering himself to you, pulling away, and then dangling that offer tantalizingly close to you at every opportunity but never letting you realize it. This could be something he does consciously or unconsciously. He might be a nice guy in most respects who does this reflexively, or he might plan it out this way—likely some combination of impulse and active decision-making. He might or might not understand that he enjoys having this power over you and that he enjoys controlling the terms of this relationship. Whether intentional or not, this doesn’t look good for your needs in the long run … or now.
Second is the generous possibility. Your FWOB already realizes the gravity of the situation. He realizes that there is a lot a risk for him if you became fully sexual partners, and so he is holding back to protect the both of you. He might ruin your friendship and his friendship with your husband, he has some professional risks to consider, and if all falls apart, you’re the one with the permanent primary partner in the scenario, so you will be fine. Also, he might just not be into the poly thing. He might need the security of being someone’s one and only. In that case, he won’t be for you.
The most likely scenario is that your FWOB falls somewhere in between subconsciously and semi-consciously enjoying the control without intending to hurt you and being worried about everything that’s at stake. You need to determine exactly how controlling and malicious he is and whether, in that respect, he’s worth letting more deeply into your life.
Let’s return to your questions. Your friends are right: he’s playing you, and both of us think he’s probably not someone who will provide you with the even relationship you need. He might be sadistically messed up, enjoy the control, or terrified. We can’t say if he’s a drunk or not, and it’s a little too easy to blame a full-fledged adult’s approach to relationships on one bad experience. You need to talk with him about this and end the relationship, move it forward, or change the terms. Don’t go with the flow.
Your also really need your husband’s consultation and advice here, because he will know more than we do. It sounds like your FWOB really was in an abusive relationship with his ex-girlfriend, but you need to be critical and ask whether there was dysfunction and abuse that went both ways or not. You don’t have her side of the story, and it sounds like, at the very least, he let things with her drag on far too long and used his liaisons with you to hurt her/escape her on the sly. Was he provoking her in other passive-aggressive ways too, such as withholding until it drove her to physically lash out? Is he replicating that pattern with you? Is he capable of fully sharing in that open way that you need? His pattern of dangling his penis in front of you and then withholding it knowing full well that it hurts you is actually emotional abuse, and he may not be capable of behaving responsibly.
Sex, regardless of the milieu in which it happens, is about power and control, and it’s our job as caring partners to figure out how to let that power play out fairly. When that power isn’t playing out fairly, it’s our duty to intervene and set things right, as difficult as that may be. We also have to be with partners who are willing to set things right. Your situation is broken. We lean towards thinking this guy will never set it right and that you’re better off pursuing other extramarital partners. We also want to know what your husband thinks and are a little miffed that he seems OK with your pain. So talk to your husband, and then talk to your FWOB, and make him a full partner, just an F, or, most likely, an ex.