I have been with my boyfriend Jason for almost three years now. For most of that time I have been completely amazed at my good luck at having found such an attractive, interesting, sexy, and thoughtful man to build a life with.
Since shortly before I met him Jason has been living in a big house he rents with three other people, two women and a man. (One of the women left and was replaced by another tenant’s female cousin, but other than that there has been no turnover.) We are all in our late twenties. Last year, to my delight, Jason asked the group if I could move in. Everyone agreed and now I am on the lease, with the room next to Jason’s, which we’ve mostly used as a joint office. The household is sort of like a rooming house with nobody in charge, and it works well. We all get along and consider one anther friends, but—except in the case of Jason and me—the arrangement is one of economics and convenience.
Or so I thought, until the other night when Jason tearfully and drunkenly confessed that he and one of the female housemates, Melissa, had slept together on and off for over two years, almost since he joined the household. At first he said that it ended when I moved in, but after I pressed him for details about the affair, or whatever you call it, he broke down and confessed that one night last month, while I was out of town, she came into his—our!—room at two in the morning and “one thing led to another.”
He says that it is over, that nothing like that will ever happen again, that it was nothing but sex anyway, that he was a fool to jeopardize the best thing he ever had, that nobody could possibly prefer an ordinary woman like Melissa to a total standout like me, that he is pretty sure nobody else in the house knows about it (as if this would be uppermost on my mind!), and that he will do anything to regain my trust.
I really love this man. I want to stay together, but only if I have good reason to assume he really can and will be exclusive. There is no question of our having an officially open relationship. I would never accept that, and he says that he wouldn’t, either. He totally agrees that what he did violated our understanding and his commitment—not just the recent lapse, but all that time before I moved in when I thought we were a monogamous couple.
Right now I am pretty much in shock. So far all I have done is move all my stuff into the room I lease, move all his stuff out of it, and stay either out of the house or behind closed doors. (He keeps slipping notes under my door, which I do not read. This part is kind of satisfying, in a really depressing way.) What do you think I should do next?
Numb in New London
Perhaps Jason has many sterling qualities you failed to mention in your letter but, based solely on what you have written, he comes off as someone to whom you should very seriously consider giving the boot. The man carried on a clandestine affair with one of his housemates before, and probably during, the time he was making arrangements for you to move in with him, which also meant moving in with her! Then he was ambivalent, or weak, or screwed up enough to sleep with her at least once more even after you and he had taken this next step in “building a life” together, as you put it. Either he truly agrees with you that building a monogamous life is what you two were doing when you became a couple, and then moved in together, in which case he is a serious cheater; or he misled you about how serious he was, in which case he is a serious liar.
I find especially unappetizing his trying to reassure and praise you at Melissa’s expense. This is a standard cheater move, as is the “it was just sex” line, but neither is any less repellent for being banal. If she is so “ordinary,” why is it that he could not resist her? I can’t help suspecting that he’s being dishonest with you about his attraction to her. And how honest was he with her? I am betting that he didn’t say: “Hey, Melissa, you ordinary old thing, let’s have two or more years of totally meaningless sex whenever I’m not otherwise occupied with my much classier true love.” His trying to drive a wedge between you and Melissa by drawing comparisons is not cool, either.
If I were you, I would dump Jason, and I would move out. Anyone who cheats on his girlfriend, and then has the colossal nerve to move her into a house he shares with his ex- (or not-so-ex) clandestine lover, and then has at least one more “lapse,” is not the best candidate for a life of faithful monogamy. You say that you want him back only if you have good reason to think that he will be monogamous. Given that, during well more than half of your budding relationship, he was actually sleeping with Melissa, and that he managed to hide this history (and at least one actuality!) from you even after you moved into the house with both of them, I wonder how you could ever come up with “good reason” to trust him.
I can hear you protesting that people change, that you are all still growing up and learning how to settle down, and that—with that one exception, when Melissa probably came to him uninvited while he was half-asleep—he did at least end the relationship when you moved in. I can also hear you telling me that, aside from the Melissa thing, he has always been loving, attentive, and charming. Maybe you will even tell me that he “gets” you in ways nobody else ever has.
I hope that’s not what you’re really thinking; but if it is, and if you find that reading my advice only makes you realize how much you still want to work on this relationship despite any dry and sensible arguments to the contrary, I urge you to not to rush into total capitulation. Talk to trusted friends or counselors. And talk to Melissa. You may find that she can show you Jason and her relationship with him in a whole new light. It’s barely possible that she will actually reassure you by cheerfully characterizing her relationship with Jason as no more than a form of shared athletics. She may even apologize for that one time she pounced on him in his bed while you were away and he was half-asleep. But somehow I doubt it.
If you do decide to try to resolve matters with Jason, think about moving out, or asking Jason to move out, during this process. I realize that any sudden change in your living situation may involve legal issues, less formal but still real obligations to your housemates, and financial hardship. Even so, your need to get out of such a fraught situation should weigh heavily in the balance.
You may prefer that Jason be the one to move and, as the injured party, you should insist on this if it is what you want. But you may prefer not to live in the same house as Melissa, or even in a house where several people you and Jason know quite well will witness his comings and goings, or lack thereof. If you are afraid that your leaving, while Jason stays, might just throw him and Melissa together—then I think that tells you all you need to know; but if you are still determined to try to save the relationship, you could always insist that you and Jason both move.
Try to decide on your preferred living situation quickly, and make your demands now, while Jason is still in the throes of remorse. If he resists despite his recent protestations that he would do anything to save the relationship, that’s another strike against him.
If one or both of you simply cannot afford to move (don’t stiff your housemates!), try to simulate separate living arrangements as best you can. Maybe someone else—not Melissa!—could trade rooms with one of you. Maybe you and Jason could arrange to be out of the house on alternate weekends for a while, so that the two of you are never home together except during the work week. I worry, though, about anything but a clean physical break, because Jason sounds like a classic charmer. I can envision any number of scenarios where he makes use of the holdover living situation to insinuate himself back into your good graces and, of course, your bed, before you have had time to decide what you believe is best for you in the longer term.
It is hard to give up on what feels like true love. But you are still young and unencumbered, and do not have to settle for a relationship as problematic as this one. At the very least, if your heart nevertheless tells you that you should give Jason another chance, keep you head about you, too.
I am about to get married at 22. We are marrying so young mostly because I am pregnant, but I plan to spend the rest of my life with Daniel anyway, so why not have a great party, get a bunch of small appliances, and please the folks? But my problem is that my mother is not pleased—that is, she is vastly relieved that I am not having an out-of-wedlock child, as she keeps calling the baby, but she keeps talking about the wedding celebration itself not as a joyous occasion for me, but as an ordeal for my older, unmarried sister.
This would be annoying enough if my sister were some bitter, jealous, marriage-mad old spinster, and really was unhappy about the wedding, but the fact is that she is a 24-year-old feminist law student, formerly bi and now lesbian, who has no interest whatever in marriage right now and has had more than her share of romantic relationships. She is starting to get serious with her current lover, but has told me that marriage and kids, if they happen at all, are years down the road.
Meanwhile my mother keeps saying things like “Be sure to pay as much attention as you can to Maggie this month, you know how hard this must be for her,” or “Let’s not take Maggie when we go to look at flowers, it’ll only depress her.” (Maggie loves flowers, loves being my maid of honor, and hates being excluded from family events.) When I talk excitedly about any aspect of the wedding in the presence of both Mom and Maggie, Mom looks at me as if I am being some kind of cruel braggart and glances meaningfully over at my sister. Oh, and last week, while I was trying on my dress—we’re kind of broke and in kind of a hurry, so it’s straight off the rack and not too fancy, but I thought it looked fantastic—my mother, who was the only other person there, said how gorgeous I looked but then added: “You are certainly the beautiful one. I’m just glad Maggie is the smart one, because it seems like she’ll never find a man.”
I spent most of that night raging, shouting at Daniel that I am, too, smart, and Maggie is, too, beautiful for that matter, and how can anyone possibly be as clueless as Mom, and why won’t Maggie just come out to her for God’s sake?
Jake said all the right things, and suggested that the person to talk to about all this was Maggie. So I tried. But she just told me to see the humor in the situation. I also asked her when she was going to come out to the parents. She said that she would soon, but not until after the wedding, when everyone would hopefully be less crazy.
Now Mom just called me to say that she was going through the family jewelry and picking out a few things to give to—Maggie!—in anticipation of my wedding. As a consolation prize!
I keep finding myself shaking with hurt and anger. Am I being a baby? What should I do?
Spluttering in Spartanburg
Your questions surprised me. I was starting to expect something more along the lines of “What are the penalties for matricide in South Carolina?” No, you are not being a baby. You have every right to chafe at your mother’s odd favoritism and outdated and, as it happens, wildly inaccurate view of reality. And the way she pits you against your sister by putting you in the apparently mutually exclusive “beautiful” and “smart” pigeonholes is a gross violation of the most basic parenting rules.
She seems to have no idea at all about what makes Maggie tick. This is not entirely your mother’s fault, since—perhaps out of a healthy sense of self-preservation—Maggie has not been very open with her lately. But, even so, it is an insult to Maggie, as well as a serious damper on your wedding joy, to assume that she sees sisterly happiness as a zero-sum game and would resent your good fortune. It is also an insult to you to assume that your innocent expressions of excitement or even interest are thoughtless jabs at your sister.
Your mom is also clearly playing favorites, although in a way that is probably more offensive to the favored child than the disfavored one. If any day belongs to a person, it is their wedding day. Your wedding simply is not “about” Maggie, as Maggie seems more than happy to admit. And to use a wedding as the occasion to bestow family jewels on the 24-year-old non-bride as a consolation prize…for once, words fail me. I hate to think what gifts your mother will shower on Maggie to compensate for the birth of your child—but let’s hope that having a grandkid will steer your mother’s preferences and obsessions in saner directions.
So, no: you are not being a baby, not at all. That is the easy question. Even if we make every possible allowance for mother-of-the-bride nuttiness, your mom is totally out of line.
The harder question is what you should do about the situation. My general answer is that, short of being needlessly cruel to anybody, or outing your sister, you should do whatever is best for you, your fiancé, and your baby as you prepare for and enjoy your wedding. But you are the one with the better sense of how to manage the specific personalities involved in hopes of minimizing pre-nup craziness.
Here’s a smattering of advice anyway: If at all possible, I would try to limit my time alone with Mom. And I would try to convey to her that Maggie is genuinely pleased about the wedding and wants to be part of it, and that pegging your sister as resentful and ungenerous is doing her an injustice. I am guessing that you don’t want to have some major confrontation with your mother at this point. But you might want to have a short, calm conversation. Or you might want to use an emissary. Do you have an understanding father or tactful aunt you could call on? Do you think that, despite her not-very-supportive initial response when you told her you were upset, Maggie might give the discussion a try? She could certainly make the most convincing argument, and you could tell her to think of intercession with Mom as part of duties of a maid of honor.
Extra points should go to any emissary—or to you, if you decide to go it alone– who reminds your mom that you, not Maggie and certainly not her own anxieties, are the proper focus of this wedding.
Although her cavalier attitude vexed me a little on your behalf, I have to agree with Maggie on the merits of seeing the humor here. I do NOT mean that you have any duty to chuckle and just suck it up when your mother is negative and unfair. Moms have power. Moms can hurt, no matter how mature you are or how crazily they are behaving. You are under no obligation to laugh at any of this. But it might do you good if you could somehow manage it. If you can’t actually laugh at your mother’s follies, maybe you can at least try to take her less seriously in the other sense of discounting all this Maggie stuff as irrational, something to be handled rather than heeded.
There will be plenty of time after your lovely wedding, and the even more lovely birth of your child, to puzzle over whatever is going on in your mother’s head. Perhaps if your sister does come out this will shed light on various fears your mom has been suppressing or distorting. Or perhaps your sister’s sexuality will turn out to be totally irrelevant. In any event, what matters now is you.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
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