Dear Dr Ren,
My boyfriend and I have been in a long-distance relationship for two years now. We exchange visits regularly and although we never really discussed it, I am certain we both think we are monogamous. We are serious about each other and often talk about eventually living together.
Part of our deal is that I don’t do drugs. I got clean about six months before I met him and that was a condition of our being together. Recently I met a friend from my “old life” and ended up partying with him. While I was high, I fooled around with one of the guys there with us. Afterwards I felt really guilty. I told my boyfriend about getting high but that’s all I told him.
Our next visit is coming up, and I am still struggling with guilt about having sex with someone else and keeping it secret. Part of me thinks I should confess, but I am afraid I might lose my best relationship ever. I’m not going to do it again and it would only hurt him to know. Should I tell him? If so, how?
Dear One Mistake,
I think your math is off. One mistake? You used drugs after you agreed not to and had sex while in a (maybe) sexually exclusive relationship. Isn’t that two slips?
You have some other complications in your relationship — a major one being that you and your boyfriend have not had some very important conversations.
You say you have never talked about being monogamous, though you assume you are. For two guys in a long-distance relationship, I find this surprising. What holds you back from this discussion?
You are missing out on the chance to learn how each feels about sexuality, fidelity, honesty, and how you handle attractions to others. Clearly, operating on assumptions is not working well. It rarely does.
Another complication is your new drug-free status. It sounds like you got clean and romantically involved in short order. It is difficult to tend to your own and someone else’s needs simultaneously when yours require sensitivity and vigilance. Does your lover understand the complex nature of this issue?
Even if this was an isolated incident, you now know you must re-examine the place that partying and old (using) friends can have in your life. If you are paying attention, you have learned that drugs still have power over your decision-making process.
Do you remember if you used a condom while you were “fooling around”? If you haven’t gotten checked for STIs, it would be wise to do so before your boyfriend arrives for his next visit and discovers your slip with a souvenir infection. Oops!
As to whether you tell him about being with another man, you’ll have to weigh the risk/benefit ratio. You don’t tell me the intervals between your visits or his reaction to your news that you used again. Both are factors.
If you see each other every other week, for instance, he will probably be hopping mad that you strayed when he was only a few days away. It might be more understandable if you see one another only quarterly.
If he’s a laidback fellow who goes to clubs in his hometown himself, then perhaps a bit of slap and tickle won’t upset him greatly. But then, since you haven’t had these conversations, you have no way to know.
How do you feel about his getting a little on the side? Do you want to know?
As to your guilt, you are responsible for managing that. The time to have considered him was before you were sexual with someone else. It isn’t his job to forgive you so that you feel better.
That said, intimacy is affected when there are shame-based secrets between lovers. You and your boyfriend would do well to have those challenging conversations now in which you expose your vulnerabilities and fears and hammer out agreements that you can realistically live with.
Mistakes happen. How do you each want to deal with them? What are each of your deal breakers? What can you forgive? How do you each want to learn of less-than-stellar behaviour?
If you are intending a long-term relationship with this man, you will need to deepen your capacity for intimacy. That means accepting that you are just another flawed human being, as is he. Love each other and do your best, and forgive each other when you disappoint or are disappointed. It will happen.
One of the problems with long-distance relationships is that you can stay on your best behaviour for a long time. Perhaps the silver lining to this incident is that it will encourage you to get more real with each other. Enduring love requires seeing and accepting one another’s imperfections.
You two have been lucky if you’ve gone two years without an event that required some tough negotiating. You are due.
I suspect you will survive this one and benefit from the lessons learned.