Q: My lover and I have been together for a year, and got an apartment together six months ago. We're in a committed, monogamous relationship, and I consider him my husband. We're doing well, but he does one thing that drives me up the wall. He's in almost daily email contact with his last boyfriend. He says he only thinks of him as a friend now, even though he admits that the other guy still has feelings for him. Sometimes I'll come in and catch him shutting down the computer as if he's got something to hide. Lately, I've been spying on him, going through his email and listening to his phone messages. I've tried to talk with him about this, but he says that if I really trusted him I wouldn't be suspicious or jealous of his "friendship." He also throws it in my face that I have some photos of my last lover up in a wall display of pictures of my friends. He says it bothers him that I would display pictures of an ex in our home, but that he doesn't complain and I shouldn't either. I don't see how the two things are similar. Anyway, I do trust my husband completely, and I love him to death, but I think about him and the old boyfriend all the time. What should I do?
As gay marriage comes closer and closer to becoming a reality, discussions in our community about what loyalty, commitment and fidelity mean in our relationships couldn't be timelier. My suggestion-at the risk of sounding hopelessly conventional and old-fashioned-is that you take down the pictures of your ex and that your partner stop emailing his.
I don't believe you when you say that you trust him completely. You guys are still building trust, and will be for some time to come. All of us know from hard experience that other people are capable of lies and betrayal. No one gets very far in life without being deeply hurt by someone's dishonest or selfish behavior-whether it's a family member, friend or lover. And if we're really honest with ourselves, we all know that there are people in our lives that we've hurt or abandoned, too-whether the cause was our greed or selfishness, or just the ordinary day-to-day dullness, unconsciousness, and insensitivity to which we're all prone. That's why, in all significant relationships, trust doesn't just instantly spring up. It develops and deepens slowly over a period of years, to the degree that both parties consistently demonstrate trustworthy behavior.
According to the religion of romantic love, however, this unsentimental fact of life isn't supposed to apply to your soul mate, the perfect lover who exists solely to meet all your needs. From the day you meet, so the story goes, you're supposed to love and trust each other completely, because you've "known each other forever," and have complete faith that neither of you would ever do anything to hurt one another. "Love," we learn from an old Hollywood movie "means never having to say you're sorry."
This pretty story is just a fairy tale. The fact is, having been together for a year, you guys are still in the early stages of getting to know one another, and the trust between you is still developing. You'd be more realistic if you'd just admitted this fact, rather than treating the limitations of trust as some kind of affront. You might think of your relationships as a young and fragile plant that you've just put into the garden. Someday it'll be strong and sturdy, but today it's vulnerable, and you need to build a fence around it to protect it. In the same way, your relationship is in need of a safety zone, especially in the early years. And the way you build a safety zone is to make sure that you both avoid behaviors that arouse fear or suspicion in each other. In the traditional monogamous relationship both parties agree to "forsake all other," and that agreement often includes not remaining in contact with former lovers or displaying their photographs in your home, especially if such behavior creates discord.
But of course we're evolved and thoroughly modern gay guys, far too sophisticated for these conventional and outdated ideas. We don't try to "own" each other; we aren't "possessive"; we know that when you love someone you have to let them go; and that jealousy is a primitive emotion based on "patriarchy" and "insecurity." These ideas are naivetĂ© masquerading as modernity. One consequence is that too many couples have no idea what they need to do to deepen mutual trust. I see the consequences every week in my office.
If you want your relationship to last, do your best to respect all of each other's feelings. Don't treat your partner's jealousies, fears, suspicions or vulnerabilities with contempt, or your own with shame. And never begin a sentence with "If you really loved/trusted meâ€¦"
Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org