Relationships are the new mission impossible

Version en espanol de este article.  People have been asking me for relationship advice lately. I don't hold myself out as an expert in this field, but I do know some things. I've been married twice, lived with girlfriends, been in long distance relationships, been the third party for women in open relationships, done a bit of swinging, lived in other countries with girlfriends, had pots thrown at my head, cheated on girlfriends (not proud of that) and been cheated on. I've loved and lost, and loved again.

I've made every relationship mistake known to humankind and continue to invent new ones. I've also reached my mid forties and have had the benefit of seeing how people, relationships and expectations change over time.

My dad asked my mom to marry him on the second date. I find that amazing. Who does that? Guess he made the right decision though. Mom says they're just as in love today as they were fifty years ago. But it's hard to imagine that sort of thing happening nowadays. The world's changed.

We move around a lot more now. I don't know about you but I've lived in six places in the last ten years. Ann Arbor - Aix en Provence, France - Boulder - New York - Los Angeles - hotels. We might try Seattle one day or live in Mexico for a time.

All this moving around challenges a relationship. Ironically, in my experience, it gives a couple too much together time. It can take awhile to settle in and build a social network, to find activities and people to hang with. You can easily spend all your time together instead of doing the work of meeting new people.

I'm a believer that interaction and even flirtation with other people, outside of your relationship is good for your relationship. We pick up ideas and ways of communicating and experiences that we can bring back to our partner. This keeps things fresh and interesting. A relationship can't just feed on itself. It must grow and change.

Another big difference from our parent's relationship challenges and our own is that we live in the age of the smart phone and easy communication. In the past, the only way to keep up with an ex was through actual stalking them or if fated by the gods you might run into them years after a breakup.

"Hi Bob," she says.

"Wow Carol, it's been years. You look great. What have you been up to?"

"I've got two kids and a dog."

"Nice. Want to fool around for old time's sake?"

"Well, I've got to pick up the dog from the groomers. Then soccer practice with my oldest. I can squeeze you in between four and four thirty."

"Uh, never mind."

But now it's like relationships never end. We can peer into the lives of every ex, every hook up, every crush we've ever had with Facebook. It's easy to reach out via an SMS and stick ourselves into the thoughts of someone half a world away at any moment we choose.

It's difficult committing to another person in this environment.

Years ago I asked my wise and good friend Josh why he decided to commit and marry his lovely wife Val. He told me, "You got to close some doors to fully go through others."

He was right. But it's hard to imagine anyone fully closing their doors when it's now so easy to keep them open.

Relationships have become a competitive sport through the photos we post on Facebook and SMS to our friends. Erika and I were happy with our Christmas tree until we saw Jeremy and Julia's Christmas tree on Facebook. It looks so much fancier than our little Charlie Brown tree.

"Should we add lights? More ornaments?" Erika asked.

"I don't know if it could bear the extra load. Maybe there's a way to arrange an accident for their tree instead."

Porn. Porn. Porn. There, I got your attention. The pervasiveness of internet porn has changed everyone's expectations for their sex lives. Couples who've sexually bloomed during the age of free internet porn have high expectations for sex. They want to try what they've seen on their computer screens. I'm continually amazed at the number of young people embarking on open relationships, looking for threesome partners, attending dominatrix parties and exploring alternative lifestyles. (not complaining about it of course :) )

None of these new options are intrinsically bad. Much of it is incredibly fun. But they run counter to many of our romantic notions. We want exciting sex lives but we also want to love and be loved in beautiful and romantic ways.

All these expectations and options puts pressure on our relationship decision making.

Somethings gotta give.

Case #1 The Fiancee I had a friend contact me recently who I hadn't heard from for a couple years. He was looking for advice.

"I'm getting married in ten days," he says.

"Congratulations," I told him.

"Thanks. But there's a problem. I met someone else on the night of my bachelor party. She's a wonderful girl and I can't stop thinking about her."

"Did you have sex?"

"Not all the way."

"You still love your fiancee?"

"Of course. But this other girl. It's like we just click. But I don't want to cheat."

"Are you on her Facebook? Send me her photo."

He sent me the relevant link. I compared both photos. The fiancee and this new girl. The new girl was a little younger, a little prettier.

"How many people are coming to your wedding?"

"Fifteen hundred."

"Oh my god. You can't cancel."

"I know."

"But you can't marry someone unless you're a hundred percent sure."

"What should I do?"

"Have you considered suicide? Ha. Just kidding. Don't do that. Let's think this through. You've been involved with your girlfriend for five years. Some of the excitement is worn off. Now, you're getting the bees with the honey. You know when you first meet someone you see all the wonderful things about them. They seem perfect. They are on their best behavior. If you went off with this new girl, it might be all honey for awhile but those bees find you eventually. Keep that in mind when you compare these two."

"Yes. I know that."

"I don't think you ought to cheat on your fiancee but maybe you should arrange to spend more time with this new girl in a neutral situation. No sex, no alcohol. Really try to get a sense for who she is. Usually when I can't make a decision between two courses of seemingly equal value, I take it as a sign to gather more information. What does this girl want in the future? What sort of values does she hold? You might find she's completely not the right person."

"I could do that."

"But on the other hand, if you see each other, you're going to end up sleeping together and that'll skew the whole thing. Shit. You're fucked. Good luck."

Sometimes there's no easy answer.

Case #2 The Ambitious One I have a client who signed up for emergency phone coaching recently.

"My girlfriend and I have been discovering our sexuality together," JB said.

I didn't want to ask but I was pretty sure that meant she had taken his virginity. Finally! This was cause for celebration. I called out to Erika, "Honey, put a kettle on to boil will ya?"

JB texted me a photo of his girlfriend. I showed it to Erika. She nodded. "Not bad. He should be grateful."

"What do you mean? Grateful because he's bald? Because he's pudgy? Because he walks with a limp?"

"He's a nice guy. How long did it take him to get this girl?"

"He's been working on trying to pick up girls for, let me think… a long freaking time. Lately though he's made breakthroughs with using his sense of humor, taking things more lightly, the effective use of roofies."

She didn't laugh. "I just think he should be careful not to lose the one girl he has."

I shrugged my shoulders and talked into the phone. "Sorry about that JB. Erika and I were debating your love life. So what's going on?"

"It's really great. I have to thank you. I wouldn't have been able to get my girlfriend interested if it wasn't for Charisma Arts."

"Yeah whatever. Word on the street is she liked your butt."

"No. Seriously."

"Fine. Charisma Arts will take credit for ten percent. No more. I don't want the responsibility if she turns out to be a serial killer."

"Ha. Okay. It's just really nice having a woman to be close to."

"Like holding hands and giving cards?"

"Yes."

"Yuck. I'm going to be sick. But I guess you deserve a relationship. Good for you. So what's the problem? You said this was an emergency. Did you get her pregnant?"

"It's nothing like that, thankfully. Here's the situation. I have lots of friends who are girls now because of everything I did with Charisma Arts before meeting my girlfriend."

"Let me guess. You're girlfriend doesn't like these strange girls hanging around the pool?"

"No pool unfortunately."

"Damn. You're destroying my vision of your playboy lifestyle."

"I have this friend Kikki. She's very flirtatious but we're just friends. Yesterday she comes over and we're hanging out with my girlfriend there. The three of us."

"Please tell me this story ends with everyone in bed."

"No such luck. But Kikki and I are very comfortable with each other. She helps herself to food in the refrigerator. We're that sort of friends. I thought everything was fine. But my girlfriend felt otherwise. After Kikki left she said I didn't respect her."

"Why?"

"She thought I was flirting in front of her with Kikki and letting Kikki talk to me in what she called a familiar way."

"How did you respond to that?"

"I apologized."

"Like with your hand over your heart?"

"No. Just a regular apology."

"You crossed your fingers secretly behind your back, right?"

"I did not think of doing that."

"Oh too bad."

"She also got mad when I checked out another girl at a Halloween party."

"Baby doll from Sucker Punch?"

"No. It was sexy nurse."

"Well that's silly. How can you resist checking out a sexy nurse? How often do we even see a sexy nurse in real life?"

"There's something else you should know. I let my girlfriend move in with me."

"I'm sorry. There must be something wrong with my ear. Too many of Erika's wet willies. I thought you said you let her move in with you."

"She was sleeping on friends' couches."

"She was homeless?"

"Not homeless exactly. She was living with her parents but she couldn't take her mom anymore."

"I see."

"I had dinner at their house once."

"How'd that go?"

"Her mom said she did not think I was right for her. Maybe I joked around too much."

"She said this in front of you? That's not cool."

"Her mom is what you call outspoken."

"They should be happy that their daughter is with someone she likes. Someone who's kind. You're a wonderful person. I think that'd come across."

"Thanks. That's nice of you to say."

"I'm not trying to be nice. I'm just pointing out the truth. Okay, I'm starting to get the picture here. Conservative parents, forbidden relationship, I don't even want to ask about the frog."

"Huh?"

"Never mind. It's all very Shakespearean. How about your girlfriend's job situation?"

"She's still waiting on her work permit. It might take a couple months."

"Right. And then she has to find a job. That'll take time. How does she support herself?"

"Her dad gives her money now and then for food and such."

"Okay. The pieces are coming together. I feel like Sherlock Holmes. So what do you want in a relationship?"

"Eventually, I'd like to have multiple wives."

I was stunned.

"Wayne? Are you there? Wayne? Hello?"

Erika walked by, "Are you okay? You look like you saw a ghost."

"JB wants to have multiple wives."

"Like a harem?"

"I guess. Like those people in Utah maybe."

"You really want to have multiple wives JB?"

"Yes. I uh, I think so. It's a dream of mine."

"You're the last guy I'd expect to say that. But it's cool. You know what you want and people should respect that."

"I don't think he's thought this through," said Erika. "He thinks its going to be like amazing for him but they'd probably demanding from him all the time."

"Yeah, it does seem like a lifestyle choice for super rich guys with a staff of assistants. JB, you'd have to remember multiple anniversaries and birthdays. Have you considered the work you'd have to put in to that many relationships?"

"I haven't considered that but I think it's still something I want. But that can be later. I mostly want to arrange some threesomes."

"I take it back. Maybe the mother was right about you. You're a bad influence. Ha. Nice, throwing a plot twist into your story."

"I'm just doing what you taught about being specific about my desire."

"Really? And that's working? Ahem, I mean, of course and for sure it works" I cleared my throat. "Okay. I'm ready to give you my thoughts."

"I'm excited to know what those are."

"You can take one of two paths. The first path - go all in. Forget flirting with other women. Instead use that energy to better understand your girlfriend, to discover new ways to love her."

"Wouldn't that mean I was settling?"

"You will always settle. It's just a matter of when and why. There's no perfect girl or perfect situation. Waiting for perfection is a choice to avoid living your life."

"Yes. But I want other things too."

"Set those aside for now. Let's try to look at your relationship from a different angle. This girl's conservative. She wants you all to herself. Are these things bad? Maybe not. Maybe she really likes you. In some of the sexiest relationships, I've known, the couple have eyes only for each other. It's the Goldie and Kurt effect."

"The Goldie what?"

"Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. They're actors. They laugh nonstop together. It's like a force of nature. They've been together for thirty years and yet people see them together and are inspired. People want what they have. But for them, it's as if no one else in the room exists."

"I do not see how a threesome would be possible."

I shook my head. "It may or may not. But that's not the point. It's all about each other. You don't even think about other women. You're too wrapped up in each other."

"I'm interested in hearing about the second option?"

"What? You don't like the first one?"

"Ha. You paint a nice picture but I will have to think about it."

"Okay, so the second option is death."

"I like how you always put jokes in Wayne. Somehow it makes things lighter in my mind."

"I'm not joking. Death's an option. Okay, fine. Let's take death off the table. But I'm glad you like my silly jokes. As you know, nothing's so important as to lose your sense of humor."

"Yes, I've found out with women that when I joke around I get a better response."

I took a sip of my coffee. "Do you know who Charlotte Bronte was?"

"I feel like I should know this."

"Yes you should. She wrote Jane Eyre which is considered a classic. Anyway, she was smart. I love a quote of hers. She wrote, conventionality is not morality. Your girlfriend is trying to confuse you. It may not be conventional for someone in a relationship to flirt with other people but it's not immoral.

The second options is hard. You have to engage your girlfriend in a candid conversation. Tell her your apology was a mistake. Tell her your relationship can stand up to a little flirtation. It can grow stronger by the challenge. You two freely chose to date each other. You didn't do it out of obligation. Why change that now? When you come back together after flirting with other people, you enhance the feeling of choice. You feel flush with options but yet you chose to be together. That renewal of choice is sexy.

People need to get over themselves. There will always be prettier girls. There will be more charming guys. If you stay together long enough, you'll march toward dust together. What works to keeps couples together is not appearance or humor or money or threats. It's the quality of your relationship. You follow me? It's not the people."

"And how do we have a quality relationship?"

"By creating acceptance, openness, honesty and freedom of sexual expression. Keeping away feelings of obligation, control, fear and secrecy."

"I am not sure how she would respond to all this."

"Trust me. This is going to go down like coal in her stocking. If you spelled this out to her earlier, when you began dating, we'd be having a different conversation. But telling her now, it's going to feel as if you're pulling the rug out from under her feet.

Try to remember, as she's yelling and throwing things at your head, that she does like you. At some point she chose you. You're on the same side. Try to make her see that this is not about you wanting to just flirt with other women. It the best way you can keep your relationship fresh and fun.

Explain to her that limiting your sexual expression will only give her a temporary feeling of security. But that sort of security is a mirage. People never really give up their sexuality. They just suppress it. And that suppression creates all sort of yucky behavior such as cheating with your barista or addiction to photos of girls with ninja swords.

You want to have the sort of relationship where you both can express your sexuality to each other. It's part of who you are. You should be okay hearing every dirty thought in each other's heads, even if some of those thoughts make you feel uncomfortable."

"I understand things better now. I guess I have to decide which path to take."

"Yes. It's up to you. But honestly from what you've told me, I think you two want very different things. And I'm also afraid that because of her living situation and lack of options that she might ultimately go along with what you want. That can be bad if she does it for the wrong reasons. Beware of that. You don't want to create long-term resentment. She might kill you one day in your sleep. I'd be way more comfortable with your situation if she wasn't as dependent on you as she seems."

"Yes. I've been thinking about that. Thank you Wayne."

"Good. Talk to you soon."

I hung up the phone and walked into the living room.

"What did you tell him?" asked Erika.

"That he should break up with her."

"You told him that?"

"In so many words."

"It sounds like they want different things."

"Yeah. That's the root of it. Can you believe it? He wants multiple wives. Is that even legal?"

"I don't know. I think he should be realistic though. Why do all these guys think they're going to get super models?"

"Super models have to date somebody. Why not?"

"Super models date photographers or famous people because that's who they're around."

"True. Damn access. Anyway, you never know. Maybe JB's multiple wife thing will happen. He's the main character of his life and he's surprised me before."

"Do you think she's just using him?"

I rubbed my chin. "I'm guessing not. She just wants the traditional thing. She values security and probably doesn't want to know the truth. Some people like to stick their heads in the ground. I'm glad we're an enlightened couple. Aristotle said..."

She held a hand up. "Are you going to do the dishes?"

"I'm trying to tell you something important here."

"Uh, you promised to do the dishes last night."

"Okay fine"

She winked at me. "And then we can go out and you can flirt with girls."

I love my wife.

"I think I'm going to write something about this."

"About JB?"

"About relationships. Decisions in relationships are really fucking hard."

"So, what's the point?"

"There's no point other than it's hard. People should know they have company. Lot's of people are dealing with these things. It's the new Mission Impossible."