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This week’s question: Hi from the gym, where I’m spiralling on a stationary bike. Reason being: I suspect my partner might be doing things beyond the boundaries set by our open relationship, so I set up a fake account on Grindr and asked him to do all sorts of things he’s not supposed to do. He agreed to all of them! We set up a time and place to meet, and I want to go and confront him. But what if it’s all talk and he wouldn’t actually do that kind of stuff with a stranger? If I confront him, he’ll paint me like the bad guy for entrapment. But now I think he’s doing crazy stuff outside our bedroom. What do I do?
A Bicycle Thief
Fuck Theory’s answer: Dear Thief — your boyfriend isn’t going to paint you as being wrong to entrap him. You are wrong to entrap him. And you know that, or you wouldn’t be worried about it, which is good news already — at least you’re not a sociopath! The most important thing to understand about ethics is that ethics is a relationship between you and your own actions, not between you and the world. “Ethics” is basically the notion that your actions should align as much as possible in both effect and intent with the idea you have of what right action could or should be. Since you know it’s not a good idea to entrap your boyfriend, the ethical answer is “Don’t.”
So here’s what to do: come clean to him before the meeting. If you show up mad and he shows up horny, you’ll both just end up angry. Ask to talk to him for a minute, or text him that you have to tell him something. Let him know that PigDick69 was actually you all along. Apologize and admit that you made a mistake. Make it clear that your actions were motivated by concern and commitment to the relationship, rather than by pure suspicion or hostility, and that you were trying to clarify and fix things, rather than setting him up to fail a test. Then, leave room for him to explain, even if his explanation begins — as most sincere explanations do — with what initially sound like mere excuses. Keep in mind that you both have something to answer for: Just as you hope he’ll forgive the means and understand your motivation, make sure to extend him the same benefit of the doubt.
As you pointed out, there’s a significant difference between things you only fantasize about and things you actually want or plan to do. Fantasy is its own kind of pleasure, and not all fantasies want or need to be realized. If you have an open relationship and your boyfriend is a dirty talker or texter, you can’t really tell him not to talk or text dirty, and trying to negotiate the content of his dirty talk is a slippery step away from telling him what to think and what to be turned on by (good luck with that). Maybe your boyfriend just gets off on talking about this stuff with other people. Hell, maybe he’d much rather be jerking off talking about this stuff with you, but he thinks you might reject the idea or even reject him. Or maybe he wants things you don’t want or are afraid of and he’s actually planning to do them without your knowledge or permission. But since you clearly need to know which is the case, you’re going to have to talk to him.
Ideally, your questions will lead to a productive conversation about your relationship’s boundaries and limits, and perhaps to further conversation about both of your fantasies and desires and where you might be willing to explore or relax some boundaries, together or separately. Because the thing is — and you might not want to hear this part — if your boyfriend has a genuine desire that he plans or wants to fulfill, he probably will try to fulfill it eventually, with or without your permission. You probably have a sense of what you desire or are comfortable with; have an honest conversation about what he wants before a line is crossed.
My mantra for negotiating committed open relationships is simple: “Convert anxiety into desire.” Both of you are anxious about something. You’re worried about his fidelity and desires. He’s nervous that you won’t respond well if he tells you honestly what he wants to do or fantasizes about. Both of you need to figure out how to shift the affective charge of the idea in question — those things you think he’s doing or wants to do — from nervousness to arousal. He’s already turned on by these “things he’s not supposed to do,” clearly. So you need to either find a way to make those things he wants hot for you, or renegotiate the parameters of your open relationship so that you’re comfortable with the idea of him being turned on by things you don’t want or are even scared of. In short, your best approach is to be honest and open, extend the benefit of the doubt, and ask productive, sympathetic questions. “Are you satisfied with our sex life?” is a good one. So is “Are there things you want us to do that we’re not doing?”
All of which leaves one final, thorny question: What if the thing that turns him on is less the act itself than the fact that he’s not supposed to? The blunt answer is that well, if that’s truly the case, you might be shit out of luck. But the same could be true if he’s a serious drug addict, or a compulsive gambler, or secretly likes to torture kittens. The human animal is a complex meshwork of impulses and desires, only some of which are voluntary. If he can’t help it, he can’t help it, and then it’s up to you to decide what you’re willing or able to tolerate. Think of it this way: you didn’t catfish your partner because you knew he was violating your agreement; you did it because you were anxious that he might be. What led to your current predicament wasn’t his behavior, it was your feelings.
Every committed relationship rests on trust. You trust that when you make dinner plans your partner will show up at the restaurant. You trust that if he says he’ll pick up groceries on the way home your partner will come home with a shopping bag. You trust that when you go to work and leave him alone in your apartment he’s not going to steal from you and pawn your valuables. You trust that when you make an agreement about what kind of sex you’re allowed to have with other people, that’s the kind of sex he’ll have with other people. But since your partner is human just like you, that trust has to allow for the possibility of error or deviation. At some point in the relationship he might forget you made dinner plans and flake. And at some point in the relationship he might lie to you or cheat on you. Trust is not a blanket assumption that your partner will never let you down; still less is it a binding promise to that effect. Trust is a feeling. Either you feel it, or you don’t. And just as strong love will allow for a few qualities in your partner that exasperate you or even turn you off, strong trust will allow for a few slips or errors in judgment. This, by the way, is why lying bothers me way more than cheating does. Anyone can make a mistake. It’s the ones that can’t admit their mistakes who are trouble.
If your boyfriend seriously gets off on doing things he’s not supposed to, he’s probably going to do things he’s not supposed to. The conversation you need to have with him won’t permanently alleviate your concern, because it can’t. But that also shouldn’t be its purpose. The aim of the conversation is neither to ferret out the truth of his actions — that’s not a conversation, that’s a trial — nor to establish parameters by which you can be assured of his every move he makes — that’s not a conversation either, that’s surveillance. The aim of the conversation is to help both of you clarify how you feel. A good relationship isn’t good because it brings you certainty. There is no certainty in this life, at least not when it comes to human behavior. A good relationship is good because it brings you joy. Be as honest as you can. Hope for the same. And should you get to a point where the anxiety of the unknown drowns out the joy of the given, you’ll know it’s time to stop offering him the benefit of doubt.