BIANCA BAGNARELLI

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My boyfriend of a year says he is bisexual. I knew this from the beginning because we met on a dating app and he had that clearly stated in his profile. However, what I am concerned about is that he is using me as a stepping stone to acknowledging to himself that he is gay, or that he wants to be in a heterosexual relationship in order to reap the social benefits (having kids, generally being accepted in society, etc.).

I’m worried because (a) he’s never been with a man before and being with me means he won't get that experience (assuming he doesn't cheat) and (b) he comes from an extremely religious family in the South who would likely not be able to accept his homosexuality (or even bisexuality). I once asked him when we first started dating if he was with me to appease his family, whom he's very close with, and he said "Kind of" but that he still found me attractive.

He's been going to therapy for a couple of months now and occasionally makes jokes about how his body and mind are often in conflict, like when I return from traveling with an infectious cold and we can’t be intimate, and I have to scratch my head on that. I'm worried that we will spend years together, possibly get married, have kids, and then he will come to grips that he is in fact actually gay. Or that he's transgender and going to get a sex change. Or both. He sometimes acts effeminate and dresses extremely flamboyantly. I have no problem with people who identify in these ways, but I personally don’t have an interest in being romantically involved with someone who does. I have a very strong sneaking suspicion that he’s biding his time until his parents die or until he decides that he's going to come out to them as gay.

Should I stay with him and think about a future, knowing full well that he could tell me one day that he's actually gay and wants to be with a man, or that he wants to transition, and leave me with a bunch of baggage, such as getting a divorce (sharing custody of kids, finances), and time/energy/effort lost? How much should I invest in this relationship with those inconvenient truths that might very well be on the horizon?

Anonymous
Chicago


Dear Anonymous,

You have a lot of questions about your boyfriend’s sexuality, and feeling uneasy with this kind of uncertainty is natural. In intimate relationships, most people value the safety that comes from knowing what to expect from the other person. That’s why changes in those expectations can be jarring and threaten an entire relationship, as when one person in a longtime monogamous couple wants an open relationship—or, in the scenario you’re concerned about, when one person in a heterosexual relationship realizes (or comes to acknowledge) that he wants a same-sex partner instead.

What strikes me most about your letter, though, is the amount of emotional energy you’re putting into guessing your boyfriend’s state of mind. The more you ruminate about his potential turmoil, the more turmoil you create for yourself. And even as you worry about whether he might be keeping his thoughts from you, you’re also keeping your thoughts from him.

In a strong relationship, the kind that goes the distance, people feel comfortable discussing delicate subjects. It’s true that a sexual incompatibility might end your relationship, but what can do so just as easily is avoidance. You want him to show up, but you have to show up too.

It sounds like the two of you haven’t really talked about sexuality together in any depth. For instance, when you asked him early on if he was with you to appease his parents and he replied “Kind of,” what did you two do with that answer? I have a feeling that both of you were afraid to explore what he meant. Is it that he knows his being with a woman makes his parents happy but he would choose a female partner anyway? Or is it that he can’t tolerate his parents’ disapproval and that he happens to find you attractive (i.e., he can see that you’re pretty, the way we all can see if someone of any gender is attractive) even though he’s not attracted to you the way he might be to a man? Similarly, have you two ever talked about what being bi means for him? Have you asked how he feels never having experienced male intimacy despite being attracted to men?

Now’s the time to have these discussions, and you can start by making sure that you broach the topic as a conversation and not as an accusation—here’s the evidence! The effeminate gestures! The flamboyant clothing! You might say something such as, “I’ve been thinking about this; I’m curious; I feel like we need to talk more about this.” You’ll also want to be mindful not to pressure him to take a stance, especially because he may not know how he feels, or he may not be ready to say. The point of these initial conversations will likely be less about getting answers and more about hearing each other: “It sounds like you’re feeling scared/confused/conflicted” or “It sounds like my questions about your sexuality are upsetting to you. Can you tell me why?” Hopefully he can respond in kind: not “Why are you having all these crazy thoughts?” but “Yeah, I’m starting to think about some of these things in therapy but I don’t have any answers yet” or “Actually, I’m not struggling with my sexual identity, but I’m glad you’re telling me about the worries you’ve been keeping to yourself.”

Even if all of the questions about his sexual identity belong only to you—meaning that he’s clear about his bisexuality and committed to your relationship for all the right reasons—being able to talk on this level will deepen your intimacy. Couples who can own their fears and share them—in other words, couples who can be vulnerable with each other—become stronger. Maybe you’ll tell him that you’re not just afraid of having the rug pulled out from under you with a revelation down the line, but that you’re also afraid that you aren’t enough for him, and that this is an issue for you more generally, a fear you’ve had before that you couldn’t sustain your boyfriends’ interest in the long run. He might say that he’s terrified of exploring his sexuality, because he’s afraid that his world will come crumbling down, that you’ll leave him, that everyone will leave him, that he’ll have to live a life that both exhilarates and scares him because it’s so different from the more conventional life he had imagined for himself. You won’t know until you start talking.

Notably, in a letter about sexuality, you say nothing about the quality of your sex life. Are you having sex, and if so, what has the experience been like for each of you? If you’re not having sex, are you physically intimate in other ways, and what’s behind the choice not to have sex after a year together? (Is that a mutual decision, or one person’s preference?) Are your concerns based on your physical intimacy together or completely unrelated? A conversation about your boyfriend’s sexuality will have to include a conversation about your sexual relationship with each other.

Building a satisfying relationship (much less a satisfying sex life) is hard if you have concerns about your partner’s sexual desires. You spend a lot of time pondering the what-ifs, making huge leaps from bisexuality to transgender, analyzing gestures and what they might mean. But you can’t analyze your way to an answer here. Rumination gets you nowhere; it’s just a fancy word for hiding inside your head. Sometimes people prefer to ruminate rather than bring something up, because once it’s out there, once it’s released and said aloud, they have to face it head-on. But you owe it to yourself, and to him, to get it out there, and then to figure out—together—where to go from there.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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