Hi, Dr. Emily.
My girlfriend absolutely does not set boundaries with the opposite sex, including her ex. She will go out with her girl friends and talk to guys, add them on her social media, and go over to her ex’s house to hang with their dogs. I have asked her to make it known that she has a man and to set boundaries and she will not do it. She says she doesn’t need to. I am even hidden on her social media. All of this is leading to sexual problems as I have a hard time getting hard for her because I’m always in my head about her constant expectations and her unwillingness to set boundaries with other men and her ex-husband. When I bring these things up, I’m called insecure, jealous and psycho. I don’t know what to do. Please help!
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First, I applaud you for trying to bring the issue up with your girlfriend, rather than completely stewing in resentment. The problem? You’re still stewing. So let’s take a different approach.
When I read your email, the first thing that comes to mind is your girlfriend’s “why.” We don’t know what her “why” is for interacting with her ex-husband, or adding guys on social media. But the second thing that comes to mind is this: how, exactly, do you know she’s meeting guys and adding them on social media? Not saying it isn’t happening, but are you checking her social after she goes out with her friends? That’s the second thing we have to address: your trust in her. Because if you’re clocking her social like that, we’ve got a bright red trust issue on our hands.
If it were me, I’d talk to your girlfriend again but in a spirit of curiosity. Sometimes, the language of boundaries gets co-opted into a list of demands, like: “I need you to set a boundary with guys.” But that’s not her boundary, it’s yours. Moreover, you haven’t stated what your specific boundaries are. Is it: I can’t be with someone who adds men on social media? Is it: I can’t be with someone who doesn’t post about me on social media? Is it: I can’t be with someone who interacts with their ex? Maybe this sounds like a cold splash of water, but the way this email is written, it sounds like you have a set of expectations for your girlfriend that she and everyone else “should” know. Clearly she doesn’t, or, she doesn’t agree with them. But if you opened with something like, “hey! I know that we’ve had some issues lately, because I get nervous when you interact with other men. But I want to better understand where you’re coming from. What do you get out of those interactions with new people? And, what do you get out of staying connected to your ex?”
Open-ended questions like these will give you valuable data that will, at best, deepen your intimacy. At worst, it will trigger the nervous feelings I’m sensing here. But what if she told you that she liked the attention? Is there anything inherently wrong with that?
What I’m suggesting, Lucas, is that you take responsibility for your own feelings, rather than putting them on your girlfriend to manage and protect. If you ask about her “why” in a calm, safe tone, I think you’re going to have a much better outcome. Right now, your girlfriend feels controlled, and in that situation people tend to rebel (hence the “jealous,” “psycho” responses). But that brings me to my next point, about trust. It sounds like you’re worried your girlfriend will cheat on you, so after you talk to her about her “why,” I suggest you collaborate on a set of relationship agreements. What can you BOTH agree to that will foster emotional safety and security in the relationship? For example, would it feel better to you if she texted while she was out with her girlfriends, to touch base and say hi? Could that be an agreement you both sign off on? I’m also wondering about her “constant expectations” for you. What are those? Are those agreements that you’ve consented to? Probably not, because it sounds like you’re upset about them.
When we take the difficult but mature step of releasing expectations about the way relationships should go down, we liberate ourselves to collaborate much more authentically with our partners. So Lucas, once you communicate with your girlfriend on these two points – the why and the agreements – I can’t promise it’s going to fix your sex life, but I can guarantee it’s going to make a much-needed intervention in your communication patterns. There are a lot of assumptions flying around right now between the two of you, and for your sex life (and overall relationship) to thrive, we need to clear those assumptions out and replace them with direct communication. We also need to get to the bottom of your lacking trust, and figure out whether it’s specific to your girlfriend, or whether you’ve had a hard time trusting people before. For example: I hear you when you say you feel hidden from her social, but in reality, a lot of people don’t display their partners. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re trying to pose like they’re single. But it does say something that you’re worried about it.
Bottom line, you’ve both got work to do, Lucas. But I promise it’s worthwhile. You can do this.