This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
Ask VICE is a series where readers ask VICE to solve their problems, from dealing with unrequited love to handling annoying flatmates. Today we’re exploring the borderlands between crushes and emotional affairs.
My boyfriend and I have been together for almost five years. We met in high school, started dating when we were 20 and now we live together.
We’re both allowed to make out with other people when we go out. It’s been this way since we started dating and I’m not sure why some of my friends think it is such a big deal. What we can’t do, though, is date other people, and if we find ourselves falling in love with someone else, we have to tell the other person right away.
When it comes to the latter rule, things have started to go off the rails. I think I’m in love with Bas*, a guy in our friendship circle. And I have a hunch that he feels the same way. He’s funny, smart, super charming and also very good looking. We clicked instantly during a trip last summer. The last few times we hung out, we couldn’t stop touching each other. People have come up to us to say that we’re a beautiful couple. That’s how obvious it is.
We speak almost every day on WhatsApp. I FaceTimed him once when he was with his parents and he introduced me to them. The thing is, we haven’t kissed yet, and we’ve not met up one on one since that trip last summer. To me that would be taking things a step too far.
The relationship I have with my boyfriend has cooled recently. When we have sex, I mostly think about Bas. I don’t want to break up with my boyfriend but I am afraid that the relationship won’t survive if he finds out what’s going on between me and Bas. I’ve been feeling guilty for weeks. Does it count as cheating on your partner if you’ve not been physically intimate with someone else?
Hey there E.,
Love is incredibly personal. We can give you advice, but only you truly know what’s best for you.
You’re in a complicated situation. Research has shown that developing a crush on someone alters the brain in the same way booze does. Our oxytocin – a so-called “happy hormone” – levels increase when we’re in love, and that helps temper the anxieties we carry around with us, just like alcohol does. Both things feel great, but they also mess with our ability to make rational decisions.
According to sexologist Yuri Ohlrichs, you have every right to be confused by what’s going on. There might have been ground rules established early on in the relationship but things, situations and people change. Ohlrichs, who works at Amsterdam’s Sexology Center, suggests having a frank conversation with your boyfriend.
“I’d strongly advise talking to him and figuring out what your respective boundaries are. You’ve got to see if there’s room within your relationship to experiment with someone else, or even start another full-on relationship,” Ohlrichs said.
In addition to this, he recommends a closer examination of your feelings for Bas. Why are you so attracted to him? Is it a lust thing? Are you simply enjoying the feeling of crushing on someone? Or do you actually see yourself in relationship with Bas?
Ohlrichs notes that it is also important to ask Bas what he wants. You don’t know if you want to pursue a more serious relationship with him, but maybe he’s also happy with the current arrangement and has doubts about taking things further.
It could be a good idea to meet Bas somewhere a bit less dark and sweaty than the parties where you’re usually together. “It is really important to remember that there are many sides of Bas you haven’t seen yet,” Ohlrichs said. Your romanticised vision of Bas hasn’t factored in the slog that is daily life with someone, so bear that in mind.
Your other, broader question about emotional cheating doesn’t have an easy answer. But it’s worth remembering that catching feelings for someone else doesn’t automatically equate to an emotional affair. “It happens. You’re not obligated to communicate those feelings when they arise. It might be nothing more than a brief fantasy,” Ohlrichs notes. He emphasises that you’re under no obligation to share everything with your partner.
But there is a boundary: You do have certain agreements within your relationship, and you’re currently breaking them. This is detrimental to the trust that exists between you and your boyfriend. You’re selling him short, because you’re not giving him an opportunity to have an open and honest conversation with you about what’s going on.
According to Ohlrichs, your feelings for Bas could be caused by myriad things. You’re currently in your very first long-term relationship, and it might have taken you this long to discover that you’re curious about people besides your partner. It would be a good idea to explore if this is something you truly want to pursue.
If you do, you and your boyfriend could choose to be in a different type of relationship. It could be an open relationship, in which you can have sex with other people and perhaps also go on dates. Or, if this is something you’re both into, you could decide to go for a polyamorous relationship. In that case, you and your boyfriend (if he’s interested, that is) could both date someone else and allow feelings for those people to come into play. You might even decide that you all want to date each other.
“If you decide together that you want to be in an open or polyamorous relationship, it’s very important to draw up the rules and to not break them,” Ohlrichs said. The rules differ from couple to couple. “Maybe you both feel that, actually, you don’t need any rules,” he adds. “In that case you could say, ‘Go for it, I don’t feel jealous or sad about this. On the contrary: I’d like to hear about what you've been up to.’”
This might sound idyllic, but Ohlrichs says that it’s mostly a matter of trying things out. “You often don’t know what you want to do until you’ve tried it out. Maybe you are okay with the idea of your boyfriend sleeping with someone else, until he actually does it. That can be an unpleasant surprise,” he said. “And changing your mind is not a bad thing.”
Here, too, honesty is very important. You can cheat on a lover, even in open or polyamorous relationships, by disrespecting their boundaries and keeping secrets.
The situation you’re currently in could also indicate that you’re simply not ready to be in a relationship at this very moment, no matter how much you love your boyfriend. Whatever the case may be, stay honest with yourself and communicate your needs clearly to your partner. And accept the outcome if it turns out that he doesn’t want the same type of relationship as you do, which could mean that things will not work out.
That said, according to Ohlrichs, there’s no reason to worry about that just yet. Having feelings for someone else does not mean your current relationship has necessarily run its course. In fact, it’s completely normal to have a crush on someone every once in a while. Sometimes it’s as simple as “because it’s new, it’s super exciting”. The most important thing is handling these feelings appropriately and showing respect to everyone involved.
*Name has been changed