The dilemma My partner’s relationships with other men is concerning me. She has admitted to sleeping with close to 100 men in the past, many for personal gain – including cash, gifts and holidays. I was shell-shocked, not so much that she participated, but that she confessed so blatantly. I also know that she has flirted with married men, enjoying dinner and sharing a hotel bed with one of them.
To me it appears that as a woman who was abandoned by her father at a young age, she struggles to say no to men. She went on holiday with a female friend and came back with a new man’s number in her phone whom she messaged frequently, and said I was being silly when I asked about him. She has no qualms about telling me that her male colleagues look at her in a way that suggests they’re interested in her. She appears to thirst for this attention, perhaps subconsciously.
Her reaction to my concerns is normally anger and so I avoid these topics, although inside me it is grating. I love her and have cut all ties with past flames, so she has nothing to worry about in terms of my faithfulness, but this is not reciprocated. Do I have it out with her, or shrug and accept that this is who she is?
Mariella replies Where to begin? Certainly not with a headcount of past lovers, which means little or nothing and certainly has no real bearing on your current predicament. If you’re judging a partner by the number of people they’ve slept with, then your priorities are seriously questionable. Then again, I’m not impressed by the transactional nature of some of her past choices either. The question you should be asking is what this woman is looking for, and do you have the strength, courage or, indeed, desire to help her find it.
She seems to need love, not in a clingy way but in a manner that aims to serve an all-consuming hunger for someone to feed her emotional cravings. You tell me a lot about her, but very little about you and why your needs and desires should be so sublimated. What do you want from this relationship? Do you want to be tortured in this way by the desirability and unpredictability of another?
Your girlfriend sounds like she has issues with self-esteem and misplaced ideas of how to gain self-worth. I’m presuming much of what you describe has happened in the past and, as LP Hartley famously said: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” What happened before you two got together may offer you context, but it’s irrelevant when it comes to defining how she should behave in your relationship.
I feel sorry for your girlfriend because losing your father as a young girl is as painful as parting can get, and instils in all but the most resilient a sense of failure and lack of self-value that can remain throughout life. I know quite a few women – myself included – who took until their late 30s or early 40s to shrug off that burden and realise that they don’t have to shoulder the blame or carry the responsibility for a parent’s absence.
As you say, your partner seems to be trying to replace her father with any member of his sex that she thinks has the potential to fill the space he left behind. It’s not that she can’t say no to men but that she’s under the illusion that sheer weight of numbers will ground her desire.
In reality, the unconditional love she seeks is the kind only a parent can offer. You can’t stop her mourning her father’s absence, but you can possibly help her see that what she’s looking for lies within her – and is for her alone to mend. This isn’t about the lovers she’s had, could potentially have or, in the worst-case scenario, continues to have. It’s about a damaged little girl trying to replace her first love with a succession of alternatives.
You could be flattered that she has found enough of a home in you to slow the pace of her relentless quest, but as you’ve observed she’s not done searching. That’s why I asked at the beginning if you had the energy and commitment to try to help steer her to safe harbour. But the only way you can ever help anybody else is to first understand yourself, and I’d propose that’s where you begin this quest. Try to understand your own motivation in enduring the insecurity she provokes. While she works out her own priorities, what is obvious is that all this emotional fog leaves little room for a clear view – so neither of you knows yet if you have found what you’re looking for.
Whether you can shape what you have into something less debilitating is a question I can’t answer, but bigger romantic miracles have occurred. In answer to your question, I don’t think you need have it out, nor shrug and accept – instead I suggest a more imaginative journey where you learn a lot more about your own desires as a route to finding out whether you can, or even want, to keep up with hers. Major emotional investment, resilience and commitment will be required along the way but your adventure will be fruitless if you don’t get to know the landscape of your own heart first.