I had sex with someone I probably should not have had sex with. Specifically, I had sex with the husband of my PhD advisor. And THEN we discovered that we actually really like each other, so it’s maybe worse than that. I might be falling in love with someone I definitely should not even be allowed to like and who if I keep it up will probably completely torpedo my career if or when it gets out. When, probably. Meeting up in the gay bar in the next county (where no one we know ever ever goes and they kindly ignore us being hetero in the corner) is probably only going to work for so long.
I like my program, and I worked hard to get in. I like my lover. I like my thesis advisor, too, to be honest. Am I completely screwed? Or is there a path I can’t see from here?
Dear Brave Correspondent,
Oh, my friend. This is the oldest story in the world, all the more remarkable, because every time it crops up it feels new. I get so many letters from people that boil down, more or less, to “I thought I could fuck around, but I caught feelings and I don’t know what to do now!” Sometimes they have tremendous potential repercussions, like jobs or families, and sometimes the drama is a little less dramatic, but the Yiddish saying “Van der putz steht, der sechel geht,” (“when the prick stands up, the judgement leaves”) is timeless and universal and not remotely limited to people whose sexual organs are of the standy-up variety. Organize yourself a Spotify playlist around the song Troubled By The Way We Came Together and read on.
The problem in these moments is only partly that you went and had some jiggery-pokery that you shouldn’t have had. I get it that you maybe thought you were just having a go with this guy, and the internet is full of people to tell you shouldn’t have done it ― ostensibly monogamous married people are not a super choice for a fling, ethics-wise. My bet, though, is that you knew that. It may be part of why you did it anyway. The allure of the forbidden is real, and we should probably usually resist it, but human beings are human and every day is full of choices. It’s a hard time to be a human being, and many of us are reaching for little bit of pleasure or a sense of welcome wherever we can find it in this political weather. It’s also true that sometimes - we have to acknowledge - it feels good to be bad (though I tend to hope people can be bad in ways that don’t impact others quite so much).
So you were bad. If you had just been bad the one time, or even a couple of times, you wouldn’t need anybody’s advice about it. It would be an ill-considered fling, and I’m sure you could figure out how to feel about that on your own time. But there are bigger issues here - all these complex lines of trust, honesty, love, and so on. Now, you have to act. You are either going to need to break this affair off entirely or confess to your advisor, and it’s possible you’re going to need to do both. I’m not going to tell you which I think you should do because I can’t do that - maybe this guy, your advisor’s husband, is going to be one of your great loves and the correct course is to weather the storm and be together even though you started out in this difficult way. Or maybe the sparky, fizzy love-feelings you’re having are going to fade as soon as you’re not sneaking off to make out in the corners at Mother Mary’s Drag Academy and Tequila Hut. You have to figure that out.
You also don’t say whether you have discussed this with your inamorato. Is he feeling the Big Love Feelings too? Is he ready to tell all? Does he want to figure out how to be with you, whatever that looks like (divorce or open relationship or other)? I don’t mean to be a killjoy, but it is not completely unheard of in the annals of extramarital relationships that married dudes tell the women with whom they are having affairs that they’re going to leave their relationships and then it’s somehow never quite the right time. That would be a conversation to have first, if you haven’t.
The truth - the terribly exhausting naked truth - is that there’s no foolproof way to know in this situation whether you should forge ahead or stop before you make things worse. We give each other tokens and assurances, as humans, to try to soothe our desire to really know whether a person is one of our key people, and if they will stay that way. That’s what wedding rings and joint bank accounts and tattoos of someone’s name or sigil and so forth are for, and also our in-jokes and far-future plans and routines and matching hats. They’re declarations of having picked a person as part of our People To Be Going Forward With group, whether they’re a lover or a friend. We claim and name each other in our hope and optimism, and that is lovely and I am all for it but inevitably, sometimes, things crumble or wilt or fracture or fissure. And while little cracks and folds will appear in any joining (and as the nice man sang, that’s where the light gets in), catastrophic failure can be very difficult to predict, especially under the current circumstances where you steal bits of time and only spend them taking each others clothes off. What’s it going to be like when those same clothes are in a puddle on the floor of the bathroom for the eleventeenth morning in a row, approximately twenty-seven inches from the hamper and yet, somehow, not in it?
And yet, that’s more or less the place in which you have delivered yourself, Brave Correspondent. You may not be completely screwed, but you’ve definitely cozied up behind the eight ball. You have to try to know whether this guy is one of Your People and if so, whether you are prepared to stand in the hurricane that will probably ensue in order to carry on keeping company with him. You are also going to have to figure out what to say to your advisor (who will probably want an apology at the very least and who is almost certainly going to dump you as an advisee, so you may want to get ahead of that situation - and if there’s no way for you to change mentors that might be information as well, because whatever you do here please do not become the woman who gave up her PhD for love).
The thing is, Brave Correspondent, that you have participated in the breaking of an agreement. That is not a blameless position in which to find yourself. And yet, it is also true that we can’t help where we meet someone, and that great relationships have started as yours as (though if you’d asked me before you got started with the shtupping I would have encouraged you to begin... rather differently). So now you have to find the quiet spot in your heart, the one where you can hear the murmurs of the truth, where what other people want you to say and what you think you should say and what your mother would say are all on mute and ask yourself - really, what am I doing here?
If the murmurs are green as shoots of grass, full of energy and chlorophyll, patient and vigorous and ready to make their way even if they’re trod upon then that’s an answer. If not, if they are literally anything else - no matter how sparkly - that’s also an answer. What I really hope, Brave Correspondent, is that the wisdom you didn’t;t display in choosing casual hookup partners shows up for you now, when it counts.
love and courage,
Ask Bear is an advice column written by S. Bear Bergman. Bear is a busybody know-it-all with many opinions who is only too happy for a sanctioned opportunity to tell you what he thinks you ought to be doing (as well as a writer, storyteller, publisher and activist who enjoys telling educational institutions, health care groups, and portions of government what he thinks they ought to be doing). To submit a question to Ask Bear, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions will remain 100 percent confidential, and may be edited for length.