Gaslighting and polyamory

My wife and I started a open marriage about 5 years ago. Prior to that we were active in the lifestyle so seeing each other with other people was no longer an issue for either one of us. My wife was the one that suggested the open relationship and I was ok with it, but concerned with who she was interested in. The man was a salesman that visited our place of work, and was a friend for both of us.
It was tough in the beginning, but we found that it made us closer and more open about everything that we did. About a year ago [I] started to notice a change in my wife’s behavior. She wasn’t as sexually active, and I felt a bit neglected. In the beginning we told each other we would always put each other first and that if either one of us wanted the other to stop we would.
I had simply told her that I don't feel like the priority anymore. She dismissed my concerns and just said i was annoying her. A few months prior to me mentioning all this I had a stroke, and she uses this as an excuse and tells me that I’m different because I had a stroke. I maintain that although that is possible, there's nothing I can do about how I feel. Deep down I do not believe the stroke had anything to do with it. I think it was just noticing that she was falling in love with this man.
We’ve argued over this man for the last year, and I have tried to let her see him, she insisted that she was in love with the situation, and not “In Love” with him. My mind was telling me she was lying, but my heart wanted to believe her. She insisted that I am the man that she wants to be with but flat out refused to stop seeing him. This caused many arguments in the last few months.
A couple of weeks ago I did something that I shouldn’t have done, and looked at her text messages between my wife and her man while she was gone. I was shocked to find several text talking about how they both loved each other very much. She said how sad she would be not to be able to see him immediately when she returned.
They talked about sexual desires that I had never knew she was interested in. In fact the same sexual fantasies that she told me were disgusting. (we’ve had an amazing sex life). The other very troublesome issues were how she complained to him about me, and would reply to her bashing me. Then I found out that he has been trying to get her to leave me and go to him. He is in the process of a divorce. I feel horrible that I betrayed her trust and looked at the text, but I also feel this hatred and betrayal towards her for lying and being with this man who is obviously not understanding his role in this open relationship.
I don’t know how I could trust her again with an regular marriage let alone a open one, and she is still insistent that she continue the relationship with her man that she deeply loves and I know he tries to take her from me. I’ve made it clear that I can not be the man she wants if she continues with this man after everything I found out.
I’m so confused and don't know if I should continue to listen to my heart or listen to logic and just end the marriage of 17 years.

First off I want to say that I’m sorry to hear you’re going through this, especially after being married for such a long time. This sounds like a very difficult thing to cope with. There are a few things I want to discuss.

  • Stealing partners
  • Rules about love
  • Respect and dismissal
  • Violations of privacy

Stealing partners

This is commonly known as cowgirling or cowboying — someone who dates someone who is non-monogamous with the full intention of “stealing” them from their partner and, more likely than not, pulling them into a monogamous relationship. I’m sure this does happen. People can do this intentionally or not — or sometimes it’s just difficult when you’re in a relationship that isn’t working out so well to lean into another one.

But what’s important here is to identify the responsibility where it lies. Your wife isn’t being “stolen”. She’s choosing to deprioritise you. She’s choosing to engage with someone who is encouraging her to leave you. Personally, I would have zero tolerance for an individual who tried to convince me to leave any of my partners, regardless. It’s a horrible sign and the fact that she’s choosing to engage in this discussion means she is more than willing to do this. That’s the problem. She’s not being stolen.

She’s leaving of her own accord so be sure, as hard as it might be with someone who seems to be actively willing to take your partner, to put the blame where it actually lies. In a lot of ways though, I spotted problems from the beginning with regards to how you opened your relationship.

Rules about love

You stated how you always promised to put one another first and allow each other to veto your relationships and almost seemed to promise that you wouldn’t fall in love with other people. Had I given you advice from this point, I would have said that you needed to be more realistic about your rules. You cannot control whether or not you fall in love with anyone and you should never make any rules that create the expectation that someone can control these types of emotions.

I’m also concerned by the demand that either of you drop someone if you’re uncomfortable. Opening up your relationship can sometimes cause some discomfort. And if your wife is dating someone who you both know, this might increase the discomfort, but this doesn’t mean that you should be allowed to cancel relationships you’re not involved with. It’s not fair to either of you or the people you’re dating for you to have control over each other’s relationships.

What concerns me about the rule of “putting each other first” is that this isn’t clear and this is the problem you’re running into now. You need specific physical targets of time spent because right now you may not feel like you’re a priority but for all intents and purposes, your wife thinks she’s doing everything just fine and that’s enough for her. This rule doesn’t properly work because it’s defined by perception rather than specifics. And also, at the end of the day, you can’t use a rule to make your partner care for you which brings me to the next issue here.

Respect and dismissal

Regardless of how we may personally feel regarding what we’re doing in a relationship, we always have to be willing to hear our partner out. Even if your wife doesn’t think she’s neglecting you, she should care when you say that you feel neglected. And clearly she doesn’t actually care about whether or not you’re upset or bothered.

I find it really worrying that she’s blaming everything on your stroke, especially when it’s something so far out of your control. Sometimes things happen with partners and they may change over time, but if you’re so different after the stroke that she’s struggling to be attracted to you, then she should have the guts to actually say that to you instead of what feels like gaslighting you into believing that your behaviour was wildly different before your stroke than afterwards.

She shouldn’t dismiss your concerns, she should respond to them and be willing to address them. She obviously can’t help or change if she feels less interested in sex, but she also doesn’t have to dismiss your feelings.

And that brings me to the last point.

Violations of privacy

Snooping is always a double edged sword. Either you find the thing your gut tells you is there and your relationship is forever changed or you violate someone’s privacy and find out you’re wrong and the relationship is forever changed because you broke that trust. It’s good that you identified that you shouldn’t have done what you did, but on the other hand, what you found was especially worrying.

I don’t fault your wife for feeling like she has to tap dance over whether or not she loves you, feeling sad that she can’t see her other partner immediately when she wants, and I don’t necessarily see it as a problem that she complained about you. If you think about the people you confide in, I’m pretty sure at one point or another you’ve complained about your wife. We all do complain about our relationships from time to time. What worries me specifically is she telling you one thing about fantasies and telling someone else something different.

Likewise, I’m going to assume that she did not respond with any defense when this other guy was insulting you or encouraging her to leave you, which is another concern. It’s one thing to complain about a partner and another to insult them. This guy may not understand his role in an open relationship, but that’s only because your wife is permitting this.

In summary

Ultimately, I don’t think that, even if she left this guy, it would change the deep foundational problems with this relationship. I don’t think it is pure coincidence that she suggested having an open relationship and immediately wanted to date someone she already knew. While I don’t want to speculate, it’s possible she had already been cheating with him at the time, as that does happen. It makes me wonder if she really just wanted to date this guy but didn’t have the courage to break up.

For me, in this situation, I would have a hard time wanting to stay with someone who has shown a pattern of not just lying to me about simple things like sexual fantasies but also tries to blame all of my concerns on medical conditions and doesn’t take me seriously when I say that I am hurt or feeling neglected. I don’t know if those are things that can be solved through therapy. No one can make her want to be with you if she doesn’t want to. Someone can help her find the courage to be more forthright with what she wants so she doesn’t lie so much, but at the end of the day, that’s not something you can change for her.

I would advise having a session with a polyamory friendly therapist and talking this out and seeing what their advice is. It can be rough to throw in the towel after so long, but personally I think that you deserve not to waste your time on someone who is clearly not prioritising you and insults you behind your back — or allows other people to. You deserve a lot better than that and you don’t need to cling to her for that. Again, I want to say how sorry I am that you’re going through this because it sounds incredibly rough but it’s much better to realise a busted situation when you can and get out of it than stay and continue to be let down.

I hope this helps and good luck!

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