In Other Words: “Must I Tell My Long-Distance Boyfriend I Met Someone Else?”

The following letter appeared in a recent column of The Ethicist in The New York Times:


I have been with my boyfriend for several years, and I love him very much. We each decided to study abroad for the spring semester of our junior year and have found ourselves on opposite ends of the globe. We will be apart for almost six months, with only intermittent access to the phone and Internet. Before we left, we agreed that it would be best to temporarily open our relationship. We wanted to fully enjoy our respective experiences and take the opportunity to explore being with other people. We decided that we would not discuss our flings with each other, at least until we returned. We did this, I believe, with the implicit assumption that we would not fall in love with anyone else.

Although I was the anxious one before we left, I have found myself in a bit of a sticky situation. I am falling for a woman I met on my study-­abroad program. I know that this is not just a casual affair and that I am developing real feelings for this woman. I feel as though I am betraying my boyfriend, and I am sure he would feel the same, despite the fact that I am not technically breaking the rules of our relationship. Communication is sketchy, and the prospect of talking to my boyfriend about this while the signal comes and goes is a little horrifying. I know that this information would hurt him deeply and that his ability to enjoy the remainder of his semester might be diminished. At the same time, I know that this is not what he had in mind when we agreed to an open relationship, and I feel as though I am deceiving him every time we talk. Should I tell him what is going on? — Name Withheld

You can read The Ethicist’s advice here. My advice, which differs, is below:

The Ethicist advises the LW to tell her boyfriend right away that she’s falling for someone else, but I disagree. They decided to open their relationship during their time apart because they wanted to “fully enjoy their respective experiences and take the opportunity to explore being with other people.” The LW’s keeping quiet about her feelings won’t change that at all — not for her and not for him. But her telling him about her feelings now probably will change her boyfriend’s experience — “diminishing his enjoyment,” as she puts it, so that he’s not able to “fully enjoy his experience,” which was the whole point of opening their relationship in the first place.

I can’t help but think of a friend of mine whose husband was away for business for a few months and decided while he was gone that he wanted a divorce. My friend had to wait over two months until he got home to actually talk to him about it in person and has confided that she would have preferred he waited until he got home to break the news. Like the LW and her boyfriend, my friend and her husband’s communication was intermittent while he was away, and so she felt it wouldn’t have been difficult for her husband to “play along” and act as if everything was status quo until he got home and they could really communicate rather than her waiting two agonizing months to discuss this sudden breakup in person.

There’s a big possibility that, upon hearing that his girlfriend is falling for someone else and wants to break up with him, the boyfriend will have questions — will want to talk to and process this news with his girlfriend — but, because of their intermittent communication, he won’t have that option. I see that as eating away at him more than finding out later that his girlfriend had begun moving on and wanted to wait until she could tell him in person.

It comes down to respect, and you could argue that it’s more respectful to share such news immediately. I happen to think, in this case, that it’s more respectful, especially considering they both agreed to open their relationship, to wait until feelings can be expressed and processed in person, even if that opportunity is still a few months away.

What do you think?

Illustration by Tomi Umi for the New York Times

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  1. I agree with you, Wendy. Since they decided to open their relationship, technically she isn’t in the wrong. This should be the time of his life, studying abroad, and he should be able to look back on it without thinking “for the last two months I was miserable because I found out about LW being in love with someone else”.

  2. Totally agree, Wendy. Don’t ruin his trip.

  3. I agree. If they hadn’t opened up their relationship, it would be a different story, but they did and anything can still happen. Maybe this new love won’t work out and the LW will want to continue her relationship with her boyfriend at the end of the semester. Maybe not. Regardless, she’s not fallen outside the rules of engagement and I see no issue with waiting. She could have just as easily realized she and her boyfriend were no longer suitable for each other at the end of the semester abroad and have had the same conversation with him then, without the added complication of having fell in love.

  4. My answer would depend on some information we haven’t been provided.

    Are the LWs feelings for this woman reciprocated? Is there any chance of there being a relationship between them? Does the LW want to end her relationship with the boyfriend because she and the woman will be staying together?

    I think there’s a difference between “I’ve met someone, we’re in love, and I’m very sorry, but I have to end our relationship” and just crushing on someone that you’ll never see again after you return home, or even having a fling with someone you’ll never see again. The first, obviously, you need to talk about, though I agree with Wendy that it would be better to wait. The second? Nah. You don’t have to tell a boyfriend/partner/husband about every passing infatuation.

    1. artsygirl says:

      I was thinking the same thing Essie. Does the LW think that she and the woman have a possible future and even if they don’t, does she now think that she no longer wants to be in a relationship with her BF? I also wonder if she actually has such deep feelings or if the situation (new place and a sense of FOMO since the semester is wrapping up) is added to the ‘romance’ of it. After all she has likely known this woman for less than 5 months which is always a bit of a honeymoon period anyway.

  5. bittergaymark says:

    Boy, is The Ethicist out to lunch here. And SO judgmental… The tone — just hostile. And bitchy. Honestly? I don’t see how ruining the bf’s abroad experience is even remotely ethical… Team Wendy all the way on this one…

  6. I’m not sure she is even breaking the spirit of the agreement they have. Agreeing to open up a relationship, even temporarily, inherently carries the risk that someone will develop feelings for another person. It’s also not a given that those feelings will last once she gets back, it could be a temporary thing. I think this is all still within the bounds of the agreement – and even if it weren’t, it makes sense pragmatically to wait to talk about it until they both get back.

  7. I agree totally with Wendy and what all of you have said. Not mentioned yet, was the other half of the agreement that LW had with her bf: “We decided that we would not discuss our flings with each other, at least until we returned. ” If you agreed not to discuss things until you return home, then don’t discuss things until you return home. How hard is that? me people can’t have sex without forming strongish attachments. It’s hard to see how LW can know at this point whether this is a fling or a lot more than that. She should wait until she is home and decide how she feels about both bf and new woman.

  8. Maybe the boyfriend has a fling too. Better to wait and see what happens.

  9. I went through the same exact experience in college with my girlfriend at the time. When we got back together, we discussed our experiences. However, neither of us felt the need to include discussion of any temporary romantic/sexual encounters (or lack thereof). Since we both wanted to resume our romantic relationship, what was the point?
    The LW is only a few weeks into a new romantic encounter that likely has an expiration date. What is the point of telling the boyfriend anything? The LW feels guilty about her current situation, and wants to confess to ease her guilt and feel better in the moment.
    Telling now will not just diminish the boyfriend’s experience, it will end their relationship. Even if the LW’s intent is to end the relationship with her boyfriend, I would agree with Wendy that waiting until they can speak in person is the kinder way to do it.

    1. for_cutie says:

      Same happened to me too! My college boyfriend and I “took a break” while I studied abroad. We kept in touch and still had feelings for each other. I saw other people while I was away and I did feel intensely attached to them – how could you not? You are away from home, family, everything you know and in a different culture to boot. No wonder a friendship or new relationship feels like love, it is all of the emotional connection you have there with you at that moment.

      I promise the international fling will end when the LW comes home for good and the communication will only last a few months after that at most. The LW should respect the boundaries they set with their partner. See through the rest of the trip and only share details if absolutely necessary upon reuniting.

  10. wobster109 says:

    I think that because this is such a real and likely possibility when opening a relationship, the couple should discuss beforehand what to do if it happens.

    Which they did! They decided together beforehand to discuss after they got back. Now it’s time for LW to respect BF’s stated preferences instead of going off script on the assumption that she knows him better. LW is taking guesses at how BF feels, but there’s no need to guess since they already discussed it, and he said flat out what he prefers.

  11. LW, stick to the terms of your original agreement. No need to second guess yourself or your BF regarding the open relationship for the semester.
    You are in a foreign country for one semester. Nothing long term could possibly happen with your new crush. Then why cause drama in the relationship ?
    But feel free to breakup with your BF if you don’t want him any longer.

  12. Monkeysmommy says:

    I wouldn’t tell him, it wouldn’t be good for either of you at this point. Wait until you are able to communicate with him in person and see where things stand at that point.

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