I recently wrote about pornography use and how it doesn’t necessarily or even usually signify impending doom for a relationship. Some of the responses to the article surprised me—not because there was debate, but because many partners expressed feelings of insecurity about their significant others finding someone else attractive. Some people said they wanted their partners to communicate about their pornography usage, some preferred a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach, and others preferred to operate under the assumption that their partners do not use porn, without ever discussing the subject openly.
These same “camps” can be applied to partners who develop feelings for other people. Some partners would prefer not to know about those feelings unless they become a problem for that person—if they’re having trouble setting boundaries around their own behavior. A colleague of mine over the summer shared that she and her wife have an agreement to always tell the other person when one develops a crush. Like my colleague, some partners would prefer always to know—this helps them develop an intimate foundation of trust and to make informed, collaborative decisions about the people in their lives. Others would prefer to live under the illusion that they won’t develop attractions or feelings for other people, or that their partners won’t.
I’m here today to discuss productive ways of handling crushes that develop while in a relationship. I’m also here to deliver some bad news. In the same way it’s unreasonable to expect that your partner will never find another person attractive, it’s not especially realistic to believe he or she won’t develop crush-like feelings for another person, even while remaining committed to you.
The truth is that, no matter our preferences, we often have little control over the things we think and feel. And when we buck up against our thoughts and feelings, rather than owning and accepting them as parts of our lives, they tend to grow.
It’s harder to regulate our thoughts and feelings when we’re shaming ourselves. The same could be said for other internal states we struggle with—anxiety and depression, for example. When we live in relationship to others who react to our feeling states, we don’t just experience baseline symptoms of anxiety and depression; we may also judge ourselves for having those feelings, and then deal with added anxiety as we anticipate the ways our partners might react. From this web, obsessions can develop.
Not Talking about It Isn’t the Answer
One way to take power away from anxiety, depression, or in this case a crush is to talk openly about it. I will specify here that I am writing this article mainly for couples whose communication already feels emotionally safe. We all react poorly to our partners sometimes, but this taboo topic involves a certain ability to empathize and to see from multiple perspectives. If that’s not already happening in your relationship, that’s a red flag, and this advice isn’t for you.
It’s common for people in relationships to try to squash the possibility of their partners attracting other people (and vice versa). And it’s this type of controlling action that hushes secure communication about the tough stuff that otherwise brings partners closer together. When we put limits on our partners from a place of fear, we are not giving them a chance to demonstrate their trustworthiness.
I also want to state that feeling threatened by your partner developing a crush is totally normal. However, it’s important to recognize that this type of jealousy is in part about self-esteem and not just about your partner’s behavior. It’s common for people in relationships to try to squash the possibility of their partners attracting other people (and vice versa). And it’s this type of controlling action that hushes secure communication about the tough stuff that otherwise brings partners closer together. When we put limits on our partners from a place of fear, we are not giving them a chance to demonstrate their trustworthiness.
Over time, this dynamic—one partner using insecurity to control his or her partner, while the partner, in turn, keeps his or her desires a secret, leading to resentment about not being understood—is what dooms partnerships.
Here’s the thing about secrets: they become pressure-cookers for strong feelings. The more one feels like he or she shouldn’t be doing something, the more shame he or she may experience. Rather than serving as a motivator to stop behaviors, shame becomes paralyzing. In partnerships where a secret is finally revealed, partners may spin into feedback loops in which they react to one another and elevate the other person’s anxiety, often without being able to self-regulate their own. This can reinforce feelings of shame and punish partners for trying to confront uncomfortable topics head-on.
How to Decide If a Crush Is Worth Mentioning
Let’s say there’s a classmate or new coworker and after a couple of conversations, you start to get that fluttery feeling in your chest. Depending on what you’re like, you might either want to pursue the person or run for the hills. Regardless of what your gut is telling you to do, let’s also say you’re in a committed partnership. How can you communicate about these feelings in a way that’s fair to all parties?
First, search yourself. Rather than pushing your feelings away, recognize that what you’re dealing with is a crush. You don’t need to become attached to this label, as crushes and feelings are fickle things, but give yourself the opportunity to explore your thoughts and feelings, perhaps on paper, or talk them out with a compassionate friend. Chances are, your crush will already feel less powerful.
Another option is to meditate—simply to witness how strong the tides of desire ebb and flow from moment to moment. Ask yourself pointed questions and see what clarity can come when you stop trying to push your thoughts away.
Sex educator Dr. Emily Nagoski (2015) offers tips for couples and individuals who are working through their emotions and relays nonjudgmental communication strategies for acknowledging those emotions. She tells us to treat our emotions as if they are sleepy hedgehogs sitting in our laps. It is not helpful to scream at your partner about the presence of the hedgehog, nor is it useful to pretend the hedgehog is not there; the existence of the hedgehog is going to impact you and your partnership. But by dealing with the hedgehog—the emotion—tenderly and with compassion, you and your partner will prosper.
How to Bring Up a Crush with a Partner
If you decide it’s best to speak up about your crush, you might experience even more anxiety than you did about the crush in the first place. For difficult dialogues, I strongly recommend Reid Mihalko’s Difficult Conversation Formula (Mihalko, 2012), which I first found in the book Girl Sex 101 (Moon & diamond, 2014, p. 54) but is also available as a downloadable worksheet in the reference list. It goes like this:
- I have something to tell you.
- Here’s what I’m afraid will happen when I tell you …
- Here’s what I want to have happen …
- Here’s what I have to tell you …
Sometimes, it’s OK for conversations with your partner to feel like a first draft, but recognize when that’s what they are and maybe say so. You don’t have to have a thesis or a conclusion when you sit down to talk with your partner, but owning that “these are my feelings and I don’t necessarily want to do anything about them, but I feel like you should know what they are” is incredibly helpful for some people. And because this confession is likely to summon strong feelings, maybe try drafting out your points ahead of time—either with the worksheet, in your head, or with a trusted friend.
If you have a crush on someone who is not your partner, here’s an example of how a difficult dialogue might be introduced using steps 2 and 3:
I’m afraid if I tell you, you’ll get upset and will question my love for you, but that’s not what this is about for me.
I want us to be able to talk about this because if we don’t now, I’m afraid it’s going to grow. I want us to have a trusting partnership where we can talk about the things that make us uncomfortable, even when it’s scary.
Chances are, if both partners are able to recognize that the other person is honest, has good intentions, and keeps the best interests of the partnership in mind, this conversation will provide both partners with an opportunity to strengthen trust and grow intimacy.
Best of luck!
- Mihalko, R. (2012). Say what’s not being said: Reid’s formula for difficult conversations. ReidAboutSex. Retrieved from http://reidaboutsex.com/difficult-conversation-formula/
- Moon, A., & diamond, kd. (2014). Girl Sex 101. Lunatic Ink.
- Nagoski, E. (2015). Come as you are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex life. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.
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