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She's my first sexual partner: I love her, but should I only ever be with her?

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Dan asks:

I'm 19 and have been with my girlfriend for almost three years, except a couple months break last year when I broke up with her for fear of commitment. She's a year younger than me, and prior to our relationship, she had done some oral sex and handjobs with two guys. I've never been sexually active with anyone other than her. We were both each other's first sexual intercourse partner. During our break apart last year, she had sex with another guy. Long story short, I love my girlfriend tons. I recently got a new job and we moved across the country together and now have an apartment. We're very happy together and have what I would consider a very healthy relationship.

In the back of my head, though, I am always jealous of her sexual history. She's been with 3 other guys, and I've never even seen another girl naked in person. I've seen figures that men typically have around 8 sexual partners in their lifetimes. I feel horrible for thinking this, but it really bothers me that if I stay with my girlfriend (which I want to -- I really feel that I could be with her forever), I'll never have sex with another girl, because I have my morals, and I could never cheat on anyone. I'm not even sure what I'm asking, but do you have any advice for guys (or girls) in my situation?

Heather Corinna replies:

There's no reason for you to feel guilty or horrible about having the thoughts and concerns that you do. Being exclusive with someone is about making a choice, and a choice that is -- ideally -- meaningful if and when we make it. If it was rote or easy to make it wouldn't be meaningful. If exclusivity was something we did because we had no interest whatsoever in anyone else or any other choice, not because we thought an exclusive relationship was our best choice of many options, then it wouldn't be very meaningful. You're considering what your options are, what choosing to be exclusive for a long time really means to be sure it's a choice you'd want to make and something you really want to commit to. There's nothing horrible about that. In fact, it's mindful, responsible and wise when it comes to your heart and life and the heart and life of the person you're with.

Before I say anything else -- and please know I am not saying this to harsh your love-buzz, nor to claim your relationship is somehow doomed -- just know that realistically speaking, it is more likely that the partner you have now at 19, your first partner, will not be your only partner or your last partner. Very few people in the world have but one partner for the whole of their lives, or stick exclusively with the same partner they started with throughout all of life.

That doesn't mean it's impossible or that it doesn't happen sometimes: it is possible, and it does happen sometimes.

There still will generally be a point when, even if we stick with someone for decades, one of us passes on and we're not together anymore. Often enough, older people with partners who have died do date again, have other relationships again. As well, sometimes relationships change over time, even great ones, and what is a committed romance and sexual relationship now may become a committed platonic friendship later. But if you and your girlfriend now have a great relationship, it's something you both are committed to, and you're settling in for the long haul, it may well be that you stay together -- in one way or another -- for a long time.

Let's presume that to be the case. Even if that is so, it's up to the two of you what relationship model you have. Not everyone chooses monogamy, or always sticks with a monogamous (or romantic or sexual) model for the whole of a relationship. Non-monogamy doesn't have to be "cheating." Some couples, openly, knowingly, and with honest communication and negotiation, choose to open their relationships and have secondary or occasional other sexual or romantic partners for various reasons. Even if that's not something either of you wants now, it certainly is a possibility for the future: it's one option of many. The idea that there is only one way to have a loving relationship is skewed. As people, we all differ vastly, so what's right for us and our relationships, and what models work best, tend to vary, both in general and during certain periods of time. Relationships don't all come with one blueprint which we either adhere to or don't: rather, what they are is what we uniquely choose to make them together.

If any kind of nonmonogamy doesn't sound like something that either of you would be okay with and interested in or are interested in now, and monogamy is the model that seems and feels best for you and yours, then you have a choice to make for the time being when it comes to having your girlfriend be your only sexual partner for a while or for as permanently as it gets. Basically, you need to weigh what your pros and cons here are; what your actual and potential benefits and losses are. I hear you expressing is a lot of love for your partner, a lot of joy and a good deal of excitement about further cementing your relationship and starting your adult life together. I hear you expressing that you very much want to be with her right now. It also looks like the two of you have worked through a rough spot with success. That's all excellent and rare.

It's often tough to luck out and meet someone with whom we have real affinity, who feels the same about us, and to find love, sexual and/or romantic relationships that are seriously fantastic and make everyone involved feel great. Often, it can take some time for people to find that: it certainly doesn't happen every day. Some people never find it. It's the good stuff, in a very big way, so it's sound to value it highly. It's also sound to value it while we have it, because life and people are ever-changing, and we can never really know what the future holds. When it comes to sex, good sex often requires time and practice with the same partner, so when we have a good sexual relationship with someone, that's something else to consider holding on to.

When it's wanted, casual sex certainly also can have its own merits, as can sexual exploration and experimentation with more than one partner. So, what can your current partner offer you, if both of you feel your relationship needs to be, or is best, monogamous? What can you offer her? How do you benefit from this? What are you finding in this relationship? What aren't you? In terms of other potential partners, or not continuing this relationship, what could other partners offer you, and you them? How would you benefit more or less from leaving this to pursue other partnership? What might you find in those other relationships you don't have now, and what might you not find which you have now?

In some ways, when you find yourself in the kind of situation you're in, it's a bit like deciding if you want to stay living in a hometown you love for a while, or try living a few other places instead: there are going to be pros and cons with either choice. If you don't try living other places, you may miss opportunities to discover new things about yourself, new places you like even more than where you're at. If you don't stay in a place you know you love, you might discover that those other places aren't as good as the one you left behind. If you move away, then later come back, what you left might not be the same, or may have moved on without you.

Obviously, these are never easy or simple choices, and no matter which one we make, we might miss out on or discover certain opportunities or valuable, meaningful experiences. Some people do find that having more than one partner is important to them and something they need: others don't feel that way. As well, some people will report that even after having a few partners, they could have taken or left those experiences, while others will say they feel like all of their sexual experiences with partners have been of value. As a side note, while yes, on average, men and women have reported (and that's a critical factor: this is self-reporting which may or may not be accurate) having several partners in a lifetime (also critical, since your lifetime has barely begun), what averages tell us are mean commonalities of experience: what they don't tell us is what is or is not best for us as individuals.

But you're young. You can feel it out in your hometown for a while, as it were, and if as time goes on, the desire to see what else is out there grows, more seriously consider exploring other locales. This isn't a choice you have to make right now: even if you stick with this for years and then change your mind, you'll have a lot of living left to do.

You have time, if you're loving where you're at today, to see how it goes and how you feel about it as time goes on. You're just starting this relationship as an adult, and adult life tends to toss different things into the mix: you get to see how that goes when it comes to both of you and your relationship, and if your wants and needs -- not just in terms of sexual partnership, but with everything -- remain in sync.

It sounds to me like you're feeling like you have to decide, this very minute, if this is an lifelong, exclusive partner or not, and that strikes me as hasty and as an unnecessary pressure. You don't have to decide that now, and neither does she.

In fact, even when it comes to enjoying what you have, I'd advise that you don't try and make that choice right now: if we dwell overmuch on a potential future, we can often miss all the good stuff that we've got right now, and that'd be a shame since it sounds pretty awesome at the moment. As well, planning for the whole of a life when you both have barely begun yours strikes me as rushing things. I personally think that 18 and 19 is young to be committing to a lifelong partnership: in your late teens and through your twenties, you're likely to do a lot of changing and a lot of self-discovery you haven't done yet, and the same goes for your girlfriend. I know just speaking for myself that I could not have predicted at 19 the person I am, what I want, what works for me at 38, even though in some essential ways I haven't changed that much.

What I'd suggest for you, since you seem to have such a great relationship that you cherish now, is that you give it some more time. See how it goes, see how you both feel, see how much this is and stays in line with what you feel you want for your life now and discover you may want as time goes on. Just like sexual experience with other partners is an opportunity, so is this, and it can be a bit tougher to find.

You can also talk to your partner now about these feelings: I think that would be helpful and productive and also help you both understand each other and deepen your relationship. I know that can seem scary or precarious, but you're both young, and it's unlikely you're the only one who has had these thoughts. You both might even talk about if exclusive, lifelong monogamy is something either of you wants to seriously consider yet, and talk about how you both feel about that. You might talk about points at which you think you should check in with one another about this as time goes by. Or, if you don't feel like you can yet talk to her about this, how about talking to a friend or a family member who is or has had to make the same kinds of choices?

I hope this provided some clarity for you, and potentially some things to consider you haven't yet. I'd like to support you by making clear that any choice you make with this, if you feel like it's your best choice, is a good one, and to encourage you to trust your own intuition and to value your own wants and needs, whatever they may be. I also hope that whatever your good stuff is in the present, you're able to savor and enjoy it for what it is, right here in the present, and take those positive experiences with you, wherever life may take you.

Here are a few extra links which might offer you a little more to consider:

written 25 Jul 2008 . updated 20 Jan 2009

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