Dear Comrade Femme #10: The Thin Line Between Boundaries & Demands

"Dear Comrade Femme," is an advice column meets queer theory daydream meets insurrectionary love letter. With her toolkit (working-class roots, queer femme modality, a PhD, and a little magic), Comrade Femme responds to your questions about politics, sex, identity, feelings, work, family, friendship, astrology, and the intersections of them all. Write to her at and put "Dear Comrade Femme" in the title. xo

***Update!!! DCF is now on an indefinite hiatus. Thank you for all your letters, it's been a real gift to share energy and empathy with you! Also, ps, if any pubs want to ~pay~ me to dish out this advice, please do reach out! Dear Comrade Femme would love a home on your site!***

Dear Comrade Femme,

Several weeks ago I discovered that my husband of 12 years had been having an affair for 6 months with one of his former high school students who is now 21. It was an emotional and sexual affair, and he took great risks such as taking two days off work to spend with her, and going to see her on his lunch breaks and planning periods. He has been a teacher for a decade and has always been liked by his students, coworkers, and administration. However, after an infidelity early in our relationship that centered around my husband only being able to get his self worth from attention from women, I expressed my uneasiness about his teaching older high schoolers. He was of course offended, and still says that he has never been attracted to one of his students, although I'm unsure of what I believe due to his rationalization of dating someone only 6 years older than our teenage daughter. His administrators know about the affair, and because she was not a current student, his job is secure.

I have several problems with his continuing to teach as we work through this, even though he says that what sounds a lot like a midlife crisis is over and "the fog has lifted." We have been in marriage counseling for 4 months, the same length of time I have been seeing my personal therapist. He has seen his therapist for two years and is now being honest with him about everything, so I do have hope, but I don't want to place unnecessary stumbling blocks in our path. We have 3 children, and I want to preserve our family.

My issues with him teaching are: The line has already been crossed once, although not as egregiously as with a current student. Still, I fear that this will make it less taboo and easier to rationalize it if an opportunity with a junior or senior presents itself. He has said that he would change careers to keep our marriage, but does not want to because much of his identity is tied up in being a teacher. Am I correct that this is not a good environment for him? I believe that he is sincere about wanting to manufacture his own positive self esteem rather than having someone feed it to him through attention or sex, but there's no reason to make it harder than it has to be.

I am also worried about his drinking, which has been an issue years ago, with him blacking out nightly until I begged him to stop. It is his way of relaxing now he says, but he started meeting this former student out at bars and formed the relationship with her there. Alcohol makes people more flirty, sexual, open with secrets, and it makes sharing inappropriate things so much easier. Bars are where single people go to get laid, especially in the city that we live in. It just seems like such a bad idea for that to be a favorite past time, especially because the infidelity early in our relationship was partially blamed on being high and not thinking clearly. He's taking responsibility for his actions, and I'm letting him, but teaching high schoolers and continuing to drink just seem like unnecessary risks to take while we're trying to save our marriage and family. Am I wrong?


Struggling Spouse

Dear Struggling Spouse,

I am so deeply sorry that you’re going through what sounds like a true moment of relationship hell. I have been there in those spaces when you must get through the day as though your entire version of truth and reality hasn’t been shattered. Those moments you pretend in public as though the conversations in your closed-door bedroom don’t feel sometimes like life or death. The questions become clouds that follow you...Should I stay, should I go, what are my needs/boundaries in order for this to work?

I hear that you know you want to stay and keep doing the work. I admire and commend you for that. I think there are too many black and white narratives in the world - if he cheats, he’s supposed to be kicked to the curb, but we know it’s not so simple. So how do you stay, how do you rebuild?

You narrow your challenges down to two areas: his job as a teacher, and his drinking. I want to talk about both of those, but I also want to say upfront that these are symptoms of the bigger issues, which is of course, trust. He’s made bad decisions sober, and there are young women everywhere. But I see what you’re trying to say - you could practice a harm reduction of sorts, decrease the chances for failure. So let’s talk about what that might look like.

Requesting that your partner change a problematic relationship to alcohol is an entirely reasonable request. Especially if he admitted that it clouded his discernment and ultimately hurt you (and likely others). It’s okay to set a boundary: “Your nights at the bar aren’t working for my sense of trust and security right now, and you’ve acknowledged the ways they’ve been harmful to you and us. It would make me feel better if you stopped going, at least for now.” What may not be as effective: “If you don’t stop going the bars, I’m leaving.” Nor, “If you don’t stop going to the bars, it’s clear you don’t love me/are horrible/can never be trusted.”

It’s tricky work walking the line between rules and boundaries - the former, to me, is about controlling other people’s autonomy, whereas the latter is protecting your own. You’re completely in the right to say what does and doesn’t work for you. It feels less okay to say what your husband can and can’t do.

I would, dear Struggling Spouse, say the same - but even more firmly - about his job. Unfortunately, under capitalism, we all have to work, and to make a request that your husband risk his livelihood, I promise you, will only make things worse.

I don’t mean to sound so harsh. I’m speaking from experience - admittedly, not in a marriage, but in a relationship I thought would lead to one. It was a classic case of a good relationship going sour fast, and in a period of weakness I snooped into some emails knowing in my gut that there was something there to find - and I was right. Greeting me from his inbox was a photo of a woman (a “friend” he had just seen on a work trip) performing oral sex, which he had taken from his position above her. I was completely shattered. The fight that night (and for the weeks into months that followed) were volcanic. Devastating. Shattered glass. Enough screaming and crying for a lifetime.

He was sorry, of course. To make him prove it, I punished him every way I could think of. Obviously he would never be allowed to see or speak to that woman again. He would come home immediately after work. If he ever had to go on a work trip again, he knew it would be with as much of my surveillance as possible. And I would remind him of his indiscretion every chance I could.

I’m not proud of any of this. I’ve known for years now (this was over ten years ago) how deeply toxic our relationship had become, and how I contributed to that dynamic as much as him. But at the time, Struggling Spouse, it all seemed incredibly reasonable. I am guessing, from the tone of your letter, that you are where I was. Of course it’s your right to control him. But, sweet hurting darling, it’s not.

Of course my relationship ended, horribly. Surveilling his every move made our every interaction full of resentment rather than repair. Harm rather than healing. Of course you’re angry, but that energy can only get you so far. If you want to stay - if you really want to stay - you’ll have to way to tap into something softer.

Oh, and he did end up cheating again. Truly, I’m not sure he would have if I hadn’t been so hell-bent on punishing him. Which is NOT to say it was “my fault” or that anything at all is “your fault”, but that as terrible as cheating is, there are other things that we do in relationships that are also terrible. Punishment, with no end in sight, among them.

Sweet one, I know what pain-as-anger is. I know all about unimaginable-hurt-that-looks-like control. Can’t I/he see you’re just suffering? That all these demands are because you’re so broken and need something, anything, to cling to in order to believe you can be okay again? I do see. I see you. I’ve been there. And I still, with all the love in my heart, would ask that you move forward loving yourself so deeply that you can assert boundaries that are in the service of healing and not rules in the service of penalty.

You have every right to assert your boundaries. Your needs. Tell him how certain behaviors make you feel. Get deep in Therapy 101 and use those “I” statements (“I feel sad when...” rather than “You make me sad when…”). Stand up for yourself and your needs. But don’t do it in a way that makes ultimatums of your needs. A relationship worth fighting for won’t need a threat to hold it.

You deserve a love in which you feel secure. I truly hope you find it with your husband. But, tender heart, no matter what, I know you can find it with yourself.

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