Q: Dear APW,
I’m going through what I’ve been assured is ‘typical’ late 20s engagement envy. And on the surface, it feels that way. My girlfriends are all getting engaged, and my partner and I are at least a year away from that. I’m going through the motions and trying to find the appropriate excitement for them while feeling like I am behind everyone, despite not feeling that marriage is some kind of goal to check off the list.
But my feelings are being complicated by extreme guilt. I am a bisexual woman in a relationship with a cis man whose sexuality is “queer-ish,” to quote him. To the outside world, we look like a heterosexual couple, and always will. Neither of us has any plans to come out to our families as neither of us are brave enough to burn all our bridges, and only a select few friends even know we aren’t straight. My engagement envy feels like complicit, heteronormative behavior, and like I’m forcing myself deeper and deeper into the closet and betraying my quietly held LGBT values. I don’t know how to begin to be a better friend and tend to my irrational envy when I can barely manage the guilt of not being out and performing heteronormative gender roles.
—Multifaceted Jumble of Emotions
A: Dear MJE,
There’s a lot going on here. I suggest starting with the acknowledgement that all feelings are valid, even when those feelings seem irrational, contradictory, or not in line with how we imagine our ideal/best version of ourselves might feel. The feelings will be there, regardless of what we think about those feelings or what we believe it says about who we are as people. Give yourself the space and permission to feel fully whatever arises. Your feelings don’t define you, your relationship, or your capacity to be a good friend and an authentic human being.
When we feel guilty about something that we aren’t in a position to change, we walk a fine line that can too easily plunge us into shame. Shame shuts us down, eroding our relationship with ourself and with those around us.
When we stay vulnerable, when we allow our feelings, but don’t let them define us, we can get curious. And that’s a much nicer space to live in, versus being frustrated at ourselves for being complex humans in a complex world. Think about it this way: can you shift guilt into an invitation for compassion? Because when we have compassion for ourselves, it makes it much easier for feelings to move through us with ease rather than turbulence.
If that sounds a little too hippied-out for you, well… let me just tell you that it works, so it’s worth giving a try. We have to remove the resistance to feeling what we feel, if we are going to untangle this.
As for guilt around not being 100% fully out to everyone you know—your out-ness does not make you more or less you. You are still 100% bisexual and/or queer regardless of who knows. It is not safe, emotionally, psychologically, or even physically for everyone to be out. Your relationship with your family is a part of your overall wellness, and you know them best. If it’s not a good idea to come out to them—honor that. Honor how it makes you feel. But don’t confuse not being out with being inauthentic or taking a heteronormative pass. No one has a right to all the intimate details of your life. People will interpret your life through their own lens and make up their own stories about who you are, but it doesn’t make those stories true. Only you get to choose what’s true for you. Know your truth. Embody it. No one else’s perceptions can change who you are. Those who don’t judge or shame you for being who you are are the ones who get to see and know even more of you. Those who find wrongness with who you are don’t get access to the more vulnerable parts of you. That’s not deception, it’s called having healthy boundaries.
So. Envy. It tends to happen when we are so aware of the awesome stuff happening in other people’s lives that we forget what’s uniquely awesome about our own. Envy highlights what we don’t have—and think we want—rather than what we do have. The best cure I know of for envy is to turn your focus to acknowledging the things and people in your life that nourish you, the relationships you cherish, and the sweet spots of your still-unfolding life. Where you are right now in your life and your relationship is special. You won’t always be here. You are navigating some challenging terrain while nurturing a partnership that might one day lead to marriage. The foundation you lay now is important to all the years to come. We can look at others and compare their lives to ours, or we can celebrate and be wholly present in the life WE are creating.
You’ve been struggling with some heavy feelings—have you offered your partner the opportunity to provide comfort and empathy or hold space for you? Have you shared your concerns and challenges with being queer-ish, bisexual, cisgender, and seemingly heteronormative, and how all of these factors play into the future you’d like to build? There’s a lot of opportunity here for some serious and needed dialogue. As you focus on your own partnership and what you are creating—giving space and permission for all feelings, even the most unpleasant ones—the engagement envy can give way to appreciation and excitement for your relationship, exactly where it is.
Finally, make sure you keep leaning into your own inner questions, desires, and truths. Stay curious. Continued exploration of your sexuality might lead to greater confidence and assurance in your relationship AND your individual queer identities. Confident self-awareness and acceptance make a really strong foundation for any lasting partnership. Start there.