I Love My Fiancé, but Am Totally Crushing on a Co-Worker

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The Sweet Spot

The “Dear Sugars” podcast is an advice program hosted by Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed. The audio contains more letters; submissions are welcome at dearsugars@nytimes.com. If you’re reading this on desktop, click the play button below to listen. Mobile readers can find “Dear Sugars” on the Podcasts app (iPhone and iPad) or Radio Public (Android and tablet).

Dear Sugars,

I am a 26-year-old woman and recently engaged. I struggle with anxiety and so I figure being anxious about my engagement is to be expected, right? My fiancé and I met at work. I’m a server at a restaurant, and he was the manager (he’s since moved on to another job). We kept our relationship a secret at first. It was romantic, thrilling, passionate and hot. We’d stay up all night drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes. Once we became a couple, we started prioritizing our goals. We eventually moved in together, and our life now revolves around saving money for a house and future family. I’m still in love with him, but there’s definitely less sex. Though I couldn’t bear to be without him, I also feel more platonic for him than I used to. Is that normal?

A new guy was hired at the restaurant recently, and I’m attracted to him and we flirt. He’s the bad-boy type. He asked me to get a drink and I declined, but I told him I had a crush on him. He seemed shocked and thanked me for telling him. Now I’m embarrassed. If I pursued him and my fiancé found out, I’d deeply regret it. I fear I’m going to sabotage my relationship. I’ve realized this co-worker is a symbol of the lust and passion I don’t have anymore. I know I have to move forward, but I miss the past. I’m scared of starting this part of my adult life.

Anxious Fiancée

Steve Almond: You can do the math here, Anxious. Of course it was hot when you were just boozing and schmoozing with the manager at work, when the sex was something forbidden (or at least covert). There was nothing enduring at risk, so it was safely partitioned from your anxiety. Now that hot lover is your potential life partner. You’re talking mortgage rates and babies. Of course you’re yearning for the days when the sex was a one-way ticket to bliss, not the avenue to adulthood. The question for you to confront is whether this crush reflects what I’ll call “manageable ambivalence” or deeper misgivings about your engagement. It’s best to be honest with yourself — and your partner — in either case.

Cheryl Strayed: Steve’s right that so much of answering this question has to do with figuring out how strongly you feel the sense of loss you describe, Anxious. I don’t know one person in a long-term monogamy who isn’t nostalgic for the nights of whiskey and cigarettes, but most are O.K. with the fact that they’re gone. That you’re so tortured about it gives me pause. You write that you don’t have lust and passion in your life anymore and if that’s true, I’d say you should let your doubts and anxieties be your guide. Sometimes you want the hot guy at work because it turns out the hot guy at home isn’t for you. (This is especially true when you’re 26.) Sometimes you want the hot guy at work because the hot guy at home has become more complicated and the deepening aspects of your maturing love scare you.

You ask if it’s normal to feel platonic love for your fiancé and the answer is yes, but not if it has entirely replaced romantic love. Has it? Or is it that the companionate love you have for your fiancé runs alongside your romantic love for him and that feels new and uncomfortable to you? In most long relationships, the two kinds of love coexist. Finding a balance between them is among monogamy’s greatest challenges.

SA: The psychotherapist and researcher Esther Perel refers to this as the “love/lust split”: As we become more stable and secure in a relationship, we lose a sense of novelty and adventure that fuels the erotic imagination. Your infatuation with the new Mr. Dangerous is, as you seem to recognize, an attempt to recapture that magic. (Check out Ms. Perel’s excellent book “Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence” for a deeper discussion of the hows and whys.) All that being said, you still have to figure out whether you’re ready, at 26, for the long, good promise of monogamy. The toughest aspect of honoring that promise, by the way, isn’t the diminishing of lust. It’s the requirement that you be truthful. I know this crush is causing all kinds of drama for you. But it might be more helpful to see it as a necessary confusion, one that will force you to clarify your feelings about the commitment you’re considering.

CS: I was divorced at 25 because I hadn’t listened to my doubts before I got married. I’d become engaged for the same reason you cite, Anxious: because I couldn’t bear to be without the man I loved. But I wasn’t ready to be with him either — not in the way that marriage demands, anyway. I wasn’t done with whiskey and cigarettes! The deepest part of me knew that and instead of taking heed, I pushed that knowledge down, which soon led to misery.

SA: Cheryl is not saying you should break off your engagement! What she’s saying is that it’s a good thing you’re wrestling with this decision. Another good thing is that you haven’t cheated on your fiancé. Instead, you’re acknowledging your doubts. As a rule, humans don’t like to do that, because doubt causes us to feel, well, anxious. But doubt, if we have the courage to interrogate it, can be an unexpected ally.

CS: Steve and I don’t know whether you should marry your fiancé, but you do. You want to do two things, but you only get to do one. If you’re honest with yourself, you know what you want to do more. Let yourself do it, no matter what it is, even if it requires you to break your own heart — whether that be relinquishing the man you love or saying goodbye to the thrilling times of your early 20s. We have the strength to let go of even the things we treasure. Other treasures eventually replace them.