Dear Dr. NerdLove,
My entire family is dead, and I’ve been living with my only close and reasonably well-off friend and her husband since losing my job and housing in the summer of 2020. I have severe anxiety and a number of physical health issues that all together mean I am not capable of working more than part-time for the foreseeable future. (Yes, I’ve applied for disability; apparently I’m not disabled enough.)
For the last couple months my friend and her husband have been increasingly hinting that I need to move out — they want to have a baby before she’s too old, but my stuff and I are taking up both their spare bedrooms. For my part, I can’t stand babies, and my anxiety is exacerbated by being around anyone under 18 (from 0-9, it’s the loud noises and sudden movements; from 10-18 it’s the triggered memories of bullying). But if they accept that I’m unable to work enough to support myself, then my only other option is to find an SO to support me.
My friend thinks the only reason I’m reluctant to do this is that I’m a 38-year-old virgin, I grew up in a conservative Christian home and town (where I continued to live with my parents until their deaths), and while I came out as pansexual several years ago, I still have hang ups about actually expressing it. So she’s been trying to talk me through that. And while those are factors, I’m ashamed to talk about the most major factor. Which is simply that I don’t think I could stand to kiss or have sex with anyone as ugly as I am.
This is not just low self-esteem: I’m morbidly obese, with about the least attractive weight distribution possible; I have a gigantic double chin; adult acne; short, thinning head hair; gnarly body hair; and between my face fat and the thickness of my glasses, my eyes are so minuscule you can’t even tell that they’re blue. The only person I can imagine going for me is someone equally fat and/or ugly who is desperate for sex, but can’t get anyone better — and I feel like I’d rather die than touch someone like that, no matter how smart or nice or rich they are. I seriously don’t think I’m the kind of person who could ever become attracted to someone I wasn’t attracted to before just because of their personality. (And that’s only fair — I’m really smart, funny, kind, loyal, progressive, etc., but no one has ever been attracted by that, even people who liked me as a friend.)
But is it right to choose to continue to be supported by my friend instead? My part-time job covers my groceries, meds, car expenses, etc., so all she really has to do is provide a roof. We’ve been close since grade school and I’m confident she would never throw me out in the street, even if she couldn’t have a baby and her husband (who I can tell pretty much hates me) left her. But I’d really hate for it to come to that.
So please tell me: is there any possibility of someone like me getting an at least average-looking, non-overweight partner? Would I be better off focusing on women, since women (as a whole, I know I’m an anomaly) seem more open to dating people less attractive than themselves? (E.g., you see attractive women with unattractive men a lot more than vice versa.) The problem there is that I’m more attracted to men, so I’m not sure even that would be good enough — I’ve had crushes on fairly average men, but only on really beautiful women.
Finally, there’s no escaping the fact that if I could just get paid what I make now plus the cost of a one-bedroom apartment, utilities, TV, and internet, without working any more hours, I would never even consider trying to date, but continue to satisfy myself with crushes and fantasies of people light-years out of my league. Is this unhealthy, and might my friend be right, and dating actually be good for me? How can I get over feeling like a whore if I go into dating primarily because I need support? Is it morally better to be a leech, because at least you’re not selling yourself, or a whore, because at least you’re providing something in return?
Leech Or Whore? (she/her)
Let’s dispense with something right off the bat: this isn’t about leagues. This is about something deeper.
I’m not going to lie, LoW; this is the kind of letter I hate getting because, honestly, there are relatively few immediately actionable answers here. Most of the answers to your situation are going to involve long-term effort, which aren’t going to pay off in the short-term or provide an interim solution to your issues.
Part of this is due to the fact you’re coming to this with some fairly serious self-limiting beliefs; you’re treating your issues as permanent and personal, defining yourself as a person who’s hideous inside and out. You don’t just see yourself as unloveable because of your body and weight, but by what you have to offer to others. I mean, you literally give the two options that define you as “leech” and “whore”… neither of which exactly make it easy for you to work out the solutions to your situation.
And here’s the thing: for all the bullshit we grow up with about “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me”… words not only hurt us, but they have the potential to wound us deeper and more seriously than mere physical damage ever could. The way we talk about ourselves directly affects not just how we see ourselves, but our emotional resilience and our ability to succeed in the face of adversity. Words are indeed magic and names have power, which is why we need to be careful how we name ourselves; when you’ve labeled yourself a leech or a whore or a loser or the worst, you set yourself up for failure. You end up creating a negative feedback loop that plays directly to the inherent cognitive biases we all have; you trigger your confirmation bias, which causes you to focus like a laser on all the ways you fail and miss or discount the ways you succeed. Each failure — or perceived failure, which isn’t the same thing — is taken as proof that you’re an unredeemable loser, while every success or potential for success doesn’t count.
This is one of the reasons why I tell people that one of the most important things you can do is consciously reframe the way you look at things. Choosing to look at things in the most positive light — yes, you have these handicaps and setbacks but look at how much you’ve accomplished despite them — functionally hacks your confirmation bias and helps train you to look for the most positive options, even in a sea of shitty ones. As the sage once said, since your beliefs control the outcome, you may as well choose the beliefs that serve your needs… regardless of whether they’re “real” or not.
Case in point: you believe that you’re undesirable because of your weight and fat distribution; you aren’t “thicc” in the way that means you’re curvy, you’re just fat. It certainly sounds like you’ve absorbed the negative messaging that society drowns people in about obesity — that fat people are lazy, undesirable and that they “deserve” the disdain they receive because it’s all their own fault. It becomes a moral judgement, where obesity is treated as an external manifestation of some internal fault or sin… and it certainly sounds like this is one more thing you use to flagellate yourself with. In reality, fat people — men and women, both, and not just the ones who are conventionally attractive or “fat” in approved ways — have sex, get married and have long and fulfilling relationships. Many have them with folks who are conventionally attractive or who fit the more socially desirable body type. They aren’t anomalies, they aren’t unusual or dating freaks or dating gold diggers… they’re people who found folks who loved them for who they actually are. It does happen.
Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying “just be positive and things will happen for you.” I don’t believe in bullshit about manifesting things through the power of belief and positive vibes. What I believe — and science backs me up on this — is that attitude and belief contribute to giving us the strength, motivation and resiliency to succeed, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
I mean, take the way you’ve described yourself in this letter. Would you be willing to date someone — someone who’s successful and physically attractive to you — who talks and believes the way you do in this letter? That alone is going to make it harder to find someone, anyone, to date… doubly so if you’re just looking for someone to support and provide for you. Relationships are partnerships, with both partners contributing to the relationship itself, and right now, you make it pretty clear that you don’t feel like you have anything to give that people would want.
(And as an aside: there are relationships and marriages that are about affection and companionship but not romantic love, sex or a physical connection; they’re called “companionate marriages”, and they’re more common than you would think.)
But like I said: this isn’t about “change the way you describe yourself and you’ll be successful beyond your wildest dreams”, it’s “change the way you describe yourself and you’ll be equipped to help yourself“. The solution to your issues isn’t to be a leech or whore, it’s to try to address the underlying problems so that you can succeed. It sounds to me like the first step would be finding ways to help manage your anxiety, which I suspect exacerbates all of the other issues. I know finding mental health care can be difficult and expensive, even seemingly out of reach for someone with limited income, but there are options out there. Captain Awkward has some invaluable posts about finding low-cost or even free mental health resources in your area. Even apps like BetterHelp and Talkspace can help get you started on handling your anxiety and other emotional issues. Will these be a magic bullet? Hell no; even under the best of circumstances, therapy (and medication) are a long term process… but getting started means that you are better able to make progress to where you need to be.
Besides therapy, I would also suggest looking at practical steps you could take towards short-term solutions that would make it easier to support yourself in the long-term. While these aren’t going to be a magical solution, any more than therapy would be, those steps could provide a feasible foundation that would also help you feel less like a useless “leech”. As much as I see the gig economy as an indictment of end-stage capitalism, picking up freelance work on sites like Fiverr or Taskrabbit might help supplement your income enough to make it possible to at least put money towards a one-bedroom apartment. You might also look at finding a roommate or roommates to make it more feasible to find a place to live if and when you have to move out of your friend’s place. It might feel odd to do this as a 38 year old woman instead of some up-and-coming 20-something… but honestly, it’s not that different from the situation you have now.
You may notice that I don’t bring up things like “lose weight”; that’s in no small part because not only are there a shitload of factors that make significant weight loss more difficult than “eat less and exercise”, but because even if you fit into smaller clothes, that doesn’t change how you feel about yourself. Even if you were suddenly able to get gastric bypass surgery (which is fraught with issues in and of itself) or magically wave a wand to suddenly lose body fat, it doesn’t change your outlook. You’re not fat because you’re a bad person, nor are you a bad person because you’re fat; you just believe you’re worth less. The internal belief that you’re a leech is going to sabotage things, even if you were a size 8.
Do I think it would be unhealthy for you to forgo dating entirely and just satisfy yourself with crushes and fantasies? Not really, so long as you actually have a social life with friends and people who you care for and who care for you. There are folks don’t date or pursue romantic relationships and life fulfilling and happy lives; the love of their life is the love of their life. Loneliness, on the other hand, is a literal killer… and I worry that you’re trying to justify accepting loneliness as the only option.
TL;DR: you’re presenting a false dichotomy, where the only options are to be a leech or to be a whore. I reject the idea that these are the only options you have, and you should as well. Focusing on your emotional and mental well-being will help you see that, and put you in a better position to decide what would be the best life for you… whether it ultimately entails trying to find a relationship, being satisfied on your own, or some combination of the two. Giving yourself the love and care you need will make it easier to find love elsewhere if you want it, and to support yourself in the long run. But that needs to start with active steps towards improving your mental and emotional health. Start to work on those, and the rest will be that much easier.
Hi Dr. NerdLove,
I hope you are doing well and staying safe during these difficult times.
I am an extremely socially awkward person with OCD. I have recently started going to therapy and taking medication for it, which has helped a lot. I am looking to get into a serious relationship. But I’m not sure where to start. I keep falling for girls who turn out to already have boyfriends, and it’s been a bit demoralizing.
I wish you’d included a little more information, FR, such as how you’re meeting these women and discovering that they have partners. But, absent specifics, I can at least provide a little informed conjecture that may help.
Most of the time, when people tell me that they keep falling for people who already have partners, it’s because they’ve been developing crushes on people they meet socially, rather than trying to meet people specifically to date. More often than not, this comes about because they meet someone at a shared activity like work, class or church, or who they see regularly but don’t know well.
Now to be fair1, I do suggest meeting women through social activities; it’s one of the best ways to find people who’re compatible with you and who share your interests. However, it requires being willing to take the initiative early on… and some folks, especially people who are more on the socially awkward or inexperienced side of things don’t.
Rather than starting from a position of gauging mutual interest and asking them out on a date, they end up in The Friend Zone2 because, well, they act like a friend instead of a potential lover. And because they don’t act on their interest early on or, in many cases, avoid relationship talk entirely, they end up with a one-sided infatuation that ultimately ends up foundering on the shoals of “oh, she’s already seeing someone”. If they had acted earlier and just proposed a date, then they would’ve found out earlier. This way, rather than having invested time and emotional energy in an unavailable partner, they would’ve freed themselves to go pursue a relationship with someone who is available and let this relationship be whatever it will become.
This is one of the reasons why I’m a firm advocate of making your move early, before you’ve overly invested in someone. Rather than let things linger for weeks or months, asking someone on a date — not “to hang out some time” or “get together” but a proper and unmistakable date — is fast and efficient; you learn early on if they’re available and interested and it’s much easier to move on if they aren’t.
That having been said, you’ve only recently started dealing with your OCD and any awkwardness and anxiety that comes from it. That can make it a little harder to find the courage to step up to the plate early on and leave you more prone to those one-sided infatuations. What I would suggest in your case is to focus on meeting people in places where folks are specifically and explicitly single and looking for dates or relationships. That means that you should start by getting on dating apps like Hinge and Bumble; taking a little time out of each day to go through match with people will help ensure that you’re encountering people who are actively looking for people to date. I would also suggest looking for MeetUps, networking events and other in-person get-togethers that are specifically for singles to meet. Many cities have events that are unambiguously arranged for single people in particular careers (engineers, lawyers, “young professionals”) or with particular interests to mix and mingle and possibly spark up a romance. Because these events are earmarked specifically for singles, you know that everyone who’s there is actively looking for a partner; you don’t run the risk of coming off like the guy who tries to use MeetUps as a date ATM.
By combining these two approaches, you’ll maximize your chances of meeting someone awesome and single, while minimizing the likelihood of falling for someone who’s just not available.
However, I wouldn’t write off those women who already have boyfriends… or the ones who like you but aren’t into you romantically, for that matter. I would actually recommend staying friends with them — a genuine friend, rather than hoping that they break up with their partner or change their mind. Those friends have the potential to be your best and most valuable resource and ally. First and foremost, while they may have partners, they almost certainly have friends who don’t… and would love to meet an awesome guy like you. You have to be willing to ask for their help — tell them directly “hey, I’m currently single and looking, do you know anyone who I might want to meet”, rather than hoping they’ll bring it up unprompted — but they can be instrumental to helping you meet someone who will end up being your perfect partner. Similarly, going out with them as friends can make it easier to meet single women — in fact, female friends often make the best wings when you’re out and about.
In both cases, they are providing what’s known as “social proof” — that is, they’re vouching for you as a great guy who’s worth getting to know. When introducing you to her friends, she’s letting them know that you’re a catch; she’s vouching for you directly and indirectly, through her words and through your friendship. Similarly, when you’re out having fun, her presence is a mark in your favor. After all, they wouldn’t be hanging out with you and having a good time if you weren’t awesome and trustworthy. That makes it much easier to strike up conversations and get the proverbial ball rolling. Even if these new women aren’t necessarily your future girlfriend, they too help provide social proof and demonstrate that you’re worth getting to know. At the very least, becoming friends with them means that you become part of their social circle as well. And just as with the women you met who already have boyfriends, just because they aren’t the love of your life, that doesn’t mean that they won’t be the one who would introduce you to her.
The last thing I would suggest though, is to see what the women you’ve been meeting have in common. Sometimes the reason why guys tend to keep falling for women with partners is specifically because they’re unavailable. Men who have issues with believing that they’re worthy or deserving of love or who are afraid of success will often sabotage themselves subconsciously by going for people they know they have no chance with. The fact that they know on some level that a relationship isn’t possible is what draws them in. It feels like they’re trying to make a connection when, in reality, their subconscious is “protecting” them by ensuring that this relationship can’t go anywhere.
If that’s the case for you, then that’s something I would suggest bringing up with your therapist. They’re in the best position to help you unpack that issue and find practical and actionable ways to work through it.