Dear Dr. NerdLove:
I’m a single 35F cis/straight who’s nearly at the end of my rope with dating. I’d like to think I’m a halfway decent catch- good family, reasonably cute, well educated, no criminal record, etc. The problem is I think maybe I’m intimidating to guys? I’m a physician and am used to making life-critical decisions every day; medicine is still a fairly male-dominated industry, so I have learned to stick up for myself and not take BS from people; I make pretty good money and can afford what I want, so I don’t need a man to pull out his wallet and treat me…. In fact, more often than not I want to pay on a first date (1. I don’t think it’s fair that dudes have to go broke just to date, and 2. If I pay then I don’t owe you anything- we’ve all heard the stories about the jerk who Venmo’d the girl the cost of her drink cuz she didn’t go home and blow him).
But it’s not just money. All of the guys I’ve ever dated said they wanted a Strong, Clever, Independent woman, but when they get me it’s like they can’t deal with the fact that I’m strong or clever or independent (all things I love about myself). My last boyfriend actually got mad at me when my car broke down and I called AAA before I called him. He said my not being “more damsel-y” made him feel unneeded and emasculated. This has been a recurring theme in most of the ends of my post-college relationships. To make matters worse, I’m into BDSM and the rougher stuff… while I think being submissive in bed is a great way for me to balance the scales, turns out this seems like another reason guys turn tail and run.
At first I thought I was being too picky, but over the past 7 years I’ve taken my Deal Breaker list and refined it down to 1. Actually single, 2. Non-smoker, 3. College educated, 4. No kids. I don’t think I’m asking for that much! I communicate my feelings, don’t play games, and don’t expect a guy to know what I’m thinking or what I want unless I’ve explicitly told him. And yet, I’m about to rip my hair out. So I turn to you. How do I stay true to my inner Wonder Woman without inadvertently doing an emotional Lorena Bobbitt on my relationship?
-What’s Wrong With Being Confident?
It’s interesting that you bring up Wonder Woman, WWWBC. For a long, long time, writers have bounced hard off the “Wonder Woman is single” problem. Superheroes having relationships have been a part of the genre since their inception; Superman has had Lana Lang, Lori Lemaris, Lois Lane and so on, Spider-Man had Gwen Stacy and Mary-Jane Watson, Aquaman has Mera and so forth. But Wonder Woman presents a unique problem in that it’s hard to write the usual relationship drama for her. Can you really picture Diana, princess of the Amazons being worried about trying to maintain a relationship AND her responsibilities as Wonder Woman? What kind of man in the DC Universe is going to feel like he can measure up to a literal demi-goddess? Wouldn’t the power imbalance throw the whole thing off?
Every time someone’s tried to untangle this particular Gordian knot, it’s usually involved pairing her up with another superhero: Superman, Batman, even Aquaman at one point (hey, they’re both royalty!).
(And since Warner Brothers has never had the guts to let Wonder Woman be canonically bisexual or gay, there’s a whole host of other characters taken off the playing field entirely, but that’s a discussion for another column).
But the fact that folks assume that only a character who is equally as powerful, if not moreso, could work as a potential partner is kind of telling; it speaks to an ongoing cultural idea that ok sure she’s one of the most powerful beings in the DC Universe, but her potential pairings might edge her out. It’s a continuation of “yes, we like seeing a woman who’s strong, clever and independent but we still need to see a world where she’s still a little less strong, clever and independent than her partner”.
I suspect that you can relate. That’s why this is the kind of letter that’s really frustrating to answer WWWBC because… well, mostly because the problem here is that you’re not doing anything wrong. This isn’t a “you” problem, it’s a “them” problem and the fact that society hasn’t quite pulled its head out of its ass yet. A lot of guys love the idea of dating a strong, independent woman, but they don’t like the reality of it.
Part of this comes from how guys are socialized to perceive their value as men. We’re taught that A Man Is A Provider and that what we bring to the table is our ability to do for others. This is one of the reasons why men sometimes mess up when our girlfriends and wives come to us with problems; we want to solve things instead of listening and empathizing. But when you take away that dynamic, men frequently feel lost or adrift; if our partners don’t need us for something, then how do we prove our worth to the relationship? Case in point: your ex who got annoyed at you for solving your car troubles on your own. The fact that he couldn’t come riding to your rescue eats away at him because if he’s not the hero somehow, then is he really even a man?
Which seems like it leads to an obvious solution: you can try to give him those moments of being needed. Giving them a win – letting them be your Prince Charming every once in a while, even if it’s just opening a pesky jar – soothes their ruffled feathers and lets them feel like they’re important and needed. But is that really a relationship dynamic that you want?
Similarly, you could pad your edges, soften your steely core and make yourself seem a little less exceptional; hide your identity as a goddess and pretend to be a mortal, lest men with fragile egos can’t handle dating you. But then that demands that you spend your entire relationship squeezing yourself into smaller and smaller spaces. How long can you spend in increasingly cramped and confining spaces, never able to fully stretch out or take up the room that you deserve and have worked for?
Alternately, you can look for your own Superman, someone who’s accomplished enough that they won’t feel intimidated by just how damn awesome you are. But not only are those guys thin on the ground in general (I mean, not everyone can be exceptional; the whole point is that they’re an exception) but even then, there’s the dynamic of “ok but who’s really the top here?” that can creep in. Finding a guy who’s at your level but also doesn’t worry about being surpassed is like trying to find an okapi; they’re out there, people’ve definitely seen them but they’re pretty hard to find.
But there’s another option: finding guys who are secure in themselves and comfortable being the support to a strong and independent woman. We’re finally reaching a point, culturally, where we’re starting to acknowledge the validity and value of guys who play the supporting role to more accomplished partners, instead of trying to compete on some level (or worse, drag them down… looking at you, Knocked Up). Movies like Always Be My Maybe and Long Shot have started to celebrate not just strong and ambitious women but partners who aren’t just cool with dating them but who’re proud of how awesome their partners are and willing to be the person helping them achieve greatness.
It doesn’t mean that they don’t bring anything to the table, mind you; they clearly have a lot to offer, especially on an emotional level. But instead of being intimidated by not being the dominant partner, they recognize that their worth isn’t in what they accomplish but in how they make their partners feel.
Even Wonder Woman occasionally finds the right man who’s willing to play support. In the recent movie, Steve Trevor never feels the need to try to exert himself or prove himself to Diana; instead he recognizes where he can best help her succeed and follows her lead instead.
The tricky part is finding the guys who are genuine, instead of playing Crouching Nice Guy, Hidden Douchebag. To bring it back to Wonder Woman for a moment, some of the men who seeks a relationship with her are the ones who want to conquer her or undermine her. They resent what she represents and so they look for ways that they can subtly take control rather than overtely. In Wonder Woman: Earth-One by Grant Morrison and Yanick Paquette, Dr. Leon Zeiko seems to be the right kind of guy for Diana: intelligent and ambitious but respectful, admiring and unintimidated. However, it becomes increasingly clear that Zeiko’s ultimate desire is to see her brought low. Sure, she may be an actual goddess, but she’s still “just” a woman and “taming” her proves just how important Zeiko is. He may not be able to compete with her on a physical level, but he can manipulate her, subvert her and diminish her, even as he seems to be helping and, in doing so, prove his superiority.
Which brings us back to the “no great solutions” issue. In an ideal world, men wouldn’t be as intimidated by accomplishments or feel that their value is measured by how dominant or needed they are. That’s a world worth aspiring towards and working to build… but that’s not the world we actually live in. We may be trying to get there, but we have to adjust to where we are now. And that means that the viable options require compromise.
You can try to diminish your light so as to not intimidate partners. This may make it easier to find relationships and partners, but at the cost of feeling confined and smothered. You can look for the guys who are at your level and work to find the ones who aren’t going to see your relationship as a competition of accomplishments. Or you can find your support class, the guys who are secure in themselves and genuinely want someone who’s smart, ambitious and accomplished without being intimidated or resentful.
But the cost of the latter is the risk of being single for longer than you might like. Finding them can be hard, because they can be thin on the ground and unevenly distributed on top of it.
The good thing is that living your truth openly, honestly and unapologetically will be your filter. The things that make you unique and desirable are the very things that are going to chase off the asshats who are fundamentally incompatible with you. The men who aren’t right for you will make themselves known pretty damn fast through their actions and their attitudes.
Now this doesn’t mean that you need to be large and in charge at all times. Some of those compromises may mean making some adjustments; it may help to split the check instead of insisting on paying for the first date, for example. Or you may find it easier to alternate: if they get the first round of drinks, you’ll get dinner, they get dessert and the two of you can split the cost of whatever else you’re doing. You don’t necessarily have to create moments for guys to feel useful or needed, but showing them that they’re appreciated and letting them know how they make your life better can make a crucial difference.
It may not be easy. It may mean long stretches of time without a partner. But when you find the right person? Then it’s entirely worth it.
Dear Dr. NerdLove,
I am writing to you because I don’t think you’ll be judgemental, just straight forward.
I’m a 66 year old woman who was married for 43 years, then divorced. A year ago, I married a guy who treats me very well and we seem to get along, even tho he is 13 years my junior. I love him, but have never been IN love with him.
Here’s the catch. About 6 years ago, I went to a class reunion and got reacquainted with my first ” love”. He is now married, as am I, but we stay in constant contact daily. Our spouses don’t know this.
He recently agreed that after 50 years, the magic is still there between the two of us, and we probably should have been together all along. We live 200 miles apart. Recently he made a trip back to our home town, (about an hour away from me) without his wife, to visit relatives who still live there. He invited me to join him at his hotel just for drinks, and to catch up on the last 50 years. I was all ready to go, then chickened out at the last minute. Part of me wanted to go, but part of me also felt like this was already cheating and I didn’t know if I could handle the resulting guilt if something were to happen.
I’m also insecure about it, because after all, even though I’m still considered attractive for my age, I’m not 16 anymore. But then again, neither is he. He said we will plan it again in the future. Should I go just out of curiosity to find out if he’s truly the one who got away? Or should I not go, and just be content with what I have, never knowing what could have been?
Your objective advice would be appreciated.
Torn Between Two Lovers
My objective advice is that this is a bad idea.
Now I’m pretty on the record on the fact that my feelings about cheating and infidelity are nuanced; I don’t think cheating is automatically the worst thing you can do in a relationship or an immediate relationship extinction-level event. But there’s a world of difference between “oops, I had too much to drink and failed my wisdom saving throw in a situation that is likely never going to happen again” and deliberately putting yourself into the position where cheating is more or less inevitable. Because just between you, me and the rest of the Internet, TBTL: that’s exactly where this is going. Let’s be real here: it wasn’t a question of IF something was going to happen, it was just a question of “how quickly”.
It’s not just a wacky coincidence that your first love was near by and without his wife in tow; it was by design. This was as much of a perfect setup for the two of you cheating on your spouses as you could want and it was done so deliberately. I mean, hell, he’s more or less told you that this is exactly what he’s doing; he’s even told you he’s going to set it up again. That’s no longer “oh hey, what strange happenstance,” that’s premeditation. The only difference between this and just planning on meeting up it a hotel room somewhere is that this set up has the fig leaf of plausible deniability; you weren’t “planning” on anything (except you both were), it “just happened”.
But honestly I don’t think anyone is going to buy that. Least of all your husband and his wife. He may not be asking people to burgle his house, but he’s making a LOT of noise about being gone for the weekend, leaving the key in the lock and a whole lot of “LOOK AT ALL THE EXPENSIVE SHIT I’VE GOT” signs in the front yard.
Here’s my advice: think in terms of orders of operation. You need to decide exactly what it is that you want and work outwards from there. Clearly, part of what you want is chemistry, that sense of desire and excitement… something that you’re not getting from your current husband. That means the first thing you need to do is sort things out with your current husband and the relationship you have and want to have with him going forward. That may mean ultimately deciding to end things. It may mean negotiating a companionate marriage, where your relationship is based around companionship and friendship but not necessarily sexual chemistry. That in turn, may mean negotiating a certain amount of openness, whether it’s permission to go see your first lover, for the two of you to both seek sex outside of the relationship or even a polyamorous situation.
At the same time, your first love needs to sort things out with his wife. Because right now, what he’s doing ain’t cool. Being in contact with an ex, even on the daily, is fine. The fact that she doesn’t know is also fine; relationships aren’t depositions and partners don’t need an accounting of every single thing you do. You’re allowed to have friends and contact with other people that your partner doesn’t know about. But what he’s doing isn’t just having friends outside of his relationship, it’s deliberately inviting trouble into it. If he sincerely believes that the two of you should take another swing at a relationship together, then he needs to be coming to this from a place of honesty and integrity. And that means squaring things with his wife. As with you and your husband, this may mean divorce, it may mean getting permission or it may mean renegotiating their relationship entirely. But going out of his way to set up circumstances where an affair “just happens” ain’t it. It’s disrespectful to you and it’s needlessly harmful to both of your spouses.
When and only when the two of you have resolved that part of the equation can things progress with your other guy. Otherwise you both risk blowing up three relationships in needlessly messy and painful ways.
I’m not saying that you can’t be with him, nor that you (or he or both) have to get divorced. But the way you’re both approaching this now is going to cause unnecessary harm to two people who don’t deserve it.
Think things through, decide what you want and find the best way for the two of you to make this happen… without causing more hurt than is absolutely necessary.