Dear Dr. NerdLove:
I’m writing to you in hopes of receiving your impartial insight into a particularly tricky personal situation. My wife (Alpha) and I just celebrated our 5th anniversary, although prior to getting married we’d already been in a long-term committed relationship that had culminated in living together. There’s one troublesome long-standing issue that’s been present in our relationship since the beginning, though: her ex. Let’s call him Beta.
The three of us have known each other since we were teenagers. At that time, we were all part of an online mailing list, and a few particular folks had formed a smaller, more tightly-knit offshoot. Beta was the one who invited me to join their group of about 8 others, one of whom was Alpha. At the point that I became friends with them, the two of them were already in a long-distance relationship and had already met up in person a few times. I got along better with Beta than Alpha at that that time, likely since he and I shared more interests during those years.
Fast forward several more years to the point where we are all ostensibly young adults. After graduating college, Beta happened to get a job in my neck of the woods. I still chatted with Alpha occasionally and I knew she and Beta were still seeing each other. What I didn’t know was that their relationship was already falling apart at this point. He had been cheating on her with some other online relationship that she found out about and confronted him about. They argued, had a break from each other, and then she tentatively forgave him and tried to get back together with him. That had only been one transgression out of a list of others she’d tried to overlook in an attempt to keep their relationship together though, and eventually the two of them broke up again. There was a period after that where I lost touch with Alpha as she was trying to juggle both picking up the pieces and studying abroad. When I graduated college myself, Beta offered to let me move in with him for a while.
Some years later, Alpha and I began talking more frequently. Eventually, she said she was interested in me. I was interested in her too, but felt torn at the time since I was still rooming with Beta. Before proceeding into a potential relationship, I wanted to talk to him and make sure that he was OK with me seeing his ex-girlfriend and that it wouldn’t be too awkward. He told me he wasn’t bothered by it, so I told her I wanted to give it a shot. We didn’t always click at first, but we eventually said ‘I love you’ to each other and began a serious relationship. I still didn’t know the details about her time with Beta and his cheating on her. She was vocal about her negative feelings toward him, but I stubbornly thought it was something that would ‘work out’ where she would eventually be friends with him again. When she came to visit, it seemed like they were trying to be cordial with each other, at least.
Now that we’ve been together for quite some time and had some long discussions about it, I understand that he cheated on her, and that rather than admitting to her that his feelings for her had diminished, he’d just let their relationship wither away because he wanted to avoid confrontation. I was greatly disappointed in him when I learned how he’d treated her. Beta doesn’t live around here any more, but my other local friends and I have continued to maintain an online friendship with him. That doesn’t make things easier for my wife, but she’s also said that she couldn’t bear to see me cast aside essentially my oldest friend. I keep wondering if things might be easier for her if I did. She’s seen a therapist who has validated the feelings she has about Beta and their relationship, but she’s not ‘free’ from those feelings and can’t fall back on the comfort of ‘well at least I never have to see or hear from him again’. She dreams of him frequently and wakes up feeling exhausted, angry, and depressed simply from having to think about him. I worry that even if he were truly out of her life completely, would any of that really just ‘stop’? I’m not expecting her to either forget or forgive him, but I want to help her not have to feel the pain of that past relationship constantly. Is there something more I should be doing for my wife? Am I being selfish in maintaining my friendship with Beta? I feel like he’s striving to be a better, more honest person. I think, “I’m sure I’ve hurt people when I was younger, too,” but I don’t know if I’m only looking at it through my ‘this guy was my best friend’ lens and I’m actually completely out of line.
Thanks very much for both your time and for any feedback you have to offer, Doc.
Exes & Oh No’s
First things first, Exes & Oh No’s: you have the right to have friends completely outside of your relationship with your wife. In fact, having friends who are just “yours” is a key component when it comes to making your relationship work; not only does this keep your partner from feeling like they’re your sole source of emotional support and intimacy, but it gives you a life outside of your relationship. This can be important; even people in the most intimate, loving relationships need their space. Having friends outside of your relationship give you a place to go for companionship and community as well as some much-needed time to let your relationship breathe and decompress.
Now where this gets tricky is when those friendships conflict directly with your relationship. While our partners don’t get an automatic veto on who we can or can’t be friends with, there can be times when our relationships with other people cause strife within our romantic relationships. If your wife, for example, were friends with someone who was enabling harmful behavior, you would be well within your rights to tell her that you don’t like them and that you’d rather she stopped seeing them. Similarly, if she had a friend who was constantly hitting on her or trying to get her to leave you or cheat on you with them, then I don’t think anyone would think twice about your telling her that you aren’t comfortable with her continuing to see them.
However, there’s a difference between “the presence of this person in your life is directly affecting our relationship” and “I don’t like them.” While we want to be considerate and thoughtful of our partners’ feelings, we’re not responsible for monitoring and managing their emotions for them. There comes a point where our partners have to be willing to deal with their own baggage without expecting others to be part of that management.
And honestly, your wife is doing just that. She recognizes that her (understandable) hard feelings for her ex are entirely separate from your relationship with him. While she’s got a lot of complicated and unpleasant feelings about their history together, she hasn’t made her feelings your problem. In fact, she’s gone out of her way to tell you that she doesn’t want you to give up a friendship that clearly has a lot of meaning and importance for you, just because of her.
That’s all to the good. It says a lot about your wife’s respect for you and your ability to manage your affairs.
What’s also good is that you two have been talking about this. Keeping your lines of communication open, especially about tricky emotional issues is crucial for a relationship’s continued success. The fact that she knows you understand her feelings about Beta is important; at the absolute minimum, she knows that you’re not going to do something absurd like surprise her by bringing him around in hopes of helping her “get over it” (something I’ve seen folks do… and yes, it went about as well as you might think) or otherwise try to coerce her into accepting him in your life.
Now all that having been said: no, I don’t think that you need to end your friendship with Beta, and I don’t think it’s going to help your wife. To be honest, the fact that he’s still your friend isn’t what’s stressing her out, it’s the the fact that he still exists, period. I’ve known many people who have exes that they abhor — for very legitimate reasons — and still have stress nightmares about them, despite having not had contact with them for decades. Your breaking up with him isn’t going to be what makes the difference between your wife having a blissful, stress-free life and not. Frankly, unless the dude gets Thanos-snapped out of existence, the only real answer is going to be for your wife to make her own peace and find her own closure. And that’s something only she can do for herself.
Right now, he’s not part of her life. She doesn’t have to see him or talk to him and, considering that he lives in an entirely different town, she’s not at risk of ever accidentally running into him. While you may still be friends with him, she still has enough of a metaphorical firewall between her and him that you are pretty much in the clear.
If you want to ease things for your wife, then one of the best things you can do is help her maintain that firewall. Ensure that you keep your online social circles separate with filters and groups, so that your wife doesn’t have to worry about seeing him pop up in the comments on Facebook or Instagram. If you know he’s going to be in town, make sure that you give your wife a heads up so she can make appropriate arrangements to be elsewhere or to avoid his likely hangouts. If you’re going to see him in person, make sure that you keep them separated so that there’s no chance of even an accidental encounter.
But at the end of the day: he’s part of your life, not hers. As long as there’s no overlap and you’re not dragging him into her life, then ultimately your wife is the only person who’s responsible for her emotions.
Like the wise man said: you gotta keep ’em separated.
Watched a few of your videos but am still in need of more advice. Long story short my love life is non existent, I’m a failure at dating, I’ve got next to no experience and I don’t don’t know how to fix this. In fact while I see my friends meeting people, falling in love, marrying etc I myself seem to be getting worse: I’ve gone from being rubbish at relationships/dating to barely being able to talk to a girl I’m interested in.
My friends tell my I have loads to offer and if I think logically I can see that: I’m told I’m not bad looking, I’m in decent shape, I’m financially stable and have my childhood dream job (firefighter) which I enjoy and I am passionate about. I have a variety of hobbies and interests that I frequently travel the world to pursue. My social circle is small but geographically spread out so my social activities are infrequent therefore I prefer smaller social gatherings and it takes me a while to warm to people socially but I’m told once I do I can be very interesting, funny and appealing. For some reason as soon as I meet someone I am interested in romantically I forget all that stuff, I get nervous, become consumed by the idea that they are ‘out of my league’ and I am just inconveniencing their day and it spirals from there. I don’t buy in to this idea that dating is about playing games with people but I do think you need to know how to date to succeed and I simply don’t know how. Suffering failure after failure, rejection after rejection my confidence is shot to pieces and I’m now terrified of approaching people.
The truth is I am happy with my life, my work and my hobbies but I would so very much like to share it with someone and I’m genuinely terrified of the idea that I might never meet that someone. My job sees me regularly dealing with people in their hour of need. I love being able to help these people but with it I see a lot of death and a lot of people who have died alone or live isolated and lonely; sometimes I can’t help but wonder if I’m seeing my own future.
I’d really like to do something about it and I realise the only person who can do that for me is me, but I need someone to advise me what I can do and where do I start?
Lost and Lonely
Here’s a secret, L&L: there is literally no difference between the people you’re friends with and the people you’re attracted to. The only thing that divides the two — the thing that’s causing you to stress out, forget about all the amazing things you bring to the table and forget that you’re a hell of a catch — is in your head.
I mean, come on: you’re a firefighter. Your job is to charge headlong into danger, to literally go where brave men fear to tread. That alone is going to be catnip to many, many women. Being brave and selfless, throwing your very body into peril for the sake of others? Even if we discounted the rest of your amazing qualities, that alone is going to make many people take one look and say “Hellooooo salty goodness.”
But you don’t believe that.
The reason why you’re so at ease with the people you’re friends with is because you don’t put the importance on them that you put on people you’re into. While you clearly care about them and you want them to think the best of you, you aren’t measuring your worth by your friendship with them. You don’t see being friends as a sign of your value as a man or as a lover, therefor you’re able to let your guard down and just relax around them. To quote the bard: there is no good or bad but that thinking makes it so.
That all changes as soon as you’re confronted by the possibility of dating someone. Now you’re feeling like it’s all on the line. Despite the fact that you are a goddamn real life superhero, you feel like you don’t have any inherent value that other people could possibly relate to and so now you have to be absolutely perfect, otherwise nobody could ever love you. And when you get rejected then it just becomes further reinforcement of the idea that you’re worthless and that you’re doomed to die alone, unloved and unmourned.
But here’s another secret: everyone gets rejected. Nobody goes five for five. It doesn’t matter how hot, rich or famous some guy is, there are women out there who wouldn’t fuck them with a borrowed vagina and 90s Brandon Frasier doing the pushing. I have watched as celebrities — people you would recognize if I told you their names — got shot down in front of me. Hell, I’ve had friends who’ve told certain individuals who were in the running for Sexiest Man Alive to piss off and leave them alone.
What you need, more than anything else, is to develop a case of the fuck-its. She seems like she’s out of your league? Fuck it, you’ve got tons to offer, and she’d be crazy not to be into you. She turned you down? Fuck it, she may be amazing but there are literally millions of other women out there who are just as amazing as her, if not moreso. All that she’s done is confirm that the two of you simply weren’t compatible. And if that’s the case? Fuck it, there’s no point in worrying about her; you now know that you two were never going to work and you’re free to go find someone who is right for you.
Here is a third secret: most of the time, you’ll be rejected for things that have absolutely nothing to do with you. She may be in love with someone else. She may have just ended a relationship and isn’t ready to start dating again. You may look too much like her asshole ex and she’ll never be able to overlook that. You approached her when she had an awful day at work and she just couldn’t today. You never know because you’re not her and the only reason why you assume it’s you and not her is because you live 24/7 in your own head, therefor you naturally assume it’s your fault. But you can’t know that.
So fuck it.
The more you’re able to decouple your assumptions about what other people think from your estimation of your own value, the less you’ll fear rejection. This doesn’t mean that rejection won’t hurt — it always stings when someone we’re attracted to isn’t attracted to us in return — but it won’t destroy you, either. It’ll just mean that you’re one step closer to finding someone who’s right for you and who gets just how goddamn awesome you are.
All that stands between you and some astounding dating success is adjusting how you see the world and learning to accept that you are a sexy bad-ass, a goddamn sexual tyrannosaurus who’s being held back by the thinnest thread of gossamer. Once you can make that mental shift and believe in yourself and your own worth? You’re going to be amazing.
So, y’know. Fuck it.
You’ve got this, L&L.