Dear Dr. NerdLove:
Last year, I got into a FWB situation that got really messy, and I’m having a hard time moving on. I met this guy through an app, we hit it off, and hooked up. The sex was surprisingly good, because even for just a hookup: he was really interested in my pleasure, and it was the kind of sex where you really feel connected with your partner. Since that was the vibe I got just with a hookup, I was very interested in finding out how that got better with time, so I pursued him. We talked about what we were looking for, etc, he said he wasn’t ready for a commitment yet, but was definitely looking for something more casual. I was coming off a divorce, so I was in the same spot, and we agreed to friends with benefits. Simple enough, right? Well, turns out…not so much.
Oof. That’s pretty goddamn brutal, FWB, and I’m sorry you went through this.
Now, before I get to your question, I want to zero in on a concept for the rest of my readers: the idea of rejection-sensitive dysphoria. This is a term that refers to an unusually high level of sensitivity and emotional reaction to the perception of rejection and criticism that’s a frequent symptom of mental conditions like ADHD, borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s not that folks who suffer from RSD are too sensitive or less able to handle criticism, but more that their brain’s tendency towards hyperfocus latches on to the fear and pain of rejection and amplifies it to an absurd and unrealistic degree. In many cases, it can cause social phobias, damage relationships or result in maladaptive behaviors in an attempt to ward off rejection.
So imagine the worst break up of your life and then apply that feeling to when someone uses a period in a text instead of an exclamation point. Or when someone takes longer than normal to text back because they’re busy at work.
Now with that out of the way… holy hopping sheepshit FWB, that’s not just your RSD hitting you particularly hard. What you’re feeling isn’t out of proportion to what happened, what you’re feeling is an entirely fucking understandable response to a dude’s fucked up kink. It’s understandable that you got your wires crossed with this guy.
On the one hand, yes, you were getting caution flags from this guy and I’m sure that there was more than a little wishful thinking going on. I mean, who hasn’t gotten a little twitterpated when the sex is mindblowing? Especially at a time when our emotional bandwidth is occupied by the stress of survival during a pandemic and you’re basically locked into a relationship with this person. Under other circumstances, I would tell you that yes, you read a little tooa much into this situation and got in over your head. And while that sucks… well, it ain’t like that isn’t something I’d done back in the day myself. Sometimes we let our hopes and dreams color our reality more than we reasonably should, we miss the glaringly obvious and we get ourselves hurt in the process.
However, while there may have been a little wishful thinking there’s also the fact that apparently the dude was, y’know deliberately acting like he’s in love with you during sex. You know. For grins and also because it made his orgasms that much better. For five months.
Like ya do.
And this is not a case of post-hoc rationalization or interpreting the facts in the most positive light on your end. The dude straight up told you that he was doing this. He said — specifically — that he knew what he was doing was hurting you but damn it, his dick just got so fucking hard that he couldn’t bring himself to stop.
So I’m willing to lay down my not-an-actual-doctor card here and say that no this isn’t RSD turning everything up to 11, this is “having a very reasonable reaction to a very unreasonable situation”. It’s not that you are having irrational thoughts or fears. An irrational fear is the way that turbulence makes me try to hold a plane in the air by sheer willpower, despite knowing that everything is fine and no crash has ever been caused by bumpy air pockets. This is something that happened to you. If you’d been bitten by a shark while swimming, you would have a very understandable reason to be afraid of going back in the ocean.
This is a dude who — depending on how you want to interpret things — either actively lied to you or at least knew how his actions were making you feel and allowed you to believe things that weren’t true. Either way, your inability to trust and fear of being lead on is entirely reasonable.
The part where your RSD rolls into the picture is in the hyperfocus on the past and worst-case scenarios. It’s the inability to quit seeing it or to push past those fears and give people a chance. And that part gets tricky because… well, unfortunately, part of the whole point of RSD is that it’s baked into your condition. It’s hard to deal with because it tends to come at you like a speeding train and knocks you on your ass for a while and keeps you there until things subside enough that you can get back up again.
Now speaking strictly for myself: medication has been a huge help for getting things under control. The same meds that let me control my ADHD have turned the volume on the attendant RSD way down. If you’re not on a medication to address your ADD symptoms, that might be a good start. It may also be worth talking to a psychiatrist about a supplemental medication; I’ve seen reports that suggest that an alpha agonist like Guanfacine can be effective in dealing with RSD symptoms, especially in folks who can’t take stimulants for ADD and ADHD.
However, another part of moving forward is recognizing that part of what is likely fucking with your head is that you ignored your instincts.
One of the problems with “trust your gut” is that sometimes a person’s gut isn’t trustworthy. A lot of folks have a hard time relying on their intuition, their gut, their Spidey-sense, because it’s miscalibrated. Sometimes out of trauma, sometimes out of cultural issues, sometimes because they bought into shitty beliefs about love and sex.
But for a lot of people, their intuition is spot on, as long as they listen to it.
It’s like you said: you were getting pink flags and a lot of his behaviors were telling you that shit was hinky. You ignored them in part because hey, mindblowing sex but also because he was actively deceiving you. But the important part is that your Spidey-sense works as intended. You had reasons to believe that this wasn’t love and that it was still just an FWB situation, you were just incentivized to ignore them. So the lesson here is trust your Spidey-sense. When you start getting that tingle that tells you that something’s wrong, listen. Take a moment and take stock of the situation, as rationally as you possibly can. Take a step outside yourself and ask: if someone was coming to you with this problem and these suspicions, what would you tell them?
It sounds stupid, but that’s actually a pretty solid way of short-circuiting your RSD; it’s not your situation, it’s a friend’s, and so that fear of rejection doesn’t come into it.
The third part of going forward is… well, it’s just time, really. Time heals all wounds and wounds all heels. Taking a break so that you can let this fucked up situation fade into the past is a viable option. When things aren’t as fresh and you’re feeling ready to try again and to (cautiously) trust again, then it’ll be easier to see folks as potential partners and not just another shitty dude who literally gets hard playing mind games with people.
Dear Dr. NerdLove:
I have (or had, I don’t know anymore) this friend who I was deeply in love with her, but for personal reasons, I just wanted to be her friend and for a while it worked. We had good times and bad times, several times we had fights that seemed to end things, but we always came back stronger than before… She was my best friend.
But recently, everything has been getting weird.
I knew she was interested in another guy. I never brought up my feelings for her, or got clingy with her and always gave her time as she wanted. At the same time I was available when she needed it. This guy was a complete asshole to her, always treating her badly, making fun of her to the point that she was sick of him… During all of this, our friendship got even stronger. However, I never crossed the line of friendship and angling for a relationship, because her friendship was very important to me.
Well, lately I’ve been going through a complicated situation in my life. I’ve been dealing with cancer of a close relative on top of the pandemic, and I started to want to be more alone for a while.
But my friend started to think very badly of me, forcing me to pay attention to her, threatening that if I didn’t look for her, all our friendship would die and other things. Besides that, she made a point of being furious with me when I really went after her and asked how things were, or insisted a little in wanting to have her around.
One day, when she offered me help in something I was doing, I started to notice that she was distant, with short answers. Basically she was giving 100% attention to this other guy, who’d come back into her life while helping me.
Well, here comes the fun part: after seeing that she wasn’t very interested in providing help like she said she would, I simply replied with a grump. Believe it or not, she became furious with me and started saying hurtful things. I apologized, saying that wasn’t what I meant, and she did not reply, so I left it there and simply walked away from things…
After a month, she reappeared and tells me that she would never know what I wanted from her, that I cared more about my asshole friends and that she was sick and tired of it. At that very moment I became completely lost about everything… I already said to her that she was my best friend several times, that I cared for her and that wasn’t the first time when we’ve had these fights.
Well… I had no choice but to declare that I loved her in the most anguished way possible, and in the end I was received with silence.
One month later, she returned apologizing to me, saying that she screwed up with me, that I was just a brother to her and that she was dating the guy. I was extremely sad but I still wanted to have her as my friend, even she told me several times that if I wanted to leave, she would understand.
After that, she would pop up one time or another, asking how I was, if everything was ok. Sometimes we could talk something or another but it was getting weird, different… I felt that she was getting further and further away. She kept making a point of telling me about her relationship (even if I tried to avoid the topic) until one day she asked me to draw a picture for her and her boyfriend.
I was furious and said that she was going over the edge, she apologized and said it was just for her…
Well, things were getting more and more complicated, until a day that I was tired of everything and asked her if she wanted me to be gone from her life. She basically freaked out saying that I was mad about her relationship, that it was the only good thing that had happened to her, that she was full of problems (yes, she kept looking for me, saying she was in trouble, and when I asked what was happening she would not tell me).
I tried to reaffirm that she was my best friend, that she was a sister to me and that she could count on me and basically she sent me away after all that. Now I really don’t know what to do…
Please Dr… Help me…
– Caught In A Trap
Jesus CIAT, this woman has really put you through a ringer and I’m so sorry you’ve been through this.
Now, I’m going to level with you, man: I’ve read through your letter a few times and, if I’m being honest, I can’t really see why you would want to be friends with this woman. It’s understandable that when folks write in with a problem, they focus on the problems and not the good parts. It can create a specific picture of the relationship, which is understandable. But going by what you’ve written here, it sounds like this entire relationship is just one long parade of red flags and shitty behavior from your friend.
Here’s the thing: while it can seem cold to describe it in these terms, but relationships — including friendships — are a two-way exchange. You give, but you also receive. In an ideal world, these exchanges would be roughly equal in terms of value. Yes, it’s rare that any relationship is perfectly equitable, but on the whole they should balance out if they’re going to last. When they don’t… well, that’s when things fall apart.
And quite frankly, your friendship seems to have been walking up to the edge of breaking up, constantly. You talk about the demands she made on you or how she held the friendship hostage to your dancing in attendance on her, but you don’t mention anything you got in return. No real support, no intimacy, no real return on your emotional “investment” in her. It seems like your entire relationship was predicated on your being her on-call not-quite boyfriend, where you were expected to provide all sorts of emotional intimacy and attention and in exchange you got… well, I’m not sure. You got to keep your crush in your life and nurse that unrequited attraction for her, I guess.
Frankly this sounds more like masochism than friendship.
Even giving her the benefit of the doubt, she sounds like a really shitty friend. There you are, dealing with the stress of the pandemic and dealing with the heartbreak of a loved one’s battle with cancer and looking to do a little self-care by withdrawing a bit and marshaling your strength. And here comes your bestie, telling you that if you don’t keep giving her your time and attention RIGHT NOW then the relationship will die and it will be ALL YOUR FAULT. And later, when you ask for something from her, she half-asses it. She can’t bother to pretend to be present with you, and when you get up set over that… well, she blows up at you over it. That’s pretty fucked up, dude.
Worse is that she comes back later and then continues to blame you for everything going wrong because… well, I’m not entirely sure. But again: it sure as hell sounds like she’s telling you it’s your fault that she’s not a better friend to you because REASONS. Even after you end up confessing how you feel, she seems to treat you more like an accessory than a person. Worse, she seems to think that your boundaries are optional at best. You say you didn’t want to hear about her relationship but she’d keep bringing it up anyway. And while I can kind of understand the reasoning — she’s driving home that she’s with this other guy, she’s not interested in you and isn’t going to date you — it’s still something you don’t want to hear about. Not to mention, hammering it constantly means it goes from being “I just want to be clear about what you and I have together” and more about keeping you in your place.
Yes, it can be a little dickish to try to pretend that somebody’s partner doesn’t exist, especially when you have feelings for that person. But that’s not what you were doing. You weren’t trying to pretend that she didn’t have a boyfriend, you didn’t want to have it rubbed in your face, constantly. There’s really nothing wrong with drawing a boundary and saying “look, I respect you and your relationship with X, but I don’t want to hear about it or him,” especially when it’s causing you pain. He may be a part of her life, even an important part of it, but that doesn’t mean that you have to be willing to sandpaper your soul just to be friends with her. You’re allowed to draw lines and say “this bothers me, and I’d rather keep this aspect out of our friendship.” People who tell you that you’re not allowed to do so are telling you that you’re not allowed to prioritize your own emotional well-being over their desire to share things that are painful to you.
You can accept a person in their entirety without needing all the details. Everyone goes to the bathroom; being someone’s friend doesn’t mean you need to hear about the size and shape of it.
Look: the way she treats you is a recurring pattern, my dude. She makes demands and holds the friendship hostage if you don’t accede to her demands immediately and only on her terms. If you have needs, those needs are ignored or become reason for her to be pissed at you. This ain’t no way to conduct a friendship and, honestly, I don’t get why you stick around.
Well, actually, not true. I get why. Part of the problem is that it doesn’t seem like you ever tried getting over your crush on her. You don’t mention whether you dated anyone else or attempted to find someone who would actually like you back while also not being ten pounds of drama in a five pound sack. That exacerbates the problem. While I don’t doubt your sincerity in wanting to be friends and nothing more, I think you let your desire for her cloud your thinking. Your feelings for her meant that you kept excusing her bad behavior and the abominable way she’s been treating you. And it seems like she took your continued presence as license to just take and take without ever giving in return.
I know this isn’t what you were hoping to hear but I’m gonna be blunt: this isn’t going to get better. It’s only going to keep getting worse and it’s only going to keep twisting the knife in your heart. The best thing you can do right now is to finally prioritize yourself and leave. You may be her friend, but she sure as shit isn’t yours. This friendship is toxic, my dude, and it’s far past time to call it quits. Yes, I get that you love her and want her in your life. But her presence in your life is causing you nothing but pain, and it’s not going to get better. Even after you’ve told her how you feel, she’s continued to just make demand after demand and get mad at you when you say “hey, could I get a little friendship in return?”
There’s a line from a song that I think is relevant here: “I may love you, yeah, but I love me more.”
Ending a relationship, even a friendship, can be a radical act of self-love and self-care. It’s well past time that you love yourself to let this relationship go and find both friends and lovers who actually live up to the role.