Hi Dr. NerdLove,
I’ve known my partner for around 1.5 years. He’s from a foreign country, but his parents are from here. He moved here half a year ago, the plan was to stay here for 1-2 years to learn the language and work. Entering the relationship was a difficult decision for him, because he never thought he would commit to someone outside of his own country. However, we decided to commit even though the future seems scary for both of us.
He’s been having a hard time adjusting (he barely speaks the local language), and whenever he faces an inconvenience he would have a break down and he would wish he were somewhere else. And whenever that happens, I would get so scared he would leave me because I feel that he’ll never truly be happy in this country. He repeatedly said he belongs in his country, and his goal is to return there. He said he wants us to move to his country, but it won’t be easy for me as I am a woman, and I’ll have problems with my family about it. Plus he hasn’t had a stable job and he lives on allowance from his parents here.
Recently he’s been having breakdowns once a week, sometimes because he’s unsure of his future here, sometimes because he doesn’t feel safe here, sometimes because he just feels alienated. I told him to make friends, and to start building his career here so he’d have easier time adjusting. But he doesn’t make effort to do so, and I’d feel that he doesn’t even try to adjust and his ultimate goal is to return to his country and he’d never be truly happy here. These days I just tell him “if going back to your country will make you happy then you can do that”. I feel guilty that I can’t be a good listener and supporter because I want to understand him and how hard adjusting can be, but at the same time I feel very frustrated that every inconvenience he faces would trigger an emotional breakdown and this happens frequently.
I mean, I would sacrifice things in my life to move to his country, but I don’t know if he wants to put effort into doing the same thing.
What should I do?
A lot of times, I’ll get a letter from someone who’s ultimately already answered their own question. That is: they know what they want to do (or, occasionally, need to do); they’re just looking for permission to just do it. Sometimes what they want to do is what’s actually needed. Sometimes, what they want is precisely the wrong thing, but they want someone else to validate the choice they’ve already made.
It’s not all that often when I get a letter about a relationship where the other partner has very clearly made up their minds already.
That’s what’s happening here, HSP: it sounds like your boyfriend’s got a foot out the door and he’s already planning on the when, rather than the if.
To be fair to your boyfriend: he’s going through some understandable shit. He’s doing something that’s a lot harder than many folks realize: he’s trying to make a go of it in a foreign country. While visiting another country can make it seem like it’s no big deal — hey, the Internet’s practically turning the world into a monoculture, right? — actually living there for long stretches of time is a very different beast. I’m entirely unsurprised he’s homesick… and honestly, qualifying it as “homesickness” makes it sound more like “kid at camp wants to go home because he’s not used to being away for so long”. But the truth is that the stress of living in a foreign country can be incredibly high. It’s even higher when you don’t speak the language, especially not fluently. Culture shock is a real thing, especially one whose culture is very different from your own. It’s not surprising how many Americans living overseas tend to cluster around other expats; you’d be amazed at how much you could miss just hearing familiar accents, never mind language.
So it’s not that surprising that he runs out of cope very quickly. The odds are good that his available emotional bandwidth is taken up by the stress of adjusting to life in a foreign country and dealing with shit that’s far, far outside his comfort zone. When you’re that low on bandwidth, the reaction you have to a seemingly minor issue may seem out of proportion to the event, but it’s more about the total accumulated stress. This is why folks can seem to lose their shit over incredibly minor and easily resolved problems; it’s not that they can’t handle the problem, it’s that this particular problem is the metaphorical straw that broke the camel’s back.
But if we’re going to continue to be fair1 it doesn’t sound like he’s doing much to make it easier to live where you are. It sounds like a lot of his issues come down to a lack of stability outside of his relationship with you. He doesn’t speak the language well, he doesn’t have much of a community here and he doesn’t even have the stability of a job or career to help give some structure to his time. All of this is going to contribute a lot to his feeling out of place. Not speaking the language well, for example, can really be isolating; if you can’t communicate beyond the basics, it’s really hard to actually build connections and relationships with people. He might have a better time if he could tap into the local immigrant community and find other folks from his home — again, look at American expats overseas — but it sounds like he’s not willing to put a lot of effort into it.
Similarly, putting a little more effort into work and getting a sense of purpose as well as stability (and, y’know, income) would go a very long way towards feeling like he’s making his mark and making his way. So would making a stronger effort at finding local friends. Doing both would help immensely with learning the language as well; DuoLingo or Rosetta Stone are great, but sometimes what you need is actual immersion and opportunities to practice in real-world, real life situations. If he were more conversant, he would likely not feel as isolated or lonely and more capable, the way he feels when he’s on familiar ground.
Of course, it could also very well be that he’s just not cut out for this. Living and working in a foreign country — especially when you’re not a native speaker — is a challenge and it’s certainly not for everyone. He took up the challenge — and good for him for doing so! — and may have discovered that it’s something he just can’t handle or that causes him too much discomfort or stress to deal with. That’s not a weakness or failing on his part; it’s just means that, if this is the case, then he tried something and realized it’s not right for him.
Unfortunately, that may also mean that the stress or difficulty of living and working abroad is too high a price for him to pay in order to maintain a relationship there.
Now, there’re a few ways you could help with some of these issues. You might be able to introduce him around, help him build his own social circle and get a little more comfortable with life where you are. You might also be able to help him navigate the hoops he needs to jump through in order to secure a more stable job and not rely on his parents’ largesse.
But it’s as you say: it sounds like he’s already decided he doesn’t want to stay and he’s going to be leaving at the first opportunity to do so. And if that’s the case… well, that’s what he’s already decided he’s going to do and to his mind, there’s likely not much reason to put in the effort necessary to make a home where he is. Or it may feel as though making a home there simply isn’t possible. If either of those are the case, then from his perspective, it’s understandable that he’d be asking why should he make things more complicated when he finally does pull up stakes?
This, needless to say, puts you in an awkward spot. You say that you’d be ready to move with him — acknowledging the complications you would face — but it’s leaving you with an understandable concern. You’re willing to put the effort into making things work where he wants to be… so why doesn’t it seem as though he’s willing to do the same for you?
In this case, there’re three possibilities that come to mind. The first is that it sounds like he moved here for work and the relationship came unexpectedly; that changes the math on his relationship with your home. The relationship is still very new and complicated by the adjustment period to living in a foreign country. So while he may care about you… he may feel so uncomfortable that he doesn’t think he can make it work.
The second is that he’s tried his damnedest, and it’s just not working out for him. This, again, leads to being in the position of things being so uncomfortable that he doesn’t think that he’s able to make your relationship work.
The third possibility is that he just isn’t as willing to put the effort in. It may tie into his being unwilling to work more at being comfortable there. Or — and I hate to say this — he just doesn’t feel like his relationship with you is enough to make it worth his time to try to settle in and make a go of it.
(And, let’s be honest: you’ve known him for more than a year, but it sounds like you’ve been dating for less than six months. That’s a very new relationship, and far too new to contemplate moving to another country.)
The big question that needs to be answered is whether his culture shock and homesickness is a passing thing or not. I know a lot of folks have said that the early months are easy, then the culture shock just hits you like a truck. If he’s willing to give it a little more time, free up that bandwidth and actually let you help him, then things may change. He may realize he’s actually capable of making things work — both as a foreign resident and as your partner. He may get his balance and actually start to thrive after a rocky start.
Or he may have already checked out and he’s just counting down the days until he goes home for good.
You need to have an Awkward Conversation with him and figure out exactly where he stands on this. Is he willing to put in a good faith effort to get through the pain period, let you help him and do the work it takes to make things work? Or has he made up his mind and he’s just going to go back ASAP? Once you have that answer, you can decide how you want to proceed.
That being said: don’t look into moving with him if he does leave. What you’re seeing right now is how he handles conflict and strife. It’s one thing if he needed a little time to get over the shock of it all, dust himself off, spit in his hands and start carving out his space. It’s another entirely if he never gets around to expanding or freeing his emotional bandwidth and has decided he’s done. If that’s the case… well, you’ve gotten a preview of the kind of effort and support he’s going to be putting into other areas when shit hits the fan. And if that’s how he handles things? Then you’re looking at what to expect down the line, and that ain’t pretty.
Going in to the new year, one of my goals is to try getting onto online dating. It’s been hard to overcome internal stigma, since every married person I know has gotten married the “old-fashioned way,” i.e. meeting their spouse in college, which I royally screwed up, resulting in me being isolated from my college circle when they all paired off and started raising families in places far from where I had to live.
So I’ve spent an embarrassingly long time hovering over the “create account” button on Hinge (based on my research, it tends to best align with my goals, i.e. get married) because I can’t seem to stomach the idea of having my face out there to be seen and evaluated (even though that is technically what happens when I go outside). I started to leave social media more and more about 8-9 years ago when my only relationship ended and I saw an increase in focusing on taking pictures of yourself, so I’m generally not used to self-photography as a whole. I’ve hated my appearance for as long as I can remember. At all levels of fitness, hairstyle, facial hair, etc. I just got a new haircut recently to see if it would help; it didn’t. I try all kinds of photography, filters, and such, but every photo I’m in looks terrible because, well, I’m in it. And I can’t just put bad-looking photos out in the world, especially on a platform where people decide whether or not you’re worth dating for them. And I’m not even sure what photos I could do. Like, do I go with my casual night-out clothes, formal dress, kendo uniform(I really enjoy martial arts and dating is partly about showing your interests, but I’m afraid that an ugly overweight white dude wearing a kimono and a sword just screams “hopeless weeb.”), etc.?
But it’s like I just can’t hit the button, because then it’s out there for private (or potentially public) ridicule. I take a picture, but I never think, “this is good” or “this will work.” And I don’t have anyone trustworthy who can honestly evaluate my appearance or sense of style or any of that. I can’t go to a random Reddit thread or something because that would just be a nightmare, and if by some chance someone I know sees my face on an online “Am I Ugly?” thread, well, that would be dreadful. Nor do I know anyone who could reasonably help me with the photography end of things.
And the thing is: I’ve never liked my appearance. I’m likely not going to. But that would be alright if I could date someone who does like it, or at least tolerates it enough to date me. Though I have no idea what there could be about my personality that someone would pick me over other options, but apparently “put yourself out there” is the first step.
So how do I get to a point where I can hit the button and at least reach a point where I have pictures that function for their intended purpose?
There’s a lot going on here, starting with denigrating online dating as inherently inferior to “the traditional manner” or the idea that you “screwed things up” by not finding and marrying your college sweetheart, but for right now I want to zero in on something important.
If you’re a regular reader of mine, you’ve probably seen me reference Ru Paul’s famous quote “If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”
This is classic example of just what they’re talking about.
The problem you’re having, BM, isn’t that your photos are bad. It’s that you’re incapable of being an accurate judge of how they look. You don’t like yourself very much and this includes your own perception of your physical appearance. If I could have a nickel for every time someone told me that they were the love child of Quasimodo and the Toxic Avenger and they turned out to be average looking at worst, then I’d be swimming through my money bin like Scrooge McDuck. In fact, this is something that’s come up so often that it’s practically its own genre of letter here at NerdLove Industries.
Everything you talk about is just built off of your starting position that you’ve got a face so ugly that your mom must’ve had to tie a steak to you so the dog would play with you. It’s the emotional — not logical — extension of your premise, an exercise in rationalizing and validating how you already feel by inventing new scenarios to make yourself feel bad by… potentially feeling bad in the future.
You are, for all intents and purposes, hurting your own feelings by inventing these new nightmare scenarios. I mean, let’s be real here: what do you think the odds really are about anyone you might know or want to date browsing Am I Ugly threads on Reddit? Do they make numbers large enough to actually capture the unlikeliness of this ever happening? No, this is your jerkbrain dripping poison in your ear and pretending that this outlandish outcome is even remotely plausible. All it does is continue to justify beating yourself up over your self-perceived sins — sins that, in all likelihood, bear no resemblance to reality.
The same goes with how you imagine people’s reactions or interpretations of your theoretical photos. Would someone think that photos from your kendo class would scream “goddamn weeb”? Or would it be that they can see the difference between a mall ninja with a mail-order katana from Wish who “studied the blade” and someone studying a martial art in a formal and structured class?
Not to mention there’s the fact that if someone looks at your hobbies and thinks “ugh, pass”, all they’ve done is demonstrate that they’re not right for you and self-selected out of your dating pool. Let’s be real here, king: if someone thinks your hobby is ridiculous or cringe, then what that really means is that they’re emphatically not your type. That’s a them problem, not a you problem.
But you can’t see that, because you’re starting from a false premise. Yes, you think you’re ugly. Get enough beers in me and I think it’s a great idea to try to mash up Warren G and Nate Dogg’s “Regulate” with Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgetting” at karaoke. The fact that we think those things doesn’t mean it’s true.
Yeah you’ve got eyes, but you’ve also got a brain… and that means what you see isn’t accurate. We aren’t objective, dispassionate observers of reality; our brains filter what we see according to what we think. We, quite literally, see things that we expect to see. Your expectations and your attitude are your filter and those affect how your brain interprets the signals that come from light hitting your retinas. Expect to see Arseface in the mirror and yeah, that’s pretty much what you’re gonna get, regardless of the reality on the ground. This is Confirmation Bias 101: you see and accept the things that confirm what you already believe and miss or literally do not see the things that go against it.
As such, you’ll have to forgive me if I reject your premise here. I don’t buy that you’re too ugly to date or to take a good photo. I believe that you believe it… but you’ll have to forgive me if I doubt the source.
Now as one of my pop culture daemons is wont to say: I reject your reality and substitute my own. Let’s talk about what to do without the filter of “but Doc I’m too ugly”.
First and foremost: you want about 5 or so pictures for a dating app at a minimum. You want your primary photo to be your best picture of you (AND YOU ALONE) with a clear and unobstructed view of your face. You want two photos that either are full-body or at least waist up and a couple candids — you with friends, you doing things you love, things that speak to who you are as a person. Your photos should be telling a story, and that story is “Who is Broken Mirrors” and “What would life be like if I were to date him”. So if kendo class is important to you, then yeah, I’d say some photos from the class would be great. That goes a lot further towards “this is a thing he’s passionate about” than “look at this weeb”.
I would also recommend that for a couple of those photos, you dress the way you would if you were to be going on a date with the person looking at them. And I mean a date that you would want to go on, not some theoretical “ok, if I want to make it with the ladies, I have to only go on THESE kinds of dates.” If you’re normally a suit guy, then yes, wear a suit. If you’re more of a “cool jacket, tee and jeans” guy out on a date, then there you do. Think of your archetype for a starting point: how would you sum up your ideal self in a few words or less? Cool English professor? Bad boy biker with a heart of gold? Sharp-dressed Mad Man about town?
(If the answer is cyberpunk street samurai… ok, that’s gonna be a problem.)
What about the pictures themselves? Well, there’re a lot of ways to look good in photos and — truthfully — looking good in photos is a skill, not an inherent quality. There’s a reason why America’s Top Model is an actual competition, rather than just several weeks of pretty people showing up and being told that they have a job.
Now, learning that skill can be tricky. It takes practice to get to the point where you can truly grock things like “what lighting looks best” (indirect sunlight) and “know your angles”. The way you learn how to look good in photos? You take lots of photos of yourself. For all that people mock women as shallow or juvenile for taking lots of selfies, part of why women often look better in photos than men do is because they take lots of pictures of themselves. All those selfies are part of how they learn to work with the camera, how to find the angles and poses that work best for them and generally present their best self in pictures.
So my advice to you would be to start getting comfortable with the front camera on your smartphone and just taking lots and lots of selfies. You can delete all of them, but getting used to seeing your face is gonna be a big part of getting over your belief that you’re ugly.
However, if you want to shortcut this a little, I would recommend talking to a professional… a professional photographer, that is. There’re a lot of photographers out there who offer — or even specialize in — pictures for apps like Hinge and OKCupid. Many of them offer package deals; you get x number of locations and/or costume changes and Y number of pics at the end. Look up some of the photographers in your area, check their portfolios and Instagram accounts and see whose work speaks to you the most. Then book a session, pick some favorites (or ask a friend to help) and put yourself out there.
And here’s the thing: you seem to be assuming that your Hinge or Bumble account will be carved in stone as soon as you hit “publish”. It won’t. The great thing about dating apps is that they’re impermanent and malleable. You can change and refine your profile every single day if you want. You can pull a complete Ship of Theseus over the course of a year until it looks nothing like your original profile. So if those initial photos don’t work or you decide you’ve got some better ones later, you can swap them out with no issues. Hell, it’s actually a good idea to do so; being active and updating your profile gives you a little boost in the algorithm. And trust me: nobody will think badly of you for changing out your photos; everyone should do it more, if only to make sure they represent who you are accurately.
But this is ultimately a bandage over the hemorrhage that is your self-esteem. That is gonna hurt your dating chances far more than any photo on any dating app that doesn’t involve turkeys and a distressing amount of lube.
Now, I think talking to a counselor about your self-esteem and your disliking yourself is important. But one of the things I would suggest in the interim would be to actually talk yourself up. Not to other people, but to yourself. As cheesy as it sounds, looking at yourself in the mirror and saying nice things about you, your looks and your body actually helps. Part of what you’re doing is training yourself to see yourself in a better and more positive light. Even if you’re starting with “ok, I’ve got nice eyes”, it’s still a start. You’re forcing yourself to acknowledge a good thing about yourself. The first ones are hard and you may feel like you’re struggling to find them… but the more you do it, the more you’ll see and the easier it’ll become. You’re teaching yourself to find and see those qualities. You are, for all intents and purposes, hacking your confirmation bias; after all, if it’s going to be part of your psyche anyway, it may as well be useful.
What I don’t recommend is deciding you need to do one thing and then the other. You don’t need to talk to a counselor until you’re ready to date and then open an account on Hinge. You can do both at once. In fact, I recommend doing both — you can work on them simultaneously. Otherwise, one just becomes the excuse you give for why you can’t do the other “yet”.
Just as importantly: don’t worry about getting your app set up “perfectly” or waiting until you’ve got the best possible strategy. Sometimes the answer is to leap off the cliff and figure out how to fly on the way down. Waiting, on the other hand, just tends to help you find more excuses to keep waiting and ‘when I’m ready’ just becomes a point further and further away until you can’t see it on the horizon any more. So get yourself a case of the “Fuck Its” and put yourself out there. Be afraid… but do it anyway.
Oh and one more thing: keep the mirror selfies to a minimum. And especially not as your first pic on your profile.