Hello Doctor, I have been an avid reader of your blog for a few years and have finally mustered the courage to ask for advice. I really enjoy the laidback approach to answering some really serious matters, and the fact that you provide pictures of cute animals when things get really serious or disgusting. And of course the nerd culture references, especially anime references.
So there’s going to have to be an obvious caveat at the start of this, JTCJ. Like you said: I’m an American and you’re living in India. There’s going to be a difference in outlook, culture and customs, and I’m going to be ignorant of circumstances on the ground that folks in Calcutta would find obvious. So I’m going to apologize for any blind spots in advance and recommend that you take my advice with suitable amounts of salt.
And with that, my thoughts.
My first thought is that arranged marriages aren’t automatically joyless or, worse, full of animosity. I actually have friends from India and Pakistan who chose arranged matches, and their relationships have been successful and happy. One of the keys for their success had been a willingness to take things at a relatively sedate pace; after they met people that they found interesting and compatible, they spent some time getting to know each other before getting married, with the acknowledgement that they could call it off if they had reservations. Another was that they (and their matches) focused on compatibility and mutual respect in who they were looking for. But most importantly were that they acknowledged that they were going to have to work to make their marriage successful. That meant that they were going to have to prioritize clear and open communication, to make sure that they understood each other. They also had to be mindful of how they handled disagreements and fights and make sure that they were actually resolving issues instead of just trying to stop the fight. That way, they weren’t going to be hoarding resentments and grievances like a passive-aggressive squirrel, storing hate-nuts for the winter. And they made a point of complimenting each other, admiring each other and expressing gratitude and their appreciation for one another; in fact, they made a point of trying to keep a fairly solid ratio of compliments to complaints. Complaints can trigger our inherent negativity bias, which makes them hit five times harder than compliments and gratitude. That makes it important to try to ensure that you don’t only appreciate or admire your partner, but that you express that appreciation, openly and frequently.
My second thought is that, well, they fuck you up, your mom and dad. It sounds like your parents marriage was a nightmare to grow up with, and I’m sorry you and your sister had to go through this. But while you can’t change your past — or your parents — their marriage doesn’t have to be your destiny. In fact, you’ve made the conscious decision to try to avoid that, which is awesome. Having that template of “ok, here’s what I don’t want” gives you something to build from. Because you’ve seen the way that bitterness and resentment can fester, you can look at the behaviors, beliefs and attitudes that lead to your parents acrimony and make a conscious choice to do things differently. They’ve given you the map of the traps and pitfalls that their relationship fell into, and you’re in a better position to avoid them.
Of course, knowing what you don’t want doesn’t automatically translate into knowing what a positive relationship looks like. And while there are some things that you can only learn through experience, I would suggest is that you might want to look for positive relationship role models. Those may be the marriages of friends or the parents of friends who are happy and nurturing. Talking to them about their experiences may well go a long way to helping you map out what you’re looking for and how to achieve it in your future relationships. Or, failing that, you may look to examples in pop culture for the kind of relationship you would want to have and work towards developing the skills and communication that you would need to help encourage that sort of connection. They’re not a perfect guide — after all, those relationships work because the writers say they do — but they can go a long way towards helping shape what you would want your relationship to look like.
(And here, I have to confess: I have a fairly limited knowledge of Indian pop culture, so I don’t know who I could recommend; perhaps readers could provide some suggestions. Though I will always recommend Gomez and Morticia Adams as an excellent starting point…)
My third thought is to be careful about falling into traps of making assumptions about others, especially on the individual level. While there’s a strong tradition of women marrying young, that doesn’t mean that every woman is looking for someone who’s a “finished product”, nor is that even necessarily what they’re looking for. One of the ways that men can make dating harder on themselves is that they often end up responding to what they think women expect or are looking for, rather than what women actually want in partners and relationships. This is one of those times when having women as platonic friends is incredibly helpful; it gives you a much more accurate idea of what women want, as well as what their dating and relationship experiences are like.
By that same token, while I understand that you’re worried that there will be a shortage of single women by the time you’re ready to date… well, I hate using this phrase but feels aren’t reals, man. This is an incredibly common — and cross-cultural — anxiety in men; they worry that if they don’t pair up by some artificial deadline (usually their late 20s) then they’ll have run out of available women to date. Why? Because they’ll all have settled down and found boyfriends and husbands.
Except that’s not true. Even in conservative cultures, or cultures where there are traditions of marrying young, there are still people who don’t follow tradition or who don’t want to get married that young. I suspect that your experiences and outlook on relationships aren’t as uncommon as you might think, for both men and women. In fact, I suspect there’re more people than you realize who feel the same way, and it may well be worth your time to seek them out. These could be networking events for young (and single) professionals, social organizations, even just clubs for people who dig movies, anime or what-have-you. Expanding your social circle will go a long way towards helping you meet more like-minded folks… including women who may well be looking for someone to grow with, rather than someone who’s “finished”.
But more than anything else: pursue relationships with intention, modeling the kind of relationship you want and the behavior you want to see from your partners. And don’t be afraid for you and your partner to write your own “rules” for your relationship. One of the reasons why relationships will often fall apart is because they try to force themselves into a relationship model that doesn’t fit them. But the great thing about life is that you don’t have to follow other people’s rules; your relationship is a collaboration between you and your partner. While other people may have opinions, they don’t get a vote. You and your partner can define for yourselves how you want this relationship to work, what rules the two of you agree to follow and how you want things to progress. When you find someone you’re compatible with, the two of you can decide what you want your relationship to be.
Now in fairness: sticking to your guns and making sure that you find the partner (and relationship) that you want may mean being single for longer than you’d prefer. It could take time to find somebody who’s right for you and who you’re right for. It’s understandable that you may want to examine your “must-haves” and decide that maybe you can be flexible on some of them. That’s a completely valid decision. However what you don’t want to do is drop your standards out of a fear of being single. Getting into a Somebody, Anybody, Everybody relationship — where you’re just trying to fill the hole marked “girlfriend” or “wife” — is a great way to end up in a bad relationship. It’s one thing to compromise; it’s another when your relationship is compromised from the start. Make sure that you’re getting into a relationship with someone because you want to be in a relationship with them… not because you want to be in a relationship.
You’ve got a lot going for you, JCTJ. You know what you want, you’ve made great choices and you’ve got a game plan for a solid life. That’s all to the good. Don’t let your worries overpower your goals; the fact that you’re worried about something doesn’t mean that there’s actually something to worry about.
Dear Dr. NerdLove:
I have a crush on a dude from the beforetimes that is a “friends first” situation. It’s mutual but not happening romantically yet, esp. COVID. The relationship, such as it was, was more in person and transitioning to online only hasn’t been so great. He has no Internet at home, is constantly working, and while he was talkative enough during in person hangouts, he tends to be the emo brooder type. He also had something really bad happen to him this year.
I’m just not sure what to do to keep the connection going, hopefully long enough to be able to ah, reunite and revisit this issue later if we can ever touch other humans again. He has told me he’s terrible at initiating/reaching out, so after his big disaster happened I started texting him more (around 3x/week). This went more or less well at first, but as time went on he’s getting less responsive, doesn’t respond to texts at all or slower, doesn’t find things he used to find funny to be funny, etc. Now in regular times we all know that means he’s over it and it’s a hint to go away and stop bothering me, but… COVID, depression, bad thing happened this year, etc. My therapist keeps saying that’s just this year and don’t take it personally, but… how am I supposed to know which it is?
I got concerned enough to actually take the risk and go visit him at his work in person (retail) a few times and while the first few times went great and he was talkative again and said he was okay, the third time he looked exhausted, barely talked to me for five minutes and I just felt like “okay, fine, you don’t want to hear from me, I give up” and I stopped trying for weeks. Then he actually texted me on Thanksgiving and when I got up the nerve and said I’d felt like maybe I should just take the hint and bug off after how last time in person went, he said not to worry about it and he’s not good at reaching out and well, this year has been this year. I started texting him again a few times, then he started dropping out again and… sigh. So of course I worry about it.
I’m tired of trying to figure out how to make conversation when these days it feels like more misses than swings, and then I feel bad about myself for trying and bugging someone who probably doesn’t want to be bothered. But conversation is the only option and god knows we can’t just go hug, which is what we really need. I know text isn’t great, but neither of us are social media chatters, he’s not doing Zoom, and actually calling someone live on a phone feels so invasive and like you’re forcing them to talk when they don’t want to. We’ve never done a live phone call anyway (insert millennial joke here, I know).
I feel like I need a dude whisperer on this one: do I just give up and leave him alone? At what point do I take the hint and stop trying? I don’t think he’s stopped liking me as far as I can tell, I know he doesn’t have much of anything to give and I don’t want to be difficult or demanding. I just want to try to do anything I can to make him feel less awful this year and I don’t want us to have drifted apart by the time this nightmare ends because we can’t talk to each other. It just feels like nothing much works when I do try and I don’t know what to do to try to connect with him any more when he’s in emo brooding mode from across the Internet.
-Not Wanting To Be Too Much
I think the problem here isn’t that he doesn’t like you or that he’s trying to subtly tell you to go away. I think the problem here is that, well, it sounds like you expect him to be someone other than who he is.
This is something I see all the time; people keep thinking that the person they like or are dating (or are married to… yikes) are going to make a night and day switch from who they have always been because… reasons. And when those people remain exactly who they’ve always been, the first person feels like something’s wrong. Maybe they failed. Maybe their friend/crush/partner has lost interest. Maybe there’s just this huge, inherent flaw in the relationship and that this lack of change is an indication that it’s all about to fall apart in such an incredible fashion that dating coaches and relationship therapists will tell their story as a warning to others.
In reality… there was nothing wrong with them or their relationship. Everything had been remarkably consistent. It was just the expectation that was causing the conflict.
I mean, you’ve said it yourself, NWTBTM: you know he’s swamped with work and has few ways of reaching out easily. You know — because he told you — that he’s bad at initiating, that he’s always been the brooding type and he’s had something spectacularly shitty happen this year. It sounds to me like he’s behaving more or less as expected, and that keeping a relationship going with him is going to entail your being the one to do more of the initiating and being willing to deal with periods of radio silence.
Here’s my question NWTBTM: do you trust your crush? Do you think he’s telling you the truth when he said that this is just who and how he is? If so… well, then you need to accept that this is just him.
Now that doesn’t mean you can’t put in a few guard rails. Instead of just saying “I guess I should bug off”, you may want to have a conversation about understanding each other — especially with a goal of establishing “hey, tell me if you need me to knock it off for a bit”. It may also be worth bucking the millenial stereotype and give phone conversations a try if he’s just not good at texting and can’t/won’t Zoom or Skype. But just assuming that you’re a bother or that you aren’t providing some much needed solace at a time when he may need friends reaching out can be as much of a mistake as trying to hang where you aren’t wanted. The last thing I suspect either of you want is to let things dry up and crumble away because of miscommunications.
Sometimes you just gotta trust someone when they tell you that it’s ok and this is just how they are.