Dear Dr. NerdLove:
I’m a gay man. In my tennis group there is a 32 year old guy that I find very attractive, who I have known for about 3 years. We were never close friends, but rather just friendly acquaintances.
About 6 months ago, out of the blue, he started sending me direct messages, such as “good morning”, “how’s your day going”, “good night”- daily, several times a day. The conversations were short, but consistent. On several occasions I would lightly flirt with him. He would thank me, but he would never flirt back. So I assumed he was not interested in me beyond just being friends.
After a few weeks of receiving his daily text messages and me hoping for more, I finally flat out asked him if he would go out on a date with me. He politely turned me down. I was disappointed, but also relieved to at least have a concrete answer. In this same conversation, I apologized for flirting with him thinking that it probably had made him uncomfortable. He said, “no, I definitely hope that doesn’t stop”
Knowing that he was not interested in me but that he enjoyed my light flirty comments (by light, I mean a level 2 out of 10), I felt the freedom to increase the flirting level to a 5 out of 10. So now, instead of just complimenting him physically, I added a sexual desire component without being raunchy. This continued for a few more weeks. Still the flirting was one way traffic.
Then, one day, he flirts back! And not only that, but he escalates it by sending me a half nude picture! It caught me so by surprise that I started shaking with excitement. I told him that I was confused, that I didn’t think he was interested in me in “that way.” He said that he was attracted to me, but that he has a “policy” of not dating anyone from the tennis group.
Since then, for the past two months, the flirting is now two-ways and has progressed to video-cam sex twice a week… Our sexual interaction is exclusively virtual. When we see each other in person on the tennis courts, we’re just friends. No one in our group knows we have this virtual side thing going. He keeps saying that “soon” we will have actual sex. However his reasons are pretty flimsy as to why it hasn’t happened yet, so I assume he probably just doesn’t want to take it to that level. Yet every time I think we have reached the limit of how far this is going to go, he eventually pushes it to the next level. It’s just been such a f…n long, slow process… Ugh!
Is he just playing control games? Or is he the type of person that just takes a long time to develop a relationship? Seems that every time I try to define the relationship, I get turned down, but yet things do seem to be progressing, which leaves me confused because I want a “normal” relationship – and this feels more like a game, which granted I have been a willing participant.
Meanwhile, I keep meeting other people on dating apps, hoping to find someone that wants to date me as much as I want to date them. But no luck yet.
Do I do nothing and continue allowing him to dictate the pace and depth of the relationship? Or is there a level of toxicity already that makes it hopeless to expect it to ever be healthy and I should instead just end this now? Or is there a compromise solution that you see?
Ready Player Two
So before we get to your question RPT, I want to refer back to Monday’s letter from Black Ladies Have Feelings Too. In that column, I talked about the difference between flirting with intent and flirting without. You’ve provided a great example of handling a situation where you were enjoying the flirting, but wanted to make sure that everyone’s on the same page. So I want to commend you for speaking up and asking your friend whether he’d prefer if you would stop. You checked in with him, got the high-sign that it was cool and he enjoyed and all was well…
Well, at least until things escalated and got murky again, anyway.j
These are the questions that are the hardest to answer, RPT, because they require being a mind-reader more than being a loudmouth with a blog. A lot of times, one person’s games-playing is another person’s “trying to work within the situation they’re stuck in”. Of course, other times… well, other times, it’s folks being shitty for reasons of their own.
As a general rule, my position on “how do you tell what someone really means” in situations like yours is “deeds, not words”. That is, when there’s a conflict between what someone says and what they do, the way they behave tends to be the truth. Someone who, for example, protests that they’re interested in you, but can’t ever seem to make you a priority or carve out space for you, is likely not as interested as they claim. On the other hand, someone who insists that “this is just a sex thing,” but acts like a potential partner and treats you like someone they’re dating is likely either in the process of catching feelings or trying very hard to pretend that they aren’t.
Now in your case… well, let’s look at the difference between words and deeds. He gives the ok for you to keep flirting, even making it clear you think he’s hot sex on toast, but never reciprocates. That alone would suggest that he digs the attention, but doesn’t necessarily want to take responsibility for it. He’s willing to soak up your desire for him like a sponge, but he doesn’t want to have to do anything like, y’know, giving any attention back. At least… until he suddenly does. And boy howdy does he; it’s gone from one-sided flirting to spicy pic to some cam sessions. However, he’s not taking it any further. He not only keeps putting off getting together for actual, in-person sex but he keeps putting off any attempts to define the relationship and also refuses to acknowledge this publicly.
All of that, quite frankly, is making my Spidey-sense tingle. That dichotomy between his private actions vs. public ones, between his words and his deeds… that all suggests that there’s something going on that you’re not privy to.
Based on what you’ve been describing, I don’t think that he’s playing control games with you. I do, however, think he’s hiding something. I’m just not entirely sure what. But I have my suspicions. The problem is, there’s a lot of information missing that would help both of us figure out what that something is.
My first question would be: is he actually out as a gay or bi man — whether to the group, or in general? And if so, for how long? If he’s still adjusting to accepting his sexuality, I could see his gradual progress as part of his warming his way up to in-person sexy fun naked time. On the other hand, if he’s still closeted and nobody in the tennis group knows… well, then what he’s done is effectively dragged your relationship into the closet with him. And that has the side-effect of putting the onus on you to keep track of who is and isn’t “allowed” to know, having to weigh every word out of your mouth to be sure it doesn’t give the game away, as well as having to keep track of who gets what story. That’s not cool to ask of you, no matter how hot the cam sessions are.
My second question would be: how much do you know about him outside of the tennis group? Does he keep pretty mum about his life, or do you know about what he does when he’s off the courts? What about other members of your group; are any of them closer with him and know about the non-tennis side of him, or are they as much in the dark as he is?
For that matter, are all of your cam sessions at specific hours — say, late at night? Are you able to call him on the phone or Skype or FaceTime with him outside of those sessions, just to say ‘hi’? Or are all of your interactions strictly via text, barring when the two of you are camming together? Some of this secrecy and hedging sounds an awful lot like somebody hiding a relationship, and if there’re restrictions on when and how you can be in contact, then it would track that he’s dating or married to someone and you’re his dirty little secret.
Or, hell, it could be that he’s in a relationship with someone and he’s got a permission slip to fool around, but he doesn’t want you to know that he’s got a partner because… well, I dunno, maybe he’s worried that you’re not willing to do ethical non-monogamy.
Unfortunately, like I said: the answers to what’s going on are locked inside your beau’s head, and unless you or I suddenly make friends with Professor Xavier or Jean Grey, we’re all kinda stuck for an answer.
Except… not really. Because there is something you can do here to find out: you can call the question. You can — and should — ask him, straight up, what’s going on. Why is he keeping you on the down-low, why’s he being so cagey about you two getting together and what, exactly, he wants from this relationship?
Because there’s something I think you may have either forgotten or set aside: you are well within your rights to advocate for your own needs. You want a relationship with this guy. Not a “sneaking around, not quite real, plausibly deniable” kind of affair but to openly date and to be with someone who wants to be with you. There’s no reason not to actually use your words and say “Hey, I’m not happy with how this is playing out, here’s what I want from a relationship, here’s what I would want from you, are you in or are you out?”
I’d say I’m surprised you haven’t been blunter about this with him yet, but I think I know why. I suspect that you worry that, if you were to speak up and tell him exactly what you want, this whole thing would pop like a soap bubble and you’d be back at square one. And as much as I hate to say this, I suspect that you’d be right. You’ve picked up on just how fragile and tenuous this relationship is and the only reason why it continues is because it’s continuing on his terms. If you were to stand up for yourself and make it clear that you want more than this, it would all vanish like it never happened.
But here’s the thing: that’s not a bad thing. What you want isn’t compatible with what he’s giving you. You may find him hotter than Scotch Bonnet chili with a ghost pepper chaser, but if this relationship were a turtle, it’d be getting lapped by other turtles and that doesn’t make you happy. While you may like him, what he is offering isn’t working for you, and that’s clearly getting to you. So this is one of those times where you have to love yourself enough to give up someone you’re crazy about, but who doesn’t seem willing to give you the same consideration, care or investment that you’ve given him.
Now — assuming that you’re not a dirty little secret — this may mean finding out that yes, he’s just slower than a snail when it comes to relationships and he would get there eventually. But sometimes loving yourself means recognizing that “eventually” is not the price you’re willing to pay to be in this relationship. And while that’s a damn shame, I can promise you that there’re other dudes out there who are just as hot, just as awesome but who also aren’t taking the scenic route to where you hope to be.
So I think the best thing you can do here is just start using your words, like you did in the beginning, and say “dude… what the fuck?” Ask him what the hell’s going on, tell him what you need from him and see what he says.
And then… see what he does after he says them. Because if he says one thing, but his actions tell you another? Assume that the actions are the truth and move on. You deserve more than to wait around for someone who doesn’t seem to care about how you’re feeling or how he’s making you feel.
Question about sex coming your way! I’m 31/F and I’ve been in a happy and healthy relationship for the last 10 months or so. I love this guy–he’s sweet, caring, we have so much in common, and I just love spending time with him. Things are going so well that it kind of blows my mind. We’ve got good communication and talk about everything–our needs/worries, what we want, etc. We’re very compatible in so many ways. And we have really good sex that leaves us both satisfied.
At least until now.
I’m realizing that “new relationship energy” is fading a little for me, and my desire has waned. I’m still very attracted to him, but that “I can’t keep my hands off you” energy has gone a little. I still enjoy kissing and sex–it still leaves me very satisfied! But it doesn’t always have that passion we had in the first six months. It’s a little routine now. Here’s my main worry: sometimes I feel like I don’t get as aroused as I used to. We’re using more lube now when we didn’t need it before (and I know using lube is totally normal), and somehow I feel like it’s my fault for not getting turned on enough. I know what kinds of foreplay turn me on, and I’ve told him, but sometimes it still doesn’t work.
Kissing usually helps me get turned on, but my partner has a different kissing style than me. It’s something that I’ve noticed from the beginning, and it doesn’t quite turn me on the way past partners’ kisses have. I feel so bad about that. I’m scared to say something to him because I don’t want him to feel bad. He’s sensitive so I know he would feel bad about himself. And his kissing is in no way a deal breaker for me. But lately I have a lot more anxiety creeping in when we do have sex, and I constantly ask myself, “Why aren’t I turned on more?” I’m in my head so much that it’s making it hard for me to enjoy sex. And then I get nervous and start asking if HE’S enjoying sex because I don’t know that I fully enjoy it all the time.
What can I do? How can we keep that spark alive?
One of the truths about relationships is that desire for a partner does fade over time. This isn’t necessarily an indication of problems; it’s just part of how humans are wired. We’re a novelty-seeking species, and the first year or so with a new partner is very much part of the “getting to know you” phase. That New Relationship Energy comes about because being with someone new means our bodies are firing dopamine and oxytocin straight into the pleasure centers of the brain. But unfortunately, we’re also incredibly adaptable and we can get used to anything. This is known as “hedonic adaptation”; literally, the more exposed we are to something, the less exciting it becomes because we’ve gotten used to it. This is why even banging the hottest of the hot becomes… well, just the status quo to us. But when we hook up with someone new… well, suddenly it’s all fireworks and explosions in your heart and pants again.
However, running into this problem 10 months into a new relationship is not typical. While yes, there are folks for whom the initial excitement fades quickly — and that’s normal for them — the fact that it’s not part of your usual pattern suggests that there’s an issue.
Now, part of the problem is the anxiety. Like I told PIED In The Face recently, anxiety around sexual performance is a self-perpetuating cycle. Your anxiety gets in the way, keeps you from enjoying the sex or getting as aroused as you normally do, so you get anxious about having sex, which keeps you from enjoying the sex you’re having or getting as aroused as you normally do. When the anxiety inhibits your enjoyment and creates more anxiety, the obvious answer is to figure out what’s causing the anxiety and address that to break the cycle.
It seems that a core issue here is that you are worried about bringing these concerns up with your partner. While I understand that he’s on the sensitive side and you don’t want to make him feel bad, not saying anything is counterproductive. I mean, think of it from his perspective. If he’s a caring lover who’s concerned about your pleasure — and I presume he is — then how upset would he feel to know that you’ve been having these issues and never told him? Especially if it’s something that he could have been helping you with?
The kissing issue is actually a great place to start. This is a solvable problem, but it’s not one that he’s going to be able to divine out of thin air. He’s going to need some direction to know exactly how you like being kissed. The key here is the way you present this information to him. If you roll it out as “ok look, I was willing to put up with you kissing technique until this point, but now it’s a problem,” then yeah, it’s gonna hurt his feelings. On the other hand, if you present this as “hey, let me show you something I’d like more of….” and then demonstrate it — along with some appropriate encouraging noises and actions — then this is less “your kissing technique sucks” and more “this really turns me on“.
The same goes with the foreplay you like. It’s one thing to tell him once. It’s another to show him — or request it in the moment, for that matter. “Hey, you know what I’d really like?” is one way to draw attention to it. Another is to just straight ask for what you need, right then. If you need him to go down on you like a champ, then you need to make that clear at that moment that this is what you’re craving and anything less than his best effort won’t do. You can phrase it like a challenge, like a contest or even a sexy demand… but you have to use your words to do so.
And here’s the important thing: it’s important that you get in the habit of asking for what you need when you need it, not just once outside of the bedroom and hope that he remembers. I realize that this sounds like training a pet, but changing habits requires reinforcement. That means not being afraid to ask for what you want or need as the need arises, until such a time that he gets that these are the things that get your motor humming and it becomes part of his regular routine. If you ask for it once, he may well pay attention and give you what you need that time… but he may not process that this is an ongoing need and fall back into old patterns, especially if those patterns worked well enough with his previous partners.
But more than anything else, you need to not be afraid to address issues in your relationship or places where you feel things are lacking. That’s something you should get used to doing now; it may feel difficult to bring up at this stage of the relationship, but I can promise you that it’s a hell of a lot more difficult at two years. Or five. And that means that you’re going to be dealing with anxiety and mediocre sex that entire time. Getting started now, when things are still fresh and new, makes it much much easier, and it empowers you to ask for what you need down the line, instead of letting things fester until they become a massive problem.
And to be perfectly blunt: sometimes you need to be willing to risk hurting someone’s feelings when shit’s going wrong, rather than suffering because you’re afraid to say something. As the saying goes: you need to stop setting yourself on fire just to keep other people warm. Hurt feelings are avoidable most of the time, and heal quickly when they aren’t; making yourself miserable and dealing with shitty situations, on the other hand, will cause the relationship to rot from the inside out and do all sorts of damage to your own self-esteem and emotional well-being. And to be even blunter: if someone’s so sensitive that the slightest hint that they could be doing things better would shatter them like glass? That’s not somebody you should be in a relationship with. That’s a them problem, not a you problem, and you shouldn’t allow it to become yours.
So if you want to get out of your head and get back to the bed-rocking, headboard-thumping, keep-the-neighbors-up sex you were having before? It’s time to start using your mouth to make him understand what you want, what you need, and what needs to be different. Yes, it may be awkward at first… but it’s better to power through a moment of awkwardness than years of keeping silent and just making yourself more and more miserable. Speak up now, and your future self will be looking for ways to travel back in time and give you the highest of fives.