Dear Dr. NerdLove:
I just recently celebrated a three year anniversary. We’ve always gotten along really well, we have a good sex life, we have fun, we live together, and my partner is kind and attentive to my six year old daughter that lives with us part time. There’s not a lot of intensity and depth but we’re kind to each other and there for one another. There shouldn’t be anything wrong, but yet… I find my mind straying.
I have a really good friend. We’ve been friends for years, nothing romantic, we just get along really well and understand one another. I can’t stop fantasizing about him lately. There’s no real reason or trigger, nothing has changed, and yet he’s frequently on my mind. It’s almost compulsive. I feel guilty about this, even though I’m not flirting with him or participating in any uncouth behavior.
I’m just having trouble, I guess. Is my fantasizing about my friend the result of a root unhappiness in my relationship or the realization of something deeper? Do I just want to end things and am using this friend as a mental excuse for the detachment building in my mind? Am I a bad person?
I think about it a lot: if this is what I want forever. We’re engaged, and we have been since October 2020, but we’ve never really planned anything. I’ve never really tried or wanted to but I can’t explain why. Now that I look back on all of this, I just feel so confused. Am I staying because I want to or because I feel obligated because the break-up would upset my daughter and derail the relative comfort of my life? Is it guilt because why would you end something with someone who is kind and funny and good when you have no real reason to other than this nagging in the back of your mind? Is it normal to have these doubts and insecurities and challenges? Am I going mad?
I’m sorry, upon rereading I feel that I’m not being super clear here at all and totally understand if there’s not much you can help me with, advice-wise. If there is, though, I’d appreciate it.
Moonstruck in the Midwest
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “correlation isn’t causation” before, MitM, but in case you haven’t, here’s what it means: the fact that two things occur within relative proximity to one another doesn’t mean that the two are related. The order events occurred in doesn’t mean that the preceding event caused or triggered the latter, nor that the latter event was even connected to the former.
I bring this up because you have two separate issues here: you have a crush on your friend and you have a long engagement that you haven’t made any progress on. The existence of one doesn’t imply the cause of the other and neither are necessarily connected except by coincidence.
Let’s start with the immediate concern: you’ve got a crush on a friend. That’s normal and it’s something that happens to literally everyone at one point or another. It has absolutely nothing to do with the state of your relationship, the depth or intensity of your feelings for other people or the commitment you made to your partner. All being attracted to somebody means is that you’re a primate with a sex drive. One of the things that we often forget is that humanity is a novelty-seeking species; it’s built into our psyche and it applies to just about everything we do. We’re also absurdly adaptable and we can get used to just about anything… including sex. Billy Bob Thornton got a lot of mockery and ribbing when he said it, but he wasn’t wrong when he said “You can be sleeping with the hottest woman in the world but after a while it can be like having sex with your couch.” That’s not a slight on the skills of any particular person; it just has everything to do with how our brains are wired. We get a greater biochemical charge from new experiences than we do from the same-old… including who we sleep with. When we’re having sex with a new partner, our brains get flooded with oxytocin and dopamine. Over time, however, the dopamine and oxytocin level out and we produce less when we’re with that partner. When we sleep with someone else, we get that major chemical spike again.
Having a crush on someone doesn’t “mean” anything other than “you find this person attractive and your brain latched onto the novelty of it all.” That’s all. What triggered it is ultimately unimportant, in no small part because sometimes it can be completely random. Maybe he rolled up his sleeves and the light hit just right so that his forearms looked particularly good that day and boom your brain went “huuuuuh.” But does it say anything about your feelings for your partner? No. Folks get crushes regardless of their relationship status. It’s just a thing that happens.
Nor, for that matter, does having made a monogamous commitment to someone act in any way, shape or form as a “deterrent” for crushes and attraction to others. Monogamy just means that you’ve promised to not date or have sex with someone else; it doesn’t say a damn thing about not wanting to. Our desire for novelty still exists – and still gets explored – even in the context of monogamous commitments. Folks who masturbate don’t masturbate the exact same way every time to the exact same fantasy every time, nor do people who watch porn watch the exact same porn video or only watch one porn star. We get our need for novelty met in a lot of different ways, even when we’re thinking “I feel like watching something with a plot instead of just two people fucking with no context”.
And by that same token, having a crush on someone doesn’t mean you need to do anything about it. Attraction is just that: a feeling of being attracted to somebody. It’s not a commandment. Being attracted to someone doesn’t mean you have to act on it; it’s fully possible to feel an attraction and do nothing except feel it. Even fantasizing about someone is ultimately neutral; the stuff that goes on between your ears is nobody’s business but your own. And trust me: if “fantasizing about X means that you’re just a step away from doing it” were true, the murder rate would skyrocket and more people would be hopping in the car and driving across the country to change their identities and start over.
So what do you do about this inconvenient crush of yours? Nothing, really. Crushes are like fires; feed them fuel and they continue to burn. Don’t feed them and they die down on their own. When it comes to crushes, focusing on them, even from a place of “BUT WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?” or trying to force it away is feeding it. That focus is exactly the problem. Despite how it may seem, you aren’t always feeling that crush or even thinking about it. Most of the time your brain is occupied elsewhere; you only notice the moments when you get hung up on the crush because of how you feel about having it in the first place. You don’t notice when you aren’t feeling it because you’re too busy with something else.
Much like being told to not think about a purple kangaroo makes it impossible to not think about them, the mere act of trying to not feel something just draws your attention to it. So rather than try to force it away, just let it be. Note that you’re feeling it, name that feeling and then just gently direct your mind elsewhere. And yes, it’s as simple as saying to yourself “Ah, yes, there’s my crush on old whats-his-name. Anyway, I’ve got a meeting with Accounts Receivable at 9:30 tomorrow so I…”
Eventually the crush will fade and this will just be another random detail in the overall pattern and texture of your life.
Now, the fact that you have a crush doesn’t mean that your relationship is in trouble. What it may have done – and I stress may – is caused you to notice issues within your relationship that need your attention. Please also notice very carefully that I said “issues that need your attention”, not “your relationship is doomed”; there’s a vast difference between “there’re things you should address” and “pack it up, it’s all over.” This may be an issue of long-standing that you’ve neglected, or it may be something that you were never aware of until this crush made you examine your relationship instead of coasting along doing your thing. This crush may have served as a check engine light, telling you that there’s something up and you should get it looked at before it gets worse.
Of course, there might not be a problem at all and you’re getting the relationship equivalent of “your gas cap isn’t tightened all the way”. The fact that you have doubts and insecurities doesn’t automatically mean anything other than “you have doubts and insecurities”. These things happen, and sometimes they happen for no reason whatsoever other than “sometimes brains are bastards”.
Or it could be that there’s an issue that intersects with your relationship that isn’t about your relationship directly. You say you got engaged in October of 2020, but you haven’t made any real forward progress on planning things. Let’s take a moment and think about what else was going on from October of that year until now that might affect things – things, like, say, a global pandemic that required us all to isolate ourselves from everyone else. Or an attempted coup in the United States, the rise of new variants, economic damage from the lockdowns, disruptions to children’s education… all kinds of shit, really. It’s a little hard to get motivated to make long-term plans when you’re trying to figure out the plural for “apocalypse”.
However, I feel obligated to point out that focusing on “Is there something wrong with this relationship?” may also be asking the wrong question. There may not be anything wrong with your relationship at all… but you may still want to end it. Relationships aren’t perpetual motion machines that just keep on spinning until something affects them. They don’t always just continue forever until things go wrong. Relationships are, in their way, like plants; some last for decades, some last for months. That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the plant, it just means that it reached the end of its natural lifespan.
So it is with relationships. Some relationships last until one or both partners die in the saddle. Some don’t. Not because anybody did anything wrong or there was a flaw within the relationship, but simply because the relationship came to it’s natural end. We all grow and change over time, and sometimes what we need in one stage of our lives isn’t what we need in another. This, again, doesn’t mean that anyone did anything wrong or that the relationship wasn’t strong enough. It just means that your needs changed and your relationship is no longer serving those needs and that’s ok. Not every relationship is meant to be for forever. Not every love story is meant to be an epic poem. Some are novellas. Some are short stories. Some are dirty limericks. That’s ok too.
Nor, for that matter, do you need some causus belli in order to end or leave a relationship. You can leave a relationship for any reason, up to and including “you just don’t want to be in a relationship anymore”, and that’s valid. You’re allowed to be single again if you want, even if your partner is an utter saint. You’re allowed to decide you don’t want to date someone any longer, even if they’ve done nothing wrong and they’re practically perfect in every way. You aren’t locked in until you have a reason to end it or leave that’s deemed “good enough” by the Relationship Lords and the Love Variance Authority.
But again: this is all entirely speculative. I meant it when I said “may have caused you to notice issues.” It’s just as possible that there are no issues and your crush has so distressed you that you went looking for causes and, lacking for molehills, your brain tried to turn an ant hill into a mountain. You could well just be dealing with a wandering brainweasel that decided to take this random crush as an excuse to start pogoing all over your anxieties. The existence of anxiety doesn’t mean that there’s a reason for that anxiety.
This is why, at the end of the day, it’s good to pay attention to those “check engine” lights but to not treat them as a sign that everything’s falling to pieces. Sometimes it means that “thump” you heard a mile back was your transmission falling out. Sometimes it means that you’re overdue for an oil filter change. The the only person who can answer that question definitively is you.
So while you’re letting your crush just be, take this as an opportunity to do a once-over of your relationship. Look at things, really examine your feels as dispassionately and neutrally as possible and decide for yourself whether there’s a problem or just an anxiety looking for a problem.