Dear Dr. NerdLove:
So, first things first: my partner (38NB, they/them) and I (28F) both have histories of abusive relationships. Their most recent partner before they met me was physically, sexually, and emotionally violent towards them; I had gotten out of a sexually predatory and abusive relationship with a much older man. We both understand that the trauma we’ve undergone shapes us, but does not define us. We’re working through it.
My problem is that I’m scared that I was simply the first partner in a long time to show them kindness and compassion, and that because of that they’ve spent the last five and a half years in a relationship in which, on some fundamental level, they do not want to be. This is in large part because I have a lot of flaws as a partner.
We live together and have done for nearly five years, but it was a case of me moving into their flat straight from my parents’ house rather than us picking a place together. I am long-term unemployed and contribute to household expenses as much as I am able but they’re still the primary breadwinner and I feel like I am leeching off them. I have triggers relating to showers (which I would rather not go into) that make personal hygiene difficult for me. I clean and help out and cook and the like, but I’ve had to learn how over the time we’ve lived together. I have serious depression and anxiety, for which I am receiving treatment and medication, but they had to poke and prod me into getting any treatment at all. I constantly feel like I have nothing to offer but being a considerate and caring partner – something that should be the default for any relationship, though the both of us are keenly aware that it is very much not.
Both of us drink heavily, something which lockdown has made worse, but they’re getting through a litre of gin every couple of days. They’re much more outgoing than I am and not being able to see their friends has hit them very hard indeed. When they’ve been drunk on the sofa, they’ve talked about how they didn’t see themselves ending up like this. Illness took their dreams of being a dancer in the West End, and now they’re pushing forty in a provincial fishing village that makes Toshi Station look like the height of urbane cosmopolitanism. And they look so sad when they say it. And then the next day, it’s like a switch has been flipped and it’s all smiles, and when I try to bring it up they brush it aside as me being paranoid. Which, to be entirely fair, is one of the symptoms of my anxiety disorder.
I love my partner, I really have to stress that. I love them with all my heart. I’m just terrified that I’m not worth loving back as much, and I can’t help but wonder whether or not I’m making my partner as happy as they make me. I struggle to tell what’s my paranoia and what’s a genuine issue that I should talk about with them. They’re a really awesome person and I just… worry that I’m nothing more than the first person to be a good partner, and that having had such an unbelievably fucking shitty partner for five years makes me look way better than I actually am.
We’ve been together, like I said, for five and a half years. I’ve been really happy. The happiest I can ever remember being. And I wonder if I’m the only one in the relationship who feels like that.
Or if it’s all in my head.
Thank you for reading,
Relevant Black Sabbath Song
Well let’s get this out of the way first, RBSS: yes, your partner is settling for you. But you are also settling for them. This doesn’t mean that they’re choosing you because you’re the closest warm body that said yes, or only person they could end up in a relationship with. It means that everybody looks at their list of what they want in a partner and realizes that no one person can provide ALL the things they want. Everybody goes into a relationship saying “Ok, I’m willing to give up on X, Y or Z because what I do get from this person is worth it”. And that goes for you too; nobody gets 100% of what they want in a relationship, but they get enough that they’re happy with the exchange.
Problems only arise when somebody prioritizes “having a relationship” over “a relationship with a person I want to actually date” — they’re just trying to fill a whole marked “relationship”, rather than choosing that person specifically.
Now with that said, let’s talk about the specifics of your situation. First and foremost, I think you’re drastically undervaluing offering someone kindness and compassion and what that can mean to someone… especially someone who was in a horrifically abusive relationship. Being somebody that they can trust, somebody who is safe and reliable and lets them feel secure is no small thing. The sense of being able to let your guard down and let somebody in without having to tense up or be afraid of how they’ll treat you is huge. That’s not “well anyone could provide this” or something cheap or meaningless. It’s very, very important and I suspect it was at the top of your partner’s “must have” list. So stop talking yourself down on that level.
Similarly: you have your flaws. Ok… and? Everyone does. Maybe it means that you wouldn’t be compatible with some people. But you’re not dating those people, you’re dating your partner. Similarly, you have depression and anxiety and your partner has been poking and prodding you to get into therapy. Here’s the thing: they wouldn’t do that if they didn’t care. People, on the whole, don’t try to push folks they don’t like into getting help. And hey, if it helps you process things, look at this as your partner saying “here’s something you can do: taking care of yourself will make our relationship better.”
You’re also seeing this relationship on a transactional basis and worrying that things aren’t perfectly balanced. But perfect balance is for Thanos… all the rest of us deal with things being a little unequal on one side or the other. But not only is that not inherently a bad thing, successful relationships balance those aspects out in other ways. You aren’t the primary breadwinner, but there are other ways you contribute, both to the household and to the relationship. They can be anything from housework to being the emotional port that provides them safety from the storm.
And then there’s the part about “I didn’t think my life would end up like this”. First of all, a thing you need to keep in mind is that alcohol is a depressant in the literal and emotional sense of the word. As I’ve said before: we’re bad at understanding why we feel the way we do. Our brains don’t just feel emotions, they interpret the input they’re getting from the body and backfill the reasons for it after the fact. As a result, getting drunk can make you feel lower than you actually are because it’s depressing your nervous system. It can even drag up feelings that you’d resolved because it removes filters and hinders your judgement. So, just as getting drunk impairs a person’s ability to consent, because they may be agreeing to something they don’t actually want to do, your partner’s discussing how their life isn’t the way they expected doesn’t mean that they don’t like the way things are now. It just means that there’re things that they wish could’ve been different. And hey, we all have that. Show me somebody who doesn’t look at aspects of their life that they wish could’ve gone differently and I’ll show you a fictional character. But life not going in the direction you expected doesn’t mean that they can’t be — or aren’t — happy now.
Shit, 90% of Christmas movies are people discovering their lives aren’t going the way they expected and realizing that this is OK.
(The rest are about terrorists invading Nakatomi Plaza or crime waves in Gotham.)
The biggest problem you have isn’t that your partner is “settling” for you. It’s that you aren’t recognizing that what you’re giving them is actually very goddamn valuable indeed. Safety, security, care and love are huge. Are you perfect? No. Neither is anyone else. Are you The Perfect Partner? No… but neither are they. Are there things you could possibly do to make things balance out a bit more? Probably, and you can talk with your partner about ways that you could do this. But that’s not the same as “being a bad partner” or “being the first person to be nice to them”. The important question to ask is are they happy? And are you happy?
And then it’s your responsibility to listen and take yes for an answer. Because the thing that’s worse than “settling” for somebody? That’s being told you’re settling, when you really aren’t. It’s telling your partner that you love them and being called a liar for saying that. Yes, there are things you can work on; everyone has those. And it may well be worth doing so, when you can differentiate actual areas of improvement from your anxiety dripping poison in your ear.
But most importantly: you need to recognize your worth and value and how important the things you contribute actually are. Being kind, caring and supportive isn’t just baseline, it’s important and it’s clearly something your partner lacked, desperately needs and that you provide. Don’t diminish that. And don’t steal misery from the future; enjoy what you have now.
All will be well.
I’m sure you get messages like this all the time, but I’m at a point where I feel like nothing will get better for me. I’ve always felt like a social reject, although I don’t struggle with socializing or making friends, I do struggle with relationships & sex. I’ve always had low self-esteem and a firm belief that I was unworthy, and too ugly for intimacy. I was made fun of for being an introvert, soft-spoken and also my ethnicity. This caused me to lack confidence growing up. I had hoped to deal with all this by the time high school ended, but things just got worse. My college experience was mentally depleting too, I went to parties, but never had sex. At this point, I knew I was abnormal. It kind of confirmed my worst fears that I’m undesirable, and nothing would change. I’m not particularly hot, but I have always had a muscular build (played rugby), and I assumed that I’d eventually stumble into something. Maybe I took rom-coms too seriously, I don’t know.
I did have a relationship at 26, going on 27. I had some performance anxiety issues, and felt so humiliated. My partner was supportive, but I still felt emasculated, like a failure. I was able to please her consistently, and make her cum through fingering and oral. Although I was hard at times, I just was too nervous for intercourse. I still feel like a “virgin,” and beat myself up for not being better. Notably, this woman had some trauma from sexual assault, so intimacy was difficult. She was kind of stiff and uncommunicative in bed, and I am glad that I was able to give her pleasure. I experienced a genuine connection with her, but am deeply dissatisfied. Part of me fears I’ll be a punchline with her friends and future partners (“limp dick loser” etc..).
The relationship ended because she felt I was too distant (in terms of location and mentally). My first meaningful relationship with a woman ended without intercourse, which is something I dwell on everyday. To clarify, she never made fun of me, and said affirmative things about me I’d thought I would never hear. Sex is a two-way street, and she had clearly been through a lot. I’m glad I could provide her some comfort, but I did not enjoy myself. I’m rambling, but I don’t struggle to get an erection, I just rarely feel that desire/arousal anymore.
Ultimately, I feel deflated at starting so late, like an inept idiot. I don’t feel like a real man. I’m now 29, and going to be 30 this coming March. I feel like I’ve wasted my youth and my 20s, which is difficult to come to terms with. If I was not deemed attractive in my so-called prime, how will things ever get better? In real life, I’ve been on many dates, get lots of matches on apps, and even hit on at bars. These occurrences do nothing to improve my mental state or outlook. I still feel like there’s a massive gulf in experience with other men. I do struggle with initiating or expressing interest in someone, because I still think I’m an ugly nerd. I’m just exhausted about feeling so invisible.
I really don’t know what to do. I feel like I’ve missed out on so much. I am on anti-depressants (SSRIs) and have lost my sex drive. To me it’s not about pleasure anymore, just a source of insecurity and inadequacy. I don’t like thinking about sex, because it makes me feel inferior. I feel like I cannot recover from this, and am always bitter, and resentful of others. It seems so much easier for most men. I had the tools to succeed. Had the ability to be a good partner, I know I can please a woman, but I feel like a lost cause.
SSRIs have brought some stability to my life. I have been suicidal, and lost close friends and family members during my 20s (untimely deaths). I just feel like a bundle of grief and regret on certain days.
I’m not sure what I’m asking here.. I want to get better and have the attributes to be a decent catch or boyfriend. Things just never added up for me. I don’t know how to shed this negative self-image. This quarantine period (stuck in a small town where I don’t know anyone) has been very, very trying for me. I imagine it’s the same for many others.
Thanks for all you do,
First and foremost HA: there is absolutely nothing wrong with having not had sex or having been a virgin slightly older than the average. I mean, even just counting the number of letters I receive from people just like you and clients I’ve worked with who have been older than the national average, you are emphatically not unique or even uncommon. Lots and lots of people didn’t have sex or relationships until their 20s, even 30s and 40s. That’s not “abnormal”, my dude. That’s just that you’re someone who is a little shy and soft-spoken and who was apparently surrounded by assholes.
The biggest problem you have is that you’ve taken bullshit ideas about “what it means to be a man” and internalized them to the point that you can’t bring yourself to take the wins when you have them. Take, for example, your first partner. Not only was she caring and supportive, but you were able to please her, sexually. But the toxic idea of what a “man” is has convinced you that since you didn’t do it just with your penis, it doesn’t “count” somehow and you believe that she’s going to mock you for having only pleased her with your hands and mouth. Which is, again, for the cheap seats, bullshit.
(Also, just to be clear: that’s how the majority of women reach orgasm during partnered sex. Most women don’t achieve orgasm through penetration alone; they need clitoral stimulation that’s most easily and efficiently achieved through oral sex or manual masturbation.)
You had sex, my dude. If you weren’t 100% hard during penetration or you lost your erection? You still had sex. Even if you didn’t have penetration at all, you still had sex. Virginity is a fucking construct my dude; it’s not a quantum state that’s only changed by getting a diamond hard P into someone else’s V. Otherwise there’d be a whole lot of folks who have a metric fuckton of sex who’d be virgins for life.
Just as importantly: you haven’t wasted shit. Hey, you didn’t party like movies tell you you’re supposed to in your 20s… big fat hairy deal. That doesn’t mean your 20s were wasted, it just means you didn’t party or fuck around. That’s all. You were doing a bunch of other things that are just as valid, just as real and just as legitimate. Did you learn about yourself? Did you grow and improve? Did you try new things, have new experiences? Congratulations, you didn’t waste your 20s.
And like the sage once said:
You young boys gotta chill
30’s the new 20, ——
I’m so hot still
Let me reassure you: the only people who give a six-legged rat’s ass about how much “experience” you had are a) asshole dudes and b) you. Women, on the whole, don’t give a damn about your sexual resume. The women who are going to date you and sleep with you aren’t dating your number, they’re dating the whole you. The only reason why this would be a problem would be if you pre-reject yourself or — worse — insist that a woman doesn’t like you even as she’s insisting that she clearly does.
Plus: as someone who did a lot of unlearning and re-learning in my late 20s and early 30s, I can tell you from personal experience: my 30s were way better than my 20s would’ve been, if only because I had more life experience and better credit.
And by the way: a big reason why you’ve lost your sex-drive is because you’re on SSRIs. Trust me, been there, done that. It’s a known side-effect of a lot of anti-anxiety meds and antidepressants.
Now what should you do? Well, this is a time when you talk to a therapist and work on these issues. Clearly you’ve talked to someone to get on the meds… if they’re not helping you, then it’s time to find a different therapist. I highly recommend checking the American Association of Sexual Educators, Counselors and Therapists’ referral directory to find a sex-positive therapist near you who’ll help you work through those issues. And, incidentally, there are other antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds that will help you without killing your libido dead.
Just as importantly: work on getting to know some of the folks around you. Yeah, the pandemic makes it difficult, but I’m willing to bet that there’re MeetUps and other organized events that’ve moved to Zoom and other apps. Now’s a good time to start making connections in your area; not for dating, but simply so that you have more friends; having a social circle and support network is important, both for your mental and emotional health but also just for your overall well being. Meet some awesome people, make some cool friends and you’ll realize just how much you’ve been beating yourself up for no good goddamn reason. And the better you start to feel about yourself, the easier it will be for you to start meeting some awesome women who are dying to meet a guy just like you.
You’re in a tough place man, I get it. But trust me: those feels aren’t reals. It’s just toxic masculinity fucking with you. You’ve got far more to offer and far more going on than you realize. The more you’re able to dig out the bullshit you’ve internalized, the happier you will be. And it will all go much faster than you realize.
You’re ok. I promise.
All will be well.