Hello Doc, long time reader here. I think I have an unusual problem. I’m a cis, straight, white guy who during my teenage years (I’m 22 now!) used to be a Nice GuyTM, didn’t care about presentation and didn’t have many (if any) female friends. I want to make emphasis on how much some of your advice has helped me to grow as an individual.
Nowadays, I pass the Grimes Test with flying colors. I dress properly and regularly go to the barber. I joined a D&D group with strangers who turned out to be some of my best friends. I have deep, intimate friendships with both men and women. I don’t panic anymore when talking to women. I’ve read a lot of feminist literature that literally changed the way I saw a lot of things for the better. You could say that I’m peaking, and the best part is that I’m constantly growing and developing myself.
The one thing that I don’t really know how to solve is, what’s next? I would really like to find a meaningful relationship, but I don’t have a clue about how to go about it. I tried Tinder, meeting friends of friends, and most of the times people just ghost me. I also don’t know how to flirt, I’m scared of saying or doing something that might be wrongly interpreted. Also there’s the fact that we are living through a pandemic, which doesn’t help. I know dating is sometimes a numbers game, so if anything, I wanted you to know that I owe some of my growth to your column.
Thank you for all these years, you’ve been killing it-
Completed the Tutorial
This is something a lot of folks wrestle with CTT. There’re a lot of folks who’ve taken the lesson of “create an awesome life and become someone people want to date” to heart. They have actually put in the work to become their best, most polished self… and then they realize they’re still single. Women, as it turns out, aren’t beating down their door because they heard a rumor that a real catch is there. So… now what?
Well, you do the work. Becoming a good guy isn’t the end of the journey; it’s the beginning. While yes, building up an awesome life and becoming a good guy is a reward in and of itself, you’ve also built the foundation for everything that comes next. You go out and start meeting people and turning those connections into dates. Now, one of the things I’m always telling guys is that they don’t need to do this in serial fashion — step one, step two, step three, now you’re ready to date. You can work on your personal life and your social life in parallel, treating your personal development like a web or network, rather than a linear process. By treating “… and now you’re ready to date” as the end goal, you run the risk of constantly kicking “being ready” down the road. There’s an infinite supply of reasons why you might decide you’re not “ready” yet.
They’re not good reasons, mind you. But they exist.
However, there are some benefits to taking things in the order that you did. Think of The Karate Kid and the classic “wax on/wax off” scene. The whole point of those exercises was how they taught Daniel the basics without his realizing it, helping him develop the muscle memory that would allow him to respond without thinking. Those seemingly unimportant tasks and busywork made it easier for him to actually translate those movements and responses into action as needed. So it is with the lessons you learned as you were building up this awesome life you have. Without realizing it, you’ve cultivated the very skills you need to date. Now it’s a matter of applying those lessons.
Case in point: you’ve cultivated your confidence and self-esteem. You know you that you’re a prize because hey, look at how great your life is now. That’s the outlook you want when it comes to dating: “I have an awesome life full of passion, friendship and satisfaction. The only thing that could make it better would be sharing it with someone.” You know that a relationship will be a complement to your life, not the keystone. That means that you’re developing an abundance mentality; if this person isn’t right for you or doesn’t fit, then that’s fine because they’re not necessary for you to be happy. Better to find someone who is right for you, instead of hoping that there’s some way of making one specific person like you.
Similarly, you’re confident in talking to women. You know that it’s not some impossible task that only some people can do — you just talk to them, like you would to anyone else. You also know you can walk into a room of strangers and make them lifelong friends. The skills you use to strike up friendships and connect with people who you’d love to hang out with are the same skills you use to connect with people you want to date. The only difference is how you apply them and what your end-goal is.
No, seriously. Dating and making friends are the same skillset. You’re taking a relatively weak connection — you just met, you’re still getting to know each other — and turning it into a relationship through communication, sharing passions and spending time together. The difference is the message you’re communicating. With friends, you’re checking for and signaling platonic interest. With people you want to date, you are showing that you’re interested in them as potential lovers and partners and you want to see if they’re worth your time and attention. The skills you use to cultivate those relationships are the same, just applied slightly differently.
Case in point: you want to find women to date? Consider how you made new friends as an adult: you went and found people with shared interests. You talked, hung out, made plans. That’s the same process you go through when trying to meet potential partners: you seek out folks you are compatible with, strike up conversations and make plans together. The biggest difference between Tinder and meeting someone through your social network or even just a serendipitous moment is the context; people on Tinder are specifically looking for relationships, whereas that cute woman browsing the stacks at the bookstore may not be. But then again, that’s something you run into when trying to make new friends.
The same applies to flirting. You already know how to flirt. Flirting is, as I’ve said many times before, letting someone know that you like them and engaging with them on an emotional level. You do this with your friends already. You presumably have inside jokes with your friends that you share. You let them know you think they’re awesome and that you enjoy hanging out with them. You almost certainly poke gentle fun at one another or engage in collaborative jokes where you build on what has been said before.
Those are the fundamentals of flirting. The difference is that with someone you are attracted to, you also are conveying that interest goes beyond just enjoying their company.
Now you mention that you’re worried about saying or doing something that could be interpreted the wrong way. That’s a common worry… but it’s a self-inflicted one. The truth is that most of the time, this comes from a place of feeling like any attraction is inherently fragile or that your interest in someone is unwanted; the idea that you have to phrase things exactly right is a way of trying to control that anxiety. It’s treating flirting like a magic spell — frame thing like this, say it like that or else it all falls apart. But that’s not how attraction works. Hell, that’s not how most conversation works. While people can and do say stupid shit or shove their feet into their mouths — been there, done that, built a career out of it — the vast majority of people are actually incredibly understanding and forgiving. Let the one who has never stumbled over their own words, said the wrong thing or wished they could dig a hole and pull it in after themselves cast the first stone. The truth is that while there’re ways to make it less likely of being misunderstood — being clear and straightforward in your interest, not playing head games or pretending to be less interested or available than you actually are — you can’t control how other people hear things or think. The only thing you can do is trust yourself enough to be clear and, in the event of a misunderstanding or mistake, apologize and clarify. If someone’s into you, they are much more likely to give you some leeway to clarify things and realize you were speaking in good faith. And if they don’t… well, it sucks, and it’s going to feel embarrassing as hell, but you will survive it. This is now something you can learn from for the next time, and something you’ll laugh about ruefully down the line. Again: been there, done that, got my black belt in it. But as scary or painful as it may feel when you imagine it… it’s not nearly as bad as you worry it will be. It won’t ruin your life or destroy your chances of dating someone. It just means that you’ll deal with some discomfort, them move on. And when you realize that this is all that is, you realize it’s not something to fear.
That’s how you build confidence after all; confidence is the result of fear + survival.
What about the numbers game and ghosting? Unfortunately… that’s part of life, really, particularly when it comes to dating apps. One of the issues with dating apps is that what looks good on paper doesn’t mean it works in person. There’re so many signals and clues that control who we are or aren’t attracted to that we can only perceive when we’re together in physical space. These can range from everything from timbre of their voice to the way they treat the waitstaff at the restaurant to things you can’t consciously perceive… and that’s all information that can’t be conveyed in emails, texts or even video chats. So you often get first dates that go nowhere because there were those subtle, even subconscious keys that meant you two weren’t mutually compatible. And while that may mean that there’re folks you like who aren’t into you (and vice versa), finding this out early on means you’re now free to find someone who is right for you.
And if they ghost you on the app… well, they weren’t that into you in the first place and that’s ok. Again: there’re best practices that help minimize the odds — including getting off the app and meeting up in person ASAP — but you can’t control other people. You can only control yourself and your reactions. So you just recognize that, again, this was a sign that they weren’t right for you, dust off your shoulders and move on.
Here’s the thing, CTT: you’ve made a lot of progress. You’ve done the work, you’ve build a great life and you should be very proud of what you’ve accomplished. Not only is your improvement a reward in and of itself, but you’ve laid the foundations for the social life you want. What comes next may be a challenge, but it’s not nearly as hard as you might fear. You already know what to do. You just need to apply it in new ways.
Dear Dr. NerdLove:
Recently my boyfriend got into a discussion about the future of our relationship. He has mentioned in passing at the very beginning of our relationship that he didn’t want to do long distance, and today it came up that when I graduate next year, he would break up with me.
I remember him telling me about how he couldn’t do LDR when we started dating a year ago, but I hadn’t thought about it like that. To be honest, I’m so so hurt. I would be willing to do an LDR, I love him but he’s set on this. To be fair I dont think he thought ahead that far either, I think he realized as we were talking that that’s what would happen when I graduate. But it hurts. I don’t know what to do. I love him but it hurts to know that no matter what it ends next year. Now I don’t know.
Should I break up now or accept that our relationship has a deadline and stay?
Thank you for your help
The Final Countdown
So before we get started, I want to take a quick sidebar: part of what I think is underpinning your issue is the idea that this relationship seems destined to be short-term. How short seems to be up in the air — end it now, or wait until graduation — but for now it seems pretty clear that this isn’t going to be a long-term thing.
But that’s actually ok. One of the things that I think causes unnecessary grief for folks is the idea that relationships have to be or should be long-term to be desirable. TAs I’m often saying, a relationship ending doesn’t mean that relationship was a failure or one that didn’t succeed. he idea that “if this doesn’t end with one or both of you dying in the saddle, it’s a failure” has caused a lot of people to pass on what could have been rich and rewarding relationships just because they weren’t going to last for years or decades. There’s value to be had in relationships that flare like a comet, brief but oh so bright and meaningful for it. Not every relationship needs to be an epic poem, nor are they meant to be. Some are meant to be a short story. Some are meant to be a dirty limerick. And those are all valid and wonderful relationships. I think embracing the value and worth of a relationship that isn’t meant to last forever — and everyone involved recognizing that fact — would do a world of good for many, many people.
Now as to your question, I feel like that the first thing we need to do is underline something important here: your boyfriend told you early on that he doesn’t like long-distance relationships. One of the most reliable ways that people blow up a great relationship is that they don’t take what their partners say to heart early on. Sometimes this comes because somebody doesn’t take it seriously and assumes that it doesn’t apply to this relationship. Other times, people go into the relationship under the assumption that their partner didn’t mean it or that they could change their partner’s mind or outlook. And of course, sometimes folks end up in this situation because they weren’t looking at what lay ahead or thinking about what this might mean.
This is one of the reasons why I think it’s important to recognize and embrace the value of a short-term relationship, rather than to go in assuming that all relationships should be long-lasting or (ideally) life-long. It’s much easier to manage expectations and avoid unnecessary pain when you recognize things from the jump.
Case in point: when you and your boyfriend got together, the future was vague and nebulous and seemed so very far away. Graduation was some distant dream, too insubstantial to have any real meaning or impact on your relationship. And then suddenly… it wasn’t. And now the thing that you were hoping might never be relevant has suddenly come front and center, along with everything that this knowledge entails.
This is understandably rough, TFC. It can be hard to look at a relationship and think “well, this is going to end, so what’s the point?” After all, why subject yourself to the heartbreak of ending things down the line? Wouldn’t that mean that it’s better to just rip the bandaid off now? Or better yet, not get involved in the first place if it’s going to end this way?
In fairness, I can empathize with that argument: why subject yourself to the inevitable pain of the ending if you don’t have to? I lost my cat at the beginning of the year, and I’m not quite at the place where I can look at the possibility of getting another pet and see more than just the tragedy that having a pet means you sign up for. It’s entirely understandable why you would want to spare yourself that hurt.
But here’s the thing: when you only focus on the end, you miss all of the rest of it. Yeah, you spare yourself the pain of the ending, but you are also missing all the joy, companionship and love that comes with it. Is your life going to be that much better or happier for giving up the time you could have with your boyfriend going forward? Can you honestly say that you wouldn’t be better off for having him in your life and the time you get to spend with each other, even if you know that there’s an end point to it?
But then again, are you able to be in the present with him, instead of spending the time you have now focused on the ending? Are you able to put that ending out of mind and savor what you have now? Loving someone — a person or a pet — comes with endings built in; there’s no getting around that. It’s just a question of when and how it ends. Most of the time, we’re able to push that away and not think about it… and, honestly, we have to. You can’t enjoy any what you have if all you do is think about how it’s going to come to an end. In fact, in some ways that makes things worse; now not only are you unable to enjoy the time you have, but you taint those memories by only associating them with the end that you spent all that time dreading.
So in a real way, that deadline serves less as a memento mori and more of a memento vitae; yes, the end will come but that makes it all the more important to live and to live in the now so that you are able to consciously enjoy things to their fullest.
Yes, this means that the endings still hurt. And maybe continuing that ending wouldn’t hurt as much if there wasn’t so much more coming to an end, than if it were to end now. But then again… wouldn’t you just wind up morning the relationship in potentia, and all it could have been if you had chosen to continue it?
I mean, I faced a lot of losses over the last year and change — friends and family, some of who died suddenly and without warning, while with others I had to watch the end approach, knowing there was no stopping it. Losing Guinness ripped a hole in my reality, one that will never be completely filled. But I would never trade all the time I had with him to avoid it ever happening in the first place. It may have broken my heart, but he made my life better for having been part of it.
So it can be with relationships. If things are going to end at graduation, then yes, you can take the pain now to spare yourself the pain down the line. But doing so means that you miss out on everything you would also be getting by staying in this relationship. By the same token, are you able to commit to living things to the fullest with your boyfriend instead of dwelling on the inevitable ending and letting that color everything you do together?
You have to be the one to decide whether what you would be giving up is worth the cost.
Oh… and one more thing.
Graduation means an ending. It doesn’t mean the ending. Just because things may end now — because you and your boyfriend can’t do a long-distance relationship — doesn’t mean that circumstances can’t change later on. There’s nothing stopping the two of you from circling around and reconnecting later on, when life means that the two of you won’t have to do long-distance. And it’s a lot easier to reconnect when you don’t treat the end of this relationship as a sign that it failed… just that this one ended, and put you both in a position where you could begin a new one down the line.