Dear Dr. NerdLove,
I really need your help. I’m going through mental anguish over the past and I’m at my breaking point. Here is my story:
One day, all of my longtime friends deserted me out of the blue. They told me they didn’t want to be friends anymore and that was it. To this day, I have not fully regained trust of women nor have I had a new female friend since this. I believe that if this event had not occurred, I would be a happy, functioning adult. But it sent me on a path of depression, contempt, and attachment issues. (These final two statements were only recently realized).
The next year I transferred schools due to the unbearable effects of being ostracized by my entire peer group.
I was the new girl: lonely, shy, and depressed. The first day, I was put into a group project with my current boyfriend. He was smart, artistic, funny, and a gamer (something that I had recently gotten into). It didn’t take long for me to develop a crush and then a full blown love/obsession with him. Despite only having one class with him 2-3 times a week, I thought about him constantly. I would spectate him playing games, text, and discord call. He was my best friend, in my mind. I didn’t care about befriending anyone else.
Anyone can see that the attachment I formed to him is unhealthy. I was so hurt from what happened with my friend group, I avoided girls. I was also worried he would leave me like they did. I relied on him for all happiness. I put him on a pedestal where he was perfect. I made constant hints at my feelings, even a few times outright discussing it. But he asserted his (valid) feelings that he didn’t want to risk things changing. Instead of taking obvious signs of disinterest, I never gave up. And most of all, when he hurt me the most, I ignored it.
We were friends for about 3 years before I asked him out on a date after realizing he probably never would. We went to a movie and then after that he still wasn’t sure. I remember finally breaking down on my bathroom floor in the new dress I bought for our date. Even writing this now, my chest feels tight.
After hesitation he agreed we were dating, and stupidly, I accepted that. I accepted the constant hesitation (as inexperience), the ignoring (as being busy with school), and disinterest (as my own inadequacy). My codependence was so powerful I was willing to accept anything. It’s all me. I carried the entire relationship. If any point I had stopped talking to him, I doubt he would ever reach out. In fact there was a 6 month gap of time over the summer in which there was no communication. I saw him in class, but he didn’t acknowledge my existence. I reluctantly was the first to text him and we started to talk again. But, if I hadn’t we never would have talked again. I feel like I deserve so much more. Anyone deserves so much more.
However, we started dating anyway and it was perfect happiness. What I was after all those years was finally realized. He introduced me to his friends. I was never popular nor did I make any friends of my own. But it was so much better than before. He met my parents, and I met his (after a few fights). Nothing could go wrong.
Then one day I unearthed my old diaries filled with pages of pain to recount what happened. I started fights occasionally and caused problems in our relationship (bringing up the past, insecurity, blame) when I remember those things. My most intrusive thought is: If I hadn’t asked him out he wouldn’t have asked me out.
You might think, what’s wrong with that? For someone like me who needs to know they are loved and wanted, that prospect hurts me deeply. Not to mention the fact that he must not have found me very attractive. He didn’t love me until I forced him to. I mean, that’s extremely problematic on my part. I want him to date a girl he loves, not a freak like me.
He loves me now. It’s been almost two years and a major life transition. But if he loves me because I manipulated and changed fate I can’t stand it.
As long as I forget the past, I feel content. There are other minor things he does, that annoy me. I end up seeing the connection between these current behaviors and the past. It sends me into a deep spiral. For example: “Why don’t you ever ask me out? I’m always the one who does it. I’m always doing all of the work. If you really cared you would enthusiastically ask me to go out without prompting. Just be honest and tell me if you even care.”
Sometimes I think, why am I so dramatic? Aren’t we the perfect love story? So what if the genders are flipped, that doesn’t make you any less of a woman. It’s the 21st century. Be happy now with what you have. But I know now that the initial attachment to him was one out of desperation, and some of it still lingers. Is it possible for me to move past such a stressful and heartbreaking past?
My boyfriend has truly grown into a much more dependable, loving person. I’m no longer codependent to him and slowly learning to make friends after therapy. We have talked about marriage and living together after college. We visit each other every week. My parents love him. We’re both each other’s firsts. We’ve had good discussions on the future and he’s incredibly talented, smart, and still nerdy. I love him, but the past hurts me so much. I’m worried that we will keep progressing and get married and there’s still going to be these feelings of inadequacy. That’s completely unfair to him. At this point, he has done everything to prove he loves me and finds me attractive and apologized for the past. There might not be a word or action that will ever disconfirm my thoughts. I really need your voice of reason.
– She Will Always Be A Broken Girl
There’re a few things I want to take issue with here, SWABABG. First of all, you’re not broken. You’re clearly someone who’s dealing with a lot of pain, and it seems like you may have overlearned some patterns in your life to compensate for or to adapt to that pain, but you’re not broken. You aren’t broken if you were hurt in an accident, and you aren’t broken for having a hard time afterwards. Having emotional scars because of some traumatic experiences is normal and understandable. That doesn’t mean that you’re broken, it just means that you still have healing to do.
The second thing is that you’re ascribing way too much power and influence to yourself and — in the process — denying your boyfriend’s own autonomy. I mean, you literally say “if he loves me because I manipulated and changed fate”. Unless you’re secretly the Scarlet Witch, have access to a Delorean and a flux capacitor or you’re somehow in contact with The Norns, you didn’t change “fate” somehow. Nor did you somehow manipulate things to make it all work out in ways that it might not have otherwise.
Now, the timeline is a little unclear, but it seems like so much of why you seem to think you “manipulated” him or “forced” him to love you seems to revolve around having asked him out on a date, that you had a freak-out during it and that afterwards there was a weird nebulous point where you were kinda dating but also kinda not. And this has, somehow, turned into your “forcing” him into being in a relationship with you and “making” him love you. I mean, it’s not like the dude couldn’t walk away or end the relationship. In fact, it seems like that’s exactly what he did at one point. But there wasn’t any point in this relationship where you were holding the metaphorical gun to his head — or yours, for that matter — and saying “LOVE ME OR ELSE.”
Assuming I’ve got the right sequence of events, allow me to offer a differing interpretation: the first time you asked him out on a date and he still wasn’t entirely sure if he was interested in you that way, you had a panic attack. He talked you down the only way he knew how — saying “ok, we’ll give this a try”. After you calmed down, it was pretty clear from his end that this wasn’t really a relationship; in fact it seems like it was more on your end than his. It sounds like, at this point, he was going along with things to a limited extent, but he wasn’t treating it like this was serious. And ultimately, this pseudo-relationship functionally ended over that summer where you and he didn’t talk.
But over those six months, things changed. Maybe he realized that he did like having you in his life. Maybe you were starting to make progress on your healing. Maybe it was a case of his realizing that he missed you more than he thought. Regardless, you reached out, the two of you got back in contact and from the sounds of things, it’s been happy — if a smidge rocky, with your issues — since.
Now I will be the first to say that yes, this wasn’t the healthiest start to a relationship. There were a lot of things that both of you did wrong. It would have been far better for you to put your energy towards getting yourself into good emotional working order, rather than pursuing a nasty case of Oneitis. He, on the other hand, did himself and you no favors with his half-hearted, neglectful “ok, we’re dating but not really” stance. It would’ve been better for both of you if he hadn’t been willing to let things be in this quantum relationship where you were both dating and not dating at the same time, and you hadn’t been willing to roll with it. It probably would have been much better for the two of you if he had made a clean break of things early on.
But he didn’t, and you didn’t. And yet here we are.
The thing is: lots of relationships have rocky starts. There are plenty of times where people may have their hearts in the right place, but their heads aren’t. Some relationships start off as godawful drama bombs, or two people who end up hurting each other as they flail around trying to figure themselves out. Many times those relationships flame out for good. But sometimes, people actually manage to get their shit together. Sometimes things that started off badly finally manage to click as everyone finds their groove; the gears finally mesh after grinding against each other.
Does that mean that everyone who’s in a rocky, dramatic or even toxic relationship should hang in there in hopes that they can wait it out and shit will get better? Fuuuuuck no it doesn’t. But in this case… things managed to click into place. And it sounds like the two of you have put serious effort into actually getting past things and making things work, which is good.
Now, you don’t say just what happened with your friends and why they all left at once, nor do you say that you’ve addressed the start of the relationship with your therapist. If you haven’t… those are things that should definitely be handled by talking with your therapist, not a loudmouth with an advice column. Similarly, if you and he haven’t gone to a relationship counselor, I think that would be a good idea. Not because your relationship is broken or doomed by your past, but because it may be helpful to have someone talk you all through what happened early on, how you both felt, and how aspects of it still clearly linger — for you, at the very least. That might help you get past the feeling that you’re inadequate, or that you “forced” him into this relationship. It may also help with feelings that this relationship still isn’t “real”.
If it helps, think of couples counseling as a form of preventative maintenance. Think of your relationship as a car that had some significant mechanical issues when you first got it. While it might have been smart to call it a lemon and return it to the lot… you didn’t. You managed to tighten some belts, cleared some valves, resealed some tubes and it’s running as intended. Is it understandable that you’re still a little nervous when it judders on the acceleration? Yes. But that’s not a sign that it’s about to catch fire, just something you may want to keep an eye on — possibly even something to bring up with a mechanic when you get the oil changed.
Ok, so I may be stretching that metaphor to the breaking point, but you take my meaning. You’ve got things running more or less smoothly. There’re some quirks that make you worried, and you can’t help but feel like the rough start has never been fully fixed. That’s understandable. It’s reasonable, even. But that doesn’t mean you’re doomed. It just means you want to be mindful of things and be sure to put in the effort to maintain it… and yourselves. But that doesn’t mean that your relationship is fatally flawed, any more than it means you’re broken.
Put in the effort to keep it — and yourself — running. Talk to your therapist about these issues and see if they can recommend a couple’s counselor. That’ll go much further to helping you let go of the past, being able to accept your present and look forward to your future.
First of all, English is not my first language so I’m sorry for any mistake in my letter.
I’m writing to you because I have a problem, and honestly I think it may be the most boring and common problem in the history of romantic relationships. Nevertheless, it’s driving me crazy and I could really use your help.
I’ve been in a relationship with my girlfriend for nine years. We’re both 31 and we met when we were 22, so we spent the better part of our twenties together. We moved in about 4 years ago and it has all been generally great. I still have feelings for her and I’m still attracted to her, and life together has been fun. We’re not planning to get married or have kids, but I do see my long-time future with this person and I’m committed about it.
Problem is, I recently met someone.
A couple of months ago, I met a girl through mutual friends. We share a few common interests and we started chatting on Instagram, sharing links and exchanging opinions. Sometimes the conversation turned flirty, but from my prospective it never represented something to actively pursue, like actively trying to make something happen. I don’t think I was doing anything wrong in flirting with this person via chat, and I don’t think flirting is necessarily bad, or that it means that you’re cheating on your partner or anything like that. I couldn’t really tell if this girl liked me or saw me as a romantic prospect whatsoever, but I didn’t care. I was having a good time.
Except for a little detail: I never mentioned to her that I was in a relationship. And for that I suck. I think I was afraid to put a stop to this thing that maybe I was enjoying a little bit too much. I often found myself ignoring my partner and prioritizing this non-existing new relationship that was new, exciting and interesting. This girl was very funny, incredibly smart. She was cute too. And she was different from my long-time girlfriend, who I decided never to mention during several weeks of chatting.
So I kept going, and finally decided to ask the girl out. Again, I never mentioned my relationship. To be fair, she never asked me and I don’t know how she never found out that I was with someone by looking me up online (I don’t share a lot about my personal life on social media), or simply by asking some of our mutual friends. Still, I know it doesn’t matter. I wasn’t a good thing by my part. I think that, more than the idea of cheating, that never crossed my mind until a point, I was really happy just to be liked by her. I found her somewhat intoxicating, and when we went out the first time I rapidly realized that I had developed a massive crush.
We want out three times. In two occasions, we stayed at her place (you can’t really go out much, there’s a pandemic after all) and just hang out. At the end of the third “date”, we kissed. When it looked like something more could happen, I finally panicked: I told her I had a girlfriend, and she didn’t take it very well.
She was reasonably upset and decided to end “whatever that was” right there. We kept in touch and are still talking, and I don’t know what is making me more sad and confused: the fact that I hurt someone by hiding the fact that I had a very serious relationship, the fact that I messed up something that was potentially very good for me by being a coward, or the fact that I basically cheated on my girlfriend and had a pretty intense thing with someone else. I don’t even know what I should do now: talk to my girlfriend and tell her what happened? Break up with her, even if I still very much love her? Maybe what happened was a sign that my relationship wasn’t as sure as I thought. Maybe I just had a stupid little crush, it’s just an accident and I should forget about it. It’s not easy, but I know I want to.
I also know that I missed the other girl. I especially miss being liked and I hate the fact that I hurt her more than I feel guilty about “sort of cheating”. Does it make sense? I hope it does, but I don’t know anymore.
I know I haven’t been honest with both of them and that lead me to feel like shit for multiple reasons. Now I just would like to reconnect with my girlfriend without the shadow of what happened leaning over me all the time, but, deep inside of me, I know I also would like to clean up the mess with the other girl. I know, a little too much to ask.
As I said, I like someone else, and I’m also still in love with my girlfriend. Most boring problem in the history of romantic relationships. But why does it feel like a fucking greek tragedy right now?
Thank you, hope to hear from you.
Alright Cheat-ish, let’s get this one off the top: some of what you did was pretty shitty. Not the kiss — that’s not great, but honestly, on the scale of cheating, that’s a minor infraction. It was the leading your crush on part that was shitty of you. I can get why you did it, and I can empathize but it was still pretty shitty of you. However, the reason why it was shitty isn’t really for the reason that you seem to think.
Let’s pick this apart, shall we?
The first thing to get out of the way is that monogamy isn’t magic, nor is it mind control. When you make a monogamous commitment to somebody, you’re making a promise that you’re not going to have sex with someone else. That doesn’t say a damn thing about not wanting to… and to be perfectly blunt, it’s a fool’s errand to try to enforce that. One of the things that people don’t realize — or like to think about — is that our concept of romantic love and commitment can be unrealistic. The fact that we love somebody, truly love someone, doesn’t mean that we are no longer capable of being attracted to other people. We are, amongst other things, a novelty-seeking species, and our brains reward us for novelty. We are always going to notice other people, be attracted to other people and want to bang other people. That happens independently of everything else. Having a crush on somebody doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with your relationship. It doesn’t mean that you don’t love your girlfriend or boyfriend. It just means that you’re a primate with a sex drive. That’s it.
Crushes happen. Crushes are fun. It’s a thrill to have a crush on somebody; you get a taste of that same New Relationship Energy that you had at the start of your current relationship. But simply having a crush — even enjoying it — doesn’t mean that you’ve done anything wrong. It’s what you do about that crush that makes the difference.
Part of why we get crushes on people is because they’re new and different from our partners. Some of what makes the early stages of a relationship exciting is that you’re getting to know this person, discovering new things and experiencing things differently than before. That pleases the novelty-seeking parts of our brain. One of the things that makes long-term relationships difficult is that while familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, it does mean that there’s less novelty and newness. When a new source comes along, our brains will latch onto it. And with this new woman came new perspectives, new conversations and new experiences. It’s understandable that you developed a crush.
Similarly, it’s understandable that you got a thrill out of the fact that she was into you. That, again, is a very normal and universal experience; even when we’re happy in our relationships, we like the thrill of knowing people still desire us. Yes, we know that our partners are still into us and vice versa… but it’s always nice being reminded that other people see you as a sexual being as well. That doesn’t mean that you would do anything about that… but it’s always nice to be invited to the party, even if you aren’t gonna go.
And honestly, having a flirty friendship with someone isn’t a bad thing either. Flirting in and of itself is fun, and plenty of folks will flirt without intent; that is, they flirt because they like flirting.
The problem is that you let yourself get a little too caught up in the good feelings and didn’t want them to end. You knew that if you brought up the fact that you were in a relationship, the flirty side of your friendship with this woman would almost certainly come to an end. So while you may not have made the conscious decision to not bring your girlfriend up — at least at first — you didn’t. And that’s the problem. Not because you didn’t shut down the flirting, but because you let things go too far and — in the process — lead this girl to believe that there was something going on that wasn’t actually there.
Being flirty over text and DMs is one thing. It’s a little on the enh side, but it’s ultimately harmless, especially if it’s not taking away from your time and attention with your girlfriend. However, it’s the fact that you went on actual dates with her, and dates that were pretty clearly leading up to things, that crossed the line into your being shitty.
First of all, let’s be real here: the fact that your dates were hanging out at her place were already putting things on the borderline. You may not have been intending to cheat, but you sure as shit were putting yourself in a position where cheating could happen. There’s a difference between “ooops, we had some drinks and I failed my Wisdom saving throw” and setting things up to the point where you know that you were going to need to make that saving throw AND that you’d be making that saving throw with disadvantage.
Second of all, by not ever bringing up your relationship, you were leading your friend to believe that a relationship with you was possible at all. She wasn’t going into these dates knowing that she was out with a guy who was in a monogamous relationship; she was on these dates in good faith, believing that you were actually available. You weren’t, and that meant that she was spending time investing in a relationship that, unbeknownst to her, could never happen. That’s time that she could have spent finding someone who was available for a relationship, rather than building things up only to get hurt at the end. That was cruel of you and unfair to her.
That is the crime here.
Now you notice that I haven’t brought up the unfairness of all of this to your girlfriend as well. That’s because while you may have tiptoed up to the line, but you didn’t cross it. That’s good. It doesn’t get you off the hook for the rest of it, but that’s good. You haven’t done something that’s going to be a lot harder to come back from. That means that what she doesn’t know isn’t actually hurting her. I know a lot of folks vociferously disagree with me on this but this is a time when not telling her is the better option. For all the times that people say they’d rather know if their partner had cheated on them — even for something as minor as a kiss — the truth is that when it actually happens, they almost always say they wish they’d never found out. Especially when — as in this case — you pulled things back and you aren’t likely to make this mistake again.
Here’s how you move forward. First: you apologize to the woman you had a crush on for leading her on. Then it’s on her to decide whether she accepts that apology, if she wants to continue her friendship with you and under what terms. That’s all for her to decide.
Second: stop diminishing what you did. You didn’t have an accident. You chose to do these things. The accident you didn’t have was the one you set yourself up for, only to pull out at the last second. Until you take ownership of your actions, you aren’t going to learn or move forward from this.
Third: you stuff this down the memory hole and never tell your girlfriend. Despite what a lot of folks will say, telling her is going to hurt her needlessly and it will ultimately be about making you feel better… just at her expense. Letting her keep her vision of her relationship with you is the kinder option, especially considering that you pulled things back. And the guilt that you feel over what you’ve done is going to be your penance for having done this in the first place. If you want to expunge it, then you’re going to have to do so by recommitting to her and being the best boyfriend you can be.
Fourth: let the way you’re feeling now inform how you treat crushes in the future. The next time you have a crush, enjoy it… but plow those feelings and the sexual charge into your existing relationship. You don’t get to act like you’re single so you can keep it going. You don’t need to try to force it away or avoid it; just accept it, let it flow through you and take the energy it brings and invest it into the relationship you already have.