Dear Dr. NerdLove:
I’ve been a reader for a few months now and I have had a…bizarre break-up recently that has left me with worsened problems.
Dear Dr. NerdLove:
I’ve been a reader for a few months now and I have had a…bizarre break-up recently that has left me with worsened problems.
Hey Doc, first off I’m a big fan of your site and really appreciate all the healthy dating advice you give. I’m a 26 year old straight male and I’ve basically had intense shame about my sexuality for my entire adult life. It’s really held me back and makes it extremely difficult/impossible for me to seek out relationships.
Some background, and apologies if this is a bit long. I got my first girlfriend back in college when I was 17. We dated for about 10 months and I didn’t realize it at the time but it was an INCREDIBLY unhealthy relationship (possibly abusive? I’m not sure what qualifies). I’m now fairly sure she had something like borderline personality disorder, but being naive I mostly just took it upon myself to change to make her happy. She was extremely jealous and passive-aggressive, would accuse me of cheating if I so much as talked to another girl, would constantly explode at me over the tiniest things, made me basically cut most of my friends out of my life, etc. She also very early on (within a few months) started to frequently pressure me to agree to marry her, which I was extremely uncomfortable with but eventually gave in to and said I would consider it. But the worst of the problems revolved around sex.
Initially she seemed very interested in sex (she was not a virgin) and would talk about some kinkier stuff she wanted to eventually try. To my surprise, she said that she didn’t want to have sex until 6 months into the relationship, which I fully respected. However, she would somewhat frequently perform oral sex on me (never on my request, it was always her initiating) but would always turn down my offers to reciprocate. After 6 months we did start having sex, though it was very infrequent (I think maybe 4 times total). She always acted into it before/during, but afterward she would immediately call her mom and talk in front of me in Chinese (no idea what she was saying but it was very uncomfortable), and would seem upset/passive-aggressive for a while.
She had some really nasty sex-negative views which we would frequently disagree about. For instance she believed that a woman should only have sex with a man who was willing to marry her, otherwise she would be “devalued”, and that sex was a thing that women did for men to keep them happy. She would also slut-shame girls who dressed in revealing clothes.
Eventually, near the end of our relationship, she revealed that she apparently hated sex, thought kissing me was disgusting, and didn’t even like hugging me. Rather than being flattered/happy that I found her attractive, she basically took it as an insult. I said that we didn’t have to have sex or kiss anymore if she didn’t like it, so we stopped.
I should also note that during this time, my dad dumped my mom after 20 years of marriage for a woman 20 years his junior. It had devastating effects on my family, particularly my mom, and I hated my dad more than anyone in the world. I promised to myself that I would never be anything like him.
Finally after maybe a month or so of no sex, my girlfriend and I broke up, and she said some of the most hurtful things I’ve ever heard in my entire life: that I didn’t love her and that I only used her for sex, and that I was “just like my dad”.
Honestly, hearing this was my worst nightmare come true. Here’s why:
Apparently for all those months, my ex-girlfriend hated sex and felt used/forced into doing it but said nothing. This is so incredibly horrifying to me. I was basically… forced to rape someone for months without realizing it.
On top of this, what my dad did, and the accusation that I was “just like him”, have caused me an incredible amount of shame over the mere fact that I’m sexually attracted to women in general.
After breaking up with my ex-girlfriend, I didn’t date or have sex or any relationships for over 5 years. I went into a pretty terrible depression and eventually got therapy for over a year.
I finally managed to find a girlfriend via online dating and we dated for a bit over a year and it was a MUCH healthier relationship.
However, it’s been about 9 months since we broke up and this deep-rooted shame is still really holding me back. I occasionally work up the courage to introduce myself to women and I’ve managed to go on a few dates via Tinder, but I’m absolutely incapable of making any sort of romantic/sexual moves, so the dates all just go nowhere.
In my mind, making a move = creepy, sexual assault, unwanted sexual objectification, irremediably insulting. I know it’s not rational or true, but it’s what I’ve been conditioned to believe. (It probably doesn’t really help that in an attempt to learn how approach dating/sex in ways which are respectful toward women, I spent years reading radfem-esque dating “advice” articles which were basically just big lists of all the ways men should stop being horrible, but no actual advice on what is desired/considered okay.)
Honestly at this point I don’t know how to move past this. I know that it’s unhealthy to focus on the worst possible outcome, and besides, as everyone seems to say, what’s the worst that could happen? You try to make a move but get rejected and it’s a bit awkward, right? Nope, the worst is FAR worse, and I know because it was my experience. I take rejection incredibly well. In fact, I almost prefer being rejected because at least I know that “no means no”, which is way better than “yes but secretly I feel violated/used/raped and I won’t tell you until after/possibly ever”. To make a move on someone means risking that they may feel violated, even briefly, and after my experience with my ex-girlfriend, taking this risk just seems completely incompatible with my drive to be a good person.
At the same time, the fact that I feel this way makes me feel like a nasty sexist asshole because it implies that women are fragile flowers who are incapable of handling a moment of discomfort. Obviously I don’t believe this on a rational level, but it’s the logical conclusion of my deep-rooted fear, and this also makes me feel like a bad person, because I do not want to be sexist.
In the words of Andy from The 40-Year-Old Virgin: “You know what? I respect women! I love women! I respect them so much I completely stay away from them!”
As I mentioned before, I did therapy for a while and it helped me sort out the reasons why I have all these hang-ups, but ultimately I can’t seem to move past the fact that my worst fears were actually proven true, and could happen again.
Do you have any words of advice to offer?
A Guy With Issues
This past week, I went to a very popular vacation spot and ended up running into a minor internet celebrity. He was there with another guy I recognized from his videos and his girlfriend. I tweeted afterward thanking them, and the next day, Minor Internet Celebrity DM’d me.
At first, he simply said he’d like to hang out more and that the next time we’re in each other’s part of the state (about 6 hours by car, 1 by plane), we should hang out. I didn’t have time yet to respond when he clarified that he and his girlfriend are in an open relationship, and would I be interested in going on a date with him sometime?
I said I would, and that I’d let him know when we are in the same area. His Twitter and videos are super feminist, and I am fond of the academic and non-pretentious quality of his work.
That said, I have three questions for you:
1. What are the rules of being the “other person” in an open relationship? I know it’s just one date (heck, he didn’t even say that he wants to sleep with me or anything like that), but while I’m a big fan of his, I want his girlfriend to be very much ok with everything.
2. Do you have any advice for a fan going on a date with someone they personally consider to be a celebrity? He seems super feminist, but also, the recent Aziz Ansari stuff is very much on my mind, and if this doesn’t go well (not necessarily sexual assault), I don’t want to hate him.
3. Although it’s the thing that’s not allowed to be said, I am a very conventionally attractive young woman. It’s rare that I don’t get some kind of comment about it when I’m in public. He is less conventionally attractive, however, I find his personality very attractive. If I did not already know who he was, I probably would not have agreed to go on a date with him, however, I’m trying to branch out and give people a chance this year. Do you have any advice for someone in this position?
I’ll add that although I look the way I do and am in my mid-20s, I’ve never really had a relationship before. I went to a famously mostly-girls college, and have been told that I come off as very intimidating to most men (I guess fangirling kinda removes the intimidation factor), and when they approach me, relationships are just SO not on my mind that I usually turn them down. I know I’m probably over thinking all of this, but I’m something of a perfectionist and really want to make sure this (if/when it even happens) goes well.
Third Person Singular [Read more…]
Every day it seems as though there’s a new “trend” in the world of dating that’s meant to panic us all. Whether it’s “cuffing season”, “backburnering”, “roaching”1 or some other cutesy Millennial-sounding name, there’s a flurry of articles to tell us all to watch out for it. And now there’s “micro-cheating”.
I was blissfully unaware of this current concept until Friday. That was when, as so often happens, my friends decided that evidently I don’t have enough rage in my life. But hey, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t at least brush up on the latest dating panics.
Needless to say, I have some opinions on the concept of “micro-cheating”. And why, specifically, it’s bullshit.
Let’s begin, shall we?
One of the important questions in any relationship is, simply, what have we promised to one another? For a monogamous couple, the line is fairly simple: they’ve agreed that they won’t have sex or engage in sexual activity with other people. Now, what precisely “counts” as cheating can vary – for some, it’s kissing, for others it requires the exchange of bodily fluids – but the lines are relatively clear cut. The idea of “emotional” cheating is… less so. In fact, many people would question whether emotional cheating is even a thing. But while we can dicker over whether it’s possible to have an “emotional affair”, sometimes the way we interact with other people can cause our partners distress.
But then we have “micro-cheating”.
Dating expert Melanie Shilling told Huffington Post Australia that mirco-cheating is “a series of seemingly small actions that indicate a person is emotionally or physically focused on someone outside their relationship.” And what would micro-cheating entail?
According to Shilling, one example would be texting someone outside your relationship or giving them compliments that you don’t give your partner. Other examples include commemorating anniversaries or memories with your ex, shutting chat windows when your partner enters the room, spending too much time on your phone on a date, or sending too many heart emojis when you text someone.
Did you have a business meeting with someone of the opposite sex3 and not get any business done? Micro-cheating, according to Shilling.
Shilling is hardly the first to use the term micro-cheating. In the article 33 Ways Your Boyfriend Is Micro-Cheating (And Totally Getting Away With It), other examples include:
Needless to say, micro-cheating seems to be an epidemic, causing untold trauma to unsuspecting innocents as their lothario partners… interact with people outside their relationships like emotionally mature human beings?
This? This right here is why Daddy drinks.
OK, let’s be real here. This is, to use the technical term, mindfuckingly absurd. It’s one thing to argue that emotional infidelity exists in the first place. It’s another entirely to pathologize normal behavior in a way that needlessly stokes the fires of insecurity and anxiety. The idea that someone can not only be cheating on you, but possibly cheating on you without realizing it is so far into the waters of what-the-fuckery that sanity is only a speck on the horizon. To be blunt, this reads less like the behaviors of a cheating partner and the ravings of someone who’s convinced that their partner is banging telepaths whenever they close their eyes.
99.9% of the behaviors listed are quite literally basic human interaction with friends. The remainder is so baroque that I’m left wondering if it was borrowed from a bad telenovela.
Take Shilling’s example of reaching out to an ex about an anniversary or some other significant event. To some, this might be seen as a sign of putting an ex ahead of your partner. Others might recognize this as “being a friend”. Ending a relationship doesn’t mean that you hate your ex, nor does it mean your entire relationship gets the damnatio memoriae. The fact that you have fond memories of your time together doesn’t mean you don’t care for your partner, any more than being nostalgia means you don’t care for your life now.
Do they close their laptop when someone comes in the room? They could be having steamy cybersex… or they could want to give their partner their full attention. Or they may just hate it when people read over their shoulder. They could be planning a surprise. Or their partner could, y’know, be irrationally jealous and they don’t feel like having a fight right now.
Did they have a meeting with someone of the opposite sex where no “business” got done? Have you been to business meetings, AKA where productivity goes to die?
Reaching out to a friend instead of Googling the answer? Google can do many things, but it can’t provide context. It can’t understand your needs based on knowing your particular circumstances. Or you may simply trust that friend over anonymous users on Reddit.
Are they using heart emojis in Facebook comments to people? That is, literally, how people communicate these days. Unicode hearts isn’t any more of an indicator that you’re giving your love to someone else any more than the barf emoji means you have food poisoning right now.
They have inside jokes with people? Friendship.
They confide with someone who’s not their partner? Friendship.
Giving a unique compliment to another person? Friendship.
Now, encouraging your partner to wear clothes or perfume that another person wears is weird… but quite frankly, the standards raised here are so questionable that I’m left wondering whether we can trust the interpretation of someone who seems to blare “Before He Cheats” 24/7 and Googles “undetectable keylogger” for fun. These are the declarations of someone who could take the silver in existential paranoia and the bronze in manipulative motherfucker.
And while it’s inarguable that secrecy and sketchy behavior can be signs of ill intent, there’s another, more sinister side to these “signs” of incipient infidelity.
If there’s one common denominator with many of the signs of “micro-cheating” it’s this: you’re spending time with anyone other than your partner. Your partner is your alpha. Your partner is omega. They are all things and all people to you and to ignore this sacred bond is the crime that can never be forgiven.
In and of itself, this is the material of Overly Obsessed Girlfriend memes.
However, the underlying theme of these “micro-cheating” expressions is one of isolation and control. The idea that you don’t have any secrets from your partner, for example, is disturbing. How dare you not let your partner see what you’re writing. What kind of monster wouldn’t let his or her snugglebunny have access to every corner of their life? Only a cheating bastard would, duh! After all, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear.
The desire for privacy – for a corner of your life that you don’t share – becomes cause for suspicion. Even your thoughts become suspect; are you taking a moment to daydream about something else? Cheater.
Just as disturbing is the theme of isolation. Reaching out to another friend is, likewise, a sign that you’re undermining your relationship. Having shared jokes, private conversations or even reminiscing over your past together is “putting your partner in second place.” Any relationship with someone becomes taboo because of the potential for micro-cheating. Did that business lunch last too long? Is he making too many calls about “work” for the actual amount of work done? Is he looking too long at another woman? Why did he send that link to her? Why did he laugh like that her joke. Is he too complimentary of her? Is he not complimentary enough?
As absurd and over the top these accusations sound, to many people, they’re distressingly familiar. It’s not a laughable way to put the fun in dysfunctional, it’s a flashback.
Literally everything becomes a “reason” for the aggrieved partner to cry “Cheater!” , including and especially activities that the abused victim might use to protect themselves. Why would he give someone a fake name in his contacts? Because he’s a cheater… or because he’s hoping to keep it a secret from his controlling abuser? Why would she close her messaging app when her partner came in the room? Because she’s exchanging sexy texts with her secret lover… or because she’s reaching out for help to leave?
Every behavior, no matter how banal or mundane, becomes justification to be angry at their lover. These supposed slights and micro-infidelities, these ways of “undermining the relationship” makes all of the problems the fault of the micro-cheater. It wouldn’t be this bad if you just would stop giving reasons for them to be so mad at you all the time.
Part of what is so insidious about the concept of “micro-cheating” is how it plays on anxieties and fears about not just relationships, but modern society. With the advent of social media, always-on Internet connections, texting apps and movie studios in our pockets, we are capable of connecting with more people than ever – and often in ways that others may be unaware of. It’s one thing if your husband comes home with the classic lipstick on his collar or your wife smells faintly of someone else’s cologne. It may break your heart to know that they’ve cheated on you, but you have a way of detecting it. It’s harder to conceal an infidelity when you have to be physically present to arrange it.
But when they can have entire conversations with other people – in front of you – that you are unaware of, how can you be sure that they’re not sharing too much? With the way Facebook encourages us to overshare and Instagram prods us to present a very particular form of glamor, how many ways is there for some homewrecker to sneak into your relationship.
And worse – you don’t know who your sweetie may be in contact with, or why. He says he’s just friends with this person… but why has he liked so many of his photos on Instagram? Why did she share that article about sex positions on his wall? Why did she tell her ex “happy birthday” with a silly little gif?
Schilling can say that you need to be rational and objective, but the questions themselves are predicated on the idea that privacy is de-facto bad and having relationships separate from your partner are inherently suspicious. It presumes, not just a universal morality, but a universal and unspoken number of rules – rules that you can break without realizing they even exist. And – in the style of all great catch-22s – questioning the premise is cause for suspicion. You wouldn’t care so much about it if you weren’t thinking about getting away with something, would you?
Part of what makes the concept of micro-cheating both absurd and infuriating is that there is the occasional warning sign to be found. Somebody who’s continually downplaying their relationship – “I’m seeing someone, but it’s not serious. No she doesn’t get me, he’s always so distant, we haven’t had sex in months” – is a bad sign. But by the time you get to the legitimate warning signs, you’ve had to wade through lists of made up offenses that range from the banal to scenarios that would be farcical if they weren’t being portrayed as a real and deadly threat to your relationship.
All any of this does is create a system where any suspicion is valid and the worst possible explanation is the most likely. Trust your gut because you know something is wrong – even if the problem is that you don’t trust your partner.
And let’s be real; by the time someone is giving another woman a “hope certificate”, their current relationship may not be dead, but it sure as hell is on life support. And the doctor’s hand is hovering over the switch.
Part of what makes the idea of micro-cheating harmful is that it presumes that any interest in another person is inherently bad. But the fact of the matter is that everyone gets crushes. Everyone finds themselves infatuated with another person or finds themselves having sweaty thoughts about somebody – regardless of their relationship status. It’s part of the human condition; no one person can be all things to us. We are all going to be interested in other people and no amount of monitoring is going to change that. Monogamy just means that we choose not to sleep with other people, not that we don’t want to.
And that’s fine. But trying to safeguard the primacy of your relationship by watching for signs of “micro-cheating” just creates a system of confirmation bias; you’ll find reasons to be suspicious because you’re expecting to see them. It discourages trust between partners and actively damages the relationship. Relationships aren’t depositions. You aren’t obligated to account for every thought, every action and every line of text, just because you’re dating someone. Putting a ring on it doesn’t mean that you no longer have an expectation of privacy. You always have the right to your own life and your own secrets.
You also have the right to your own friendships outside of the relationship. Commitment doesn’t mean you signed a contract that says “All Your Attention Are Belong To Us”. Having friends, even friends of your preferred gender isn’t a threat to your relationship. Even being flirty with other people doesn’t mean that you are undermining things.
What makes a strong relationship are strong boundaries, not asserting one person’s beliefs as a universal standard. It’s on both parties to discuss and agree what the rules to their relationship are. Micro-cheating isn’t a threat to the relationship; it’s not even a thing. The real threat to the relationship is baseless accusations, accusations based on bullshit standards and substituting anxiety as intuition. If you want your relationship to thrive, forget the “micro-cheating” bullshit. Build a relationship founded on respect, trust and communication with your partner instead.
Hey Doc, I have an issue.
I was dating a girl for about six months (I should qualify that I am also a girl), and things had been pretty good. I (still, even now) care about her, and she made me happier than I’d been in a while. She’s still publicly closeted, so we were secret even from close friends and family, which I was fine with. No, really, I was. I’m a very private person and my slowness to make relationships public has caused issues with girlfriends in the past, so I had no problems with being secret for as long as she wanted.
Things were a little rough for a while, mostly because work was hectic (a colleague was away and I was covering for them) and her parents (who are a good third of the reason she’s still closeted) were in town. We sat down and talked about it, and mutually decided to take a break. I could focus on work for a while without worrying about always being absent, and she wouldn’t be lying to her parents when she said she wasn’t dating anyone. This break was supposed to be about a month, with the understanding that we wouldn’t see other people during that month.
A week after that conversation, I visited a quiet restaurant a bit further out of my way than usual because it had really good reviews, and saw her tucked away in the back corner of the place, on a date with a guy.
I wanted to avoid jumping to conclusions and definitely didn’t want to make a scene, so I opted to leave quietly. She evidently noticed me as I did so, because when I glanced back at them she was staring at me like she’d seen a ghost.
I’ve mostly ignored her calls and texts, which has been difficult because, well, I’m pretty angry. I had made sure she knew that I was okay with an open relationship, and she’d said that she wanted to be exclusive.
My coping strategy for shitty breakups (which is what this is rapidly becoming) has always been talking about it with friends, but I can’t really do that this time. Outing her would be a first class scumbag move, and my friends aren’t stupid. If I tell them I broke up with someone, they’ll notice the sudden absence of my ex from social gatherings and put two and two together. I know my friends knowing that she’s not straight probably isn’t a big deal, but for me it’s more the principle of it. If someone’s closeted, for whatever reason, you respect that and keep the secret.
I’ve made this needlessly complicated, but here is my problem in essence. My ex broke my trust, and not being able to talk to my friends about it is fucking me up and making this far more draining than it needs to be.
Sorry for the rambling letter,
Stressed and Emotionally Exhausted