Dear Dr. NerdLove:
I’ve been with my boyfriend for almost 2 years now. We generally communicate well and approach each other with problems and work together to solve them, in regards to both life and our relationship together. We have a healthy sex life and see each other for at least a couple hours usually once a week. When we spend time together we watch TV or movies for the most part and sometimes play games also, as we are both into gaming. We text every day. Sometimes very rarely we will go outside for an hour or so to do something different. With covid being the reality, I don’t have any issue with what we do together right now. However…
My boyfriend’s career is tech and writing focused and social media is a big part of his life, specifically Twitter. We have had multiple discussions in the past about how, since we don’t see each other as often as either of us would like, I would prefer if we could focus on each other when we spend time together and not be focused on phones or social media. He says his phone is important to him and that he has to check it frequently so he is in the know about current media. I understand that, but we only spend time together outside of work hours, and since we sit next to each other I see that he’s texting his other friends or just doing personal stuff. I don’t mind this to an extent, however it is constant. I try to let him pick shows we watch and games we play so that he will be interested in it even if I’m not really, and focused on our experience together rather than his phone and his friends he is texting.
It especially irks me because his friend he texts most often, without fail 100% of the time we get to spend time together, is one of his best friends who he used to date only a few years ago. I think being friends with an ex is possible and can be done in a healthy way for everyone involved and have no problem with he and she being such good friends, but it bothers me when we are having a discussion and he will ignore what I am saying to respond to his best friend, his ex, VERY often, at least once every time we are together. He will pretend to listen by nodding his head or agreeing, but if I ask him what I said he admits he doesn’t know and wasn’t listening.
He doesn’t try to hide his phone from me and I don’t try to look at it unless it’s right next to me in front of my face and he’s using it, so it’s not that I don’t trust him, I just want to feel like a priority. I feel like I fall far behind Twitter, his ex, and his other friends at this point. I have a lot going on in my life right now as well, my parents relationship is on the rocks, and I’ve ended a friendship recently because a friend told me he had feelings for me and that I deserved better than the relationship I was in, and honestly I felt he was right and was tempted, though I would never cheat on my boyfriend. I love him dearly. I don’t know what to do at this point, please help.
Not a Priority
… well shit, this one hits a little close to home, NAP. I am admittedly, one of those folks who is almost permanently attached to his phone. This has been the subject of a lot of… well, let’s be generous and call it “serious discussions” about when I’ve been paying more attention to my phone than most things, up to and including shows I enjoy. And if you asked me, back in the day, I would’ve told you something similar to what your boyfriend said: that I needed to keep track of things, because work!
(Work taking up 75% of my time and attention didn’t help either, I might add.)
It didn’t help that notifications, badges, bings, etc. would catch my attention immediately. I used to joke that anything that I was like a t-rex; movement or noise at the edges of my vision would catch my attention like the apex predator I was…
Now this didn’t mean I wasn’t aware of how much my partners were (rightfully) irked by this… but it was still something I had a hard time managing.
And then last year, I found out that I have ADHD and suddenly a whole lot of things made sense. Up to and including why my phone was so goddamn addictive. One of the issues with ADHD is that your brain restricts your dopamine production — the chemical that it produces when you receive a particular reward or accomplishment. Novelty, in particular, is a huge source of dopamine; new experiences, information, etc. causes an increase in dopamine production. And as it turns out, smartphones — with all of its notifications, constant streams of new information and hordes of apps that promise constant stimulation — is a dopamine factory for folks with ADHD. And if your brain is usually starved for pleasure and stimulation, that constant stream of novelty and stimulation is like heroin.
Now to be clear: this doesn’t excuse my behavior and how much I’d let my phone (and before smartphones, books) get in the way of my relationships; it just changes the context of it all… and what needed to be done.
I share this information not because I think everyone has ADHD now or that it’s eternally relevant, but because it can provide some examples of just why folks get hooked on their phone. That constant stream of stimulation and novelty is a reward of sorts… but it’s also as much a way of avoiding things like boredom or troublesome thoughts or anxieties. Ironically enough, doomscrolling on Twitter and Facebook is much the same way; it’s oddly soothing to realize that your anxieties are justified and not just random shit that your brain decided to invent for no reason.
So while I don’t think that your boyfriend necessarily has ADHD or ADD (though it’s certainly a possibility), I think it’s more likely that he’s addicted to it because it fills a particular need. Whether that need is a lowered tolerance for boredom, avoiding difficult or complex emotions or even just a way of avoiding being alone with your thoughts, he’s getting something from this behavior. The problem is that while it’s fulfilling a need, that doesn’t mean that the way it’s doing so is particularly good or useful; just because something is a solution doesn’t mean that it’s a good one. Especially if, and I’m just spitballing here, it’s coming at the expense of your relationship and making your partner feel devalued or taken for granted.
So what do you do about this?
Well, outside of addressing any mental health issues (which are outside the scope of this column; remember, Dr. NerdLove is NOT a real doctor…), one of the things to do is to make it clear that the way he’s using his phone is hurting you. You may have told him that you want to prioritize time away from social media or screens when you’re together, but you don’t say that whether you’ve told him how this behavior is making you feel. It’s one thing to say “hey, when we’re together, I want to spend more time doing things that don’t involve phones.” It’s another entirely to say “you are making me feel disrespected and that I’m not as interesting or engaging as literally anything happening on Twitter right now.” Driving home that this is hurting you is going to be important; an annoyance is the sort of thing that can be written off as “ah, we all have quirks that the other doesn’t like.” Finding out that no, this is doing demonstrable harm to your partner and you’re relationship changes those numbers and — hopefully — encourages him to reconsider his use.
And no, “I need to be up on the latest whatever” isn’t an excuse. As someone who has the same goddamn problem, I can promise him that anything going on right this second on Twitter (or Facebook or Instagram or…) will still be going on hours later or easily findable. Hell, if he’s especially worried about “missing” something, he can set up Google alerts, saved hashtag searches and lists to make sure that he has those posts all collected in convenient places. And, likewise, unless he’s specifically waiting for something time-limited like a Mondo drop or a pre-order to open, there’s not a need to be on his phone right that second. And he can set up alerts for things that actually do need his attention right then and there.
I would start with telling him that you want him to put his phone away when you’re doing $DATE_ACTIVITY together. And not just “in his pocket” or “face down on the table” but out of easy arm’s reach… ideally with Do Not Disturb turned on. This will minimize the notifications and alerts that keep drawing his attention and ping the dopamine production centers of his brain, while still allowing for actual important calls or texts to come through, rather than just farting around in the group chat. You can even schedule a brief phone break every couple of hours or so that he can get a quick fix and clear any outstanding messages.
Again: make it clear that his behavior is affecting you and how it makes you feel. He should understand that this isn’t just you being jealous of his ex, or what have you, it’s that you are being treated like a lower priority than everyone else. And if you’re not a priority for him… then you aren’t sure why he’s even there with you. Again: this has nothing to do with jealousy and everything with the fact that his actions demonstrate that he’s putting Twitter or texting ahead of you… and there’re few things that will curdle a relationship faster than being taken for granted. Would he have acted like this when you first started dating? If the answer is no… well, then he shouldn’t be acting like this now.
With that having been said: I will say that one of the conversations to have is about exactly what it is he’s feeling and whether he’s trying to hide from those feelings by being on his phone. But those are questions that he should be asking himself; a little mindfulness and emotional intelligence goes a long way towards understanding why he’s feeling the way he feels. And recognizing that makes it much easier to get a handle on things, rather than mindlessly going back to the dopamine factory. And if he legitimately struggles with this — by which I mean “makes a good faith effort, not just enough to get you to shut up for a while” then he should seriously consider talking to someone about possible issues like ADHD. Because honestly, no amount of self-discipline makes racing thoughts or anxiety go away, nor does any amount of willpower change how your brain works on the physical and chemical level.
Dear Dr. NerdLove:
First a little bit of background: I’ m a CIS male, 45. And I’ve suffered from ED since… Well, always. I have been able to complete sexual intercourse with penetration, but is very rare and difficult for me.
I’m the kind of man that has never been successful with women. I have always been the nerdy, big, fat guy with glasses. I’m a shy extrovert (I know it’s a weird combination, but that’s me in a nutshell) and I have always find difficult approach to women.
I don’t know what to do about this. It has cost me some relationships in the past and honestly, I have a lot of fear about how handle my situation with a possible partner. When do I tell her that most probably I will need years of therapy to have sex with her? How do I approach this conversation?
Therapy has not worked for me. I think that the problem is in that I haven’t found the right professional: all the professionals that I have consulted about this, always take the same direction. They give me the blue pill and tell me to do some therapy with that with my girlfriend. When I tell them that I’m single, they take back the blue pill and give me the white pill and tell me to get back in a couple of months. As you can imagine, that doesn’t work.
I feel very lonely and very scared at the same time to try to approach someone. When things get closer, usually I panic and freeze.
The last ten years I have worked a lot in myself: I have been working abroad (a very good personal and professional experience), I have lost 40 kgs (40 more to go), worked in my self-esteem… I feel a better person now and I have decided to give relationships a shot. But still I don’t know how to handle this.
Please help, I’m feeling
Stuck in A Rut
First of all: congratulations on all the work you’ve been putting into yourself, man. That’s really awesome; you should be proud of what you’ve accomplished and how far you’ve come. That speaks a lot to how you’ve been caring for yourself and building an awesome life. So it’s important that you keep this trend going; it’d be a shame to let this hard work get derailed by a treatable condition.
And now, my dude, let’s talk dicks for a second. There tend to be two types of erectile dysfunction: emotional and physical. Physical erectile dysfunction tends to occur because of physical causes, usually either hormonal levels or conditions that prevent blood from going to the spongey tissues in the penis that cause erections. Age, weight, hormone levels, drug use (including alcohol and nicotine) all can cause weak or infrequent erections or even prevent them entirely.
Emotional causes to ED tend to come about because dicks are divas; they often won’t perform if everything is perfect. Feeling nervous or insecure? Say hello to Flacid-o Domingo.
Now here’s my question: you mention that you’ve had penetrative sex before, which means you were able to get it up enough for penetration. Do you have the same problems when you’re on your own? Do you have issues getting erections when you’re in the mood to masturbate, or are you still finding that you have to try to shoot pool with a rope then too? This is an important question to answer because it says a lot about which doctors you should be talking to.
Here’s the thing: I agree that you’re seeing the wrong professionals. If your issues are physical, then your first step should be talking to a urologist and making sure that there aren’t other underlying causes. No amount of therapy is going to help if, for example, you have prostate issues that’re damaging your erections.
However, if the causes are mental… well, you need to be talking to very different professionals than you seem to have. If it is literally as you say — they prescribe you Viagra until you say you’re single and then give you something else (presumably an antidepressant or beta-blocker) then I’m doubting you were talking to a therapist. A psychiatrist, maybe… but honestly, it sounds like you may have gone to the entirely wrong people. You want someone who will work with you on your issues, not just throw pills your way and call it a day. If you’re dealing with long-term low self-esteem or high social anxiety, medication by itself isn’t going to help, especially not a “take this twice a day and come back in a month” approach. In an ideal world — and depending on precisely what issues you have — you would want therapy supplemented by medication, if drugs are warranted. And in fairness: they often are. Despite what well-meaning people will tell you, depression and anxiety disorders aren’t the sort of thing you can will yourself out of, nor can you diet or exercise your way past them; I’ll point you to Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles as proof of this. Antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds and the like are often what makes it possible for therapy to work; easing the symptoms goes a long way towards making it possible to develop the coping skills that help, or to address underlying problems.
That having been said, I’m wondering if you aren’t coloring the way things went a little. Depending on how things shook out, I suspect that you may not have been in the most receptive place when you went to the doctor. While being prescribed medication can feel like you’re being written off, often it can be less of a weapon of first resort and more a “ok, let’s get you to a working baseline, so you’ll be functional and able to work on the other issues.” And frankly, it can take time to make sure you’re on the right medication and the right dosage; not every antidepressant or antianxiety medication works the same on every person. Finding the right ones, in the right amounts, can be a time-consuming process, since many have to build up in your system over time.
And again, if you were going to your GP or a psychiatrist… well, I think the assumption is that you would be doing this in conjunction with therapy, not “as a substitute for”.
So I’d highly recommend that you try therapy again… and ideally with the right doctors or counselors this time around. If you don’t have someone you’re already working with or can’t go to, then you may want to look to Psychology Today’s directory to help find a medical professional near you. Similarly, if you feel like much of your issues are around sex and sexuality specifically the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. They also have a referral directory that can help you find a sex-positive therapist who can work with you on your issues.
One thing I would advise you to keep in mind is that therapy is a lot like dating; you want a therapist you have chemistry with (that is: that you get along with) and who you feel understands you and empathizes with you. If you feel like they don’t get you or that they aren’t helping, you can and should break up with them and find someone else. Similarly, not all forms of therapy are going to be right for you and your situation. Some folks do well with what’s known as dialectical behavioral therapy — where you focus on mindfulness and emotional regulation. Others do well with cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps find coping strategies and challenging and correcting distorted or intrusive thoughts and behaviors. Still others do well in group settings vs. a one-on-one scenario and some do best with pure talk therapy. Finding the one that is right for you can be a challenge too; much like with dating, just because one therapist or style didn’t work doesn’t mean that it’s all worthless. It’s about finding who’s right for you and who you click with… that can take time. And, of course, medication helps too.
So give it an honest shot. Be more open and up front about what your issues are, how they’re affecting you and how it’s making your life more difficult. That makes it much easier for them to understand what sort of treatment and therapy you may need to look into. And lead with the social anxiety, rather than the ED; I strongly suspect that the latter is caused by the former, and may have been the source of confusion the last time you talked to a doctor.
Another thing to consider: just because you can’t get an erection doesn’t mean you can’t have sex. Sex is much more than just insert-tab-a-into-slot-b; sex is a holistic act, involving brains and your entire bodies, not just genitalia. In fact, the vast majority of women can’t orgasm from penetration alone; it just doesn’t give them the direct, intense clitoral stimulation they need to get off. But you know what does give them the stimulation they need and never goes limp at inconvenient moments? Your hands. Your tongue. Vibrators, dildos, clit-suckers and a whole host of other amazing sex toys that are readily available. Any and all of these are ways of having incredible, mind-blowing, bed-rocking, headboard-slamming sex… that don’t require you to be able to get hard at a moment’s notice. Getting comfortable and skilled with non-penetrative forms of sex will make you a much better lover — and much more in demand — than Studly Goodnight who thinks that jackhammering away like he’s drilling into bedrock is the way, the truth and the light. And if you encounter someone who thinks that your de-prioritizing penetration is a bad thing? Well, all that’s happened is that she’s self-selected right the fuck out of your dating pool and good riddance.
And one more thing: remember what I said about dicks being divas? Well, this is one of those times when Dumbo’s Magic Feather can actually be useful. While you may not have a physical issue that Viagra could treat, having it on hand and knowing that it’s an option could well make the difference between a failed performance by Flacid-o and a standing O from Pavarotti. It may not be medically necessary, but mentally helpful to have it. That simple act of belief — “I’ve got the sildenafil in my system, there’s no chance of not getting harder than Cantonese calculus” — can make all the difference when the moment comes.