Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

How Do I Read These Mixed Signals?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: This one is going into the “what the hell is going on with my ex” category. You see, we broke up about seven months ago. I was devastated for a while, but managed to heal, more or less (you helped a lot with that, in fact; thanks!). I am currently going out casually with some girls on a “let’s see where this goes” kind of way, but recently figured I might as well try reconnecting with my ex, just to see if we can remain friends.

Problem is: after some texting, she called me and spent hours talking to me on the phone. The conversation got really weird, in fact: she started asking me about my sexual exploits post-breakup, and telling me about hers, in richness of detail. I felt a bit uncomfortable, but hey, no big deal. Thing is, I took that as a possible sign that she was down for some casual sex and started subtly flirting with her. We decided to meet in the near future halfway through the conversation, but she picked up on my hints and said she wasn’t interested. We talked A LOT, and, as a result, she seemed to have changed her mind slightly; she said we should just go out, just the two of us, to see what would happen. She was really busy, and so was I, so we decided to try and find a good day for both.

Three days later, she suddenly messaged me, telling me she was going to skip her night classes for that day, and asking me if I was free. Turns out I was.

That was when things got weird. We started talking about our past relationship, and she mentioned how much of a wonderful boyfriend I was when we were together when the subject “why we broke up” came up. She even said she was sorry if she ever made me feel like I had done something wrong; the problem, she said, was that she felt that was not the sort of relationship she wanted at the time.

The night went on, and I was reminded of how much we had in common, Doc. We discussed philosophy, politics, books; she is a brilliant woman, which was the reason I became infatuated with her in the first place. It is rather sad to say this, but I was reminded of how much she fulfilled me intellectually, something no girl has done for me since. 

To make matters worse, things started getting infused with a weird dynamic. She started pouring her heart out to me, telling me about her deepest problems, about how directionless she’s been feeling lately. Shortly afterwards, she told me about her previous lovers, and about the various levels of frustration she had experienced with them. Regarding this topic, she even seemed to be losing her grip on her own trail of thought; telling me about her fantasies of having a threesome with a guy she’d been seeing, for instance, and about how their fling was cut short when he had to move. She said they “were totally gonna do it” when they met again, only to mention they had a fight via phone months before and that they had become really distant as a result. I asked her about that contradiction, and she told me to not mind her, since she was prone to fantasizing about stuff out loud. Shortly afterwards, we started discussing our own sex life, down to the fact that she often wore low-cut blouses to get me horny, since she knows I love boobs. There was even talk about whether or not what we were having was a date… her answer was, “It could be”.

The entire night was weird like that, down to the touching: sometimes she would encourage me to place my hand on her hip while we walked, sometimes she would gently remove it. Nevertheless, I decided to take a risk and make a move; it didn’t help that she had gone to our “date” with really sexy clothes (a low-cut blouse and a really short skirt – yeah…). I figured, well, why not? Signs are all over the place, she herself put a possible hook-up on the table. I went for it.

She said no. That bummed me out more than it should have, but okay. But, once again, she made me confused with her explanation. She reminded me of how she initially said she was not interested, and explained that a casual hook-up with me would never be just like a casual hook-up with anyone else; since we used to be in a relationship, there are a lot of pent-up emotions between us… which is why we should be careful if we are to get involved sexually again, especially given how emotionally frail she is now (“we both still have the traits that made us fall in love with each other”, she said). The fact that we were still discussing our old relationship, down to the breakup, didn’t help. I half-jokingly, half-seriously mentioned that I should not have made a move, since things would now get weird between us, but she replied that nothing would get weird, and that, if I ever wanted to go out with her again, all I had to do was call her; she would happily accompany me. She even went as far as to say that the fact that we did not hook up this one time did not mean she would never want to kiss or have sex with me again.

And that was it. I drove her home, and for the past few days we’ve been talking semi-regularly. I know how stupid this all sounds; I only realize now what I was getting into. The worst part comes now; I am starting to have doubts, Doc. Throughout the night I thought I only wanted sex, but I am starting to feel like I am developing feelings for her again… and the door she left open, at the end, is only making me feel anxious. She is a direct woman; if she truly does not want something, she does not mince words… or, at least, that is how she has always been. I don’t know how to interpret her actions; is she just keeping me around because she trusts me and sees me as a friend she can confide in? Is she interested in sex, but does not want to rush things because she does not want to be hurt? Or is there something else here? She trusts me enough to pour her heart out to me, that much is true, but everything else is shrouded in fog.

I’ve read your advice on how getting back together with an ex is often just a fantasy, Doc, but let me me honest; I’ve been obsessing over this whole situation. I am still going out with other people, but every now and then my mind darts back to that night. I need a bit of the chair leg of truth, here; how do you think I should proceed? The fact that she is being so difficult to interpret, so emotionally frail, and my own doubts probably mean trying to get back is too risky, but I don’t want to shut her out of my life. I really want to be at least friends with her, but I am afraid that this uncomfortable situation will manifest itself whenever we see each other, which will only end up hurting me. Should I distance myself from her? Should I sit down with her and sort out the situation in a friendly way, so we can dispel this fog and remain friends? Or should I just kick reason to the curb and keep asking her out (she said she would go, after all) to see where this will go?

Allow me to end this by saying one final thing: I was the dumpee, but when we broke up, we both more or less knew what was coming. We were an interesting case; we resonated in an amazing way in some aspects (sexually, too), but other parts of our personalities were just too different. Maybe this is to blame for the fact that I still feel so weird around her?

Thanks in advance, Doc

Stupid Heart

DEAR STUPID HEART: There’s a lot to dig into here, but a lot comes down to what you’re hoping to get out of this.

What I’m seeing is that your ex is trying to sound out exactly what you think you’re doing. After all, there’s a long and glorious tradition of dudes trying to reconnect with exes in order to get “closure”, because they’re horny and want a hook-up or because they’re really trying to get back together but don’t want to be obvious about it.

That initial conversation was pretty clearly her looking to see what you were looking for. Rehashing the break-up, reassuring you what happened wasn’t a reflection on you, talking about what you’ve been up to romantically… these are all pretty standard part of the “are we going to be friends?” script. After all, trying to be friends with an ex afterwards can be tricky, especially if one or both of you have any lingering issues with the break-up. You may have had a lot of emotional intimacy before, but breaking up means having to step back and reassess just how intimate the two of you are  going to be now. It’s easy to accidentally slip into old patterns when you’re with someone you used to date, especially when those old patterns means sharing everything. Those old levels of openness and intimacy can be tricky at times. Some folks are ok with hearing about their ex’s love-lives. Some aren’t, and hearing about it is uncomfortable or reopens old wounds. Some are cool with the bare bones details (“Yes, I’m seeing someone, it’s pretty good”) and others are cool with sharing every single intimate detail down to size, shape and smell. Talking about her previous lovers and her fantasies can be feeling out just where the two of you are (or will be, should this friendship continue), or it can be a subtle bit of games-playing: “see how popular and in demand I am? You should be jealous.” It can even be a hint that she’s down to clown.

Then she noted that you were angling for a hook up and shut that line down. It’s pretty clear that she’s not interested in having a casual thing with you. I mean, she shut you down twice. That’s a pretty solid answer right there.

But the fact that she doesn’t want to have a casual, NSA relationship with you doesn’t mean that she isn’t necessarily interested in you at all. Look at her behavior. It’s flirty, it’s sexually charged, (come on, she points out that she wears low-cut shirts because she knows they turn you on, while wearing a low-cut shirt)  but she’s also setting boundaries; she’s interested in you, but not as a one-night stand or a fling. In fact, I suspect that the times she’d pull back are when you’d be sliding past “flirty” and into “it’s gonna happen” territory. Be honest: when she’d move your hand from her hip, how much had you let it slide towards your ass?

But honestly, you don’t need to read between the lines much, seeing as she flat out told you what was going on. She wasn’t interested in sport-f

king, but talking to you did remind her of all the good times you had together and that moved her. She wants to see what’s going on with you and if you’re interested in more than just a fling. She’s open to dating you again, but she doesn’t want to be hurt and pumping and dumping her will very clearly hurt her so if all you want is a couple of easy orgasms then she’s not gonna be down. Why is she not being more direct? Because she doesn’t want to be hurt and flat out asking you runs the risk of getting hurt if you said no. But being flirty, giving you signs – and let’s be honest these were not subtle ones; she may as well have been using semaphore – and leaving the door open for you to make the next move gives her enough plausible deniability to let her salvage her ego if you’re not into it.

There really isn’t any uncertainty here, SH. It’s pretty clear what she wants. Now it’s just a question of what you want.

When it comes to getting back together with your ex, there’re generally three questions that need to be answered.

1. Why do you want to get back together?

2. Why did you break up in the first place

3. Have those circumstances changed?

With numbers two and three, the answers are fairly simple: she wasn’t ready for the relationship the two of you have and she seems to be willing to give it a shot now.

So you have to ask yourself why you are starting to get those feelings again. Is it because she represents something safe and familiar, a piece of nostalgia rather than the threatening and uncomfortable uncertainty of dating someone new? Is it because you have unresolved issues with her that you hope to get sorted a second time around? Or is it because your relationship was a case of “right person, wrong time?”

It sounds to me like what you really want is to give this another chance and you’re looking for permission to try.

And frankly, it sounds to me like your ex is hoping you’ll give it a shot.

I say go for it. Take it slow, be gentle and see where it goes. The last thing either of you need is to be hurt again.

Good luck.

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