Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

How Do I Fix My Awkward Relationship With My Parents?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: When this pandemic got bad, the company I work for allowed us to work from home; as a result, I decided to move back to my parents’ house. I’m an only child and I usually visit them on weekends or when I have free time (we live 200 miles apart), and I moved back to be with them and help them too. After all, they’re getting older, whether they like to admit it or not. So far, things were going well… until last night. I was doing some work on my laptop while they were watching TV —  they were watching “90 days fiancé” and there was a discussion about marriage and stuff. Suddenly my mom asked “Hey, when are you getting married?”

It was a silly question without malice or trying to hurt me or something like that, it was just a comment. However, I don’t know if I was caught off guard or maybe is this whole pandemic or I don’t know, but it struck a chord and I couldn’t help crying. Like… really crying. I excused myself and rushed into the bathroom.

Some backstory: I’m a 25 guy who never had a girlfriend or even kissed a girl, and I believe I’m way to hideous for dating. Not gonna lie, sometimes I feel really bad about this but I’m pretty good to hide my emotions and keep them to myself. However, last night I just lost it. I don’t recall the last time I cried in front of my parents (maybe when I was in high school) and it was super embarrassing. I was always afraid of a situation when they asked if I was seeing someone or something like that, but I never thought I wouldn’t be able to handle it.

When I came back, they were in the kitchen and the TV was off. My mom made tea, and I sat awkwardly alongside them and we were silent for at least ten minutes. My dad asked me about sport stuff and if I had a lot of work and I guess we pretended my overreaction never happened.

Even though they’re being super nice to me and we haven’t spoken about it, it feels weird. I can feel it. They’re like trying to not upset me and carefully choosing their words to speak with me. I know I reacted like a baby, but I’m not. I want things to go back to normal but I don’t want to talk about what happened, or explain my feelings regarding relationships, or any pain I may have. I mean, I don’t want them to worry about me. The whole point was me being with them and take care of them no the other way around.

Did I ruin everything and things are going to be weird and awkward like forever? Will they forget? Is there something I can do? I don’t want them to be worried about me.

Awkward Son

DEAR AWKWARD SON: You didn’t do anything wrong AS, and no, you didn’t ruin anything. You had an entirely understandable emotional reaction, just one you’re not used to. Here’s the thing you need to keep in mind: the world is on goddamn fire. We are dealing with a global crisis of the likes we haven’t seen in literally more than a century and it is decimating the world, the economy and pretty much everything about our normal ways of life. This is one of the most emotionally trying times any of us have ever lived through and that’s going to take a toll on us in a lot of ways that most of us have ever experienced before.

Everybody’s mental and emotional bandwidth is clogged right now. Even if you’re in a fairly good place, where you aren’t worried about your job, you’re not in danger of being losing your home and you’re able to pay your bills… this s--t is weighing on you. None of us are as fine as we like to say we are and frankly all of our feelings are going to be so much larger and so much louder than they would be under normal circumstances. So yeah, I’m not surprised that you had a crying jag, AS; that’s a reasonable reaction from a reasonable person who’s stuck in an incredibly unreasonable situation. I mean, s--t dude, I’ve had my share of tears and yelling because of, well, literally everything that’s been going on.

However, I want to zero in on something you said: “Not gonna lie, sometimes I feel really bad about this but I’m pretty good to hide my emotions and keep them to myself.”

This is part of what lead to your bursting into tears, AS. You’ve been bottling these anxieties up, trying to pretend you don’t have them or push them down so that you don’t have to think about them. That doesn’t work under the best of circumstances; trying to avoid your feelings doesn’t make them go away, it just compresses them. You’ve been like a pressurized canister, and the pandemic is the emotional equivalent of smacking that canister with a hammer. Before, you didn’t give yourself an outlet for your emotions. Now the can’s been ruptured and it’s exploding, messily and all over the place.

Part of the problem is, well, frankly, you bought into this bulls--t idea that men aren’t supposed to be emotional. That we’re supposed to have our s--t on lock, that having strong feelings is a weakness and we’re only allowed to shed a single man-tear on suitably important occasions like the death of our fathers or the end of Saving Private Ryan. All this has done is left generations of men deeply uncomfortable with expressions of emotion and out of touch with their own feelings. As a result, we end up completely cut off from our own feelings or even understanding how to manage them in a healthy way. We have no outlet for emotional expression, even less of an idea of how to manage how we feel in productive ways and end up in positions where it just comes bursting out of us.

I mean, look at your dad. Part of what he was doing was trying to ease your embarrassment, but also trying to deal with his own discomfort. Not because there’s anything wrong with your crying, but because he doesn’t know how to respond to it or how to comfort you.

Here’s the thing: pretending that this never happened is a bad idea. All that does is perpetuate the same cycle of your trying to repress your emotions, all but guaranteeing that they’re going to burst out when you least expect it and at the worst possible time. The mistake you’re making is assuming that you have to be made of stone or pretending that you don’t have feelings or aren’t having concerns. The fact that you’re taking care of your parents — which is incredibly admirable, I might add — is the cover story. Your wanting to help them and care for them doesn’t mean that you can’t have problems of your own. Nor are they going to stop worrying about you just because you pretended things didn’t happen. They’re your parents. They care about you. They’re going to worry about you; it comes with the territory.

But instead of trying to tiptoe around the subject like it’s a live minefield, it’s better to just own it — both the crying and the feelings that triggered it. It’s understandable that you have a lot of painful feelings and anxieties around dating and relationships. You are in incredibly good company there; I can’t count the number of letters I get from people who feel like you do — men and women. And while obviously I don’t think anyone — you included, AS — is helpless or doomed to being Forever Alone, those fears and anxieties are real. Pretending they don’t exist just makes it hurt even more and creates a false sense of helplessness and powerlessness. By facing those feelings head-on — owning them, acknowledging them, not trying to pretend that they don’t exist — you take the first steps in alleviating them… not to mention, helping reassure your parents.

Talking to your parents and admitting that hey, you’ve got complicated feelings is a good first step. Opening up and sharing this,  letting them know “hey, I struggle with dating and meeting women and this causes me anxiety” not only helps them understand you, but it’s good for them, too. Now they aren’t going to be as worried that they’re going to say the wrong thing and step on a landmine they had no idea was even there. Just as importantly, being open with how you feel means being open to receiving comfort and reassurance… both in general and from your parents in particular. They may not have any answers — or at least any good ones — but they can at least offer you comfort and reminding you that you’re loved and cared for. It may not solve the problem, but it can help you feel better.

What I would also suggest is that you get in touch with a counselor or therapist. Not because there’s anything wrong with you but because hey, s--t is goddamn hard right now and you have a lot of very loud feelings that are clearly causing you pain. Talking to a counselor can help you handle your feelings in a healthy and productive way as well as help you with your anxiety about dating and being an older virgin. Working with them will also help make it easier for you to help your parents; they won’t have to worry as much about you because hey, here you are handling your s--t! You’d be doing not just the sensible thing but the kind thing, for you and for them.

And here’s another thing to keep in mind: you’re actually demonstrating a lot of incredible qualities that women look for in a man. You’re kind, you’re conscientious, you’re sacrificing to take care of your parents at a time when they really need you. These are all things women crave in a partner. But they also want someone who’s in good emotional and mental working order. Taking the time to work on yourself, learn how to embrace your emotions and manage your anxieties is going to put you in a good place when the pandemic ends and we can all go out again. And when it does, after doing the work, if you’re still needing to work on meeting women and getting dates… well, I’ll be right here and ready to help teach you.

Good luck.

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