Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

Is My Girlfriend Leading Me On?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I have a bit of a conundrum that has appeared in my dating life especially considering the times we currently live in. It’s a bit long winded but hear me out.

In short, there are two parts to this story. First, I worry that some past experiences have been giving me some trouble with a current girl I’ve been talking to and don’t want to let my past experiences ruin this. Second, I am also having a sort of issue where I am having a harder than usual time gauging people’s intentions, given the current situation. There is a lot of crossover, and I’m unsure how to proceed.

Let me give you a little background. I’m a 22-year-old guy in college and have spent the better part of the last year turning my dating life around. I’ve had some success, but nothing super significant, and I’m looking for a long-term relationship.

A couple of months ago, I had a major letdown happen and it really brought me down. In short, I was led on for a few weeks and rejected by a woman (let’s call her BY, also a student), ostensibly not because of me, but because BY had been recently dumped by a longtime boyfriend. I had previously prided myself on not getting hung up on any one potential relationship, but with BY, I really “bought in” and got hurt by not asking questions and not being careful. There were warning signs, but I didn’t feel it was my place to dig into former relationships and trauma especially being so recent. I’ve also had clinginess and self-worth issues in the past and was trying to not repeat that behavior. I had felt good about myself and the situation, so this wasn’t much of an issue as it historically has been. Nonetheless, it was on my mind and probably affected my actions.

A short while later, I find out BY is now dating another guy and I feel lied too. Queue a major self-improvement streak and a major recovery. In a lot of ways, I’m in a significantly better place than before BY; things have really improved. In the meanwhile, the world is collapsing due to COVID-19 and everything goes online.

That brings us to the current situation. I’ve met several new people through dating apps and am trying to keep my options open. However, I’ve become much more acquainted with one in particular (call her BR, two years older with a real job), and it’s causing some cognitive dissonance. This is also where my second question comes in, because BR’s behavior has been a little strange.

In brief, BR is not especially prompt at replying to me and displays questionable interest outside of dates. The first date we had was unexceptional, and I wasn’t especially interested either, but felt that there might be something given the right opportunity. I make an attempt to talk to her during the week off the app, but the line goes quiet (just a one off at this point). A few days pass and I ask her out on a second date, which goes much better. It turns out, that me and BR have a lot in common and there is definitely something. It’s also poignant that these are clearly defined as dates by both parties, so at the very least, I can rule out miscommunication. However, despite a newfound interest in BR, the lack of communication outside of dates is making me question if I should pursue this any further (the “f

k yes” rule). It’s a mixed signals question: even though BR seems to enjoy our time “in person”, she doesn’t seem that keen outside of it.

At this point, my question is how should I gauge this situation? What should I do if the no responses (outside of proposing dates) develop into a pattern? Given the current situation, she could just be taking things slow, especially since we’re online only so far. Also, I don’t want to appear clingy by jumping the gun but am also aware of the possibility that I could be a 2nd or 3rd choice and am being strung along. I want to make my own boundaries and self-worth clear and will exit if she is not really interested. How do I clear this up or should I even attempt to continue at all? What would be the best way to approach this? On top of this, I am still dealing with a bit of lingering PTSD from BY regarding really “buying in”. As a result, even though BR seems great, I am worried about getting put in a similar situation (despite needing to if I want to move things along with BR). I love your work and would appreciate to hear your take on this.


Figuring It Out

DEAR FIGURING IT OUT: First things first, FIO: I’m questioning your framing of the situation with BY. What you describe doesn’t sound like you were being “lead on”; it sounds like you were making a lot of unfounded assumptions that didn’t have any basis in reality. Unfortunately, it can be easy to let yourself get caught up in the moment and allow for what Dan Savage calls “dickful thinking” to color your perceptions. However, BY ultimately isn’t responsible for living up to the expectations you had built up in your head. If the issue was that you weren’t asking questions (like, say, “is this going somewhere?” and “are we a thing?”) and not that she was lying to you (“yes, it is and yes we are,” or “maybe, let’s keep trying and see”) then this is less your being betrayed and more of a learning experience. Like I said to Three’s Company yesterday: you have to date with intent, instead of letting things “just happen” and hoping that it’ll all work out.

Now I bring this up because it seems like you’re making similar mistakes with BR. It seems like you’re spending more time reading the tea leaves than you are actually trying to get answers. If you want to know what’s going on, the best person to ask isn’t a mouthy bastard with an advice column, it’s to use your words and ask her. It could be, for example, that she simply doesn’t like texting or messaging apps. She might be someone who prefers actually talking on the phone (a rarity in this day and age, I realize). Or it could be that she’s simply not that communicative a person, especially this early on. It could be that she’s the type who doesn’t put much effort into relationships and tends to be the more passive partner. Or it could be that she’s just not that into you and this is how she shows it.

I don’t have the answer to this; BR does. That means that she’s the one you’ll need to ask — and apparently in person, if she’s this uncommunicative via text. And if she doesn’t have an answer for you — she may well not know why she’s like this, she just knows she is — then you’re going to have to decide if that’s the kind of relationship you want.

But whether you try to make things work with BR or move on to someone else, you need to stop taking as passive an approach to dating as it seems that you have been. You’re going to have to be willing to be your own advocate in a relationship and ask questions. If you’re afraid that calling attention to an issue within the relationship — even if it’s as simple as “are we a couple?” — because you worry that it’s going to tank the relationship… well, that’s a relationship that probably needs to be tanked. And while having things fall apart because you wanted clarity and asked for what you need can sting, it’s far less painful than the anxiety and stress that comes from trying to divine meaning from silence in a seemingly ambiguous relationship. Certainty is far more comforting, even when it’s negative, than being unsure and having no idea what to expect.

Date with intent FIO. Be up front about what you want and what you’re looking for. If you feel like there’re mixed signals, then put in the effort to straighten them out and ask. And don’t let your hope for what you want blind you to what’s actually happening.

Good luck.

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