Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

Is My Boyfriend Falling In Love With Someone Else?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Brief context: I (28 F) have been in a 2.5 year relationship, 1.25 years of which has now been long distance (12+ hour flight, long distance). Currently coming out of a non-COVID rough patch, newly thrown for a loop.

Ever since I moved away, I have been encouraging him to cultivate friendships because all of his friends are here in the States. In combination with coaxing him into therapy for the past 2 years (which I would say has been moderately successful as he now has 4 consecutive months under his belt after scattershot attempts) I have tried to assist him as best I could in various personal matters (family dynamics, culture shock, opening up emotionally, etc).

While in general very willing to improve, he always found a way to avoid cultivating friendships. He has a mix of friends of both genders from college who he chats with, and we called 2 a day with video calls on weekends as well.

He’s a huge romantic and called me his best friend and that he didn’t need anyone besides me. As the complete opposite of him, I affirmed that I know he loves me and appreciate the sentiment but that all people need someone you can physically meet up with and be in the same time zone with and that no one person can be all things.

We’ve been meeting up for 2-3 weeks every 6 months and we hit a rough patch this January (ironically just before COVID dominated everywhere) While we were working things out (which involved some radio silence for a week or two while we cooled off) he magically gained a “squad” (his words) in February of a college acquaintance who moved to the country he lives in and a high school friend who also moved back.

The college friend is a girl. I’m very chill, but my boyfriend proceeded to tell me multiple times that he thinks she is into him. As he has the social flirting fluency of a statue and had so few friends to start with, I encouraged him to have an awkward conversation or just keep treating her as a friend.

Then he tells me they get drunk together at her place after he helped her run some errands (he is fluent in the local language) and she admits to feelings but she respects what we have.

Given that we were still hashing out our unrelated issues I honestly wondered why he was telling me this. Then he says he feels disconnected from me and our relationship and since he is talking to her for more than an hour everyday about things we used to talk about and meeting up 2-3 times a week, he wanted to know how our relationship is different than a friendship.

I was, needless to say, floored. I asked him if he is no longer in love with me or interested in marriage (aka one of our issues) and he says no. I ask if he has feelings for her and he says he doesn’t think so. I ask if he is attracted to her and he says he can find something attractive about anyone really.

He repeats that everything he used to talk about with me (which was everything under the sun and involved emotional vulnerability a great deal of the time and was apparently a first for him) he now talks about with her. I personally view that as a positive thing as he had a turbulent childhood and consequently great difficulty trusting people enough to converse like that. I’m also not apologetic about not fulfilling his conversational needs because 1) we were in a bad place and needed space 2) he should have people he trusts to talk to and 3) I’m in a COVID epicenter under lockdown—the highlight of my month is finally doing laundry.

Having been a longtime reader, I know you have covered that how men manage emotional intimacy in a relationships other than a romantic partner. Is that related to this or was he never really in love with me—was I just the first person he trusted and decided it was love?

-Lost and Confused

DEAR LOST AND CONFUSED: There’re a couple things going on here, LaC. But before I get into your boyfriend’s situation specifically, I want to talk about something I see a lot in men. Especially men who are a little socially awkward or who don’t have much in the way of social and romantic experience.

One of the things I’ve talked about repeatedly in this column is just how emotionally starved men are. There is a genuine epidemic of loneliness in men, in no small part because we are very bad at growing or maintaining our social circles. We may be good at creating acquaintances, but we’re terrible at making close friends past the ages of 12 or so. It’s not just the inherent difficulty of making new friends after college, but the fact that starting around 11-13, boys are taught that emotional intimacy between men is bad and to be avoided. Any sort of genuine affection or emotional intimacy is equated with sexual or romantic intimacy, which, naturally, is supposed to be reserved for someone you might actually bang.

This ends up creating a cascading effect. First, guys find themselves prohibited from having close friendships with other men except in specific circumstances. But since emotional needs don’t go away just because we think we’re not allowed to have them, men instead look to women for emotional closeness and vulnerability. But since we’re both starved for emotional intimacy and taught that emotional intimacy is de-facto romantic… we also equate that sense of freedom, intimacy and closeness with romantic attraction. As a result… you get a lot of women who think they’re having the same sort of friendship with their guy friends that they have with their girl friends, while guys are thinking that they’re on the road to pound town. This fundamental disconnect frustrates and angers… pretty much everyone really. Women feel like their friendship is being used as a stalking horse for dudes to try to get into their pants and guys feel like women are cruelly teasing them by denying them the sexual intimacy they expect to come with the emotional intimacy. 

This, incidentally, is part of why so many guys find themselves in The Friend Zone; they are so starved for an emotional connection that they round what they’re feeling — often for the first time in years — up to love. It’d be akin to a starving man thinking that the first meal he’s had in weeks is a feast in a three Michelin star restaurant.

Now let’s talk about your boyfriend. It’s actually admirable that he’s done exactly what you’ve been trying to get him to do: he’s gone out and made new friends, opened up emotionally and found himself new friends. That’s awesome!

It’s also why things are a little up in the air at the moment. I think there’re three issues at play here.

First, there’s the fact that, as you said: he apparently has the social fluency of a rock. I suspect that this is part of the problem; he’s experiencing both sexual attraction and emotional intimacy with someone besides you for the first time in a long time. If he’s not used to being friends with someone of his preferred gender (especially if he finds them attractive) it’s not much of a leap for him to feel the same stirrings and think that this is the same as what he has with you.

Second, there’s the fact that she’s been open with the fact that she’s attracted to him. An attractive woman showing interest in someone can be a heady feeling, even if you have no interest in doing anything about it. If it’s something you’re not used to, it can be especially intoxicating. The idea that someone finds you desirable — especially at a time when you were feeling lonely — is exciting and that reflected desire and excitement can feel a lot more than it actually is. There’ve been no few folks out there who’ve gotten caught up in the excitement of someone thinking they were hot and realizing down the line that they were more invested by the other person’s attraction than having any interest of their own.

Third… to put it bluntly, you’re across the globe and she’s right there. The fact that she is attracted to him, he feels this emotional connection with her and she’s physically in the same room with him can be a very potent combination. Add to to the equation that a) you two had just had a pretty major fight and b) she’s got the appeal of novelty and it’s very easy to see him taking all of this and rounding it up to “well this is basically the same thing right?”

It’s possible that yes, you were the first person he trusted and he rounded it up to love. It’s equally possible that he’s so unused to having a close female friend that he assumes that it’s exactly the same as having a girlfriend; the only difference is that he can bang the latter but not the former.

Without knowing the guy… I’m inclined to lean towards the second. I think this is something he’s unused to and doesn’t have the vocabulary to express or even fully understand.

However, I will say that there’s one thing that sets off my Spidey-sense: he mentioned that the two of them get drunk at her place. While it’s certainly possible for that to be entirely innocent — people get drunk with their friends all the time — in his situation specifically, this could be the set-up to an “accident” where one or both of them fail their Wisdom saving throw and end up crossing lines they don’t intend to. I don’t think he’s planning on doing anything he shouldn’t, nor do I think that this is a hook-up in the making. It’s just worth noting that the two of them have created a situation where the odds of a mistake happening are higher than they would be otherwise.

What does this all mean, and what should you do about it? It’s hard to say, honestly. You can’t exactly pound emotional fluency into somebody’s brain. Even having long conversations about various forms of intimacy and relationships doesn’t guarantee he’s going to get it. This is the sort of thing that ultimately folks mostly learn through experience. Like trying to describe the color blue, it’s the sort of thing that you have to actually going through it and realizing how the relationship with a friend is different than the relationship with a committed partner. It can be a frustrating, especially when there’s nothing you can do, but sometimes life is like that.

Honestly, I think the best thing you can do is keep those lines of communication open. Being able to express yourself freely with him and giving him room to express himself will make it easier to keep your connection strong. It’s possible to say “hey, just so you know, I’m feeling a little uncomfortable with this and I’d appreciate some reassurance”  without telling him “hey you’re not allowed to do this.” Plus, being able to talk about these things with each other can help keep the connection strong… and reminds him just why you two fell for each other in the first place.

Good luck.

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