Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

I Don’t Know If I Actually Like My Girlfriend.

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I am super unsure as to what I really, truly, want in my relationship. I have been dating my current girlfriend for 10 months, and I’ve been very happy for the most part.

I feel as though I should provide some context for the rest of my message, though. Increasingly, a past interest who I’ll name ‘M’ has been on my mind. As much as I do not like this, I have flirted with her regularly for the past several weeks. My current girlfriend (for convenience ‘J’) has been nothing but wonderful and supportive of me. I’m super happy with ‘J’ but I have been feeling unfulfilled despite how much I care for her.

‘J’ helped me to become comfortable with my sexuality while dating the opposite gender (I’m a bi guy), and I know that she is still incredibly into me. I, however, am not sure I feel the same. Honestly, I’m just confused as to whether or not I am responding to attention, or to an actual, true feeling of mine. I’d appreciate any advice you have on confusion during relationships!


What Do I Want?

DEAR WHAT DO I WANT: The first thing I feel that I have to point out is that being into other people doesn’t mean that you’re not into your partner, WDIW. If you’ve read me for long enough, then you already can sing along with the chorus: monogamy isn’t our default state. The fact that you’re attracted to people — including your ex — doesn’t automatically mean that something is wrong with your relationship. It just means that you’re a human with a sex-drive. A monogamous commitment just means that you promise not to date or sleep with other people; it doesn’t mean that you won’t want to.

Now that being said: I think you aren’t doing yourself any favors by flirting with your ex. While your attraction to her doesn’t have anything to do with your relationship to J, it can create problems where they may not necessarily exist already. The thrill of the new or different can clash with the comfort of the relationship you already have and make any discontentment seem larger and more meaningful by comparison. But those problems are just as likely to exist with other partners; you just haven’t been with them for long enough to encounter them. Or, in the case of exes and past crushes, you’ve been away for so long that nostalgia has filed away all the rough patches. It’s easy to feel like maybe this relationship isn’t right for you when this other one feels so much more exciting and perfect than the one you’ve been in for longer.

By that same token, however, this doesn’t mean that maybe your current relationship is right for you any more. You and your partner never stop growing as people. Hopefully you both grow and change together… but sometimes you grow apart too. That doesn’t mean that anyone has done anything wrong; it just means that you and your partner are going in different directions and this relationship doesn’t fit who you are now. Not every love story is meant to be an epic poem. Some are just meant to be a short story, and that’s fine. Hell, some are just meant to be a dirty limerick.

How do you tell dissatisfaction brought on by a new infatuation vs. an actual problem within your relationship? Well, some of this only comes with time and experience; the more relationship experience you have under your belt, the better you’re able to sort out infatuation and limerence from a deeper and more meaningful attraction. Similarly, the more you’ve dealt with the slings and arrows that come with dating another person — and the more you’re aware of your own needs in a relationship — the more you can tell when there’s an actual problem or whether you’re being distracted by the shiny new toy.

The first thing I would suggest is to knock off the flirting with M. I get that her interest and attention can be intoxicating, but for now you’re inviting trouble that you don’t need. If your dissatisfaction with J starts to fade within a couple of weeks of cutting things with M, then you’ve got your answer: you were getting off on the fact that someone else finds you hot. That doesn’t make you a bad person; that just makes you human, like the rest of us. However, if you find that you’re still bothered by your relationship with J, even without a potential new partner lurking in the background… well, then you know that your feeling unfulfilled was actually the check-engine light of your relationship, rather than something brought on by the allure of getting some strange.

Regardless, I think it would be a good idea that you do some hard thinking and interrogating your feelings about J. “Unfulfilled” covers a lot of territory. What, precisely, are you feeling like you’re missing? Is it simply the case that you’re not as attracted to her as you were in the beginning? Is it that things aren’t as exciting as they were in the early months? Are you finding that you have needs that aren’t being met, or is it just that this relationship hasn’t been as easy or effortless as it was at the start? The more you can dial in on the precise shape and texture of this unfulfilled feeling, the more you can tell whether it’s something to discuss with J or not. After all, the fact that you’re not necessarily feeling fulfilled doesn’t mean that this is a permanent situation. This could well be something that could be resolved with some conversations — awkward or otherwise.

Being into someone else doesn’t mean that the relationship is over. Being a little dissatisfied doesn’t mean that the relationship is flawed beyond repair. It’s an indication that you should pay attention. A little more mindfulness right now can mean the difference between a relationship that can be fixed, or one that’s reached its natural end.

Good luck.

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