Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

How Do I Tell Someone She’s My Backup Girlfriend?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’ve been dating a particular woman on and off (let’s call her H) during the last year. Meanwhile, I’ve gone on a few first dates with others. H is aware of this but doesn’t know the full extent of my romantic life.

H isn’t my girlfriend, and I don’t intend to get into an official relationship with her. For instance, Valentine’s Day is coming up and I think I’d rather spend it with a different woman. But, I don’t want to hurt H’s feelings, and I want to keep seeing her until I commit to someone.

Recently, H told me she loves me. I don’t love her. Honestly, I don’t want to hurt H, and I do want to to keep seeing her, as long as we’re casual.

I suppose we have to break up eventually, but that might not be for years. Or maybe, if I don’t find anyone else who’s marriage material, I might have to settle for H despite her flaws. I don’t like to call someone my “backup choice” but I guess that’s how it is.

I want to approach the situation with honesty and make everyone happy the long run. How do I best talk with H about this?

On The Back Burner

DEAR ON THE BACK BURNER: Well it’s not very often I get to intercede in the premise of a bad romantic comedy… especially one that looks like it’s about to turn into a tragedy.

The answer to your question is easy, OTBB: you don’t. You don’t try to keep this relationship going just to avoid being single, you don’t string her along, you don’t “settle” for someone you don’t actually seem to like that much. If you want to approach this situation with honesty and make everyone happy in the long run? Then you need to end things as quickly, cleanly and with as little unnecessary pain as possible.

Look, OTBB, I’m sure you don’t mean for it to be this way, but what you’re doing right now is needlessly cruel, and it’s going to be incredibly painful for H. It’s one thing to have a casual relationship, when everyone involved knows exactly what they’re doing, what they’re in for, and what they can expect. Casual relationships require everyone to be on the same page.

It’s another entirely to keep someone around just in case things don’t work out with another partner.

Just because the relationship is casual doesn’t mean you can be casual with the other person or their feelings. And quite frankly, that’s what you’re doing here; you’re treating her like an object. People aren’t starter homes, something that you get while you’re waiting for the house you REALLY want.

And that gets even more egregious when you know for a fact that this other person has feelings for you — feelings that you don’t return, that you know you won’t return —  and you’re keeping them around because you know they’ll be there until you’re ready to move on to bigger and better things.

Leaving aside the question of the ethics of the situation — which is a whole different ball o’ wax — part of what’s unfair to H is that you’re stealing time from her. Right now, she’s investing her time and energy in you, not knowing that you don’t feel the same way and plan to leave her when you find someone you do love and want to be with. That’s time wasted for her, time that she could spend finding someone who does return her feelings.

Instead, you’ve put her on a track where she will eventually find out that you — and there’s no softer way to put this — were using her. That’s gonna hurt. That’s going to hurt her a lot. She won’t get the time or feelings back that she’s expended on you. And to make matters worse, you’re ALSO stealing the time from her that it’s going to take for her to recover from this, get over you and heal the scars that you WILL inevitably leave her with if you do this.

If you want to conduct your relationships with integrity and have the best outcome for everyone, then the choice is very simple: you end things with H. You tell her that you enjoy spending time with her, that you have affection for her and you enjoy her company… but you and she want very different things from this relationship and you don’t feel like it’s working for you. It’s not the relationship that you need, it’s not the one that she needs and you respect her too much to want to waste her time when it’s clear that you two are going in different directions on this. And while you’ll always care for her and look on what you two’ve had with fondness, you feel that the time’s come to end things.

What you NEVER do is tell her about your plan to keep her as your back-up. There’s never any need for her to know this, and telling her — even in the name of “honesty” — just causes unnecessary pain. Honesty without tact or consideration is just cruelty.

And you also don’t accept things if she says that she’s ok with an imbalanced relationship. Her saying she’s ok with being hurt by you like this doesn’t make it better; it just makes the terms of your relationship even worse. “Yes, I know it’s tearing her heart out, but she says she’s cool with it” is a dick move.

Do H and yourself a favor. End this now. She needs to be free to find someone who is going to want her back the way she wants him and you need to not treat people as your “in case of dating emergency, break glass” relationships.

Good luck.

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