Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

I’ve Heard About “Nice Guys”. Am I Being A “Nice Girl”?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m a new female reader and in the day I’ve known you you’ve already helped me end an abusive relationship.

(That sounds a little dramatic, but your articles have definitely helped. Specifically: “When It’s Time To Break Up (and When It’s Not)”)

My boyfriend and I broke up this morning, and it wasn’t until just recently I decided to look into whether or not my relationship was actually bad, or if I was just overreacting like my boyfriend said I was.

There’s a lot that I want to tell you about our relationship– things you probably don’t care to hear, so I’ll just cut to the chase:

For months my boyfriend would tell me that I disappointed him on the daily. That when he came home from work, I should do things for him to make his life easier because his life sucked. That I should work on these large projects for him because he couldn’t draw and that I promised him that I would animate a cartoon for him a long time ago. And when I first started the project, everything was fine. I had the time to do it. But then I started to go to school full-time and I started working two part-time jobs; one of which was almost full-time on its own for a while.

He told me that in the few hours I had after school and before work, (which I usually spent sleeping, relaxing, or doing homework, after being out 13 hours+ in a typical day) that I should work on his project so that he wouldn’t have to do anything with his life. So that he could coast on his idea and on my hard work. Hard work that he would say wasn’t as hard as writing a script and that drawing that much should be easy for me. Eventually, I stopped working on it completely– a sort of defense mechanism with all of the disappointment he’d been throwing my way, I think. I was afraid to work on it at all, because when I looked to him for encouragement, all I got was: “That’s all you did?”

After a while- after my ignoring of comments like: “My cartoon is never going to happen. I have to give up on my dream and work at dead-end jobs for the rest of my life;” things were okay enough. I knew I would work on it again. I wanted to make his dream come true.

Eventually, if I did race back from school on time to see him for the short half an hour before he went to work, I would get comments like: “It was nice seeing you.” Or, if I stopped at a friend’s house or stayed at school to do homework, I would hear things like: “Thanks for coming home to see me, see you next week, I guess.” None of which he considered anything similar to emotional blackmail. If I even went out for the night– just once to relieve some stress with my friends, he would get jealous that I was making time for others and not for him. At certain points he even got mad at me for taking four hours to go see my family. They lived almost an hours drive away.

The only things that really peaked my relationship-awareness were a couple of friends who pointed out a few similar points about his actions towards me. At first I thought I was just complaining and over-exaggerating. Things weren’t that bad.. My friends were just sticking up for me, because I was only telling them my side of the story. Cody (the ex) was just having a rough-time lately.

My boyfriend and I drifted apart– we maybe saw each other an hour out of every day, and I started liking this guy at my work.. I wasn’t proud of this. I tried not to like this guy– he wasn’t even my type! Technically, still isn’t.. but your post: “The Problem With ‘Nice Guys'” has me getting worried..

This guy is a nice guy. A great guy, from what he’s shown me. He was there for me when I told him about my relationship problems with my ex, and listened when I hadn’t expected him to. I started to feel excited every time he walked into work, and we worked almost every day together for a few weeks. He’s much bigger in the hips and stomach than I’ve ever felt attracted to, so at first I thought it was just a silly crush that would pass. I’ve always been cool enough to be personable with overweight people, but vain enough to have never fallen for one. Previous notions telling me I had too many options, because I was the pretty girl, and that an attractive man would come along and sweep me off my feet– like I once thought Cody had. But this guy continued to be supportive, and I still find myself attracted to him. (I realize it sounds vain, and like I’m a stupid snob, but after more guys liking me than I care to count – more nerds than anything – the thought kind of sticks)…

Neither of us want to go beyond casual at the moment, because anything serious would affect our jobs (one of us would have to transfer). Also, because I just got out of a 3 year relationship that has me feeling emotionally vulnerable and would make him look like the rebound, which I don’t want to do to him.

I hate that his physical appearance has anything to do with it.. but I’m afraid that if anything were to happen in a sexual nature– should his clothes come off– that I would be turned off and unable to continue. I don’t want to put either of us in that situation.

I don’t want to hurt this guy, because of how good he’s been to me and his being exactly what I needed when my boyfriend was draining me of all of my confidence and self-esteem. A part of me is afraid that subconsciously I’ve been using him, and since reading your article: “The Problem With ‘Nice Guys,'” I’ve been afraid a part of him is using me, too. (..or is that vain, too?)

So, out of one problem and into another…

Could you please spare a spec of advice?

-Into The Fire

DEAR INTO THE FIRE: There’s a lot to unpack in this story, ITF and I’m not really surprised. You’ve been through the emotional ringer and it’s going to take some time to get your head straight and let your heart heal. Small wonder that you’re feeling like your chi’s all kinds of f--ked right now.

But as with any complicated situation, sometimes it’s easiest to just take it by it’s component parts, bit by bit until it doesn’t seem quite so daunting.

To start with: your ex. He was a passive-aggressive, manipulative dick by the sound of it, who didn’t have much in the way of respect for you, your wishes or your situation. He also clearly has no idea what goes into trying to work as an artist but that’s a different rant entirely (Can you tell I used to work as an illustrator? Don’t mind me…) Regardless: he was making you miserable and you sound as though you are well rid of him. You should be proud of yourself for being able to leave; it can be hard to extract yourself from a relationship that’s turned toxic, and it says a lot for your personal strength and resolve.

Considering how things went with him, it’s not terribly surprising that you’re a little hesitant when suddenly a new challenger approaches! After all, you’re fresh out of a bad relationship and still sweeping the emotional detritus out from the corners of your love-life when you’re starting to get all sorts of surprising feelings for this new guy. It’s too soon! And he’s totally nothing like what you’ve wanted before! WTF, gonads?

So now you have this new guy you’ve got a crush on and you’re full of questions. Is he a good guy or a Nice Guy? Has he been helping you out because he’s hoping that he can trade in all of his his Platonic Friend proofs-of-purchase for a Free Girlfriend Upgrade or because he’s a genuine friend who’s trying to support you through an incredibly trying time? Worse: are you using him as the emotional equivalent of a security blanket? And what about the fact that well… he’s fat?

Let’s start with the looks. Yeah, you’ve never been into bigger guys before, and to be perfectly frank, the way you describe yourself – being too vain to want to date a chubby – doesn’t exactly cover you in glory. But this guy still hits your buttons in a way that you haven’t felt before. This should tell you something: maybe it’s more than just looks. Maybe, just maybe, you’re into him as a holistic being instead of someone who hit the genetic powerball grand prize. Sure, there’re better looking guys out there… but can they make you laugh the way he does? Do they make your heart race at the thought of seeing them at work the way he does?

Attraction is more than facial symmetry and low body-fat to muscle ratios; it’s also about personality and humor, about shared values and goals, mutual interests and mutual respect. You worry that you’re too shallow to be sexual with him – that when the clothes come off, you’re going to be turned off. It’s understandable – you’re dealing with a body type that you’ve typically not been interested in. But I have a serious question for you: how much of that is just you haven’t been interested and how much of it is because of how you’ve been acculturated? You talk about being too vain to date a fat guy – but is that about how you feel or about how you feel others would judge you? Are you worried about what other people are going to say when they see you with him? How do you feel when you hug him? Does your heart race and your mouth go dry? Do you find yourself relaxing into him and enjoying the comfort of his arms? These will tell you more about how you really feel than trying to intellectualize it. Sometimes the body wants things that the head has problems understanding; many guys who are into bigger women – for example – often have a problem coming to terms with their attraction versus what society has told them they SHOULD want. Sometimes your heart and genitals know you better than your head does.

When you’re into someone, the way they look to you will change; your affection to them will make them more attractive to you. The parts that others may consider flaws are just part of what makes the people we care about uniquely them. You may find, for instance, that part of what attracts you to him is that he’s a big huggable bear.

What about the question of who’s using who? This is where you have to be willing to set emotion aside – difficult, I know – and take a cold hard look at how he treats you and how the two of you interact together. How did the two of you start becoming friends? Did he start trying to move in when you were having problems and he saw an opening? Or was he non-judgmental, offering support to someone who was clearly in pain without making it about trying to separate you from your boyfriend. Does he get in a huff when you bring up other guys, or does he take it in stride? Does he make a point of how much he does for you with the subtle implication that you owe him? Has he been trying to position himself as boyfriend material, or has he been treating you as a good friend who’s been having a hard time? Now that you’re single, has he been making increasingly pointed hints about dating him? Has his hanging out with you been all about how the two of you are soooo compatible and isn’t that just crazy?

Nice Guys are about obligation and entitlement – the problem with Nice Guys is that they feel that they’re owed sex just for base-line decent behavior. If your crush isn’t acting like that… well, it sounds like he’s just being a good guy.

What about YOU using HIM though? That can be a trickier one. After all, he’s been a source of emotional support at a time when you desperately needed it. It’s not difficult to see how maybe you’re mistaking gratitude – and someone who’s not treating you like s--t – for love. And maybe that’s the case.

But there are little clues here and there that tell me that maybe you care about him as a person, not as a crutch to help you hobble along as your heart recovers. The biggest tell: you’re afraid about what all this means. It’d be one thing if you were just merrily rolling along, content to suck up the feels he’s providing you. It’s another thing entirely when you’re starting to worry that you don’t feel as strongly for him as you think you might or that this could all be temporary. The fact that you’re worried about hurting him tells me two things:

1) You’re seriously considering him as relationship material.

2) You care about him enough that you’re worried that you’re going to f--k things up and hurt him.

These are good signs.

I get that you’re afraid of being in a rebound relationship, and it’s understandable. But don’t think that there is some designated length of time that you must wait before even considering a new relationship. Many people who’ve gotten out of long-term relationships have discovered that they were over their ex before they broke up in the first place. This could very well be the case for you: part of what made it possible for you to get out of your abusive relationship was that you were starting to realize that you would much rather be with your friend.

Here’s something I want you to keep in mind: not every relationship has to be with an eye towards Happily Ever After. Some relationships are short term by circumstance and some by design. I think the fear of a “rebound” relationship stems from approaching every relationship as though the end goal is marriage, 2.5 kids and the house in the suburbs. Sometimes a relationship can just be what you need at a particular stage of your life; just because it’s short doesn’t mean that it’s automatically a “failure”.

The key to any relationship is communicate, communicate, communicate. This means being up front and absolutely clear about where you are emotionally, what you can offer and where you see this relationship going. You’re clearly interested in this guy but you have concerns. All well and good. Tell him this. Be up front: you’re into him and you don’t know what this means… but clearly you want to find out. You don’t want to hurt him, so take it slowly and with the full realization that this may very well not work out in the long term.

I think you might be surprised at just how well things work out. Maybe it’s time to stop questioning things SO much and just take “yes” for an answer.

Good luck.

Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, doc@doctornerdlove.com