Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

Could I Have Saved This Relationship?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Okay, so I have a situation where I got involved with a girl who’s last relationship was abusive (emotionally and physically). We’d both just moved into college (neither of us is a freshman), off campus, second night we hooked up. That night, when we talked, she seemed very interested in making it into something. Maybe not make it really serious, but at least attempt dating. We were working together when we met, for the school, so during the day we obviously kept everything under wraps.

Two days later I asked if I could see her again that night, she said yes. A few hours later I get a text saying we should just stay friends. I’m totally cool with this, she is making her wishes clear and I told her we could stay friends.

The next day we drink with some friends. She tries to hook up with my best friend when everyone is gone. They kiss for 5 seconds and he gets uncomfortable and backs off. I knew about it, but I didn’t care and didn’t make a big deal over it, I’m not the jealous type.

The next day we are hanging out with a bunch of people, eating lunch, and she sends me another text saying she regrets what she said the previous night. I’m a little exasperated at this point, but I tell her we should talk about it later, in person. At this point I didn’t really know about the abuse. That night I walk her home, we talk, she explains her history. Eventually we decide to try dating. I leave thinking that we are on the same page.

The next night she changes her mind again. My response is calm, but I make the mistake of asking her if I can ask her out in the future once we’ve both figured things out. I feel like this could have come off as needy. But she says of course I can, and we leave it at that.

Finally, a week later, after continuing to remain friends, she wants me back again. We talk, I tell her I’m pretty cautious at this point and I don’t want it to be more of a mess. But she seems really sincere, so I decide to give it one more try. We decide on a date for two days later. A few hours before the date she cancels, says we need to stay friends.

Finally at this point I just said I was done. I’m not mad or hurt, I’m just done with this mess. She apologizes profusely and I basically just tell her I won’t hold a grudge because she’s had a rough year and I won’t hold it against her. But I ask her to please treat people as she wants to be treated. She wants to stay friends.

I guess my question is what could I have done differently? I realize I should have walked away sooner, but this girl is amazing. Ambitious, smart, works really hard (full ride student), and very pretty. The pathetic part is, if in 6 months she changed her mind again I might be willing to try it. It’s not that I’ll wait, I’m pretty confident and I try to go up to random people and meet them several times a week. I just haven’t met anyone I care about more than her, yet.

I learned a lot from this, but I feel like I could learn more if someone else took a look at it.

– Exasperated & Confused

DEAR EXASPERATED & CONFUSED: I’m going to be blunt: what you should’ve done is cut things off a lot sooner, E&C. This was never going to go anywhere. I’m sure that she’s amazing as hell and cartoon birds do her hair in the morning when she gets up, but the fact of the matter is that she was jerking you around.

Now to be clear: it is absolutely awful that she had a s--tty relationship before you got together. She was abused, and that frequently leaves scars. I completely empathize with her over that and hope she gets help because she seems to still be in pain from it. But while the abuse (potentially) explains her actions, it doesn’t excuse them. It would be one thing if she had said “look, I can’t deal with things right now, I’m not in a good place, emotionally, to date, I’m sorry.” But unfortunately, she didn’t.

It’s good that she apologized, which is a solid start. But the truth is that, intentionally or not, her behavior was negatively affecting other people and that’s not cool.

Here’s a truth about dating, E&C: when you date, you open yourself up to the possibility of getting hurt. There are manipulators and users, toxic people and abusers, and there are people who’ll keep dangling themselves on a string to keep you interested but yank it away just as you’re about to reach it. Some may be malicious, some may just be clueless and some may be flailing around trying to figure things out… but it still ends up hurting people on the receiving end.

The way that you keep the toxic people out of your life is developing and maintaining strong boundaries. In the case of this on-again, off-again girl, you were putting up with behavior over and over again that was leaving you confused and upset. That’s a time where you have to have boundaries. Yes, you need boundaries, even with people you care about or who aren’t acting maliciously.

In an ideal world, you would have called things off earlier would. You could have said “Listen, I like you and I think you’re amazing, but I can’t put up with this. You’re going hot and cold on me and it’s confusing, it’s hurtful and I can never know where we stand or what’s happening between us. I don’t know what’s going on and I hope you’re ok, but I can’t keep doing this, and if we’re going to keep doing this dance, then I have to step away.” Then you wait for her response. If she pulled the same behavior again, then you should’ve said “Look, I said I can’t keep doing this.” and walked away. This isn’t how someone treats a friend, never mind how someone treats a potential lover.

The other thing you need to realize: unless she changes her behavior — whether that means getting help that she needs or growing and maturing — then there’s no point in speculating about what might have been or what could still be. She doesn’t sound like she’s in a place to date right now. And yeah, I’m not surprised you’re still hung up on her. I get it. You’re young and unless I miss my guess, this was your first major relationship. But here’s the thing you need to keep in mind: there are other multitudes of women out there who are just as hot and ambitious and smart if not more so. More importantly, there are other hot, ambitious, smart and hardworking women out there who are in a better place emotionally and who won’t make trying to date such a roll of the dice.

My advice? Go out. Date around. Meet other women. Learn how to develop and maintain your boundaries. You can maintain a friendship with her — assuming that she doesn’t keep blowing hot and cold — and date someone who is ready and able to be in a relationship with you.

Good luck.

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