Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

I’m Afraid Leaving My Job Will Ruin My Love Life.

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I am recently in the process of leaving my toxic job with a little bit of savings and no concrete plan for what’s next. I can’t even think about work and job stuff without feeling dread, anxiety, depression, etc. because not only am I leaving a bad environment after 5 years, but I also feel my career in tech and engineering no longer fits my life. I have no idea what my future holds and I’m absolutely terrified. I just turned 30 years old, male, straight-ish but identify within the queer community, and I am feeling so stuck with trying to get out of the toxic masculinity, “high-performance-male,” “life purpose or bust” mindsets.

I am in the slow process of seeing a career counselor and I am also on the ADHD/ASD spectrum. I have a lot of dating experience and good social skills, but the career aspect of life is just so painful for me and contributes to horrible feelings of low self confidence and failure to live up to my potential and expectations (I am a self-taught musician, avid reader, good friend and ally, and have a lot of positive social feedback, but I just don’t know how to pull these all together into a career that can pay the bills and still have free time to prioritize relationships). I am also terrified of going back to school for exploring interests in psychology, social sciences, arts, etc. because of not only post-pandemic uncertainty, but also if it’s something I’ll actually maintain long enough interest and executive functioning to succeed in without having mountains of debt for nothing (I consistently seek treatment for ADHD, but it’s a constant struggle because my brain might be treatment-resistant to most medications and there’s a lack of alternative resources in my area. I need A LOT of reassurance and support just to feel that I am succeeding and worry that I may need too much support that would be unattractive for a “grown-ass-man”).

So anyways, back to what I want to ask. In case I am unfortunate to experience long-term unemployment, failure, etc., what is my possible outlook for finding partner(s) who are okay with dating an unemployed man in his thirties or potentially forties? How can I still feel attractive and “sexually valid, wanted, etc.” without thinking too much about job uncertainty and potential financial dependence on others? It personally doesn’t bother me about not fitting the traditional stereotype and role of a man in today’s society, and I actually am not interested in children. But I am very worried about other people’s unconscious beliefs from society blocking me from finding loving, sexual, and fulfilling relationships (which I have found WHEN I was working, but never had the experience of finding them during unemployment, and I do not want to live with my parents). I know that I would never fall into a co-dependent hole of binging on weed, drinking, video games, porn, etc. if I ever found myself in a relationship as an unemployed person, but how can I portray that while dating or explaining to others about my circumstances? Would it still be attractive to call myself a potential “stay at home boyfriend?”

Thank you for your time and support,

Potential Stay-At-Home Boyfriend

DEAR POTENTIAL STAY-AT-HOME BOYFRIEND: There’re a lot of questions tied up in this, PSAHB, but a lot of false assumptions too. But as with a lot of apparently complicated and thorny issues, it helps to start with just one thing and working outward from there. Because, quite frankly, sometimes the reason why folks get tied up in knots is because everything stems from an initial underlying issue. Address that and everything else starts falling into place.

So let’s start with your leaving your job. First and foremost: congratulations on recognizing that you’ve been in a s--tty situation and taking steps to get the hell out of it. That alone is some huge progress, and you should be proud of yourself for doing this. It’s also entirely understandable why you’re having complex and weird feelings about it. You’re making a choice to step away from something that not only have you invested a lot of your life into, but something that also lines up with toxic and restrictive ideas of what it means to be a man. So not only are you dealing with the sunk cost fallacy, but you’re deliberately choosing to push against a lifetime of messages that tell you that this is what you’re supposed to want and what you’re supposed to be. That’s really, really goddamn hard to do.

We live in a culture that equates “productivity” with morality. A culture that confuses “being busy” with “being a good worker”, and one that consistently tells folks that if you aren’t hustling and grinding and breaking yourself to pieces, you are lazy and worthless. In a very real way, we are taught that our job is supposed to be our identity. This is especially true in the tech and startup industries, where there is a very real push to see yourself not as a worker but as “part of a community”, subsuming your identity as an individual into the company. The whole “we’re a family”, “be part of something bigger” mythos that gets pushed on folks is all about giving up everything in your life in the name of providing value for someone else, for benefits that you will never fully receive. You are being expected to sacrifice your life — and often your emotional, physical and mental well-being — in the name of “being a team player”. But what this tends to end up doing is causing burnout, breaking people and wrecking their lives. If you look at the various exposes about the way employees have been treated at various game companies and the toll that “crunch culture” takes on people, you can see just how much this attitude damages people. And to make matters worse, the very people who are broken by these practices are then shamed for having been broken. They’re told that giving your entire life to a job is a privilege, or that they don’t have the grit for “the hustle”. They get told that reasonable hours, non-abusive working conditions and living wages are unreasonable asks, things that you should be willing to give up in the name of Being Part of Something.

Rise and Grind Twitter and LLC Twitter will tell people they’re doing something wrong for wanting unreasonable things like “work/life balance” or not trying to become a CEO of something. The whole “we all have the same 24 hours” mantra gets repeated like gospel truth instead of bulls--t hype that only gets shared because it fits on a bumper sticker. Not everyone wants to be a captain of industry, nor do they need to. Not everyone wants to run a business, nor do they need to make everything in their life about making money. People feel pressure to somehow monetize their hobbies or casual interests, turn things they enjoy doing for its own sake into a “side hustle” because… reasons. And as a result: they get stressed because they aren’t living up to an ideal that not only doesn’t appeal to them, but doesn’t actually exist in the first place.

And in a real way, it’s worse for men because there is still the pressure of “a man isn’t a man if he’s not a provider”. This ties very firmly into the belief that a lot of men have that they have to be needed because they can’t be wanted. The push to be The Provider comes from a place of “this is the only way women will want to be with you,” turning relationships from something built of mutual respect and desire into a commodities exchange. It bolsters and encourages the idea that Women Only Want “High Value/High-Performance” Men because they don’t believe that women could be interested in men for who they are as individuals. It also denigrates the value of “soft” skills like communication, emotional support and engagement, positivity and warmth and domesticity. As a result, you get generations of men who think that the only way to find a partner is to break themselves into pieces in the name of trying to fit into a cultural expectation that not only doesn’t exist, but is virtually impossible to achieve.

(Everybody can’t be the highest performer, everyone can’t be the top-earner or climb the ranks to the top of the industry. The feel-good motivational stories you read are exceptions, not the rule, and most of the “role models” people point to have advantages that 99% of the world doesn’t.)

So it’s not surprising how much this choice is weighing on you… but I think you don’t realize how much it does. You say that you aren’t bothered by not fitting into the traditional stereotype of men’s roles, but those are the very anxieties you’re describing in your letter. The fear of not being a high-performance male, the fear or finding a relationship while being unemployed or under-employed… that’s all part and parcel of those fitting into those roles. It’s very much the story of the mahout and the elephant; you are more powerful than the things that hold you back, but you have been told to believe this for so long that you don’t see it yet.  You are making the choice to step outside of what you have been told you “need” to do and society pushes against that. Those doubts and fears you are having are born from trying to go against the grain. It’s the voice of a culture trying to force compliance, terrifying you into falling into line.

As the saying goes: before you diagnose yourself with depression and anxiety, first make sure you haven’t surrounded yourself with assholes. You’ve been neck deep in a toxic environment that has been sapping away everything about you and being told that you were defective for being harmed by it. Simply taking that first step is going to feel like you’ve made a tremendous difference. You will have made a choice that says you know your own worth and that you have chosen to prioritize that rather than giving everything to somebody else.

You are afraid of needing more support than is ‘seemly’ for a grown-ass man… but the issue isn’t needing that support, it’s where you’re getting it from. Everybody needs support. No man is an island, nobody is such a rugged individualist that they’re completely self-sufficient. Everyone needs somebody they can rely on and lean on. If you’re putting all that weight on one person then yes, that’s a problem. But if you distribute your support by working with a therapist, having a strong support network of friends and loved ones that you can rely on, that’s an entirely different scenario. It’s the difference between a thousand pounds of pressure on one square inch versus a thousand pounds of pressure spread out over a wide area. One punches straight through, the other spreads the load to the point that any individual portion barely notices.

But here’s the thing about your current job, the stress of leaving it and your anxieties for the future: so much of what you’re dealing with — the stress, the anxiety and so on — is because of your job. We all have only so much emotional bandwidth, and when most of it is taken up by a job that you hate, in an environment that’s profoundly toxic for you, it’s going to leave you with virtually no room for anything else. You aren’t leaving those negative feelings behind when you clock out; they’re with you, all day, every day, bleeding into everything else you do. Just by leaving this job and not subjecting yourself to that continuous treadmill of misery, you will be cutting off the source of so much anxiety that you’ll be astounded. It will be like shutting down applications that are using all your processing power and RAM, defragging the hard drive and clearing your emotional cache. That alone will make you feel like you’ve dropped a burden you never realized you were carrying. While it certainly won’t cure any conditions, I wouldn’t be the least surprised if you find that it alleviates them. As somebody with ADHD, I can tell you from personal experience: you have no goddamn clue how much what you’re dealing with are compensating behaviors and how much they take out of you until you don’t need them anymore.

By freeing up that bandwidth, you’ll be in a much better position to decide what direction you want to take and what new career path you’re going to want to follow. You may even discover that you want something that isn’t as “prestigious” or “glamorous” but speaks far more to your soul. You may discover, for example, that you’re a facilitator, not a leader or driver. You may realize that you’re happiest being someone who makes things run smoothly or who helps people do what they need. In gaming terms, you may well discover that you’re best role is support, not carry or pusher. And you know what? That’s fine. That’s not only valid, but valuable and undervalued by folks who think that everyone needs to be the aggressive go-getter.

You know who’s one of the most beloved and — in a real way — desired characters in pop culture? Samwise Gamgee. He’s a quiet man who doesn’t want to change the world, he doesn’t want to be all-powerful or an influential leader of men. He wants to work in his garden, grow his vegetables, cook and clean and generally live a very quiet, domestic life. He’s there for his friends and will help quite literally carry them through Hell… but his greatest ambition is a quiet, calm life with a nice house and a nice family. And there are many many women who want a partner like that.

One of the things people tend to not understand about relationships, especially when it comes to questions of “being the provider” is that people in general, and women in particular, aren’t looking for someone who’s going to be covering all the costs and paying all the bills and anyone who can’t keep up gets seen as a mooch and slacker. What they want is someone who contributes, who doesn’t take more than they give. Being a provider isn’t just about money or material goods, it’s equally about labor and effort, including emotional labor. A guy who pays all the bills but treats this like they don’t need to do anything else for the relationship isn’t giving equal value for what they’re taking. The cost of the labor and effort they are demanding from their partner isn’t equivalent to just covering expenses.

The obstacles you’re imagining and the complications you’re afraid of aren’t based in the value of being domestic while under-employed, they’re based in the way you’re diminishing that worth. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking at dating men, women or non-binary folks; they’re all are just as caught up in the day to day grind of capitalism and trying to squeeze life into a workday as everyone else. They’re struggling just as much as men to try to figure out how to do basic life maintenance while also trying to live up to a world built around an 8 hour work day while demanding 10 and 12 hours from workers. A guy who’s going to keep house, cook and clean and do the domestic stuff is gonna be huge for folks who feel overwhelmed just by trying to do the day-to-day business of life. Taking those stresses off their shoulders is a goddamn gift.

But all of this? This is all what’s known as “borrowing trouble from the future”. This isn’t what you’re currently dealing with, these are all things that you’re anticipating. You’re worried about whether telling people that you’re a stay-at-home boyfriend will be unattractive when you haven’t even decided what your next career steps are. You’re still in the beginning stages of retraining, not dealing with having been unable to find a job for months. Trying to deal with a problem you may never encounter is a way of tricking yourself into not making actual progress. You’re giving yourself the illusion of forward motion — “Hey, I’m alleviating this worry, so I’ll be ready to start looking for a new career” — but that’s all it is: an illusion. You’re devoting energy to a problem that doesn’t exist yet instead of the problem that does: getting out of your s--tty environment and taking the steps to starting a new career. That is where your energy should be directed. The worry of “will people find me attractive as a partner if I don’t have a job” is answered by “yes, because my value isn’t in my paycheck”. Boom, done, now you know how you can deal with it if — not when, if — it comes up.

Focus on your immediate steps. Get out of work, realize how much it’s going to free things up for you and how much better you’ll feel. Take a moment to rest and and let things settle before you leap back into the pit, so you don’t trade one source of burnout for another. Getting out of a s--tty environment can feel weird at first and you are going to want to adjust. Just because you put the weight down doesn’t mean you aren’t ready to pick up a lighter one; you need time to recoup your energy. Then, as you feel your strength and energy return, focus on your next immediate step: looking towards retraining or going back to college. Focus on the step in front of you, not the one that may be there 45 steps down the line where you can’t see yet.

Take it one step at a time, one milestone at a time and let the future take care of itself. Trust in yourself and your own value to carry you through if, IF, unemployment intersects with finding a relationship. That’s not a worry you need to expend your energy on. That’s not a thing that exists yet. You are here, in the present. Be in the now. Take care of the now, and that future will just be one more day that never comes to pass.

Good luck.

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