DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m probably a tad older than your typical readership (36) and have been on my journey to get better at dating/women/relationships for a long time. While I’ve certainly improved, I do still struggle. I’m about 6 months out of a relationship that really wreaked havoc on me. I’ve come to realize that one of the consistent factors in most of my relationships is that I end up playing a care taker role for people who are more than happy to have me care for them. In the end my needs end up taking a back seat to those of my partners.
Now, at this point a little bit of background would probably be helpful. I am an only child and grew up with a father who was emotionally abusive to my mother (I was spared his aggression, but I understand the trauma of witnessing it). My mother was, and still is, a pretty fragile person. She attempted suicide once before I was born and once when I was a teenager. My mom unfairly confided in me as a kid and I became her confidant and care taker. So, this role is one that is well worn for me.
My question is, how do I stop attracting people who need a care taker? A number of friends have told me that one of the first things that they noticed about me is my kindness and compassion. It worries me that I may be putting something out into the world that screams, “I’ll take on your burden”. Now, I should also say that I don’t think I come across as a doormat and I have a strong identity, but what am I doing wrong? I’ve actually brought this up with my therapist and he basically said that eventually I’ll start recognizing the signs earlier. I found that to be a pretty dismal prospect. What are your thoughts?
– These Wheels Be Spinnin
DEAR THESE WHEELS BE SPINNIN: Kindness and compassion are desirable traits in a potential boyfriend and husband, TWBS. But there’s a profound difference between being kind and compassionate and being a White Knight, and I suspect you’ve got tendencies towards the latter. Now, I’ll be the first to remind you that Dr. NerdLove is not a real doctor of any kind, but it’s pretty obvious to me that if this has been something that you’ve been doing as a child, it’s going to be something you’re going to keep doing as a grown-up. Doubly so if – as it seems to be in your case – that behavior is tied into gaining people’s approval and validation.
Nobody screws you up quite like your parents and it sounds like at your age you were tossed into an unfair relationship with your mother, reversing the roles of parent and child. As a kid and teenager, you barely have your own sh-t together; expecting you to take care of — and be the sole emotional support system for – a parent at that age is, mildly, beyond messed up. Some people would be within their rights to call this borderline abusive, if unintentional. But intent doesn’t matter as much as outcome does and you’ve grown up with a lifetime of love and approval being conditional upon taking care of other people.
(Incidentally, you might find it interesting to read Neil Strauss’ The Truth and see how Strauss’ relationship with his mother resonates with you.)
But the past is the past and this is your present. What are you doing that puts out this “I will take care of you” vibe? Well, I strongly suspect it has a lot to do with boundaries. Specifically: you don’t have them. Users, abusers and drama queens recognize and prey upon people who have low or non-existent boundaries. There are people who are excessively needy or who crave the drama of perpetually being a victim or a broken bird and needing someone to do all of the emotional heavy-lifting for them or someone who can be guilted or manipulated into doing their bidding and never leaving. Don’t get me wrong: this doesn’t mean that people are tracking you down because you look like free lunch and smell like free money, nor does this translate to an overt, mustache-twirling “I will bend you to my will” levels of coercion. They may not be conscious of this behavior on their part; they simply latch onto people who don’t question them or don’t push back. They may have a long list of evil exes or people who’re continually being selfish and rude to them or abandoning them in their (continual) hour of need or a never-ending list of reasons why things never go their way or they can’t do anything.
Note that this is different from people who have legitimate issues but also don’t put full responsibility for handling those issues on their partners. There’s asking for help on occasion when it’s needed and then there’s expecting your honey-bunny to do all the work for you.
So how do you quit dating these people? Well, first: develop your boundaries. It’s good to be kind. It’s good to be compassionate. It’s not good to be somebody’s sole support, to be their enabler or to try to take on responsibilities that aren’t yours. You need to practice being willing to draw firm lines on what you will and won’t do and stick to them. It can be hard – you have to resist your own good nature and the tendency for people like these to wield guilt like a weapon. You’ll worry that by saying “no”, you’ll be putting undue burden on them. You’ll fear that it’ll damage – or even destroy – the relationship. You’ll have plenty of times when you’ll be wondering if you’re making the right choice or not. These are, in fact, all pretty good signs that you’re dating a user.
But the fact of the matter is: being a partner means just that: a partner. Equals. There’s lending a hand and then there’s replacing a limb. Sometimes the most compassionate thing you can do for somebody is let them develop their own strength.
The good news is that once you’ve started getting in the habit of establishing and maintaining strong boundaries, you’re less likely to run into those emotional vampires and hard-luck cases. By maintaining your boundaries, you’ll be warding them off long before they can get firmly latched onto you.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: In July 2014 I met “B” out social dancing. A week later he found my profile on an online dating site and asked me out. We continued to see each other for the next 9 months – dating, hanging out & physical intimacy. He always gave me enough to believe he was interested in me via words and actions but never enough to make me feel confident about his true feelings. He was busy working full time and finishing his PhD while I was busy working full time, traveling 40% of the time, so it was sometimes difficult but would always make a point to see each other as soon as we were back in town, every week or two. I hesitated to initiate the Defining The Relationship talk as my past experiences have been guys getting freaked out and running the opposite direction if I bring up the DTR, even though I am a highly independent woman, very organic about how relationships progress and am very reasonable in the conversation.
At the 9 month mark, he finished his PhD and got a job cross country. I helped him with the drive/move and at the end put my foot down and had the DTR. I made sure to be clear I was interested in him but had not made assumptions in terms of what had been between him and I – I simply wanted to communicate so we could be on the same page. Unfortunately, he totally freaked out, saying he didn’t promise me anything and saying I was being unreasonable. This was shocking to me as I never said he promised me anything, on the contrary, actually. I couldn’t have been more fair or reasonable in my wording. He stopped talking to me which was upsetting that not only was he not interested in me but didn’t even care about the really meaningful friendship we had spent 9 months building. Regardless, I am not the type to try to convince someone to be with me, much less treat me with basic respect, so I took the hint, deleted him from my phone and told myself it wasn’t meant to be.
Fast forward 6 months, I was offered and accepted a job not only in his new town but at his company. Because the company has 25k employees across severals locations, I figured the likelihood of our paths crossing was slim to none as we worked in totally different groups. I did not tell him I would be moving to his town or working at his company…of course, within my first two hours, I ran into B and he was shocked to say the least.
I always told myself I would never give him anything to hold against me, so I was kind, smiled, said hello, made small talk, etc. He pinged me a week or so later to ask how I was doing. He also asked me to get coffee with him about a month later, which I agreed to. At coffee, he pretended like nothing had gone down between us and I was beyond confused. I’ve been there for about 2 months now and see him in passing about once a week so this won’t be ending anytime soon!
I’m a huge communicator don’t like leaving elephants in the room and it seems he’s the opposite. I would like to have a conversation to understand and put to rest what happened between him and I as there was zero clarify but I fear he’ll shut down once again and unfairly point fingers at me. Oh yeah, and I still am very much attracted to him, but unless he learned to communicate, could never see a future.
I’m so confused on what to do! Do I say something? Do I act cheerful and stupid and not try to force this 32 year old grown man to have basic communication? Do I reach out to him occasionally to say hello or do I let him do the reaching out?
DEAR CONFUSED:Let me ask you something: what’re you hoping to get out of this? An explanation of what happened? Confronting B over this isn’t necessarily going to give you answers you want, nor is it likely to provide you with anything meaningful. You know what happened: you tried to get on the same page as him with regards to your relationship and he freaked out. Clearly he thought you were asking for something, panicked and slammed his fist down on the “relationship self destruct” button. It wasn’t the most logical or reasonable responses to someone trying to just trying to get some clarity, to be sure, but the end results are the same. Now, considering how this seems to happen to you fairly regularly, then it’s entirely possible that the way you have the Defining The Relationship conversation throws dudes off… or it could be that you’re regularly choosing guys who are seriously averse to commitment.
B’s not gonna have the perspective to tell you which it is. For that particular answer, you may want to talk to friends who know you better and be more reliable outside observers.
But that’s for future reference. You want to know what’s going on in the here and now. And the simplest answer is: B’s trying to be cool about the fact that the two of you used to have a nebulous “thing” together and it ended badly. Which, in fairness, is a pretty smart approach. He’s trying to let bygones be bygones and be co-workers without making things awkward or uncomfortable for everyone. He may be trying to avoid making you feel weird about things. Hell, he may be embarrassed about the way things happened between the two of you and is trying to just let it go instead of going over it again. Or he may be trying to give both of you space in order to establish a new status-quo before bringing up events of the past.
And while I understand that you want answers and an explanation… you may just have to accept that you aren’t going to get them. You can’t force someone to relive your past arguments and break-ups in order to get closure or answers. The fact that he may not agree with your need to talk the issue to death doesn’t necessarily mean he’s incapable of basic communication, it may mean he just doesn’t want to. He may simply want to let the past lie and feel there’s no real point in re-litigating what happened. He may feel like an a——hole and would prefer to put it behind him as an ugly part of his maturation process. Or he may feel like he hasn’t done anything wrong and you were being unreasonable… and there may well not be anything you can do to shake that belief.
You may want closure, but you’re going to have to make it yourself.
Meanwhile, the best thing you can do is continue as you are: being polite and friendly. If he starts making noises or motions towards rekindling your relationship, then you can try to parse out what the hell happened between the two of you. If not? Then let it go, make your own closure and let the new relationship be whatever it’s going to be.
Dr. Nerdlove is not a real doctor. Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)