DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m in a real bind.
I decided sometime in college and post-grad that I’m not a “relationship guy”. It’s not something I was 100% closed off to, but I decided it was not something I would actively pursue either. I’ve been in several casual relationships since then, some which ended ok and others not so great. But I remained fairly certain I was not ready for a commitment of any sort.
This has changed somewhat with the current woman I’m seeing, let’s call her M. When we first met, I had just gotten out of a casual relationship that ended really badly and left me very hurt. She basically ghosted on me and it really sucked cause we were very close. So when M mentioned that she wasn’t looking for a relationship, that it’s something she did a lot before but wasn’t feeling anymore, I was cool with that.
Then we had our first date, and I totally fell for her. We clicked on a fundamental level. We joked and laughed the entire time and I don’t think either of us stopped smiling for long. Not quite love, but I felt a strong connection and wanting for her. Usually I keep my options open when I’m seeing someone but I knew then I only wanted to see M.
Confession time: we do work together and she is technically one of my managers. I realize the risks in seeing someone you work with (or under) but I decided it was something I was willing to risk. We make it work for the most part and I’m only including this detail cause I feel it’s relevant to the situation.
We went on more dates and things were going great. I’m feeling these impulses I’ve never quite felt before, and I’m putting an effort to be romantic more than I ever have. It just flows naturally when I’m with her, and she seemed receptive to all of it. Little by little I started to open up to the idea of being with her long term.
Then one night I text M saying that I really like her. She responds by saying that I should know she’s not looking for a relationship or anything, that she definitely likes the time we spend together but wants to make sure we keep it casual.
After some brief thought, I told M I was cool with that, but I admit was kind of blindsided. Not because I didn’t think she meant it when she said didn’t want a relationship, but because I was under the impression from our interactions that like me she was maybe warming up to the idea of “being together”.
It’s also confusing because the way we interact when we hang out feels a little more than casual. We do what I would consider more or less “boyfriend/girlfriend” things: We go out on dates, we have dinner and drinks (sometimes breakfast). We snuggle a lot and don’t go just straight to sex when we spend time together. And the sex itself is great, and feels (to me at least) emotional and meaningful. We text almost every day. She also does nice things for me, and vice versa. I’ve bought her little gifts just to cheer her up a bit. One night after I had a truly awful day at work, she invited me over and talked me through it. She has a busy schedule and we both had work early the next morning but she let me spend the night with her anyway. None of this seemed to be a problem until I told her I really liked her. I admit that I became quite emotional over this as well, wondering if there’s something wrong with me, or if what I feel for/from her is “real” or imagined.
Truth be told we have only hung out outside of work six times in the last two months, though I do see her every day at work. We flirt and joke a bit but, since we have to be secretive it’s tricky. Are my feelings just moving way too fast? I just moved alone to a new city just under a year ago (she also moved out here recently) and I might just be bringing that baggage into this, plus the baggage from my last casual relationship.
M’s response made me pause and rethink what exactly it is I’m looking for. All I know for certain is that I want to keep seeing her, and doing what we’re doing. I figure I’m getting about 70% of what I would want from a potential relationship with her anyway, minus seeing her more often and literally calling her my girlfriend. And honestly, I do feel that she genuinely cares about me from how she treats me. And I know I genuinely care about her.
I just worry that “casual” to her might mean “I see an expiration date on us, and will leave when I’m bored”. But if it’s casual meaning “I want to keep things uncomplicated and not have to plan my life around another person”, then I can make it work as that’s more or less what I would consider a healthy kind of “casual”. I also don’t want to inadvertently get my hopes up for her changing her mind. I know some relationships start off casually, but I feel that hoping for that is an easy way to get real hurt.
Thing is, for this to work I have to actually tell her all of this and have the dreaded Talk. I just have no idea how to tell her everything I just said without totally scaring her off. What do I do Doc? How do I have the Talk with her?
Doesn’t Wanna Ruin a Good Thing
DEAR DOESN’T WANNA RUIN A GOOD THING: So, I’m not going to go into the logistics of “here’s how many times you need to see each other to reasonably catch feels,” DWRAGT. The fact that you’ve only seen each other outside of work a few times doesn’t necessarily equate to the viability of a relationship – especially considering you see each other every day and are in almost constant contact. After all, long-distance relationships work without couples having X numbers of dates per month. Time spent together is time spent together, whether it’s under the aegis of being “a date” or “couple time” or not – especially if you’re secretly banging on the regular.
Instead, we’re going to talk about what you should be doing about this.
Let’s start with the obvious, DWRAGT: there’s the possibility that she doesn’t have the same feelings for you that you have for her. People in relationships can have entirely different levels of feelings for one another. One person may be having the head-over-heels, followed-around-by-cartoon-hearts-and-cupids feels for someone, their partner may enjoy their company, love the sex and otherwise like them as a person… but not feel that capital-L Love. Or infatuation, really.
This isn’t inherently a bad thing, nor does this doesn’t mean that the relationship is inherently doomed – any more so than the usual fact that all relationships end until one doesn’t. There are relationships out there where one partner is considerably more invested than the other. As long as everyone is on the same page, is cool with it and commits to treating each other with respect, those relationships can work. It’s a matter of accepting that difference in commitment as part of the price of admission for that relationship.
These relationships tend to have shorter lifespans than ones that are more in balance… but length of time together doesn’t equate to the success or failure of the relationship.
Now let’s start with the next most obvious thing: you could very well have a different definition of what “casual” means from Em. Casual could mean “no expectation of monogamy”, or it could mean “we’re not moving towards moving in together/getting married/having kids”. It could mean “we don’t expect to see each other more than every couple of weeks” or “Two out of three ain’t bad.”
This is one of the reasons why it’s important to be clear and define your terms when you have any sort of “defining the relationship” talk. Assuming that your definition of what it means to be casual is universal is a very good way to end up having fights because you and your sweetie had entirely different understandings and one of you doesn’t see why it’s a big deal that they’re also banging someone else.
Now with all that having been said: it’s also important to realize that having decided your relationship was one thing doesn’t mean that it can’t change or grow from what it is now. After all: you are a different person than you were before; you used to be a “no strings” guy who’d really like some strings now. So it is with relationships. Friends with benefits can turn into marriages, after all. So it’s not impossible that what you have now can change.
But the more important question is: what do you need right now? If you’re ok with the current situation, how long will you be able to live with it under the assumption that it will never change? If you knew with 100% surety that this would never be more than a 70% relationship, would you be able to deal with that for a month? Two months? A year?
Because unless you say something? That’s the situation that you’re looking at.
If you want things to be different, then you need to sit down and have a Defining The Relationship talk with her. Do you need more from this relationship than you’re getting? Then that good thing is going to end eventually… it’s just a question of how much frustration you’re willing to put up with until it does.
A relationship that isn’t right for you is like trying to cram your feet into a stylish pair of shoes that doesn’t fit. They may look great and you think you look like a badass wearing them… but that doesn’t change the fact that they just don’t fit and it’s gonna mess your feet up. You can try to double up on socks or stretch the shoes… but ultimately, your choice is either wearing shoes that damage
your feet, or getting shoes that actually fit.
If your relationship doesn’t match what you need from it? Then as much as it ending may suck, it’s an ending that needs to happen so you can find one that does work.
But you will never know which it is until you sit down and talk with M about it. You need to schedule a time to sit and have that awkward conversation. You need to explain just what you want, why you’re afraid to bring it up to her, why you think these changes would be better and what they’d look like. And then you need to say “…and how about you?” because every relationship is about negotiation and compromise, and that means that you need to give her the space to advocate for what she may want or need from you.
Laying it out like this – here’s what I need to ask, here’s why I’m afraid to ask, here’s how I think things will improve, how about you? – isn’t a guarantee that you won’t scare her off, or that she’ll be instantly cool with changing the nature of your relationship. But it will make it easier to get things out there and have an open and honest conversation about your needs and where this relationship is going… without the pressure of “make a decision right now.” That is far more likely to scare her off than “Hey, just FYI, my feelings about this relationship have changed, and I’m wondering if you feel the same way too.”
And if nothing else, keeping the channels of communication open are important. Because while she may not feel the same way you do, that could change. Now, it may not change either. But unless you two can talk about it? Then you’ll never know.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’ve been friends with someone who we will call Alpha for two years. We have an odd friendship where we recognize that we both have feelings for each other but never act on them romantically, because I met him the same time I entered a relationship with my current boyfriend, Bravo. Originally Alpha admitted his feelings and offered to be the third in my relationship, but my boyfriend was uninterested in being poly and I wasn’t too sold on the idea either.
Despite this, Alpha and I were very close, he shared intimate parts of himself with me, while I typically shared in a more calculated way, to ensure boundaries for myself. I hate to admit that when we were together, it seemed as if we were a couple, but it was that way. Thankfully we caught ourselves in moments of intimacy where it could have been a problem, such as him almost kissing me once, and occasional cuddling. Nothing too spicy but still something that made me feel guilt ridden in regards to my current boyfriend. In between this time, he has a dated a few people and they never seemed to work on, always falling back on our friendship.
Recently, I decided enough was enough and that we needed to create firm, spoken boundaries. So I told him that we needed to cast away the odd, romantic side our of friendship in favour of something more platonic (still maintaining closeness but differently), in order to be fair to everyone involved. He agreed.
Then for a month and a half, he stopped talking to me. He was incredibly flaky. It was difficult to get a hold of him, or make plans with him. I confronted him about this and he explained that his old female friend, who we’ll call Charli, was back in his life and he started a new relationship with someone else, so he had been making more time for them. He apologized and assured me he would do better, we got back to semi-regular communication.
(Backstory on Charli: An originally close friend of Alpha for the past 5 years, who stopped regularly communicating with Alpha as she started a relationship with someone 2 years ago.)
Then he sent me a message explaining how much he loves Charli and how he isn’t sure how he ever got through life without her, along with how glad he is that she is back in his life. Charli is not his girlfriend, therefore he also explained how he isn’t sure how he was going to navigate his new relationship and his friendship with Charli.
This was incredibly hurtful for me because he did not at all acknowledge our background nor did he consider my feelings before sending this message, proclaiming a love for Charli, which he once denied. It also made me realize that our friendship and our closeness, didn’t start until after Charli and Alpha stopped talking. This made me consider that my presence in his world was a replacement for his friendship with Charli. Especially in terms of the previous romantic intimacies and him ignoring me once she came back into the picture/cut off those intimacies. I explained a small portion of this to him and told him that I needed space away from him to think. Despite claiming that this wasn’t the case, he agreed to give me space.
Now he made a post on Facebook about how love can be in many forms and how we need to consider that friendship isn’t a consolation prize and when to walk away from love and when to try again. All of this felt like a passive aggressive reflection on our situation and to top it off, Charli commented proclaiming Alpha to be the best kind of friend and praising him on his wise words.
What should I do Dr. NerdLove? Do I have a conversation about how his behavior isn’t fair but still try to make the friendship work? Do I cut him out completely? Am I being unreasonable by considering his actions as hurtful and dismissive?
I’m at a loss with how to manage this.
Caught In The Middle
DEAR CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE: Y’know how I’m always saying “once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is a message?”
Yeah, that doesn’t apply here. I know exactly what’s going on because I’ve done this myself.
What we have here is a serial Nice Guy – someone who will try to initiate and maintain a Schrödinger’s Relationship with a woman that pushes the boundaries of what could be considered a “platonic” relationship as far as he possibly can. This way he can try to edge his way towards the goal of bangin’ while still maintaining the plausible deniability of being Just Friends. Especially if she has a boyfriend.
Now, it’d be one thing if the two of you had always had this flirty, intimate friendship because there was always an unspoken attraction there, but you’re handling it like adults. And to be fair: you did exactly that. You laid down some boundaries and said “ok, we can’t keep doing this if we’re going to be friends”. But he didn’t. Once sex was no longer in the picture… well suddenly he’s not that interested in being friends anymore.
Now, maybe I could square this with “hey, I gotta take some time to get right with this, I’ll be back” if this didn’t happen to completely coincide with Alpha’s relationship with Charli. Because this is where it hits a pattern I know especially well.
Dude has a bad case of Oneitis — the idea that there’s a One Perfect Woman for him and nobody else will ever match her and so he can’t let go. Dude can’t handle that his crush is dating someone else and so looks for his replacement goldfish. And when you collapsed the waveform of Schrödinger’s Relationship… well, time for him to find another goldfish. And now here he is, new girlfriend in one hand, Charli in the other. And I will bet you the price of an imported beer that if Charli gives even the slightest hint that he’s got a chance with her, his current girlfriend will be out of the picture faster than I can snap the bottle cap off that Newcastle.
Because at the end of the day: I don’t think he wants you and I don’t think he wants his current girlfriend. He wants Charli. The whole bit about “friendship isn’t a consolation prize” on Facebook? That’s him making loud, protests-too-much-me-thinks declarations about how he’s sooooo over Charli so that he can shove Schrodinger’s Relationship into that box and start the process again.
(Granted, her “awww, you’re so wise and sweet” is one hell of a subtle curve thrown his way, but hey, I’ve been there and done that and printed the t-shirts. Never underestimate the power of sexual frustration to change how you see reality.)
Now the big question here is: what do you do about this? And I guess it all comes down to just how you feel about the fact that it seems likely that he was using you as a substitute for Charli. If he can quit being an jackass about things and maybe be a legitimate friend instead of a habitual line-stepper… well, maybe you can make things work. People do grow and mature after all. But if you do let him back in your life? I’d tell you to keep a certain distance and see how he behaves. If he starts pushing the intimacy lines again – especially if this coincides with Charli dating someone – then it’s better to cut him loose. Better to end a relationship – one that you had legitimate fondness for – than to be is replacement goldfish until Charli comes back again.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)