DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Long time lurker, first time writer here. I’m a college boy dating a fellow student that we’ll call J. I’ve dated only a few times in the past, mostly out of shyness, but never consistently until I met her. We’ve been going out for a bit more than a year now, and I’ve never been happier. She’s the kindest, smartest, most caring person I know, and I love every moment we spend together. But a few years ago, before I met her, J was diagnosed with lupus, an incurable disease that has a number of awful, sometimes visible side-effects including hair loss, facial rashes, mood swings, and joint pain. Most of the noticeable side-effects have lessened in severity with a combination of time and medication, but they’re still there, and will always be a part of her life. Add the fact that one of her old medications made her gain some weight that she’s still working on losing, and it understandably left J with very low self-esteem.
We’re both in the same major and she does consistently better than most of the students, including myself, in every class we share, but she tells me that she’s not that smart, or that she’s just a good guesser and didn’t really deserve the good grades she’s earned. Whenever we start to get intimate, she always apologizes profusely for her inflexibility and stretch marks, things that I honestly couldn’t give a damn about when she shoves me onto my bed with that irresistible, wicked smirk and starts riding me like a Harley. And when I tell her as much, she says that I don’t have to pretend not to notice them to make her feel better, but thanks me for trying anyway. Recently she told me that I’m too good for her, that she doesn’t deserve me, and that she’s just waiting for the day I’ll get tired of her problems and leave her. I have no idea how I stopped myself from crying when I first heard that, and I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t even sniffle by the fourth time J said it.
I will never, ever claim to know what this horrible disease has put her through, but I have dealt with my own self-esteem issues before, so I have no delusions that I can just “fix” her in a week with the power of love and compliments. But J isn’t broken, she isn’t a failure, she isn’t a problem, and even if she did lose her hair again, I would still think she’s just as beautiful as she is today. I guess what I’d like is some way to help let J see herself the way I see her. Not to “cure” her of her low self-esteem, but just to let her know that I love her, and that I think she’s a charming, sexy, intelligent, and just overall brilliant woman, no matter what her stupid immune system has to say about it.
Livin’ La Vida Lupus
DEAR LIVIN’ LA VIDA LUPUS: Damn it, LLVL, this is the first time in my career that I have the opportunity to make a “It’s Not Lupus” joke and you have to undercut me by making it a serious, emotionally tense issue.
But. Y’know. It’s not lupus. It’s the way that society teaches women that they’re only valuable when they’re beautiful and sexual and to downplay their own accomplishments, lest they seem immodest.
Let’s take Hermione, for example. Part of what made her a revolutionary character in YA fiction isn’t that she’s brilliant; it’s that she’s brilliant and doesn’t hide it. She’s smart, she knows she’s smart and it’s just how she is. Girls are taught over and over again that being visibly competent is a bad thing and that things like intelligence or talent are things to be apologized for or hand-waved away. Hell, you can see it with all the BS about Rey from The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi being a Mary Sue because she’s following the same arc as Luke Skywalker.
Having flaws are acceptable as long as they’re minor or quirky. Serious issues like, say, hair-loss – and not “gives you a beautiful shaved scalp” hair loss but “falling out in uneven clumps in the shower” hair loss – are hard to accept. Doubly so considering how much stock is put in gender presentation for women by having long, flowing locks of hair.
Your girlfriend has, in all likelihood, been hearing trash all her life about not showing off or being a know-it-all or being too proud or vain. And when she’s suddenly “deficient” (for suitably false definitions of deficient) in the areas where women are supposed to excel (but it’s better if they don’t realize it – looking at YOU, One Direction…). Mix that in with the difficulties of dating in general when you have a chronic condition, the literal pain of said condition, already existing low-self-esteem issues and… yeah, it’s going to seriously mess up somebody’s view of themselves.
But you know all that already. The big question right now is: what do you do?
Well, part of it is: tell her all the things that you just told me. She needs to hear all of that. But you also don’t – and shouldn’t – pretend that her flaws aren’t there. She knows you see them and pretending they don’t exist (which is what she thinks you’re doing) doesn’t help. Instead, acknowledge them but point out that they’re part of her and part of what makes her the person you love. She wouldn’t be who she is right now – the person you have chosen to be with – without all these component parts that add up to a bigger whole. Tell her this. Tell her this regularly, not just with words but with your actions and behavior. Holding her and telling her you care, quietly helping when she needs it, being her support when times are difficult, giving her space when she needs that instead… all those little ways of letting her know you’re there for her add up over time.
The other thing is to not lie. She believes you’re lying to make her feel better when you say that you’re OK with all of this. And just to be honest: yeah, dating somebody with a chronic condition can be hard. It can be frustrating. It can be tiring. And you feel like an asshole for feeling that way. But the fact is, even for those times when it is frustrating or exhausting, it’s ok because she’s worth it all to you. Hearing that moment of honesty from you might help it sink in that you’re not sticking things out until you can find an exit strategy, you’re in it because you want her, specifically.
I know that the traditional response is to quote Shakespeare’s sonnet 130, but I think that a better idea might be to acquaint her with the concept of kintsugi – repairing lacquerware and pottery in such a way that illuminates the breakage and repair instead of hiding it, usually by filling the cracks with gold or silver. It treats the process of repair as part of what makes the object unique and special by acknowledging it’s history. Your girlfriend isn’t broken by any stretch of the imagination, but she feels like she is. She has a condition and it sucks and pretending that it’s not there doesn’t help… but it also doesn’t make her less beautiful or desirable or special.
You know this. I know this. She needs to know this. Tell her.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’ve got a very…odd situation with a woman friend that I’m “sort of” seeing. Let’s call her Alex. We’re not at the point of kissing, but our nights out and conversations tend to be somewhat more intimate than what would be expected of friends around here. She has a girlfriend but both she and Alex say they potentially wouldn’t mind a three-person relationship).
That’s not the situation I’m referring to here though.
Basically, Alex hates receiving compliments of any kind. And not in the sense that “oh she gets so embarrassed and flustered and blushes and she’s so damn cute I can’t help but tease her.”
I mean, she legitimately gets pissed off when someone compliments her for anything. Her personal rule is: If you want to compliment or praise her for something she accomplished, you have to have been there with her and witnessed her accomplishment first-hand. If you weren’t there and you try to compliment her, she reacts like she’s being sucked up to, that someone can’t truly appreciate or properly be impressed with her accomplishment because they weren’t there to see it themselves.
So…Yeah. She’s been described as coming from an alternate universe where compliments are insults.
I’m not going to speculate about whether she’s been diagnosed with anything, that would just be shitty. I simply consider it a personality quirk that I have to keep in mind if I want to be with her. And she’s not really meant to be the focus of this question; I’m more curious about the challenge it represents.
Namely, what non-verbal ways are there to show your appreciation and respect for someone and all they’ve done, but without simply complimenting her with “Good job!” or stuff like that? Again, we aren’t quite boyfriend/girlfriend yet, so I assume extravagant gifts and expensive fancy restaurants wouldn’t be appropriate. Despite how it may sound, our relationship is certainly not toxic. She has never tried to dictate or control what I say to her, and she has respected my own personal quirks as well. She’s simply made it clear what she likes and what she hates in regards to people speaking to her, but otherwise she has no interest in trying to force anyone to say or do anything.
Really interested in what you have to suggest, as well as what any of the site’s commenters can come up with.
Doesn’t Mind The Quirks.
DEAR DOESN’T MIND THE QUIRKS: That is… an interesting outlook on life, I guess? It kind of seems like a fun-house mirror version of the issue I mentioned in my response to LLVL – trying to avoid praise but feeling like accepting “undeserved” praise means you’re being immodest or conceited. Y’know. If you squint.
Well, she’s pretty much told you what the secret is: praise or compliment her for the things you do see or that she does for you.
Failing that, if she can’t handle being praised, then simply make it about you. You appreciate what she’s done – it was a great help, it’s something you hadn’t seen or experienced or thought of before, etc. The other option is to focus on the achievement itself, rather than the fact that she did it – especially if you can see the results in some way, shape or form. Thus, you’re saying that $THING is really cool in and of itself, however it happened or that other people must have appreciated that someone went through the trouble to do $THING or that $THING must have been difficult or challenging and it’s pretty impressive that it was accomplished. You’re basically paying a bank-shot compliment; the final result was cool or appreciated or what-have-you, with the unstated “…and you’re cool for having done it” hanging invisibly but making it’s presence known like perfume in the air.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)