DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Before I get to the core of the problem, I want to give you a little background of where I come from. As a teenager I grew up a fairly popular kid. I had people fawning over me all the time – men and women. Naturally, I didn’t know rejection until well past my late teens. When I was about 18-19, I dated this girl I was madly in love with for about 4-5 years. Eventually it ended and the end wasn’t very good for me.
Unfortunately, I suffered an almost-mortal illness days after the break-up, which just contributed further to making my recovery harder. My time together with her had made me so dependent that it took me a really long time to get out of that zone and start being a confident, desirable human being again. I did eventually recover, worked extremely hard on myself and started dating the kind of women I really wanted again. Still, I was somewhat commitment phobic and bailed every time things started to move in a more serious direction again. It took me almost 4-5 years more before I actually got into my next exclusive, committed relationship.
I recently moved to a new city and the change has been kinda hard to adapt to. My (ex) girlfriend and I ended our relationship mutually since we were both moving to different cities and agreed that neither of us wanted a LDR. Having said that, this whole change caused several of my past insecurities to crop up and I found myself struggling socially again. It took me a while to make new friends and build a social circle at all but eventually I made a couple of really close friends – a girl and a guy. I was somewhat attracted to the girl but decided not to make a move on her because she had a long-term/long distance boyfriend, and in either case, I decided that her friendship was more precious to me than any foreseeable sexual pleasure. Fast forward a few days and I find out that my two best friends are hooking up. At a fundamental level I am okay with this – I don’t really care so much. I am not into the girl so much for it to bother me. The problem is that I actually share an apartment with the guy and sometimes when they hook up at our place I can hear them, which really upsets me. I also feel kind of awkward hanging out alone with them because I feel like I am just being an obstacle. Sometimes I catch myself wondering that they only hang out with me because two of us live together. A part of me knows that this is not entirely true, but a part of me that’s driven by my insecurities can’t help thinking this way. I have already had individual conversations with both of them about their equation and told them that I did not entirely appreciate the fact that they sneak around behind my back to hook up because I’d have much rather preferred that they be honest with me than take me for a fool. But I also told them that whoever either of them chooses to hook up with is none of my concern and I frankly do not care so much.
Now the core nature of my problem is that I expect a certain degree of sensitivity and discretion on their part. Both of them know that I have a thing for her, even if it isn’t a big deal. I have no intention of making a move for her now or in the future, but just knowing that the girl auto-rejected me is a confidence downer for me. It’s also not exactly like I am going through a dry spell. I manage to occasionally attract women I want to sleep with and do it too. It’s just that I feel really out of place with my two closest friends in this new city and I do not know what my place is any more or where I stand with either of them. I feel like if they cared for me, they wouldn’t put me through this awkward situation. Frankly, I don’t even know what or if I expect any kind of answer from you – I just needed to get this off my chest, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to bring this up with either of them. I don’t want to come across as a whiny little cow, but I also am kind of suffering and it has a negative impact on my overall social success. If you have any thoughts for me, I’d be glad to hear/read. I enjoy reading your columns, and most things you say make sense to me both intuitively and counter-intuitively.
Guilty As Charged
DEAR GUILTY AS CHARGED: There’s a lot to get into here GaC, but as is often the case, I think a lot of what you’re describing are symptoms stemming from a central cause. In this case, I think you’re dealing with some anxiety around relationships of all stripes – sexual and platonic.
This isn’t terribly surprising, or even all that uncommon. I’ve been fielding questions like yours for my entire career. In your case, you started off in an intensely dependent relationship at an incredibly difficult time of your life. You came back from that, which is awesome. It’s a testimony to your strength and fortitude that you pushed through the difficult times and managed to come out through the other side.
But the thing to keep in mind is that these experiences tend to leave scars on your soul. This doesn’t mean that you’re weak or that you’re not better; it just means that you’ve been through some shit and that’s going to stay with you.
And honestly, it’s not at all surprising that you’re a little anxious about having moved to a new city, especially one where you have no pre-existing social circle. One of the unspoken crises of modern life is how intensely lonely we all have become. We’re all craving that connection with other people. We want our tribe and our family of choice. Considering what you’ve gone through, it’s entirely understandable that you’re incredibly sensitive to any perceived threats to your connection with your friends. Doubly so, considering that you’re attracted to one of them. This is known as “hypervigilance”; you’re constantly on high alert, looking for any possible signs of trouble. But one of the consequences of hypervigilance is that it’s very easy to take a normal situation and mistake it as a reason to panic.
Case in point: your relationship with your friends. In any other situation, this would be slightly awkward and uncomfortable for a little bit, then everyone would settle down and recognize the status quo – assuming, that is, that nobody’s being an a
hole about it. In your case, however, you’re almost seeking out problems because you expect them. You believe that this is going to happen and so that confirmation bias kicks in and you take minor issues and overly inflate their significance, running them through the filter of your belief that you are going to get left behind again.
Take, for example, the idea that your female friend “auto-rejected” you. This honestly isn’t what happened. To start with, you didn’t make a move. You chose not to do anything. That’s not rejection, that’s the absence of action. You can’t get rejected if you never actually acted on your interest.
At the same time, the fact that she had other partners, before and after she met you, has nothing to do with you. Her not leaping into your arms upon meeting you doesn’t mean you auto-rejected. All that happened is that she wasn’t attracted to you. Consider, for example, how you go about your day. You see dozens, even hundreds of women every week. You aren’t attracted to all of them. That doesn’t say anything about them, other than they just don’t have whatever x-factor you need to be into someone. You aren’t being uninterested at them. It’s just a default state of null sexual interest.
The same is true about your friend. The fact that she doesn’t return your interest doesn’t say anything about your value as a person, your attractiveness or your desirability to women in general. It’s just one person who clearly likes you, just not in the way that you would like. Which, y’know, is a shame, but that’s life. Not every crush we have is going to be reciprocated. Similarly, her relationship with your other friend has nothing to do with you either. It’s just how things shook out; they had chemistry and interest, one thing led to another and hey, now they’re hooking up.
But here’s where your anxiety is starting to interfere with things. You are treating this as something being done at you. I mean, you say “I feel like if they cared for me, they wouldn’t put me through this awkward situation.” And trust me, I get how you feel; I have been there, done that and printed the t-shirts. However, the truth is that the situation is quite the opposite. They’re trying to spare you – and them – awkwardness and uncomfortable situations. They know that you have a crush on your friend; being discreet about sleeping together is less about “sneaking around” or treating you like a fool. It’s really about “let’s not rub GaC’s face in this until things are a little less awkward”. They’re trying to be sensitive about your feelings because hey, they’re your friends and they care about you. It’s obvious that you’re uncomfortable with things, and they’re trying to keep it from being too bad.
But to be perfectly honest, you ARE kind of making it worse. I’m sympathetic to how you feel, but ultimately, there’s only so much discretion that can be had before things go from “let’s try to not rub GaC’s face in it” to “GaC is dictating the terms of someone else’s relationship.” You’ve told them both that you don’t care about who they hook up with, yet you clearly do. Putting on a false face of “this doesn’t bug me” makes it much harder to actually address the elephant in the room and get past things because you aren’t being up front about it… with them, or yourself.
As I said: most of this is coming from your anxiety. You’re afraid of being rejected and abandoned and alone again. You’re picking up on things and turning them into existential threats, when they’re nothing of the kind because their feelings for each other isn’t about you. But if you keep letting your anxiety dictate things, it will be… because you’ll have pushed them away.
So here’s what I suggest. First: you need to take a deep breath, let it out, and then let go of their relationship. As long as you treat their relationship as a referendum on you, things are going to be awkward. The more you can let go and just be happy for them because they’re happy and they’re your friends, the less you’ll feel like they’re looking for reasons to cut you loose. Things will feel more relaxed and enjoyable again because there won’t be this sense of tension around where they have to tiptoe around your feelings. Don’t get me wrong: this doesn’t mean that they have license to suck face in front of you, but you also need to not get huffy if they’re together and being affectionate.
And, yeah, hearing their sex-noises is annoying; it’s one of the issues when it comes to having roommates. This is one of those areas where you’re going to have to work to find a compromise. Maybe they can put on some music. Maybe you can get some noise-cancelling headphones. But you’re both going to have to make some allowances for your living situation. They can work on not being excessively loud when they get freak-nasty, you can work on finding ways to not hear it.
Next: work on talking yourself down from the metaphorical ledge. At times it can help to invoke your inner Spock and dispassionately argue against your anxiety. When you have those anxiety flare-ups, then let that Inner Spock remind you that you’re wrong. “No, GaC, evidence shows that they still care for you as a friend. Notice how they continue to spend time with you and include you, even as they pursue a relationship together.” “It is illogical to assume that couples leverage their relationship against someone, GaC. Their wanting to spend time together is about the oxytocin and dopamine production of a new relationship, not psychological games on a third party.”
And honestly, it may be worth talking to somebody to help get your anxiety under control. You may find use in doing some self-guided cognitive behavioral therapy with a site like MoodGym. You may want to try using a service like Talkspace to find a counselor. Or you may talk with your doctor and see if they can give you a referral.
Just remember: your anxiety and hypervigilance isn’t a weakness or a sign that you’re a bad or unworthy person. You’ve been through some shit. You’ve got scars, and this is how it manifests is all. That’s not weakness, that’s the mark of a survivor. You’ve been strong enough to get through the shit that’s come before. You’re strong enough to keep healing.
You’re gonna be ok.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Long time reader, first time writer,
Since I’ve followed your blog I’ve been on “improve your life”, “starting from ground zero” phase for years on end. In that time I’ve kept in shape (strength trained to a competitive level), kept up my grades to improve my long-term future, and tried to improve myself for the right time for someone to come along. I feel like I’ve done everything right, but somehow come up short in the dating world:
Part of the reason this is because I’ve continuously put my life on hold in some ways in pursuit of a better future. In undergrad I stayed away from any sort of long term relationship because I was worried of “overly-attached” -> bad life decision long term or heart break -> bad life outcome (GPA falls apart in a semester etc.)… at the same time until recently I was fairly religious (still am, but while reconciling certain beliefs), and felt that anything short-term was somehow “immoral” and to be avoided.
Over the years, the “right” time just never came along: sure, girls were interested in me, but I wouldn’t pursue. I can’t help but wonder what could have been with (few?) (many?) (special one?) (who cares).
Now years later, I have been forced to take a gap year between degrees and ultimately put my degree on hold. I am frankly sick of waiting to get that part of my life together. At the same time, I understand that getting into anything serious now (as you’d expect 24 year old to) would just be poor form to whoever I date, given that I will eventually return to a career-driven lifestyle.
I have ultimately concluded that short-term things are my only saving grace; something I still don’t stomach well. Am I overthinking all of this?
Still on The Sidelines
DEAR STILL ON THE SIDELINES: In her book THE LOVE GAP, author Jenna Birch has a great term for your sort of mindset: “laser focusing”. Essentially, you have a specific idea about how your life is “supposed” to be in order to date and you’re focusing on it like a laser beam. So you end up treating your life as though you need to grind every aspect of your life to a specific level, in sequential order, to be in a place where you are “ready” to date.
And honestly? That’s what’s slowing you down. Treating your life as though you can only pay attention to one aspect at a time means that you’re going to be waiting for a long time. You can pursue relationships and self-development and your career. Think of a spider’s web, with it’s interconnected threads and strands. Individually, each strand may not seem like much, but they all lead into one another, creating a whole that is stronger than the sum of its parts. If you want to date – instead of waiting for the chance to date – then you need to treat your life more like a web. Let yourself develop in many directions at once, instead of trying to achieve it in sequential stages.
Because, honestly? You’re overthinking things. You’re letting the idea that you can only do one thing at a time hold you back. If you’re going to treat dating as something you can’t do until you’re at the “perfect” place in your career, then you are going to continue sacrificing your life in the name of a future, one that will never truly arrive. Once you get to that place where you say “OK, I’m here” – if you don’t keep kicking things further down the line to your next stage in life – then you’re going to look around and realize how many amazing women you could have dated and be kicking yourself for not taking your chance when you could have.
Waiting until putting your life on hold for a better or more perfect future is a mistake. There will never be a “right” time; there will only be THIS time, right now. Accept that you’re a work in progress, that there will always be room for improvement, but you’re in good shape now and take some chances. You might find something short term. You might find someone who’s so awesome that you’ll decide you want something long-term with them, even as you pursue your career. But if you want to get started, then it’s time to stop sitting on the sidelines and get in the game.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com)