DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I am a man of trans experience in my thirties who is recently out of a polyamorous, long-term relationship. That relationship overlapped with my social and medical transition. It was my first poly relationship. I learned how to do consent well in it (sadly, through some big mistakes), came to terms with my bisexuality & kink, learned communication skills, etc. It was also fraught with tension: she felt invisible as a queer femme coupled with a man, struggled with my physical changes, we had different views on poly, and, I’m coming to realize, she engaged in what I would label “verbal abuse” if it happened to a friend of mine. I grew up in an emotionally abusive family and, surprise, repeated a lot of those cycles here.
I’m doing the things I need to for recovery: finding friends who treat me well, therapy, staying active, not contacting her. I’ve quit alcohol entirely, and I’m committed to avoiding Serious Dating for another year while I date myself, basically.
Here’s the thing, though, I’m grappling with a lot of guilt over the mistakes I made in that relationship, guilt over feeling like I may want a monogamous relationship (I “should” be able to do poly! Monogamy = evidence of my misogyny!), as well as anxiety that I can ever know when it’s a good time for me to start dating again. I know waiting until I’m “perfect” is a recipe for disaster, but I’ve dipped my toes into casual dates and found incredible anxiety accompanies it – I’m waiting for my date to insult me, or to rebuff physical advances even when they’ve been clearly agreed upon, or when she’s flirting & touching me. Throw into that the step of disclosure (which I haven’t done yet on any casual dates) and I’m left both really wanting a warm, intimate, relationship, and terrified I can’t do/won’t find/don’t deserve one.
Anxious & Guilty
DEAR ANXIOUS & GUILTY: You’ve had a long and rough road, and being in an abusive relationship – especially coming on top of a background of abuse and estrangement – just made it worse. You went through the sh*t, man. You basically decided to play Relationships on Hard Mode without even the benefit of a New Game + save. The fact that you’ve come through it mostly intact, without a layer of callus on your soul is a testament to your strength and your willpower. This is something to be proud of.
Yeah, you’ve got some nasty scars but goddamn, you made it through. The fact that you can look back – even on a relationship that was as damaging and messed up as it was – and see how much you’ve learned and grown from it is admirable. That’s something people have a hard time doing when they broke up because one of them would clip his toenails in bed! You, sir, have my sincerest respect.
Also, I can’t emphasize this enough: you are doing everything right. You are taking care of yourself, physically, mentally and emotionally. You’re on the right path. Find some friends who are firmly on Team You to give you the support when you need it and keep bending that indomitable will of yours towards working on your recovery.
But there’s one thing you’re not doing. And I’m not going to lie: it may be the hardest thing for you to do. But it’s also necessary.
You need to forgive yourself.
Seriously. You were in an awful relationship! Even if she hadn’t been abusive, it wouldn’t have worked out for the two of you; you were fundamentally incompatible on just about every level!
Right now you’re dealing with a lot of internalized anger that your ex dropped on you, because she couldn’t mold you into her perfect partner.
It’s perfectly ok to want to be monogamous! I know I talk about monogamy not being natural or easy, but polyamory isn’t some magically superior state of relationships and monogamy isn’t inherently evil, misogynistic, selfish, or otherwise some indication that you’re one of the Impure. Just as someone who isn’t good at monogamy shouldn’t try to force themselves into a monogamous relationship, someone who has issues with polyamory shouldn’t be feeling bad because he or she isn’t going to be happy in a triad, quad or what-have-you.
(Believe me, I’ve seen what happens when one arm of a triad gets dragged into poly kicking and screaming and brother, it ain’t pretty.)
You made mistakes in your previous relationship. So have I. So has everybody else. We all screw up. Sometimes it’s something we can recover from easily. Sometimes it’s a relationship ending event and there’s no getting away without blood, tears and recrimination. It happens. The key is that you learn from it, so you don’t make those mistakes again. Sometimes you can make amends. Other times (like, say, when you were in an abusive relationship with some bastard who went out of her way to hurt you) it’s better just to cut ties and put it firmly in your past.
But you have to forgive yourself. Forgive yourself for being imperfect. For letting yourself get hurt. For not loving wisely. For making mistakes.
As for the rest of your question, well… I’m going to be honest here: I don’t think you’re ready for even casual dating right now. Those wounds are too raw, those scars too fresh. You have to give yourself more time to heal, otherwise you risk reopening those wounds and doing yourself further injury. You’re like a runner with a ripped tendon who’s started his physical therapy and is impatient to get back on the track. But you keep feeling those deep, sharp twinges when you start to walk, never mind run. Trying to run again so soon is just going to undo all the work you put into getting your ankle fixed up, maybe damaging it even worse this time.
Just as some injuries require physical therapy and recovery time, some require emotional therapy and recovery. Those twinges, the anxiety and emotional flinching you’re doing are a sign that you’re not quite there yet. You need to do some more emotional rehab and then slowly, gently ease your way back into the dating scene. And hey, believe me, there’s no shame in wanting love, companionship and intimacy. That’s natural and understandable. We all want that. But it doesn’t do you any good to pursue those if it just means you’re going to hurt yourself even more in the process.
So take that year you mentioned. Spend it rehabbing your heart and soul. Rebuild your life, surround yourself with friends who love and care for you; this will help fill the void you’re feeling, even though it fill it completely. And when that year’s winding to a close, SLOWLY work your way back into the dating scene. Don’t jump back in assuming you can pick up where you left off; you’re going to have to rebuild those old muscles from the ground up again. It’ll be slow going. It’ll be frustrating. You’ll grind your teeth because you were able to do this before, why the hell can’t you do it now? But you’ll get there. Love, sex, intimacy… they’ll all be waiting for you, right when you’re ready for them.
You’re going to be OK.
All will be well.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’ve been with my girlfriend for 11 months, but we’ve known each other for roughly 4 years (met in college, didn’t get together until later for various reasons). Things have been great, and I love her, but I’m not sure I’m “in love with her”. It’s hard to tell, because she’s so sure that I’m “the one”, and I’m fairly certain she can be as well. I can imagine spending the rest of my life with her, but the problem is that I feel like she loves me more than I love her. Or something. She tells me about dreams that she has where I’m in the them, and I don’t really get that. I also don’t have that fire to be with her all the time, like I’m supposed to(?). I do think she’s super cool, we get along really well, and we’ve both worked at our relationship to make it work, since it’s long-distance-ish at about an hour and a half away.
The bad part is, we already said we were in love with each other a while back, but recently I told her how I feel about this. She told me she was disappointed in me, and it was one of the worst things I could’ve told her (I’m well aware that I messed up super royally, and that this is one of the worst things I could’ve done). I told her we could either break up, or we could take things back a bit, and let me see if I’ll develop this burning passion she seems to have. She countered with that it’s been 11 months, and if I was going to get it, shouldn’t I have already? After much going back and forth, we decided that we’ll talk in a week, and we’ll either figure out how to give each other’s stuff back, or how to continue with our relationship.
Neither one of us wants to break up, because we both love each other, but we think we may have to. I feel like if I can’t return that burning love she feels for me, then it’s not right to stay with her. However, I’m not sure if (like she suggested) maybe I am in love with her, but I don’t have that burning passion. Maybe my love is a little more cool. Again, I don’t want to end this relationship with her. Not because I’m afraid of being alone, or because we get along so well and its easy, but because I want her. I love her, without a doubt. I just don’t understand why I don’t have this burning passion that I’m supposed to have, or get butterflies in my stomach when I see her.
No idea what to do Doc. Any help would be greatly appreciated.
A Fool In Love(?)
DEAR A FOOL IN LOVE: That burning, driving passion your girlfriend is talking about? That’s not love, that’s infatuation. It’s a total rush of passion and sexual desire and novelty that feels almost overpowering at times. It’s like a chemical high – and there’s a lot of chemicals involved, oxytocin, dopamine, and norepinephrine firing off and flying straight to the pleasure centers of your brain. It feels amazing and, if you’re inexperienced, it can feel a lot like love… but it’s not.
Infatuation is part of the “honeymoon period” of every relationship, when everything is new and amazing and enthralling… but it’s also temporary. Infatuation fades, usually within six months to a year. For a lot of people, this is when they start to panic; they assume that love means you’re in this blissful state all the time and if you’re not… OMGSOMETHINGISWRONG!!
But that’s how relationships work; infatuation is the ignition that starts the engine, not the actual car. It promotes emotional bonding between the partners that lasts even when the passion ebbs – and it will. Love is more like an incredibly deep, intense friendship, an intense bond with someone you couldn’t have with just anyone. Love is when someone simply completes you, when you realize that even when you fight and argue and resent one another, you’d rather have them at your side than anyone else.
Now in your specific situation… well, that’s going to be tricky. Your girlfriend seems to have a view that infatuation is what defines love and if you don’t both have it in equal measure then everything is ruined. And honestly, that speaks more to her love of drama than to the state of your relationship. It may well be that you’re not as passionate a person as she is. That’s perfectly fine; sometimes a passionate person needs a more level-headed partner to even her out, while the more phlegmatic one needs someone with passion to spur him on. This speaks more to your personalities than to who loves whom more.
It could also be that you love her but you may not be as attracted to her, physically, as she is to you. If that’s the case… well, you’re going to run into issues down the line. Or it could be just that the distance means you don’t get as worked up as she does and when you’re together in person you’re like a house on fire.
I suspect the real issue isn’t going to be your feelings, but your girlfriend’s perception of them. Telling you that she’s disappointed in you is unfair, especially when you’re trying to communicate with her honestly and openly about your feelings. She’s essentially shaming you for being honest and for not conforming to her exact ideas of what your relationship should be and that is not a healthy basis for a relationship. She seems to have expectations that you don’t necessarily share, and blaming you for not meeting them – and dismissing your very valid and real feelings – is going to break you up far faster than whether or not you’re as equally passionate as she is.
And to be perfectly honest, if that’s the case, then you probably should break up because frankly, all that’s going to happen is that she’s going to insist you don’t love her as much as she loves you and you’re going to break yourself to pieces trying to prove that you do.
You need to use your words. Explain to her how you feel, that you love her, that you need her and you want her, but your form of love is quiet and calm (not “cooler”, which makes it sound inferior) but no less deep for the lack of drama. To put it another way, she’s Willow, you’re Oz; just because you’re not leaping off buildings declaring your eternal love doesn’t mean you don’t care.
(Yes, I know Willow was gay. Just roll with it.)
If she can’t (or won’t) respect that… well, then I hate to say it, but it’s better to break up now than to make yourselves more miserable in the future.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com)