DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m going to start with a quick rundown of my dating history for context. I never bothered dating in high school, thinking that those sorts of relationships wouldn’t last and weren’t worth it. Once I got to college though, I…didn’t get much further. I saw relationships everywhere that looked miserable and seemed to end over very petty things. It was all very dramatic. I saw demanding women and inattentive selfish guys getting together constantly and I envied them. I kept thinking that if I had the chance, I would definitely be a better boyfriend and also would probably be wiser at choosing a girlfriend than some of these guys. Instead, regrettably, I became a Nice Guy; a strategy that as you can imagine, didn’t work at all.
When I eventually started dating during my first year of grad school, I decided that the best way to avoid getting trapped in the kind of miserable relationships I’d seen was to design a sort of committed friends with benefits model that in practice ended up with me getting sex and armchair psychotherapy and with her getting… to be quite honest, bad sex and not much else. I got my heart smashed 4 months into this bad experiment and yeah, I royally screwed this up because I didn’t even know what a relationship was much less how to hack them to avoid the problems I saw.
Still I was optimistic that I could do better. I’m 28 now and over the past years I’ve dated a bit in short bursts which never ended up developing into anything you could call a relationship. It just became really clear early on that these arrangements wouldn’t work out which I honestly didn’t take too hard.
The thing that has put new terror into me around the prospect of a serious long term relationship is something that happened to my best friend. He’s a trans guy which obviously comes with its own snags, but he is one of the strongest, most resilient, most emotionally intelligent people I know. He spent 3 years in what ended up being a very verbally abusive relationship with his girlfriend and spent the following 3 years depressed and trying to mend himself from the aftermath. He’s doing great now, but if I were unlucky enough to end up in that kind of situation, I think I would be a lot worse at handling it. I don’t think I would have the insight to see it for what it is or the boundaries to stand up for myself/leave the way he did. He did everything right and still had to piece himself together after. This terrifies me.
Relationships on the whole seem dangerous for me to get into at my skill level even though I’m kinda old. I really would like to be in a healthy committed relationship but I don’t have enough faith in myself or humanity to risk getting hurt or hurting someone else because I don’t know what I’m doing.
How do I gain the skills I need when the world is this scary?
Courage the Cowardly Man
DEAR COURAGE THE COWARDLY MAN: I understand your fears, CCM. It’s understandable to be a little gun-shy after what you’ve gone through and what you’ve seen. But what you’re actually asking me for is a way to date without taking any risks whatsoever. And unfortunately, there’s no such beast. Dating is a full-contact sport. You take the precautions you can to make it safer (emotionally and physically), but at the end of the day, you’re making yourself vulnerable. That means you’re going to run the risk of getting hurt. Sometimes you’ll get hurt because of the mistakes you make, other times you’ll get hurt because there’re assholes out there and assholes are gonna ass. Still other times, you’re going to get hurt and it’s not going to be anybody’s fault; sometimes things just don’t work out and while it’s a damn shame, it’s just the way things are.
So if you want to date, you have to do so with the knowledge that you’re at risk. But, risk doesn’t mean guarantee of injury. Skiing, for example, is potentially dangerous, but I’ve been skiing for years and I’ve never injured more than my pride. My friends, on the other hand, have broken bones and twisted ligaments. And you take precautions to minimize the chance of injury or trauma. Developing and maintaining strong boundaries, for example help keep toxic partners away and help keep your relationships healthy. Being sure to avoid emotionally over-investing in people early on in the relationship helps keep you from getting hurt needlessly and getting comfortable the potential of rejection makes sure that you don’t get stuck in The Friend Zone or start becoming a Nice Guy.
But none of this helps if you don’t actually, y’know. Put yourself out there. You can read all the books, watch all the videos and listen to all the podcasts you want, but none of them are going to do the work for you. The only way to build up the skills you need is to actually put those skills to use. You’re gonna have to grind out some experience if you want to level up, CCM.
You have to confront your fears dude. Otherwise, they’ll only grow and take even more control of your life. Avoiding the things you’re afraid of just makes you more afraid of them until you are avoiding even the potential of feeling fear. The longer you put it off, the harder it becomes to face them and overcome them.
If you want to date, if you want to find a relationship, then you have to embrace that risk. You have to be comfortable with the possibility that things aren’t going to work out and you might get hurt. After all, every relationship ends eventually, until one doesn’t. But while pain may be somewhat inevitable, suffering is optional. Things may suck, but they won’t suck as bad as you think and not forever. You can get back up again..
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: First of all, I would just like to say you are doing a tremendous service here. I’m in my early 40’s and frankly I really wish you would’ve been around when I was in high school. I get the basic premise of what your telling everyone – suck it up & be a ‘man’ while showing people of the opposite sex respect.
To keep this simple, I’m going to bullet point my story for you.
– Shy, awkward nerdy kid in high school that didn’t take any chances but was actually in the ‘cool group’ of people.
– When I was 19, my best friend whose friendship prevented me from committing suicide my junior year of high school died suddenly. Because of this I was messed up for a good 3 or 4 years and never really let anyone in.
– In my early 20’s I started dating – for the 1st time. After dates with only 5 women, I met a great girl, we hit it off, and within 6 months she moved in and a few months later she was wearing my ring. She was, and still is the only woman I was ever intimate with – heck, my only kiss.
– About 9 years after we were engaged – she said that she liked the relationship the way it was – the reason she didn’t want to be married was her dad was a jerk to her mom, and she never wanted to be “tied down that way”. I’ll admit, from a financial perspective I was a bit more conservative then she wanted to be – but I tried to work on that and give her the space she deserved. At that point, I decided that I loved her more than anything and if that’s what would make her happy then I would deal with it. I really wanted to be married to her though.
– It was around this point our sex life started to drop off dramatically. I made excuses to myself like ‘this is what happens to married couples’ and crap like that. Frankly I had put on some weight, was having some performance issue but I could tell she wasn’t enjoying it which frankly made me want it less. Since I didn’t yet know of your blog I didn’t know better to just open my mouth and talk to her about it like a man.
– So, fast forward to a few months ago when she suddenly dies of an unknown health issue. As I was getting into her e-mail and phone to get photos for her funeral service, just hours after she died I found out that she had been cheating on me for the past 5 years. Ironically starting exactly at the time she didn’t want to get married anymore. Her entire “second life” on Craigslist, work associates, random guys in hotels when she was traveling, etc. was documented. Six different e-mail accounts with well over 10,000 inbound and outbound messages. Thousands of text messages, naked photos of her, naked photos of other men. Graphic stuff about what they did to each other that I’m not sure I could ever do to a woman… but she never remotely asked for me to do anything like this with her. She never deleted her browsing history on Google – her porn habits were so appalling that I get sick just thinking about watching porn anymore. I stopped reading the messages when it got to over two dozen different guys she hooked up with.
My therapist considers it a textbook sex & porn addiction. It was about the secret for her – that’s what got her off. Pretty sure that I could have been endowed like a porn star and I couldn’t compete with that adrenaline rush she had from those encounters.
So it takes me to now. It’s been a few months, I’ve lost over 60 pounds (I have a goal of another 150) and I’m totally lost without her. Until I lose ½ that remaining weight I’m going to have a hard time finding anyone that will give me a shot. I get it – it may be shallow but I don’t want to date a slob that sits on the couch eating junk food either. I’m trying to find new hobbies and define ‘me’ but it’s really tough to meet new people in your 40’s. Literally everyone I know is married with kids, so it’s not nearly as easy to ‘get out’ on your own if you don’t want to sit at the end of a bar every night.
Yup you don’t need to tell me, all these things are excuses. I’m trying though, honest.
I know I’m not ready yet – but do I feel the desire to get back out there, just like any guy that broke up with his girlfriend or got divorced. I know I need to stop being the drinking buddy of Grimes and get my life together. How in the hell do I move on from this? Do I list my relationship status as ‘single’, ‘divorced’ or ‘widowed’ on my Match profile? Everyone has baggage, but how do you even bring this up – I know ‘handle thy own s
t’ – but some disclosure of this is probably necessary pretty early in a relationship – but when? My partner lived more in the last five years of her life and did more exciting things
– I will never cheat on someone (I had plenty of opportunities myself but never thought about it seriously) but how do I even “live” like she did? Should I try to pretend that I’m in my 20’s again before moving on? I’ve learned that life can be pretty damn short.
The Longest Story Writer Ever
DEAR LONGEST STORY WRITER EVER: I’m so sorry you went through all of this LSWE. Your relationship was hard enough without suddenly losing your wife (fiancee? your letter isn’t terribly clear about whether you actually got married)… and then discovering her secret life is like losing her a second time. Suddenly, you’re forced to reconsider literally everything about your marriage and what you knew about her. It’s like discovering that the person you thought you were with never even existed in the first place, and what does this say about you and your relationship. Was any of it real? Were there any signs? Were you just so blind?
The first thing to recognize is that this was never about you. This was all her damage, and would likely have happened whether she was with you, Brad Pitt or Studly Goodnight. You didn’t see the signs because you had no reason to; you had every reason to believe that she was being honest with you and acting in good faith when she said that she loved you or that she was happy. Could you have done things differently? Of course you could have; hindsight is 20/20 after all. But you were working with the information and the beliefs you had then; there’s no point in trying to relitigate the past with what you know now. The only thing you can do is try to heal and move forward.
But here’s the thing: there’s moving forward and then there’s forcing yourself out there when you’re not ready yet. My dude, you were with her for nearly a decade or longer. That’s not something you’re going to get over in a few months. Not after a sudden death and definitely not after everything you’ve just learned. The end of a long-term relationship always has a period of adjustment; you’ve built your life around being with that person and now they’re no longer there. In a very real way, it’s like you’ve lost a limb. Now you have to have to re-learn how to do everything again without them and that’s going to take time. You have to break the habits of years and get into a new and different groove. Trying to get back out there now isn’t just a mistake, it’s trying to run when you’re still working on crawling again. You’ll get there but right now you need to focus on you and your healing.
And that’s before we take your discovery into the equation. Even though this had nothing to do with you – again, this was all about her – it’s still going to take time to process this and recover from it. You’ve been hit with a serious one-two punch from a heavyweight, my dude. You don’t need to worry about what to do with your baggage in future relationships because you’re still trying to figure out what your baggage actually is. This isn’t baggage yet, this is still clothes and detritus spread all over what’s left of your life.
So stop worrying about how you’re going to disclose this to future partners; that’s for much later. Right now it’s just a distraction. Quit worrying about how you’re going to “live” like she did. You’re not in any competition. You don’t need to “match” her, nor is the way she conducted her sex life even right for you. You need to live in the way that’s right for you; if that means being a serial monogamist or being able to count the number of sexual partners you’ve had on the fingers of one hand then that’s what’s right for you.
You are still neck deep in the healing process. You are not anywhere near ready to date yet or to even think about it. What you need to do is focus on you right now. You’re in recovery and emotional rehab. You need to put all of your attention on your physical and emotional health and rebuilding your life.
The good news is that you’re doing everything right. You’re working out, you’re talking with a therapist and you’re processing the hell out of your feels. That’s good. You need to do that for a while. Once you’ve started to get back in good working order – not perfect shape but functional – then you’ll be in a much better place to know how to proceed. You’ll have a better grasp on what happened and what your story was and will be going forward. You’ll feel more comfortable in how to label yourself, in how much to share, when and with whom. That time is not now. But you’ll get there.
You’ll be ok. I promise.
All will be well.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com)