DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I basically need some advice about how to move on from an ex. I dated a guy for about two and a half months. I’m in college, he just finished a few weeks before we started seeing each other. At first it seemed he was very enthusiastic and making all of the moves first. He was the first to suggest we be exclusive, constantly telling me how much he enjoyed dating me, etc. I wasn’t sure what to expect at the start of the relationship as I knew I had a previous problem of expecting too much of partners and moving a relationship too fast, but this constant independent reassurance let me relax and by the two month marker I was beginning to see it as the start of something long term.
Then I left to visit family for a week, and on the coach back home he called me and said he felt nothing towards me and wanted to break up, but still wanted to be friends (he had wanted to do it in person but we weren’t going to see each other for a while so it wouldn’t have been fair any other way). I also then made some time to meet him, given that this was a pretty big thing I wanted to talk about, and I let him know my feelings and how much I really, really liked him. He told me I did nothing wrong, I wasn’t being too clingy or too distant, and he was sad it didn’t work out because he didn’t know why he didn’t feel anything. But he emphasised over everything that “I still want you in my life”. The whole thing came as a shock but of course you can’t be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t like you (duh) so I said sure, that’s fine, I would be friends.
It’s now been four months. I haven’t brought anything up to do with our relationship or asked to get back with him, etc, even though it’s constantly at the back of my mind no matter how much I try to process it, repress it or tell myself it’s impossible. We’ve seen each other a lot, hung out together on our own and in group situations, and been to plenty of parties, etc, together. But it still hurts, every time I see him and every time he messages me. I know he will never “take me back” or anything like that, and he owes zero explanation of why he didn’t feel anything towards me: sometimes that just happens, and it’s happened to me. But realising that hasn’t made me stop loving or liking him any less, and some tiny tiny part of me still hopes he’ll ask me out again. I know it’s impossible and keep telling myself that, but I keep making excuses – for example, maybe he still wasn’t over his serious relationship he got out of a couple months before me, and he just needs time to process that before coming back to me, and if I stick around enough maybe it’ll happen. (Of course it won’t, but my brain keeps entertaining these kinds of fantasies.) But every time he says how lucky he feels to have me in his life, or compliments my appearance, or anything, it just adds to that impossible little spark of hope. I should be grateful I have such a great friend who values and appreciates me, but it also just makes me feel so sad I can’t be with this amazing person romantically.
I also knew it would be tough seeing him date someone else but a mutual friend messaged me over the holiday break to say she had slept with him and that they would be dating and that she hoped it wouldn’t upset me because she valued me as a friend. I told her that’s of course fine and why should I ask anything of them on behalf of my stupid unrequited feelings? I want to be happy for them, and for them to be happy too – all I’ve ever wanted was to make him happy. I have also been dating other people in the months since we broke up, and he knows this, so it would be completely unfair for me to say this upsets me. But I do think it hurts realizing a mutual friend knows how much I love him and still do, since she helped me through the break up, and has still decided to do this. It shouldn’t, I know this isn’t healthy or fair, and my past shouldn’t stop her seeing anyone she likes. But the thought of it just makes me well up and I’m not sure I could ever see them together in person. I don’t want to stop them being happy together but it hurts far too much to think about the whole thing.
Basically, I just want to ask for a second opinion on should I keep trying to be friends? Or, ideally, how do I make these feelings go away? I’m so emotionally drained and sad about it constantly, which also isn’t fair on anyone I try to date, so I’ve cut off or declined anyone asking me out in the last few weeks. I would love for us to be friends, more than anything in the world. But I don’t know how to describe how much it hurts seeing him and not being with him, or being there for him as a partner when he’s sad, or just being with him. We act much the same as we did when dating, messaging probably even more, but all without the benefits of being in a relationship.
Tl;dr: How do I move on healthily from my ex who has ended up being one of my best friends, or how do I cut him off, even though this would also hurt immensely, without upsetting him too?
Trying To Be Friends
DEAR TRYING TO BE FRIENDS: Oof. I’ve got a lot of sympathy TTBF, because I’ve been where you are. I had a particularly memorable break up where I decided that we could still be friends afterwards. I thought I was going to be mature about all of this and it was all going to be fine.
But it wasn’t. Every time I saw her – or even thought about her, let’s be honest – was like a knife to my soul. And trying to be friends and power through it just made things worse.
You see, I’d made a major mistake… and one that you’re making right now. I thought I could seamlessly shift from “couple” to “just friends” immediately, without any transition period. And unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way. It hurts when you break up with someone, even when it’s a relatively painless break-up, where nobody’s really at fault. It causes you actual pain, and it takes time to let that pain heal. But you can’t heal if that person is still around, reminding you of what you’ve lost. You need actual separation from them so that you can feel the hell out of your feels, have a good cry and mourn the loss of your relationship without also having to see them every day. Those wounds won’t heal if you keep peeling off the scabs.
That’s part of why my recommended first step for recovering from a break-up with someone is to employ the Nuclear Option – to seal them away from you entirely, as much as you reasonably can. That means cutting ties – unfollowing or muting them on social media, deleting their number from your phone, filtering their emails so they go into a folder marked “THE EX-FILES” instead of your inbox and putting away all of those reminders and souvenirs of your relationship together. Now this isn’t always feasible – especially in cases where, say, you’re co-parenting a child – but it helps relegate them to “out of site, out of mind” status and puts barriers in your way that prevent you from “accidentally” checking on their Instagram to see if they’ve moved on from you yet. This doesn’t need to be forever, but it does need to be long enough that you can mourn the loss of your relationship and let those feelings fade.
But you didn’t do that. And as a result, you’re in a relationship that causes you emotional pain. Not just the pain of loss and the unpleasant hope that maybe he’ll come back to you if you stick around but also by having front-row seats to his life as he moves on. Because he was going to move on – you knew this – and then one day, he did. And unfortunately, you found out in a way that caused you more emotional distress. Your friend was trying to do you a solid by giving you a heads up that she was involved with your ex… but it just became yet another way you reopen wounds that hadn’t fully healed yet.
(Though to be honest, she didn’t need to tell you that she slept with him… she could’ve just left it as “we’re starting to see each other”.)
And then there are all the little injuries that he may not be aware that he causes. Those little compliments or offhand remarks about how he’s grateful for you may seem like a way to keep on good terms with an ex to him… but to you, it’s like being stabbed with teeny tiny knives every single time.
None of these are, frankly, conducive to either your emotional health or your being friends with him.
Now having said all that… I’m gonna have to be real with you TTBF: this wasn’t a great relationship and the pain you’re feeling is out of proportion to the relationship you had. Again, I can sympathize; that relationship I had lasted for less than half a year before she dumped me and I drove myself bats
t over her. But sympathy or no, the fact is that you were dating this guy for less than three months. You mention that you had a tendency to rush into relationships and, well, that’s exactly what you did here. At two months, you barely know the person you’re dating, never mind know that it has long-term potential. At this stage, we’re all still putting on our absolutely best faces, putting up the idealized versions of ourselves in hopes of winning over the person we’re dating. It’s all a show and mating dance where we only display the best sides of ourselves. You over-invested in this dude, giving him more importance and significance than he deserved or was reasonable at that stage of your relationship. That’s a big part of why it hurts so much right now: to use a poker metaphor, you went all in on a weak hand in hopes that you were going to draw to a backdoor straight. You didn’t, and now you busted out.
In fairness, this dude helped things along. He totally love-bombed you; showering you with compliments, reassurances and attention to get you to relax and let him in. And honestly, he’s still doing it with those comments about how glad he is to have you around and those random compliments. Maybe he’s doing it deliberately because he wants to keep you on the hook. Maybe he does this without meaning to keep you drawn to him. But it’s sketchy behavior, and it’s part of why you’re still hung up on him.
So no. Right now you can’t be friends with him. You’re still too invested in him, you’re still hurting and you aren’t letting yourself heal. And he isn’t letting you heal either. Whether he knows it or not, he’s prolonging your pain by his actions. So the only option you have right now, if you want to actually feel better, is to cut ties. You’re going to have to tell him, straight up: seeing him hurts you and you can’t keep doing this to yourself. As much as you wish you didn’t have to, you have to cut yourself off from him until you’ve had time to heal and recover. Maybe in the future you two can be friends, but you can’t right now. It sucks that you have to do this, but you have to make your own health your number one priority.
And then, as I said: you go nuclear. You cut ties. No more emails. No more texts. No social media stalking. No giving him access to you so he can keep trying to get his hooks back into you. You need to go cold turkey on this guy so that you can finally start the healing process. In a few months, maybe you can reconsider easing him back into your life. But not definitely not right now, and not until you’ve had a lot of time away.
Oh, and one more thing: it’s entirely possible that if and when you tell him this, he’s going to love-bomb you again. He’ll talk about how amazing you are and how much he cares. He may even drop hints that he wants you back. Don’t let this sway you. This won’t be because he’s suddenly realized he’s made a mistake, it’ll be because he likes having your attention. You still need to cut him off. If you want any sort of a healthy friendship with this guy in the future, you need to get your head on straight, sort through your feelings and give yourself closure on this relationship. And you can’t do that if you’re holding out hope that there’s a future for the two of you.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m looking to dip my toes into more involved online dating (more involved than Tinder et al), and as someone with a nonbinary gender identity, I’m interested in trying sites like OKCupid that apparently have more gender identity options than just “(Trans)Man/(Trans)Woman”. But I’ve got concerns about the intersections between the technical structure of these sites and dating etiquette.
If I go to a site where I can enter a nonbinary gender identity (in my case, agender), I assume I will only show up in people’s search results/feed/etc. if their preferences include my stated gender identity, right? But I generally pass as cis, at least in appearance (as soon as I start talking or using any body language, people get queer vibes), and I’ve dated some cool cis people in the past with whom my GI wasn’t an issue even though they didn’t have much exposure to nonbinary folk before. I look the part, mostly, which seems to work for some cis people who otherwise only date cis people.
So if I choose a nonbinary gender identity, I’m essentially shutting off 99% of the dating pool because the vast majority of people just don’t think about adding other identities to their preferences, so my profile will always get filtered out, right? Which leaves me with a tiny dating pool – and I’m sure there are some cool people being shut out who just hadn’t thought about it, since I’ve literally dated people like that before. Is it okay for me to display my “apparent” cis gender instead, or is that bad form? I usually tell people about my gender identity within the first few dates, so long as they seem open (and if they don’t, no more dates), but something still feels weird about putting my closet door on my profile.
Anyway, just hoping you’ve had some thoughts, or have some friends who have thoughts.
More Than Ones And Zeroes
DEAR MORE THAN ONES ZEROS: First of all: I want to invite my non-cis and nonbinary readers to weigh in on this; after all, I can only comment on this from my perspective as a straight, cisgendered male. So take my advice with applicable amounts of salt.
One of the ongoing dilemmas of online dating is just how wide of a net you want to cast. This is something that almost everybody struggles with at one point or another. There’s an almost instinctive desire to want to appeal to as many people as humanly possible; after all, who wouldn’t want to try to have the largest potential dating pool possible?
The problem though, is that a large pool of potential partners isn’t the same as having a large pool of partners that will want to date you. Having lots of options seems great at first… but it means that you’re going to be dealing with a lot of folks who only kind of like you or are somewhat interested. That gets exhausting and frustrating very quickly; there are few things more demoralizing than going on date after date with people who are just kind of “meh” about you. And that’s before we get to the folks who will treat your being nonbinary as a negative. Plenty of folks – cis women, especially, but enbies, trans folks and other gender non-conformers – have had people react badly, even violently when their dates discovered that their preconceptions about them were wrong.
(Hell, it isn’t even always about gender presentation; I’ve had friends who’ve seen guys rage out at them because the guys made incorrect assumptions about their sexual histories.)
You aren’t wrong in that by choosing a nonbinary identity, you’re going to be limiting your dating pool significantly. Folks who aren’t necessarily opposed to dating someone who’s nonbinary often won’t choose “nonbinary” or “all” in their “looking for” pull-down menus simply because it may not occur to them to do so. But that means that the people who have done so aren’t just passively open to the idea, they’re actively opting in to dating people like you. And that’s a good thing.
As I’m fond of saying: you don’t want to be everyone’s cup of tea, you want to be some people’s shot of whiskey. You don’t need to have broad but very shallow appeal; you want people who really dig you and what you have to offer and for whom being nonbinary isn’t a dealbreaker or worse.
So with those considerations in mind, there’re a number of ways you could play this.
You could list yourself as nonbinary, accept the more limited dating pool but take heart in the increased number of people who are looking for folks like you.
You could list the gender you tend to present as, and bring up that you’re nonbinary in your profile – especially under “you should date me if” or “the most private thing I’m willing to admit” sections. This admittedly comes with risks; lots of folks don’t read profiles thoroughly (or at all) and could well miss the fact that you’re nonbinary. You could also end up with a lot of, for lack of a better word, tourists – people who find your gender identity exotic but who are only interested in you as a sort of curiosity or marking off a box on their personal checklist.
You could also list yourself as nonbinary and take a more proactive approach, being the one to make the first move on folks who seem like they might be open to dating someone who isn’t cisgendered. The Double Take and double opt-in mechanics of OKCupid mean that if you choose them, the site will let them know and let them decide whether they want to take a chance on you.
Or you could take a hybrid approach. You’re more likely to find people who’re open to dating you, specifically, when you meet them in person, even if they never considered it before. Mixing up meeting people while out and about – through friends, at bars, etc. – and via online dating can give you the best of both worlds and help you find entirely different populations of potentials.
Every approach has its risks. It’s just up to you which risks are acceptable compared to the potential rewards.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)