DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: This isn’t really a relationship question but if anyone would know how to advise a socially awkward introvert, it’s you!
Let’s start with some background on me. I’m a 26 year old woman with social anxiety and depression (currently in therapy and on pills) and suspected Aspergers or ADHD too (awaiting an assessment). I’m an only child, and I grew up with parents who weren’t close to their own families, so Christmas was usually just the three of us and I didn’t see much of my extended family. I was a perpetual outcast at school and I’ve never had close friends, which isn’t actually something that bothers me. I’m happy on my own. I don’t mean that in a sour grapes way, I just genuinely tend to require very little social stimulation outside of romantic relationships. I moved out of my parents house when I was 16 as we have a strained relationship, and though I had to move back briefly a few times for financial reasons, any time I’ve lived there, including as a younger teen before I moved out first, I’ve been very independent. Any place I’ve lived in since I moved out has been either just mine, or with a partner. I’ve never done the roommate or shared house thing. Not having my own space and knowing who is coming in and out of the house and when makes me really edgy and feel like I’m under siege.
Now, while being this kind of person is inconvenient, I’m perfectly happy with myself. Different strokes for different folks and all that. I’ve never felt lonely, and trying to make myself more “normal” just lead to a bit of a drinking problem when I was younger because that was the only way I felt like socialising was enjoyable. I’m a massive loner and I’m fine! Except that now, I live in a foreign country. I was planning on moving out of my home country due to a political situation and on one of my many visits here, I met a local and fell in love, and now I live with him. And his parents. We want our own place but the town is tiny, there’s about 5 rental properties and they’re all occupied, and even if there was a house for sale, it’d be way out of our price range. So we’re in a bedroom at his parents house.
My boyfriend’s country is small, and the culture is very based around big families and it’s very close-knit. His mum is especially extroverted and constantly has people over, Christmas is a huge 20+ people affair, and practically everyone is somehow related to him. I’m serious, all but one house on our street has a relative in it, and you can’t even go to the capital city without him bumping into a cousin or an aunt. His mum is one of 8 siblings. Everyone’s super friendly and nice, but also very outgoing and huggy. And his mum is really lovely, but she also moves my stuff around a lot when she’s on a reorganisation binge, and that makes me hella uncomfortable too.
Obviously, this whole culture is stressing me the hell out. If I’d not met him and I was here alone, I’d be fine, but being with him sort of automatically brings me into situations I’ve either never done, like big family events, or can’t stand, like getting an unwanted hug in a supermarket from an aunt. There’s zero expectation of privacy too, people will just open the front door and walk into the house, and until I made it clear to him that my culture finds it rude as hell, my boyfriend genuinely didn’t see any issue with telling his mum about a medical condition I have. I got some bad news about one of my own family members a while ago and someone I’ve never met before approached me in the post office to give their sympathies.
I’m on edge constantly now. I wasn’t exactly a social butterfly before but leaving the house makes me uncomfortable in case I get tackled by a random relative, and I don’t feel great about staying at home either because who knows who’s gonna be in the house. I used to cook, and now I’m living off microwave meals so I don’t have to go into the kitchen. I spent all of Christmas and New Years having panic attacks. I’m currently sitting here really needing to pee, but not getting up because there’s random people in the house and I just wanna use the damn bathroom without getting cornered by an uncle to be asked if I’ve healed up from the surgery on my cervix yet. I broke down crying in the garage yesterday because something of mine had been moved again and I’m so on edge that the slightest little thing is sending me over. I used to be able to tolerate or even be totally comfortable bumping into people I know and now just the idea of it has me tensing up. I’ve even been getting hives.
So doc, what the hell do I do here? We’re planning on moving to another country on a year or two due to the boyfriend’s job, but in the meantime, I’m spiraling hard. Boyfriend is hella supportive but there’s only so much that can do when this is our living situation. Moving out isn’t an option, moving to my home country is legitimately impossible thanks to the political situation. I’ve tried to enforce some boundaries as best as I can but there’s such a huge cultural barrier in play here that I don’t think it actually occurs to people that anyone would be bothered by any of this. How do I learn to live without my usual (admittedly high) level of privacy, alone time, and control over my environment?
Back In My Shell
DEAR BACK IN MY SHELL: There’re times when you’ll have two people who just aren’t compatible. They may love each other to pieces, but the differences between them are just too great to make the relationship work. Those are often a tragedy. One of the lesser known – but equally tragic – relationship dilemmas is when the differences aren’t insurmountable… but the situation is untenable, turning inconveniences into disasters and the usual rough edges into mis-matched gears.
I’ll give you this, BIMS, if you and your boyfriend make it through this, then your relationship will be bulletproof. There’re few things that test the strength of a couple quite as much as throwing yourselves into a new country and a family dynamic that is the complete opposite of your own. Add incredibly close quarters with no opportunities for personal space and you’ve got a recipe for a relationship achieving critical failure – messily and all over the place. For a lot of couples, this particular experiment would end like a pair of rats in a too-small cage – with one pile of bones and one fat rat.
Of course, before that can happen, you have to survive the experience without going insane.
If you want to keep your sanity, then you have two priorities. The first is to get some much-needed space. This may be a problem due to sheer logistics; after all, you’re not in a place where you can dictate the rules or have more of a say about who has access to your living space. And while your own space can be mental as well as physical… right now it sounds like you need some serious isolation time.
Ideally, you would be able to move far enough away that you could find your own place but close enough to still be able to commute to your respective jobs. If there were some sleepy bedroom community or suburb nearby that you investigate, you might be able to get some much needed alone time.
Another option – though one that might be financially feasible – might be to look into getting a hotel room or AirB&B for a night or two on the regular. Even if you and your boyfriend pitched it as “hey, loving couple need a little alone time”, this would at least be a chance for you to get away from the maddening crowds and recover a little of your emotional stability.
Alternately, if there are places that you could reach with ease that are relatively isolated or that offers sufficient solitude – whether it’s a library or a quiet patch of woods or field – those might give you enough time on your own to let you rebuild your reserves.
But your second priority is going to be communicating with your boyfriend. You are, in a very real way, a stranger in a strange land and he’s your primary point of contact with his family and his culture. This means he’s also on deck to be your first line of defense and the one to be the defensive linesman to your quarterback.
(Can you tell I sports quite often?)
He needs to be running interference for you – explaining to your family just how seriously different this is for you and how much it’s taking a toll on your sanity. It’s not that you’re the ugly tourist who refuses to follow the local custom, it’s that the things that others take for granted are literally damaging your health. You’re doing your best here, but you’re reaching the breaking point. And if your boyfriend wants to continue being your boyfriend – or not dealing with a proper meltdown – then the best thing he can do is start being your advocate. This may take a serious and awkward conversation – possibly several – to suss out, since he may not realize that this isn’t just a little quirk you can get over. But once you can make it clear just how much this is damaging you, then he’s the one who’s in the best position to help establish boundaries like “please don’t touch my girlfriend’s stuff, no really”. He might also be able to help make arrangements like “Let’s let BIMS hide in her room for an hour with headphones and a white-noise app” so that you can get at least some refuge from the crush.
The thing to remember – and something to reinforce to your boyfriend and, through him, to his family – is that being an introvert or having serious social anxiety in crowds isn’t something you just “get over”. It’s part of you, as much as your teeth and bones, not something that you can will away or grow out of. This means that if you and he are going to have long-term potential, he’s going to have to make accomodations for you, just as you’ve had to make accomodations for him. It’s just that your accommodations involve things like “yeah, she needs to not be around people for a while.” And that, honestly, isn’t that big of an ask – even in an incredibly outgoing and extroverted country.
It’s good that there’s an end-date to your trials, BIMS; knowing that makes it easier to grit one’s teeth and persevere. But it’s not going to do you any good if you grit your teeth so hard your jaw snaps. Work with your boyfriend and find your space wherever you can. It may take getting creative – hell, it may take straight up, hiding. But you’ll get through this.
And when you do, you’ll know that you and your boyfriend can survive damn near anything.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I work with this girl she is 6 years my senior. We started flirting back in May of 2016. She was not ready then, I was not ready then(did not know it), we got super close and it imploded somehow.
Fast forward to July 2017, we where prepping a department together for inventory(we never stopped being friends) and a fellow coworker called us out on liking each other. She gave me the eyes I first fell for and tried to make out that she didn’t like me like that.. Now here we are. Two friends of mine are actively pursuing her. I’ve been offering advice, even when I tell them how I feel… but look, I want her to be happy.
Recently we were all hang out at a pool hall in a large group. She’d come with one of my friends – though strictly platonically – but the whole time she’s giving me that vibe. Every few seconds we catch each other glancing at the other; we lock eyes for a minute take a break repeat about 10 more times. Things are so close to what they used to be, but I am trying to wait for a chance to have a conversation with her away from work so we can talk it out.
But I am unsure if I should just let her know at work when we’re both on break. Or keep trying to fit into her busy schedule(she is a single mother of three).
I have found myself over this last year. I am confident that we would work together. I am just scared to take the plunge… How do I take the plunge?
Reigniting The Flame
DEAR REIGNITING THE FLAME: My dude, you have two choices here. Either you say something or you don’t. The longer you wait, the greater the odds that someone else will ask her out on a date and the greater the odds that she’ll say yes. She may damn well be ready to take another shot at making the two of you work, but that can’t happen if the two of you don’t talk to each other. So if you want this to happen, then you’re going to have to make it happen.
Straight talk: there is no reward without risk. Do you want a second chance with her? Are you convinced that she’s ready to try again with you? Then you’re going to have to reach down into your guts and find the courage to pull her aside. Tell her that you want to find time to talk. And if she doesn’t have time outside of work, you may have to just have that talk on your break.
But if you want this to happen, you are going to have to be the one to make that jump. Nobody can jump for you.
Because if you don’t? Someone else will.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I wondered if you could tell me, in your opinion, does this girl fancy me? The way she behaves makes me think she might.. She works in a shop, and every time I go in, I see her near me, even if she wasn’t in that actual place before I went in.
When I go near the tills, she happen to be nearby, every single time. It’s like she gravitates towards me. Also, every time I go in, she will look at me for a long time, if she is far away. After that, she will be sneaky, and look at me from behind things when she probably doesn’t think I know she is doing it. I seriously think she spends more time looking at me, than not. I am shy, and I think she is too, because we never speak to each other. She also plays with her hair and clothes, I notice.
I have never had this situation before, because all of my girlfriends have been friends of my sisters, and things have been arranged through them. Do you think she is keen?
Reading The Tea Leaves
DEAR READING THE TEA LEAVES:
So let’s see… she’s always in proximity to you, seems to be playing eye-contact games and gets fidgety when you’re around?
That sounds like someone who’s hoping you’ll talk to her, RTTL. Now there’re a lot of other factors that can complicate whether someone in the service industry is interested in you – and it’s tricky when you’re a customer and they’re an employee. But there’s a surefire way to know if she’s into you:
Start talking to her and, if things go well, see if she’d be interested in going on a date.
Kind of amazing how well that works, honestly.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)