DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m a twenty-something-ish woman and I broke up with my ex-girlfriend “Sam” about a year ago. It was a super serious relationship: timeline for having kids/holidays with each other’s families serious. The official reason for said breakup is that I was tired of long distance (Sam has a temporary position in the neighboring state).
Reality is more complicated.
1. Sam was really insecure about the fact that my ex-boyfriend was my best friend as it wasn’t “normal” to stay in touch with your exes. It got to the point that she banned me from talking about him and refused to meet him and his husband/son when they came to visit. We had planned a trip to the city my ex lived in right before we broke up and I was having panic attacks about bringing it up.
2. Sam had a lot of internalized misogyny from her more conservative, Christian upbringing that led to some judgmental statements about my past.
3. I have some mental health issues that I treat with medication and therapy. They’re well managed but if anything flared up, Sam would insist I find a new therapist because the one I had wasn’t “curing” my issues. She said I was being lied to when I stated that therapy is not a cure.
4. We’d have what I took as “Let’s agree to disagree” moments about X which she’d then bring up in later unrelated disagreements about Y. She’d usually do this in front of others, with a laugh and an eye roll.
5. Towards the end of our relationship, Sam informed me she wasn’t sure how she felt anymore. She wasn’t sure she wanted to move back because there was no guarantee our relationship would work out and she was afraid she was wasting her time with the long distance. She asked me to convince her it would work.
At some point, we had a dumb argument, didn’t speak for three days. I realized I was relieved to have a break from reassuring my girlfriend about our relationship. I was exhausted trying to give Sam a kind of security no one could. I broke up with her the next time we spoke on the phone. After some time, Sam and I started casually texting. I’m able to cope as the emotional stakes were waaaaay lower. I love her sense of humor and I do take pride in maintaining friendships with former partners. I have zero interest in anything non-platonic with Sam.
Sam and my parents/brother have stayed in touch. They became close while we were together and this normal behavior for my family (they’ve stayed in touch with my aunts and uncles’ former SOs). I’ve tried to explain to my family why we broke up but they spin it some way where it’s never anything Sam did wrong in the relationship and that I’m being too picky.
Recently, Sam has pressed me to visit/come see me. My family is ecstatic about this and asked her down for a long weekend. She thankfully already had plans. Unperturbed, my parents got her a belated Christmas present. Not just any present but fancy alcohol. Which they legally can’t ship. So I’m expected to hand deliver it and I’m not sure I’m ready to be in a room with Sam.
I’ve considered the nuclear option but doing so risks damaging the close relationship I have with my parents and brother. I’ve gone with the flow up to this point. I don’t care that my family maintains contact with Sam (okay, I care a little), but I don’t want to be in the middle of it.
Questions: Is there a tactful way to extricate myself from the love fest between my family and my ex-girlfriend? Have I screwed myself by being non-confrontational up to this point? Am I being too picky? Should I have given into my instincts and chugged the 12-year-aged Scotch I’m giving Sam in two days, consequences be damned?
Didn’t Ask to be Santa’s Helper
DEAR DIDN’T ASK TO BE SANTA’S HELPER: Let’s tackle the most important issue first, DASH: you don’t chug 12 year old Scotch. That’s just a crime against alcohol. That Lagavulin didn’t do anything to deserve such treatment!
Now, with that out of the way…
Y’know, DASH, this may be one of the few times that I’ve been grateful that the only involvement my family has with most of my exes is to randomly bring up how much they didn’t like one specific one while I was dating her. If I was having to hear about how amazing she was and how I was a fool for letting her get away, I probably would blown a fuse trying to decide whether to throw them or myself out a window.
The problem here is three-fold. The first is a simple bias in perception. Your family only saw a small sliver of your relationship with your ex. They got the highlight reel, where Sam was sweet and brilliant and just Captain Fantastic. Meanwhile, you got the unedited footage, with all of the flaws, gripes, headaches and legitimate “woah that is NOT goddamn cool” of a relationship that ultimately needed to end.
Now to be fair, it’s understandable that you and your family have this split view of things; it’d be a little freaking weird if they were so deep into your relationship that they got front-row seats to your fights about your history. But that doesn’t really excuse them for insisting that you have to be part of their friendship with her.
Which leads to the second problem: your parents are suffering from one of the classic Geek Social Fallacies, the most famous of which is Ostracisers are Evil but only slightly less well known is this: that Friendship Is Transitory (And also Magic). Your parents are treating their friendship with your ex as a transitive property. They have a relationship with your ex, they have a relationship with you, therefore YOU should have an equal relationship with your ex! The fact that you aren’t going along with this is, in their eyes, a betrayal of these self-imposed Rules of Friendship. And it’s all a lovely idea except for the fact that your ex is an ex FOR A REASON, and while they’re welcome to their friendships, they don’t get to demand that you have to manage yours accordingly.
Which is what brings us to the third problem: you have some weak boundaries with your family around this issue. This is totally understandable. It’s one thing to stand up to people you don’t like and don’t have to see regularly. There’s nothing easier than telling people who will have no meaningful impact on your life to take a flying f
k at a rolling donut. It’s another when it’s people you care about, who you presumably want in your life and who you want to get along with. Drawing a line in the sand can be harder because there will be consequences! Doubly so when it feels like your family cares more about your ex than they do about you! If you take a stand and insist that you be excluded from this narrative… well, what if they decide to take Sam’s side instead of yours?
But that fear you feel? That anxiety about standing up to them over this issue? That’s precisely why you need to stand up. Because as much as you would prefer this to just blow over and go away… it’s not gonna. Nothing is going to change on its own unless you make it change. And that means telling your family that you don’t want to be pulled into their friendship with your ex.
However, none of this means that drawing and enforcing a boundary is going to be a confrontation, complete with arguments and hurt feelings. All you need to do is tell them – firmly – that you don’t want to see your ex. No, not even to drop off a fancy bottle of Scotch. That’s it. You don’t need to explain why. You don’t need to justify your decision, nor should you. Your limits are not up for public debate and your boundaries aren’t up for public vote. They don’t get to override your boundaries if your reasons for having them aren’t to their satisfaction. You said no and – as I always say – “no” is a complete sentence.
They may tell you that you’re being selfish. Yup, you are. They may tell you that you’re being unreasonable. Damn straight. BE unreasonable. All they need to know is that you don’t want to see your ex, period, the end.
If your family wants to be friends with your ex, that’s great… but that obligates you to exactly two things: jack and s
t. And Jack left town. You and you alone get to decide how much contact that you do and don’t want to have with your ex. If they want her to have that bottle of Scotch, they can courier it over themselves or they can make arrangements for her to pick up a bottle in her city.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I have been trying to use OKCupid in search of dates, hookups etc. However, I am nonbinary, and the majority of other people I “like” are also nonbinary and I find that I always have to send the first message. If I don’t send a message, then they never message me. I know the standard advice you give is for men to do the approaching of women but I am not a man, the people I am interested in are (usually) not women, I’m not sure what the etiquette is.
Also, feel free to blame my need for external validation but being the one who always has to initiate + carry conversation is bumming me out, it makes me feel like I’m not worth approaching or liking. I list several interests and potential question prompts in my profile, why won’t anyone try to court me beyond swiping right? What am I doing wrong? It’s my face isn’t it
Know-Nothing Non-Binary in NYC
DEAR KNOW-NOTHING NON-BINARY IN NYC: One of the things that’s perversely fascinating about dating apps is that as much as they were supposed to be this disruptive, revolutionary event… they essentially recreated many of the same social dynamics of approaching people out in the physical world. For all that we’re living in the future, we’re still holding to old-fashioned gender roles when it comes to dating.
It’s not that much of a surprise; socialization is a motherf
ker and God knows there’re plenty of folks – mostly men, but some women too – who react badly when people flout gender roles. But where things get interesting is the intersection of non-traditional expressions of gender and the very gendered dynamics of dating. And one of the gendered aspects is “who makes the first move”.
Over in my column at Kotaku (kotaku.com/c/ask-dr-nerdlove), my friend (and ACTUAL doctor) Dr. Liz Powell refers to this as “lesbian sheep syndrome”, where both parties stand around waiting for the other person to make the first move. And since nobody is willing to be the one to initiate things… nothing happens.
You’re nonbinary, KNNYC and so are many of the people you’re into. You and your preferred partners are all choosing to ignore the dynamics of gender… but unfortunately (in this case) this often means being willing to ignore who is or isn’t supposed to start things off. But somebody has to make the first move if anything is gonna happen. So it may as well be you.
The key here is that you need to learn to decouple being the initiator from your sense of validation, because who makes the first move ultimately doesn’t have much to do with your worth. As with many aspects in dating, you’re assuming that this is about you and not about what’s going on in their own heads. They could be shy. They could be afraid of how people might respond if they made the first move – there are folks out there who can be sh
ty to enbies and gender-nonconformists, after all. They might think you’re hot as a five-alarm fire and they’re too intimidated to make the first move because they think you’re out of their league. They might not have even seen your profile.
Similarly, making the first move isn’t necessarily validating; ask any female-presenting person about the dudes who shotgun generic, copy-pasted first messages to literally everyone.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s definitely a thrill when someone digs you enough to say “hey, I like you! Let’s chat and see if it’s mutual!” But who says it first isn’t the end-all, be-all. Someone responding to your message with “woah, you’re pretty cool, how YOU doin’?” is just as validating and potentially more meaningful.
TL;DR: it isn’t you, it’s a whole host of things surrounding dating, many of which have nothing to do with you personally or even in the abstract. So go ahead and make the first move. You’ll make somebody’s day.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)