DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: This isn’t really about romance. This is about managing the underbelly of masculinity as it touches on otherwise reasonable people with Baggage. And trying to do it with humanity.
I’m (cis-woman) in school – a graduate program – and I’ve got this friend (cis-man), who’s also in school, but an undergrad. We are both quite a bit older than the rest of our classmates, and we are the same age (mid-30s). So of course we self-identify as members of the same tribe and become fast friends. We both love thinking hard about the same intellectual pursuits, we share a cynical attitude towards pop culture, millennials, and love learning for the sake of it.
Lovely, right? Well yes generally. But here’s the thing: M* – let’s call him that – doesn’t have a whole lot of emotional support. Not a ton of friends. No kidding! I mean, he’s got “friends” but they’re 21 and it’s hard to relate. I admit I run into the same problem, but my “younger” friends are 28-31, and so we share more life experiences.
The upshot is that pretty much every time he hangs out he does the emotional download. I call it the All About M Show. He occasionally suffers from bipolar disorder and depression, so it can get intense.
We we are not talking All About M, we engage in intellectual debate – fun! – but he’s the assertive sort that has to Win. I’m a Ph.D. student – I like to learn. I don’t want to win. In fact, competition stresses me out and this is in fact why I quit my perfectly well-paying respectable job to return to school. Meanwhile, M’s a bit of a freight train when it comes to verbalizing his inner monologue. To contribute to a conversation, I have to pluck up the energy to actively interrupt him. He lets me do this. And when I do, he listens. Unfortunately, I really want him to ask me what I think. To ask ME questions for once. Why this irritates me — apart from the whole “male privilege” crap — it gives me flashbacks from yesteryear of interacting with a Depressed Mom who suffered from depression’s peculiar kind of narcissism. I was socialized to be a Good Listener — and I don’t f
king want that job anymore.
The upshot of THIS is that occasionally I’d feel too exhausted to hang out with him. I had to (1) be on my toes and prepared to interrupt him during the intellectual parts of conversation and (2) patient enough to Listen Kindly to Problemz.
I THOUGHT I was navigating this. I thought I was doing a decent job internalizing and then compartmentalizing the mommy issues. but THEN he wants to introduce sex into the picture. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this at first. Went home to think about it for a few days. Sex is nice, he’s a good friend, win-win right? Hm. He sold it pretty well.
Nevertheless, I sent what I thought was a relatively thoughtful email about how I wasn’t interested in FwB at my age. It would just turn into a mess for me. Seriously, I’m 36. I’m in New York. I’m up to HERE with “casual.” Sleeping with him would make me hate him eventually. He responded well, and things went back to normal.
Well, I thought things were fine. Yet, a few more days later, and I just got angry. Explosive anger. I feel like a free-therapy-blow-up-doll and I actively do NOT want to see him anymore. The frustration floating around in my chest surprises, shocks, and bothers me.
He didn’t bring up the sex issue again for a few months. Did it again the other day. Now I want to block his phone number. I want to punch him in the face.
I think a lot of my anger derives from stereotypes about men, my own less-than-fond-memory-producing past experiences with exes, and the aforementioned mommy issues, and not from M at all. Can you help me untangle some of this??? I’m being a complete dick, right?
The advice from the peanut gallery is to just “break up” with him. If it’s not fun, don’t do it. I guess I need permission to flake on someone.
Not The Therapist
DEAR NOT THE THERAPIST: There’re a couple of issues here, NTT. The first is that dealing with M takes a lot of emotional and mental energy, energy that is hard to come by when you’re a doctoral candidate. He sounds like the sort of person who’s well-meaning but self-centered and somewhat clueless; call it male privilege, call it pure ignorance, whatever it is, friendship with him isn’t going to be a two-way street without some major direction from the other person. And that’s gonna be a tough call for anyone, never mind someone who’s in grad school.
The other is that, inadvertently or not, he’s triggering emotional PTSD and that’s seriously f
king up your chi. He keeps managing to hit these emotional landmines on top of the issue of being a difficult friend and that’s throwing you for a loop.
Now, I don’t think the rage and anger you’re feeling for him is necessarily justified – unless he’s being a major s
t, I don’t think his behavior has necessitated a punch in the face – but it’s still real and it’s bothering you. That’s a legitimate issue and it’s something worth addressing. It sucks that he doesn’t have as many sources of emotional support, and it sounds like he needs a lot of it, but that’s not your responsibility. You didn’t sign a suicide pact, you’re not under contract to be his emotional sounding board or his supplementary parent. This is doubly true if being friends with him puts you through this wringer when you hang out together. You aren’t obligated to sacrifice your own mental and emotional well-being for him.
So yes, you’re perfectly justified in breaking up with him, as it were. But here’s something to keep in mind: you DON’T need to justify ending a relationship. You are well within your rights to end a relationship with someone because you just want to. Full stop, end of story. It might be nice to tell him why – “Listen, you’re really intense and you’re hitting some buttons that really bother me” – but it’s not necessary. If your lives are entangled together – commingled finances, living together, etc. – then it’s better to give some advance notice so you can both make the necessary arrangements, but it’s not as though you have to get permission to break up with someone, whether you’re dating or just friends.
So, permission granted. Stop being friends with the guy and stop sacrificing your emotional well-being when you don’t need to.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: First off I want to thank you for opening my eyes up to the fact that talking to women is a skill that, like any other, can be improved with practice. For the longest time I was confused by the societal idea that this skill is something you are either born with or you are screwed for the rest of your life.
Now, on to my question. In your article about surviving high school, you wrote that this time is best spent learning to talk to women as friends and focusing on self improvement.
But in that same article you refer to talking to women as a skill that one can get better at by putting in the hours.
Also, you’ve also written that college will be great if we spent high school improving ourselves and practicing our game. I though we’re supposed to focus on talking to girls as friends rather than “game”.
I’m really confused because I’m not sure what exactly you mean. Should we practice our “game” or just get comfortable with interacting with girls?
Sorry for the confusing question.
DEAR CONFUSED CARL: It’s both. One flows naturally from the other.
Look at it like this: talking to women in general is a skill. The more comfortable you get interacting with women – the ones you’re close to, the ones you know casually and the ones you don’t know or barely know – the better you will do when you’re talking to the women you’re attracted to.
That experience treating women as people is part of what demystifies them and makes it easier to relate. It helps increase your social calibration and your ability to joke and play around. It means that you’ll be more comfortable striking up conversations with new people and reading their signs. It means that you’ll have a wider repertoire of experiences and insights to draw from, which will help you connect with them.
There’re going to be plenty of women you’re not attracted to in your life; being able to talk to them is going to be just as important as the women you want to date.
And here’s the thing: you can flirt just for the sake of flirting. Flirting, when done right, is fun. Learning to flirt with intent and without intent are valuable skills to cultivate. Think of it as the difference between a pick-up basketball game with your friends and being in the play-offs. What you learn and practice in the former becomes part of your muscle memory and helps you in the latter.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com)