DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m a straight male, and I don’t have a lot of relationship experience: only two girlfriends in high school, and neither lasted much longer than one month. In both cases I fell madly in love and didn’t realize it until weeks/months after they’d broken up with me. The thing I learned about myself through all the ensuing depression/self-loathing/suicide attempts is that I get hella attached, fall hard, and then take for freaking ever (years) to move on with my life.
Fast forward nearly 6 years and I’ve gone all throughout college without having one single date or substantial crush. This made it easier to dismiss my earlier post-breakup insanity as having its roots in adolescence, but I didn’t have the early-twenties relationship experience to test that theory for sure. Until now… Long story short, about a year and a half ago I met a girl online (long-distance) and proceeded to fall madly in love with her as well, despite the fact that we’ve still never even met in person. Well, things aren’t looking good right now and, SURPRISE! I find myself back in the same serious depression I was in before.
I won’t bother you with the intricacies of this particular long-distance shit show. The most interesting thing about it is that it’s led me to discover that I haven’t, for lack of a better word, “matured” at all as a romantic partner since high school: Reoccurring heartbreak aside, when I’m actually IN relationships I’ve always been the needy partner who cares more about my girlfriends than they do me. I’ve always been the one dumped, never the one who facilitates the break up or ceases to show interest and effort. I’ve always found something noble in the idea of sacrificial love: devoting myself to a person so fully that I always sabotage the relationship and risk sabotaging myself. I still find meaning in giving myself over to someone, even if they don’t appreciate me that much during the course of the relationship or know I still love them months and years after its over. I’m also realizing that I am now and always have been the most sensitive and nostalgic person I know, a professional-level crier, riddled with insecurities, clearly still a depressive, and kind of a hoarder (emotionally and otherwise. Recently, Long-Distance Girl told me I’m controlling, and I suspect my OCD has something to do with that as well.)
My friends who have more relationship experience than I tell me that the idea is to find someone who makes you the best version of yourself, but I seem to only have 2 modes: “Normal Chill Yet Empty Inside Me,” and “Obsessively Hopelessly In Love Me.” A change in girl has never yet changed that paradigm. Plus I think even if I found a girl I wasn’t so obsessive and self destructive about, that would just mean, comparatively speaking, that I wasn’t as invested in the relationship; and why would I want that if I know I can love so much deeper?
So Doc, my questions are: is this the kind of thing people eventually grow out of? And if so will it come with age, or only though more relationship experience? And if the latter, isn’t that a Catch-22?
Should I just resign myself to the fact that this is the kind of lover I am, and only look for girls who are likewise needy and very, very devoted?
Thanks for the work you do,
Obsessively Hopelessly In Love Me
DEAR OBSESSIVELY HOPELESSLY IN LOVE ME: OK, keeping in mind that Dr. NerdLove is NOT really a doctor… I don’t think your OCD has anything to do with this. I think the problem is that you have low self-esteem and some emotional issues and you set yourself up for failure with relationships. This behavior isn’t terribly uncommon when it comes to people with depression, f’rex; we tend to be desperate for love and believe that we’re completely unworthy of it. As a result, we tend to become incredibly needy while engaging in behavior that intellectually we know is going to kill any relationship we’re in deader than disco.
It’s a messed up way of having your cake and eating it too except in this case it’s craving cake and flinging it across the room because we may want it but we don’t deserve it because we’re worthless and don’t deserve a delicious cake and I’ve kind of lost track of where I was going with this metaphor.
The point being is that the behavior you’re engaging in is fairly classic; you’re prioritizing somebody else’s approval and affection for you that you throw yourself at them like a lovesick puppy and calling it “love”. Except that’s not love. That’s desperation and it’s actually incredibly selfish. You’re not devoting yourself to somebody, you’re trying to make them love you by doing everything for them and making everything about your relationship with them.
Because, honestly? There’s nothing inherently noble or even romantic about “loving” somebody to the point of self-harm or self-destruction. Not only do people — people who’re worth dating, at least — NOT want their lovers to blow up their lives for them, but it’s not like you’re even doing it for THEM. You’re doing it for YOU; by making such a production out of what you’d do for them, you’re trying to create an obligation towards you. “Look at everything I do for you, how can you NOT love me back?”
I’d suspect – especially if you’re anything like me when my depression was at its worst – that when you’re in your “hopelessly in love” state, you’re always wanting to talk to them for hours, always doing things for them, always worried that you’ve said the wrong thing and wanting to spend every single waking moment with them. When you’re with them, I’d imagine you’re incredibly physically affectionate, always wanting to hold hands or keep your arm around them or kiss or what-have-you.
That may feel like you’re being a devoted, affectionate boyfriend. But to everyone else – especially your girlfriends –this is incredibly smothering. You’re continually asking for reassurance, clinging to them as though you’re worried that she might get away and always afraid that if she talks to somebody else, she might leave you for them. A lot of the behavior you think is sacrificial and devoted is really demanding that she take responsibility for your emotional well-being and that’s a hell of a lot to ask of a partner, especially a new relationship.
(Did I mention that I used to be exactly like this? Because I did.)
Part of the problem is that you’ve romanticized your issues. The fact that you throw yourself completely into them isn’t proof that you love them deeper. It’s a sign that you don’t feel like you have value in and of yourself outside of what you do for others. You’re not winning people over with the strength of your love, you’re showing them that you’re incredibly insecure and demanding their constant attention and reassurance. Your friends are right: the best partners are the ones who inspire you to be the best version of yourself, just as you bring out the best in them. It’s a relationship of mutual respect and self-respect.
I think what you need, more than anything else, is to talk to a therapist and getting yourself emotionally healthy. Those issues you mention – the depressive moments, the insecurities and mood swings – are things that you should be working on before you try to date. You don’t need to be in perfect emotional shape to date, but you should be in good working order… and right now, you’re not. Spend some time getting straightened out, and I suspect you’ll find that you have fewer and fewer issues with being overly clingy with future girlfriends.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)