DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: So I had a decade long relationship with a lady (We’ll call her B) which came to an end. We both realised we needed to do things for ourselves and work on becoming better more mature people emotionally for each other. In order to work on some of our toxic habits within the relationship, we took a break from the relationship. But the reality is, we weren’t sure if it was a permanent break up or not.
Fast forward a year after, we continued talking and having fairly regular friend-sex, but I made a huge move away. We had spoken about wanting to get back together for months, but we both believed we weren’t quite there yet. We see each other as the one and only of our lives, but we had been dating for the entirety of our adult lives, and sometimes it felt like things were missed outside of our relationship . I have started to become needy and concerned in my time away wanting to talk to her more but I was busy with work and worried she would see me as needy and annoying. I was also scared that she was seeing other guys. Getting so scared about it made me feel very insecure, selfish and immature, wanting her to myself even though I moved away from her.
For some context, I have had sex and some teenage experiences before being with her, but I was her first and only experience for the last 10 years and I think that slightly adds to my insecurity. She has used that slightly as a reason to wanting to see what it was like to sleep with others.
After moving, she continued sending me things like nudes and telling me to hurry and visit because she’s getting “desperate” — just all playful flirty fun to get me rushing back sooner I guess. But last night I tried to call her wanting to catch up and talk about the “us” situation.
Well it ended in her missing my calls and telling me later she has been having sex with some other guys specifically that night while I was calling her and other nights before this, she would reaffirm that nothing was serious, I was still special and important and saying things like no one gets her or makes her feel like I do, especially sexually. She also said that a lot of what she’s been doing has been to due to depression; she has a history of self harm and ended up replacing it with sex, sex that I could no longer give her since I moved.
(I was unaware of the self harm coming back up until recently; she had only continued in the last few months.)
I guess my question is: how do I come to grips with all of this? I truly believe she still loves me and I know I still love her. After a long up and down night, we seem more determined than ever to get back together and make it work in the near future. Of course, the geographical location side of things being eventually dealt with as well.
But I feel so horrible and like a fool. It’s brought me to tears every day, I feel angry, replaced and unneeded, but also jealous and somewhat envious. She was happy for me to see other girls but I can’t bring myself to even try now, I don’t see myself as someone who could get laid or do the dating thing anymore. Not to mention I’m still madly in love with her and don’t want to string other girls along just for sex to even some sort of score between me and B.
I am dealing with all sorts of emotions daily now and plan to make regular visits to her until it either we break up for good, or one of us makes the move and we get back together. I want to feel important and special, and she says all the right things but I am having such a hard time getting over her experiences while we weren’t together. I wanted to be mature and understanding but I’m struck with jealousy and anger like nothing else.
She tells me she doesn’t want to keep sleeping with guys after talking to me, that she wished I was more needy and spoke to her on the phone more, that might have made her less wanting of finding other temporary guys. I wish I put in the effort now, I feel like an absolute fool for trying not to bother her constantly when she tells me now that’s what she wanted, that she hasn’t thoroughly enjoyed sex without me and misses talking to me.
I just wanna be the better man and believe she wants me over anyone else and be better for her, that I don’t become resentful because of her interest in experimenting out there during our “break”. Help?
Break Up or Break Down
DEAR BREAK UP OR BREAK DOWN: So I’m not gonna lie: I hate “we were on a break” with the firey passion of a thousand suns. I hated it when it became a punch-line on Friends, I’ve hated it when couples suggest “taking a break” as a means of dealing with issues in their relationships, and I hate how it never seems to have gone away.
Straight talk: there is no such thing as “taking a break”. It’s one thing to, say, decide that you’re not going to see each other for a little while because you both need space — and hey, every couple needs space on occasion. We can’t expect our partners to be all things to us and trying to make them fit into that role is a recipe for stress. Plus, even the most loving couples will turn into rats in a cage if they’re cooped up in too small a space. Even Gomez and Morticia have a mansion, graveyard and haunted forest in which to do their own thing.
But “taking a break” is a very different beast. “Taking a break” is what you say when you don’t want to admit the truth: you’re breaking up. You may be breaking up under the assumption that you’ll get back together some day in the future… but you’re still breaking up. And unless you have specifically talked about what this does or doesn’t mean and how long you think it’s going to last, then everyone involved needs to understand that it’s functionally a break up and to respond accordingly.
Amongst other things, that means understanding that you can’t expect your partner to be celibate during the time you’re broken up. They may or may not decide to exercise that option, depending on circumstance… but the fact remains that they have it. As do you. Your relationship is functionally over; holding onto the expectation that they’re going to continue acting like you two are still together and the rules still apply is a recipe for heartbreak.
Now in your case, things can feel a little complicated. You two were still talking and hooking up. This isn’t entirely unusual; there are plenty of couples who had great chemistry and affection for one another but couldn’t make things work as a relationship. They may have broken up, but they still talk, hang out and have sex on occasion.
(In fact, for some couples, the problem was the relationship. Take away the relationship label and the attendant expectations and suddenly things work so much better and they’re much happier with one another)
However for you, this blurred the lines; it felt like “taking a break” was more of a formality rather than a break-up. As a result, you continued to behave and think about B as though you two were still together. This is the source of the conflict because B didn’t. She treated this like a break up and as though she were single again instead of just waiting to run down the clock to get back together. That right there is part of the problem; that dissonance between what you thought you two were doing and what she thought you were doing has lead to your feeling hurt and betrayed by the fact that she was also seeing other people.
To be fair: she really didn’t help things by telling you that she missed your call because she was banging some other dude. In fact, her telling you that was both unnecessary and needlessly cruel. All she needed to say was that she was out or busy; the additional detail was pain that could have easily been avoided.
But regardless, the fact that you didn’t treat this like a break up may have also blinded you to an important point: she still loves you. In fact, she was making it clear: she still loves you, desires you and that you’re incredibly special to her. Her having been with other guys — whether it was a matter of self-harm or not — doesn’t change that. Sex isn’t a zero-sum game; her having slept with other guys doesn’t make her feelings for you any less real or special. Hell, she’s telling you, straight up, that none of it was as good or exciting for her as it was with you. If you had treated this more as a break-up and not a temporary interruption in service, you might not be putting the same emphasis on her having slept with someone else. It may still have stung — it can be hard to hear our exes have started dating again — but you wouldn’t be feeling like it was a betrayal or a referendum on you as a person and lover.
All of that having been said: the problems you two are having now — from whether this was temporary or a break-up to what she wanted and needed from you to what your expectations were — come from a lack of communication. You two may have been talking, but it doesn’t seem like you were saying the things that needed to be said. You weren’t sharing what you needed from one another or what you expected to come of this break. So you need to start having those conversations now, at length and in great detail. If the two of you want to get back together and make this work, then you need to have a series of in-depth, awkward conversations about where you are as individuals and as a couple. You need to make sure you’re both on the same page about what you want, what you need from each other and — even more importantly — what you see as being the issue or issues with your relationship. Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much you two may love each other; if you don’t resolve the issues that lead to this in the first place, all you’re doing is setting yourself up for the extended dance remix of your first break up. And that one will be a lot harder to pull back from.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)