DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I (27M) met this woman on Bumble a few months ago. We met each other in person for a low-key meeting to see if we vibe together, and we certainly did. We had similar interests, shared values (which is pretty rare in the rural southern place I live). There was one big problem: that meeting happened a few days before the COVID-19 lockdown. Obviously, we weren’t able to go on any real dates after that.
We kept texting throughout it, but it slowed down, because she works at a hospital lab, and she volunteered to process the COVID-19 tests, and we live in a state that was hit particularly hard. I figured “fine, these are unprecedented times, dating is definitely going to be different, that pre-relationship anxiety of ‘oh god, am I doing something wrong’ is going to be extended by default.” I’ve heard about how much stress medical workers go through, and the fact that she’s doing the tests means she’s definitely at risk of exposure to the virus, and she mentioned that she lives with her high-risk father.
So I figured that her being slow to reply to text messages was a pretty normal thing, since she was diligent in replying to text messages eventually, and she gave pretty substantial replies, and we would even have deep conversations sometimes. I would suggest FaceTiming/remotely watching a movie, she mentioned not having a lot of time. Once, we eventually talked on the phone, we talked for two hours, I was really happy, she sounded really happy. A bit later, she apologized about how she was dodging my invitations to talk or video call, and mentioned what I suspected, that she was really busy and stressed. I didn’t think much of it, until a couple of weeks later, my friends told me that I seem to be obsessing over this, that this is clearly causing me anxiety, that they think she’s unintentionally leading me on, not being upfront about what she wants.
And now this is making me think, is she? So how do I proceed?
On The Back Burner
DEAR ON THE BACK BURNER: I half agree with your friends, OTBB: you do seem to be obsessing about this and it’s causing you stress and and anxiety. That’s not great, and that’s something you need to work on. But we’ll get to that in a second.
Where I disagree with them is the idea that she’s somehow leading you on.
As a general rule, whether we call it back-burnering, bread-crumbing or whatever new cutesy buzzword folks want to toss out there, leading somebody on tends to follow specific patterns. The person who’s doing the leading has no interest or intention of starting a relationship or going on a date with the other person. However, they do like the attention or get a charge from the fact that they know someone likes them. Sometimes they like the validation of knowing that someone’s interested in them, even if they don’t return those feelings. Other times, they get off on the feeling of having that power over somebody else. Still other times, they like knowing that they have a backup plan, a “break glass in case of sex emergency” in their back pocket. And occasionally you’ll find someone who will keep somebody around as an orbiter because they can trade off that person’s crush for favors or gifts or what-have you.
So what they end up doing is giving just enough attention to keep the other person on the hook. They’ll send flirty but non-committal texts or posts or give just enough attention to keep the other person around without actually moving the relationship forward. They make a point of giving the bare minimum to keep somebody’s hopes up without giving so much that it could be seen as an actual invitation or commitment of some sort. So while they’ll be happy to send something vaguely flirty or enticing, they won’t commit to an actual date — or often even more than a very brief conversation. If they sense that their target is starting to slip out of their grasp, they might dial up the intensity so as to give the appearance of a chance and keep them around, but they’ll always have reasons to flake or ghost on them. Usually at the last minute.
Now it’s important to note: this isn’t always conscious. Some folks don’t necessarily recognize that this is what they’re doing, or don’t think of it as trying to keep them hooked. But it doesn’t change the fact that they only give just enough to make sure that their target doesn’t do something like, say, start talking to somebody else. Somebody who might, y’know. Actually show up for a date with them.
From what you’ve described, that doesn’t sound at all like what your crush is doing. She’s not doling out her attention like precious drops of nectar that you only get rarely. She’s not having brief, non-committal text exchanges or only giving you just enough to whet your appetite. You’re having substantial conversations, including a two-hour phone call, but you aren’t having any sort of date.
Keep in mind: she’s a healthcare worker, which means that she’s on the front lines of not just a global pandemic, but one that is steadily getting worse in parts of the country. She’s also helping process COVID tests, which are in such demand that a lot of labs can’t keep up. And on top of all of that, she’s living with someone who’s in the high-risk category for COVID infections and complications.
With all of that in mind, which seems more likely to you: that she’s callously keeping you on the hook because she likes having you dancing in attendance, or that she’s in an incredibly stressful and time-consuming job that takes up most of her emotional resources and leaves her with very little energy afterwards?
NerdLove’s Razor: don’t attribute to manipulation that which is equally explainable by not having the time or energy. It seems fairly clear to me that the issue here isn’t that she’s back-burnering you, it’s that the pandemic is taking everything she has to offer right now. Which sucks, yeah… but that’s one of the risks of dating someone in health care. Their time is rarely their own, and it puts a LOT of demands on them that often leaves them with very little bandwidth for anyone else.
Now the bigger problem here isn’t with her; it’s with the way you’re approaching this. Quite frankly, you’ve overinvested in someone you barely know. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure she’s a lovely and amazing woman… but you’ve only hung out with her once. You haven’t gone on any dates, you don’t have a relationship with her outside of texts and occasional phone calls. The level of anxiety and stress she’s causing you is far out of proportion to what the situation would call for.
Under normal circumstances, I’d tell you to basically put her on the back-burner yourself. Keep texting and having calls, sure… but don’t put all your hopes, your time or your energy on trying to get her on a date. Get back on Bumble, match with other folks, flirt with them and see if you can have some socially-distanced, COVID-safe dates.
But considering how much anxiety this is causing you, I think you should seriously consider talking to a counselor or therapist. You’ve mentioned that you have similar anxiety issues regarding dating; if this is a regular issue for you, then it may be better to put dating aside for a bit and address the anxiety instead. Most therapists these days will see patients via telemedicine, and many will work with you if you have a hard time affording them. If you can’t find a therapist or counselor in your area, you might look into an app like Talkspace or Betterhelp or even something self-directed like Mood Gym. But getting your anxiety under control will serve you far better in the long run than going through this pain every time you try to meet someone new.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com