DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I recently discovered your site as the result of it being mentioned on PhilosophyTube. It’s really fantastic, but also a bit overwhelming.
I’m 38. I was in my first serious relationship for three years, from 2016-2019. It was crazy toxic. Much like in the PhilosophyTube video on “Men, Abuse, Trauma,” towards the end of the relationship I had pretty much just stopped functioning. Nothing I did for her ever seemed to be enough — she was never satisfied with me as I am, or the relationship, or our life together simply as it was; she always wanted better from me, more from me. Whether it was how I dressed, me putting aside my own work to spend time reading books on how to be a better boyfriend, putting aside my friendships to spend more time with her, putting aside my hobbies or interests to read up on her chronic illnesses… it felt to me like she was just endlessly demanding more and more of my time, and of my mental/emotional energy. If we had quality time or cuddling, I don’t think she ever once in the entire relationship said “okay, that was nice. thank you. Now let’s [get some work done / get some dinner / go do X].” Her saying “let’s cuddle for just 20 mins” would inevitably turn into four to six hours. It often felt like any kind of pushback I gave, any kind of standing up for myself, resulted in her getting upset with me and insisting that I still had never done enough, had never been enough, that all that I’d done for her was only the minimum, that the bar was so low…
So I finally gave up. Not as a power move, not as a way of playing mind games, but as a way to protect myself. To stop myself from giving more when I felt my emotional tank was so empty already. To try to get the space I needed to hopefully destress, relax, re-energize myself, so that I might no longer feel at the end of my rope, so I could re-charge on patience, on my ability to give emotionally. Even just on a practical level, separating myself from those endless demands on my time so that I could get some work done, and having gotten more work done, then feel like I had more time to give.
In any case, the relationship ended in disaster. And now it’s almost two years later, and while I’m doing a lot better mentally, emotionally, on my own, having rebuilt my own confidence and happiness and so forth, the idea of getting back into a relationship just brings all that stress right back to the surface. Reading through some of your posts, e.g. “5 Ways to Become Someone Women Want to Date,” makes me feel like the barriers are just insurmountable.
I’m not looking to be a player or to be the kind of guy who picks up girls in bars. I’m not interested in just any girl, and I’m not interested in sex. I’m not interested in dating around, in the sense of playing the dating game or playing “the field” or anything like that. I want a partner who I can live a happy, relaxed life with. To share hobbies and interests, to share friends, to share maybe a cat and way too many indoor plants. I want someone to go to museums and concerts and theatre with, to try out new restaurants with, to go traveling with.
In your piece on “5 Ways to Become Someone Women Want to Date,” you talk about being the person /you/ want to date. And I’d like to think that at least in some respects I am attractive, appealing, a good person. I’m not a slob – I’m still figuring it out but I like to think I have a pretty good sense of style, a pretty good wardrobe. Prior to this relationship, I thought I was a rather patient guy, kind, caring… in the first half of our relationship, she often said I was not like her other boyfriends, that I’d shown so much more patience and kindness than they ever did. And I think I’m rather feminist, too; I know and understand a lot of the issues that a lot of guys are either ignorant about or actively resistant to acknowledging. So, in at least some ways, I would like to think that I’m already “the person I would want to date.”
But, reading through some of the other points, like “Take Control” and “Provide Security,” I just feel so exhausted, and this year and a half since leaving my girlfriend hasn’t made me feel any less exhausted. After years of her pressuring me to transform myself, to put aside my work, my friendships, my everything to devote myself to becoming a better boyfriend — cooking, cleaning, attending to her needs in bed, attending to her needs otherwise, learning how to be romantic, learning how to provide better emotional support, learning how to attend to her panic attacks and other severe emotional needs, etc etc etc — and her never being satisfied, to just wake up and say “things are good. I’m happy. I’m so glad I have you.” To never ever say that anything I did was good enough. To never say that my mistakes or flaws are okay, that we’re only human and it’s okay… After all of that, reading these things about how I still need to put in work, still need to learn to “take control” in just the right ways, how to be responsible and reliable in just the right ways, how to provide emotional support in just the right ways, just thinking about all of that, I can feel an anxiety attack coming on. I don’t ever want to have that kind of relationship again, where I’m fighting to be seen as valued, as appreciated; where just being myself is never enough; where I’m constantly trying to compare myself to some ideal of how to be a better boyfriend rather than just being compatible, and good, rather than just being happy, and loved and cared for, for who I am. …
Sorry this was so rambling. How can I get over this burn out? How can I start to feel less drained, less exhausted, and more ready and able to put in the work that needs to be done to become a better potential partner? Thank you.
Running on Empty
DEAR RUNNING ON EMPTY: I’m sorry about your previous relationship, RoE. You were in a very toxic relationship with someone who, quite frankly, treated you like s--t. I’m not surprised that you’re burnt out. You spent several years being ground down by someone who demanded more and more from you than you ever had to give — emotionally, intellectually or physically. That’s going to leave anyone drained, even under the best of circumstances. But the thing you have to realize is that while you’re out of this relationship — and thank God for that — the damage that has been done is still there. Not because you’re weak or too fragile, but because you spent three years in a toxic relationship and that s--t takes time to heal.
And honestly, it doesn’t sound like you’ve had much time to heal. Healing isn’t just a matter of time passing; it’s a matter of going in, disinfecting the wounds and stitching them shut. It’s about rehabilitating the injury so that you can gain your strength back, instead of being hobbled by it. It sounds like you haven’t done a lot of that work of healing just yet, and frankly that should be your chief priority. Right now isn’t about trying to get back to dating, it’s about recovery. It’s about prioritizing yourself and your healing from everything you went through with your ex, so that you’re ready to start doing any sort of work to be a catch.
And one of the tells here is the way you phrased things: “being a better boyfriend.” Your problem wasn’t that you weren’t a good enough boyfriend, your problem was that you were a reasonable person in an unreasonable situation. You were dating someone who was actively harming you, who wounded you to your soul and left you feeling like this was somehow your fault.
And it wasn’t. This wasn’t your fault. This was all about her. And the fact that this also coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m not surprised your batteries are low right now.
The fact that you’re exhausted isn’t a surprise, nor is it a sign of weakness. It’s a sign that you went through one incredibly taxing situation and before you had a chance to start the recovery process, you got dropped into one that was even more taxing, in new and different ways. And that’s ok. You’re allowed to be tired, you’re allowed to not have the energy or the drive to do much more than just getting through this. That’s perfectly fine; that’s all anyone can reasonably ask of you right now.
So right now, your job isn’t to worry about becoming someone women want to date, your job is to heal. Take dating — or even the idea of getting ready for dating off the table. That’s not something to concern yourself with right now. The thing you should be concerning yourself with is healing and getting better. Husband your energy and spend it on yourself. Find the things that speak to your soul and make you feel glad to be alive. Indulge in the things you’re passionate about or the things you’ve wanted to try but haven’t had a chance just yet. Surround yourself with people who love you and care for you and affirm you — the people who have your back. Let yourself feel loved, so you can remember that you’re deserving of love.
And if your ex’s words or actions are weighing on you, then talk to someone. Maybe you need to talk to a trusted friend and just share. Maybe you need to find a counselor to help unpack your understandable and complicated feeling about your relationship. This is part of disinfecting those wounds, debriding the injury to get rid of infected tissue and removing any debris left behind. And while it can sting, that’s the sting that precedes the healing.
Give yourself time. You don’t need to be getting out there right now; you don’t need to be trying to get ready to get back out there. Like an athlete who sustained an injury on the field, getting back out there too soon does you no good. It just makes it more likely that you’re going to get hurt. So give yourself time to recharge and recover. Give yourself the gift of healing and rehabilitation. There is no timeline here, there is no deadline. There will be time enough for love and relationships when you’ve been able to heal.
Treat yourself with kindness, RoE. You deserve it.
All will be well.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org