DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’ve been meaning to ask you this question for a long time because, frankly, I think this is a kick in the ass that’s been a long time coming.
I’ve been a fan of your site for a long time and it’s been fun and funny getting a dose of masculinity that pushes back on the BS narratives that our culture peddles when it comes to love, sex, and dating. I am pretty sex positive, I feel comfortable in my own brand of masculinity, and at this point in my life I am loving being single even though I’ve been thinking more and more often lately about giving online dating a try (I’m going to be 38 this year, am a virgin, and I do not give a flying frak that I’m a virgin).
There’s just one problem that continues to persist and bug me in my adult life that, even when I try to take the stance of “those feelings will ALWAYS be there and I just have to get used to it”, and it’s a case of Oneitis I have had for almost twenty years. I have a friend, I’ll call them Lee, and I’ve known her since my freshman year of college. To me (cue Swiss commercials of chocolate), she is one of the nicest, kindest people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and right now, one of my best female friends. And we have not seen each other in person since her wedding a decade ago now, and even before that most of our communication was via text, which we chat almost daily.
It didn’t really click until a few years back that this was even Oneitis because I had thought I had moved on, but when I think of love and sex, to be honest, Lee is one of the first people to always float to the surface of my mind. And our online only friendship has allowed this perfect idea of an imperfect person to become lodged in my head, and at this point my feelings towards her are so complicated that, I want to be a good friend to her while also being true to myself and moving the frak on to find happiness without her romantically, and I think Lee wants me to be happy too. And I think if I went nuclear and cut them out of my life, it would result in a lot of hurt feelings on both sides, especially with it being so out of the blue.
Now, I’ve been s--tty at times, especially when I was in my twenties and was emotionally needy as hell. That’s another reason I want to fix this is because Lee tolerated a LOT of online BS from me. I was emotionally needy countless times and I constantly sought validation from her. It was so bad, I even shared what my various kinks and fetishes were with Lee, just so I could feel some form of acceptance for my fantasies. I’m now a lot better getting my validation from myself, but back then it was bad. Lee said they’ve forgiven me for how I used to act, and even now I try not to talk about sex topics with her unless it comes up naturally in conversation, like if she ask how my adult fetish art hobby is doing (which is another story). So, she has given me nothing but support, and I need to move on.
(As an aside, I think I was guilty of an assumption I think a lot of men in their twenties try to do when they first learn about sex positivity, which is to just be upfront about the things they like and damn the consequences without regards to how other people feel, and to encourage that attitude in others when they might prefer to keep their sexual feelings and likes to themselves.)
The other thing that doesn’t help is how similar I seem to be to Lee’s partner, Ben. There are times when Lee is talking about Ben that, it is eerie how similar we are without trying, from our temperaments to our likes and dislikes to how we act. It’s one more fly in the ointment where I wonder if we might have had a relationship in a different life, but then I wouldn’t be the person I am today with twenty years of growth and struggles that I think have made me a better person than if I had gotten married in my twenties. And then there are the times Ben and Lee get in arguments and fights and I want to rush to Lee’s defense and, I can’t because there are things a man can’t say about his female friend’s partner without sounding like a jerk, even if there are times I’m concerned that Ben’s protectiveness creeps into being controlling but I don’t know how to say it or bring it up tactfully. I also can’t say how pretty I think she still is when she struggles with her weight or other various problems and ailments that come her way.
So, while on the one hand, I’m fairly certain I have a type and, while Lee isn’t perfect, she meets a LOT of the things I think I’d look for in a romantic partner and has helped me realize what I want, I have to recognize that Lee is happily married and can only be my friend, and I need to move on, and I know that is something she would want me to do too. She has said as much when I’ve talked about my lack of a love life, and I want to be true to our friendship. And I wanted to say, to other sufferers of oneitis, please do your best to move on and not get stuck in the same rut for twenty years like me.
DEAR READY-FOR-THE-GUILLOTINE: Alright, someone call the porter because there’s a lot to unpack here.
It’s hard to know where to start, but we can start with the ways you’re making this harder on yourself than it has to be. The first and most obvious example is the idea that this is a complicated situation and your feelings are hopelessly entangled and… well, they really aren’t. You have feelings for the version of Lee that exists in your head and you aren’t ready to give them up.
I’m not entirely surprised by this; you’ve made being in love with her (for suitably variable definitions of love) part of your identity. One of the reasons why folks are often reluctant to give up on their unrequited crush is because that crush has become part of how they define themselves. They’ve made “I’m in love with X and they won’t love me back” a core part of their self-concept — the answer to “who are you?” It’s not terribly surprising, honestly; unrequited love is incredibly dramatic. It’s prime fodder for quick and easy character depth. I mean, how many shows are airing right now that feature main characters who are at least partly defined by the fact that they’re in love with someone who doesn’t love them back?
I mean, that’s at least half of the shows on the CW, bare minimum.
But the problem is that the drama in and of itself is addictive; it makes everything feel so much more intense and significant than if you just treated it as “well, I’ve got an annoyingly persistent crush”. And that feeling of intensity and drama makes it much easier to rationalize why you can’t accept things and move on. This is part of why you have created this false dichotomy where your options are “these feelings will just be there FOREVER and I have to get used to it” and “I have to take the nuclear option, cut ties and never talk to her again.” Those aren’t your only options; they’re just more exciting and play more to the imaginary drama that you star in.
Now to be fair: all of this sounds like I’m being dismissive or condescending and I’m honestly not. I know exactly of which I speak; I have been there, I have done that and I have the (thankfully long deleted) emo LiveJournal posts to prove it. And trust me: I am very familiar with that incredibly polarized language you’re using because I’ve done it myself.
Another clue about this is the fact that you say a lot in your letter, but it’s the things you don’t say that’re a little more telling. Specifically: the lack of any other attempts to move on. You talk about how long you’ve had these feelings for her, but you don’t talk about, say, ever actually trying to date anyone else. The closest you come to bringing this up is “thinking more and more about trying online dating”. I notice the lack of “again” or “one more time” in that. That’s a kind of important tell; it’s difficult to maintain a case of Oneitis when you’re making good faith efforts to date other people. This is especially true when you, y’know, haven’t seen them in person in 10 years.
(I wish to stress that the operative word here is difficult, not impossible; again, been there, done that, etc. etc.)
And then there’re things like the ways you compare yourself to her partner; you use the supposed similarities between you and Ben to maintain the belief that you and Lee could work. I mean, he’s basically you except for the parts where he’s a jerk, right? So clearly this is meant to be, if she would just realize it. I mean what does he have that you don’t?
Besides Lee, anyway?
Are the two of you similar? Probably, in some ways. That’s not exactly surprising or a sign of anything. If you were to do a general survey, you’d probably see very quickly that the vast majority of people’s romantic partners are similar to their friends. After all: those are the personality types that they click with. People, as a general rule, don’t start relationships with folks who are polar opposites from the people they’re friends with. It would be a little weirder if you (or Ben) weren’t similar to one another. However, there are also very clear differences — those differences are part of the x-factor that affects who we are romantically or sexually interested in vs. who we like as friends.
Then there’s the fact that you’re manfully holding yourself back from doing things that you feel, on some level, like they might ruin your chances with Lee. Things like criticizing somebody’s partner when they’re treating that person badly or offering reassurance or commiseration when they’re feeling down are things friends do for their friends. While I can understand not wanting to sound like you’re badmouthing Ben in hopes of somehow Svengali-ing your way into Lee’s pants, just between you, me and everyone reading this… there’s the part of you that’s hoping Lee will recognize that you’re the better match and look at how good you are about not trying to interfere, isn’t there?
And look, there’s also the fact that Lee is your primary, possibly only, source of validation and emotional intimacy. That likely has a lot to do with why you fell for her in the first place. Guys, especially guys with few close friends, are often so starved for emotional intimacy that when they finally experience it — usually from a female friend — they confuse it for romantic attraction. And when the object of your affection is your main — or again, only — source of intimacy, it’s much harder to step back from that. Even when that’s precisely what you need.
So, how do you get over this stubborn case of Oneitis? Well, the usual cure is time, experience and maturity… usually as part of dating around and realizing that as wonderful as your crush may be, there’re millions of other women out there who are just as amazing, if not more so. As a wise man once said:
Our love is one in a million, you couldn’t buy it at any price
But of the nine point nine nine nine
Hundred thousand other possible loves
Statistically some of them would be equally nice
But this is completely contingent on actually being willing to let go of the dream of ever being with Lee. That doesn’t mean that you need to just FORCE HER OUT OF YOUR LIFE, nor does it mean JUST GETTING USED TO THOSE FEELINGS. The former is unnecessary, and the latter isn’t true. What it means is that you live your life as though you weren’t nursing this long-standing crush. That means, among other things, acting like a friend to Lee instead of Perfect Alternate Universe Boyfriend. It means actually making a point of going out and dating — possibly even going and just getting your v-card punched because f--k it, why not? Will that cure your Oneitis? Probably not, not in and of itself. However, it is something that would mark a change in your life. That change would serve as a convenient delineation of life before/life after. And also hey, sex is awesome and folks who enjoy it should go out and have more.
But it also means understanding why you’ve let things linger for so long and what you’re getting from this that you’re afraid to give up. In this case, it means having more sources for intimacy and friendship besides Lee. While I’m sure she’s great, you’ve put all of your metaphorical eggs in that particular basket, and that’s perpetuating this mess. Just as having more sources for dopamine and oxytocin are key to getting over a break-up, having more than one place to go to get your needs met is going to be critical to getting over Lee.
This also means being willing to deprioritize her, at least for now. You can’t get over somebody if you’re constantly reinforcing how much you love and miss her and oh if only things could be different. If you’re having Pavlovian reactions to the text message notification or texting her constantly, then you’re making it that much harder to let her go. While this doesn’t mean that you have to cut her off, it does mean that she needs to be a lower tier of importance to going out, meeting people and making more friends.
And what about those feelings? Well, part of what you need to do is learn that they’re just that: feelings. They’re not commands. They’re not imperatives that must be acted upon. They don’t define you. They’re just something you’re experiencing. Part of how you learn to deal with those inconvenient emotions isn’t to try to get rid of them, it’s simply to recognize them for what they are. When you feel those feelings well up, you note them and name them and just move on. “Oh, yeah, I’m experiencing my crush on Lee right now.” “Ah, ok, I’m currently feeling jealous of Ben, good to know.” It sounds odd, but simply acknowledging that you’re feeling these things by name takes away their power. By being mindful of your feelings and recognizing them, you also realize that you don’t feel them all the time. The more mindful you are, the more you recognize how much time you spend not feeling them and not dwelling on them. Similarly, they remind you that feelings aren’t definitional; you aren’t defined by being in love with Lee, you’re feeling things about Lee. As absurd as it sounds, this diminishes the amount of power those feelings have over you and lets you move forward.
You don’t need to give up your friendship with Lee, but you do have to be willing to allow it to change. And yes, letting go of your Oneitis is going to change that friendship. What it will become is up in the air. However, being afraid to lose it entirely is as much about your unwillingness to let go of your Oneitis. Until you are able to accept that there will be a change… nothing can change. It may be scary to risk the (non-zero) possibility of your friendship changing, unless you take that chance, you’re going to be stuck in this rut for even longer. And you’ve been stuck there for long enough.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com