DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Dude, I just don’t know what to do. I’ve never been married, and I’ve only had a few long-term relationships in my 52 years. For a long time I didn’t even try to date at all, because I had just given up. But a few years ago, something convinced me to give it another shot, so I looked at all the online dating sites and created accounts on a few of them. I’ve met a few nice guys, I’ve met a few assholes, you know how it goes. I did date one guy for about a year and a half, he really loved me, but I just couldn’t fall in love with him, no matter how hard I tried. So that ended, and a few months later, the world went to s--t with COVID.
By that time, I was actually feeling like getting back to trying to date, so I looked here and there, even though I was going to be very cautious about who I met and where. So there I was on Tinder, and I met Kermit (not his real name, obvs). Our texting on the site was fine, he asked for my number so he could call me, and then he actually did call me. We talked for an hour and a half, and right from that first phone call, there were all kinds of bells ringing. We decided to meet a week later, a picnic at a park. It was A-MAAAAA-ZING. We clicked like nothing I had ever experienced before. I didn’t even think I COULD feel that connected to a man! My head was spinning.
And the connection wasn’t a one-time fluke. We kept seeing each other, not as often as I would like, but his schedule was wonky because of COVID and because he has primary custody of his 12-year-old daughter. After seeing each other a few times, he kinda threw me for a loop when he told me he was seeing other people, but I appreciated that he was honest and direct with me about that. The next time we saw each other, I initiated the dreaded “Define the Relationship” talk. He was again very honest with me, said he was still getting over his marriage, and he wasn’t ready to be in a committed relationship, but he really liked spending time with me, and wanted to keep seeing me. I have never felt a connection with anyone like I do with him, so I told him that I could be patient until he was ready.
We have so much fun when we’re together. We laugh a lot, we like a lot of the same things, we have similar outlooks on life and similar values, the sex is fantastic, and I genuinely like him. But the texts became less frequent, and the times we got together started getting farther apart. Now it’s been a year since we first met, so I brought up the “Where are we going” talk again. He said he liked spending time with me, he always had fun with me, but he still wasn’t ready to be in a committed relationship. Then he told me a little more about his marriage, and it turns out it was a lot more toxic than I had realized.
Basically, she was nuts, treated him like s--t, and now he’s pretty f--ked up about relationships. Even though it’s going on two years since they split, he’s just not able to be in a committed relationship, and he doesn’t know when he will be ready. He was actually great through this whole conversation, he gave me time to process, time to talk without interrupting, and when I got a little quiet, he asked if I wanted to talk about it some more. I asked him what I was to him, a potential long-term partner, a friend with benefits, or what. He took about 10 second to think about it, and said that I might be a long-term partner at some time in the future, but right now I’m a friend with benefits, and he knew that wasn’t what I wanted to hear. Through this whole conversation, he was so kind and gentle, but still direct and honest, even when his truth was painful to me. I really like the way he communicates.
So after we had talked about all of this, I told him that his ex had massively f--ked him up, and he would really benefit from talking with a therapist. I see one myself, I know the value of getting professional help. He didn’t get all macho and defensive about that, he said I was probably right, and he’d think about it. So this brings me to my question. How long do I keep waiting?
I read your column, so I know you’re going to tell me that he’s not The One because there is no One. But dude, I’ve never connected like this, never felt like this about anyone else in my entire life. Over 50 years of thinking that there was just no one I would ever have the kind of best-friend-and-lover relationship I’ve always wanted, then Kermit blew all that up. I know he’s f--ked up from his toxic ex, and I know I can’t fix him, but he seems open to getting therapy, so he may fix himself. So how long do I keep waiting? The thought of giving up on him and moving on makes my heart hurt. I have a great, full life, so it’s not like I’m just sitting around waiting for him to text or call me, and I can certainly keep doing that if he’s on the road to getting his head back together right. So, your thoughts?
DEAR PATIENTLY HOPING: Here’s my thought PH: what’s more important, the man or the label?
This isn’t an idle question. I want you to ask yourself whether you could be happy having this guy in your life, if the price of entry was that you and he are “friends with benefits” for now?
It sounds to me that, up until you had the first Defining The Relationship talk, things were going swimmingly. It was only after, when he realized that you and he seemed to be on different pages that he pulled back. And, in fairness to you and to him… that was probably the right call, at least at first. If you wanted something from him that he couldn’t provide — or wasn’t in a place where he could provide it yet — then it would be cruel of him to keep things as they were. After all, this meant that he was keeping you from finding the kind of relationship you wanted.
But the relationship you wanted… is with him. You want the experiences you were having with him, the fun you were having, the feelings of being heard, appreciated and also amazing goddamn sex. Which, hey, legit. But there is a part that he can’t give you right now and that’s exclusivity. He’s still dealing with the fallout from his ex-wife and all the way that’s f--ked him up. It’s not really a surprise that he’s not ready for something serious or long-term right now.
At the same time: he clearly likes you, loves spending time with you, loves talking to you and you two have great chemistry. You and he have a relationship; as I’ve said before, a friends-with-benefits relationship is a relationship. It’s right there in the name. It doesn’t just mean “f--king without expectations of commitment”; the friends part is as crucial as the “benefits”. And from the sounds of it, he seems to be taking the “friends” aspect seriously and giving it the consideration and weight that it’s due. The relationship may be casual, but he’s not treating you casually. He obviously would like to be in a place where maybe this could work… but he’s not there yet.
But what you have now — a functioning relationship, if not an exclusive one — is something you and he both get a lot of value from.
Which brings me back to your question: is the man or the label the most important part here? Are you able to meet him where he’s at right now, enjoy what you have right now and be in the moment while he’s working on his issues? Are you able to appreciate what you have with him now, even if it means that for now you can’t expect exclusivity or long-term commitment? Is this relationship able to meet enough of your needs that you’re satisfied and happy, knowing that there’s a part that you can’t have yet… if ever? Or is this an all-or-nothing situation?
I’m not asking you this in this way because I lean one way or the other. I’m asking you like this because I don’t know if you’ve asked yourself whether you can accept what he has to offer for now, even if it’s not everything that you want. Sometimes we can let our hopes or expectations obscure what we have. Sometimes our idea of what we want — or what something like a particular label would mean — keeps us from fully appreciating what we’ve got.
What you have is a relationship with a man who clearly likes you and cares about you. It’s not the relationship that you would prefer to have with him… but is he, specifically, worth the difference? Are you able to accept what he can give now, knowing he’d like to be able to give more but can’t? Knowing that it may take him time to get there… and knowing that he might not get there?
I’m not gonna lie: that’s a really difficult question. And that answer could very well be “no”, you can’t be friends with benefits. Not having exclusivity or expectations of commitment would mean that things are too painful, or that you might feel he can’t or won’t give as much as you need or as much as you give him. That’s legitimate. That’s a real, understandable concern, and you would be well within your rights to say “I’m crazy about you, but I can’t do this.” That doesn’t mean that you don’t care for him enough, nor does it mean that your feelings weren’t real or strong enough or that you weren’t strong enough. It just means that, as much as you are over the moon for each other, he isn’t right for you. There’s no good guy, no bad guy (well, besides his ex), just s--tty luck and worse timing.
As the song goes, sometimes love (or something approaching it) just ain’t enough.
Speaking strictly for myself: my belief is that sometimes it’s worth it to take what someone can give right now. If they’re that awesome and you can see things working out down the road — if it is a possibility, not something that has definitely been cut off — then being willing to be in the now and appreciate what you have can work. But the operative word is “can”, not “will” and not “should”. It’s acknowledging the possibility of it working, not the guarantee. It’s resolving to be in the moment and savoring what you have, knowing that it could still end. But, to my mind, it’s the old hoary cliche of “better to have loved and lost”; sometimes our lives are enhanced by our lovers, even if the relationship didn’t go the way we hoped. Even if it does end, it’s possible to look back and say “well, at least we had that for a little while”.
But that’s not every relationship, nor every person or situation. I’ve tried it before and it didn’t work out, and that hurt. A lot. I’ve tried other times and while things didn’t go the way I’d hoped, it brought a lot of good to my life. And it’s not going to be the right approach for every person. It may not be for you. I don’t know. The only person who can answer that question is you.
If you are willing to give that a try — and that’s a mighty big “if” — then I recommend your saying so to Kermit. Tell him that obviously you want more than he can give right now, but you also appreciate what you two have and you don’t want to lose that yet. Have a different Defining The Relationship conversation this time, more of a “ok, how will this work?” convo and see if you can make an arrangement that works for you both. But if you do — and again, I stress if — then you have to accept that this comes with the agreement that he’s going to work on things at his own pace. That means you can’t push him, even if it seems like he’s not doing anything; that’s a great way to cause the whole thing to fall apart. If he’s not ready to work on himself or talk to a therapist, no amount of outside pressure is going to change his mind. But the reward of having you in his life can be the motivating factor that encourages him to work on his s--t.
But if you can’t do this, or it seems like he’s not working on his issues and you’re out of patience, out of energy or it just hurts too much to stay… then let him go. It’s going to hurt. It’s going to hurt a lot. But the clean break heals the fastest, and ending it now, while you still care, means that there’s a better chance of having something together in the future, even if it’s a platonic friendship. Staying in something that hurts too much will just curdle affection to anger and respect to resentment and taint the happiness you’ve had already.
You’re the only one who knows what choice is right for you.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com