DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I need some help figuring out what to do, and I will be upfront and say I fracked up and I caused this crisis in my life and I know I was wrong, but I still don’t know what to do next. I need you to do the thing where to tell me what my real problem is and how to fix it. In simple steps because I can’t handle big ones right now. (And please don’t tell me “I’m afraid there are no more things left to do.”)
The pandemic hasn’t been handled well here and I’m just getting my second shot next week; the percentage of vaccinated people where I live is dreadfully low. The rollout has been slow and there’s a lot of vaccine hesitancy here. My office was supposed to reopen at the end of July (I was so looking forward to it), but now that’s been pushed back to November and I can’t wait that long to get back to some sense of normalcy. I am going insane. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I really think my brain has changed and I don’t know how to change it back.
Some background, I’m married to a man, we’ll call Luigi, and we have one kid. His brother, Mario, is married to Peach and they have 3 kids who like to play with ours. Mario, Luigi, and Peach are all very close. I asked Luigi when we started dating about their relationship and he explained they all bonded really quickly when they met, as Mario’s and Luigi’s parents died when they were kids and Peach’s parents gave her up, so they all had a lot of similar experiences. When I met Luigi, it was a little intimidating because they were all so comfortable with each other and had their own inside jokes and I have always been more socially awkward. But Peach really went out of her way to include me and explain inside references and be kind to me. Mario is friendly to me, but I always got the feeling it’s just because Luigi was into me; he never asked “get to know me questions” or expressed a real interest in me, but he’s ever been rude. Luigi says its because they moved all the time as kids and so Mario never really practiced forming proper friendships when they were younger. Luigi, on the other hand, wanted long-term friendships, but says he was perpetually disappointed when friends fell away after moving. As the years have gone by, I’ve grown closer to Mario and Peach, but I’ve never felt like I truly assimilated into their group, though that’s OK. I have never had tons of friends, but I have a couple close friends of my own and some “work friends”, and Luigi and I have a strong relationship, or so I thought until about 4 weeks ago. And I was never really jealous of Peach and her friendship with Luigi, because I never picked up on any overly flirtatious interactions between them. I never say any “red flags” and Luigi and I are pretty open with each other (i.e. we know the passwords on each others phones/email) and I never felt he was hiding anything from me.
I know this pandemic has been hard on everyone; I’m not unique in that respect. And I’m lucky I still have my job. Our pandemic bubble consists of just our two households. This is where I explain that I really think my brain is broken but I don’t know what to do. I am introverted, and I love my family of course, but it has been very stressful having my husband and kid home all day while I’m working. I’ve been working remotely from my bedroom for more than 18 months and I’ve had to pick up extra responsibilities because we lost someone on our team and haven’t hired anyone new. Added to that, my Dad, who I was very close to, passed away last year. We couldn’t hold a proper service for him because of the pandemic. Maybe I am just worse than everyone else at handling stress, but all of this has added together and I can’t focus anymore. I used to be able to sit and work. I could get through a lot of work and do it well. But now I sit at my laptop and try to start writing and my brain thinks of 100 things I need to do. I genuinely try to be productive, but my brain keeps going to the dishes or mowing the lawn, or do I have enough insurance, or when can we bring the dog to the vet. I’ve never been a big procrastinator before, but everytime I try to bring my focus back to work, 5 minutes later, its gone again. I am now finishing briefs and reports at 2am the morning before they are due, instead of a day early. And I know my work has more mistakes than it used to, which really bothers me, because I take a lot of pride in my professional identity. I am the first person in my family to earn a degree and a graduate degree (same is true for Luigi) and I’m used to being good at things. Now my work is mediocre and I’m worried my bosses are going to start noticing, if they haven’t already. Peach, actually, has been really nice, which kind of irritates me (I’ll get to why in a minute), and has been taking my kid during the day so I can work in the house more quietly. And Luigi has been trying to pick up more of the chores so I have time to catch up on work (which also irritates me). And this would be great, but I can’t seem to focus on work like I should. I need things to go back to the way they were before, but the “normal light” at the end of the tunnel just keeps moving further away. The adults involved are almost fully vaccinated, but the kids aren’t. And I can’t go back into the office until November. And the schools have said they plan to open in the fall, but it is still “tentative.”
Sorry, I know that was a long lead in. So what did I do 4 weeks ago to blew up everything? Well, while I was trying to write a brief, I thought, I really need to go through the boxes in the attic and throw out stuff we don’t need anymore. I told myself I would just sort some stuff for an hour and then if I got that done, I could focus on work. So I went upstairs and starting sorting things into trash and donate piles and I knocked over a box with Luigi’s old journals. He keeps a daily journal and I’ve never been tempted to read them before because I know that everyone is entitled to their own private thoughts and I am (was) a grown ass woman. So I put all the journals back in the box and went back to my laptop. And I got a few sentences on the page and then I could see in my mind’s eye that box of journals on a pedestal with a beam of light shining on them with a chorus singing in the background. Honestly, I don’t know why I fixated on them, but I didn’t go back to read them, that day. The next day though, while I sat staring at my screen, I just thought if I read just a couple pages of one, then I could put it out of my mind and then focus on my work. So I did the terrible thing and I picked up the one from last year and started reading. It happened to be a sweet recollection of spending time with my kid and I. I put the journal back, vowed to not do it again, and then went back to work, and then swept the floors, then back to work, then….. back to the journal, and then over the last few weeks all the journals in the box. And it turns out, as you may have guessed at this point, that Luigi is in love with Peach! That is the only explanation for what I’ve been reading and I don’t know how to move on now. There is no actual affair, and I would know now, but he’s been carrying a torch for her since they’ve met. Apparently, Luigi and Peach had one hot and heavy makeout session before she married Mario and she shut it down and told him it would never happen again and they’d never talk about it again. And he writes about how it was awkward between them for a bit, he felt bad about it, and it didn’t happen again. This was almost 10 years ago! And he’s still writing about her, or what things would be like between them now, more frequently when he’s stressed out over something or after he and I have an argument. Just….why? Why can’t he let this go? He obviously feels guilty about this, he wrote about feeling guilty about his feelings, especially in the earlier journals. Does she have some magic lips? Why does he still think about her? He doesn’t write about any of his exes. He’s an otherwise logical and self-reflective person, so why is he still carrying this torch?
And then of course I’m left to wonder what’s wrong with me. Why am I not enough for him to forget her? Am I just second place? I used to be confident in my appearance, I’m not a model, but I’m reasonably attractive. But now I am constantly comparing myself to her. And yes, she is objectively more beautiful than me. And I worry now that I am not Luigi’s “type”. I mean, if he is still hung up on her, Peach and I are different body types, different ethnicities. We have somethings in common, were both professional, accomplished women, though I may be losing my job soon. And we share a couple interests, but now that I’ve obsessed about it, Peach has more shared interests with Luigi than I do and she has more in common with Luigi than Mario. This has me second guessing everything in my relationship, and now I am wondering does he wish I was her when we’re together. Obviously this has affected things and it kills me that’s he’s noticed and trying to be considerate. He thinks its just stress from work and the dumpster fire of 2020/2021. It makes me so angry he’s being considerate because that makes it harder for me to be angry at him. I know that sounds crazy. It also makes me angry that Peach is being so nice because I want to hate her. And now I’m over-analyzing every joke or interaction I see between Luigi and Peach, I can’t decide if I should be angry that she’s not batting her eyelashes at him and he’s still into her, or happy that she’s not. Again, I know that sounds crazy.
I don’t want to blow up everyone’s life, but I want to yell at all of them. I want to scream at Mario that he needs to wake up. Why isn’t he jealous at all? I want tell Peach to back the frack off, but she’s not actually doing anything wrong. I want to punch Luigi and I want mindwipe myself. I thought Luigi was happy with me before and I thought I was what he wanted. I want to go back to feeling good about myself and stop feeling like a consolation prize. I know I created this mess, but I don’t know how to fix it. I can’t tell Luigi I read his journals because I know I committed a massive violation. I’m too embarrassed to talk to my couple of friends. I am falling more behind at work, I’ve grown more distant with all my family, and that’s not fair, especially to the kids, and the guilt over that is making it even harder to concentrate at work, but I don’t know what to do next. Can it still count as a fugue if you plan it? Please help.
Husband Is In Another Castle
DEAR HUSBAND IS IN ANOTHER CASTLE: Ok, so there’s a lot going on here, but as always, let’s start with the simplest factor and work outwards.
First and foremost: you’re still dealing with life under COVID. Even as more and more of the country is going back to something approximating normal, we’re still living in unprecedented times, and that’s weighing on you. One of the things that doesn’t get acknowledged enough is that the background hum of COVID, the Jan 6th insurrection, the loons that’re still litigating the election and the fear of the Delta variant take up a lot of emotional bandwidth. That means that our feelings and emotions are all that much louder, that much larger and that much closer to the surface. This means that s--t that wouldn’t ordinarily affect you or bother you so strongly hits much harder than it would under other circumstances. Tempers are shorter, our ability to can is drastically reduced and folks’ nerves are sandpapered raw and angry with it.
So it’s not at all surprising that you’re having a harder time in general; you’re working at a greatly reduced emotional capacity. And when you add in having very little distance from your husband and kid or space of your own, it’s really not a mystery why it seems like everything’s louder than everything else. You’re having a hard time focusing because it’s all right on top of you. Your productivity is reduced because you’ve got so much less mental and emotional space to work, especially with work you don’t find particularly engaging or stimulating. A lot of times, procrastination is our brains’ way of trying to avoid stuff we find boring, unpleasant or otherwise unengaging. It’s not gonna produce the hit of serotonin we want, so f--k it, let’s do something else that will.
Thus, you end up cat-hoovering — you’ve cleaned everything, organized everything and done everything you could besides your work, and now you’re seriously considering vacuuming the cat to have something else to do besides the work. And since you can’t get work done, you don’t even get the pleasant dopamine hit of accomplishing tasks that need to get done — tasks you used to pride yourself on.
And to make matters worse, you lost a family member during the pandemic and you can’t even have a service to say goodbye to him. That’s beyond rough; that’s heartbreaking and a wound that can take a long goddamn time to heal. Trust me, I speak from experience on this one.
All of that is going to combine like passive-aggressive Constructicons in order to form a mental health Devastator, wrecking your productivity, stymying your dopamine production, f--king your chi and generally making life miserable.
I suspect a lot of this could’ve been avoided if — and this is assuming you’ve got the financial wherewithal to do so — you took a couple days and holed up at a hotel somewhere so you could focus on work and not have people on top of you constantly. A couple days of breathing room might have done you a lot of good. In fact, I suspect it still might.
But let’s get to the next issue: you snooped. You had a moment of weakness — a weakness that was, to be fair, exacerbated by the pandemic and your circumstances — and decided to go through your husbands journals. And while it’s great that you have each others passwords and all… you still snooped. While I know a lot of folks will say that snooping can be justified after the fact if you discover anything incriminating, it’s still snooping. You violated his privacy — things he had written that he clearly never intended for anyone to see, including you. And one of the consequences of snooping in your husband’s stuff is that you learn things you might not have wanted to know and that you can’t unknow.
Like the fact that your husband had, and may still have, feelings for Peach. Nothing untoward has happened between them, he’s given you no cause to believe that anything has happened and the only thing you’ve learned is he’s keeping journals and writing about his feelings… including feelings about Peach.
Now, at this point, I have a few questions that, unfortunately aren’t covered by your letter. How much of his journals are about Peach, for example? Is it nothing but talking about her? Or is it that he’s processing his feelings and frustrations in private, in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone, and occasionally it involves Peach? Is it a standard journal of day-to-day thoughts, feelings and events, or is this some Henry Darger-esque In The Realm of the Unreal style creative writing exercise that just keeps going? I suspect it’s more that these are standard journals and you’re zeroing in on the parts that talk about Peach. God knows one of the more annoying parts of the human experience is that we zoom in on the s--t that most upsets us and ignore everything else. We all have an innate negativity bias that means that negative or unpleasant emotions, memories or experiences hit us five times harder than positive ones and we give five times more attention to those negative experiences and stimuli.
But I’m also not there, and I’m not reading over your shoulder, so I can’t say. You’re gonna have to be the one to tell me.
At this point though, you regret what you’ve done, you regret reading what you did and now you’re stuck knowing what you wish you didn’t know. And I empathize; it really sucks. But honestly… that really is a case of “f--ked around and found out”. And frankly, there isn’t really much to be done. Certainly not under the current circumstances. I mean, to start with: dude’s got the right to privacy, including the privacy of his own thoughts. Relationships and marriages aren’t depositions, and couples are allowed zones of autonomy and privacy… especially in their own heads. And in a real way, Luigi’s journals are an extension of his head and his thoughts, just stored externally. Maybe one day he would’ve let you read them, or maybe he was always gonna take ’em out in the back yard and set ’em all ablaze in a cleansing fire. But they were his business, not yours.
And then there’s the question of “what happens next?” Leaving aside that first you’d have to tell him that you read his journals — and the ensuing s--tstorm THAT will cause — what, exactly, can Luigi do for you right now to make you feel better? Are you honestly in a place where you can trust him when he says that no, he doesn’t have feelings for her? Are you willing to believe him when he says that no, you’re not his consolation prize? Or that his journals are his way of processing his feelings, including the guilt he very clearly feels about having made out with his brother’s fiancee? Are you going to be able to respect his privacy, or are you going to need access to any future journals, just in case?
A more important question, though is this: has he done anything to make you doubt how he feels for you? Leave what he wrote out of it. If you look back on the way he’s behaved over the course of your entire relationship, has there ever been time when he’s given you reason to not trust him? Has there ever been a point where it’s felt like he has not loved you, cared for you or wanted to build a life with you? I mean, you’ve had years together and a kid; there’s plenty of evidence that you’re not just a replacement goldfish for the relationship that never was.
Part of the problem is that you’re dealing with is a perfect storm of emotional f--kery from the pandemic, from losing your father, from the stress of work, trying to get vaccinated, working under s--tty circumstances and now this. You had relatively little bandwidth to spare and now you don’t have any. I think the last little support you had holding everything together snapped and now the dam has burst and everything is flooding the valley below. You’re dealing with a situation that would make anyone want to scream and yell and grab people by the shoulders and shake’em until candy came out and you have no distance from it and no way to get a break from it.
And I think you may need that break more than you realize.
It’s been hard — really hard — for folks to get any space during the pandemic. Even in a nice house with plenty of room, it’s easy to feel like you and your partners/roommates/kids/what-have-you are constantly up in each others’ faces with no room to breathe or recover any spoons. And while under normal circumstances partners and spouses don’t necessarily “count” as company for the purposes of extroversion or introversion… for the last year and a half, that went out the window. I think one of the best things you could do for yourself is get some space — literal, as well as metaphorical — so you can breathe, so you can focus and (possibly) get some work done. If you have access and the money, I think it wouldn’t be the worst idea to take a long weekend at a hotel or AirB&B by yourself. I think getting away from everyone and everything would let you recharge your introvert batteries, cut away all distractions so you can focus on work and, critically, give yourself room to breathe.
I think with a little distance and a little time when you don’t feel like all of this is constantly hanging over you like some sort Sword of Lakitu, then things might not feel so dire or immediate. While I don’t think the hurt will be less, I think you’ll have freed up enough bandwidth that you’d be able to actually face it without feeling like you’re holding on by your fingernails. And when you HAVE that space and free up some bandwidth… well, I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to talk to a relationship counselor to try to figure out how to best process your feelings in a productive way.
Right now, I don’t think there’s really going to be a point to confronting Luigi over this; it’s too raw, you’re too close to it and under the circumstances, I think it you and he would end up saying things that would be unnecessarily hurtful and not at all helpful. Talking with a relationship counselor will help you work through your feelings and give you vocabulary to discuss it and then you could be in the position to talk things through — either with Luigi alone or with that counselor to help facilitate things.
But until then, one thing I would suggest is my usual policy of deeds, not words. How Luigi behaves and how he treats you is far more indicative of his true feelings than trying to read his mind — literally, in the case of his journals. If a friend were to describe his behavior — without the context of “and here’s what I read about him and Peach” — to you, how would you interpret it? I suspect: like he’s a loving husband and father who’s trying his best.
And one more thing: I realize I go on about monogamy not being our default setting, but one thing that’s important to realize is that love and attraction aren’t zero-sum games. It’s entirely possible for him to have lingering feelings about Peach and still love you with his whole heart. What he does or doesn’t feel for someone else doesn’t dictate how he feels for you. It’s not always “either/or”. Sometimes it really is an “AND”.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org