DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Last year, I got into a FWB situation that got really messy, and I’m having a hard time moving on. I met this guy through an app, we hit it off, and hooked up. The sex was surprisingly good, because even for just a hookup: he was really interested in my pleasure, and it was the kind of sex where you really feel connected with your partner. Since that was the vibe I got just with a hookup, I was very interested in finding out how that got better with time, so I pursued him. We talked about what we were looking for, etc, he said he wasn’t ready for a commitment yet, but was definitely looking for something more casual. I was coming off a divorce, so I was in the same spot, and we agreed to friends with benefits. Simple enough, right? Well, turns out…not so much.
Shortly after this, our area upped the pandemic lockdown measures as case rates rose. Since we both wanted to be cautious, we agreed to be “COVID monogamous”: there wasn’t an expectation of monogamy, but if we were going to do anything (romantic or otherwise) that would up our risk level, we’d let the other know so they could make informed decisions with their health. All very adult and reasonable. But…turns out having amazing, highly connected sex with one person exclusively, on top of great hang-outs and conversation…it’s not easy to keep things casual. I was vulnerable with him about my needs and how I was feeling. And, eventually, I told him I was falling in love with him. He was pretty obviously shocked by this admission, but didn’t say much of anything. We had sex again, but that’s when things started to feel off. During the act, amongst other sexy-talk, I whispered “I love you” and he didn’t say anything back, just…went at it with more ardor. When we finished, he kind of shuffled me out the door with an “I’ll call you later” because he had therapy. Admittedly, I’d decided to tell him on a day he had therapy because I thought it would be a good chance for him to unpack his feelings. When I had previously been vulnerable about my feelings, he said he “wasn’t ready for a relationship yet” so I wanted to give him a chance to dive into what exactly it was he wasn’t ready for, talk that through with his therapist before responding to my admission. Based on the connection we shared, I thought he was falling in love with me too, and the problem was that we were both scared of some aspect of defining a “serious relationship” between us.
Apparently I was way f--king wrong, because he told me the next day that he wasn’t falling in love with me. At all. He wasn’t holding himself back, he’d just straight-up never even felt butterflies for me in the 5+ months of sex.
It turns out, I’d been reading him all wrong. The connection I was feeling wasn’t mutually falling in love, it was because, basically, he liked to roleplay being in love during sex. He just never told me it was a sexy game for him, and I thought it was the real deal. So all this time, when I was getting mixed signals out of the bedroom, I was blithely ignoring the pink flags while figuratively singing “It’s In His Kiss”: Sure, he didn’t seem as excited to see me as I was to see him, but he always seemed so reluctant to leave! Sure, he wasn’t returning my vulnerability in kind, but he’s just scared! Sure, he said he wasn’t ready for a relationship, but there was always a “yet” tacked on the end! There weren’t any completely red flags, he always was honest (seemingly) and sung my praises and treated me well, even if it wasn’t with the same enthusiasm as how I treated him.
In the conversation that finally ended it all, he admitted that he knew he’d been treating me unfairly. That trying to pass what we shared off as “just FWB” was dishonest of him. That having me act in a loving, adoring way was actively a turn-on for him: when I confessed I was falling in love, it made him hard even though he knew he didn’t feel the same way. He intentionally withheld his true feelings with the excuse of “I don’t want to hurt her” but really because he was having fun, hot sex and was adored by a wonderful woman and he liked it all enough that he didn’t want it to end (these are his words, paraphrased). Ultimately, I let him know how hurt I was, broke things off with him, and haven’t talked to him since.
Now for the issue itself: this situation combined with good old-fashioned ADD rejection-sensitive dysphoria is making it feel impossible to move on. I can’t get it out of my head, the ADD just wants to dwell on it. And I feel like I can’t trust myself. I used to think I was a great judge of character. Hell, my job relies on it. But I thought a guy was falling in love with me when I never even gave him butterflies. How could I miss that?
I tried to move on, date other guys (yay vaccine!). But hooking up has been a mistake because instead of mediocre-to-fun decent sex to help me forget, I’ve had disappointing-to-“he tried to stealth me” bad encounters (for readers: stealthing is taking off the condom without getting consent from or even telling your partner, and it’s rape). Not trusting myself has led to either being over-accepting or over-paranoid, and I feel like I have no ability to accurately figure out if a guy is genuinely interested in *me* or just wanting to take literally any woman who will put out. It makes me scared to pursue guys I’m really interested in, because I know if they’re not the one chasing me from the start, I’m going to want an impossible level of proof of their interest. And, in the process of falling in love with him, I did a lot of work to figure out what scared me about relationships, what was holding me back, so intellectually I felt better prepared to approach figuring out the definitions of a relationship. But now that’s putting the cart in front of the horse, because I’m too spun-up about the butterflies thing.
My therapist and social support circle don’t really understand the ADD/RSD part of it, so they try to point me in the direction of “these are irrational thoughts”/”he’s an asshole” respectively. I know both of these things, but it’s not stopping the RSD. Sitting with my feelings doesn’t really help, because my brain is happy to turn that into ADD spinning out of control and hyper-focusing on the bad feelings/upsetting parts/parts I can’t control. And I don’t want to keep trying to date like some s--tty romance movie character who’s just waiting for The Right Guy to come along and See Just How Special She Is. I’m not a teenager in a vampire romance, I’m a successful, smart, fun, funny, full-grown thirtysomething woman: I know I’m special, and I know I deserve better. I deserve mutual butterflies. But how do I get past this all enough to trust myself to find something better?
-Friends Without Butterflies
DEAR FRIENDS WITHOUT BUTTERFLIES: Oof. That’s pretty goddamn brutal, FWB, and I’m sorry you went through this.
Now, before I get to your question, I want to zero in on a concept for the rest of my readers: the idea of rejection-sensitive dysphoria. This is a term that refers to an unusually high level of sensitivity and emotional reaction to the perception of rejection and criticism that’s a frequent symptom of mental conditions like ADHD, borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s not that folks who suffer from RSD are too sensitive or less able to handle criticism, but more that their brain’s tendency towards hyperfocus latches on to the fear and pain of rejection and amplifies it to an absurd and unrealistic degree. In many cases, it can cause social phobias, damage relationships or result in maladaptive behaviors in an attempt to ward off rejection.
So imagine the worst break up of your life and then apply that feeling to when someone uses a period in a text instead of an exclamation point. Or when someone takes longer than normal to text back because they’re busy at work.
What I’m saying is, it’s a goddamn party when you have it.
Now with that out of the way… holy hopping sheeps--t FWB, that’s not just your RSD hitting you particularly hard. What you’re feeling isn’t out of proportion to what happened, what you’re feeling is an entirely f--king understandable response to a dude’s f--ked up kink. It’s understandable that you got your wires crossed with this guy.
On the one hand, yes, you were getting caution flags from this guy and I’m sure that there was more than a little wishful thinking going on. I mean, who hasn’t gotten a little twitterpated when the sex is mindblowing? Especially at a time when our emotional bandwidth is occupied by the stress of survival during a pandemic and you’re basically locked into a relationship with this person. Under other circumstances, I would tell you that yes, you read a little too much into this situation and got in over your head. And while that sucks… well, it ain’t like that isn’t something I’d done back in the day myself. Sometimes we let our hopes and dreams color our reality more than we reasonably should, we miss the glaringly obvious and we get ourselves hurt in the process.
However, while there may have been a little wishful thinking there’s also the fact that apparently the dude was, y’know deliberately acting like he’s in love with you during sex. You know. For grins and also because it made his orgasms that much better. For five months.
Like ya do.
And this is not a case of post-hoc rationalization or interpreting the facts in the most positive light on your end. The dude straight up told you that he was doing this. He said — specifically — that he knew what he was doing was hurting you but damn it, his dick just got so f--king hard that he couldn’t bring himself to stop.
So I’m willing to lay down my not-an-actual-doctor card here and say that no this isn’t RSD turning everything up to 11, this is “having a very reasonable reaction to a very unreasonable situation”. It’s not that you are having irrational thoughts or fears. An irrational fear is the way that turbulence makes me try to hold a plane in the air by sheer willpower, despite knowing that everything is fine and no crash has ever been caused by bumpy air pockets. This is something that happened to you. If you’d been bitten by a shark while swimming, you would have a very understandable reason to be afraid of going back in the ocean.
This is a dude who — depending on how you want to interpret things — either actively lied to you or at least knew how his actions were making you feel and allowed you to believe things that weren’t true. Either way, your inability to trust and fear of being lead on is entirely reasonable.
The part where your RSD rolls into the picture is in the hyperfocus on the past and worst-case scenarios. It’s the inability to quit seeing it or to push past those fears and give people a chance. And that part gets tricky because… well, unfortunately, part of the whole point of RSD is that it’s baked into your condition. It’s hard to deal with because it tends to come at you like a speeding train and knocks you on your ass for a while and keeps you there until things subside enough that you can get back up again.
Now speaking strictly for myself: medication has been a huge help for getting things under control. The same meds that let me control my ADHD have turned the volume on the attendant RSD way down. If you’re not on a medication to address your ADD symptoms, that might be a good start. It may also be worth talking to a psychiatrist about a supplemental medication; I’ve seen reports that suggest that an alpha agonist like Guanfacine can be effective in dealing with RSD symptoms, especially in folks who can’t take stimulants for ADD and ADHD.
However, another part of moving forward is recognizing that part of what is likely f--king with your head is that you ignored your instincts.
One of the problems with “trust your gut” is that sometimes a person’s gut isn’t trustworthy. A lot of folks have a hard time relying on their intuition, their gut, their Spidey-sense, because it’s miscalibrated. Sometimes out of trauma, sometimes out of cultural issues, sometimes because they bought into s--tty beliefs about love and sex.
But for a lot of people, their intuition is spot on, as long as they listen to it.
It’s like you said: you were getting pink flags and a lot of his behaviors were telling you that s--t was hinky. You ignored them in part because hey, mindblowing sex but also because he was actively deceiving you. But the important part is that your Spidey-sense works as intended. You had reasons to believe that this wasn’t love and that it was still just an FWB situation, you were just incentivized to ignore them. So the lesson here is trust your Spidey-sense. When you start getting that tingle that tells you that something’s wrong, listen. Take a moment and take stock of the situation, as rationally as you possibly can. Take a step outside yourself and ask: if someone was coming to you with this problem and these suspicions, what would you tell them?
It sounds stupid, but that’s actually a pretty solid way of short-circuiting your RSD; it’s not your situation, it’s a friend’s, and so that fear of rejection doesn’t come into it.
The third part of going forward is… well, it’s just time, really. Time heals all wounds and wounds all heels. Taking a break so that you can let this f--ked up situation fade into the past is a viable option. When things aren’t as fresh and you’re feeling ready to try again and to (cautiously) trust again, then it’ll be easier to see folks as potential partners and not just another s--tty dude who literally gets hard playing mind games with people.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org