DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m 24 and male, mostly interested in women, and I feel like I’m in a weird place because I’m having trouble finding a committed partner. I feel like I’m a bit behind, and I’m not sure where to go from here.
I have a degree, I’m working towards my dream career, in my dream city, I have many friends, skills, and hobbies, and on the whole, the only thing that seems missing is a loving, committed partner.
I seek it out, and I do find connection, good connection even, and yet after a few dates, it always seems to end. They’re too busy, or they aren’t feeling it, or I’m not feeling it, and I’m back to square one in a month or less.
I feel almost “behind” in this respect, as I have old friends from College with years-long relationships, and others who are more committed and stable in this area of life than I am, and it feels like I’m doing something wrong. I do research connection-building quite a bit, but it hasn’t quite gotten me where I want to be yet.
Some would say I’ve not yet found the “right person,” but it really feels like I have, but it’s been the wrong time, or it’s my fault for not presenting myself “right.” I was also kind of an awkward nerd as a kid and into college. I didn’t have my first girlfriend until I was 22, and that lasted only two months, my longest relationship to date, and I was a virgin until 23, and I’ve never had sex with a partner, only a few casual encounters here and there. This makes me feel worse, because I feel like I’m not getting anywhere in building romantic relationships with others, and that frustrates me.
I guess my questions here are along the lines of “how do I do better?” How do I get myself in a place where I find partners trying to build something like I am? I try to date when I can, and seek out people I can talk to, and enjoy getting to know, but it seems like I’m still not quite getting it right…
-Too Old for this S--t.
DEAR TOO OLD FOR THIS S--T: I swear I’m going to have to sponsor a study about why so many guys think 24 is some sort of magic cut-off age. It comes up so frequently that it feels like a trend.
Anyway, that’s not the issue here. The issue you’re dealing with isn’t one of being ‘too far behind’ or ‘too inexperienced’, it’s about expectations. You’re working under the assumption that you’re on a particular timeline, where you’re “supposed” to have hit certain milestones by now — go to college after high-school, get a job after college and/or get an advance degree, get a relationship, get married, etc. The problem is that all of those milestones are not only self-imposed, but they’re not relevant. Expecting to hit certain events by certain ages isn’t based in some universal law about social development, it’s what some people think is normal… mostly white, upper-middle class folks, really. This narrative assumes that everyone is exactly the same, ignores any issues that might delay hitting those milestones and never stops to consider which ones are completely irrelevant to your life.
More to the point, however, is that you can’t really measure your life by how it stacks up to someone else’s. Yes, you have friends who have had years-long relationships… but you haven’t lived their lives. You have not experienced their life in the exact same time, in the exact same way as they had. People can point to Bill Gates and say “look, he founded a software company by the time he was in high-school”, but unless you had the same rich parents he did, got sent to a private school that let you skip classes in order to learn coding and did so at a time when access to computers was incredibly uncommon… you’re not going to be Bill Gates. The same thing applies to your friends and their social lives. They have had different lives from you, faced challenges you didn’t, had advantages that you didn’t (just as you had advantages they didn’t) and thus have had entirely different outcomes.
They aren’t “more advanced” than you or more established or whatever. They just had different lives. But that’s ok. You’re not following their track, nor are you expected to. You are living your life, at your pace, and with the advantages and disadvantages that you have had. You can only live your story, not anyone else’s. Trying to measure your progress by looking at other people is just a recipe for frustration because they aren’t you. Trying to be someone you aren’t is doomed to fail. You need to focus on living your life.
You’re working under the assumption that you need to make up for lost time and you really don’t. You’re still learning about who you are, what you want and who’s right for you. You may have started later than you would’ve preferred, but let’s be honest: you weren’t ready before now. You had to work on other stuff to get to this point and that’s fine. You had your first girlfriend at 22 and that only lasted a couple months. That’s not a failure, my dude, that was a learning experience. Most people’s first relationships don’t last very long, no matter how old they are at the time. This has nothing to do with age or worthiness or anything else and everything to do with it’s your first relationship. Dating and relationships are skills; you aren’t going to be an expert right out of the gate. More often than not, you’re still figuring out what you want and what you need from a partner. You may think you know, yes… but there’s a difference between what you want and what you need. Sometimes the two line up and that’s great. But often they don’t. Part of the dating experience is learning to differentiate between the two.
And hey, that’s fine. That’s normal. A lot of learning about yourself involves figuring out that what you think you want doesn’t actually work for you. Back when I was starting out and I joined the pick-up scene, I thought I needed to be the Bars And Clubs Guy and spent several years doing just that. But hey, turns out the people I actually wanted to sleep with and to date weren’t the folks I met at bars and clubs. It took time and experience to develop that self-awareness; once I understood I was — quite literally — looking for love in all the wrong places, I was able to adjust things accordingly and was much happier all around. Would it have been nice to figure all that out sooner? Sure. But that’s not how it played out for me.
Same with discovering I have ADHD as an adult. If I’d gotten diagnosed earlier in life, things would’ve been different. But I didn’t. That created challenges for me that a lot of my other peers didn’t have to face. But again: their journey wasn’t my journey and my journey has taken me to places they couldn’t go. Just as it is with you.
Another thing to realize is that while you may be a late bloomer, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While pop culture may tell us that high-school’s supposed to be this sublime social experience… it really isn’t. It’s honestly the worst time to try to date. You have little agency over your own life, you have no life experience to speak of, you have no idea who you are as a person so you’re trying to figure out your identity while also dealing with all the hormonal changes in your body and trying to figure out social roles that are constantly changing. You’re always excessively tired, anxious, confused and feeling like you’re about to destroy your entire life, but you don’t know how.
It’s less of a beautiful coming-of-age story and more “trying to survive four years in gen-pop at Rikers”, really.
The fact that you had a later start than others doesn’t put you at a disadvantage. What it does mean is that you have more self-knowledge, more self-awareness and more self-knowledge than a lot of your peers did when they started dating. That means that you’re not going to be fumbling around the same ways they were or having to live through as many mistakes and misadventures… which aren’t all the “fun, character-building” kind. You’re in a position to make fewer errors and fewer bad choices than they did and get to where you want to be faster than they did, with fewer false starts. It functionally means that you need a shorter runway than they did.
And if we’re being honest…you ain’t doing half-bad for yourself, my dude. You’ve had a short term relationship and a handful of casual hook-ups. That’s pretty good, especially for someone who’s just starting out. That’s not a sign that you’re doing badly, that’s a sign you’re doing better than you realize. Give yourself a bit more credit, man; that’s a very respectable beginning. But just as importantly, the thing to realize is that the numbers don’t mean what you think they do. You aren’t more or less developed for not having a years-long relationship or a string of ex-girlfriends. Lots of exes isn’t automatically a sign of progress. It could be an indication of a problem that needs to be resolved. Or it could just be how that person rolls; some folks are more wired for serial monogamy and short term relationships.
Which brings us back to your question: “how do you get better?” Well… you do what you’re currently doing: you meet people, you ask them out on dates, you see what happens. The thing you don’t seem to realize is that while it feels like you’re Doing It Wrong, somehow, you really aren’t. You’re learning. You feel like you met the right person but it didn’t work out… well, yes. That’s how it goes sometimes; right person, wrong time, wrong place. You can’t control that. It’s just part of life. As a wise man once said: it is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That’s not weakness. That’s life.
What you learn in those circumstances is what matters. And one of the most important things you can learn is that there is no one right person. There are many right people out there, and who is right for you and who isn’t can and does change. It’ll change with who you are at this moment and where you are in life. It’ll change as you grow in life and social experience and with circumstance. You’ll also learn that some people who may be right for you in this moment won’t be right for you down the line as you grow and change. That’s fine. By that same token, you’ll often find that people who weren’t right for you back in the day will be right for you in the future. You can’t predict who those will be, you can’t control the whens and hows of it. You just learn how to roll with it as it happens.
Similarly, you’ll run into more people who aren’t right for you than who are. That’s just dating. Part of dating isn’t just figuring out what you want, it’s finding the people who are a good match for you. Sometimes you’ll figure that out early on. Sometimes you don’t. Again: that’s part of the individual journey, not a sign of who’s better/ more advanced/ falling behind. It’s all part of your own, unique story.
So stop beating yourself up for no reason TOFTS. You aren’t falling behind, you don’t need to “make up for lost time” or anything else like that. You just need to continue doing what you’re doing: living your life, meeting awesome people, going on dates and seeing what happens. You’ll date some folks, you’ll pass on others. You’ll have short term relationships and longer term ones. It’s all part of the process, and you’re doing far better than you give yourself credit for.
So tell your jerkbrain to shut the hell up and to stop dripping poison in your ear. You’re having more success than you realize, and I suspect you’ll find that it’s going to pay off for you sooner, rather than later.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com