DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’ve recently run into issues in growing my social circle as part of the process of becoming a better, more well-rounded person with the hopes of finding a significant other, getting married, having a family, and ultimately ending up living a life that I can feel good about living.
One of the things that’s come up in a lot of reading and interactions is to be around similar people. And it makes sense logically. But in a lot of the social things I do and activities I’m part of, the vast majority of the other single men are just kind of unpleasant. Like, at the local gaming events and fitness classes I go to, I always hang around the guys with long-term girlfriends or spouses because more of them tend to be emotionally even-keel, not throwing tantrums when they lose, mess up, or miss their goals, just good people to be around. Where the guys who are single tend to be the ones who smell bad, lack emotional control, and make misogynist comments. Basically, the people who are fun to hang out with (men and women) are the ones in committed relationships. The single men are, on average and anecdotally, kind of awful, and there aren’t single women at the places I go, likely because of the aforementioned single men.
In and of itself, I don’t mind befriending all these people who are in relationships. But on the flipside, these people spend a lot of time doing things in groups of couples or groups of families, and I never really fit in there because I’m not in a couple/my own family. I don’t fit in with the single people because, as fate would have it, they don’t take kindly to being called out on sexist behavior.
And I feel horrible for painting in such broad strokes here, but barring a few rare exceptions, most guys I’ve met who ended up being single past the age of like 25 never left me thinking “yeah, they would make a great husband.” There are just huge problems with masculinity that I alone am not capable of fixing in other people. It’s difficult enough to fix myself into the kind of person I can accept being. And as much as it’s important to deny toxic masculinity, it’s still something we have to interact with every day. Even if stigmas are bullcrap, they’re still bullcrap we have to see and face. Knowing that toxic masculinity is bullcrap doesn’t just make it disappear.
It seems like the solution in dating for me is to set up online dating, but I’m still working with my therapist on trying to get my appearance/self-image to a point where I can tolerate taking pictures of myself, let alone posting them online for others to peruse and evaluate. So that’s a work in progress, but a slow moving one.
In the meantime, though, I don’t know how I’m supposed to grow a social circle at this point. I feel like I’m mentally “settled down,” but I don’t belong with those people because I’m single and not building a family. I don’t belong with the other single men because most of them simply aren’t great to be around… and I just don’t encounter single women anywhere.
Settled Down With Nothing
DEAR SETTLING DOWN WITH NOTHING: There’re a few things to consider here, SDWN, and I think a lot of it comes from the same place: binary thinking.
Call it a black-and-white mindset, call it “all-or-nothing”, but it all comes down to this belief that your choices are either this thing – whether it’s a social circle, an event or even particular people – are supposed to be exactly what you’re looking for, or they’re worthless. And while this is understandable, it’s neither helpful nor even particularly sustainable. And ultimately what ends up happening is that people end up giving up or passing on things that would actually be good for them because they’re not precisely what they think they want.
Let’s break this down a bit, shall we? First and foremost are the activities and the people you’re meeting at these activities. Now, considering the column’s theme and remit, and at the risk of making assumptions based on stereotypical behavior, I’m going to guess that you’re going to a lot of geek-heavy activities. That can lead to the issues that you’re running into; a lot of the well-adjusted and more socially conscious folks in that group aren’t going to be single because… well, because they got into relationships, in no small part because they’re well-adjusted and socially conscious. And if they were single, they likely wouldn’t be for long. So a lot of the remainder – the single guys in these groups – are going to be the ones who may not have gotten the memo just yet. Maybe some of them are just socially inexperienced, maybe they’re assholes or not the most woke… or any combination of the above. That’s not going to be a pleasant bunch of folks to hang with.
So, I’m not surprised you’re finding that you relate better to the folks who are already coupled up. They’re much more in line with what you want and where you want your life to go. But this is where the binary thinking is coming in, and where it’s handicapping you. The fact that people are in relationships doesn’t mean that you don’t fit in with them, nor does it mean that they won’t have time to do things with you. First: people in couples can and do have single friends; the fact that you aren’t in a relationship doesn’t mean you can’t relate to them. Being part of a couple doesn’t mean that “in a relationship” is their entire identity. They’re still people, and they’re perfectly able to relate to things that aren’t about the minutia of life in relationships. Just as importantly, however, is that couples (or throuples or…) are made up of individuals. The relationship may be a gestalt entity, but they’re still discrete beings, capable of doing more than just Couple Stuff. They do, in fact, have lives outside of being in relationships.
In fact, that is actually important, both for them and for you. Having a life outside of your relationship is important for that relationship’s strength and survival. One of the mistakes people make is that they put all of their social and emotional needs into one person’s basket – their partners’. This ends up creating a lot of strain, because it means that their partner – this one person – is now the sole provider of all of their needs on top of their own. Having separate friends and separate lives takes the pressure off and broadens their base of support. Being friends with one of them or wanting to spend time with one of them actually benefits them and you. Plus, I think you’d be surprised at how much they might leap at the chance to hang with you solo. One of the issues that comes up fairly often for men in relationships is how their social circles shrink and they have fewer opportunities for “guy time” or friendships of their own. Your being friends with them would be a benefit to both you and them. So don’t write them off, just because you don’t match 100% or even 85%; there’s more to them than you’re giving them credit for.
Plus, there’s the fact that we tend to have friends who are similar to us. If you find you’re more compatible with the people who’re already in relationships, being friends with them means that you’re much more likely to meet many of their friends… and those people are likely going to be much more your speed as well. Not to mention that couples – and women in relationships in particular – often love playing matchmaker. Cultivating a friendship with them may well be the first step that leads towards your being introduced to someone awesome that they think you’d be a great match with.
However, the binary mindset goes beyond just who you’re bonding with at these social events. The mindset applies to the events too. If, for example, you’re finding that the events you’re going to are full of people you aren’t digging (in this case, because they’re assholes), then you may want to look for a different group. The odds are good that there’s more than one group or event that match your interests, and will cater to a different crowd. Part of finding your people means finding the things that will draw those people in; if the events you’re going to now aren’t it, then you may want to find ones that’re a better fit instead of despairing that this specific group is a poor fit.
And, of course, if those other groups or events don’t exist, well, then it’s time that someone made them. And since somebody’s gotta start them, it may as well be you… especially since you know the sorts of folks you’re looking to socialize with. Building your own group or events or MeetUp can take some doing, true… but by being the person to make it happen, you’re in the position to create it to your needs and specifications. You are almost certainly not the only person turned off by the less socially-adjusted dudes in those groups; providing an alternative will give a chance for them to finally find a community of their own.
This doesn’t need to be a big thing; starting small and curating the initial invites goes a long way towards establishing the tone and culture, which will help attract the people who you want to join. As the movie says: if you build it, they will come.
But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that you’re in a place where this is the only option. That’s valid; sometimes demographics work against you and there’re fewer spaces for geeky interests, especially amongst more socially aware geeks. If you’re finding that the events and groups that directly match your interests are filled with people you’d rather not associate with, you have plenty of other choices. A lot of geeky types will tend to narrow their focus to a limited range of interests and rarely deviate from them. While this isn’t bad in and of itself, it is limiting and can cut down on opportunities.
One of the things that you may want to do is branch out a little further afield and check out things that aren’t directly related to stuff you already like. The people you’re most compatible with may not be at the gaming store or in esports communities or what-have-you; they may well be in other groups or activities. Finding things that are adjacent to your interests or that have crossover with the things you already like helps broaden your horizons and lead you to being a more interesting and well-rounded person. You may even want to try things that are completely out of character for you but seem like they might be interesting. There’re a lot of activities, hobbies and interests that geeks and nerds will often cut themselves off from because “they don’t do that sort of thing” or “only X folks do that”. When you let your identity – being a nerd, in this case – become the defining characteristic about you, you run the risk of isolating yourself needlessly. By expanding what you’re willing to explore, you increase the pool of potential friends and lovers while also adding layers to you that make you that much more compelling and worth getting to know.
But – again – the binary thinking is cropping up with the guys you’re not wanting to associate with, too. Here’s the thing about I think you may be missing when it comes to issues surrounding toxic masculinity: you don’t need to solve it all by yourself, nor do you need to “fix” people on an individual level. You’re looking at this as though you think you’re supposed to take on changing these guys you’re encountering like you’re rebuilding a car or restoring pinball tables. That’s not what people are expecting of you, and it’s not even what’s needed. A lot of the reason why toxic masculine tropes stick around isn’t because someone didn’t Henry Higgins a dude into being less toxic, it’s because toxic masculinity is, in part, a societal issue. The term “toxic masculinity” refers to tropes and behaviors and beliefs about manhood and masculinity that society portrays as being good, desirable and worthy of praise and emulation. It lingers because society gives tacit approval to these behaviors and tropes. So rather than changing the individual – which isn’t your job – what you can and should do is remove the approval.
This is why the most powerful weapon in your arsenal in these cases are your words. You don’t need to be unleashing a diatribe at the guys who’re acting like overgrown children or sexist dicks. All you need is a “dude, that’s not cool.” Or, just as powerfully: “We don’t do that here.” So much of toxic s--t gets passed along because men don’t push back or call it out like this. Being the person to say “not cool” takes away the one thing that these tropes require: the idea that everyone approves of it, at least tacitly. Racists assume that everyone’s just as racist as them, sexists assume everyone’s as sexist and so on. Making it impossible for them to fall back on that belief – the social equivalent of “the lurkers support me in email” – forces them to confront the idea that they’re the exception, rather than the rule.
So while you don’t need to force yourself to suffer through other peoples’ toxic bulls--t, being willing to speak up will go a long way towards detoxifying the community. Take away the approval or the acceptance of that behavior, even if you’re just one person (at first), and the toxic element will soon realize either they have to shape up or ship out. And either one of those will help provide the environment – and community – that you’re looking for.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org