DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: So I have this FWB I’ve been friends with since we were about 12 (now 33/34), with benefits for about 2 years. They had a crush on me and wanted to date back in high school, but I was a lot shallower back then and Friend-Zoned them. We grew up, I went off to college, they stayed home, I got married and divorced, we drifted in and out of contact for years, I moved back, we reconnected and boom. The thing is, I know this person has always seen me as the love of their life and would really like to be officially dating, even married. I don’t feel I’m taking advantage of them because we’re both open about what we want and what we can give and they would way rather be FWBs than just plain friends. What I’m not sure about is whether or not I should tell them the REASON I don’t want a relationship with them. I’m not as shallow as I used to be and could see myself settling down with them, if it wasn’t for this thing they got really big into during the period I was living out of state and making my first failed attempt at adult life.
1) It’s something I like too, but only about 10% as much.
2) I also like lots of other things, but they will flat out say this is the thing that gives their life meaning, anything else takes a backseat or they struggle to maintain even passing interest.
3) It’s something I consider slightly dumb, especially if it’s the center of your life and you get really emotionally excited about it the way this person does. I’m fine being friends with someone like this but wouldn’t be able to respect a SO the way that you should.
4) They spend a ton of money on it despite not making much, which is fine if we’re not living together or doing things like saving up for vacations or maybe raising a kid, but would irritate me if we were.
5) Every inch of their apartment is decorated in this theme, which they are incredibly proud of but to me looks ugly, cluttered and childish. A few things here and there would be cool but this is way too much.
6) They have a huge collection of T-shirts in this theme they are very set on wearing every second they’re not at work. I even have an uphill battle convincing them to take them off for sex. These are not the most attractive thing they could wear and some actually get negative attention and embarrass me to be seen with in public. This does not come up a lot because they are largely a homebody but I would feel better about going out with them if they could stand to wear something nicer once in a while.
So it might seem like we’re just not compatible, and I should either break it off completely and let them find someone more compatible, or just continue as is. Complicating matters though this thing is not popular in our area, they would probably have to move to find someone anywhere near as into it as they are, which I can’t see them ever doing, especially not on their own. And then I wonder if they’re maybe just using this thing as an escape from an otherwise empty life. This is someone who started out smart and ambitious, but had a lot stacked against them. They never went past high school despite graduating near the top of our class, have never been more than 30-40 miles from our crummy little hometown, lived with their parents until they died, have only had low level boring jobs and no kind of career, have never been in a relationship and I’m the first and only person they’ve ever slept with. I wonder if they knew it was a choice between the thing and a relationship with me, they might be willing to dial back on the thing and open up to more of life.
Do I owe it to them to tell them these thoughts and let them make that choice? Or should I say nothing and continue as things are, which both of us seem reasonably happy with? My only worry is if I ever did find someone else I wanted to start a relationship with, even though at this point I’m not seriously looking, they would freak out as bad or worse than when I rejected them in high school. Or should I accept that our FWB setup is one-sided and break things off, even if it devastates them, in the hope that eventually it will be best for them?
DEAR OBSESSION OBSTRUCTION: Look, OO, we’re all nerds here. I think we can say that it’s anime. Your FWB’s a grown-ass adult into Japanese cartoons and you’re not.
(I mean, it could be furry art or Transformers or Star Wars something, but odds are better that we’re talking about an otaku, here…)
Alright, let’s be serious for a moment and deal with the real issue here: the letter you write sounds like you’ve already made up your mind and you’re just asking for permission to do what you already want to do. In fact, the way you talk about them has left me unsure why you’re with this person in the first place.
To be fair, people don’t generally write into advice columns when things are going great with their partner, but I’m a little puzzled by the fact that everything you write about your FWB are the things that you don’t like and nothing about what you do like about them. Every brush stroke in the picture you’re painting of them is an example why they’re not “in your league”. So I guess what’s confusing me is how this got started in the first place and why you’re still with them at all.
I mean, the way you write about them and the risks of what would happen if you were to break up with them gives a feeling that you seem to be banging this person out of… what, a sense of charity? Generosity? A vague feeling of “you’ll do?” while you’re in a place where you just haven’t found many better options? That honestly isn’t cool, OO. One of the things that complicates a lot of FWB relationships – in fact, something that keeps people from choosing casual sex or friends-with-benefits relationships is how often people forget the “friend” part of the equation. It’s a little like what sex and relationship essayist Ella Dawson has written about casual sex: people tend to take that label as an excuse to treat people casually.
Now normally, I’d be tempted to just lean into just going on about the attitude towards the person you’re cool sleeping with but seem to be ashamed to be associated with, but honestly, I’m wondering if maybe the real issue is that you are attracted to them and you do like them MORE than you let on and you feel like you shouldn’t be.
The conflict between the Queen Bee or Cool Guy being into someone who’s supposedly beneath them on the social pecking order is a common enough trope in rom-coms and high-school boner jams, but it’s a trope because it happens in real life too. A lot of times, folks will realize that they’re into someone who – according to the supposed “rules” – would bring them down socially, and either try to force their attraction away, or treat their f--kbuddy like a dirty little secret until there comes a point where they can’t keep the secret any longer.
And if we look at things from that angle… well, it kinda feels like you’re looking for reasons why you shouldn’t be into them as much as you are. And while I can utterly understand why one person’s hobby or special interest can be a massive goddamn headache, it’s a pretty shallow reason to break up with someone if things are going well. Especially because that’s a pretty shallow definition of “compatibility”. One of the things I tell folks all the time is that compatibility doesn’t mean you share all the same interests and like the same TV shows, it’s more about being on the same page on deeper, more meaningful issues. Having similar views on politics and religion, similar views on culture or what we owe to one another and how we treat people who can’t benefit us in some way… these are the things that help solidify a relationship. And it’s here that I see a not-insignificant disconnect that’s causing problems.
Here’s the thing: you’re painting a picture of someone who, going by your description, should be living a sad, empty life of quiet desperation and only your presence in their life is keeping their existence from being completely meaningless. But I wonder if that’s actually true. Yes, they’re not the most stylish individual and they’re into something you think is kinda lame. Yes, they aren’t as worldly or experienced or well-traveled as you. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not happy, nor does it mean that their life isn’t fulfilling and full of meaning and satisfaction for them. Unless you’ve actually had conversations about this – and it certainly doesn’t sound like you have – then it seems to me that you’re making some assumptions about them based on your idea of what someone else’s life should be.
And honestly, it could well be that the reasons for why they haven’t done all the things you have is because they can’t. Not because they don’t want to – though that’s possible too – but because they haven’t had the advantages and privileges you’ve had. Maybe, if given the opportunity, they’d love to travel more. They might love to get a better job or go for a college degree, or possibly even get training and an apprenticeship for a trade like plumbing or becoming an electrician, but can’t afford the up-front costs.
(They might also be somewhere on the spectrum of neurodivergence and the thing they’re into is their particular special interest, which is also a potential factor that affects the arc of their life.)
I wonder if things might change if you tried to open yourself up to their world a little and try to see things from their perspective. If, instead of seeing all of this as cringe, you tried to at least vibe with why they liked things and tried to connect with them on their level, you might find that you’re not as opposed to this relationship continuing, at least for now. Even if you don’t see this as being something leading to marriage, kids, the white picket fence (or charming condo or co-op) and all, that doesn’t mean the options are either “end things now” or “til death do you part”. Every relationship you’ll ever be in will end one day, until one just doesn’t. This may be a relationship with more value and vitality than you’re willing to give it IF you’re willing to be a bit less hide-bound and a bit more open to connecting with them on a level beyond just banging.
But maybe not. Maybe this really is just a case of “well, you’re the best of a bad series of options.” Or even “you’re more into me than I’m into you and I dig that power differential.”
I’ll be honest: you don’t give much information here, so I’m having to extrapolate, and perhaps my own biases and experiences are leading me to be uncharitable here. But it seems like you aren’t coming to this relationship – and an friends-with-benefits relationship is a relationship – with a lot of compassion or willingness to understand things from your partner’s perspective. I have to wonder if this isn’t part of the issue; you’re into them, but because you see them as being embarrassing or beneath you, you’re keeping yourself distanced from them. That’s certainly how so much of your concern for them comes across, at least: like you’re doing them a favor by banging them. And if that’s how you’re looking at it… well, honestly you’re not doing them a favor. Nobody likes feeling like someone’s charity case, especially if it’s with someone they’ve had long-standing feelings for.
So, straight talk, OO: if it’s the case that this really is just a getting-your-itch-scratched kind of relationship and there’s no chance in hell that it could ever be more than that? I think it’d be kinder for them to cut things off, especially if they think there’s a chance that this could turn into something more serious. If this is a situation where they’re thinking that they’ll accept this if it’s the only way they could be with you and you see this as something that you’re going to leave at the first available opportunity, then breaking it off now is going to be a kindness. It’ll hurt like a knife to the soul, but the clean break hurts least and heals the fastest; dragging it out only makes the end hurt that much more. Doubly so if and when they do the math and realize that you’ve had a foot out the door all this time.
However, if – and I freely admit that this is a big “if” – this is a case where you do like them but you worry about what other people would think, seeing the two of you together? Then maybe it’s time for you to be a bit more flexible with your outlook on life and try to see things through their eyes. It may well be worth your time to focus less on your pride and more of how you feel with them and see if maybe there is the potential for more, here.
Now that being said: unless you’re going to actually build something more committed with them, I would advice against trying to get them to change or using your presence in their life and in their bed as a motivator to “open them up to life”. Especially if they’re happy with their life as it is. The fact that they aren’t living the sort of life you would value doesn’t mean that their life is empty or meaningless. They might be amenable to some adjustments – wearing more than those graphic tees, for example – but asking them to rearrange their lives for someone who isn’t going to be all in is just petty at best and cruel at worst. You might think it’s for their own good. That doesn’t mean that they’d agree or appreciate it.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org