DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I came across some of your writing and find your style very engaging and to the point. It’s refreshing to see relationship advice that is as direct as it is insightful. Though I enjoy reading this sort of thing, I never would have envisioned actually sending a question to a “relationship expert,” but here goes.
I am married to a gorgeous man (I’ll call him Robert) and we have a sweet one year old daughter who is the light of our lives. We have known each other about a decade and been together half that time. We are financially stable and own a home, there are few stressors in our marriage besides the fact that we both work and live far from family so reliable childcare can be challenging. I work as an independent birth photographer/doula and my work requires a great deal of flexibility. I have to leave suddenly when a client goes into labour and there is no way to know exactly how long I will be gone. This is also a pressure in our relationship because carefully laid plans sometimes have to be thrown out the window when a client goes into labour (think birthdays, holidays, excursions, dates). Until very recently, I would describe our marriage as flourishing, healthy, a safe place, an oasis from the tumult of life, one which will doubtless stand the test of time as it already has through significant challenges.
I am writing because of something which happened recently which causes me concern. This is how it started: My husband and I were working from home in a shared office. I have a standing desk and could see his screen from where I stood and he was having a meeting with a colleague. I had heard about this colleague (we’ll call him John) previously from my husband but had never seen him; they are friends and John has a daughter about the same age as ours. The moment his face appeared on the screen I felt instant attraction, to a degree where even if I could see the screen in my peripheral vision I was totally distracted and burning with embarrassment. I have not felt this type of high intensity instant crush since early adolescence. I turned my desk the other way (it’s on wheels) so my husband’s screen was no longer in view and continued my work. After the meeting I talked to my husband about what happened, about this feeling, my embarrassment, etc. We are incredibly open with one another, so this has actually happened to both of us before in our marriage a couple of times and we always talk about it (ie, sudden crushes or feelings of attraction to another person) and over time it fades away. He thanked me for mentioning it and said we can just keep tabs and check in with one another a bit extra, and laughed a bit at me for being attracted at all (“John, attractive?!”).
Within a few days the feeling completely dissipated and I had forgotten almost completely of John’s existence, which was a relief.
Fast forward some weeks and I had cycled to town to do some shopping with our daughter and pick up lunch. On the way home I stopped by Robert’s office to bring him some lunch and he said, “John’s in the office, I’ve been wanting to introduce you and for him to meet our daughter!” At the mention of his name I felt again embarrassed and anxious, a knot tightening in my stomach. There were many colleagues present since it was lunchtime and the social situation dictated that I could not excuse myself. We walked a few steps to the shared workspace where John and some others were and Robert introduced us. We made small talk, the conversation lasted maybe 5 minutes, and I tried to keep my voice from shaking with anxiety, attraction, nausea. During this short exchange my face burned and my heart pounded. It was a relief to leave. Robert walked with my daughter and I back to the bike rack and we went home. The tete-a-tete replayed in my mind over and over. I kept telling myself that I am married, a wife, a mother, that I should not be feeling this, and that he too is married, a father, a friend and colleague and how completely inappropriate it is to feel this way. I felt equal amounts of shame and attraction and the attraction kept coming in waves, leaving me a bit dizzy and nauseous. The afternoon was a mental battleground, focusing my thoughts on tasks at hand and trying to relax the knot in my stomach and heavy feeling in my chest. I felt sick, unable to concentrate, thoughts constantly revisiting the brief conversation with John.
Robert came home and asked how I was doing, how the day went. He laughingly asked if John “really was such a Prince Charming in person” and I told him that the afternoon was a struggle, that I needed to focus and couldn’t, and that I would contact a counsellor about it because it is preventing me from being present and accomplishing things. Robert agreed it was a good idea to seek counsel given what I felt, and apologized for making light of it but not for the initial introduction. I felt a bit hurt that he did not apologize for the introduction since I had already told him about the initial attraction. I told him so and he did apologize, saying he didn’t realize it would have this effect.
The next days were brutal. It felt like my imagination, always very active, was betraying me. Once my greatest creative ally, I now felt that I was racing against my mind for distractions from the constant surges of thoughts about John. Any moment of relaxing or allowing a calm to settle in my mind was met with images of John, John’s voice, gestures, etc. It was a relief to give in, to stop mentally fighting and just allow my brain to over-analyze everything in a frenzied state of attraction, but to give in only made the mental battle more difficult.
It has been two weeks or so since this and I still feel like the victim of my own mind. I wish I could turn it off. It is ruining my focus, and (I feel) ruining my marriage. It’s like Netflix is constantly going in my brain, all the stupidest, most inane, racy shows playing ad nauseum and all of them featuring John and all of them drawing me into my mental world and making me lose touch with the real and immediate. To emphasize the degree to which this has taken a toll, I want to mention that I have been almost constantly nauseated the last two weeks (also, not pregnant).
There is no reason for me to feel attracted to someone else. I have a beautiful, meaningful life. The kind of life I could only dream of a decade ago. The kind of life I never thought I deserved and that I believed, if I were to have this life, I would screw it up somehow and destroy something beautiful. I believed for a long time that I was only capable of screwing things up, and though I thought that belief had been thoroughly eradicated, I feel it creeping back now. I feel this attraction to John is insidious–my brain tricking me into ruining my life so that I am my own self-fulfilling prophecy about how bad I really am, so that all that Robert has taught me about myself the past years (that I am able to be a good mother, a faithful and loving wife, an honest person) is all false and the original narrative is true.
I desperately want to be faithful. I also desperately want to cheat. I also feel that I have already cheated, am already cheating, simply by being so attracted and by having these thoughts about John in my mind. I feel that this attraction to John makes me especially aware and resentful of certain small habits and irritations with Robert and problems that should be addressed in our marriage. When I am calm and aware, I can keep the thoughts at bay. But when I am stressed, frustrated, or irritated with a situation, it is almost impossible to keep my mind “tied to the mast” like Ulysses.
Another annoying aspect of all of this (I know, I know, it is already way too long): since giving birth (really almost immediately after giving birth until the present), I have had a much higher sex drive. Contrary to popular belief, postpartum mothers are not universally met with a sudden drop in libido. It is also possible to experience the opposite, or for the exhaustion of early parenthood to take a more significant toll on the father. This was the case for Robert and I, and I still struggle with this reality. Female sexuality is such a taboo topic and while men being sexually unfulfilled in marriage is accepted as a norm, women who experience this are mostly shamed and silenced. But it is objectively challenging to experience this regardless of gender and feelings of rejection cannot simply be reasoned away.
Final complicating factor: Robert may be experiencing long covid symptoms and it could be part of the excess exhaustion and low libido. A slight depression would also explain this decrease. Regardless of the origins, it has been difficult and frustrating for both of us and also adds to the challenge of resisting attraction to this colleague.
At the moment I am waiting for my counsellor to return from holiday so we can make an appointment, practicing meditation and mindfulness exercises, checking in with Robert every few days, and talking to a very wise friend about the situation. It helps. But my brain is still driving me insane.
Trying to be Faithful
DEAR TRYING TO BE FAITHFUL: This one’s fairly easy, all things considered, TTBDF: don’t cheat.
OK, I admit, I’m being glib. Let’s try that again: don’t put yourself in a position where you’re likely to fail your Wisdom save until this crush goes away.
Here’s the thing: you have a crush. That’s it. It came on strong – like you said, it’s like being a teenager – but it’s just a crush. There is no logic to it, there’s no “reason” for you to have it, and there really is no magic protection that’ll keep you from being attracted to other people. As I’m always saying: monogamy isn’t easy. If it were, we wouldn’t have all these rules and restrictions about it or societal taboos about infidelity and constant thinkpieces about ethical non-monogamy. All a monogamous commitment is is a promise to not sleep with anyone else besides your partner. It doesn’t say a damn thing about not wanting to.
All any of this means is that you’re a mammal with a sex drive. That’s it. We’re a novelty-seeking species, and this includes sexual novelty. When we have sex with someone new, we get a rush of dopamine and oxytocin straight to the pleasure centers of our brain. Since we’re incredibly adaptable and we can get used to anything, we get used to sex with them. It doesn’t matter if they’re Brad Pitt, Paul Hollywood, Chris Hemsworth, D.B. Woodside… hedonic adaptation kicks in, sex with them becomes your new normal, and you don’t get the same chemical rush that you did in the beginning. If you sleep with someone else new, then suddenly you get that high-octane chemical rush again and the process starts over. So, yeah, it’s not exactly a surprise that you got a crush on a new dude. It’s completely normal, it happens to pretty much everyone and it’s almost entirely down to the fact that they’re just someone different.
The intensity isn’t really that surprising either. This is hitting you like a freight train because you’re hornt up and your husband’s libido’s taken a hit, so he’s not in a position to keep up with your renewed sex drive. But it doesn’t mean that your marriage is in trouble, it doesn’t mean that there’s something about this dude that is calling to you or that there’s anything other than just good ol’ fashioned horniness.
But here’s the thing: horniness isn’t a commandment. Just because someone gives someone else the screaming thigh sweats doesn’t mean that they actually need to act on that. Just as people can be attracted to folks and still be friends without sex “getting in the way” by simply not doing anything about that attraction, you can have a crush, even enjoy the charge and excitement that comes with it, and never once let it actually do anything detrimental to your relationships.
Is this something that you need to worry about? No, not unless you do something stupid. It’s a crush, and crushes are like fire; if you feed it fuel, then it grows. If you starve it of fuel, it fades. But here’s where you’re making a critical mistake: you’re feeding the fire, not starving it. All that effort you’re making, the mental “lashing yourself to the mast” you mention? That is what’s making it worse. You’re devoting valuable bandwidth to thinking about the crush. Not in the idle “ooh, those hands” kind of thinking that can accompany a crush but by constantly trying to repress it, squeeze it down and force it away. Small wonder it comes roaring back whenever your attention slips; all you’re doing is compressing it like a gas. Have you ever seen what happens if you puncture, say, a can of hairspray or compressed air for dusting your computer? It starts rocketing around the room as all the gas starts to escape. And if you increase the pressure beyond the material strength of the container then it goes boom, messily and all over the place.
Trying to force this crush away just makes it worse, and it starts spraying out any and all seals and leaks. Not only are you intensifying it, but you’re constantly reinforcing it. You’re telling yourself over and over again “oh no, I have feelings for this guy”, but what your brain is picking up isn’t the “oh no”, it’s the repetition of “I have feelings“.
So what do you do? Well, to start with, I’d recommend masturbating. Rubbing one out’s way better for keeping your junk under control than trying to pretend that you’re not feeling what you clearly feel. Even if you’ve got the refractory period of a weasel on meth, a couple good strong orgasms will make the “I NEED TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS” go away. And hey, that moment of clarity will make it that much easier for you to relax and not keep treating this like an existential crisis. And if your crush happens to feature in some fantasies during this, then hey, that’s between you and your battery-operated boyfriend. Whatever goes on in between your ears is utterly your business; fantasy isn’t cheating, no matter what some of the more uptight moral scolds tell us.
(Shockingly, this doesn’t actually do much to intensify or maintain the crush. It’s the constant reinforcement of “I HAVE THIS FEELING OH NOOOOO” that does it.)
The next thing you need to do is to stop trying to force this away. Instead of trying to squeeze it into non-existence or shove it aside, just let it be. Don’t judge it, don’t fight it, don’t worry about it or do anything other than just note that it’s there. Note the feeling, name it – “oh, that’s just my crush on John” – and just move on. It’s just a thought. Gently redirect your attention to things that you do need to be paying attention to, but otherwise just let it be. The more you just let it flow through you without engaging it, the less power it’ll have. Without the reinforcement of “I am in lust with John, I need to stop this”, you’ll starve it of fuel. As you just let the feeling be, the same as you would any other stray thought, it’ll start to fade. Before long, it’ll just be an awkward memory or an occasional fantasy you can use when you need to get yourself over the hump when an orgasm stubbornly remains juuuuuust out of reach.
What you don’t want to do – with John, or any future crushes – is put yourself in temptation’s path. Here’s the thing about brains: they’re lazy. The harder you have to work at something, the less it wants to actually do it. This is why, for example, if you want to avoid a particular food when you’re feeling snackish, you keep it out of easy reach and put something else in a more convenient place. The more steps it takes to achieve that particular goal, the more opportunities you have for your willpower to say “enh, let’s do something else.” Problems only really arise when folks set themselves up for a deliberate “accident” – getting drinks with their crush, spending time alone with them and otherwise putting themselves in position for an “oops, it just ‘happened'” situation. Since you and John don’t really interact at all and don’t actually have any sort of relationship, this should be fairly easy for you.
But seriously: this isn’t a big deal. It’s just a crush that feels extra strong because you’re feeling horny without much of an outlet. Crushes happen. Rub one out and otherwise let the feeling be. This will starve it of the fuel you’ve been providing it and it’ll go away.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org