DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: This letter undoubtedly starts out like so many you’ve seen before. Hi, I’m a twenty-six-year-old cis male, an introverted nerd on the autism spectrum, and I’ve never had sex, a relationship, or even a kiss. (Slight change in the typical lineup: I am bi, but only romantically attracted to women.)
I pass the Grimes Test, and friends regard me as smart and funny. I recently published my second novel, and have been putting more effort into exercise after years of treating my body like s--t. I am a good listener, and treat people with kindness and courtesy.
Help, my empathy makes it impossible to date.
Some context: growing up, my dad was an abusive alcoholic. Mostly verbal with yelling (which was *really* bad on my autistic sensory issues), sometimes physical. I know what it’s like to be afraid of someone who’s bigger and stronger than you, walking on eggshells, hoping the slightest thing doesn’t set him off; in short, I know where women are coming from in their wariness of strange men.
I was also bullied and harassed a lot in school, some of which was creepy and sexual in nature. I had to take the javelina approach to safety, adopting a cold/unfriendly façade to keep others at bay. So, I understand why women are fed up with creeps and are way less open to male companionship.
The thing is, this to-an-extent knowledge of the female experience has made dating *more* difficult for me.
I’m a big guy, I’m below average looking, and I never have any idea what to say. Suffice to say, making women feel at ease around me is work cut out for me.
(Yeah, I know looks aren’t everything, but being average looking/bodied is still a significant handicap for men. It means women will rarely want to [let alone do] make the first move, and it’s almost as unlikely that me making the first move will be well received. Especially for catching initial interest, getting my foot in the door so she actually wants to talk to me.)
Every time I think of making a move, I stop to consider if she’d even be comfortable with the interaction. The answer (to me) seems an obvious no, so I leave her alone. If I see a cute girl at a bookstore or so on, I think: “would I like it if I were in her position and someone bothered me?” No, of course not; nobody likes being randomly talked to.
Body language rarely lies, and I’ve never had a woman show open body language toward me indicating that she’s interested. Usually, women close their body language when I’m nearby. Women have never given any flirting signals or other signs of attraction; Hell, for all I know, nobody’s even had a crush on me.
Smiling doesn’t help. Fake or genuine, a smile on my face is even uglier than my neutral expression (which I have most of the time, partially from autism and partially from the coping from bullying). I’ve tried dozens of different ones, and none of them work; they’re all hideous, and even I don’t feel comfortable seeing them. Smiling around women is only going to freak them out, and I don’t want to put them through that.
I’m not waiting around for the perfect 100% chance of success. But I’m not making any moves when the chance is 0. I’m not afraid of rejection; that’s sort of a given. I’m afraid of making her feel in danger.
How can I get past this? Is there a way to actually make this empathy an asset in dating?
Other relevant info:
1. I have been on two dates, both of which were in high school over the summer with the same girl. We texted a lot, and she made it seem we were a thing, even using relationship pet names like “Honey” and “Sweetheart”; syke, she was seeing a college guy the whole time.
2. I am not a Nice Guy (TM). A. I’m fine being friends with women, no strings attached. B. I don’t even expect a “thank you” for being kind, let alone anything else; usually, it’s at my expense. C. I don’t have bitterness towards women in general for my s--t love life; I know I’m the problem.
3.a. Dating apps have been useless. If you’re not a really good-looking guy, Bumble isn’t worth the time to download; you’ll never get matches, let alone messages. Eharmony costs too much money to talk to others. Okcupid is where I’ve had the most conversations, and even that’s not much to speak of. If I reach out first, they barely contribute; fair enough, they don’t want to talk, I take the hint and unmatch. No harm.
3.b. But more often, the woman talks to me first, then gives me full responsibility for the conversation. I’m the only one asking questions, trying to get to know her, giving compound responses with plenty to go off of. And she shows no interest, giving lackluster answers and not caring. It is perfectly valid if she doesn’t want to talk to me, but then *why did she talk to me*? I know that women on dating apps are flooded with options, so why go out of the way to pick me when I’m clearly not wanted?
Always Perched, Never Airborne
DEAR ALWAYS PERCHED, NEVER AIRBORNE: Alright APNA, I’m gonna level with you: your question isn’t nearly as unusual or unique as you suspect. In fact, you give a laundry list of things that I see from guys fairly often. The only real difference is the reason they give for not wanting to approach women.
Notice very carefully that I say “want to” not “can’t”. This is ultimately a choice that you (and they) are making, not an impossibility.
Now I want to be clear: I’m really sorry for the abuse and bullying you suffered growing up. That’s a horrific thing to have suffered through and I’m glad that you’re out of that situation. I hope you’re talking to someone about it and working on healing the trauma that you experienced living in an abusive household. It’s the sort of experience that can leave wounds that are difficult to heal and can leave some pretty significant scars.
But if I’m being honest, it sounds like this is more of a rationale for not approaching than an actual difficulty. Much of what you describe in the rest of your letter has less to do with your abuse or the empathy it’s given you for folks dealing with bigger, scarier people than it does with attempts at mind reading and making assumptions about women and what women are thinking or want. You’re making a lot of leaps based off facts not in evidence and building from what’s going on in your head instead of what others are thinking. And honestly a lot of it is coming down to feelings about yourself and fears of rejection – which are understandable – not universal truths about women.
Especially since women aren’t a monolith or a hive mind.
Part of the problem you’re running into isn’t that women don’t like you or that you’re creeping them out, you’re not even giving them the chance to get to know you. You’re deciding in advance that they don’t or won’t like you and working backwards from there.
Right off the bat, you’re making assumptions based on your ideas about women:
“I understand why women are fed up with creeps and are way less open to male companionship.”
“Every time I think of making a move, I stop to consider if she’d even be comfortable with the interaction. The answer (to me) seems an obvious no, so I leave her alone. If I see a cute girl at a bookstore or so on, I think: “would I like it if I were in her position and someone bothered me?” No, of course not; nobody likes being randomly talked to.”
“Smiling around women is only going to freak them out, and I don’t want to put them through that.”
It’s pretty obvious to me that you’re getting a lot of your information from less than reliable sources – at a guess I’m going to say TikTok and Reddit – and you aren’t recognizing the difference between a statistically significant random samples vs. people self-selecting for places specifically to vent on social media. The fact that people gripe about stuff on TikTok, even when those videos get tons of views or engagement, doesn’t mean that it’s a universal truth, nor does it mean that every person feels that way. It gets numbers because algorithms prioritize engagement and negative engagement is easier to cultivate; we all have an inherent bias towards negativity that means we’re more likely to respond to stories where bad things happen than to good ones. And while some of these stories can be entertaining (if not, y’know, factual), trying to draw conclusions other than “well that sucks” is kinda futile at best.
You know the whole idea behind “trust your gut”? It’s a great idea; sometimes we get a funny feeling because we’re subconsciously picking up on signals that we may not be seeing consciously. But trusting your gut only works if your gut is trustworthy. And a lot of times, it isn’t.
I mean, I’ll be the first to point to myself; I have ADHD, and a condition known as Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria tends to come bundled with it. The short version is that RSD is like taking the average discomfort and fear of rejection, dialing it to 11 and then snapping the knob off. This means that you’re hyperaware of anything that might even hint at something being wrong… even when it’s not there. Except you’re not picking up on signals, you’re picking up feedback from everything being louder than everything else. This, in practice means that I spent a lot of time with a constant drum beat of “oh no, something’s wrong, my friends are upset at me/my partner’s going to dump me” and such going on in my head.
In reality, it wasn’t real. I wasn’t picking up on subtle signals, my brain was so sure I was going to be rejected/ upset someone/ ruin things that it was conflating noise with signal and overriding what I knew intellectually. Are my friends avoiding me when I ask them to do stuff, or is it more likely that they’re working absurd schedules at work? Is my partner upset or slow-walking me out of the relationship, or is there s--t going on in her life that’s making things hard for her and leaving her with less emotional bandwidth or energy? It feels sensible – after all, I could fill a whiteboard with the way my brain broke down everything in a logical order – but what it was actually doing was starting from the conclusion and working backwards to justify things.
Which, y’know, is what you’re doing. You and many other dudes like you.
Here’s the truth: women don’t assume everyone’s a creep, nor does talking to them or otherwise starting a conversation mean that you’re inconveniencing or upsetting them. What’s going on is that there’re a lot of dudes out there who don’t care about what women want or think or who treat women as something for those men to consume, not as individuals. If you’re not acting like them, you’re already ahead in the game.
Let’s take, for example, the theoretical woman in the bookstore. As someone who has dated women he approached in bookstores, I can tell you from experience that the key here is simply having a conversation and being aware of people’s comfort and interest. The conversations I had with the women I met at the bookstore often started with asking for a recommendation about books and then moving towards talking about books we liked. This almost always works well because hey, here we are, two people having a lovely conversation about something we enjoy. If things went well, I’d say “hey, I’ve got to go, but I’m really enjoying talking to you; is it ok if I add you on What’sApp?” or whatever, and then we’d continue talking later. If there was a strong vibe, then I might ask them on a date, but otherwise, I’d continue to chat through text and then later ask if they’d like to go do something.
If they weren’t interested – in talking, in a date, whatever – I would say “ok, no worries” and continue to be polite and friendly. If they didn’t want to talk, I’d thank them for their time or their suggestions and move on, no harm no foul. If they weren’t interested in connecting on social media or a date, same story. None of them felt creeped out or importuned because I was demonstrating through words and behavior that I wasn’t interested in hitting on them, I was interested in talking as one lover of books to another. Anything that came after was based entirely on if they were interested in more or not. And if they weren’t, then hey, that’s cool too.
Let’s talk about some of your other false assumptions. Body language rarely lies? Not true: body language lies all the time, but what’s more likely is you aren’t reading their body language correctly. Part of reading body language is understanding what’s actually a signal and what’s noise. If you don’t have sufficient context for an individual, then you’re not going to read them correctly. Is she crossing her arms because she’s feeling defensive, or because she’s cold, or because that’s just how she’s most comfortable standing? Is she playing with her hair because she’s preening for you or because that’s a habit she picked up over the years? And – most importantly – are you looking for negatives, instead of just gauging things?
If you want a better read on someone’s body language, you’re better off going with what experts refer to as The Rule of Four – clusters of signals that happen at the same time, ideally four or more. Any one body language cue could be anything; several overlapping or simultaneous cues are a more reliable signal. But you still need a baseline to be able to read it accurately. It’s why we’re able to tell how our friends or loved ones are feeling more than relative strangers.
Similarly, be aware of just how much your own body language affects things. OK, you’re a large guy. That doesn’t mean that you can’t adjust how you stand, sit or otherwise carry yourself to make yourself less threatening and more approachable. There’re a lot of little things, like standing at a slight angle away from someone or even standing parallel to them and facing the same way, instead of facing them full on, keeping your arms out and loose or gesturing with open upturned palms; these all signal trust, friendliness and openness, as well as avoiding making it feel like you’re looming over them. I know some very tall guys who’ll make a point of positioning themselves so that they’re not as imposing – often either by leaning back against something (often side-by-side with the person they’re talking to) or sitting instead of standing. Giving personal space, keeping your gestures slow and smooth and expansive help show that you’re trying to avoid giving an intimidating vibe.
Look at how some tall, built dudes act when they’re being friendly – Jason Momoa, Hafthor Bjornsson and so-on. They don’t come off as scary in those moments, they come off like big ol’ teddy bears.
Another thing to consider is how your resting murder face is affecting others. It’s hard for other people to know you’re a sweet, friendly guy when you look like you’re thinking about how your boss screwed you out of a performance bonus. Hell, that’s something I had to work on; I’ve had plenty of folks, including friends, who wanted to know what was wrong when I was having a perfectly lovely time. If you look like Stoneface McGee or Paddy O’Solemn, people are going to assume you don’t like them.
But what about your “ugly” smile? Well… to start with, I don’t know if we can treat you as the most reliable judge about your own attractiveness or lack thereof. But another thing to keep in mind would be whether you’ve considered that maybe the problem isn’t that it’s ugly, it’s that it’s forced? The smile you make when you think of things that make you laugh is probably far different than the one you’re practicing in the mirror.
Considering your history and the way you’ve schooled yourself to grey rock folks as a defense mechanism, it’s far more likely that you’re not just out of practice, you’ve associated “smiling” with negative outcomes and that affects how you’re interacting with the world around you.
And while I’m at it, might I gently point out that some of the other information you’ve shared isn’t relevant or revelatory the way you think? The dates you’d been on with the girl who was lying to you? That wasn’t your fault, that was you dating someone who turned out to be an asshole. That’s not on you, that’s on her. Assholes don’t happen to the “deserving”, they happen to anyone because assholes are gonna ass.
Dating apps? Well there’s a lot to be said about dating apps and the mistaken ideas that guys have about them, and it would take forever to go through them all. But one thing I’ll say is that being good on dating apps is a skill set all of its own, and part of it is knowing where your best matches are likely to be. eHarmony ain’t gonna be it for you unless you’re looking to get married immediately, and apps like Feel’d and #Open aren’t great for serial monogamists. But even on places with wider, more generalized audiences like OKCupid, you have to a) know how to engage with folks in text and b) realize that dating in general is a numbers game and online dating even more so. If you’re going in with the same attitude of “I’m having to work from negative numbers just to get to zero interest and THEN to positive interest” then yeah, s--t’s gonna go badly because you’ll both be signaling your presumptive apology for intruding on her much more valuable time and more likely to interpret everything in the worst possible light.
Now short of following you around and watching you like some sort of dating David Attenborough, I can’t tell you specifically what you’re doing right or wrong. But the things you mention here? These are all incredibly common and all come from the idea that people don’t like you from the jump and you have to overcome that before you can even get them to the point of maybe possibly enjoying your company. So you’re poisoning the well before you even start. You’ll do a lot better to assume that the people you’re hoping to meet already like you and are pleased to talk to you until you get evidence otherwise. This way, you’ll be priming yourself for far better interactions and getting your brain ready to see the good, rather than expecting to see the bad. Plus, it’ll make you far happier and more pleasant to talk to in general.
But more than that? I’d suggest talking to a counselor or therapist. You’ve got a lot of deep-seated negative ideas about yourself and that, combined with the trauma of abuse from someone who’s supposed to love and care for you and protect you – as well as bullying and sexualized abuse from your peers – means that you’re carrying around a lot of pain. Addressing that is going to go a long, long way towards making you realize how much good there is in you, how much you have to offer and just how lucky someone would be to date you. But they aren’t going to be able to see it until you can see it – because even if they did see it, you wouldn’t be able to accept it from them.
So start with healing yourself and learning to expect that folks already like you. This alone will make it easier for you to simply start having conversations and getting to know people. That, in turn, will help you build connections and relationships – likely platonic at first, but building to more – that will lead to the sorts of relationships 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