DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I have been with my current boyfriend for many years. We are happy, comfortable, and our romantic and sexual life is great. He hasn’t gotten cold or distant to me in all the years we’ve been together, in fact, our relationship feels like it’s only gotten better.
That being said, I have recently begun a project at work that will be going on for the span of about 3 to 4 months. It’s a relatively small group of us that already work well together so we are bound to become close. But there is one member who is new to working with me who I have been feeling strangely towards.
He’s great to work with, organized, listens, personable, and he isn’t bad to look at. I have been feeling almost like he has been a little flirty with me at times, but I don’t know if this is just him being friendly or is he is trying to give me subtle cues.
Everyone on the team knows I am in a long-term relationship (I don’t keep it hidden) so a part of me is thinking this is mighty ballsy of this guy if directly flirting with me is his intention, but again – I don’t know if I am misreading him.
Not saying flirting directly leads to anything, I am not planning on ever cheating. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t have some sort of feelings towards this guy. He’s definitely charming and I don’t want to have these feelings for another guy. It’s not like I am going home to my boyfriend and fantasizing about this other guy when we are sleeping together getting romantic and spicy, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t look forward to seeing him when we work together.
What the hell is wrong with me. How can I stop these feelings?
Sincerely, Feeling Weird
DEAR FEELING WEIRD: This is an easy one, FW. But this scenario has become its own genre of question here at NerdLove Industries, and I’m going to go on a bit of a rant for a second if I may, before I get to your question. Don’t worry, this will all tie together in the end.
One of the reasons why it feels like everyone’s talking about ethical non-monogamy or open relationships or polyamory or other non-conventional relationship models lately is because of situations like the one you’re facing, FW. Not because everyone should be poly or open – it’s not for everyone, just as living in Dallas or Los Angeles isn’t for everyone – but because we, as a culture, have done a huge disservice to people when it comes to relationships.
Because we live in a profoundly sex–negative culture and because we’ve had generations of a specific relationship model both propped up and legally enforced as The One And Only Way, we end up with situations where people have perfectly normal feelings that cause them angst and stress. People have been taught that sex and sexual attraction is simultaneously the most and least important thing in a relationship. They’re taught that love is simple, monogamy is both natural and easy and if you ever have questions, doubts or just plain old squishy feelings for another person, it means something’s wrong. Either something’s wrong with your relationship, or there’s something wrong with you.
And the blame is very much apportioned onto the person who feels weird. Have a higher libido than your partner? Well, maybe the issue is that you want it too much and you should work at repressing it. Have a lower libido than your partner? Maybe there’s something wrong with you and you’re just broken inside. Feelings for your partner changed over time? Well, guess that means that you’ve done something wrong or you never truly loved your partner. Find that you’re attracted to someone other than your partner, especially if you’re married? Well aren’t you the horrible person? Better either repress that into nothing or end the relationship because clearly you don’t love them enough, otherwise you wouldn’t be having these feelings.
Part of the reason why lots of people are talking more about alternate relationship models, about having more than one committed partner or having sex with people besides your spouse isn’t some weird, evangelizing recruitment plan, it’s about recognizing that we as a culture have pathologized perfectly normal feelings, lied or misled people about love and sex and generally caused folks unnecessary stress, angst and heartache… not to mention robbed folks of vocabulary and toolsets to actually manage these sorts of situations. Showing that there are multiple ways of having a strong, supportive and loving relationship, that loving one person doesn’t shut off your ability to love or be attracted to others… these all help normalize incredibly common, incredibly normal situations and scenarios that drive people to distraction.
Leaving the question of whether a divorce rate above a certain level is inherently bad aside, if more folks understood that love isn’t the Disney fairy tale that it’s sold as, that marriage isn’t the end of sexual adventure or experience, that feelings for different people are normal and that one person can’t be all things to one person, we’d have far fewer failed marriages and avoidable break-ups.
Because, amongst other things, we wouldn’t freak the f--k out when we get a random workplace crush. Which – bringing it back to your question, FW – is precisely what we have here.
What’s wrong with you? Nothing. You’re a primate with a sex-drive and anxiety, the quintessential human experience. What you’re experiencing is not just normal but very, very common. The happiness and success of your relationship has nothing to do with whether you have feelings for another person, whether spicy or mild.
Why are you having these feelings for someone, even when you’re in a happy relationship? That’s even easier: He’s a good looking guy who listens, is personable, he’s organized and seems to be a little flirty. He has qualities you admire, a look you like and he’s giving you some positive attention that may or may not be flirty. Being reminded that men you think are cute may also think that you’re cute yourself is a pretty nice feeling. Those feelings may make part of your brain – the part of our brains that crave novelty and increases production of oxytocin and dopamine when we’re with a new partner – sit up and take notice. So you end up with a mild case of limerence (AKA a crush) with the attendant racing heartbeat, sweaty palms and occasional inability to remember how to speak English because the Hormone Monster kicked you square in the language center of your brain.
What do you do about this? Nothing. That is, the best thing you can do here is nothing. Like… literally nothing.
Well, unless you and your boyfriend want to open up the relationship or something, that is. But since you apparently don’t want that, then the best thing to do is nothing different. You go to work, you do your job, you talk to your friends, you come home. Same thing you were doing before this guy came on the team.
If you want to add a little spice to the relationship with your boyfriend, you can certainly take that extra energy and those spicy feels and plow them into him. One of the fun things about having a crush when you’re in a monogamous relationship is taking the sexual energy and excitement that comes from an attraction to a new person and then unleash it on your partner. You aren’t going to have the same level of excitement with your long-term partner because humans can get used to anything and the New Relationship Energy fades over time. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t take the NRE feels you’re getting from a different person and get the pay off from your boyfriend like you just started dating.
Or you could just, y’know. Rub one or two out.
What I wouldn’t do is focus on the crush itself. Crushes and limerence are inherently temporary; they almost never last or last very long. But in their way, they’re like fire – if you feed them, they grow. And if you’re focused on trying to will a crush away or force yourself to not feel it, then you’re ultimately feeding it. Trying to repress it doesn’t mean you stop thinking about it or feeling it. All you end up doing is reinforcing the fact that you’re feeling it. You’re going from thinking about your crush to thinking about not thinking about your crush and putting a s--tload of energy into trying to make feelings go away – something that nobody has ever actually done successfully.
Let it just be, however, and it loses power. You can note and name the feeling when you experience it – “ah yes, that’s my crush on Cute Coworker” – and then gently just redirect your mind to what you actually need to concentrate on. Letting things just be, instead of freaking out and trying to analyze it to oblivion or beat it to death with a hammer, withholds fuel that inflames it. Soon, you’ll get used to the novelty that is Cute Coworker and his maybe-flirting, and it’ll just be part of the status quo – no more interesting or unusual than the selection of coffee pods in the break room or Steven’s refusal to quit reheating fish in the microwave.
GOD I HATE STEVEN.
By the by: it’s entirely possible that Cute Coworker IS flirting… but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Some people are just flirty and don’t mean anything by it. Some people’s version of friendly just comes off as flirty. And even if Cute Coworker is flirting with you… well, it takes two to tango. His flirting doesn’t mean you need to flirt back, nor does it mean that you need to act on it. If it doesn’t bother you – outside of the spicy heart-flutters, anyway – then just “missing” any intended subtext will set the tone.
And incidentally, whomever you’re thinking of while enjoying that crush energy is up to you. Whatever’s going on between your ears is entirely your business and no one else’s. And no, it doesn’t mean you’re betraying your boyfriend; it’s just another part of the human experience.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org