Hello, all you ambulatory wildebeests of self-pollution, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only advice column that’s the FAQ for the game of love.
This week, it’s all about what happens after the relationship ends. How do you handle your ex moving on while you’re still hoping to get her back? What do you do when your on-again,off-again relationship never seems to be fully ON? And what do you do when your partner’s studies are leaving your relationship lost in limbo?
Is there any chance to continue before time runs out?
It’s time to gird your loins and insert coins. Let’s do this.
Good evening Dr. NerdLove,
I come to you seeking advice because I admire your honesty and well thought out answers, that help your readers overcome some of the most difficult moments in their lives. First off, I apologise for the length but it is required to get a full idea of the issue.
I have recently broken up with my girlfriend of nearly 4 years. As much of a shock as it was (and still is), it was also a long time coming. I was the one who ended it with her as she told me she no longer loved me. I never wanted it to end this way, or at all for that matter, but I could not bring myself to keep trying to make her happy anymore.
She was dating my (female) best friend’s brother when I first met her and the few times we spoke we got on well. Over time her and her boyfriend slowly drifted apart. As they drifted apart it gave me and her more time to hang out as friends, eventually I started falling for her. When I asked her out on our first date she announced she just broke it off with him (which was news to me as I thought she left him ages ago). After asking around, it turns out she’s never been single and hopped from one guy to the next without much of a heartbeat apart.
Since I’ve known her she has always had mental health issues. Even before dating me, she was suffering with anxiety, depression and even self-harm. The first few months of dating her was amazing but it was also a shock. She was the first girlfriend I’ve had since leaving high school and my first to have sex with. As a virgin at 25, she always said my virginity was what attracted herself to me.
Her mental health issues made it difficult for me to understand at first but after a while, it became easier and I was happy I stuck it out. I was patient, a gentleman and was there when she needed a shoulder to cry on.
Our first year together was amazing, could not fault it. Then a few months later (Nearly a year and a half of dating), is when it started to go wrong. She was taking medication for a skin condition but a side effect caused her sex drive to plummet. We went from having daily sex to once every 3 months. It was so sudden that it took a toll on us. Even after the side effects were meant to wear off, sex never returned. I would get frustrated with her and she would try to get into the mood, but she was not putting any effort in trying to make it work for both of us. We eventually started scheduling monthly sex just to try and get back into the groove, but even that fell apart.
2 Years in, I proposed and she said no. She’s seen her parents go through so many divorces and even though her friends kept egging her on she only wanted the day. I was sad at first but I got over fairly quickly, as I don’t find marriage a requirement in today’s day and age.
3 Years in. She agreed that because I have never had sex with others, I could meet other partners but we would still have monthly sex. Even our joint best friend thought it was a good idea. When I went through with it, it made me realise, I didn’t want this and stopped it after one meet. I don’t regret it because it made me realise I wanted only my girlfriend. My self-esteem was through the roof for the first time in years. It gave me the confidence to realise, my skills and appearance are not an issue, it’s my girlfriend who needs to improve her self-esteem. When I told her I actually went through with it however, she was in shock but got over it in a day and we returned to normal but we missed our monthly sex date… then the next… and the next. We were back where the issues started.
A few months later her mental health took its toll and she had to take nearly 3 months off sick so she could make a recovery mentally. She was put on medication and she is now the happiest she has ever been, but I’m starting to think, now she’s happy, she no longer needs me to be her carer. Throughout the years I became more and more submissive to her because I wanted to give her the happy life she never had as a child. I literally did everything for her and she started to get a little bratty. When her mental health improved I started to become more assertive and made her start doing stuff for herself again.
One day she asked if she could join Tinder because she was bored at home. It was actually one of the things I suggested previously to help build her confidence in the past, so I agreed to let her. I thought it would just be sexting and nothing more. However, she told me she “clicked” with someone and she wanted to meet him. This was way too much than we agreed on so I refused to let her. After arguing I finally agreed to let her see him. But her words “clicked” made me anxious and I broke down and told her I don’t feel comfortable allowing her. She froze and took around 20 minutes of not talking to finally agree not to meet. She had to think about who she would let down more.
A few days later she told me, she had arranged to meet him behind my back. I was so angry I stormed off. When she ran to me to try and explain we argued and she revealed she was no longer in love with me. I told her it’s over. I was heartbroken because I could not have given her anything else and she still wasn’t satisfied with me or the way I treated her like a princess.
I feel like my submissive nature made her lose respect for me and despite years of her telling me her feminism made her see through those flaws, deep down she wanted me to take control. Maybe I’m thinking too much into it.
She’s going on a date with this guy tomorrow (as of writing), I have a few myself lined up as I feel like I need to move on quickly. We still live together (separate rooms) and I don’t want to make it awkward. I’m hoping me dating will allow me to gain my confidence back and come back less submissive. Could there be a chance we could get back together? If you think there is, how can I show her we are still meant to be together and have her fall back in love with me? I know I can’t help it if she fell out of love with me as that is just life unfortunately. I still have feelings for her and I just want to know she’s making the right choice rather than letting a lack of sex and arguing being the decision behind not loving me anymore.
Oh man. I hate getting letters like this, HM, because there’s never a good way of delivering the news that I’m about to give you:
Your relationship ended about three years ago. It continued to shamble on like a zombie because either neither of you realized it or because your girlfriend didn’t have the heart to do what needed to be done, which was to put two in its dome and let it finally rest.
Here’s the thing: I’ve been there. But more specifically, I was in a situation similar to your girlfriend’s in that first year. When my depression was at its worst, I was put on an SSRI that—among other things—killed my sex drive deader than Elvis. Not only could I not give a six-legged rat’s ass about sex, the times I tried to have it were… well, let’s just say that I could’ve been with Christina Hendricks and Kat Dennings doing the pushing and nothing would’ve happened.
A couple years later I’m cycled off, and my sex drive didn’t return. Or rather… it did. It was just that I realized that I didn’t want to be having sex with my girlfriend at the time. I passed it off as “well I think that the SSRI rewired me” but honestly it wasn’t me, it was her. Specifically, I really didn’t want to be with her anymore.
But it took me another two years to make that happen.
The things that you describe your girlfriend doing? Those were all ways of kicking the break-up can down the road because she couldn’t quite bring herself to call it and pronounce the patient dead. Telling you that she didn’t want to get married because she’d seen too many marriages fail? That might be true, but it was also because she didn’t want your relationship to be harder to get out of than it already was.
Pushing you to an open relationship or at least hooking up with folks “because you hadn’t been with anyone else?” That was almost certainly her gently nudging you to date other people in hopes that maybe you might fall for ‘em and they’d take you off her hands.
Joining Tinder “because she was bored?” That wasn’t out of boredom, my dude; that was her slamming her hand down on the relationship self-destruct button.
This wasn’t a case of your being too submissive and her lying (or being mistaken) about her feminism making her be ok with it. This was a relationship that outlasted its natural life-span as both of you clung to something that I don’t think either of you were ready to let go of.
But that’s what you need to do, HM. I get that you care for her. I get that you wish that things were different. But unfortunately, there is no way of getting her back. This has been over for a lot longer than you (and possibly she) realized, and the only thing that’s left is for you to finally put this to rest. The sooner that you do that, the sooner you can start healing a wound that you’ve left open for far too long.
Going on those dates is a good idea. “Getting over someone by getting under someone else” isn’t the most tasteful way of phrasing things, but there’s an element of truth to it. Dating other women is going to remind you that your ex isn’t the only woman out there. There are many, many more women who will find you desirable and remind you that as much as this sucks, life does go on and you will find love again.
Go on dates, yes. Get your confidence back and be the more self-assured, assertive person you were before. But don’t go into this thinking that this is the path to getting back with your ex. That chapter of your life is well and truly over. It’s time to start the next one.
As awful as this may feel, the thing to keep in mind is that this isn’t The End. It’s not even the beginning of the end. It’s merely the end of the beginning.
You’ll be ok. I promise.
All will be well.
Dear Dr. NerdLove,
My partner is in phd limbo and I’m not sure how to handle it.
The story is we met 5 years ago, and when we did they were 2-3 years into their phd program. At the time I was extremely excited to be dating someone who was clearly passionate about learning and so hardworking as to be getting a phd. At the time they told me they would be done in another 2-3 years. As we continued to date it became clear that the program was incredibly harsh and difficult, on top of the fact that my partner is trans, so they were dealing with a lot of shit. They have now been in the phd program for 7 years (a rather long time) and are currently working at retail since they lost their funding last year. They are theoretically still working on the dissertation/ applying for teaching jobs, but honestly I haven’t seen any real progress on that front in several years.
I understand that getting a phd is hard, I understand that there were forces out of their control, I don’t want to be the girlfriend who is harping on them all the time, however I feel like I’m going crazy. When I ask about progress they will say “Yes, it’s going well, I’m going to apply to A university” but when I follow up a few weeks later I find out that the job posting expired and they never applied. Just that cycle, over and over, for years.
We have communicated about this issue. I will say how I’m feeling, they will promise to be more accountable, say that they ALSO want to do better, but how hard it is hard working retail 30 hours a week. And then it feels like nothing happens.
I love my partner. I do not want to be with them because of a phd. I’m even saving up for a ring to propose. I’m in a field that I enjoy with a steady job, and I appreciate that when they lost their funding they found something to make sure we were still financially solid. But I feel like this issue will never go away and I just want to move on with our lives. I’m tired of this perpetual cloud. I am hoping you have some advice. Thank you very much for listening.
So EE, did you see what I said to Heartbroken Mess about relationship zombies? It sounds to me like your partner is in a similar situation. The difference is that instead of their relationship that’s dropped dead, it’s their hopes of actually completing their doctorate.
What you’re describing is something that’s familiar to a lot of folks in academia: somebody who’s ABD (All But Dissertation) and has been for years. This is usually a sign that they’ve burned out, but they can’t quite bring themselves to actually admit that things are over.
This is a form of what’s known as the Sunk Cost Fallacy—people are loathe to give up on something they’ve invested time or money into. This is as true about dreams as it is about careers, relationships or gambling. In this case, it’s your partner’s pursuit of their doctorate. If they actually pull the trigger on this, then it’s tantamount to admitting that the last seven years have been for nothing, and that’s really hard to do. It’s even harder when we have a culture that’s collectively fallen in love with the idea of “CHASE YOUR DREAMS NO MATTER WHAT!!” If you let go of something that’s clearly going nowhere, doesn’t that imply that you just didn’t want it badly enough or that you didn’t have the grit to make it happen?
Nobody wants to admit that to themselves, even when it’s bullshit. Some dreams aren’t meant to come true, and it can be incredibly difficult to face that.
But at the same time, letting go of one dream means finding out that what you really want or need is something entirely different. I mean, speaking personally: I spent the better part of two decades trying to be a professional artist. It wasn’t until I let that go that I was free to discover that I had other passions and interests, ones that lead to my career today.
The trick is just getting them to admit that they’ve checked out.
What you may need to do is throw down the gauntlet. If—and this is a big if—you can swing things financially, then it may be worth telling them that you will give them a year to make progress on their PhD. If, by the end of that year, they haven’t made serious, significant progress, then it’s time to let it go.
Will that work? It’s hard to say. Having a deadline—and the pressure of “Well, my partner is putting it on the line so I can make this happen”—may light a fire under their ass and motivate them to get back to it.
Or it may make them realize that they’ve given up on this a long time ago and they haven’t been willing to admit it to themselves.
But if they push against it, if they’d rather say “No, I’ll get this done” and continue to not make forward progress, then it may be time for an Awkward Conversation, where you sit down with them and tell them that you love them, that you want to build a life with them, but they’ve been in this limbo for YEARS and it’s starting to get in the way of your life together. And considering how little forward progress they’ve made, it seems like it will just be a drag on your future until they either fish or cut bait. Let them know: if they’re as invested in your relationship as you are, then they need to make the call and either go full-tilt boogie to finish or let it go, because this purgatory is only going to drag you both down.
And then it’s in their hands. Hopefully this will be the wake-up call they need.
Hi Dr. NerdLove.
So my story is about a 9 month roller coaster.
A little background first. I’m a 38 year old male, divorced, and 2 kids.
After my divorce, I dated around here and there with little to no success. Then, in March of 2019, I met someone online. We met, hit it off quite well, and had a good first lunch date. It was apparent that there was a good connection and chemistry immediately between us.
Since that first date, we’ve been on and off. We just recently got together again, a couple weekends ago, and have been talking and spending time with each other once again. I know where this road leads. But for some reason I’m addicted to it. I care about her so much. She’s not the type of person to share feelings or get emotional. The times that I have shared how I felt with her, it pushed her away, and then we wound up breaking things off. Before things break off, she goes cold, talks less, and even ignores and ghosts. She’s said a few times that she doesn’t want all the things that come with a serious relationship. Something like, I may complicate her life and independence, and demand her time. I’m a pretty easy going guy who just needs communication. If she’d communicate her needs, wants, and boundaries, I’d totally comply. But even after all that, for some reason, we still find a way back to each other.
When we get back together, she’s very enthusiastic. Seeking me out, texting first, very affectionate, etc. She becomes a chaser. As time goes on however, I’m the one that reaches out first, makes the plans, and tiptoes around her. Then of course after a while, I can sense the detachment in her. I should say, that in these 9 months of off and on, we’ve never argued, or disagreed about anything major. When we’re on, it’s a wonderful time. She knows I care deeply for her. Ok, I’ll say it! I love this girl. She knows that, and despite her disdain for sharing feelings and emotions, she still gravitates to me.
But, I’m getting to the point where I can’t do this anymore. The on and off thing is not good for me. At the same time, I want to be with her. She rocks my world. Only missing thing is, I don’t know what she really feels for me. Does she care deeply for me or love me too? Or am I a friends with benefits who she likes to play house with every 3 months? Does she break off because she feels vulnerable and doesn’t want to lose her independence, even if she doesn’t want to break it off with me? I can’t figure her out.
Of course I can’t ask her these things out of fear that I’ll sabotage our latest incarnation. I guess I’m just waiting for her to cave and finally tell me what she really feels. But that may never come.
So, Dr. NerdLove, any advice would be great!
Cat and Mouse
Here’s my advice, CAM: use your damn words.
Look, I can tell you precisely why you’re addicted to her. You’re dealing with what’s known as intermittent reinforcement. The fact that she blows hot and cold—first she’s lovey-dovey, then she ghosts you—leaves you feeling insecure and uncertain. You want the dopamine hit of the highs when she’s with you, but knowing that it’s going to come to a screeching halt and almost anything might trigger her going cold again means that you can never be sure of where you stand. So now you crave the reward of the high even more and you work even harder to get it.
But as ecstatic as the highs may be, they’re coming at a significant cost—one you’re already starting to recognize. The on-again, off-again cycle is exhausting, it shreds your soul and it leaves you in a perpetual state of insecurity that ultimately is unsustainable.
You already know this. You also know that her pattern hasn’t changed and that just hoping that maybe THIS time it’ll pay off and she’ll stay isn’t going to work. That’s the same logic that keeps people pumping quarters into a slot machine, and it’s about as successful. Someone may get the huge payout, but the odds that it’ll be you are infinitesimal.
Straight talk, CAM: the fact that you’ve gotten together and broken up three times in nine months is not the mark of a good relationship. In fact, I’d tell you that you’re much better off running in the opposite direction. Whether she likes you or not, the fact of the matter is that a healthy relationship isn’t going to feel like pulling teeth. Even if she has sincere feelings for you and it’s just her baggage keeping her from commitment, the relationship as it stands ain’t healthy.
Someone’s gonna have to break this cycle. May as well be you.
Since you already know that she’s going to ghost you eventually, you know you don’t have anything to lose. So you may as well call the question and have the Defining The Relationship talk with her to try to get some answers. Best case scenario, you two are able to get on the same page and have some sort of resolution to this loop you’re stuck in. Maybe you’ll even be able to make the transition to an actual relationship and she’ll realize that you’re not a threat to her independence.
Worst case? She cuts out. Like she does every time. And in that case, you’ll have gotten your answer. And as much as it may suck, it’ll also mean that you’re free to find someone who isn’t going to show up every three months like a stray cat expecting to be fed.
Did you live with your ex after the break-up? Have you had to help a partner let go of a long-held ambition? Share your story in the comments below and we’ll be back with more of your questions in two weeks.
Ask Dr. NerdLove is Kotaku’s bi-weekly dating column, hosted by the one and only Harris O’Malley, AKA Dr. NerdLove. Got a question you’d like answered? Write email@example.com and put “Kotaku” in the subject line.
Harris O’Malley is a writer and dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blog Paging Dr. NerdLove and the Dr. NerdLove YouTube channel. His new dating guide New Game+: The Geek’s Guide to Love, Sex and Dating is out now from Amazon, iTunes and everywhere fine books are sold. He is also a regular guest at One Of Us.