Hello, all you electric love treats. Welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only dating column that can help you wrangle your chocobos and canoodle your moogles.
Let’s get right to it.
I don’t have a dating question per se, but I know you like to touch on toxic masculinity a lot, and I feel my current predicament is something that you might have some guidance for.
I recently got into a debate on Facebook with one of my friends. He said he was going to start bullying people over 25 who didn’t have their driver’s license because he thought they were being lazy wastes of space who needed to get on with their lives. Now, I have a license myself, so the conversation was not an attack on me, but he was attacking a bunch of my older friends who were otherwise happy, healthy and productive members of society, but who he and a bunch of his friends were - and I’m not exaggerating - literally calling them ‘shit people’ simply because they didn’t have a drivers’ license, so I jumped in to lend them a hand and defend them from what I thought was a really arbitrary judgement.
I won’t bore you with the nitty-gritty of the entire conversation; in truth, I’m 99% certain they were simply trolling. However, one part got to me more than I expected it to, and that’s what I wanted to ask you about.
A girl who said she was unable to get her license asked one of the accusers if they knew how to do every single one of a list of basic life skills, including cooking, cleaning, driving a car, car maintenance, gardening, household DIY, basic first aid, and the like, as a point to show that not everyone is a walking Swiss Army Knife.
One of the attackers retorted saying he did know how to do all that, and said on top of that he had other skills such as knowing how to wield firearms, sharpening and using blades, and rappelling down buildings without proper climbing gear. He then recounted a story about how when he and some of his friends went dirt bike riding, one of them had a serious brain injury and had to be driven to hospital. He said if he didn’t have his license, that friend would have suffered serious brain damage while they were waiting for an ambulance.
While the story sounded noble, he used it as a platform to degrade everyone who was initially disagreeing with him, saying that if we didn’t have all these life skills - yes, ALL of these skills, including knowing how to sharpen a blade and handle a firearm - that we were useless sacks of shit who were selfish and ultimately weren’t good people because we were putting other people’s lives on the line, and that the only excuse we didn’t have to learn them was out of ‘pure laziness’.
The point really shook me up. I was never the most traditionally masculine man; I’ve never cared for or wanted to learn how to do things like go mountain biking or wield a knife or a firearm. Yet, I went to an all boys high school where I was picked on for being a wuss and not caring about activities like that, or interests like cars and sports and manual-labour oriented jobs and activities. I spent a long time after that beating myself up for not being a ‘real man’ as was expected of me; what people such as yourself would consider ‘toxic masculinity’.
It was only about two years ago (I should say, I’ve been out of high school for a decade now) that I was able to move on from a lot of that mentality and really find comfort in myself. More than that, it was then I really started to pick up and learn a lot of what I considered those ‘essential life skills’ like learning to cook, being more responsible with my finances, going more regularly to the gym, etc. Despite my lack of interest in cars, I do know basic car maintenance (my father is a big car buff, he wouldn’t let me get away without learning at least the basics), and I’d taken a first aid course at one of my jobs a few years ago, so it’s not like I don’t have ANY life skills.
But the conversation with this guy opened up a lot of old wounds and has reinvigorated a lot of that self-doubt. It resounded a lot of those toxic elements, that “you have to have *these* skills if you want to be a worthwhile person” rhetoric from when I was younger. I’m now questioning myself whether this guy was genuinely trying to give me and people like me a motivational kick up the ass, or if he was simply trying to intimidate us and use his ‘life skills’ as a way to make himself seem superior (I should add, when called out on his attitude, his response was the classic “it doesn’t matter if I’m being mean because I’m right”).
I’m not against self-improvement, and I don’t want to use him being a dick as an excuse NOT to improve, but something about his arguments got to me, and I can’t shake that feeling there’s a subtly malicious intent in them. Am I thinking too hard about this? Does he have some valid points that I’m possibly ignoring out of spite and the accused laziness? Or does this seem to be a case of toxic masculinity to you?
Learning Life Skills
First of all: dude was trolling you. It sounds like it might be time to start paring down the number of people you’re friends with on Facebook.
But leaving aside your friend being an asshat and his /r/thathappened story about hauling a friend to the hospital (though the smarter move for someone who’s had a head injury might be to wait for the ambulance with the backboard and c-collar) and talk a little about “necessary life skills.” Emphasis on the word “necessary.”
It’s the glorification of the Frontier Man and the Cowboy and the idea of the Rugged Individualist. Basically the sort of character that Robert Heinlein would get a half-chub over but didn’t actually exist. This mysterious polymath is pointed to by many who want to talk about how “wussy” today’s men are because they didn’t Batman themselves into having every possible skillset under the sun.
The idea that A Man Is An Island Unto Himself is basically backwards-looking nostalgia to a time that didn’t actually exist. It’s not as though mechanics and plumbers didn’t exist prior to the 20th century, after all, nor was every man a blacksmith AND a cooper AND a wheelwright AND an architect in George I’s England.
The fact is that the Real Man Jack of All Trades, Don’t Need Nobody Else is a great fictional character but not much of an actual person. In reality: humans are social creatures who realized early on that going it alone in the world is a great way to get eaten by bears. Humans have survived as long as we have not by being islands unto ourselves but by banding together and using individual talents for the collective good. You may not have been much for throwing a spear, but Kronk was, so Kronk did more hunting. You, on the other hand, may have understood which plants would kill you and which would cure a fever, so you handled the medicine for the tribe. That overlap of skills benefitted the group. The individualist who didn’t share with others tended to be summarily driven out of the tribe because they endangered the well-being of the whole.
But as with all things involving toxic ideas around being a man, The Real Man checklist takes something inherent—being a man—and turns it into something conditional. Once your gender is based on external factors, it becomes something that can you can lose… or have taken from you.
And if your circumstances change, well, there goes your manhood. A Real Man is a provider… but when he loses his job because the company he was working for automated everything, he’s now no longer A Real Man. So it is with checklists of “This Is What Makes A Real Man.” If you fail to check something off the list, lose the ability to do something (through injury, perhaps) or should the list change, as society and civilization has, then once again you can have your manhood taken away.
The idea of A Real Man is used predominantly to sell you shit and police other men for being “insufficiently manly,” which is what your friend was doing. Toxic masculinity is unbelievably fragile—so much so that something as simple as braiding hair can threaten it—and so men are forced to continually prove their male bonafides. One of the ways to do this is to check other people for not being “real” men and threaten to provide corrective measures. Prove you’re a big swinging dick by pounding on others, and folks are less likely to come for your man-card.
It’s part and parcel of the the idea of the Just Be Alpha Bro as folks compete to talk shit about how Alpha they are as they never get rejected by women and can also kill you by driving their finger through your eye and into your brain. Notice how many of your buddy’s supposed skillsets involve his being Billy Bad-Ass, ready to come to the rescue when the Commies invade via Canada? He wants you to know he’s ready to beat ass and eat ass and you’re not because… driver’s licenses or some shit.
So, yes. He’s shitposting and doing really basic toxic posturing by elevating skills to the point of “if you don’t do this, you’re babyman scum.” Take, for example, driving. In some cities and rural areas, it’s virtually impossible to get around without a car. But in, say, New York City, London, Chicago or Tokyo, having a car is a luxury. You can live quite happily there using mass transit.
That being said: there’s a difference between “You must complete this checklist to be a Real Man” and “knowing how to take care of yourself as a grown-ass adult of any gender.” Being able to prepare meals for yourself, keep your place clean and do basic financial management are important so that you’re not relying on other people to be surrogate parents to you when you’re in your 20s and 30s.
If you’re into martial arts or guns, cool. You do you. If you’re more into music or coding or gaming, also cool. If you’re interested in learning how to do urban gardening or DIY home repair or high-performance driving or getting certified in first-aid, awesome. But none of that has anything to do with being a man or a woman or anything else. Your being a man comes from within, nowhere else.
So I’m a fan of your column and advice so I decided to send you my question. I am a 27 year old woman who hasn’t had much luck on the dating front. I suppose I am what your would call “geeky or nerdy” because of my interests, like video games, sci-fi books and movies, cosplay etc. I feel inclined to also mention the fact that even though I’m into those things, I also am very much into fashion and I don’t look like a foot or anything. However, I have never been good at dating or attracting men in general. And the few times I do “catch one” or meet someone that I’m attracted to, I either get rapidly put into the friend zone or ghosted after a date or two. I’ve only ever had one boyfriend...and he cheated on me with someone else. So because of this I tend to have some worries about my general lack of appeal to the male species.
Which leads me to my question. I met a guy (who I’ll call Joe for the sake of this letter) online and we have gone out on a few dates...but I’m not attracted to him. We get along really well, he’s super funny, and very kind which I like. But on a physical level...I just don’t feel a spark. I’m not one of those girls who only cares about rippling abs or gym rats...it sounds cliche but I don’t actually have a type. I have liked guys who were awkwardly tall and skinny to guys who were on the chubby side. (I generally pay most attention to eyes and smiles.) But with Joe I just don’t feel “it.” And on each of our dates I really have tried to kind of muster up any kind of romantic feelings...but it just hasn’t been happening. And the reason I’m torn is because he and I do get along in a lot of ways, and to be honest I don’t honestly have many other options coming my way. After our last date it seemed like he’s getting to the point where he wants to take our relationship to a physical level...and I feel like I’m at a crossroads. Am I being unrealistic? Does the “spark” even actually exist? Am I passing up on a great guy because of this? Or am I leading him on?
I don’t know if should should just give it a chance, and wait and see if maybe something will change, or if I should just let him know now that I don’t feel anything like that for him.
And if I do the latter, what is the best way to go about it? I don’t want to hurt his feelings because I know how much this conversation sucks. I am usually the one on the receiving end of the “let’s be friends” or “you’re such a great girl, but” conversation, and I’ve never wanted to make someone else feel that way.
I hate to go all Biz Markie here, MUD, but it sounds to me like you’re saying he’s just a friend. He may be a great guy and you enjoy spending time with him, but the fact of the matter is: dude isn’t doing it for you on the emotional or physical level. And that means that a romantic relationship just isn’t in the cards.
To be sure, there are people out there who have what are known as companionate relationships; their connection may not have a sexual component but they have other things that keep them together. There are people who are asexual but still have romantic connections with their partners. But it sounds less like you’re ace and more like you just don’t like the dude that way and you’re holding on because… well, you’re afraid there won’t be anyone else afterwards.
And believe me, I get it. I stayed in a toxic relationship for years because I thought I would never ever find anyone else. But staying with someone you don’t actually like that way is bad for you both. It’s unfair to you because it leaves you trapped in a relationship that ultimately is going to be empty and soul-crushing for you in the long term. And it’s unfair to him because you’ll be keeping him from finding someone who is into him.
I get that you don’t want to hurt him or make someone else feel bad. But dating is a full-contact sport and sometimes you’re going to get hurt. That’s just part of the price of entry. There’s no real way to break up with someone without causing pain; the best you can do is not to cause unnecessary hurt.
The best thing you can do is end this, quickly and cleanly. The clean break heals fastest. So keep it short and simple: it’s nobody’s fault, it’s just that you two aren’t a good match and it’s better for him to find someone who’s right for him.
And the meantime, here’s something that a lot of dating coaches and relationship experts won’t tell you: sometimes life just sucks and you get stuck through no fault of your own. You can, in the words of Picard, commit no errors and still lose. The only thing you can do is grit your teeth, find the things that make your life worth living and keep moving forward until things change.
Sometimes it takes longer than we’d like… but it does get better. Good luck.
Around this time last year, I started dating one of my fairly close friends. Both of us were really happy for a while, but with a lot of work piling up I had to cut down my time with her. I tried to see her as much as possible, but eventually she felt it was enough damage to end the relationship (about six months down the line), which completely destroyed me.
A couple of weeks later, I found out she was dating my brother. This led to us butting heads a lot, which damaged our relationship as brothers massively. I did get past it, after a few months, but I still missed her. My friends (who were quite fond of her when we were dating) became incredibly hostile towards her and I swore off ever dating her again, mostly due to the backlash I’d get from them if I did. I didn’t actually hate her though, I was just hurt and jealous.
Fast forward to October; my brother dumps her and shuts her out of his life for seemingly no reason, then goes on to date one of their mutual friends shortly after. To an extent there was satisfaction in seeing her go through what I went through, but being the big softie I am I reached out to her to make sure she was okay (I definitely wasn’t when I went through it).
We met up for a coffee a few days ago and made peace with each other, ending up spending an entire afternoon together having a really good time. We’d both been fucked up from our respective break-ups, and we agreed it put us on the same page again. We really had a great time together, and it reminded me of how great our relationship was when I had the time to invest in it.
Now I’m at the end of my senior year of high school (southern hemisphere) with tons of free time, and we started talking about getting back together. We both agreed that, on paper, it was a very very bad idea; we’d both sworn off exes to our friends, been pretty hurt by our relationships and, in my case, would get absolutely murdered by my friends if we got back together. Morally, it’s a shitstorm.
But we both feel like we really want this. Currently we’re just working on mending our friendship, but we agreed in future we should give it another shot.
I normally talk to my closest friends for advice, but like I said they would murder me if they knew I was considering this. I don’t believe they’ll cut ties with me—many of them said they wouldn’t—but it’s still a terrifying prospect.
Am I doing something totally insane, Doc? Is following my instinct the right thing to do?
Insane In The Membrane
Let’s leave your friends out of this for the moment, ITM. When you’re thinking of getting back together with an ex, you have to ask yourself two questions.
The first is: why? There are a lot of bad reasons to get back together with your ex. Nostalgia, for example, can be an incredibly powerful force when it comes to exes. We tend to get caught up in remembering the good times, when things were going great. We miss the excitement and novelty of when the relationship was new and it felt like the world was smiling on us specifically. But those warm remembrances of the early days tend to paper over a lot of the bullshit that drove you apart in the first place.
There’s also a tendency to prefer what’s known or comfortable, even when you know it’s not good for you. Going back to the known, even when you know to the fiber of your being that it’s just going to shred your sanity and soul, can be incredibly compelling.
But if you were good together, and what drove you apart were forces outside of your control— as opposed, to, say, one of you being a raging psycho hellbeast—then it’s more understandable that you might want to give things a second try.
Which leads us to the second question: are things different now?
One of the possible downsides of going back to your ex is that you’re potentially signing up for a replay of everything you went through the first time. If, for example, you broke up because you cheated: have you changed enough that you won’t cheat again? Has she forgiven you and is able to legitimately trust you again? If the factors that broke you up in the first place haven’t changed, then all you’re doing is getting ready to be hurt again, just like you did the first time.
It sounds to me like the biggest things that broke you up—and why your friends are so dead-set against it—were basic high school immaturity. Losing her shit because you were legitimately busy isn’t exactly showing immense maturity, and then she set off a drama bomb by dating your brother. Drama can be a motherfucker, especially in high school, and when the drama bomb gets set up, nobody comes out having covered themselves in glory—not you, not your ex, not your brother.
So you have to ask yourself: are you setting yourself up for another round of petty high school bullshit? Is your girlfriend going to throw a fit if you’re swamped while you’re at university? Or have you all grown to the point that you can recognize what happened, grit your teeth at the embarrassment and do better next time? You’re the only one who can answer that, ITM.
Just remember though: if you go back and things fall apart again? Your friends are going to love having the opportunity to say “I told you so.”
Have you gotten back together with an ex? Do you have interests that you feel aren’t “right” for your gender? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments, and we’ll be back in two weeks with more of your dating questions.
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 podcast. 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.