Hello all you death monkies of the noosphere, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only dating advice column with a battle royale mode.
This week, we’re talking about trust and judgement. How can you trust that someone actually likes and respects you instead of just trying to get into your pants? And for that matter, how can you know if having a crush means your relationship is in trouble? How can you trust your own judgement when you’ve only had one serious relationship?
It’s time to airdrop in and remember that all’s fair in love and war. Let’s do this.
This question is basically the direct opposite of a lot of the questions on this site, but I think it shares some commonalities—picking up other people’s signals. So hopefully you can help.
I’m a young (mid 20s) woman in a happy long-term relationship. As much as this is going to sound like a humble-brag, I’m dealing with a problem: I’m pretty attractive. I know this because people, men and women, stop me in the street to tell me I should model, I look like [hot celebrity], etc. I have to fend off a lot of unwanted advances, sometimes very aggressive ones, sometimes in professional settings. I’ve also been a victim of sexual violence. I am, frankly, pretty afraid of men.
I’m accustomed to people reacting to my looks before they react to anything else about me. (For the record, I have a lot of interests and am pretty smart, so there is definitely more to me.) This has had two major effects:
1) I find it difficult to simply be friendly to men, and instead find myself radiating hostility in settings where that’s not appropriate (i.e. professional ones) as a pre-emptive defensive measure. I work in a male-dominated industry.
2) When I’m able to let my guard down enough to be friendly, I find it difficult to tell when men are interested in what I have to say. I fear that they are pretending to be interested, either because they want to have sex with me, or because my attractiveness generates goodwill that’s unrelated to what I’m talking about (geopolitics! urban planning!).
This is all a problem because I’m not looking for a date — my partner’s awesome — but I am looking to make friends and build a professional network.
My fears about men are not unfounded, as I’m sure you understand. I’ve had men pretend to offer me opportunities for professional advancement as a guise to get a date on multiple occasions. I’ve been raped and harassed. I’ve started to feel like I must not be a truly likable person, and that the only reason anyone would be interested in talking to me is because I’m hot.
I want to live in such a way that I can relax some of my barriers, without sacrificing my safety. I want to feel more confident when I attempt to gauge whether someone is interested in me as a human being. How do I tell when someone actually just wants to be friends or friendly colleagues?
Pretty With A Pistol
There are a lot of folks who’re going to insist that you don’t actually have a problem, PWaP, or that your problem is a “good problem.” I mean, c’mon… you’re just too pretty for people? How is this a problem? After all, one of the weird ways that humans are wired, psychologically, involves what’s known as the Halo Effect. This is a cognitive bias where we unconsciously ascribe positive characteristics to people we see as attractive. Since you’re good looking, people tend to see you as friendlier, more intelligent and generally better than someone who’s more average or plain.
Except… that doesn’t always help as much professionally. In fact, it can hinder you. A lot of people tend to see attractive women — particularly in STEM fields — as being less intelligent and less accomplished. It’s all based on bullshit stereotypes to be sure, ranging from ideas about hair color to breast size, but it’s a very real phenomenon. As a result, a lot of women in white collar fields will often play down their looks: darkening their hair if they’re blonde, wearing clothes that are less stylish or form-fitting and so on.
The issue you’re having, though, isn’t about your looks. Not really. Your issue is about trust, and you have good reason not to trust a lot of the men you deal with on a regular basis. One of the ongoing issues right now is the societal expectation that men are entitled to women — to their time, to their attention and to their bodies. This can be seen in a multitude of areas, from how women were literally treated as commodities and prizes in advertising and games, to the issues surrounding inexcusable behavior at “professional” events — particularly when alcohol was involved — to the ever classic “telling women to smile”. Part of the reason why so many men wrung their hands and worried about how the #MeToo movement was going to end “flirting” was that a lot of what was previously dismissed as “flirtatious workplace behavior” was in fact straight up harassment or sexual assault.
When you combine all that with your personal experiences… honestly, it’s a little amazing that you don’t pepper-spray dudes in advance. But as you say: having resting murder face may ward of some dudes, but it doesn’t work well in professional settings. And you want to be able to trust men, and to meet men who are worthy of your trust. So what is there to do?
Well, your two goals actually reinforce themselves. Part of why you wear your murder face is because of how many men have proven themselves to be untrustworthy. One of the ways to help make that less necessary is to look for the ones who are worth trusting.
Now this, admittedly, can be a slow process, and it should be. You have legitimate reasons to be hesitant around men who offer career advancement or friendship or both. So part of what may help is to see your trust and your friendship as something that’s earned over time, not given away with abandon. There are indeed men who treat professional events as an opportunity to mix business with (their) pleasure. But there are also men who can and will treat you as a colleague and friend, not another potential human-shaped Fleshlight.
How do you tell the difference? Well, as a wise man once said, “deeds, not words.” To start with, guys who are worth trusting are the ones who will keep clear, defined lines between the professional and personal. They are the ones who don’t try to switch gears during a “business lunch” and start suggesting that you two have another drink to loosen up or who want to quit being so serious and talk about more “fun” things. When they’re at work, they’re there to work, even if that work is happening over a meal instead of in the office.
Other signs that they’re more trustworthy than some of their comrades: they don’t get serious, solemn or distant when you just “casually” bring up your partner. For too many men, an attractive woman is valuable and interesting as long as he feels like he has a chance. As soon as he knows that she’s not available to him… well, what’s the goddamn point of her? If the fact that you’re not single isn’t a cause for them to deprioritize your professional or personal relationship, then they’re showing that they are more deserving of your trust.
Another is to look at how they treat others. They may be polite and attentive to you, sure. But how do they treat people who don’t have something they want or who can’t benefit them in some way? Are they respectful to, say, wait-staff and service-industry people? Or are they rude, snarky or otherwise dickish?
While they’re at it: do they respect your boundaries? If you ask them to not do something, do they listen, or do they take it as the start of a negotiation? How many times do you have to enforce your boundaries before they listen? If they make a mistake — assuming your friendliness was flirting, for example — do they apologize and take steps to not do it again? Or do they argue about why you’re wrong to see it the way you do?
Also: how do they treat your input and your ideas? Do they listen, ask intelligent questions, seek your opinion and actually implement your suggestions? Or do they argue with you up until a man says the exact same thing… and then they agree with him? For that matter: do they give you credit for your input, particularly to your superiors? Or do they stay silent when people assume that it was their idea? Do they back you up, or do they cover their own asses? And do they ask you to go along to get along, even when it works against your own best interests?
None of those tells are going to be fool-proof; there are people out there who are good at masking their true intentions. There are also people who are reasonably trustworthy most of the time but allow a sort of “mission creep” to set in — especially if alcohol is involved. But time will tell with most; the longer you observe someone, the more data you will have that will let you know if this is someone you can (carefully) lower your guard around or if they’re someone who gets the “polite-but-distant” treatment.
There are good men out there, men who will be good friends, good mentors, good professional contacts or all of the above. Finding them can be a task in and of itself. But by letting people earn your trust, a little at a time, you will find the people who are worth trusting. And once you know they exist and they have your back, you will hopefully be feel safe and secure enough to relax your shields from “active hostility” to “guarded, if distant politeness”, and possibly even “friendly” in the future.
Hello Dr. NerdLove,
I am an average looking college student who throughout high school didn’t ever have a serious relationship. For a variety of factors. But anyway that was also true for the first couple years of college. I didn’t have a problem with it. Then I met my current girlfriend. We can call her L. We have been dating for over a year and a half now and are moving in together for the next school year. However, the fact that she is the only serious girlfriend I’ve had has me worried.
I just am worried that I am just kind of going along for the ride. I do love her and I love spending time with her. But there’s always that little nagging thought in the back of my head that it could be better. I could always fight off this thought because I could definitely see myself spending the rest of my life with L.
However, then entered A. I can preface that me and L do not share the same major. In one of my major classes this past semester I met A and we instantly hit it off. We became fast friends and would talk all class and would often get lunch in between classes. At first that’s all we were was friends. But by the end of the semester I would often get butterflies in my stomach when we were talking. She also showed several signs of being interested and ended up making sure we signed up for a class together.
I chalked up my butterflies with A as just textbook infatuation, but it did feed that lingering doubt in my mind whether L was the best possible person for me to spend the rest of my life with. I love L and the last thing I want to do is hurt her feelings. And I would never cheat on her. She was in a bad relationship before we met and is very attached and I know it’d tear her apart if she knew this or if I ever asked for a break.
Is the Grass Actually Greener?
There are a couple of things going on here, IGAG.
The first is simple: you’re human. Humans are an incredibly adaptable species, which has benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand, that adaptability is a core reason why we’ve become the dominant species on the planet, surviving catastrophes that wiped out other species and living in areas that are proof of God’s hate. On the other hand: we can adapt to anything… which also means we get bored.
Hedonic adaptation is part of the human experience, which means that anything, no matter how amazing, can become part of our status quo. We are novelty-seeking creatures; new and different experiences hit us square in the pleasure centers of our brains. This is true when it comes to food, to music, to lifestyle… and to our relationships.
So the fact that A makes your stomach do flipflops and your penis smile is in no small part because, well, she’s new and different and exciting. That’s all perfectly normal; crushes happen all the time. If you just leave it alone, then it’ll fade on it’s own over time. It doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with your relationship. It just means that this a new person who turns your particular crank.
Which actually leads us to the second point: L is your first serious girlfriend. We live in a culture that teaches men that they need to sample as much sex as possible, that they should sow their wild oats, as it were, and then decide to settle down with someone. After all, how can you be sure you’re happy if you haven’t taken a taste of every cereal in the variety pack?
And sure, some folks want to sample everything before they pick a favorite. But others find someone they like and, y’know what? There may well be others out there are great and all, but they’re happy with who they’ve found. And that’s perfectly legitimate.
That societal narrative is still hard to shake. Socialization is a motherfucker, and even when you know you dig what you dig, there’s still a lot of pressure to double and triple check because WHAT IF??? What if there’s someone else out there who you might like even more? Which… ok, sure, but what if you throw away a perfectly good relationship, one that makes you happy, because you thought you were supposed to keep looking?
Here is a truth, IGAG: there will always be other people out there that you’re attracted to. That has nothing to do with the quality or strength of your relationship. Being in a committed, monogamous relationship just means that you’ve agreed to not date or sleep with other people; it doesn’t mean that you won’t want to.
Here is another truth: your first relationship often isn’t your last. Maybe it’s the right relationship for you now, but it won’t be in the future. Sometimes we outgrow our relationships or simply reach a point where it’s time to move on to the next one, and that’s fine. Not every love story is meant to be an epic poem. Some are meant to be a short story. Some are just a dirty limerick.
Sometimes, our relationships can and do grow with us and can last our entire lives if we care for it and maintain it properly. Other times, we end up killing a relationship and never get to find out if it was one that would last. Your relationship with L could well be the relationship that will last you the rest of your life. It might not be. You could well reach the point of the end of it’s natural lifespan and it will be time for you and L to go your own ways.
But the fact that this is your first relationship doesn’t automatically mean that it has to end that way. You should take care to ask yourself whether you actually want to explore other possibilities… or it’s that you feel like you’re supposed to want that. The difference between those two things can be subtle, but it’s significant.
If you’re happy with L, if you’re satisfied and fulfilled and you find the joy and contentment is worth the slings and arrows that come with every relationship, then just relax and let yourself enjoy what you have. And enjoy your crush on A too; crushes are fun! They’re a little surprise thrill that can liven up your life. Just realize that a crush is not a command, and attraction isn’t an obligation. You can appreciate the feeling of having a crush on someone without having to act on it. Feel the fuck out of your feelings and just let them be; your crush will fade on its own soon enough.
Regardless of whether L is your last relationship or not, don’t throw a good thing aside just because you feel like you’re supposed to bang more women. It’s one thing for a relationship to come to its end. It’s another to cut it down in its prime, and the pain from giving up something great for no reason be far worse than the fear that you might be missing out.
Did you have to deal with someone trying to sabotage your relationship? Have you had to wade through fetishsts and afficionados to find love? 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 on the Dr. NerdLove podcast. His dating guide New Game+: The Geek’s Guide to Love, Sex and Dating is available on Amazon, iTunes and everywhere fine books are sold. He is also a regular guest at One Of Us.