Ask Dr. NerdLove: How Do I Break Up With Someone?

Image via Shutterstock.
Image via Shutterstock.

Hello all you fluorescent death spores of the Web, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only dating advice column voted “Most Likely To Survive The Singularity”.


Before we start: next weekend, I’ll be a guest at Project A-Kon, the longest running American anime convention. If you’re in the Dallas area or going to the con, come see my panels or find me at my table. It’s going to be an awesome time.

This week, we’re taking on a man with an unusual issue: how to handle dating when he’s one of the primary caregivers of a disabled family member. Where do you find the balance between school, dating and family when your time is not your own? And while we’re at it: what’s the best way to let someone down when you’re not sure if there’s really no spark?

Adjust your ferrofluid mixes and prime your sparks, because it’s time to do the thing.

Hey Doc,

I’ve been reading your excerpts on Kotaku every time they pop up for quite a while now, and must say that I’m a fan. They also helped set me up for my first relationship, so thanks for that. However, I was intending on waiting for a question someone else asks leading to info I could use, but have now given up on waiting. Hence me writing to you.

I have a severely disabled brother whom is in full time care via our family, meaning he lives and sleeps at home, but has independance-building days and outings with carers while we work; plus one night a week respite. From a young age, media taught me that girlfriends come back to their boyfriend’s houses for the assorted relationship activities that don’t involve the general public. However, even slightly too much noise at night half-wakes my brother into waking night terrors punctuated by uncontrollable crying, screaming, and thrashing. Not exactly a good mood setter, if you don’t know how a fully grown man screaming out of fear sounds in the dead of night. Or at all, really. Not something I want to have other people experience at my behest, at least.

So bringing back ONSs in college or university was NEVER an option for me because I didn’t want to go out, pull, and then have to brooch the subject of going back to her place instead of mine. I just felt it would be awkward and break any sort of unspoken deal that the aforementioned media states is generally accepted. So I completely missed out on that section of my life, similar to how I missed out on partners in Secondary School because I didn’t want to force him onto anyone; because I inevitably would be in one way or another. He’s MY brother, they shouldn’t have to deal with the fact we could be chilling in my room and I’d have to up and just leave to wipe an older man’s (don’t get the wrong idea, he’s only 2 years my senior) arse mid-snog. People might be more understanding than I give them credit for, but I didn’t want to take the risk that they weren’t. I’d already been bullied horribly over my dad being overweight and assorted other things, I didn’t want people to start ridiculing my brother as well. I’d end up in prison. I was afraid of getting angry. Afraid of more bullying.

My brother is sort of also a major reason why my ex is my ex, and not my current girlfriend. See, she had her own pad and was far more comfortable there than anywhere so that was cool by me. However, I take time out of my own life to care for my brother whenever possible because once I leave home to get my own life, I’ll also be leaving my parents with literally no time alone bar my brother’s one day a week respite. For the rest of their lives, at that. They will die prior to my brother, meaning they’ll be caregivers as long as they live. I feel it’s a filial duty and I want to uphold it and help my family. Sadly, my ex was a silver-spoon kid; she had a brother but due to her family’s distance, and reliance on using their tonnes of money to raise her, she grew up like an only child and never learned patience nor sharing (not that that’s necessarily bad, nor am I some sort of saint). So when she suddenly had to share her boyfriend when all the others prior to me had been only children that had issues with their own households and would drop everything for her, she started getting envious.

Long story short we broke up and he was related directly to her negative feelings at the end of the relationship. What I want to ask here is should I even bother trying for another partner until I’ve finished my Masters and got my own place? I hated that she made me feel like my brother was a hinderance, and I’d rather not have that feeling again. Truth be told, I’ve attempted relationships multiple times and each time they’ve ended up being twats, but this one took a while to come out about her feelings, and that’s fine, she was well within her rights to feel cheated out of a partner. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, but he’s my brother and I’m not going to force him on others. Her decision was just. But at this point in time, with this track record, I’m afraid that women are just all crap at this sort of thing. Bros have never had problems with my brother, and blokes tend to be understanding of that stuff, but granted they’ve never had limits imposed on them by his mere existence.

I don’t feel like I’d have troubles getting new partners, as I’m not as bad looking as I sell myself to be, I’m 6'6", I’m not a nobhead to the best of my knowledge, and I go out of my way to make everyone happy and laugh whenever possible. It’s whether or not I should bother trying. I liked having a partner, and I definitely loved making her feel good, but I’m also realistic in knowing that my Masters and the following NQT year (going into teaching) are going to be REALLY easy given my mass of connections and area around my family home. I can’t help but feel like if my household situation was less complicated then I could have my education AND a relationship. And that’s a terrible feeling, and my ex gave it to me, which only makes it worse. Do I try again? I do want to have a family later on in life and support my own, but the next year and a half of my life is going to be extremely full. If I wait am I waiting too long? I don’t want to end up getting to a place where I’m finally comfortable and ready, then find I’m too late to the party. I just don’t know.


Probably Thinking Too Much

I’m not going to lie, PTTM, you’ve got some serious handicaps on your hands. That doesn’t mean that dating is going to be impossible or that you’re stuck in an untenable situation, but it does mean that you’re going to be doing a fair amount of juggling if you want to maintain anything that resembles a positive work/life balance - especially if you continue to help be a caregiver for your brother.

Now before I go into things: you’re doing some amazing, charitable work taking care of your older brother and helping ease the burden on your family. That says a lot about you, about the kind of person you are and where your priorities are, and you should be proud of what you’ve done and what you’ve accomplished thus far. Taking care of a family member with special needs is difficult, often unappreciated work and the stress that comes with being a caregiver, even a part-time one can’t be understated.

But at the same time, I’m going to have to be honest: that generosity of spirit and caring that leads you to take care of your brother is going to be a hinderance on dating. Not that it’s going to get in the way of people finding you attractive - in fact, it will in all likelihood help. Altruistic behavior is incredibly appealing in men, both in short term, casual relationships and long-term committed ones. However… your time is rarely going to be your own. Taking care of your brother means that you have responsibilities and obligations that are going to supercede time with theoretical partners - and that’s before factoring finishing your Masters. That is going to make it hard to see anyone on anything other than a casual basis.


And to be fair: that may be the best for a while. You have a lot on your hands right now. It can be hard to balance caring for your brother and school and the responsibilities that come with a serious relationship. Trying to maintain all three? That’s going to take the organizational skills of a SAS quartermaster ripped to the tits on meth. Even more so if/when the people you are trying to date underestimate (or don’t appreciate) the time and energy it takes to take care of your brother. Dealing with the Crouching Hottie/Hidden Asshat types like your ex takes a lot of your emotional energy on its own. And unfortunately, there will always be asshats. Welcome to dating, hope you survive the experience.


Sticking to casual relationships for a year or two or even five doesn’t mean that you won’t necessarily be on track for commitment or a family of your own; it just means that your priorities are elsewhere for now. And that casual play-pal you have now may well be the person you marry in the future. Some decades-long marriages started as casual hook-ups or friends-with-benefits relationships. But saving yourself a little time and effort now will pay off drastically later on by helping you avoid caretaker burnout.

Also: anyone who can’t understand your priorities and your responsibilities to your brother and your family? They have self-selected out of your dating pool and you will be well rid of them. If they can’t understand your love for your family and your brother, then you do not want to date them.


And as an aside, don’t let your living situation deter you too much from hook-ups or sloppy make-out opportunities as they arise. Everyone has had to deal with the “We can’t go back to my place because reasons” issue, whether those reasons are an obtrusive roommate, an insect infestation or the curse of the Hounds of Tindalos. Sometimes half the fun of a casual hook-up is trying to find a place for said hook-up to happen. It may mean that you’ll have to schedule things in the future, leaving plenty of time for delicious antici….


And in a pinch, there’s always hotel rooms. Good luck.

Hey Doc,

Big fan of your writing on your site and over on Kotaku. Lots of overlap with Dan Savage, whose advice I always find fascinating. You two should look into a collaboration. But that’s unrelated. My problem is barely even a “problem” compared to a lot of what you get, but I think aspects of it can be universalized.

The thing is, I have pretty good success dating. I have lived in my city for five years since I moved here for work, and I don’t have a big social group, so I’ve been using online dating a lot in the last couple of years to meet women. I don’t seem to have any problem meeting women on these sites. I’m well-paid, good-looking, smart, funny, feminist, and have a cute dog and two cool cars (please don’t shit on me in the comments, I know what an asshole I sound like here). I rarely if ever give women a reason to break up with me, so I end up staying in the relationships I start for too long and agonizing over how to extricate myself from them.

I’ve always recognized that “spark” that you sometimes get when you meet someone that you just really click with, and it’s really important to me. Sometimes you just find your people, you know? Sometimes it’s sexual, sometimes it’s emotional, sometimes it’s both. The only woman I’ve really felt that within the last couple of years, I dated for about two years, but I knew the whole time that it wouldn’t work out long term, because we weren’t particularly sexually compatible and she never wanted to get married or have kids, the latter of which actually made me cry the first time we discussed it (I’d never even realized before how important it apparently is to me).

Everyone else I’ve dated in this time, I’ve liked, even really liked, but eventually come to the conclusion that she wasn’t the one for me, usually pretty early on - a couple of months, or even weeks, in. But because things get comfortable, and I like the person, I end up staying with them for longer than I really want or intend to, and it can end up hurting them. I just find it so damn intimidating to actually pull the plug on these relationships because nothing is “wrong” in them, per se.

I’m 33, and not interested in dating much younger than I am (tried dating someone 8 years my junior, and holy crap, what a fiasco that turned out to be), and since I’d really like to have kids, but not right away, I feel like I’m getting to a point where I need/want to find the one that I settle down with in the long haul before having kids gets more difficult.

Which is all a roundabout way of coming to my question(s). In short, how long should I be waiting to see if a spark develops, when it has been immediately apparent to me in the past? And how do I gently, kindly, and responsibly remove myself from the various relationships I end up in on the path to what I want?

I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I also don’t want to waste their time or mine. I’m looking for advice, in other words, on how to break up with someone smoothly and then move on, without having a “reason”. Is there a script for “I like you, but I’m not finding something I want with you, and you’re great but I need to go”? Is that the script right there? Am I overthinking?

Final question (this is already long, sorry...) - How important is a face to face breakup? I hate the idea of doing it via text or phone, but it’s no better to schedule a date night and then break up with someone or to drive out to their house for the sole purpose of doing it after a cryptic “we need to talk, can I come over” text...

Too Many Fish

You have what we in the dating advice biz call “a quality problem”, TMF. But, paradoxically, having a lot of options can be as much of an issue as having too few. There can be a certain amount of “what if” and thinking “well this person is great, but what if there’s someone else even better?” Similarly, there can come a point where you’re cutting off what might potentially be a great relationship if it doesn’t immediately wow you.


One of the things to keep in mind is that a lot of times, the immediate burst of mad passion tends to be the province of the young and less experienced. When we’re younger, we tend to throw ourselves into things head-and-crotch first without looking because it’s new and exciting and something we have never really felt before. But once you have a few more years and a little more experience under your belt, things start to level off; it feels amazing, but you know what to expect and the novelty isn’t quite the same.

This, incidentally, is why first loves tend to be so passionate and intense; the newness of it all lets you get carried away. But this immediate passion has problems too. The crazed excitement of the early days of a relationship are great, but the rush of mad monkey fucking or the intellectual jolt of “holy shit this person gets me” can cause you to miss—or ignore—serious dealbreakers that’re going to torpedo an otherwise great relationship… as you yourself discovered.


Some relationships will spark right from the start. Others can be more of a slow burn, where that mix of physical and emotional chemistry isn’t quite there but grows over time. It’s not necessarily a bad idea to give things room to breathe and see if there’s potential, but you also don’t want to take so long that you rob both of you of time you might have used to find someone you are compatible with.


If you know fairly quickly whether you’re into someone or not, you can probably have a solid idea within a few dates. Unless you’re demisexual, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend more than four or five dates at most; by then you should have a fairly solid idea of whether there’s any potential worth exploring, even if it isn’t hearts and flowers and cartoon cherubs right off the bat .

Keeping it to a handful of dates also makes ending things easier. It’s much more reasonable to say “Hey, you’re great, but this isn’t what I’m looking for” after three dates than it is after three months.


Not having any expectations of commitment or impending Defining The Relationship talks also changes the equation when it comes to how to give someone the news. When you’ve only been on a few dates and there’s no sense that this is headed to something serious, it’s more acceptable to turn down a future date with “Listen…”.

If you’ve been actually dating—spending long periods of time together, meeting up many times during the week, making plans beyond the very immediate future—then you owe them the respect of a face-to-face break-up.

Part of that respect means respect for their time. You don’t want to plan a date night and show up to give them the bad news. You don’t want them to have to drive 30 minutes just to get dumped and then have to brood about it all the way back. It’s polite to do it in a place that’s convenient to them - a cafe nearby, a park, some place that isn’t going to be out of their way or inconvenient.


Ideally, you want to keep it short and simple and early enough that you’re not dropping a bomb on them after they’ve planned out their evening with you. Trying to meet up after work or earlier in the day at a cafe gives you an opportunity to meet them, tell them as gently, politely and firmly that while you really like them, this isn’t going to work out and you wish them all the best before making your exit.

And as a general tip: it helps to screen for qualities that you want early on in the dating process. Asking general questions about goals and futures can give you an idea of what sort of relationship your date is looking for, without coming right out and saying “look, I want kids before I’m 40, how about you?”


If you’re doing online dating, you may want to focus on people specifically looking for long-term relationships or who mention that they want something serious or committed in their dating profile. While this will hardly be a foolproof method—God knows that you’ll encounter people who’ll say one thing while meaning something completely different—it’ll help cut down on the false-positives and winnow out the people who aren’t necessarily on the path to the house, the white picket fence and the 2.5 kids.

Good luck.

Hi Dr. Nerdlove,

I’ve enjoyed reading your column on Kotaku, so I figured I would try emailing you now that I could use some relationship advice myself.

My girlfriend and I are currently in a long distance relationship but will be moving in together next month. I’m looking forward to being together in the same city again, and things are going great with our relationship for the most part. There is only one little problem: I don’t really love the way we kiss. I prefer a more “lips focused” kiss, whereas she uses a lot of tongue. The weird thing is that she didn’t kiss like this when we first started dating, it’s something that she started doing more over time. I’ve tried to ignore it, or tell myself it’s not a big deal, but sometimes it really distracts me and takes me out of the moment when she puts her whole tongue in my mouth. I have tried to de-emphasize the tongue when we kiss in hopes that she would take the hint that I’m not a huge fan of it, but no luck so far. It seems like she will keep putting her tongue in my mouth even if I don’t return the favor.

It was easy to ignore this issue while we were long distance because we only saw each other every month or two. But now that we are going to be living together and will be romantic more often, I feel like I need to tell her how I feel because I don’t think it’s fair to her if I’m not enjoying her kiss in the moment. I don’t want this to be a big deal because everything else is going great and overall I’m happy, I just worry it will be interpreted as me saying she is a bad kisser (she can be a little self conscious sometimes). I am scared I will hurt her feelings by saying something. I know there isn’t one right way to kiss and I’m sure some dudes like a lot of tongue, I’m just not one of them. Do you have any suggestions on how to talk about this without coming off like a jerk?

Thanks for your help,

Fearful of Frenching

Kissing is important, FoF. Not having compatible kissing styles can be a sign of general sexual incompatibility; it’s no small part of how you synch up and get revved up as things start to get serious and you’re headed to the bedroom (or the couch, or the nearest unoccupied flat surface). If you’re not enjoying kissing someone, odds are pretty high you’re not going to enjoy sex with them either.


That having been said, a bad kisser is often someone who’s either never learned or learned all the wrong lessons. Fixing a bad kisser depends on two things. First: you need a partner who’s willing to listen to criticism and to do things differently.

Second: you need to use your words. You’re not Charles Xavier and she’s not Jean Grey. Since neither of you are telepaths, you’re going to have to put your tongues to an alternate use and talk this out.


However, talking about kissing doesn’t mean leading with “by the way, you suck at this”. If you want to fix a bad kisser, you have to be gentle and caring of their feelings - being told you’re a bad kisser tends to hit someone square in the self-esteem in ways few other things will. It’s like being told that kittens instinctively hate you. So you want to handle things delicately.


Since this seems to be a relatively new development, you may want to start with “the way you kiss me seems to have changed.” This gives you a number of potential branching off points. She may explain why she’s suddenly beat-boxing your uvula (“I saw this in a movie/ an ex used to like it/ I read too much Cosmo”). She may say no it hasn’t but what makes you bring it up? Or she may head straight to “wait, you don’t like it?”

Regardless of the whys, hows or denials, you want to let her know: it’s just not a style you’re crazy about. Then step in closer, put your arms around her, lean in close until you can fit one, maybe two but not three sheets of paper between your lips and say “Here… let me show you how I like to be kissed,” and hopefully enjoy the ensuing makeout session.


If she starts to do the tongue thing again while you’re showing her, now you get specific: “Just a little less tongue, like this…” and demonstrate again. If she steadfastly doesn’t get it and keeps trying to extract your tonsils the hard way… well, that’s when you have to stop and have a very serious conversation about kissing and what this all means for the two of you going forward.

Trust me: kissing. It’s serious business. But once you get it right, it’s magical.


Good luck.

Do you have responsibilities that get in the way of dating? Did you have to fix a bad kisser? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. And meanwhile, 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 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.He can be found dispensing snark and advice on Facebook and on Twitter at @DrNerdLove.



Holycrap, that first guy is a piece of work. I’m pretty sure he’s the one that’s a “twat”.

Also, is he a robot?