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Hello all you orgasm piranhas of impending doom, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only dating advice column that can help turn your love life from single-player to co-op.

This week, we’re talking about the relationship moments that we never really expect. How can you stand up for yourself without being a jerk to someone who may not know any better? What do you do when the spark has started to fade from your love life… just as your partner is beginning to transition? How do you help a friend who refuses to even admit that something is wrong?

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It’s time to hit the hub, find your party and get ready for the raid. Let’s do this.

Hello Doc,

I love the advice you give about listening to a “soft no,” so I hope you can help me on the other end of the situation.

“B” (he/him) and I (she/her) met in college ten years ago and stayed in touch through Facebook as we transferred, moved away, and grew up. A few years ago I found out we’d both moved to the same largeish city and reached out. We hung out a few times but it quickly became clear that B is unpleasant. He’s arrogant and condescending and generally difficult to talk to—every conversation tends to veer into long monologues about all the advanced degrees his family members hold, how he did in law school, or the reasons why he’s more miserable and put-upon than everybody else. When I attempt to change the subject, he interrupts me with “back to what I was saying.”

I get that some people just don’t have social skills, and he’s one of those folks. The problem came in when he started inviting himself along to everything I did. He’d ask if I was going to a convention, movie premiere, or other event and I made the mistake of letting him tag along. He was lonely and I felt bad about that, but after dragging him along for a miserable day at a comic convention I had enough. Since then—almost two years ago—it’s been “I don’t know my schedule yet,” “I already bought my tickets for that movie,” and every other soft no I could think of. And he’s STILL trying, via Facebook, text message, and weirdly insistent conversations when we run into each other on the street.

I don’t want to be mean to the guy—I genuinely believe it’s his lack of social skills, and not maliciousness or hoping for a back door to a date—but I don’t like hanging out with him and he’s not getting it. How can I stand up for myself while still being kind?

Thanks,

Former Pushover

Alright, before we get to your question, FP, let’s talk a little about the one mistake you’re making: you’re assuming that making a stand isn’t somehow being kind or makes you jerk. This is something that many women do. They assume that being direct or having firm boundaries means that they’re being rude or unkind to folks, folks who more often than not aren’t willing to offer that same consideration to you.  

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But here’s the thing: you were already being kind. You gave B a chance. Hell, you gave him several chances. And all that happened is that he acted like an asshole to you. He’s proven himself time and time again to be the guy who only gives a damn about himself and what he cares about.

Now, I get it. At first, you want to assume the best and, ideally, not hurt his feelings. So you give the soft “no,” couching things in plausibly deniable terms. Oh, it’s a shame that you aren’t available, you already have plans. Man what are the odds, you’d already bought tickets and wouldn’t you know it, they’re sold out. Nobody’s at fault, it’s just bad luck.

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The problem is that there are lots of folks who won’t take a soft “no” as a “no.” Not “can’t.” “Won’t.” It’s very easy to deliberately ignore the subtext of those words — and your continual unavailability — because they don’t like the answer.

Now, is it possible he has absolutely no social awareness? Sure. Though to be perfectly honest, I’ve seen far too many cases where that lack of social awareness only applies to people who let them get away with their shit. Mysteriously, they develop an ability to read cues — or at least, not act like a dick — to their bosses, cops and folks who might inflict consequences on them.

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But even if he is clueless, that doesn’t excuse the fact that he’s a tedious bag of dicks that doesn’t give two shits about other people.

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And more to the point: you’re not his teacher, his mom or his therapist. It’s not your job to make him less of a self-centered jerk any more than it’s your job to be his activities coordinator or social sherpa. You’ve done your part by trying to be a friend. The fact that he either doesn’t know or care to be a friend back isn’t your responsibility. You have a responsibility to yourself too.

Meanwhile, here you are. You reached out. You tried to be a friend to him. Now he’s become an anchor around your neck, and you’re apologizing to the anchor for the fact that it’s starting to get hard for you to keep carrying it.

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It’s time to let the anchor go.

Since he’s refusing to pick up on what you’re laying down, you’re going to just be blunt. You don’t need to give him the full run-down on all the ways he’s been making you miserable, but you should tell him that you’re just not interested in hanging out with him and that he should find other friends. Treat it like a break-up: keep it firm, keep it short and don’t use anything other than direct, blunt language. Don’t explain or offer excuses; that just turns your break-up into the opening bid in a negotiation. Tell him it’s over, best of luck and you hope he finds someone else. Then block and mute him on social media so he doesn’t pester you with even more demands on your time.

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I get that you want to be kind, so be kind to yourself. I get that you don’t want to hurt him, so try to avoid any unnecessary pain. But if you want him to get the picture? You’re going to have to drop the hammer.

Good luck.

Dear Dr. NerdLove,

I never believed that the “seven-year itch” was a real thing, but seven years into my committed relationship, I think I’m starting to feel it. We’ve been together since we were 18, and though there have been ups and downs, it’s been a positive, loving relationship overall. When we first started dating I was head-over-heels for him; I only had eyes for him and the thought of being with another person never crossed my mind. But as the years have gone on, that fire has died down, and I’m catching my eye wandering more and more.

Lately, I’ve been finding myself daydreaming about what it would be like to date other people. And even though he and I share so much in common, I’m finding it hard not to focus on our few differences. It’s quite possible that I’m just the type of person that’s never satisfied with a good thing. I recognize that about myself, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking about other people out there that I might have a better, more exciting relationship with.

One complicating factor is that over the past year, he’s been undertaking a gender transition to male. I still find him attractive, but my previous lust for him has faded somewhat (though this was starting to happen a bit before the transition). Recently, I’ve even been making excuses to avoid sex, which definitely doesn’t feel like a good sign. I’m not sure if it’s the transition, or if this is just something that happens to couples after many years together.

I guess my question is: How do I deal with passion fading away in a long-term relationship? I feel like it would be really stupid to ruin something that’s so positive and comfortable, but there’s part of me that wants to do just that (and that part of me just won’t stay quiet).

Thanks,

Feeling the Itch

First of all, FTI, it’s perfectly normal for people in committed, monogamous relationships to be interested in other people or to think about what it would be like to date someone else. This doesn’t mean that you’re unhappy in your relationship or that something’s wrong; it just means that you’re a human with a sex drive. While love is amazing and powerful, love doesn’t mean that you don’t notice other people or get crushes or find yourself attracted to people. It just means that you prioritize your relationship with the person you love. And—as I’m often saying—monogamy just means that you choose not to sleep with other people. It doesn’t mean that you won’t want to.

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But there’s more to your situation than just the fact that you’re interested in banging out with someone new.

To start with the obvious: the seven year itch is indeed a thing. It has less to do with time and more to do with a common issue that just about every long-term couple deals with: the fact that sexual passion fades over time.

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This is something that happens to folks all the time, and it’s perfectly normal. One of the quirks of the human experience is that we’re novelty-seeking creatures, but we’re also capable of adapting to damn near anything. The new and novel gives us a squirt of dopamine direct to the brain that makes us feel amazing. But no matter how awesome that novel experience may be, when we experience it over and over again, we get less of a charge from it.

This is especially true when it comes to sex. The dopamine rush we get from sex with a new partner is intoxicating; that’s why those early days with a new partner are so amazing. You’re getting to know this person, discovering all the delicious little details about them and the orgasms are fit to blow the top of your skull clean off like fireworks on the 4th of July.

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But as with all forms of novel experiences, the dopamine rush gets less and less as we acclimate to our new normal. So while the sex may still be great… it’s never the same as it was at the very beginning. But when we meet a new partner, we get that same intense rush again.

This doesn’t mean that all relationships are doomed to be sexless eventually; there’re many ways to keep or reignite the spark in your relationship. The easiest is simply to treat your relationship like it’s still new. Part of why things fade faster for some couples than others is that the most successful couples continue to put in effort. They continue to treat their relationship with their partner like they’re in the early days of their courtship with compliments, displays of affection, casual touches and making a point to preen and peacock for their partner. They prioritize exciting and new dates rather than pleasant ones. In short, they conduct themselves like Gomez and Morticia instead of, say, Al and Peg Bundy.

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But the thing I’d be more concerned about is the fact that you’re avoiding sex with your partner. That’s usually a symptom of a deeper issue than the way that passion fades over time. Often when partners are avoiding intimacy—sexual or otherwise—that means that either there’s a need going unmet, or there’s been a change to the relationship.

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The fact that there has been a change doesn’t necessarily mean the change is for the worse. One of the mistakes we make around relationships is that we assume that all relationships are intended to last until one or both partners die, and that’s just not the case. Relationships are living things; they grow and they change, just as the people in them do. But people can outgrow their relationships, or grow in different directions. Sometimes it’s the relationship itself that’s changed, and it’s no longer what one or both partners want. And sometimes a relationship can just reach the end of its natural life. This often confuses people because there’s no obvious cause, nothing they can point to that serves as a reason for the relationship to end. It isn’t anyone’s fault; there’s no casus belli, no sin that killed it. It’s just that not every love story is meant to be a 12 volume epic. Some love stories are meant to be short stories. Some are meant to be a dirty limerick.

And to be perfectly honest: that sounds the most likely to me. It’s very rare that the relationships we have when we’re 18 last a lifetime. More often than not, they fade sooner rather than later as we grow into our adult selves and we change from who we were as teenagers.

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Now an obvious complication is the fact that your partner has begun transitioning, and that may well be a part of it. You mention that your interest was starting to fade before his transition began, and it’s certainly possible that your relationship began to change before then. But there’s also the fact that your partner is finally giving himself the body he wants to have… and that’s going to change the nature of your relationship.

We as a culture like to think about love as being a pure, emotional thing. We obviously love people for their heart, for their soul, for their kindness and their humor and so many ephemeral qualities. But while we love people for their minds, we also want them for their ass. We’re attracted to their physicality as much as their mentality.

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Which very well could be the problem here. Presumably when you met, your partner was AFAB or femme-presenting; now he’s becoming more masculine. And while he’s mentally and emotionally the same person he always was, his body is becoming more in line with who he is. This can be a hard leap for folks; some people just aren’t going to be into a masculine (or feminine) body, even though their mind and their heart is the same as before.

Now, maybe you’re pansexual or you’re discovering that your sexuality is more fluid than you previously believed. But even so, the changes that can come with transitioning might be a bigger disruption to your sense of who he is than you can take. Or it could be the combination of his transitioning and the length of time the two of you have been together.

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Or this could be a temporary glitch and once things are more settled, you’ll find that the two of you have found your new equilibrium.

What I suggest you do is to sit with your partner and have an Awkward Conversation about the state of your relationship and the sex you are or aren’t having. You don’t want to frame this as “I’m no longer attracted to you,” but you should mention that the sex seems to be fading and you’re wondering how he’s feeling. It may be that he’s feeling much the same way you are. Alternately, you may find an accommodation for the two of you that works. Or, in talking, you may discover that you’re not ready to give up on things yet and you can plan how the two of you can work together to revive the spark of your passion together.

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But regardless of how things work out, I want to leave you with this thought: if your relationship does end, that doesn’t mean that it was a failure. Relationships don’t fail just because one of you didn’t die in the saddle. If you two part but you can hold on to that core of respect, affection and even love for one another, and you can look back on your time together with fondness?

That’s the definition of a very successful relationship in my book.

Good luck.

Hey Doc,

My question isn’t about me but about a friend. I know that’s cliche but it’s true and I just don’t know where else to look for advice to help her. There’s a friend in our group who I think is now in an emotionally abusive relationship, stuck in the grieving process, or both.

The girl, I’ll call her Nancy, never dated anyone throughout high school and college. Randomly at a party she ran into a guy who had gone to high school with her. We will call him Sid. He said he just had a dream about her and asked her out. They wound up dating for several years.

They eventually moved in with his mother when the mom was suddenly diagnosed with cancer. She wasn’t given a good prognosis. As she fought the disease he grew withdrawn and eventually decided to break up with Nancy. She moved out and got her own apartment.

At the same time Nancy had an aunt who was also dying of cancer and a mom who was in the hospital for blood clots and later knee surgery. Her mom pulled through, the aunt did not. Sid’s mom also passed away and to top it all off, Nancy’s dog also had to he put down.

After the 1-2-3-4 punch combo of shit she had thrown her way she was still a part of our friend group. She was on her own and even though they were broken up we knew that she and Sid were still in communication.

Here’s the part where I tell you how much Sid sucks. He has some bad personal habits but the bigger problem we’ve seen is with gambling. He gambles a lot, sports, horses, etc. He has lost money then asked her for more only to lose that as well and not pay her back. Nancy had started gambling more frequently too. He is in a lot of debt due to his mom passing and we think he may have convinced her to pay it.

Now is the weird part. While out with our group for a bachelorette party we all noticed that Sid suddenly unfriended everybody. He also had a status change to Married but the date was in the past along with a name we’ve never heard of and someone who isn’t on social media.

Ever since this event Nancy has all but disappeared from our group. She barely talks in our FB chat, she agrees to hangout but then cancels last minute. She skipped our annual group Xmas get-together the day of saying she “got all ready and presents wrapped but just wasn’t feeling it.” If she does come out she stays for the minimum amount of time possible and is constantly checking her phone and messaging Sid.

We’ve spoken with co-workers who say her work is taking a hit; she coaches sports teams and had loved it, but now she misses games and is in danger of losing her job. She has become mean to her family, won’t answer phone calls. She never did drugs but now owns a vape for pot. She’s told us about mixing weed and (unprescribed) Xanax and this is all incredibly out of character. We’re all really concerned but any attempt to ask her about all this is met with “I’m fine, I’m not talking about it.” But she’s clearly not fine!

We think she’s definitely depressed from the back to back losses. We also think she may be spending her free time and money on gambling or drugs...or both. We also think she may be tied up in some fake green card scam with Sid and his mystery wife.

Please help me, Doc. How do I help my friend get help?

Sincerely,

Depressed in Downtown

So I need to issue my standard disclaimer: Dr. NerdLove is not really a doctor and even if I were, I couldn’t (and wouldn’t) diagnose somebody from a 3rd party’s letter. It also doesn’t help that a lot of what you mention is pure speculation. You suspect that she’s blowing money on gambling or drugs. You suspect that she’s in some weird scam with Sid. There’s really no hard data here to base any sort of meaningful conclusion on outside of the fact that you really think Sid’s a festering bag of dicks, and fair enough.

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That having been said: I’ve lived with chronic depression for the better part of my life, and damned if what you say about Nancy doesn’t sound familiar. Losing interest in the things she used to love, cutting off friends, curling up in her home like an animal in its lair? Those all sound a lot like the way I was at my worst.

The weed and Xanax combo falls in line with both my experiences and with a lot of other folks’. Many people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol are essentially self-medicating. They’re trying to get a sort of numbness, if not relief from how they feel… or don’t feel, for that matter.

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Frankly, all of this sounds like grief and depression, compounded with dating an asshole, who’s dealing with his own grief. It likely didn’t help if she was trying to support Sid emotionally while also trying to maintain her own emotional health and sanity.

Needless to say, it’s understandable that you’re alarmed by all of this. She’s clearly in a bad place, and it may well be taking all of her energy to keep her head above water. The problem is: there’s not really much you can do here. If Nancy doesn’t want to talk about things, then you can’t exactly force her to open up, any more than you can force her to talk to a counselor or therapist.

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What you can do, however, is be there for her. Whether she’s overwhelmed with grief, dealing with depression or just stuck in a shitty relationship, what she needs more than anything else is love and support. She may not be willing to open up to you now, but letting her know that you’re there for her if and when she changes her mind can be incredibly important.

Regardless of what the causes are, letting her know that you care for her and that you want her to know that she’s not alone can be huge. And there are many ways to do this, ranging from checking in on her to offering to help in little ways. She may not be willing to come out to see you all… but maybe she’d be ok with you coming to see her. You can’t love her out of her depression, but you can at least let her know she is loved. Even if she can’t feel it at the moment.

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Similarly, if it is an abusive relationship, then again, the best thing you can do is be there for her. You can’t force somebody to leave their abuser before they’re ready. And even when they are ready, they’ll often go back. But you can be her backup and her support system and a place she can turn to if she needs to make a break for it.

I know it’s incredibly frustrating. You want to do something, but you feel powerless. But by being the best friends to her that you can and not letting her push you away during those long dark nights of the soul, you can be the light that helps guide her back out again.

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Good luck.


Did you have to break up with a toxic friend? Did you rekindle the spark in a long-term relationship? Share your story in the comments below and we’ll be back with more of your questions in two weeks.

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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 doc@doctornerdlove.com and put “Kotaku” in the subject line.

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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.

He can be found dispensing snark and advice on Facebook and on Twitter at @DrNerdLove.