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Ask Dr. NerdLove: How Do I Keep My Relationship Alive When I Can't See My Partner?

Illustration for article titled Ask Dr. NerdLove: How Do I Keep My Relationship Alive When I Cant See My Partner?
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Hello, all you greased porn fruitbats, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only advice column that’s too hot to handle and too cold to hold.

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This week, we’re taking on your personal development questions and dealing with the doubts and fears that’ve been haunting you. How do you keep a relationship going when you and your partner can’t see each other—or even manage to schedule a phone call? What do you do when someone you love seems to have had a complete personality swap and become a different person? And is it possible to visit a sex worker legally AND ethically, or are even licensed escorts and brothels contributing to a social ill?

It’s time to take control. Let’s do this.

This COVID-19 thing is just utterly fantastic for a guy (cis, straight, in high school) and a girl (cis, straight, same dealio in same high school) trying to have a relationship. I know this column isn’t really geared towards runts like me, but I figured I’d try my hand anyway, since I enjoy your writing.

So my girlfriend has been dating me for around two and a half years, and, as cringey as it sounds to say, for the first year I was convinced she was my soulmate. A bunch of stuff happened after that (of which I am uninvolved), which led to some pretty severe depression and self-hatred on her end, which put a serious strain on our relationship.

For a bit near the start of the whole quarantine thing, though, things were great, and we were free of a lot of the stress that school provides (we’re both near the top of our class and work way too hard to be there) and we got to watch all of the Star Wars films and everything. I guess somewhere along the way, our hanging out stopped, in part because her immune system is utter garbage and I’m way paranoid that anything I touch will infect me and then her, and then after that because her father is a healthcare worker in the city. Now, even if we did break social distancing policies, she has too much schoolwork to balance it with me. We haven’t interacted in person for a few weeks, now.

Our schedules are pretty terribly aligned, too; I’m an early bird, I wake up at 6:00 AM, and she wakes up around 2:00 PM, and I go to bed at 10:00 where she falls asleep around 4:00 AM. From the hours of afternoon to night where we’re both awake, she works (and we’re only supposed to have 30 minutes daily work from each class, so this leads me to suspect that her perfectionist nature is being a little too obsessive). This means our interaction is very limited, and almost always exclusive to text, which is terrible because I am very, very bad at it. I have a lot of trouble reading emotion in text, and I feel like I often misinterpret what she says as being aggressive or angry.

It also does not help that I’m very insecure about our relationship, and asking questions about it does not fare well with text, where they can be easily avoided and just not work well. I also tend to tick her off a lot, whether it’s because I ask something weird or just say the wrong thing at the wrong time or misread the emotion in her text. I’m also unhealthily clingy, which is kind of mismatched with her sort of more laid back attitude.

I’d like to FaceTime her sometimes, but she’s very insecure about how she looks without makeup (and I can promise that she’s gorgeous) and even with makeup. I try to call her too, but it seems like even when she’s not doing schoolwork she’s already busy with trying to beat a game or playing with her pets. I know it’s not her fault. Can you help me out? I really miss her, but it’s really hard to interact with someone that I can’t see in person.

-Whiny Gen Z-er

The coronavirus pandemic, with the attendant shelter-in-place orders and the lockdown of most cities, has been a stress test of a lot of relationships. If you weren’t quarantined with your partner, then suddenly you’ve found yourself stuck in a de facto long-distance relationship, one where the end seems incredibly far off even under the best of circumstances. These are challenging to couples who chose to be in a long-distance relationship. They’re an even greater challenge when you find the circumstances thrust upon you.

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These are the times when either you can rise to the occasion, or you can let things overwhelm you and sweep you away… taking your relationship with it.

Now, as fucked up as this is going to sound, you have a potential blessing in disguise here. You’re in high school, but you’re being handed an opportunity to learn one of the most important rules of dating: relationships take work. The early days when everything is easy are an illusion; you’re both so caught up in the thrill of the new and the rush of oxytocin and dopamine of a new crush that you’re able to ignore or overlook the challenges, stresses and conflicts that every relationship faces. But over time, as the novelty fades and you don’t have that New Relationship Energy to carry you along, you discover that things aren’t as perfect as they were. Not because the nature of the relationship has changed or because your love wasn’t strong enough, but because you basically aren’t getting high off each other’s presence any more.

These are the times when you start having to do the work to make the relationship function. That means being able to communicate with your partner clearly and effectively, both being able to advocate for your own needs and also being sure you understand theirs. It means being willing to work together to find solutions to conflicts, whether those are fights or simply trying to find ways to make time for the two of you to be together. It means being able to have the Awkward Conversations that you’d really rather avoid and working together to find compromises and work-arounds… even a willingness to make sacrifices and adjustments for the sake of both your partner and your relationship.

Case in point: trying to make time to actually, y’know, spend time together. Even when you can’t actually be together.

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The problem is that right now, it doesn’t seem like either of you is taking control over your relationship; you both seem to be coasting along without actually trying to put your hand on the metaphorical wheel and steer things. You have diametrically opposed schedules— ok, so what are you going to do about them? Are either of you willing to try to adjust when you get up so that you have more time together? Have either of you talked about trying to carve out space in your schedule that’s reserved specifically for the two of you to get together? Having a time every week that you set aside so it’s your time together can be vital for keeping a relationship strong. When you simply try to go with the flow and play catch-as-catch-can with your schedules, you quickly discover that there is no time for the two of you. Obligations and distractions are like water; they expand to fill all available space. By setting aside that time, you are establishing that you see your relationship as a priority and that your time together is important—more so than time that might otherwise be spent playing Call of Duty or Maneater.

And that time doesn’t just have to be time spent on the phone or Skype or Facetime. You can just as easily schedule virtual dates to game together. The plethora of online and multiplayer games give you an almost infinite variety of dates, ranging from hanging out on each other’s islands in Animal Crossing to building together in Minecraft, from board games in Tabletop Simulator to simply wandering the landscape in World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV. Most of these games even have a voice chat feature, allowing you to bypass the awkwardness of trying to read tone in text and her insecurities about her looks in Zoom or Facetime.

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However, this is also a time when you can start to work on some of the flaws you’ve pinpointed in yourself. Your neediness, for example, is something that’s going to need to be addressed before it becomes the wedge that drives you two apart. It’s one thing to need the occasional reassurance when you’re being an insecure bag of slop. It’s another when you need constant reminders from your partner that everything is ok. That goes from needing a boost every once in a while to asking your partner to manage your emotions for you… and that’s not a fair thing to ask of them.

Neediness and clinginess are often the result of insecurity and a lack of self-esteem, so this is a time when you want to start examining just what it is that you’re afraid of. Are you worried that you’re not “enough?” Do you not have a sense of your own self-worth? Is it a matter of having little internal validation and relying on others for your sense of value? Or is it that you don’t feel secure in your relationship, something that is exacerbated by the fact that neither of you seem to be taking an active part in guiding and shaping it? Are there needs that aren’t being met, or is it simply that you don’t feel valued or desired by your girlfriend?

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This something worth digging into and resolving now;. Developing a stronger sense of self worth and confidence is going to be a benefit for you, both with your current relationship and any you have in the future. Neediness and clinginess are relationship poison, and they’re a good way to kill attraction and desire. The sooner you work these issues out, the stronger your relationships will be.

These are the times that determine the kind of relationship you have and the story that you two will tell about it. Is this the time that broke you up, or the time that you two held together? Is this the time that you only got through by sheer luck and the grace of whatever gods you believe in, or the time when the two of you fought like a team to make this work and it ultimately brought you both closer together?

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That’s ultimately up to you two. But if you both want this to work, then you both have to be willing to do the work. If only one person is willing to invest the time and effort to hold things together… well, then someone is going to end up getting left behind.

Good luck.

Hey Doc,

I know this isn’t your usual subject matter, but as your advice tends to be grounded and solid, I thought I’d reach out and get your opinion. Forgive me as I lay out some history.

My sibling (who is gender neutral) and I grew up very close. We went through some serious childhood abuse from our biological father, and both of us went to therapy for many years (yay therapy!!). My sibling, P, started using drugs around 11 years old, and after being sent to a rehab facility by my mom and stepdad, they got clean around 17 years old. We struggled a bit during this time but ultimately became extremely close; I would have called them my best friend if you had asked me two years ago. We talked all the time, always visited each other when possible (in multiple countries!) and told each other everything.

P has always had health issues, which we assumed were linked to their drug abuse as a child. After many years of testing and doctors, P was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease, which is a rare condition where the body produces too much steroids, usually stemming from a benign tumor, either in the pituitary gland (right up next to the brain, behind your sinuses), or in the adrenal glands. P had one in their pituitary gland. During the course of their treatment, I felt that P began to change—understandable, as hormones and brain tumors fuck you up—and not for the better. P began to talk only about their illness, or about what tests they had gone through, at every chance possible. From my perspective, it became a one-person show with P front and center at all times, and usually had family drama to accompany it. I was compassionate and understanding (at least, I thought so), and tolerated this due to their condition. Well, one of my other siblings, T, had been frustrated with P and their attitude for a while, but was doing her best not to show it until last Christmas (the most wonderful time of the year....for family drama). P started talking about a family member that T did not want to discuss, and they got into a little fight over it, which ended with P sitting out, literally in the rain, for an hour until my mom went to comfort her and bring her inside. The following day, P showed up unannounced at T’s house (the rest of the family had left), and they got into a huge fight. According to T, P made assertions like “I have cancer”, which they don’t, and T ended up yelling at P to stop draining our mom of energy and resources (not the best response, as P lives with our mom full time and our mom is their caretaker). Both of them reached out to me separately for support; I happened to agree with T as I felt that P had, several times, exaggerated whatever illness or pain they were experiencing in the past (example: P claimed to have ‘broken’ their neck, sounding genuinely hysterical, and then drove themselves to the ER, which you cannot do with a broken neck). When P confronted me about this, we ended up getting into a huge fight as well, and P stopped talking to me. We did attempt to communicate through email, which ended with a very hostile email from P (they compared me to a Nazi, and called me many similar things). I told them we should continue to love each other and just accept that we can’t give each other everything we need at the moment (this is almost verbatim), and never heard back.

Since then, I have reached out every few months to say hello and to try to break the ice. P will respond with one syllable answers and never engage. A couple months ago (January), they did send a text apologizing for the email, which I accepted and told them it meant a lot to me that they reached out. One month later (February), P was scheduled to finally have the surgery to remove the pituitary tumor, which I had always promised to be at, and which I really wanted to attend, if only to stay in the waiting room or hotel. When P found out I was planning to come, they freaked out and asked our mother to call me and tell me that P didn’t want me there, and that P had been having nightmares about me coming, and that P states I ‘wailed on them’ as a child, of which I have no memory. I was absolutely devastated. I did cancel the trip, even though I felt very strongly that my mom needed my support (which my mom also told me). I have not reached out to P since then.

I am still extremely upset by P’s actions the last year, but especially this last action. I honestly don’t know what’s happening. We used to talk every single day over the internet, sharing everything and talking in our own sibling ‘code’. I feel like my best friend is dead and an imposter is inhabiting their body. This is extremely distressing and I genuinely don’t know what to do. I want to attribute this all to the Cushing’s disease, but looking back, P has always been selfish in their actions, and now I don’t know if our relationship meant to them what it meant to me. I need some advice on how to handle these feelings, as well as advice on whether I should attempt to reach out again when P seems to not want any contact.

Thank you for any help you can give me.

Sibling Struggle Bus

So, this is a tricky one, SSB, not the least of which because Dr. NerdLove is NOT a real doctor and this is an area where you might want to talk to one. Or a couple, actually.

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Your sibling’s personality changes are directly because they suffer from Cushing’s disease; this is a known symptom of the disease and one that’s surprisingly common. People with Cushing’s disease often develop psychiatric issues, especially anxiety, depression and neuroticism all of which seems to track with what you’ve said about your sibling’s behavior. From what I understand, a lot of this has to do with the heightened levels of cortisol in the brain due to the tumor near the pituitary gland.

The reason why I bring this up is that these symptoms are treatable. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications do work to relieve the mental effects of Cushing’s disease. Similarly, removing the tumor should help your sibling’s hormone levels return to normal levels, which will hopefully ease or even reverse some of these seeming personality changes.

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This is why I think you should be talking to an actual doctor or two. If you can talk to an endocrinologist, you might be able to get some clarity on just how much of what’s happened to your sibling is because of the disease. You might also hopefully be able to get an idea of what to expect now that the tumor’s been removed.

In theory, this should be something of a comfort; your sibling didn’t suddenly decide they hate you. They’re dealing with the fact that their brain has been marinating in cortisol; physically, it’s a lot like having been under extreme, unending levels of stress for years. In practice however, it’s hard to separate who your sibling used to be with who they are now, especially when they seem to be determined to reject you. Just because you know the origin of the problem intellectually, that doesn’t mean that the way they behave doesn’t still hurt. It still feels like they despise you for reasons that you don’t understand and have no control over.

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This is also why I think you should talk to a counselor or a therapist. You’re dealing with a lot of pain and in a very real way. You’re mourning the death of your sibling, even though they’re still alive. Talking to a therapist can help you process the grief you’re feeling, including the conflict between the intellectual—it’s the disease, it’s not really them—and the emotional—the fact that it still hurts. A therapist can also help you find the vocabulary to describe what you’re feeling, help you come to terms with what’s going on and give you guidance on if, when and how to reach out to P again.

You’re going through an impossible situation, SSB, and you have my sympathies. Hopefully your sibling’s surgery will help restore them to who they were, and you’ll be able to have your friend back, instead of this seeming stranger.

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All will be well.

Dear Dr. NerdLove,

I’ve been out of a long-term relationship for over a year. Dating has been hard and I’m not sure if I’m even ready to commit to a new relationship. However, the hardest thing for me about being single is not having sex.

So, because I live in a state where it’s legal, I began seeing prostitutes in a licensed brothel. The women are really nice and welcoming; the facility is clean; every meeting requires a conversation about consent and protection; and well, it’s simply a fun experience. In fact, it’s been helping me cope with being single and I’m a lot happier than I was a few months ago.

However, I still can’t help but feel I’m engaged in an immoral activity and contributing to a societal wrong. What are your thoughts on this oldest of professions?

Best,

Can’t Buy Me Love

Sex work is one of those topics that tends to bring out a lot of knee-jerk responses from people, CBML, because it’s a topic where the moral opprobrium tends to overtake the realities of the situation.

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When we think of sex work in general and various forms of full-service sex work in particular, we tend to think of it in incredibly prejudicial terms and nightmare scenarios: the stripper with “daddy issues,” women working street corners under the thumb of pimps, innocents who’ve been trafficked and forced into brothels against their will. We assume that anyone who does any form of sex work is a victim in some form or another and that nobody could possibly choose to do so. A lot of those images are actively marketed to us by people who want to “rescue” people from sex work; most of the imagery and equating of sex work to human trafficking has absolutely no relationship to the realities of human trafficking and is the result of various coalitions smarting from the loss of the war on porn.

Sex work is work. We assume that it must be degrading or coercive because it involves sex and thus it must be bad because… reasons. If we assume that it’s degrading because it involves a commercial exchange for sex, then sex itself must be degrading. After all, we don’t assume that other forms of commercial exchanges of labor—from cooking, to cleaning, to construction or even physical contact such as massage—to be degrading.

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If we assume that people would only choose it because of financial or physical coercion, then the flaw isn’t in sex work but in capitalism; we are, after all, all coerced into all forms of labor through financial or physical means.

So if the problem with sex work isn’t that sex is degrading or the exchange of labor or services (in this case, sex) for money… then what is it?

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The potential trauma? That certainly can exist; nobody discussing this in good faith is going to minimize that possibility or invalidate an individual’s trauma. But at the same time, that potential for trauma exists in other forms of labor as well—construction, farming, meat packing, slaughterhouses, longshoremen, commercial fishing, the military...

The potential danger? Sex work can be dangerous, yes, but in no small part because the laws make it so. Sex workers are often excluded from the social safety net the rest of us rely on and thus are forced to the margins. Cops not only refuse to protect sex workers but are often the very people assaulting or victimizing them. Networks that allowed sex workers to share information about clients, screen clients for their safety and work in more secure conditions are dismantled under the aegis of FOSTA/CESTA, under the rationale that these enable trafficking. Except, FOSTA/CESTA ended up enabling traffickers and pimps, by forcing sex workers back onto the streets and demolishing the networks that sex workers used to alert the authorities to traffickers and their victims. In fact, there’re few people who’ve been more proactive about rescuing trafficking victims than actual sex workers.

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Meanwhile, let’s look at your own experiences, CBML. You’re visiting escorts who’ve chosen their profession, in a place where they have control over who they serve and when. The workers have resources for their physical safety and health, the environment is clean and comfortable and the encounters include conversations about consent and the use of protection.

That doesn’t sound like contributing to a societal wrong to me. That sounds like paying someone for their time and labor.

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One thing that I think would help make things easier for you, CBML, is to actually listen to sex workers themselves. Following sex workers on Twitter, reading their books and listening to their stories can give you a much more rounded and realistic picture of what sex work is like. It’s not everyone’s dream job… but then again, neither is working at Starbucks or at an insurance company. For some it’s a job taken out of necessity… but then again, so is construction work.

But if you’re treating the sex workers you visit with respect, comply with their screening processes, pay them for their time and tip them well? I don’t think you’re contributing to a societal wrong. You’re contributing to someone’s ability to pay their bills in a manner that they’ve chosen, and you’re enjoying the experience.

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Sounds good to me.

Good luck.


Did COVID force you into a long-distance relationship? Have you dealt with a sudden relationship conflict in your family? 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.

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DISCUSSION

dontcareabit
DontCareABit

Not truly related, but I’ve always thought the line from AMG’s “B**** Better Have My Money” (no, not the eponymous Beyonce song, that’s a completely different song), “I ain’t a prostitute, but I’ll knock the boots” displays a huge amount of insecurity that anyone feels about sex work.

Consider that AMG has spent the first half of the song (give or take) describing his sexual prowess in extreme detail for the listener, while speaking of how much he charges for his services to women. It is not a subtle track, by any stretch of the imagination.

“I play h**’s like dominoes, slappin’ bones, AMG’s on the motha****in’ microphone

I sling d**k, b***h, nothin’ more and nothin’ less. You got a c-note, h**, then you can take the test...(etc.)“

However, even with all his bravado, he still refuses to admit to being a “prostitute.” It is that firmly entrenched in all cultures’ psyches that prostitution is bad.

All because ...why? My best guess is that sexuality is such an intense experience that most people just aren’t emotionally equipped to handle it. Even those who are, have difficulties with it.