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Ask Dr. NerdLove: How Do I Leave An Abusive Relationship?

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Hello, all you weekend pheromone discharges, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only doctor you need more than Doctor Mario.

With folks self-isolating and social-distancing, relationships are suffering under the strain… and some people are discovering that they’re quarantined with the wrong people entirely. How do you recognize when someone’s using their mental health issues as a way to excuse their toxic, abusive behavior? What if you’re worried that leaving might literally kill them? How do you tell if your crush is stringing you along, especially when you’re just starting to get over them? And how do you know if your new relationship is for real, or just a rebound?

Remember: you can’t spell “virus” without “u” and “I.”

Let’s do this.

Dear Dr. NerdLove,

I fear I am “stuck” in an abusive relationship, and I’m scared to get out.

My partner has extreme (and untreated) anxiety, depression, and an unbelievable amount of insecurity that makes her jealous, petty, confrontational, and not-at-all trusting. She’s come from a rough past, with abuse, and despite it, or maybe in spite of it, has achieved great, great things professionally.

I’m no stranger to mental illness myself. I have suffered from depression my entire adult life, but after a particularly bad period which ended up with a suicide attempt, followed by a divorce, I’m in a much better place. A lot of therapy/counseling, and well regulated medication seem to be holding the demons at bay.

I feel like I know my own shit, and I can certainly empathize with her shit. We’ve been together less than a year, and I’m at the point where my fight or flight response is teeter-tottering back and forth faster than I can handle.

There are good days, and bad days. Of course, I will say that she has amazing qualities that I like very much, but I have to admit - I’m burned out.

I admitted to myself today that I am afraid of talking to my girlfriend. Afraid if I don’t say the exactly perfect thing, I am going to set her off and then “well here we go again” I spend the next 24-72 hours in full retreat, apologizing for slights that didn’t happen, defending positions I never had, and fumbling over remembering and explaining words I never spoke (or at this point, don’t even know my ass from my elbow as I get in full panic mode.)

It’s exhausting.

If I am not perfect, say and do exactly the right things, I certainly hear about it. I have no room for error, and I don’t make the big “errors” - I am not excusing bad behavior on my part - I have no bad behavior! My now ex wife told me that the #1 reason she married me was because she knew I wouldn’t cheat on her. So I guess that’s my #1 quality - I’m a loyal dog. Beat me (emotionally) and I’ll come whimpering to you seeking forgiveness like it was my fault.

On my ex, she never in nearly a decade actually, sincerely apologized to me for anything. I always felt at fault, I wasn’t “allowed” to get mad or upset, because it would turn around and all be my fault and if I wanted to “fix” things I had to suck it up and be the bigger person. I told myself I would never allow someone to treat me like that again. Yet, here I am, still the whipping boy.

My girlfriend’s in a very high stress and incredibly demanding period of her professional career, and that certainly escalates the issues. She’s always tired, always in a bad mood, always over worked and over stressed, always full of anxiety and sheer panic over the volume of shit on her to do list that never gets smaller. She can’t control that. That’s not her fault and I don’t blame her for it. I don’t think she tries to take it out on me, if anything I try and be the calm “normal” in that world of crazy, and offer her a refuge and ear to listen and shoulder to cry on.

Which is part of the problem for me, I’ve convinced myself that “this isn’t really her” and that once this phase is over, she’ll be better, she’ll be less beaten down and we can have far more happy days than bad ones. I am more so every day believing this to be false - this is just who she is.

I’ve read several of your columns and blogs, including”is my wife emotionally abusive” and “labeling women crazy” and “invisible victims: men in abusive relationships” and I definitely see the signs.

I know I am a fairly “woke” person. I am not the typical macho-bro, hell I couldn’t be farther from that as an ultra-sensitive introvert geek myself (hence Kotaku). I certainly had a bit of a dude-bro spell in my college years, and I still like to get together with my mates and pound a few tasty alcoholic beverages and watch sportsball, play golf, etc. but I’ve always kind of felt like a pretender. It’s fun, I’ve had some great times and great memories, but I’ve always been happiest gaming online with friends or sitting around a table and playing D&D.

I also know as you say in “On Labeling Women Crazy” I “grew up in a world where certain attitudes towards women were just ‘the way things were’ and we absorbed them without thinking about them.” As such, I can’t help but feel like she is over thinking, exaggerating, playing the victim... acting crazy. I try and give her feelings credit, to not invalidate them, but it’s SO hard to understand her position and perspective when it makes no goddamn sense, and I know for a fact that the situation is not as she has twisted it to be. I know that is her anxiety, her depression, that is poisoning her own thoughts against her. I know what it feels like when your brain is acting against you. Like the devil on your shoulder has gagged the angel on the other, so the only whispers you are getting are evil ones.

Her insecurity and jealousy make me check in constantly, not that she asks me to, but because I know if I don’t she’ll start creating a mental picture where “because I haven’t texted back in 30 minutes, I must be with another woman.”

I am afraid, actually afraid to run into a random woman in the elevator and for her to say “good morning” to me, because I know I am a nice/friendly person and I will say “good morning” back... and then I can either lie to my girlfriend and tell her “no, I didn’t have any completely innocent and random awkward elevator exchanges with total strangers just being normally socially polite” or, door # 2 is I get 50 questions and by God if I don’t answer them all perfectly correctly, well “I must have been attracted to her and I should just leave my girlfriend to be with the random elevator skank instead, maybe SHE won’t care if I’m ‘checking out’ and ‘flirting’ with other women all the time.” (I’m not, I may be as incapable as most men are in knowing when a woman is interested in me, but I know when I’m flirting and when I’m not.)

It may sound like an exaggeration, but it’s really not. Writing it out (for the first time I think) makes me feel like I’m dating a “crazy” person. I know she’s not crazy, she’s hurting. She needs help. I’ve told her this, because I feel like I know and I finally got help after it was almost too late for me. She won’t admit she has a problem. Well, she will admit she has anxiety and depression, but she won’t do anything about it. It’s never the right time, there is always something more important to do, she can’t afford it or make the time... I know I can’t lead her out of this. I’m not trained for this, I don’t know how to deal with this, I’ve just barely started to figure out and “control” my own emotional state after some pretty serious shit in my own life.

I can’t be the perfect prince she asks me to be, and I can’t live with the guilt and fear and stress she causes me by the fact I don’t, and can’t, live up to her completely unrealistic expectations.

I also know I shouldn’t have to, because I know I am a good person, and it’s taken me so long to get any self confidence.... my girlfriend shouldn’t be the one making me doubt myself and hate myself all over again.

It’s put a wedge between me and my friends, because she doesn’t trust them and doesn’t trust me when I’m with them because “they are those kind of guys who talk about other women all the time” and she will go as far as to remind me, every time I mention something about seeing them, that “well I get so anxious and start thinking of that and this is how it makes me feel.... but I’m not trying to tell you that you can’t hang out with them, just telling you what it does to me.” Talk about a guilt trip. I’m supposed to what, go out with my friends and NOT think about the fact she’s sitting there worried and anxious? Feeling like I have to check in and be on my phone the whole time or I’ll be accused of cheating?

What do I do?

I feel like I am the emotional punching bag, but I am also afraid if I leave she’s going to kill herself. I’m also afraid, if I DON’T leave, I’m going to end up in another bad bout of depression eventually and end up killing myself for real this time, rather than just a half-ass “cry for help” attempt like last time.

I can’t “fix” her, I can’t fix this situation.. and I’m dragging myself way, way back down trying to do so. I’m not even sure I believe in love, and maybe because this is just “how things are” with women and if I want to be with someone I’ve just got to take the bad with the good. I feel like it shouldn’t be this hard to be happy with someone?


Guy who is quickly running out of fucks to give

Let’s do the TL;DR first, Guy: yes, this is abuse. No, her having mental disorders doesn’t excuse it. Yes, it’s only going to get worse. No, it’s not your fault. Yes, you need to get the fuck out. Like, yesterday.


No, seriously, why are you still reading this? Break up with her now. If you live with her, make sure you have a place you can go—a friend’s, your parents (if they’re not vulnerable to COVID-19), somewhere—and run like all of hell and half of Hoboken were after you.

Here’s the thing: the fact that she has a mental illness—or several—doesn’t give her a license to treat you like shit. Yeah, she may have chemical or emotional issues that make life difficult for her and bring out all the worst aspects of her, but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s abusing you. You know as well as I do what depression does: it drips poison in your ear, whispers all these horrible thoughts to you that are all the more convincing because they’re coming in your own voice. But depression, anxiety and insecurity don’t force you to act out like this. It’s not as though she’s out of control of her actions and can’t stop herself from treating you like her own personal punching bag.


I mean, let’s be real here. I don’t doubt she has issues with her mental health, but if she’s able to hold down her job without getting fired for treating her boss or her coworkers the way she treats you? She’s got some control over this.

In fact, she’s got enough control that she doesn’t directly make demands of you. She just makes it clear that if you don’t do what she says or anticipate her moods or manage her anxieties for her, there will be consequences. Maybe this is the excuse that she uses to justify her behavior. Maybe she’s aware enough to know that if she were to make demands directly, you might have an easier time accepting this for what it is and GTFO’ing so hard you leave a human-shaped smoke-cloud behind. It doesn’t matter; the results are exactly the same.


And that’s important. Because what she’s doing is putting you in a state of hypervigilance, having to always be on your guard. You have to be aware, not just of her moods and emotions, but of anything that might set her off. So even if she’s not around, you’re still under her control because hey, you know how she gets. You’re put in the position of being responsible for her emotions and her anxieties.


Just as importantly: she’s cutting you off from literally everyone else in your life. You can’t see your friends because “they’re the kind of folks who talk about women all the time.” You can’t talk to total strangers because “you know what that does to her.” You’re being isolated from everyone in your life, everyone who might support you and tell you “Dude, shit’s not cool!” and help give you the support and strength to leave her.

And let me remind you, Guy: isolation and hypervigilance are two of the primary tools in the abuser’s toolbox.


So, for that matter, is the fear of self-harm. Plenty of abusers and toxic people will use the threat of self-harm, implicit or explicit, as a way of keeping their victim under control. Once you’ve been made to feel responsible for their mood, for managing their insecurities or anxieties, it’s easy to say “well, if you do something wrong, I might just hurt myself and it would be all your fault.” It’s a classic move by abusers and one that transforms the interaction from a relationship to a hostage situation. If you leave, she’ll kill the hostage. It’s just that she’s the hostage as well as the terrorist.

But here’s the thing: none of that is on you. Even if she’s dealing with extreme emotional distress or mental health, that’s not your fault, nor is it your responsibility. You can’t force her to get better, you can’t force her to not be mentally ill, you can’t control her moods and you can’t fix her. It’s her responsibility to manage her insecurities, her depression and her anxiety, not yours. Offloading it on you—especially to the point of harming you—is just an abdication of her responsibilities to herself.


And you’re buying into a lot of this. I mean, it’s in the language you use in your own letter. She’s not asking you to be “her prince,” she’s demanding that you be her servant. That’s not your job, that’s not what you signed on for, and it’s not your responsibility.

Your responsibility is to yourself. As the saying goes, you’ve got to make sure you have your own oxygen mask on before helping others with theirs. But this isn’t about helping her, this is about someone trying to keep you under her thumb, in the most damaging and painful ways possible.



I don’t doubt that you care for her. But right now, you need to care for yourself more. You need to love yourself enough to say that enough is enough, shit has gone too far and it’s time for you to do what’s right for you. You can’t love her into being better, but you can sure as fuck love yourself out of this abuse and into a better life.


That’s what you need to do, right the hell now. Get out. Dump her by text, then delete her number, block her on every social network you’re on and get the fuck out. There’s no debate to be had, no argument to be made; you just need to leave.

I know you’re worried that she might hurt herself. If you’re truly afraid of that, then give someone—her parents, her closest friends—the heads up right before you leave. And I do mean right before; send that break-up text the microsecond you tell someone else that she might be in danger of self-harm so that she doesn’t have the time to try to brow-beat you into staying. If you can’t reach her family, you can leave the number for the suicide hotline with your break-up text. Or a link to an app like BetterHelp.


But, spoiler alert: it’s extremely unlikely that she’s actually going to hurt or even kill herself. This is just another implied threat, one that she relies on to keep you under control. And if, against all odds, she does harm herself? That’s on her. That is not your fault.

None of this is your fault. Remember that. Tattoo that backwards on your forehead, so you see it in the mirror every morning. Shave your head if you need the room. This is not your fault.


As soon as you’re out of this relationship, it’s time for you to get your ass back into therapy. You need to find a counselor who’ll help you work on establishing and enforcing your boundaries, advocating for your own needs and recognizing your own worth. You’ve got some deep, deep scars, Guy, and you’ll need professional help to let them heal.

But that healing can’t start until you get the fuck out of this toxic, abusive relationship.


Like the wise man once said: “I may love you, yeah, but I love me more. It’s time to love yourself enough to save yourself.

None of this is your fault.

You’ll be ok. You’re stronger than you realize. You will get out and you will be ok.


All will be well.

Dear Dr. NerdLove,

I am finding myself in some predicament, and as your advice is always brutally honest, to the point and causes me to reconsider my initial reaction to readers’ stories quite often, I decided to ask for your help.

My last relationship was pretty great. Though I don’t usually agree with the cliché, that guy motivated me to implement some very positive change in my life (e.g. less stress, better dealing with emotions, healthy eating, sports etc.). If I am to believe him, I did the same for him. We weren’t together for all that long, about 9 months, but I was really thinking it would last a damn long time. I loved, gave it my all, and felt loved in return. Except apparently I wasn’t, so last July he broke up with me for not feeling enough.

Unsurprisingly that broke me, I cut contact for a while, then found myself obsessing over him all the more so decided to hang out with him again, instead of forcing myself not to. At first as fwb, but that’s not happening anymore. Slowly I’ve been processing shit and just enjoying his company as a human being rather than my human being. I did hold out hope for a long time though, that maybe someday. But that seems to have disappeared as I recently started dating someone else.

I haven’t told Mr. Ex about the dating yet, am planning to when I am a bit more sure about that (we’ve only really recently started dating). Also I see the ex quite often, we still do sports together. And no; there is nobody else I can rely on for that, I’ve tried. Also I don’t think it’s necessarily bad to do that with my ex, as long as I am not doing it to just be close to him or stay on his mind or whatever.

My issue is; I am awfully terribly scared that it’ll all be great and then suddenly I’ll find out I wasn’t ready for this after all, using the new guy as a rebound or whatever. Certainly not doing that on purpose, but how do you know? Is there any way to figure out if I am actually over Mr. Ex, and not being a shithead to Mr. New? And to myself of course, cause messing around with my own feelings isn’t exactly kind to me either. The only way I’ve caught myself comparing them is whether my family/friends will adore Mr. New as much as they did Mr. Ex.

So here I am, hoping you can shed some light on this situation. Thanks in advance, Doc.

Kind regards,

Miss Confused

Y’know, MC, a lot of folks misunderstand why I tell people that they need to take the nuclear option in the wake of a break up—unfriending and unfollowing their ex on social media, deleting their number, killfiling their emails, etc. It’s not because it’s a case of “we broke up AND SO NOW YOU’RE DEAD TO ME!” It’s because you can’t heal the wound cleanly when you’re still picking at the scab. Trying to be friends too soon after a break-up tends to lead to emotional self-harm instead; what you think of as trying to be “just friends” is, in effect, an attempt to backdoor your way into a de-facto relationship. This, incidentally, includes friends-with-benefits relationships. While there’re definitely couples who could transition from the two smoothly and without complications, they’re few and far between. And honestly? It doesn’t sound to me like you’re there.


How do I know? Well, first there’s the trying to make the FWB relationship work and the rationalization that he’s the only person you know anywhere, ever, who likes sports like you do. And then there’s the fact that you haven’t told your ex about the new guy. Not that you’re dating Mr. New specifically, but that you’re dating at all. How many of your friends know that you’re back on the market? How many of them know you’re seeing somebody and it’s pretty promising so far? I’m guessing that at least some of them do.

Now ask yourself: why do they get to know, but Mr. Ex doesn’t? Because it ain’t to spare his feelings—he’s the one who dumped you, after all. I’m guessing because you know that once you tell Mr. Ex that there’s somebody new, the dream that maybe, maybe things can go back to the way they were will come to a screeching halt.


I think that’s the bigger concern here, not whether or not this new guy is just a rebound. There’s nothing wrong with dating this new guy casually, especially as you’re trying to get over your ex. In fact, I recommend it; part of why we have a hard time getting over our exes is because love isn’t just emotional, it’s chemical. Our brains generate oxytocin by being with our partners, and when we break up with them, we’re left high and dry without our supply. Our oxytocin dealer just cut us off.

Part of what eases the pain after a break-up is to find a new supplier of oxytocin. And since sex and physical touch are the most reliable ways of generating oxytocin, the old cliche of “get over someone by getting under someone else” is actually good advice.


I think the best thing is to not look at Mr. New as anything more than a casual relationship for now. You’re still clearly unsure about things with your ex, and there’s no need to rush into anything just to replace him. There’s nothing wrong with just seeing someone whose company you enjoy and not having any expectation of anything serious, yet. If he’s someone who’s right for you, you can figure that out down the line as you get to know him better. And if he isn’t… well, not having any expectations of commitment makes it easier all around.

But it’s not going to be easy figuring that out if you’re worried that he’s just going to be the replacement relationship goldfish to fill the hole that Mr. Ex left. You need to let that hole close… and right now, I think you’re standing in the way of letting that happen.


Take it slow with Mr. New… but let Mr. Ex go.

Good luck.

Hey Doc,

Big fan looking for some advice. So I’ve been friends with this girl for about 8 years and since we’ve known each other I’ve had on and off again feelings for her. The thing is that while she does know this and has expressed feelings towards me as well nothing has ever come of it. It has frustrated me to the point many times of dropping contact with her, because she has been able to say things to manipulate my feelings into thinking that she cares more than she does (you know me better than anyone, I do love you etc).

When she starts dating someone when issues arise I’m the one she calls. We briefly had something for a few months before she moved but she moved back and continued the same trend quickly.

Now I’m in the situation of having moved out of state and hearing the same usual “nobody gets me but you” and “I can’t wait for you to come home” all in a flirtatious manner with pictures. I want to be over this but I can’t escape the feeling even though in my mind I believe it to be all manipulation.

Can I escape the madness of this gut feeling?

Emotionally Stuck

This is the sort of situation that I think may be a little one-sided, ES. That is: I think this is all coming from you.


I mean, eight years is a long goddamn time to backburner someone, especially if you two actually did date briefly. Even the most emotionally manipulative people out there aren’t going to be so invested in playing that long of a long game.

I’m curious: do you have many female friends in your life? Or have you seen how women interact with their friends? Women, on the whole, tend to be much more emotionally demonstrative and expressive with their friends than men are. Men tend to equate emotional demonstrativeness and emotional intimacy with sexual intimacy, and so we assume that being that close or affectionate with someone means that they must want to bang. As a result: men tend to have fewer and shallower platonic friendships than women do. Chalk it up to the toxic masculinity party package.


Her behavior and the things she says? Those sound an awful lot like treating someone like a close friend. Without more details, it’s kind of difficult for me to assume that there’s more behind it. I mean, unless those pics are lewds and thirst traps—and I mean explicitly so, not just “woah, that shirt is tight on her”—this doesn’t sound that different from a friend keeping in touch with a friend.

All that having been said: if you don’t want to be friends with her, or if it’s too painful for you to do so, nobody says you have to. You can break up with a friend, much in the same way that you’d break up with a lover. All you need to do is go nuclear—block or mute her number, unfollow and unfriend her on social media—and you won’t have to deal with her manipulative behavior (or, y’know, her friendship) any longer.


Up to you, chief.

Good luck.

Did you break up with someone while under self-isolation? Did you struggle with rebound relationships? 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 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 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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