Ask Dr. NerdLove: How Do I Stop Getting Into Toxic Relationships?

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Hello, all you beautiful and terrible pheromone jewels of the interwebs. Welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only dating advice column that’s also the Sorcerer Supreme. I am your host, Dr. Get-Some-Strange.


This week, we’re going to be looking inward and doing some soul (gem) searching as we examine why we’re attracted to people who may be very wrong for us. Are bad boys and bad girls are more fun, or is there something more to it?

Let’s do this thing.

Hi Doc,

I’ve read your column that’s featured on Kotaku multiple times and I’ve definitely found your advice intriguing and helpful. There’s been something bugging me for a while in regards to my relationships and nearly every one has been like this.

I seem to always end up in relationships that end up souring and becoming toxic and emotionally draining. (Note: I feel extremely pretentious being the one to deem a relationship toxic considering a relationship is a two way street, but when my friends have told me they’re concerned about what is happening in my relationships, one has to think.)

First off, I’m in my early twenties and have been diagnosed nearly a decade ago with anxiety, depression, and body dysmorphia. Relationships in general can be extremely difficult for me to initiate sometimes. I have managed to have 5 relationships since I started dating, but the last 3 have been extremely painful and tiresome.

For the sake of space and time I’ll delve into the worst example. The second of the aforementioned relationships lasted two years and started my sophomore year. I had met her online (I’ll refer to her as Demona) and we clicked instantly. The one downside was that she lived in New York and I lived in Chicago. Regardless though, we Skyped for hours and texted each other all the time and we grew incredibly close. Eventually we began dating.

Things for the first year were really good despite the distance, and we even visited each other in person a few times. But shortly after that things changed drastically. She began retreating from me emotionally and stopped talking to me for days at a time. After about a month of this, she broke up with me (over the phone in front of her friends while I was on speaker), stating that our relationship was essentially a lie and that she was miserable for the second half of that year. I was absolutely gutted. The fact that they all laughed about it made things worse.

Only a week later though, she contacted me again (after blocking me, then unblocking me on social media and on her phone) and told me she wanted to be with me again, under certain conditions. She said she’d date me again if we took a break for a bit. However, she forbade me from seeing anyone else while she explicitly stated she would be having sex with other guys who were lusting after her for months while she and I were together. Being that I still really loved her, I sucked it up and said “sure.”

This went on for about a month, and she was not afraid to let me know what she was up to (I’m not sure if she was trying to make me jealous or not). She then broke things off with these guys and she and I grew closer. Then the requests for money started.

Every so often she’d ask me to lend her money. She needed money to pay a bill she couldn’t afford, needed money for food, needed money for birth control, needed money to pay for a train ticket, needed money for a tattoo she committed to but also, couldn’t afford. She had a job this entire time as well, and I was confused as to why she didn’t have the money for these things, but I loved her so I would send her the money.

Ultimately I gave her nearly $1,000 that she promised to pay me back. She never did.

As time went on, and I learned more about her past from either her or talking to her friends, I had learned that she was previously addicted to heroin and cocaine, and judging from her snapchat story, I kind of figured where some of that money was going. She would tell me that I’m overbearing and annoying and that I’m a horrible person and that she never loved me, but would renege later when she needed money or company.

I visited her one last time, and things seemed like how they were when we were in a committed relationship. We would be intimate, have sex, go on dates, and then I flew back home. After that she retreated from me again, this time much more slowly and deliberately.

I got a phone call on my birthday from her saying she never wanted to talk to me again and she told me she no longer cares about me. She then blocked me again on social media and she blocked my number immediately afterwards, and this remains to this day. I found out from her blog that she began dating another guy and that they had been seeing each other for a couple months while I still had hopes she and I would get back together.

My recent relationships have been all emotionally draining and highly stressful. I always give my whole heart to someone and I get crushed nearly every time, my trust and love betrayed. Is there some way I can detect warning signs of an impending toxic relationship? Or is this how normal relationships are and I just invest myself too deeply in them?



Hoo boy, Distressed. That is all kinds of ugly and I’m sorry that it happened to you. But if it keeps happening to you… well, then you kind of have to stop and ask yourself some questions about the decisions you make. After all, it’s not as though these women are leaping out at you like lions from the veldt and dragging you into a relationship.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not blaming you for the abuse you’ve suffered at your exes’ hands. (And yeah, emotional abuse is abuse.) However, you need to start recognizing what it is that gets you into trouble like this every time, so you can avoid it next time.


When you see the same patterns happening in your relationship over and over again, you need to start looking at what they all have in common… and one thing they all have in common is, well, you.

What this means, practically speaking, is that it’s time to start getting better at emotional self-defense. Learning how to recognize toxic people and to keep them from latching onto you like a lovesick lamprey is an important part of taking care of yourself emotionally.

So how do you do it? The first thing you have to do is follow the wisdom of the master: “best block, no be there.” Practically speaking, that means you keep them from getting a fang-hold in in the first place by signaling that you’re not going to let them in at all.

You do this by enforcing your boundaries. Unfortunately, you’re pretty bad at that right now.

Your boundaries are your first and best line of defense against users and abusers. They are the line in the sand that say “no more”. Such as, say, when your ex decides to give you an absolutely absurd demand like “I’m allowed to fuck around as much as I want while you have to remain committed to me”. It would be one thing if you were negotiating an open relationship and you were cool with this arrangement; it’s another entirely to have it imposed on you unilaterally, especially as a condition of getting back “together”.

Even in a relationship, where compromise is king, you’re allowed to have standards and have lines that you aren’t willing to cross. Even the most generous and giving of partners gets to say “no, I can’t (or won’t) do this”. If it’s something that’s going to shred your soul or leave you crying in the shower if you go through with it, then you are allowed to say “Not just no but hell no.”


Of course, boundaries are only good if you enforce them. You have to be willing to say “no” and recognize that “no” is a full sentence. You don’t need to explain or justify your reasoning because that just becomes your opening offer in the negotiation; now she has something to leverage against you to compel your agreement. A flat “No” or “I don’t want to”, with no elaboration, doesn’t give her any material to work with. Now the toxic person is just down to threats.

In this case, it would mean her getting mad and yelling at you and holding the relationship—or just the possibility of your getting back together—hostage to your good behavior. But letting her shoot the metaphorical hostage would have saved you from being stuck in a toxic, abusive relationship with her. She would have recognized that you wouldn’t let her walk all over you and gone looking for easier prey.


Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. In this case, you decided that a little crippling emotional pain was a price worth paying to have her back. Perhaps because the more you suffer, the more it shows you really care?

Yeah. Once your relationship starts resembling Offspring lyrics, things are not in a good place.


As it is, once she established that you were going to lower your boundaries in the face of her demands, then she felt free to start milking you for cash that she was never going to pay back.

Don’t get me wrong: enforcing your boundaries can be hard. You’re going to piss people off by standing up to them. You’re going to question whether you’re right to stand up to them or if you’re being selfish. But at the end of the day, maintaining strong boundaries is a critical part of keeping toxic people at bay.


The next thing is to recognize toxic behavior - preferably before you end up dating them. Abusers and toxic people don’t advertise that they’re scum. They don’t carry billboards that say “Hi, I’m going to ride your self-esteem into the ground, leave you feeling at fault for things that you didn’t do and drain every drop of your life away.” Quite the opposite, in fact. Toxic people tend to be the ones who’ll “love bomb” you early on, often begin very lavish with compliments and displays of affection. It butters you up and makes you feel special, especially if you’ve already got low self-esteem and anxiety issues. It gets you to lower your defenses and to commit to them before you’re ready. But once you’re locked in, their behavior starts to change.

What are some of the most common signs of a toxic relationship? Glad you asked, convenient rhetorical device:

  • They undermine you at every opportunity. Nothing you do is going to be good enough and your mistakes are never to be forgotten. And if there’s a chance to make fun of you in front of other people, they’re going to take it.
  • They will always try to control you. Manipulation is the name of their game and they will use any tool at their disposal to keep you under their thumb. Weaponized guilt is a popular one - if you’re always at fault or to blame, then you’ll be eager to make it up to them.
  • They keep you unsteady. You can never be entirely sure where you stand in a toxic relationship. They’re the emotional equivalent of Space Mountain with constant peaks and drops, often coming with no warning. This is almost always deliberate; after all, if you’re never sure if they’re going to be pissed at you or lovey-dovey, you’re always going to be off balance. And unbalanced people are among the easiest to manipulate.
  • They’re drama magnets. Look at some of your toxic exes and you may notice how often they’re at the center of drama. There’s always some crisis going on or some conflict that is never their fault… and more often than not, they’re going to expect you to bail them out. Toxic people will continually dump their responsibilities on you, and then get pissed when you don’t take care of things for them.

Of course, part of the problem is that some of this behavior is exactly what draws people to them. Drama can be exciting, especially if it means there’s a chance for you to be the Big Damn Hero at a time when you’re otherwise feeling depressed and lower than a snake’s ass in a drainage ditch. That wildness and excitement can be appealing and make you feel like you have meaning to somebody. But that drama, that excitement, that uncertainty is what’s also going to drain you and leave you in their control.

Right now, Distressed, the best thing you can do is start focusing on yourself. I can tell you from experience: depression and anxiety are a motherfucker and getting treatment can be like opening an entire new world. A world where things don’t have to suck and where these toxic drama bombs aren’t nearly as enticing or interesting.


So the best thing you can do is to start seeing a therapist or counselor and working on those issues. Getting your issues under control not only will make you feel like a new man, it’ll take away some of the gaps in your emotional armor that toxic people love to take advantage of. A counselor can also help you work on some scripts for enforcing your boundaries and learning to recognize what a healthy relationship looks like.

Good luck. And write back so we know how you’re doing.

Hey Doctor NerdLove,

I recently met a girl at college and we clicked really well right off the bat. We just had really solid chemistry and everything felt natural. After talking and hanging out pretty consistently for a week or two, I asked her on a date and she accepted. The date went well, nothing magical or anything, but a solid first date.

Shortly after leaving her dorm, she texted me and told me that she had just gotten out of a serious long-term relationship and said that she still wanted to hang out as friends, but wasn’t looking for anything serious. I was honestly pretty blind-sided by this, but I ended up telling her I completely understood and that was that.

It’s been about a month since the date and I’ve still seen her quite a bit because we have classes together, but we haven’t talked nearly as much and she’s been noticeably more distant. Before, she would go out of her way to make sure we could talk in between classes, but now she just packs up and leaves as soon as possible. I asked her why she’d been acting differently around me, but she just said she hadn’t noticed any difference (which I find pretty hard to believe). However, this behavior has been kind of inconsistent. There will be times when we talk just like before we went on the date and it just feels right, but there will also be times when she will just be randomly pretty rude for no reason.

For instance, we were recently the only two left after a study session and were having a pretty good conversation and things felt like they were before, but then it was like something clicked in her brain and she suddenly started acting stand-offish and then left pretty abruptly. This was right before a big test, so it could have been stress, but I still found the 180 to be a bit bizarre.

I’ve been left scratching my by this stuff for a while, so what’s your diagnosis Doc? Was she just trying to let me down easy with the long-term relationship thing and I should just move on, or is she really going through something and I should just be patient? I have never really had my heart broken so it’s difficult for me to imagine what she might be going through. I know it’s not good to wait around for someone like this, but I really enjoy being around her and it seemed (at some point at least) that she really enjoyed being around me. I truly feel that there could be something really great with her, but I just don’t see a path forward.

In Between Days

She’s hoping that you’ll notice that she’s not interested and that you’ll stop angling for another date. While “I’ve just gotten out of a relationship and I’m not ready to date yet” may well be true, it’s also a “soft no” - a way of letting you down gently without saying “Look, I’m just not feeling it.”


Why not be direct and say so? Well, two reasons. The first is that women, in general, are socialized to be indirect, especially to men, and a lifetime of socialization is a motherfucker to overcome. That’s part of why there’re so many soft refusals when it comes to dating - it’s considered to be kinder and less rude to say “let’s just be friends” than “I’m not attracted to you”.

The other is that, well, guys tend to not take direct refusals well. You can Google any number of news stories of women who’ve been attacked or even killed for giving a direct “no”. Are you one of those guys? No, but she doesn’t know that, but I can almost guarantee you that if she hasn’t gotten shit for a direct “no” then at least one of her friends has.


Now, how does this square with her distant and often perplexing behavior? Well, I think the issue here is that you aren’t getting the hint. You seem to have taken her initial rejection as a “not right now” as opposed to a “not ever” and she’s getting annoyed by it. As anyone would, to be honest. Those sudden 180s are most likely because you’re starting to edge into “so, are we gonna date now?” territory—either overtly or by implication—and she’s trying to shut you down.

Is that what you’re intending? Possibly not… but that means that you need to do some serious examination of your behavior when you’re around her. If you are content to be just friends, knowing that a romantic or sexual relationship is never going to be in the cards for you, then you need to start acting that way. Giving the “please please date me” vibe—for example, getting sullen or pissy when she talks about other guys, trying to get her to do things that’re just the two of you or talking about future possibilities—is going to just piss her off and you need to cut it out.


Otherwise, the best thing you can do is recognize that this is just not going to happen and move on.

Good luck.

Hi Dr. NerdLove,

There’s this new girl at my workplace that I’m interested in. She’s smart, well-spoken, talented and pretty cute too. I haven’t felt such attraction to one person like this in such a long time. She seems to be ticking all the right boxes. So far, we’ve been having casual conversations day to day. I wish I could talk to her more but she seems busy most of the time so break times are usually my opportunities.

I would very much like to ask her out but the problem is, I think that might lead to things being awkward. First of all, I do not know if she’s already in a relationship. She’s not on social media so stalking or anything of sorts does not work here. I’d ask her if she was single but again, I fear that it would make things awkward between us, whatever her answer may be.

Asking that would certainly imply that I AM interested in her. And even if she’s single, there’s a good chance she’ll say no to the invitation and again, things may get awkward. The last thing I’d want her to feel is uncomfortable in her workplace. Especially because she’s new.

So I am wondering if you could give me some advice on what should be my next step? Should I go ahead and ask her out and hope for the best? Should play the long game and ask her out when she seems more comfortable with me? At this point I really just wanna know if she’s single and open for a relationship before I get too invested in these feelings that might end up unreciprocated.


Shy Guy

There’s a pretty simple way to find out if someone’s single and interested in dating you: you ask them on a date. Not “hang out some time”, not “go do something” but a capital-D date with specific plans.


“Hey, there’s $COOL_THING going on this weekend, would you like to go with me?” “I’d love to take you out some time, would you like to get a drink/ go for a stroll/ race go-karts?”

Quick, easy, to the point and guaranteed to get you a no-bullshit answer; either yes they’re interested or no they aren’t.


There’s nothing shameful in wanting to ask someone on a date, nor is there anything inherently awkward in being turned down. The way you keep things from being awkward afterwards is to not make it awkward. Don’t treat her saying “no” as a profound injury or judgement on you or a sign that you can never look her in the eye again. It’s not a big deal, and you can just go back to talking like she’s your co-worker. “No? Ok, cool. So anyway, like I was saying to Dave in Accounts Receivable…”

TL;DR: Just ask her out. If she says no, then let it roll off you. Don’t make a big deal out of it and it won’t be.


Have you gotten out of a toxic relationship? How have you handled being asked out by someone you weren’t interested in? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments, and we’ll be back in two weeks with more of your dating questions.


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.

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That first one hit me hard because I’m almost going through the same thing at the moment difference in severity though.

We met on a dating site and we were talking for merely a couple days maybe hours and we had already planned our first date. Our first date ended up being nothing what we talked about and purely being nothing but sex literally all night. After that - we got to know each other and I instantly fell for her she was this “low-maintenance, down to Earth, let’s go fishing and camping, and play Call of Duty” kind of girl that for a guy who was unemployed at the time felt amazing! This girl - she liked me - I had no job, no income but she dug me. About a month or two into things I met her daughter who was 8 months old at the time and spent a lot of time around her and taught her to walk and talk and babysit etc. When she learned to talk she called me “Daddy.” I didn’t know what to say but I accepted it. I loved her mother and I spent so much time with this child I didn’t care. I was building a family before my eyes....

A year in I propose to her...She said “Yes!”

Let’s fast forward a bit. I found out she’s pregnant with my now son and I was scared, nervous, and mad because she told me on a day I was actually going to break up with her. It seemed fake! No way could it be that much of a coincidence! Sometime later, her sister and her got into a huge fight and her sister sent me a message on Facebook telling me about all these different men my fiance had cheated on me with. Not 1. Not 2. Multiple. She gave me names and instances! Of course I asked her about it and she completely denied all of it and after a couple of days I even asked her sister if it was true or not and she retracted it.....

Years go by we finally get a place together, our own place. We live there for 2 years and things are slowly going sour as the sex slowly diminishes, my anger at her laziness is becoming higher, and she’s spending more and more time going and hanging out with my 17 year old cousin (female) while I’m at home taking care of our son (4) and her daughter (6). My 26 year old fiance is spending more time with my underage cousin than me.

One day it all came to a head when they asked me if they could go both hang out at this guy’s house for the night. I got pissed. I’ve had enough. It was becoming constant so at first I was like “yeah go ahead” but then I decided to run to Facebook messenger after she had left to RAGE OUT AT HER and say all the worst things I could’ve possibly said to a woman. I’m not perfect. I’m no fucking saint. I know this & i’m not claiming innocence for anything. I know the mistakes I’ve made. I’m man enough to admit them.

Anyhow....that rage followed the next morning and ended up with me breaking a coffee pot in the sink because she had ripped my coffee cup out of my hands when I was leaving for work and dumped it in the sink. ...and that was that.

It was over after that. She kicked me out of the apartment, but we still kept in contact for the kids and she would tug my heart strings and let me come over and fuck around sometimes. One time I came over and she flat out said “Do you wanna put your dick in me?” I did. So I did. After we were done I noticed a nice hickey on her tit...and of course I thought it was from a guy she had told me about that was already doing, but NO! SURPRISE MOTHER FUCKER it’s from a guy you worked with that was cheating on you weeks before anything with the coffee pot even happened! Oh and SURPRISE AGAIN! Her sister told me everything with that cheating 4 years prior was all true! Everything! Everything was a fucking lie! Now I sit here and type this 4 months into our break up still heart broken about this woman who’s fucked around on me for so long, used me to buy her a car, get her credit cards...and now I have to pay child support to this woman for the next 14 years of my life while I still continue to raise her daughter!

As Eminem said “Love is EVOL spell it backwards and I’ll show ya.”