Hello all you post-singularity sex marmosets, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only dating advice column that’ll patch in co-op multiplayer two years after launch.
This week, we’re doing some relationship detox. How can a guy shed toxic beliefs about relationships, about women and what he needs to be a “real” man? And when a woman is getting constant vitriol from the men she meets online, is there a way that she can teach them to be better?
It’s time to gird your loins and insert coins. Let’s do this.
Dear Dr NerdLove,
I’ve recently come out of a relationship and am looking for advice.
To cut a long story short, my ex specifically cited during the break up that I had a “toxic belief system” which caused most of the tension in our relationship.
To be specific, I have always grown up idolising the “Ramona Flowers” type manic pixie dream girl. As a nerd with some decent mental health issues, I always thought that the way out of my unhappiness was through the bizarre amalgamation of all my favourite films growing up. To me, happiness and success was a mix of Fight Club’s Tyler Dryden, dating Scott Pilgrim’s Ramona Flowers and having enough money to act like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.
I worked really hard, got the job I always wanted, the girl I always dreamed of and worked out a butt tonne to get into MMA. In my head, I should have been complete. But the truth is, none of it felt right. My job is incredibly stressful, my girlfriend dumped me because apparently she couldn’t live up to an impossible standard and MMA hurts. A lot.
So my question to you is, how do I stop this vicious cycle. I’ve spent the last 10 years working to a toxic ideal idea formulated from my severely depressed 18 year old self, but I cannot break away from it because I am in too deep.
What is the alternative to toxic beliefs? These toxic beliefs have gotten me so far in life that to be without them would be to question everything I ever worked for.
Please help. I sincerely hope to find peace in all this mess. I grew up believing I was a lesser person, and that I would only find happiness adhering to the toxic ideals I set for myself. I just hope there’s another way.
-Need a Soul Cleanse
Here’s why none of that helped, NSC: because none of those things were for you. You were defining your life — from your career, to your ideal relationship to what you needed to be a man — on what other people told you that you should be. You looking to find external factors to get validation from others. “If I live up to this impossible standard, people will love me and I’ll be happy. If I live this particular lifestyle, people will be happy. If I date this particular type of person, she’ll make me better and I’ll be happy.”
The problem is that external validation will never fulfill you. All you’re doing is tossing things into a bottomless hole in hopes that maybe this will fill the emptiness. But because you’re looking to other people for validation, you will never actually be fulfilled. You’re going to constantly be chasing after a moving target because your sense of self will be dependent on other people’s approval and validation and that’s never going to be enough. You’re always going to have that nagging voice in the back of your head that you aren’t doing enough yet, this other person has a hotter girlfriend or more money or the better job and suddenly you’re back at square zero, feeling like ten pounds of ass in a five pound sack.
At best, you may numb that emptiness temporarily, but it will just come roaring back, worse than before. And to add to the absurdity, the beliefs you’re chasing are absurdly toxic.
I mean, hell, let’s look at the examples you just cited. Manic Pixie Dream Girls aren’t people, they’re plot devices; they’re supposed to make the milquetoast protagonist more interesting because… well, because. They have no purpose other than to buff their charisma and interest stats. Hell, the whole point of Scott Pilgrim is how he’s a self-involved, selfish prick who doesn’t want to grow up and accept the consequences of his actions. Ramona is less of a person and more of a plot device, someone who makes him “cooler” by dint of her interest in him. It’s only when Scott manages to grow the hell up that he can actually relate to her as a person… and deal with the fact that she’s as flawed and messed up as he is.
Then there’s Tyler Durden, a man who represents the paradox of modern masculinity. He rallies people who feel alienated and betrayed by life because they’re waking up to the fact that they’ve been lied to; they’re never going to get the rewards they were promised just for being men. But as he’s decrying the failures of how masculinity and society has betrayed people, his solution is to double down on the very same system that excluded them before. He’s the literal personification of the systems of masculinity that are torturing these disaffected lost boys, mocking underwear ads with “is this what a man looks like” while he himself looks like a statue carved out of marble and abs.
And then there’s Patrick Bateman… a dude whose sense of self and masculinity is so fragile it can be shattered by someone having a better business card than him. But you took these guys as your role models and worked hard to get to where you are now and… well, now you’ve climbed to the top of the mountain and realized that it’s a mountain of shit. You’ve done so much, only to realize how worthless it all is; you hate your job, you couldn’t keep your relationship and you’re miserable.
Like the members of Project Mayhem, you’ve discovered that you aren’t going to get the rewards you’ve been promised… so what do you do now? Are you going to double down and say that the answer is to do it again but harder? Or are you ready to admit that maybe you made the wrong call?
The fact that you chose poorly doesn’t mean you’re stuck with this for the rest of your life. Nor does it mean that you’re an idiot, a loser or in any way lesser. It just means that you’re human, like the rest of us, and sometimes we back the wrong play. It happens. It sucks, but it happens to everyone.
I get why it’s hard to let go. You’re experiencing what’s known as the sunk cost fallacy; you’ve been doing this for so long that you feel like you have to keep going. Otherwise… well, what does it say that you’ve put in all that effort only to quit now? It’s the belief that you have to justify all that you’ve done because otherwise you’re a loser and a quitter, instead of just admitting that you’ve made a mistake and that time and energy is gone.
But there’s a difference between making a mistake and having wasted all that time. It’s not a waste, not if you learn from it. And what you’ve learned is that this doesn’t make you happy. It’s not who you are, it’s not what you want, and it’s emphatically not what you need.
What you do need is a little self-compassion right about now. Yeah, you chased a life that wasn’t right for you. I did that too, many times. I tried to be a professional artist for most of my life, despite the fact that I don’t have the talent or the passion for it. I thought being a PUA would do it for me. I was wrong then, too. In both cases, I had to be willing to say that, for all that I spent literal decades of my life chasing those things, I was wrong, and they weren’t what I wanted or needed.
But I don’t consider that time wasted. I learned a lot from all of it, and those decisions are what put me on my path to where I am today. And honestly, I’m much happier and more satisfied for it.
You’re at a crossroads, NSC. This is a liminal space, where you have the chance to take a different path and redefine who you are. But to do that, you have to be willing to forgive yourself for everything that you’ve invested to get here. And I won’t lie to you, it’s hard. But when you forgive yourself and let yourself shrug off the burden of these expectations and beliefs, you’re going to feel like you’ve let go of massive weights that are holding you back. For the first time in decades you will feel free.
With that freedom comes the possibility of discovering who you really are and what truly feeds your soul. You can start to explore yourself and chase down possibilities that you denied yourself because you had such a rigid idea of who you were and weren’t allowed to be. You can focus on connecting with people — a real, honest connection, based on respect and love — instead of having to maintain a front of who you think you’re supposed to be.
And that’s amazing. It’s exciting. You have this chance to start anew, to define yourself by what you want. You have an infinite array of possibilities before you. Some of them won’t be right at all, some of them will only be right for you for a little while, but you have the chance to explore them all. And all you have to do is be willing to forgive yourself and throw up the middle fingers at everyone who told you that this, or that, is what a “real” man is. That’s for you and you alone to decide for yourself.
You are standing at the edge of an incredible future, NSC. All you have to do is let go of the tethers of your toxic beliefs and fly.
All will be well.
Your site has been incredibly helpful to me over the past few years. As a woman who dates on the internet it’s been valuable both for how I think about myself and to better understand the guys I interact with. I’m hoping for some guidance on where the line is with online dating on not being a dick to guys on the internet or exacerbating the kinds of feelings you get letters about, without performing an insane amount of emotional labor in the process.
For context, I’m a reasonably presentable woman in my late twenties on OkCupid in a large city, which means I get a larger volume of messages than I can stay on top of. I also try not to let dating take over my life, so I limit myself to about one first date a week. (I realized I was getting pretty grumpy when I went on dates instead of hanging out with friends or working out, which wasn’t helping anyone).
I often don’t immediately respond to first messages. Usually it’s because a) they said something gross or offensive (or, with alarming frequency, “message me if you want a guy who will never cheat on you,” which, cool, possibly necessary, but definitely not sufficient), b) all they said was hi/what’s up/etc and there’s nothing to hang a conversation on, c) I haven’t checked my messages, or d) I saw the message, but couldn’t think of something interesting to say immediately and plan come back to it. Sometimes, even if I plan to respond to messages, I’ll wait for a few days if I’ve got a bunch of dates lined up, because I’ve noticed guys get really grumpy if you offer them a date a couple of weeks in the future. (Side note to anyone who follows the ‘we have to meet in seven days’ thing: dudes, stop being so pushy and sensitive about not being women’s first priority. Of course you aren’t. We haven’t even met yet).
I’ve noticed a pattern where, within 48-72 hours of not responding, I’ll have a second message along the lines of ‘We matched. I messaged you. I don’t know what else you want out of me’ or ‘I give up. This site is trash’ and so on. (Or you know, calling me a bitch, but for the purposes of this question, let’s set them aside.) I may be out of touch with expectations on response time on messages, but I’m not able to spend more time/energy on in-app interaction than I already do. After I receive these types of messages, I am no longer interested in going on a date with any of these guys, so I just don’t respond at all, but I can’t help but feel that I’m contributing to all the bitterness and unhappiness I see in letter writers on this site.
I don’t want to create negativity in other people’s lives, but I do not have the time or emotional bandwidth to respond to engage with these guys individually, nor do I have any idea what to say to them. Is there something I can say to them to address that bitterness? I honestly would have ended up talking to at least 25% of them without that second message. What’s the ethical/kind thing to do here without spending hours every week responding to random men on the internet who seem to be placing way too much importance on one interaction?
-Help Me Help Them
It’s generous of you to want to help these guys, HMHT but… that’s really not your job. The problem here isn’t you. You’re not causing them to flip out and call you a bitch or a whore or whatever because you didn’t respond immediately. That’s all them. The negativity is coming from inside the house.
Let’s take the dude who says “we matched, I messaged you, I don’t know what else you want from me.” This is a guy complaining that he’s not being rewarded for doing the bare minimum. What you — or anyone on a dating app — wants is chemistry, attraction and a reason to want to reply to someone. That’s more than just popping into somebody’s inbox and saying “Welp, here I am, let the blow-jobs commence!” and it’s definitely more than just saying “hey”.
Dudes who want to get results — whether they’re messaging someone on OKCupid or texting somebody after getting her number — have to engage the person they’re messaging. They have to have a hook, something that the other person will see and react to in a positive way. “Hey” ain’t gonna do it. Neither is “you must be a wrench ‘cuz when I see you my nuts tighten up” or any other sexual innuendo, for that matter.
More to the point, however, the fact that he’s getting pissed because you didn’t immediately jump to attention is all about what he thinks he’s entitled to. Now, maybe he’s gotten frustrated because he hasn’t had much luck. Which, hey, I’m sympathetic and all, but lashing out at you ain’t the way to go.
Hell, the fact that he’s getting pissed off over this is as solid of a sign that not responding was the right move. Getting pissy over being turned down — and no reply is a reply; it’s a “no thanks” — is part of how nature tells us “do not touch”. Even telling him “I may have replied if you haven’t said that” is just going to set off another torrent of abuse that you don’t need.
Now, if there’s a guy you are interested in, it’s better to reply sooner rather than later, if only because interest on a dating app is fleeting. Just as you’re talking to other people, he’s likely messaging other people, too. That connection may never happen because you didn’t respond but someone else did. It’d be a shame to miss out on someone awesome because you took a little too long to write back. But hey, that’s dating in the age of Tinder; sometimes you’re just gonna find the right person at the wrong time.
But the guys who’re going out of their way to show their whole ass at the first hint that they aren’t going to get their way? Those are dudes who need to follow NerdLove’s First Rule: Handle Thine Own Shit. If they’re going to blow up like cut-rate firecrackers the moment that someone doesn’t respond, then they’re gonna be single for a long, long time… and they should be.
So by all means, respond faster to guys who actually interest you; it may not end up going anywhere, but at the very least you’ll have some more people to talk to. But for the guys who get pissed because you turned them down, directly or indirectly? You’re not responsible for them. You aren’t here to solve their problems and make them better people. You’re not the Fuckhead Whisperer.
Plus, to be perfectly blunt: they’re probably not going to listen to you. As soon as they realize that listening isn’t going to lead to hot sweaty sex, they’re going to be right back on their bullshit. When a guy is determined to show you that he’s an asshole, the best thing you can do is block him and move on.
It says a lot about you that you want to help. You’re being kind and generous. If you think one or two of them may be salvageable, that they’re folks who might be able to turn around given half a chance? Then feel free to send them my way; I’ve got nearly a decade of columns, books, podcasts and videos to help them refine their game and turn their lives around. That’s literally my job.
But it’s not your job. Nor is it your responsibility. If these guys want to do better, then it’s on them to decide that and to make it happen for themselves.
Did you have to make a radical change in your life? Were you able to pull your life back from the brink… or help someone else turn theirs around? Share your stories in the comments below 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 email@example.com 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.