Hello, Internet! Welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only dating column that’s also a signatory of the Unseelie Accords.
This week, we’ve got a pair of tricky issues. Our first letter deals with abusive relationships… and the writer is the abuser. Our second letter writer is in love with his best friend… who happens to be a lesbian. Just as a heads-up: For the first letter, we’re going to be talking about suicide, self-harm and emotional abuse, so if you have issues with these topics, you’ll want to tread carefully.
It’s time to drop some dating wisdom. Let’s do this thing.
Hi Dr. NerdLove, this is a hard mail to write.
My girlfriend and I have been together for seven years now, and though most of the time our relationship is good, we have had and continue to have major issues.
I’m emotionally abusive to her; I know this and I want it to end, but I don’t know how.
Whenever we have an argument, usually related to me not doing enough in- around the house, or arguments over money (with which her complaints are reasonable and just, I am the wrong one), I tend to fly into a panic, apologizing endlessly and, if things heat up too much, hurting myself or offering suicide as a solution to our mutual problem.
This hurts and scares my girlfriend immensely, since she cares about my well-being and has little to no control over what I do to myself in the long run. The constant apologizing over everything, whether it be within my control or not, puts her on edge, since she doesn’t want me to feel guilty, yet I do.
The offers of suicide are the worst for her, and I definitely understand that. The problem is that I’ve been coping with suicidal thoughts since at least age 6 (I’ve gone from therapist to therapist for this, my parents were equally distraught) and they’re hard to keep quiet.
Most of the time I know that I should ignore them, and that suicide is not a solution to the problem that I am, but during panic attacks my judgement gets clouded and I turn out far less able to see things in proper perspective.
The hardest thing is, I’m torn as to what this behavior says about me. I don’t know if it’s purely malicious, or if it’s an ingrained reaction with negative results.
I know that as a child, I always reacted heavily to criticism; mostly in the form of self-hatred or self-harm. I banged my head against walls and in my teen years I took to cutting. In my own mind, especially at the time, I felt like I did those things due to a general sense of guilt; that I’d failed everyone around me and that I was not good enough.
However, my mother has another perspective: that I voice self-hatred, apologize too much, hurt myself and speak out on suicidal thoughts as a way to shame, manipulate and guilt people into behavior that I find preferential.
For a long time I rebelled against that notion, and considered my mother wrong for thinking that way, but lately my girlfriend has been saying the same. That my outbursts are faked or at least ingenuine and meant mostly to hurt her and manipulate her into doing what I want.
Two people, two women, can’t be wrong and I know it’s human nature to protect one’s ego, so I cannot assume my own justification is what’s really behind my behavior.
All in all, I’m trying to stop doing what I do during conflict, but I run into problems when emotions run particularly high. Are there any tips to help me stop being manipulative and emotionally abusive towards my girlfriend?
Sorry for the long, uninteresting story,
Admitted Abusive A**hole
OK, AAA, this is going to be a two-parter. The first part is for you; I have a few things to say about your behavior, but before I do, let’s be blunt: you need to talk to a psychiatrist. Dr. NerdLove is not a real doctor and when you’re talking about suicidal ideation, you need to be talking to a medical professional, not a loud-mouth dating coach with a column.
This is fairly open and shut: yes, you’re abusing your girlfriend, AAA. And frankly, you shouldn’t be in a relationship with anyone until you get your shit sorted. If you’re sincere about dealing with your issues, then you need to see a shrink and STICK with them. If you’re being straight with me, then you have issues that can only be worked out by working with a psychiatrist. Anxiety, depression, panic attacks and suicidal thoughts are the sorts of things that need immediate attention and often medical solutions like antidepressants to get you to a place where other forms of therapy can help.
With that out of the way, I’m going to direct this next section to readers.
So, full disclosure, I’m not in any way shape or form objective on this particular topic. I’ve been in an abusive relationship before, and I’m particularly sensitive to the subject and disinclined to give abusers the benefit of the doubt. And to be perfectly frank, there are some things in this letter that set my Spidey-sense to tingling. But we’ll get to all of that in a moment.
One of the reasons I picked this letter is because it illustrates something that a lot of people don’t necessarily get: that abuse isn’t strictly about violence or even yelling or making someone’s partner feel threatened—something that many abusers take advantage of. There are a lot of ways that an abusive partner can inflict emotional or physical harm on someone without necessarily raising one’s hand or voice; the fact that there is no physical damage or danger is often one of the ways abusers gaslight their victims into believing there is no abuse going on.
Abusive relationships—whether the abuse is physical or emotional—are almost always about control. The abuser is controlling their victim, whether it’s through violence, intimidation, or fear. Sometimes that fear is the fear of the abuser hurting the victim—directly (through physical abuse) or indirectly (destroying the victim’s possessions, hurting or killing their pets, through social sabotage, etc). Other times, that fear is the fear of the abuser hurting themselves.
Threats of self-harm are actually a very common means of keeping one person’s partner under control. In fact, I’ve been fielding letters about this since the beginning. The difference is, usually I’m hearing from the person that’s being abused, not the abuser. For all intents and purposes, this kind of emotional abuser is creating a hostage situation. The only twist is that they’re holding themselves hostage, saying “don’t you dare leave me or the hostage gets it,” while holding the gun to their own head.
By threatening self-harm, they are weaponizing their victim’s sense of guilt and responsibility, putting the blame for the abuser’s actions on the victim: “This is all your fault! If you didn’t make me upset, this would never happen.” Many times, the victim internalizes the blame and begins to believe that it is their fault. So now they feel that they have to be hypervigilant, continually monitoring their own behavior so as to not trigger another outburst. And so the abuser maintains control over their victim, without even having to lift a hand.
However, threats aren’t the only way that people try to maintain control in a relationship. Someone who is being loudly and excessively apologetic when they make a mistake (or they’re called out for having done something wrong) is also a form of controlling behavior; by making such a production over feeling guilty, they twist the narrative around and flip the roles. Now instead of the moment being about “Person X did something wrong to Person Y”, it becomes “Person Y has to reassure Person X that they’re not the worst, awfulest person in the world”. It changes the focus; Person Y no longer has the right to be angry because Person X is so contrite that continuing to be upset would just be cruel, etc. When that Person X adds self-harm to the mix - “punishing” themselves by hitting themselves, beating their fists or heads against the wall, etc. - then Person Y has to let go of whatever they were going to say, for fear that the other person will end up seriously hurting themselves.
In both cases, the other partner is left holding the bag, being made responsible for appeasing their partner. In both cases, they have to put their own wants and needs and grievances aside and tend to their partner, while the controlling, abusive partner is absolved of responsibility.
Back to our letter writer, AAA: You tell me that you’ve defaulted to self-harm in response to criticism ever since you were a child; that you have such an overwhelming sense of shame and guilt that you just naturally fall to these attacks of maladaptive behavior. Ok, fine… except this fits in with the exact same sort of manipulative, controlling behavior that either absolves you of responsibility (I’m supposed to say “It’s understandable, it’s not your fault”) or serves as a unspoken potential threat (“Treat me with kid gloves or else who knows what I might do?”).
Now, in fairness, maybe I’m reading that wrong. Maybe it’s that English isn’t your first language, and there’s a miscommunication going on. Maybe it’s that you’ve left things out that might add context. But something about your letter doesn’t pass my smell test.
Is it possible that you’re not consciously abusing your girlfriend? Well, it’s entirely possible you don’t see this as control, that you’ve learned as a child that this sort of behavior gets people off your back. Humans as a species are bad at acting; if we behave in a particular way long enough, our brains start to rationalize the behavior and come up with reasons for why we’re doing it—even if consciously we know it’s an act. So, yes, it’s theoretically possible that by adopting this behavior as a child, you’ve internalized it and rationalized it that you’re not being controlling, you’re doing it because you’re acting out of guilt and shame.
But even if that’s the case, unintentional abuse is still abuse. The fact that it’s unintentional does not excuse you from doing it. If you’re serious about getting better, then you need to take responsibility, and the first step for this is to go into therapy. By yourself.
Until then, all you’re doing is hurting someone you claim to care about. If you actually love her, then you need to let her go and get help.
Doc, I need your help. I’m a hetero guy and I’m in love with a lesbian.
I initially met Ms. L through texting; my step-mother gave me the number for her friend’s goddaughter, Ms. L. Things hit off as much as they can via text immediately and we were oohing and awing over everything each other said. Fast forward a few weeks through lots of talking and I finally meet her over a weekend at a family party. We spend the entire weekend with each and there was kissing and cuddling. Ms L and I didn’t have sex but it was the first time we met and we didn’t go into the weekend with any expectations so I wasn’t concerned. It would have been great except I didn’t know she was a lesbian at the time.
Ms L lives a few hours away in a different state so it’s basically impossible to visit for just a weekend and I can’t take work off. The week following what I thought was a fantastic weekend she admitted over the phone that she is in fact a lesbian. My mind was thoroughly shaken since I was so sure that was going to be the start of a great relationship. We had a long and honest talk and she admitted that while she has been a lesbian for the past 5 years (We’re both 21) and went into the weekend thinking we’d just be friends, she felt a strong attraction to me and was just as confused as I was how it ended up. She made it clear that it wasn’t a mistake though and would explore the possibilities if I could accept that part of her. I felt so sure that it would work out even with what she just told me, so I told her I would try my damndest and we immediately started planning a trip where I’d go visit her.
Through the next two months we got closer, I was very open with my emotions and how she made me feel and constantly gave her personal compliments and she returned them along with pictures. I knew she was a lesbian but I also knew we clicked on all levels that weekend and that not everyone’s sexual preference is concrete.
A week before I was planned drive there and stay at her house for almost two weeks, Ms L revealed she met a girl the week before and since been on a couple of dates with her but it wasn’t serious and they weren’t committed to anything. She was completely honest with it and said that she loved me on an emotional and romantic level, but gave a hard look at herself and concluded she didn’t think she could commit to me physically, and that it’d be unfair of her to have me visit without knowing. Meanwhile I once again was emotionally hammered and frankly heartbroken. I had no idea if I even wanted to or could handle visiting her at this point. After a couple of days I calmed down somewhat and got some great advice from a couple of close friends and I decided I would still visit because I still wanted Ms L in my life and she wanted me in hers.
The trip was amazing and I had a great time. She introduced me to family as her best friend in the world and honestly I am okay with that. Both her mother and father, aware she is a lesbian, said she’d be a fool not to keep me. We talked and were both honest with our emotions and were very comfortable in each other’s presence even if I was just reading a book while she was doing school work. We would hold each other while walking outside or watching TV and kissed occasionally but that was the unspoken limit we were both aware was there. I didn’t want to push it since over the phone she made it clear she was into girls but she didn’t appear to mind any of the affection we did exchange. Where we’re at now that the trip is over is that we love each other, but she just can’t commit to a relationship because I have a penis. It hurts me and she knows that, but I’m happy to have her at least as my best friend and part of my life than nothing.
With my story out of the way I want to ask do you think anywhere along the way I lost the opportunity? She was clearly into me and said as much, but I got the feeling as soon as she met the other girl that she forgot, for the lack of a better word, how our intimacy made her feel in the two months between our visits and just returned to the familiar lesbian history. Or do you think it’s just as simple as she is a lesbian and that’s never going to change?
Lost in the Sauce
You’ve seen Chasing Amy, right, LitS? ‘Cuz right now you’re basically being Holden. And you don’t want to go the full Holden.
So some straight talk about sexual orientation. People’s sexuality is complex and more fluid than we tend to believe. Someone who’s bisexual or pansexual may be sexually attracted to multiple genders but only romantically interested in one. Somebody who is heterosexual or homosexual may well decide they want to try a walk on the wild side and fool around with someone who doesn’t line up with their preferred gender. There are people who prefer one gender but will close their eyes and pretend if that’s what it takes to get off.
Hell, sometimes there’s just that one person who’s the exception to their sexual orientation. A completely straight man may realize that they’re into that one specific guy. Similarly, a lesbian may realize that she’s got a thing for a particular dude. This doesn’t mean that they’re no longer straight or gay respectively, it just means sex is goddamn complicated and attraction frequently doesn’t give a six-legged rat’s ass about how you label yourself.
So what’s going on? Could it be that she was into you but forgot when she met another woman? Sure, it’s theoretically possible. It’s also possible that she’s closer to the bisexual section of the Kinsey scale and feels that this conflicts with her identity as a lesbian. It could be she’s bisexually attracted but homoromantic; that is, she is sexually attracted to men and women but only is romantically attracted to women. Or it could be that she likes the light making out but she’s not into you enough to want to date and thinks that putting it on her sexuality is kinder than telling you so.
Regardless, the issue at its core isn’t about whether she’s gay, bi, straight or anything else. It’s that she’s just not into you the way you wish she was. She may well love you, but that doesn’t mean she loves you in the way you want. That sucks, and I totally get it. But sticking around and hoping that she’s going to overlook that whole “penis” thing is just going to end in tears and likely end up hurting your friendship.
You’ve made your pitch. She’s turned you down. If you want to keep your friendship, you need to be her friend and that means learning to get over her. Friends don’t hang around with an agenda of hoping to change their friends’ minds. That’s Nice Guy™ territory.
How have you dated someone in the service industry? Did you manage to hook up with your favorite store clerk or bartender? Share your stories and experiences in the comments section, and we’ll be back in two weeks with more of your 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 book Simplified Dating is available exclusively through Amazon.One Of Us. He can be found dispensing snark and advice on Facebook and on Twitter at @DrNerdLove.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.