Hello, you hideous and shimmering sexbeasts, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only dating advice column to guide you through the Metroidvania of love.
This week, it’s all about the end of relationships. Break ups and divorce aren’t the end; they’re the beginning of a new chapter in your life. But how do you handle the aftermath of an ugly break up? What about when you just can’t let go of an ex? What about when your ex just won’t let you go?
It’s time to collect your new equipment and skills and go open doors in those areas you could never get through. Let’s do this.
So first, a little backstory: About two months ago, I asked out and briefly dated a friend of mine. We met initially at her workplace, my regular cafe, about a year ago while I was still in a relationship. I didn’t have any romantic feelings for her, but we had great banter and shared everything in common. Like everything. It was very weird but exhilarating for us. Fast forward past a breakup and several months of emotional recovery, and it occurred to me one day while we were talking about Japanese-Heideggerian Zen philosophy at the cafe counter I’d caught feelings for my friend/barista. And her constant, pointed interest in spending inordinate amounts of time while she was on the clock seemed like some pretty clear signals.
I asked her out pretty soon after that, and things seemed to start off great. Good conversations, good chemistry, etc. We even had the “what are you looking for?” conversation, and we both stated we were looking for a serious partner. Really, it was looking good. But about a month in she started to cancel plans on me, mainly due to travel, and then our dates went from hikes and drinks to “dates plus this one friend of hers.” Then she revealed that she’d been seeing other people, which is fine; we weren’t exclusive nor had we talked about being exclusive. Except, she’d asked me earlier point blank whether I was seeing other people (I wasn’t), and I’d returned the question (she wasn’t). And apparently we both liked it that way. We were, and I quote, “Old fashioned like that.” Suddenly, though, the narrative was that she’d never said that. And then, even more suddenly, it was that she HAD said that, but had changed her mind when her friends encouraged her to try dating around. The coup de grace was when I texted her on her birthday and...radio silence.
Fine, I thought, I get the message. Not long after that, I told her that I wasn’t interested in seeing her anymore, since I generally don’t like to date someone who blows me off, lies to me and gaslights me (I didn’t tell her that second part, though). This surprised and hurt her, which surprised and hurt me, but that’s life I guess.
OK, backstory over.
Since then, we’ve obviously still run into each other a lot. I need my coffee, after all, and she’s the one who makes it. But this is where it gets confusing. Every couple weeks, almost like clockwork, she sends me a text. “Sorry I made you feel bad” was the first. “Have you seen Midsommar!?” was the next. “How should I act around you?” unexpectedly arrived one morning. “Thanks for talking to me” (after a brief, cordial conversation we’d had earlier that day) was last week. I always responded to these in a brief, neutral tone: “Ok, thanks.” “That director’s not really my speed.” “Cordial is always welcome.” “Of course, no problem.” And finally, two nights ago, she liked me on Tinder. Huh? What is going on here? I am incredibly confused.
A part of me wants her to leave me alone after all the not so pleasant shenanigans she pulled, but another part of me maybe wants to try pursuing this again since nothing about her that made me like her in the first place has changed. But first and foremost, I want to know what her motives are with these bimonthly texts. It’s not like I’ve been inviting her conversation; the most I say to her in person, with one exception, is a cordial good morning, thank you and goodbye when I grab my morning coffee. I could think the worst of her and assume she just wants to be the object of someone’s affection, to be chased by me again. Or she’s still interested, either in friendship or more, and this is her awkwardly trying to bridge the gap between us. The latter might be wishful thinking...
tl;dr: Guy meets gal. Gal and guy like each other. Gal blows off and gaslights guy. Guy gets out. Gal keeps texting guy (and then likes him on a dating app). Guy gets confused. Guy is still confused. What gives?
I would love your feedback, since all of your advice columns have really resonated with me. I think I know the answer to this situation, but here I am!
Once Bitten Twice Shy
Your ex’s behavior is weird, OBTS. The general progression of your relationship sounds less like the behavior of someone you were dating and more “trying to get this guy to realize that I’m not into him.” Suddenly changing one-on-one hangouts to “hey, it’s gonna be a group thing?” That’s usually something that happens with somebody who’s trying to give somebody the wave-off without having to have a potentially fraught “No really, I don’t like you like that” conversation.
Which makes little sense if you two were having preliminary “where is this relationship going?” conversations; those tend to happen when you’re not quite ready for an exclusive commitment, but you could definitely see the relationship heading that way.
There are two likely possibilities here. The first is that there’s something that you missed or that there’s some detail that would explain where her head’s at.
The other is that it’s entirely possible that your ex doesn’t know what she wants. Her behavior—both while you were dating and afterwards—makes her sound like someone who may well have meant what she said when she said it, but will change her mind at the drop of a hat. At that point her new decision gets retconned into how it’s always been because hey, what else could it have been
(Also, suddenly deciding “Guess I should go date other people after all” just because her friends suggested it? This is supposed to make it more reasonable?)
So while she may have been ok with slow-walking you out of the relationship, she may have decided that no, she actually liked having you around in her life. And thus, these regularly scheduled texts.
It does seem like she’s someone who is conflict- and confrontation-averse; the bi-weekly texts sound a lot like someone who’s pinging a connection to see if it’s still active. The fact that it’s bi-weekly sounds like she’s doing the thing where she tries to stay in contact without either overwhelming you or seeming too needy.
(Women reading this may recognize it as something that guys have pulled on them.)
What does this mean? Well, this may be her way of trying to reopen lines of communication with you. Alternately, this could be her trying to gauge whether or not you’re still upset with her; after all, as long as you’re responding, you can’t be that mad, can you?
I suspect that the fact that you keep going back for coffee confuses things. The fact that you two split doesn’t mean that you have to avoid her at all costs, but if you’re going to keep showing up where you know she’s gonna be, it certainly can make it seem like you’re still interested in the possibility of picking things up again. I mean, I’m sure she’s a great barista and all, but I seriously doubt this is the only place where you can get your coffee in the morning.
But at the end of the day, if you want to know what she’s thinking, then I’m not the person to ask. She is. If you want to get an idea of what’s going on, then you’re gonna have to use your words and get it from her.
However, that’s not a conversation to have at work, yours or hers. So the next time she texts, use that as an opportunity to ask. “Hey, when you started ghosting me and not returning my texts, I took it as a sign you weren’t interested. But now you’re messaging me and matching with me on Tinder, so I’m getting confused. What’s going on here?”
But it’s going to be up to you to decide what to do with whatever answer she gives you.
However, I strongly suggest that you keep any future relationship to friendship, if that. Frankly, while you may still dig her, I don’t think it’s worth your time to pursue a romantic relationship with her again. It doesn’t sound to me like she’s changed significantly in the time since you two dated, so trying to get back together will just be a rerun of your first go-round. The only difference will be that you’ll see the train wreck coming this time, and you still won’t be able to avoid it.
(As a general rule of thumb: if there hasn’t been a discussion about how the relationship ended and why, with everyone acknowledging their part in it, then going back for more is just an exercise in futility.)
Meanwhile, consider finding a new place to get coffee, or brewing it at home before you leave for work.
Long time reader, and I really appreciate all your advice. It has always given me a different perspective in my own love life, and has helped me grow as a person in this aspect of my life. This is the first time I am really reaching out to anyone about something that I just can’t shake. So, a little backstory, I am mid 30s, and going through a tough time. Divorce is completely looming, separation has happened and lawyers are all being called at this point. I am heartbroken, but not just because my marriage is ending, but because I have to put my son through what I went through when I was a kid. I never wanted to see my parents fight, and I did the exact same thing. I am struggling to cope with being alone, since I have never really had any time where I was alone. I know I have a lot to work on, including most likely being codependent. When you leave a 20 year relationship, it is tough. I know I will get through it, but it is exposing all of my flaws and bad habits I have created and have to break.
I recently met someone else. She lives in another state, and this has only been long distance. I am able to go see her, as I travel to her city for work often, and, well, planes are available whenever I really want to go somewhere. The thing is, we bonded very quickly over a lot of things. We generally enjoy the same things, we are on the same page on just about everything. We talked and texted nonstop for the first couple of weeks, which has tapered off a bit now that we have settled into a pattern, and it has been amazing to have a positive light in my world of utter depression right now. She seems interested in me romantically, and I have communicated that I am interested in her as well.
We also discussed our emotional availability. I know I can’t be emotionally available, and she has said the same. We can only be friends right now. It is an amazing friendship, and I want to preserve it because she is such an amazing person, I would lose a very positive person in my life without her in it. I have kept up my end of the bargain, and I have just kept friends, but I am struggling, and this is where I would like your advice.
How do I get her out of my mind? How do I keep from pushing for a relationship? How do I just stay friends with her? I know that if I push this, especially now, when I am broken and in this state, that everything will end badly. I have to work on me, and I don’t want to impose anything on her that will make her choose. I really want to just be friends right now, get to really know her and have that foundation, and when I feel like I can stand on my own two feet, I will revisit my feelings for her. I know this is a little different from the other advice questions you get, but I really could use some help figuring out how to control my own emotions now that the whole glass house has exploded.
So if you’ve been reading my column for a while, then you’ll have seen the times when I’ve talked about avoiding The Friend Zone*.
*There is no Friend Zone. There are just people who don’t want to date or have sex with you.
The key to avoiding ending up in The Friend Zone is that you make your intentions known and you act like a potential lover, not a friend. When someone attempts to pull the Platonic Friend Backdoor Gambit, their behavior sets the expectation that they just want to be friends, not that they’re hoping to get a relationship upgrade during a moment of weakness on the other person’s part.
The key to staying friends with someone you’re attracted to means doing the opposite; you want to treat her as a friend, not somebody that you’re attracted to. That means setting some boundaries for yourself; it’s not fair for the two of you to talk about how much you want to date when you know that you can’t right now. Giving indications about how you would totally date or bang someone but whooooops, can’t because REASONS is cruel to do to somebody that you know is into you. It just leaves them on the hook when it would be better for them to be free to pursue relationships that DO have a chance. That’s why you have to cut out the flirting and romance talk; it just sets a frame to the relationship that only leaves people upset and frustrated.
But that no-romance talk applies to you too. The more you go on about how much you wish you could be with her—even just to yourself—the more you reinforce your feelings for her. Instead, you need to just let the feelings pass over you, around you and past you without engaging with them. You can note them and name them—“Yup, there’s my inconvenient crush on my friend”—and just let them go. Without reinforcement, they’ll start to fade on their own over time.
You may also have to dial back the intimacy and intensity of your conversations with her, or at least spread them out amongst other friends. Part of why straight cis men so often develop feelings for their female friends is beacuse of how rarely we have emotionally intimate friendships with others, particularly other men. We’re taught that emotional intimacy is a precursor to sexual intimacy, and so we convert those intense, emotionally fulfilling relationships to romance because we’re only allowed to have those relationships with people we might sleep with. So it becomes incredibly easy to decide we’ve caught feels instead of recognizing what a close friendship feels like.
But you can’t be friends with her in hopes that this just puts the two of you on pause until you’re ready to date. If you aren’t in a position to date right now—and you would know best—then being her friend isn’t how you keep her around until you have your life together again. You’re going to have to be cool with the fact that she won’t be waiting around for you. She will likely start dating other people. If that’s the case, then you can’t get passive-aggressive about it or make comments about the guys she’s dating. You’ll have to learn to be happy for and appreciate her happiness, even as you’re working on discovering your own.
None of this means that there’s no chance for you further down the road. But you can’t go into this thinking that friendship is the holding pattern until you’re ready to date again. If she’s right for you now, she’ll still be right for you in the months or even years down the line when you’ve worked through everything and you’re ready to get back in the game.
But that’s for the future. For now: just focus on yourself. You’ve been going through a catastrophic life change. You need to learn who this new you is and get ready to start this new chapter in your life. Love will be there for you when you’re ready.
Plenty of relationships sour due to bad circumstances. Enough to say people don’t stay happy with their ex as a person. I (26f) fear it’s in the way of me getting over mine (25m) because it has such intensity. The situation is confounding because it’s so unexpected of my laid-back live-and-let-live approach to damn near everyone. I’ll take it from the top.
We were together for the best part of 4 years. Started off both as students at far flung colleges. The first 2.5 years were LDR; I took on most of the financial and logistical burden of this after I graduated and found employment. No recalibration occurred when he graduated into employment later.
Then I moved away from my family and a satisfying job to be with him. I tried postgrad, it fell through and his parents, who offered me hospitality for a stint while I saved money to move out with their son, turfed me out after inventing some agreement about me staying in study that never happened. As it turns out, they didn’t like me all that much anyway so I was baffled as to why they’d offer me a room in their house.
My ex flaked on moving out with me by ghosting my messages to him about rental listings and didn’t really stick up to his parents. They called him an ingrate for proposing moving out at 24 years old, and he kinda just took it and stayed under their roof. I’d call their behavior manipulative and much too regularly exercised on their child but what do I know.
I grew tired of the inequality. I was in debt and crying my way through work, wondering why my bf was acting distant and noncommittal. When I told him as much and left, he rattled off excuses to me that pretty much confirmed he had no understanding of the mental and financial strain I was under (not enough dates, I wasn’t getting along with his parents, I wasn’t fun, moving out was “scary” despite me doing it alone etc).
I got a FWB a month later to distract me from the loss. Sounds heartless but I was willing to try anything. My ex claimed we were on a break and slut shamed me on social media (this was roundly debunked by everyone except his parents and swiftly deleted). He harassed me into a second chance, damn my caring ass for listening to him instead of cutting him out.
Because in his version of reality I cheated, he was paranoid as hell. He’d have issues with me mentioning men—difficult as I work in IT—and if I was out he’d ask for selfies or demand that I shoehorn him into whatever conversation I’m having. I made the mistake of being secretive to dodge the ridiculousness, which caused arguments, but I got better at communicating over time. After 6 months of seeming progress, he ghosted me for 3 days while he was out partying and dumped me with no explanation when he finally answered his phone. He was conveniently dating someone else 4 days later after blocking me and our mutual friends on social media just before he left, almost as if to cover his tracks.
I was in a bad place and minutes from killing myself on what would have been our 4th anniversary. After a good samaritan had a smoke with me and sent me home I was forced into some sort of Sith’s epiphany where hate would motivate me because love clearly failed. It worked pretty well through the really painful months.
7 months on I’m in a happy relationship now and earning twice what my ex does after making strides at work. His formerly goody-two-shoes ass takes class A’s multiple times a week and his gf broke up with him recently. No matter how much vindication, how much “better at life” I do than him, I hate him so much and anything that brings him joy; it’s on my mind every day! Unfortunately, the Empire doesn’t exist and I’m not a supervillain so having a nemesis does me more harm than good. I am segregated from my ex bar the odd word from the grapevine and eye contact in public once or twice. I don’t “fuel the fire” in any palpable ways like stalking his social media or friends. I’m by all means dealing with it quite responsibly. What else can I do to help myself, it feels like an oddly long time for this to be affecting me so strongly still?
Peace and love,
Change The Record
Here’s my question for you, CTR: what, exactly, does this hate do for you? What benefits are you getting from holding on to this?
I ask because anger is something that has to be maintained; it just takes too much from us in the long run and it tends to burn out on its own. Unless, of course, you go out of your way to feed it.
It’s understandable why you might want to feed that fire for a while. Anger and spite can be great motivating forces at first, but only for so long. Past a certain point, anger becomes destructive and malignant. Anger needs to be sustained, and it will almost always require more and more to keep that going. The same things you use to fuel the anger at first will no longer feed the fire as well or as efficiently. As a result, either you go looking for other reasons to be angry at them, or turn that anger on other folks who often have nothing to do with the source of your anger in the first place. This is how you can go from “my ex was a shitty boyfriend and my relationship with him put me in a very bad place” to “Look at that asshole, breathing air like he’s got a right to it. How dare he continue to exist and eat crackers like that? And fuck his girlfriend too, keeping him from being miserable like he should be.”
So what does being angry at him get you? You had a shitty experience with him and found yourself on a profound downward spiral because of your relationship, but all that’s over. He’s no longer part of your life, even tangentially. You’ve pulled out of the bad place you found yourself in, and you haven’t just bounced back but made significant strides towards an awesome new life. Seems to me like that initial anger has served its purpose and now all it’s doing is festering and rotting inside you.
And let’s be honest: you are fueling the fire. You may not be stalking his social media, but you clearly have been keeping tabs enough to know what misadventures he’s been up to. The idea that things may make him happy keeps you up at night. That isn’t healthy for you and honestly, it’s just letting the ghosts of your past steal your happiness from the now.
None of this is to say that he didn’t do things that warranted your being mad at him; he was clearly an asshole. But carrying on that much of a grudge this far down the line? That’s bordering on “staying angry for the sake of staying angry,” especially since he’s not in your life anymore. That’s never going to be great for you or your mental and emotional health.
There are two things that I would suggest. The first is to forgive. If you can bring yourself to forgive him for his flagrant assholery then cool, do that. But you need to forgive yourself too—for choosing to date him, for choosing to go back, for the cheating on him. Forgiving yourself may be part of what empowers you to let go of this and move forward.
The other thing is simple: consign him to the memory hole. You two are long broken up and haven’t lived together in months, but he’s still living rent free in your head. You need to realize that your anger does nothing. It doesn’t affect him in the slightest, nor does it bring you any benefit. All it does is burn, and it’ll burn you from the inside out just as easily.
If he was as bad as all that, then he doesn’t deserve your anger, he deserves your indifference. You may be broken up, but he’s clearly still incredibly important to your life. The worst thing you can do to him isn’t to psychically spit venom at him, it’s to never think of him at all.
So let that anger go; it is no longer worth spending any of your precious mental bandwidth thinking about him, nor using any of your cells to store the memory of him. Allow the fires of your fury to bank down to coals and to finally burn out before tossing out the ashes of every memory you made with him with the garbage. Let him be unimportant and insignificant, a footnote in your history. He’s simply not worth the effort it takes to remember him, let alone be angry at him.
With the fires of your past mistakes finally gone, you’ll have the chance to see the possibilities of a greater future.
Did you go through a difficult break up? Did you find love after your divorce? 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 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.