Hello, all you concupiscent piranhas of the Interwebs, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only dating advice column that gives you extra lives for the game of love.
This week, we’re trouble-shooting your relationship woes and helping you blow past the Battletoads rocket sled stage of love. When is it appropriate to vent to your buddies about your relationship troubles? How do you handle jealousy when the guy you’re jealous of is dead? And what do you do when your best friend stops being able to respect your beliefs?
It’s time to gird your loins and insert coins. Let’s do this.
Dear Dr. NerdLove,
I have been a fan for a good while now and I hope you can help me out in the situation I’ve been in for a while.
I am 18 years old, and I mention that because I am not a wise person or a person with a lot of experience with dating. I have been with a girl, let’s call her Ellie (my girlfriend’s favorite video game character), for a year and 3 months. She is everything I need in a relationship. She is funny, low maintenance, attractive (super attractive in my eyes) and just a good person all around to me.
Now this wouldn’t be much of an entry if I didn’t introduce the situation. Over the course of our relationship, she has claimed 2 things:
1) she has never, EVER, once vented about our relationship and at some points has gotten upset with me over venting about our relationship and said I was “talking shit” (she says instead of venting she journals it) .
2) Over the course of our relationship has never ever even thought of leaving or being with someone else, even during our really rough patches.
I have admitted to wanting to leave but I have never wanted to leave her for someone else. I believe she is lying about not venting at all and never once having a single thought, not even for a second, of leaving.
Am I a bad person for venting about my relationship to other people? I’m not being mean about it or saying like “she’s a total bitch.” I genuinely will vent to people about a fight we will have and see how the other person sees the fight.
Am I a bad person for being the only one in the relationship who has had the thought of leaving during a particularly rough patch? Is my resolve less than hers? Does that mean I love her less than she loves me? I love her more than anything and your input would help me become a better partner I believe. So please let me know!
Guilty as charged
So I’ve got good news and bad news, GaC. The good news is that your biggest problem here is that you’re both really young.
The bad news is that you’re both really young.
These are the sorts of conflicts you have when you’re young and inexperienced, when you have a host of unrealistic and idealized impressions about what a relationship is and what it takes to make one work.
Let’s start with the idea that talking to your friends about your frustrations is somehow out of bounds. This is, as we say in the dating advice biz, completely bonkers. Confiding in your friends isn’t just normal, it’s a good thing. It’s good for you as a person, it’s good for your friendship with your bros and it’s good for your relationship over all. One of the biggest sources of stress in a relationship occurs when your partner is your only source of socialization and emotional support. While “I’m dating my best friend” is practically a cliche when we talk about relationships, it’s incredibly common for people’s partners to be their only friend. Our boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands and wives end up becoming all things to us: partner, lover, best friend, confessor and social support network. That’s an absurd amount of pressure to put on one person.
It also turns your relationship into a single point of failure.
It’s difficult to talk to your best friend about the frustration you’re having with your girlfriend when your best friend IS the person you’re having problems with. While yes, you want to be able to talk with your partner about any issues you have, sometimes what you need is to vent to a sympathetic ear. Not every problem or conflict in a relationship needs to be processed; sometimes you just need someone who’s willing to listen and tell you “yeah, that sucks, buddy.”
That can’t always be your partner.
Frankly, most people aren’t so good at compartmentalizing that they can listen to somebody talk about how frustrated they are with them without feeling hurt and getting upset. That, needless to say, makes it very difficult to vent about what may be bothering you.
While journaling may be enough for your girlfriend (SPOILER ALERT: it isn’t), sometimes what you need is somebody with an outsider’s perspective. When you’re too close to the source, it can be hard to see things clearly. Somebody who’s not directly involved can give you the validation you need, the reassurance you’re craving or the insight to realize that you’re coming at things from the wrong angle.
A friend can be the reassuring hand or the dope-slap upside the back of your head. Those are things you can’t necessarily get from writing things out.
Your second dilemma is, likewise, a case of being young and inexperienced. One of the things that people rarely understand until after they’ve had a couple relationships under their belt is that you’re going to have fights. No matter how much you two may love each other, no matter how compatible you are or in sync you are…you’re still two individuals. That means that eventually there’s going to be conflict.
Sometimes those conflicts and frustrations can make you wonder “do I even WANT to be in a relationship right now?” That doesn’t mean you don’t love your girlfriend or that your relationship is over—it just means that you’re frustrated and upset. It could be a sign that you have deeper issues, or it could just mean that your honeybunny has been dancing on your last nerve and you need a little time to simmer down.
Part of growing up and grinding out those experience points is learning the difference. You’ll figure out when the answer is to go for a walk or get a little space and when it’s time to start seriously considering your exit strategy. If it’s an occasional issue, then it’s the sort of thing that can usually be resolved with clear, open and empathetic communication. If it’s consistent and persistent, then it may be time to ask yourself whether this relationship has come to its natural conclusion.
That having been said: telling your girlfriend that you think this way on occasion was a stupid idea, my dude. Relationships ain’t depositions; you don’t need to share every random thought that trips through your brain, and you’re allowed to keep things to yourself. Telling your girlfriend “yeah, I think about leaving you sometimes” is unnecessarily hurtful. All it does is chuck an emotional molotov into your relationship. It doesn’t help you resolve conflict except in the sense of “well now I have a new problem to worry about.”
But y’know, sometimes you gotta touch the stove to learn that it’s hot.
What you need to do now is have an Awkward Conversation with your girlfriend where you tell her that while journaling may be the only outlet she needs, your friends are an important source of comfort and support for you. It’s not “talking shit” to talk with them about how you feel or things that may be bothering or frustrating you. It’s an important outlet for you and your feelings, and in the long run it makes your relationship that much stronger.
(And, incidentally don’t accuse her of lying about never venting to others. Whether she’s lying or telling you God’s honest truth is irrelevant. Whether she does or doesn’t has no bearing on you, your needs and your relationship with your friends.)
If your girlfriend treats your talking to your friends about your relationship—even, gasp, shock, horror, admitting that it may not always be days of wine and roses—as a betrayal? Then it may be time to consider that you two have drastically different social needs and chalk this up as an insurmountable incompatibility.
Hey Doctor NerdLove,
Longtime listener, first-time caller—I’ve been reading since about 2014, when your mention of asexuality in a column led to my realization that it existed and described me to a tee, so belated thanks for that. That’s not the matter at hand, though.
One of the most important people in my life is my best friend who’s really more like my sister. We met in high school, and have stayed in contact ever since, even when I moved across the country for college. We’ve helped each other through some incredibly hard times, we’ve never stopped being there for each other despite the distance—hell, we even semi-seriously planned to get platonically married if it made things more convenient financially in the future. She’s quite literally saved my life more than once.
Now, as a result of everything we’ve been through, both of us wound up returning to the religions we were raised in despite both being atheists in the past. For her, it was Catholicism, and for me, it was paganism. We had those realizations around the same time, and for a long time after it was still fine and dandy—we still had the amicable philosophical conversations we’d had for years, I wasn’t the only pagan she knew, the last time I visited she even brought her tarot cards. But then recently, when she was texting me about the package she was sending for my birthday, she casually asked if I wanted one of her books because “it’s about witchcraft and that’s evil, but I know you’re into that stuff.”
Needless to say, this was completely out of the blue, and I asked her what had changed her mind. She said it was the Bible, and her “relationship with the Father has been growing,” and started going on with dogma that I’d never heard from her before about “the only true path is through God and his son Jesus.” This was so out of character that I straight-up asked her if she had been taken by a cult, if they were monitoring her phone, but she linked me to the page where she always posts her writing and the really Christian stuff on there went back at least a few months, during which we’d talked and everything had seemed perfectly normal. I tried to reason with her, but she just kept on repeating stuff about being “saved” and “seeing the truth.” When I finally asked her what that meant for our friendship since I’m not Christian, she said that she hoped I’d “see the light” and stop being “deceived by Satan” but that ultimately she would prioritize God over any person.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for spiritual growth, no matter what path one takes to get there, and I’m glad she has this source of significance in her life, but I have no idea how to navigate the fact that she’s now apparently swallowed her faith’s conflict with mine hook, line, and sinker. I desperately want to believe that this is just a passing phase and she’ll go back to being more tolerant and less evangelical with time, but even then I don’t know what I’d do between now and then. I want so badly to keep her in my life, maybe even move in together depending on how the end of my current housing situation shakes out, but I can’t help but feel uneasy hearing the same lines about salvation from her that I got from the Mormons I grew up around who would have called CPS on my parents for not raising me Christian if they’d known. Do I try to gradually talk her back to sanity? Do I just wait for her to come around? Or do I cut off one of the closest friends and most important people in my life for outright saying that my religion is evil? I’m lost.
Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don’t
The key to dealing with conflicting religious beliefs between friends is respect, DIDDID. You don’t need to share their beliefs, but you should be able to treat them with a modicum of respect. If you’re friends with a Jew who keeps kosher or a Mormon who avoids stimulants and intoxicants, then you don’t order them a double bacon artery blaster with cheese or a large coffee. If your friend is an observant Muslim, working around their scheduled time for prayer is the polite and respectful thing to do.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t disagree about things, including doctrine or beliefs. I have very good friends who are devout Christians. We can discuss matters of doctrine or Biblical interpretation without getting heated because we keep it civil and don’t attack the other person for what they believe or don’t believe. I may take a dim view of organized religion in general and there’re a lot of flavors of Christianity that set my teeth on edge, but I’m not going to shit on someone who takes comfort from the Bible or who wants to follow Christ’s example of love, hope, peace, charity and acceptance. By that same token, I expect (and get) the same from them; my beliefs may be weird as hell to them, but they can at least respect that I have them.
You aren’t getting that from your friend. Those snide little remarks about being evil? That’s not good…and I’d be worried that this is the thin edge of the wedge. It’s pointlessly rude and does nothing but convey a sense of superiority and exclusion. It costs her nothing to not deliver her present with a side of “also this is wrong and you’re bad for doing it.” The fact that she couldn’t be bothered to do so is troubling.
I don’t think you’re wrong for being concerned, DIDDID. If she’s decided that God comes before anyone else, then it’s not unreasonable to worry that she might decide that your getting saved is going to be a condition for your staying friends.
What do you do about it? Well, you can set some boundaries. You can tell her straight up: “If you want to talk to me, then you need to lay off with making these comments about my beliefs, my soul and my religion unless I specifically invite them.” If, for whatever reason, she decides that she simply can’t lay off the “you’re going to hell” shit…well, then you’re going to have to enforce that boundary and end that conversation. It doesn’t matter if it’s her fervent, sincere and deeply held belief. She can think whatever the hell she wants—fuck knows the running commentary going through my head during some church services I’ve attended has been less than complimentary—but keeping it to herself is quite literally the least she could do.
What you probably won’t be able to do is talk her out of it. You can’t reason someone into not believing something when reason wasn’t what got them there in the first place. Reason is, by definition, the opposite of faith.
You can point out the inherent contradictions in scripture, in doctrine or even in her actions versus the actions of Jesus, but that’s not going to help. Either she’ll have her own answers, or she’ll just dismiss the question entirely because you couldn’t possibly understand as a hellbound heathen. The odds are greater that she’ll just double-down on what she already believes.
What you can do is try to listen and understand where she’s coming from. Not because she’s right or has a point, but because any hope you have in persuading her is going to come from a place of empathy and commonalities. If you want to have any chance of shifting her position, then first she’s going to have to listen. If you can show that you’re listening and understanding, then you have opportunities to appeal to her emotion and affection for you. Telling her about the religious authorities of your childhood and how it affected you, for example, might engage her empathy and cause her to question things.
That is, of course, assuming that she’ll engage with you in good faith; she may well assume bad faith on your part as a matter of course.
Will this pass? Maybe. A lot will depend on whether she cuts off any dissenting voices and immerses herself any further within whatever her new faith is. If she stays in contact with you—at least, to do more than minister to you, anyway—then there’s hope.
But were I you? I’d reconsider living with her. I don’t think you need to drop her as a friend, but I think moving in with her is only going to be a source of stress and conflict for the both of you. If you want to give your friendship a chance to survive, it’s probably better not to set yourself up for a constant argument about the state of your soul.
I’m hoping to call upon your sage wisdom in order to navigate a hardship in my current relationship and my own state of mind.
My partner and I have been dating for over a year now and while we’ve had plenty of ups and downs in that time, she’s become one of my closest friends. She may not be the most directly affectionate person I’ve ever dated, but she always finds ways to show me that she really cares.
A little over a month ago, she lost one of her best friends after a two-year battle with cancer and has been taking it really hard. I’ve been doing whatever I can to support her, whether that’s hanging out with her kid so she can spend time with her friends, helping out with a fundraiser she’s been putting together in his honor, or just generally being around for whatever may come up.
I’m trying to be that rock for her, but I’d be lying if that hasn’t been weighing on me, especially considering the nature of their relationship. Over the years, they would hook up whenever they both were single and he became the “what-if” friend, the one who she always thought she would end up with somewhere down the line.
I feel like a complete tool, but knowing that triggers some fucked up jealousy in my head. There’s part of me that’s worried that I can’t measure up to how she felt towards him (I told her I loved her before all of this happened and she told me she wasn’t ready to say it back, but wanted to get there. We haven’t revisited it since.).
Watching her grieve and knowing there’s little I can do to concretely help has been so challenging without the added jealousy and the guilt that it brings. Whatever their romantic past may have been, he was still her best friend and was taken away far too young. I want to be there for her however I can, but sometimes it hurts a hell of a lot. Obviously this is not the time to bring this up to her, if there ever will be such a time, so I turn to you.
How do I deal with this irrational jealousy and still be the supportive partner she needs during one of the most painful losses of her life?
Jealous and Guilty
Under normal circumstances, I’d tell you that jealousy is often the “check engine” light of your relationship. Dealing with feelings of jealousy is often an indication that you have needs that aren’t being met or anxieties that need to be addressed and eased. I would say that you’d want to talk to your partner about how you’re feeling and ask for her help in trying to resolve things.
These are not normal circumstances, JAG. Her best friend died. She’s grieving not just the loss of her friend, but the loss of all the possible futures. There’s no future where she could tell him about the good times she’s having with you. There’s no future where he’d give a toast at her wedding or invite her to be in the wedding party at his. Their kids will never grow up to be friends.
That’s what she’s mourning right now. It’s not about whether she loved him or wanted him more than you, it’s that all of the days of happiness, sadness, anger, companionship and conflict that might have been will now never be. A part of her life is gone and it will never come back. Even without the will-they/won’t-they nature of their relationship, there’s a hole in her heart where her friend was, and nothing is going to ease that pain but time.
What she doesn’t need right now is you adding to that. There’s a time to ask your partner for some reassurance and help. This ain’t it.
Now that doesn’t mean that you aren’t allowed to have your feelings. The fact that you’re jealous may be irrational, but it’s understandable. But they’re also your responsibility to sort out, without her.
But that doesn’t mean you need to do it alone.
You know the stuff I was just saying to Guilty As Charged about the need to have friends that you can go to for support, even if that support is just for them to listen to you vent? That’s what you need right now. You need Team You, the folks who can give you the space to express your worries, give you a beer and help get your mind off things. Some good friends can help walk you back from the ledge, tell you that you’re being irrational and help you get the chance to recharge your emotional batteries, so that you can go back and be the person that your partner needs right now.
That distance and that chance to recharge may be exactly what you need to see things a little more clearly.
I mean, you’ve been dating for a year. Her best friend has been fighting cancer this entire time. She’s been staring down the barrel of this loss for the duration of your entire relationship. The odds are very high that she may not have had the emotional bandwidth to give you more than she has been. I would be willing to bet a not insignificant amount of money that she wasn’t ready to say “I love you” to you because she’s had this tragedy looming for the entire time she’s known you. Hell, she very well may have felt guilty about being happy in a new relationship while someone she’s known and loved for so long was so sick.
If you want to get to a place where she can say that she loves you, then she’s going to need your help during one of the worst times of her life. And I’m not gonna lie: it’ll take time. It’ll be hard. It will be unbelievably, unfairly, screaming-into-the-fucking-void hard for her. Losing someone that close to you fucks with your head and nobody can properly prepare you for the grief that comes with it. It takes a lot of strength to try to help someone through that, especially since there’s not a damn thing you can do to make the pain stop.
But like the man once said: you can’t carry their burden, but you can help carry them.
You’re doing the right thing by giving her the support she’s going to need to carry on and trying to take on whatever burdens you can. Don’t add to them with this. Find your team and enlist their help for you, so that you can be the help your partner needs.
Did your partner lose a loved one? Did you have religious conflicts with someone you were close to? 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 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 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.