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Hello you terrible skinsacks of the noosphere, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the dating advice column that charges into your love problems like 30-50 feral hogs.

This week we’re tackling communication problems and how to not create new problems while trying to solve existing ones. How do you help your partner when their depression has them locked in a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle? What’s the best way to tell your partner that you get anxious when they go radio silent on you? And when is the best time to ask somebody out?

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It’s time to move the kids aside and let the hogs go through. Let’s do this.

Hey there Doc,

I’m a long-time reader and first time writer. In reading many of your previous articles, I’ve noticed that your advice often made sense and was helpful in ways I handle relationships in general. Now that I’ve run into an issue that I haven’t been able to resolve with my wife, I’m hoping you can shed some light that shows me another way to tackle things.

I’ll try to keep this concise, but to give you a sense of the situation, there’s a lot of ground to cover.

Alright, enough lollygagging. Here we go.

My wife “V” and I met online about 6 years ago and married 5 years ago. Since then we’ve had a daughter and bought a house, with plans for two more kids. Now we’re both just shy of 30. She’s currently taking classes to further her career while working, and I’m taking overtime to pay the bills till those classes are complete in about a year.

For the majority of our relationship, things have been fantastic. Instead of fighting or trying to “win,” we talk about things until there’s a resolution and both parties at the least understand the other. It’s worked well enough that even on big issue differences in belief (I’m generally ambivalent about religion while she holds the Bible to be true), we can at the least respect the other’s beliefs and continue working happily. We had sex often enough we were both satisfied and took at least a day out of the week for us to be sure we’re both on the same page. She’s always had a problem with anxiety, which I tried to help her address as best I could. There’s been downs of course, but mostly ups.

Roughly 2 years ago, when our daughter was born, one of my wife’s long time friends, “T,” grew toxic. They had known each other for years before I entered the picture and had supported each other through hard times. Short of it is, T began comparing her baby to ours in negative ways, treating things as a contest and giving us unwanted advice, even after my wife politely told her we didn’t appreciate that and were doing things our way with our family. I didn’t take it the same way, since I thought T had useful advice despite her way of doing things. Eventually, things escalated between the two of them until it resulted in a nasty falling out on Facebook with my mother-in-law and sister-in-law also getting in on things, continuing with texts into the night.

During this, I was friends with T’s husband, H. He and I were both shocked and dismayed at not only how things ended, but also the things our wives said to each other. Not too long later, mostly unrelated as it was in the works before all this, V and I moved to be closer to family and work. I thought we left the toxicity behind and could take time to heal from what happened. I still kept in touch with H for our weekly online D&D stuff and didn’t bring up our daughter in respect of V’s feelings, nor did he and I broach subjects relating to them to be safe. I adopted the policy of only speaking to T as necessary, which isn’t difficult as we hadn’t been particularly close anyway.

A couple weeks in, V demands I stop speaking with T and H, as V worries that they’ll get info out of me about our daughter. This leads to the closest we’ve come to a fight, as I once had an ex who tried controlling me in a similar way and it left me shell shocked that V would ever do that. I ask for a couple days and we broach the subject later. When we do talk, I told V I understand where she’s coming from. I make clear I won’t speak with T but will continue speaking with H, as he’s my friend, and I request V go into counseling about what happened. She reluctantly agreed and will begin that soon.

All of this stress during the first year of having and raising a new child from a trusted friend didn’t do much for her mental health.

During all that, life took a look at what V was going through and decided to throw in some extra stuff. There’s been a lot of stress and hardship clubbing her in a way where before she can recover from the last hit, she’s hit again. Minor car accident which led to neck pain, rejected job offers, baby health and house issues, inhaler for coughing, etc. V’s way of coping with these things has mostly been shutting down. She’s hardly ever active. When she is she tires easily, she relies on unhealthy coping mechanisms like chocolate cake, etc. She’s gained a lot of weight post giving birth, and her health seems to be at a stand still. She sees how much she’s gained and that hits her self image. It’s become a vicious circle where the cycle feeds itself.

Her family and I have been very worried about her. Since then, she hasn’t done much in the way of making friends. I’ve stepped up what I do to make things less of a burden so she does less around the house. As I do more, she shrinks to doing less while still viewing everything with the same level of exhaustion as before. With extra chores, mostly soloing parenting, overtime, finances, etc, my biggest worry is still V. I can handle a lot of stress, and have for about two years, but I know it’s not healthy for either of us for this to continue indefinitely.

V and I recognize that she’s depressed. I’ve had it for most of my life too but found healthy ways to deal with it. V is seeking further counseling, with me to come as needed. My concern is, even before her depression, she seems to have given up on being healthier and saying she can’t do more.

So here’s where my questions come in, Doc. How can I convince my wife that she needs to work on not just her mental issues, but her physical too? Are there healthy ways to increase her energy levels beyond where they are now? Is there any coping mechanisms she can adopt to turn those mountains into anthills? Any ways of helping her take care of herself? Or do I need to accept that this is her new normal and adjust my expectations accordingly?

I’ve already been swimming in stress for a couple years and am lucky enough that I’ve been able to handle it with a true smile till now. I love my wife and despite this rough patch, I have no plans on leaving. It’s more being weary that the road I thought would end around the corner is actually another highway I must walk before things get better.

Cheers,

Walking In Sunshine On Rough Gravel

Here’s the thing about depression: it’s not just a case of having “the blues.” Depression drains the energy out of you. You lose the motivation to do just about anything, including the things you love or that would otherwise make you feel better. Your get up and go got up and went, and the only thing you really can think to do is go back to sleep because, well, because. Everything feels pointless and it’s all bullshit anyway so why bother with… well, anything?

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Meanwhile, you reach for any quick and easy dopamine hit you can find to get you through the long hours. And while occasionally masturbation will do the trick (for a little while, anyway), food—especially comfort food—does it faster and more reliably. Carbs, sugar and fat all make the right portions of your brain light up like the Vegas strip, so it’s easier to just mainline some chips than it is to do yoga.

Of course, the dopamine hit from snacks and the lack of energy to do much of anything tends to result in weight gain. Which, in turn, reinforces your depression because now you’re not just depressed, you’ve also got all the bullshit social messaging that tells you that you’re a worthless piece of shit for getting fat, so that puts an extra whammy on your head.

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What makes this especially bad is that you know, intellectually, that you can break this cycle. You know exactly what you need to do. But again: depression saps your energy and your motivation, so you don’t actually do it. You just sit there feeling like shit because you can’t bring yourself to do the things you know you need to do, which then feeds right back into the whole cycle.

The seeming immensity of it all makes it feel impossible. You feel like you can’t possibly do enough to make a crack in the wall of Things As What Are Wrong; you’re too small, too weak, too far behind. If you had tackled it earlier then maybe you could have done something, but now…

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But that’s all bullshit. That’s the depression talking and depression lies. Worse, it lies to you in your own voice, dripping poison in your ear that seems all the more real because it hits all of your fears and anxieties. Part of what can help break the cycle is simply doing one thing, one small thing that proves you’re actually in control of your life and that you can actually make a change. It may be something almost absurdly small, but even something as minor as “get up, take a shower, clean a room” or “walk around the block” can be the micro-revolution that reminds you that you’re not as helpless as you feel.

But taking that first step can be a doozy. That’s where you come in, WISORG.

Getting to therapy is a good start. Antidepressants can also help, but they can take time to take effect, and finding the right dose or the right medication is more art than science. But there are other things that your wife can do that will support her recovery—with your help, that is.

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She may not have the energy or motivation to do anything, but you do. So you may need to be the one to say “Hey, let’s take a short walk after dinner” and go walk for a little while. It doesn’t have to be very long — even ten minutes will do — but just getting your wife to get up and moving can make a difference. Exercise isn’t as quick and easy as cake, but we’re built for movement, and moving around gives us the dopamine hit that our brains want. Plus, you’re encouraging your wife to do something that’s unquestionably good for her, which can be huge. Just as indulging in comfort food can reinforce the depression loop, the simple act of doing something good for yourself can help set up its own feedback loop. You’re doing something positive for yourself, and you’d only do that if you were worth doing good things for, therefore you must be doing better.

When you bring it up, just frame it as “Let’s go for a walk and get some fresh air. Just to get out of the house for a minute.” Don’t make it about breaking her out of the feedback loop or about being healthy, just a little break in the usual pattern. It can be easier to get someone to go along with it if you’re not making it about her health or her depression. Framing it as just “Let’s go do this thing together” bypasses the “Why bother, there’s no point” barrier depression throws up at everything. Over time, it becomes Just Something You Do, which helps it become self-sustaining. And while walking doesn’t seem like much, it’s still exercise. The movement gets the blood flowing, oxygen levels up and increases dopamine production. It’ll improve her health and provide a much-needed boost to her mood. Plus, it helps burn calories and can contribute to weight loss, which could help her feel better about herself.

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The same thing applies to food or other positive changes. If you’re doing the grocery shopping, cooking or meal planning, it’s easier to just add healthier options in “for something different” than it is to make it about “hey, let’s eat healthier” and skip around the ways that Depression Brain can sabotage positive changes.

Even a simple “let’s clean this room” can make a difference. One room, even just a bathroom, is less intimidating than trying to clean the entire house. It’s lower investment and takes less time and energy, but it can still make a difference. Yeah, things still suck, but y’all got THIS room cleaned, and damned if that’s not something you can point to as an improvement.

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These little micro-revolutions may seem insignificant, but they’re the beginnings of bigger changes. It’s easier to turn going for a brief walk into a habit, then slowly going for longer ones, than it is for your wife to try to motivate herself to get up and go jogging or hit the gym. It’s easier to slowly add healthier meals and snack options than it is to try to start dieting. And it’s easier to make going to a therapist part of the routine when she has you helping to pick up the slack.

Each of those may be a pebble, but throw enough pebbles down a hill and soon you have a landslide.

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But at the same time, it won’t do you any good to burn yourself out in the process. It can be hard when a loved one is dealing with depression, especially when you’re having to make up the difference in household responsibilities. Caregiver fatigue and caregiver burnout are very real things. If you can afford it or find some way to swing it, then finding a way to temporarily outsource some of those chores could be huge for both of you. Since you moved to be closer to family, maybe they can help with the childcare. Maybe you can afford to have a cleaning service come every couple of weeks to keep the house manageable.

Again, even small changes, if at all possible, can make all the difference. The less you have pressing down on you immediately, the more time and energy your wife will have to work on her recovery, and the better able you’ll be to support her.

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I’m not gonna lie: beating depression is a motherfucker. It’s hard, and some versions never fully go away. But it can be managed, it can be controlled and you can wrestle it into submission. It can seem daunting. It can even seem impossible. But little changes and little improvements can make all the difference.

It just takes that first step. You can help her take it.

You’ve got this.

All will be well.

Dear Dr. NerdLove:

I’ve been dating a doctor for almost half a year now, and things have been getting more serious. I think we’re really good together—we’re good at communication and understanding each other, we have similar values but accept the differences, we just seem to click with each other, and she’s too sweet.

But as things have gotten more serious I’ve found that I get increasingly anxious. Her job requires her to be largely inaccessible most of the week. She typically works 15-16 hour days, and I try to be nothing but supportive. I make sure I’m not being over bearing (a message or two per day, if at all, seems to be what she can afford so I stay with her pace).

Recently she went on a business trip where she really couldn’t contact me much, which is fine, I understand. It was nearly 3 weeks and I felt my anxiety growing. Not a fear that something would happen, but just a general anxiety I can’t explain. Basically I think it’s me selfishly wanting more attention if I had to detail it. I feel distant from her and it’s lonely.

While we’ve always been very communicative, I find it really difficult to bring this up without sounding like a selfish wanker. Here I am working 9-5 at an easy job while she is exhausting herself every day, and I want to ask her for more.

What would I want ideally? I would want her to reach out to me more proactively and share so that I feel like I’m someone she thinks about, someone she cares about. When we can meet, she’s amazing. She appreciates me, and I feel loved. I’m incredibly lucky. It’s just when we’re apart for extended durations that I feel like I don’t even exist to the most important person. It’s a bad feeling that pervades for weeks at a time and it’s hard for me to deal with.

(For context I grew up in a very close and loving family, and she grew up in a colder, more distant family.)

Can I say anything? Should I say anything? How can I work on myself to not feel this way?

Blessed, But Still Wanting More

Here’s the issue, BBSWM: you’re looking at this the wrong way. You’re not being selfish; you and she have slightly different communication patterns. You like being more in touch; she has an easier time disconnecting or going radio silent.

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Granted, complete radio silence for three weeks is… well, honestly, that’s the sort of thing that could have a lot of folks climbing the walls. It’s understandable that you were having a hard time gritting your teeth and getting through it.

But you two have been together for six months now. You should be at a point where you feel comfortable advocating for your own needs. If more communication—not constant, just more—is what you need, then that’s something you should bring up to her, not me.

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So all the things you just said in your letter to me? Tell her that. Specifically this bit:

Recently she went on a business trip where she really couldn’t contact me much, which is fine, I understand. It was nearly 3 weeks and I felt my anxiety growing. Not a fear that something would happen, but just a general anxiety I can’t explain. Basically I think it’s me selfishly wanting more attention if I had to detail it. I feel distant from her and it’s lonely.

[...]

What would I want ideally? I would want her to reach out to me more proactively and share so that I feel like I’m someone she thinks about, someone she cares about. When we can meet, she’s amazing. She appreciates me, and I feel loved. I’m incredibly lucky. It’s just when we’re apart for extended durations that I feel like I don’t even exist to the most important person. It’s a bad feeling that pervades for weeks at a time and it’s hard for me to deal with.

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This is a great example of how to have an Awkward Conversation. You start with why you feel a little awkward bringing it up: She works doctors’ hours, you feel like you’re being selfish even asking.

Next, you tell her what you feel is lacking or causing an issue and why it’s a problem. In this case, those times when she’s incommunicado for so long and the anxiety it provokes.

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Now you explain what, in an ideal world, you feel would make things better. In this case, a little more communication. Why? Because it’d make you feel appreciated and loved, even when she’s not around.

Then it’s her turn to talk and for the two of you to figure out an acceptable compromise. In cases when she’s going to be gone for a while, would an email work? A quick “thinking of you” text when she has the time, the signal and/or room on the data plan?

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Assuming you’re ok with a quick check in and not, y’know, being in contact 24/7/52, this should be a fairly easy issue to resolve.

But you’re gonna tell your awesome doctor girlfriend, not some loudmouth with an advice column.

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Good luck.

Hi Doc,

First I just want to say thank you so much for doing what you do. I have been visiting this site for a few years and your advice, along with some good counseling, has greatly helped me improve my self-esteem and relationships.

The question I have for you is related to the initial stages of dating. I have been stepping away from dating apps in favor of trying to meet potential dates in person through life. Which might sound futile nowadays haha. One benefit of dating apps is that it upfront implies that both people are looking for something along the lines of a romantic relationship. This is of course much more nebulous when randomly meeting people in life.

When I meet a woman in person that I’m attracted to, I’ll put in genuine effort to get to know them, banter, and flirt. Then I feel like I’m faced with a choice. Do I toss out any attraction I have for them and become content with adding another cool friend to my life? Or do I put my feelings on the table, ask them out, and risk completely losing contact with them? Maybe I’m going about things the wrong way, but from my experience, if the latter option leads to rejection, there’s usually no way to salvage the relationship. Things just get kind of awkward and any hopes of turning things around into a friendship fizzles out. To be clear, people who know me would not describe me as a toxic, disrespectful person. Maybe more kind and introverted. Which I know probably sounds like B.S. coming from an anonymous person on the internet haha.

Is it normal for things to go this way? Is this the choice we make when we’re attracted to someone? What’s a good rule of thumb for determining when to ask someone out? I feel like I’ve hit a roadblock because of these questions. I would like to know if I’m the problem and need to re-calibrate myself, or if my expectations are skewed.

Hobson’s Choice

You’re overthinking this, my dude. It’s not a case of either/or, really. You can ask someone out on a date and maintain a friendship with them-—assuming there was a friendship there in the first place to maintain.

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A lot is going to depend on the context of the situation, something you unfortunately didn’t give much of. When you say that you meet someone you’re attracted to, are you talking about making cold approaches to strangers or people you already have a social connection to, like coworkers or classmates?

If it’s the former, odds are that you haven’t formed so tight a connection that you’re at risk of losing a good friend. If it’s the latter, then it all depends on how you’re going about asking them on a date and how you’re handling rejection.

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I’d really need to know more about just what’s going on that those relationships fizzle out. From the limited information you’ve given me, it sounds like things get awkward. Which, hey, sometimes that happens. But it’s not clear why they’re awkward. It could be that you’re acting a little weird around them and giving them the impression that you’re trying to implement the Platonic Best Friend Back Door Gambit rather than being an actual friend. Or it could be that the way you asked them out is sending a similar message, especially if you spent a lot of time building up to things before you asked them out on a date.

But as a general rule of thumb, the way that you ask someone out on a date without blowing all chances of a platonic friendship should they say “no” is fairly simple.

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First, you want to be clear about just what it is you want. Part of what messes people up is that they’re afraid of putting themselves out there and asking for a date. They try to ride the ambiguity wave, creating a quantum situation where they are both asking and not asking somebody out on a date and only afterwards does the waveform collapse into Date or Not Date.

If you’re asking someone to “hang out some time” or “get together,” then odds are they are unsure or don’t know that you’re asking them out on an actual, honest-to-Zod date. That ambiguity makes people uncomfortable because, well, what the fuck is it? If it’s not a date and they’re into you, then you’re sending them the signal that you’re not interested. And if it is a date, but they’re not into you, then it feels like they’ve been tricked into something they don’t want to do.

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So make it clear that this isn’t just a platonic hang. You’re asking them on a date, with an eye towards a romantic and/or sexual relationship.

Second: he who hesitates, loses. Just as it’s better to be clear up front about what you’re looking for, you also don’t want to fart around waiting for the stars to align and the portents to be right.

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If, for example, you’re acting like a friend for weeks and then turn around and ask someone on a date, then they’re likely to be confused. Up until just then, you weren’t really giving them any reason to believe you saw them as something other than a platonic friend. That’s not just a hard shift to make; that can make a lot of folks question whether you were actually their friend in the first place or if this was just a long con to get into their pants.

Alternately, if you’re refusing to ask them out until you’re 110% sure they’ll say yes, you’re going to be waiting for a damn long time. Meanwhile, not only are they more likely to assume that you’re not interested or have a reason that you won’t ask them, but the longer that you wait, the greater the odds are that someone else won’t hesitate. And since folks can’t really go on a date with someone who never asked them, other guy gets the date.

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Asking early on may feel riskier, but it cuts down on a lot of bullshit and has the added benefit of getting you an answer sooner, so you aren’t wasting time pining for someone instead of moving on.

Third: learn to take rejection well. The right response to being turned down is “Ok, cool.” Part of what makes things awkward after being turned down is that everyone’s unsure about what’s going to happen next. Are you gonna get weird about it? Will things be awkward now? Where do we go from here?

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Here’s a secret: The people who turn you down are going to be looking to you for cues about what happens next. So you need to lead by example and show them. If you don’t make it weird, it won’t be weird. This doesn’t mean that you need to act like you aren’t disappointed or would’ve preferred a different answer. You’re not a robot. What you want to convey is that yeah, it sucks that they’re not into you the way you’d like, but it’s not that big of a deal.

If you show that it’s not a big deal that you asked and that they said no, then they’ll respond in kind. You’re doing them a favor: As with being direct, by acting like it’s no biggie and nothing has to change, you’re getting rid of that uncomfortable ambiguity. There’s none of that gut-churning “So… what now?” because you’ve shown that you’re cool, they’re cool and there’s nothing to be concerned about.

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The key to all of this is not to get lost in your own head trying to plan things out or trying to account for every contingency. Love ain’t brains, it’s blood screaming to work its will. It only feels more complicated because it feels more consequential than it actually is. But by not overthinking things or trying to weigh every potential outcome like Indy trying to swap out the idol for a bag of sand, it becomes much simpler and far less stressful.

Good luck.


Did you have to help a loved one through depression? Have you had to ask for more from your relationship? Share your story in the comments below and we’ll be back with more of your questions in two weeks.

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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 doc@doctornerdlove.com and put “Kotaku” in the subject line.

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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.

He can be found dispensing snark and advice on Facebook and on Twitter at @DrNerdLove.