Hello, all you little orgasm dermestid beetles, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only dating advice column to help you take your relationship out of early access.
This week, we’re talking about the moments in a person’s life that are the most incandescent, as we watch a good relationship go bad. How can you tell the difference between being trapped in an abusive relationship or being the abuser yourself? How do you break the cycle when you can’t seem to stop going back to your intensely toxic ex? What about when you find that you keep fantasizing about the one who broke your heart?
It’s time to squash some bugs and let your love life go gold.
Let’s do this.
Dear Dr. NerdLove,
I’ve been married for almost 20 years, and we’ve had our good and bad moments, but in the last 5-8 years things have been really bad. Right now it’s hard to see any good in our relationship, and I’m currently feeling very confused and lonely.
I recently read two of your posts. One on your blog about calling women “crazy” and another in your Kotaku “Ask Dr. NerdLove” column [the second letter, from “Tired and Afraid,” about leaving an abusive relationship].
I’m feeling torn between these two situations. My wife has gone through a couple of bouts of serious depression, and the biggest source of our current struggles is that I wasn’t able to save her from her depression. I did try many different ways to support her during this period, but also made plenty of mistakes. Today I feel like she still has some sort of underlying issues that she won’t get addressed, but I worry that I might be internally labeling my wife crazy by feeling this way, and, because of that label, inadvertently treating her in a way that is making her feel crazy. However, I also feel like her actions could be described as abusive including (but not limited to) the silent treatment (used for punishment, according to her, and lasting for days or weeks), shouting, throwing things, threatening to leave, and other emotionally manipulative actions.
Where is that borderline between labeling your significant other as “crazy” and being actually emotionally abusive?
As relationships enter bad times there are always hurt feelings on both sides, and both people feel hurt, lonely, and afraid, and they also behave in ways they might regret later. Additionally, if actual mood disorders are involved, this can be even harder, and it’s difficult to know how to support someone when you know that what they are feeling is linked to the disorder and may be a cry for help.
Any thoughts on how to see through this? A 20+ year relationship is a hard thing to consider leaving, especially when you still have strong feelings for that person.
Confused and Lonely
I can pinpoint your first issue before you even get to your letter, CaL: “I wasn’t able to save her from her depression.”
Blaming yourself for not being able to cure her depression is like blaming yourself for the fact that the Spurs almost always choke in the playoffs. It’s something you have absolutely no control over and blaming yourself for it just leaves you carrying guilt for something that’s not your fault.
Here’s a truth: You can’t love someone out of depression. You can’t cheer them out of it, you can’t carry them out of it and you can’t force them out of it. All you can do is support them as best you can...
Up to a point. And that point is when their issues are starting to hurt you.
Because here’s another truth: Having a mental illness isn’t an excuse for shitty behavior. And if she’s blaming you for not “saving” her? Then holy shit that’s bad.
Depression is a beast. It fucks with your head in the most insidious of ways because it lies to you in your own voice and hits you in all of your most vulnerable spots. It sucks your life away and makes you feel guilty for not having more to give. It may even put you in a headspace where you feel like you need to push people away because you don’t “deserve” to have people who love you in your life.
But the fact that someone’s hurting doesn’t excuse them from hurting others.
And this is where labels are important, and it’s vitally important to get it right. You are correct that referring to your wife as being crazy isn’t helpful and can be stigmatizing. However, your wife’s behavior isn’t crazy, it’s abusive, and that’s a critical difference.
The issue with calling women crazy is that you’re telling women that their real—and often well-deserved—feelings or emotions are irrational and wrong and they shouldn’t trust them. By labelling them as irrational or crazy, you’re saying that there’s no reason or logic to them and that the underlying causes aren’t real.
But what your wife is doing isn’t illogical or irrational, it’s cruel. It’s not as though her depression or any other underlying mood disorders have taken control of her body and now she’s acting without conscious control; she’s choosing to act like this. Her reasons for doing so may be twisted or distorted because of her depression, but she’s still making the choice to act out this way.
Throwing things, shouting, holding your relationship hostage by threatening to leave? Those aren’t hurt feelings or the inevitable fights that come in a long-term relationship. Those are classic signs of abuse, and it’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable from someone who’s mentally healthy, and it’s just as unacceptable from someone who’s suffering from depression, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder or any other mental health or mood disorder.
And frankly you don’t deserve any of it.
Your wife needs help; it sounds pretty clear that she still has issues that are lingering and making her miserable… but she is taking her misery out on you. And while it’s admirable to worry about her and want to help her, you can’t help her if you drown yourself in the process. There’s a reason why we tell people to put on their oxygen masks first before assisting others.
Your wife needs to see a therapist. You can’t force her to see one, and it doesn’t do you or your mental health any good to let her use you as her emotional punching bag. So while I don’t know if it’s necessarily time to divorce, I do think a separation is a good idea. You can make her seeing a therapist—and possibly couple’s therapy together—a condition of your coming back. But if she won’t go, doesn’t improve or doesn’t end the threats and abusive behavior? Then the best option for you is to use that couple’s therapist as a way of negotiating the end of your relationship.
It’s never a pleasant option, and I’m so sorry that you’re in this position. But unless she makes serious changes to the way she treats you—serious, lasting changes, not just a honeymoon period before starting the abusive patterns again—then you need to be willing to put yourself first and get the hell out of the firing line.
I am writing because I had a nearly 3 year relationship end a few months ago. Preface: My now ex-gf has a 7 year old son, and a severe history of substance abuse. She smoked a lot of weed and drank in high school. Then did a lot of cocaine in college on top of the weed and alcohol. Then quit the cocaine and stuck to weed and booze after college. She met me maybe 10 years after she quit cocaine. Soon after she met me, she quit drinking altogether and stuck to weed.
She was also a habitual liar. I would let the lies kind of slide off of me. I’ve had experience with people that lie a lot, and I know enough that when liars are confronted with the truth, they will do everything they can to avoid hearing that truth.
She was also a hypocrite and using me for money (as I now realize).
I now know I was the victim of severe emotional abuse. I could never understand what she was doing no matter how much I tried to wrap my head around things. I have never been so confused in my life. I was constantly trying to identify her behavior. One day I came across the term “gaslighting.” Of course it was on CNN being used by some talking head to describe Trump’s behavior. My eyes widened and I thought: “THAT’S IT! THAT IS WHAT SHE WAS DOING!”
I suppose I should give a few examples.
We met at work. She would go to pieces if a female coworker was within 5 ft of me. I would logically and practically explain that it was a work conversation, that I loved her and she had nothing to worry about. She would come to my desk raising her voice and swearing at me for all to hear, then have the nerve to blame me when people asked her if we were dating. She accused me of telling people etc., and I’d have to say “well, you were shouting about us at my desk in front of 30 people.” But I again, I said it’s ok, nothing to worry about, I love her, common sense and cooler heads would prevail. Oh, I should note, throughout our relationship, she broke up with me approximately 50 times (accurate number). I’d be sad and upset that she was doing these things, she’d accuse me of being suicidal. She’d say I smelled of alcohol at work (lens wipes for my glasses). Of course, sometime later, it became apparent that she was suicidal and an alcoholic. This became a thing. Every wild accusation she made against me would prove to pertain to her. One day, she asked me if I was going on Craigslist and having sex with random women. I said: “What? Of course not, I’ve never even been on Craigslist…” She said the reason for her thinking I was doing that, was because she’d read an article. Anyhow, she was constantly accusing me of cheating on her for no reason at all.
About 6 months ago, we broke up, finally. Despite how badly she treated me, I still tried to get her back to no avail. About two weeks later, she called me up, asked me to go to go to dinner with her and her son. I love the boy, he and I were very close. I replied and said I don’t know if that’s a good idea. I had bought him a book a week or so prior for his birthday, because I was helping him with his reading and writing. I was going to mail it. So after some thought I agree to go. I pull into the apartment complex and sit there, thinking, not going in. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Finally I say to hell with it, and go over to the pool where they were hanging out. We hung out, went to dinner, it was a lovely day. The next day, I get off work and fall asleep. Around 7 pm I woke up and saw a text from her just saying “hi.” I replied and apologized for missing the text etc. She sent me a barrage of texts saying she never wanted to see me again, I didn’t hold her hand the right way, she said goodbye forever etc. I was floored. For the entire day I was on cloud 9 thinking we’d finally gotten on the right path. I was wrong. Similar scenarios took place many times over the past 6 months. I’d try and get her back and fail. A few weeks later she’d call me up and we’d be fine for a day, then she’d invent something the next day and say she never wants to see me again etc.
This pattern of behavior really hurt me. As I said above, I’ve never been so confused in my life. This woman and her son were my family. She was my queen, and he was a prince. I took care of them in every way imaginable.
Back to the bit about how every wild accusation she ever made against inevitably proved to pertain to her.
So the tricky the about breaking up with a single mother is you can’t really stay friends. The boy’s father was already well out of the picture for good. She would say she wanted to be friends, and I’d say it’s not fair to the boy, I don’t want to confuse him. If she meets someone, I have to go. If I meet someone, I have to go. It’s best to have a clean break. I would think I’m done with the relationship, then I’d get a call from her 7 year old son asking me to come by, and I didn’t resist that. She would use her son to bring me back, then a day later guy me with some wild accusation. One day, I sent her a text saying we cannot be friends, we cannot do this. It’s not fair to her son etc. I immediately got a call from her saying she needed to see me. So like a good sucker, I went. We had another nice day. She explained to me she was broke, and she needed money, that her $400 a month car payment was killing her (later she would let slip that her car payment was actually $316, not $400…). I venmo’d her money, she gave me a kiss and a hug and said we were going to be ok, that she loved me etc.
Side note: Throughout our relationship, she was constantly having lunch dates with other men at the great job I got her; I ignored that. Of course if I had like 15 venmo transactions with women, she’d have lost her mind.
So I woke up in the morning and checked my venmo, and see a guy put a heart on a transaction she had with a friend at 1 am. Now I’m not big on social media, I don’t have a mind for it. But I went down the rabbit hole and searched the guy on facebook. Lo and behind, the first thing I see is a picture of this big cracked rock on the hiking trail she and I would frequent. I open that post and was calling her “his girlfriend.” I saw this in 45 seconds. I called her a few times, texted, no response. I stopped by the house after work, the door was locked, her car was there. I walked back to my car and the door opens, and lo and behold there he was. She was behind him, and saw me drive away.
My concern is thus: I can’t say no to her. Despite how emotionally disturbed, irrational and irresponsible I know her to be. If she calls I will not say no. If she calls, I’m worried I’ll fall for it and go through the same cycle.
I am in tremendous emotional pain. I’m in a very dark place. Everyone says I’m better off, and I know I’m better off without these troubles. But I feel responsible for them. I want to be there for them. But I can’t seem to find a way to take care of myself.
If she calls (and she probably will) what should I say? How do I reason with an unreasonable person?
Look man, I’m gonna be honest: I’m not entirely sure why you stuck with her when you realized she was a habitual and compulsive liar. But I also know how hard it is to leave an abusive relationship, and why it can be tempting to go back. While most abusers are a little less… volatile… about it, what she’s doing is known as “intermittent reinforcement.” What this means is that when you perform certain actions, you’re rewarded, but you’re never entirely sure when you’ll be rewarded. You see her, she treats you like a lover again and then the very next time you see or contact her, you’re the worst person in the world. Sometimes you’ll get the reward and things will be amazing, but most of the time, you won’t. This means that the times you do get rewarded feel amazing, so you try to stick around in hopes of getting rewarded again or that the rewards will come more often.
But they won’t.
This is the same process that slot machines and lootboxes use to keep you throwing good money after bad. The rare payouts never actually make up for the money you toss at them in hopes of getting a bigger jackpot. Your ex isn’t ever going to give you anything that could possibly make up for all the misery she’s put you through.
You know what you need to do, KN. You just don’t want to do it.
You need to execute the Nuclear Option and cut all ties. That means blocking her on literally every means she has of contacting you. Not muting her, not unfollowing or unfriending her, blocking her. That means blocking her on social media, blocking her number so she can’t call or text you, setting filters so her emails go straight to your trash and deleting her out of your contacts. And while you’re at it, tell everyone—your friends, your family, everyone who has access to you—that they’re not to pass messages on to her or tell her anything about you, what you’re up to, or where you’re hanging out. Shit, start preventing people from tagging you on Facebook or Instagram. As far as she is concerned, you don’t exist, and as far as you’re concerned, there’s going to be a very fuck-off large firewall between you and her.
Yeah, this can feel a little extreme, but you’ve said it yourself: You feel like you’re having to make a wisdom save with disadvantage every time you hear from her. So you’re going to bolster your willpower by making it that much harder for you to get in contact with her or for her to get in contact with you. Every extra step that you put between being able to reach her or for her to reach you makes it that much easier to resist her. And the more time you spend not in contact with her, the easier it is for you to remember that oh hey, she’s a lying hosebag whose idea of fun seems to be kicking your soul in the balls.
But that’s not the only step. You need to get the fuck into therapy. That deep dark emotional place you’re in right now? That’s the result of the scars you’re carrying because you’ve been abused by her. This was a deeply toxic, abusive relationship, and that’s going to take work to heal. This is the sort of shit that you don’t want to try to fix on your own; you want to talk to a professional, and preferably someone who specializes in helping survivors of abusive relationships. They’ll be able to help you work on understanding what happened, why it’s so hard for you to let go and why she was able to sink her hooks so deeply into you. And, just as importantly, they’ll help you learn how to heal those wounds, erase those scars and develop the skills you need to never go back to her again.
But there is no half-assing this, man. You want her out of your life, you have to give it the whole ass and excise her like the metaphorical cancer that she is. Carve out that part of your life and toss it into the fire where it belongs. And when the pain is less and you’re healing? Give her the worst thing you can give: your disdain and your apathy. Don’t waste another brain-cycle on her again. She’s in your past, and it’s time to leave your past behind, where it belongs.
You’ve got this, KN. You’ll be ok. I promise.
All will be well.
So I saw your column about being caught up/cheating with an ex and I need to air my situation haha.
So my ex broke up with me, broke my heart etc, whatever. But then for a year after she strung me along, using my love for her as a confidence boost when she needed compliments etc. The whole time she telling me about all the guys she was fucking, knowing I literally loved her to bits, worshipped the ground she walked on and she was messaging me from other guys’ beds at 1am telling me they’re both naked etc etc. Anyway.
It took a whole year to get over her, one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through, and now I’m in a happy relationship. I love my partner, live with her, but my ex pops into my head every now and then. It’s thoughts from just how cute I found her or her laugh or how good the sex was—it could be anything. I’m curious if you think this is normal—you know, just reliving memories—or if there’s anything in that?
Also just to confirm I’ve never cheated on any of my partners and haven’t ever considered it, but the thoughts of having sex with my ex whilst I’m in a relationship worry me.
First of all, DL, fantasizing about someone else while you’re in a relationship is perfectly normal. It doesn’t mean you’re hung up on somebody, that you’re not actually in love with your partner, that you’re about to cheat or anything else. It just means you’re a human with a sex drive.
Humans are novelty-seeking creatures, and we have an innate love of variety. Fantasizing about other people is just a way of fulfilling that desire without actually hurting—or even involving—anyone else. It’s both meaningless and harmless, a way of blowing off steam.
The fact that you still think about your ex—even fantasize about her—when she’s the evil Shitbird of Fuck Mountain that broke your heart? Also perfectly normal.
First of all, I want you to reread the bit I told Know Nothin’ about intermittent reinforcement. That applies to you too and why your ex can still draw you in, even when you know her idea of fun was stomping all over your sanity and soul.
But just as important is this: The brain is a really goddamn weird bundle of tapioca that does things that make no fucking sense, like actively editing our memories so that we gloss over the negative sides of things and polish up the positive. Positive memories like how cute your evil fucking ex was. Nostalgia, especially nostalgia for a relationship, is a hell of a drug, and it’s shockingly easy to overlook just how bad things got, especially when those early good times were really goddamn good.
So yeah, it’s totally normal and understandable that you’re thinking about her at seemingly random times. Just don’t mistake it for anything more than random neurons firing at occasionally inopportune moments.
And one more thing: You know how I just said our brains edit our memories? You can do that consciously. You can choose to not associate those positive feelings with your ex; it’s a case of being mindful and aware of those moments when she pops into your head. When you think of her, note it and name it: “oh right, this is my memory of the way wozername smiled. Too bad that smile hid the venom-sacs.” “Yeah the sex was good, but man did she like to use it as a weapon against me.” “Sure she was beautiful, but a lot of venomous reptiles are.”
Consciously reminding yourself that she may have been attractive but she was a manipulative asshat helps build the associations that keep you from looking back and thinking “y’know, maybe it wasn’t that bad…” and make you feel less conflicted when you do think of her.
But trust me: Over time, you’ll stop thinking about her at all… and that’s all she deserves.
Did you escape a toxic relationship? Have you had a partner with a mood disorder? 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.