Hello all you little marmosets of damnation, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only dating advice column to help you celebrate the Reclamation Day of your love life.
This week, we’re talking about seemingly impossible situations. Rejection is hard enough to face when you’re talking about dating. But what about when it’s your family doing the rejecting? And how do you handle the intricacies of an office crush when you have trouble reading signs or processing social cues? When work is your last chance at love for a hundred miles, is it better to take the risk or let it be?
Strap in, because it’s time to venture out of the vault and into the wasteland of love. Let’s do this.
Dear Dr. NerdLove,
I’m a 28 year old woman, who on the outside is pretty normal, happy and moderately put together. On the inside I’m a complicated mess and often times I wish I could hide under a rock. Why? My family.
I suffer from severe anxiety, depression, and borderline personality disorder. These issues have been triggered by a number of things, but I’m pretty sure my parents play a large part. My dad remarried when I was 6 and we won’t talk about my mother. That’s a whole can of worms that I don’t have time to open without a tranquilizer and straight jacket. My stepmother and father placed me into a WWASP school for 3 1/2 when I was 15. This experience left me with quite a lot of emotional baggage, night terrors, PTSD, and a host of other problems. Stuff that I can’t get into now.
My problem is that even though they’ve done some atrocious things in the past, I can’t help but want their love and affection. I want to be a part of their family, and gain their approval. I want them to love me.
When my parents are around, I put on a happy face, smile and pretend everything is okay. I try to be the perfect daughter, hold my tongue and basically act like a robot. I just can’t help myself. I want so badly for them to give me their approval and love that I go out of my way to make myself sick; or make myself miserable. The problem is, they don’t put in the same amount of effort to even maintain a relationship with me. I wish I could say that it was like this with my 2 brothers and sister, but that’s not the case. They don’t seem to have any issues with them.
I try to keep in touch with my family, as I live across the country. This includes Facebook, email, and phone calls. However, if I’m not the one to initiate, I wouldn’t hear from them at all. And I mean that. If I don’t call them, I won’t hear from them for months. My family also has the horrible habit of... well, for better lack of terms: forgetting about me. In the last three years they’ve had 5 family reunions, and my stepsister was married, and I wasn’t told until after the fact. I only found out about the wedding because my stepmother was tagged in a photo on Facebook, and I usually only hear about the reunions in the family newsletter at the end of the year.
Not only does this hurt me more than words can say, but when I express this to my parents I’m met with downright guilt trips and disdain. “We didn’t think you could make it.” “Oh, we sent you an email sorry you didn’t get it.” “Don’t get angry with your father for not inviting you to the wedding. You should apologize.” If I express any sort of negative emotion to my family I am either brushed aside, ignored, or my favorite: “Don’t cause drama!”
I’m just constantly on this bed of needles with my family. Either I’m a problem, or I’m ignored. I’ve been the black sheep for so long that I am starting to think that it’s somehow my fault. That I’m not worthy of their love or affection. What did I do to make it so hard for them to love me? Should I be content with the little scraps of affection I do get and just ignore what my heart wants? Is this a normal situation for other people?
I’ve spent my whole life being told that family is important, and to respect your parents... We’re all taught from a young age that family means something. They’re supposed to be your support system. Mine just... isn’t. No matter how hard I try, I’m on the outside looking in. What do I do?
Baa Baa Black Sheep
It’s a funny thing about family. We’re taught that family is supposed to be the most important people in your life, the people who love and accept you no matter what. We don’t talk about the fact that nobody’s more likely to hurt you than your family. There’s a lot to talk about in here, BBBS, so let’s roll it from the top.
First and foremost, there’s your situation. There’s an old joke that comes to mind: “Doc, it hurts when I go like this.” “Well, stop doing that.”
I know, that sounds callous but hang on, I actually have a point to make here. One of the topics that’s come up a lot for people who write in is the concept of toxic relationships — relationships that are inherently unhealthy, where a toxic partner continues to sandpaper away at the victim’s heart and soul, draining their life and self-esteem like a vampire who preys on serotonin instead of blood. Less often, we hear about toxic friendships, where people who supposedly love and care about us tend to express it through insults, demeaning behavior and humiliation.
But the ones we almost never hear about are toxic families. Sure, we hear about abusive families. It’s easy to think about Mommy Dearest situations, or a parent whose eyes go blank when their bitterness and resentment boils over their corroded souls, and they take it out on their children. The inherent drama and violence of the situation make it more compelling; it creates a narrative that we find perversely inviting from a distance.
What we don’t hear about as often are the families that just… wall a child away or shove them down the memory hole. The abuse and neglect aren’t as dramatic as locking a family member in the attic; the person’s family is just trying to pretend they don’t exist. Not because they’re a family of bigots exiling their LGBTQ children, not because they’re trying to express some tough love to get a kid back on the straight and narrow… but because they just don’t seem to like them, or they find their existence to be inconvenient and embarrassing. Admitting this child exists is just something they’d rather not have to do, so why not just play the game of “Black Sheep? I haven’t heard that name in a long time…” and hope that the problem just goes away?
It’s the sort of thing that sounds less like real life and more like a fairy tale; a Cinderella story retold for the 21st century, complete with a wicked stepmother. But funny thing about fairy tales. They may be fiction, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have truth at their core. That truth is part of what makes them resonate with us so strongly.
Part of what makes this sort of abuse — and it is abuse — so insidious is how almost banal it is. When you’ve been physically abused or thrown out over bigotry, it can be easier to draw a line, to point at their behavior and say “what you’ve done to me is fucking unacceptable.” When you’ve just been discarded like leftovers gone bad in the fridge… well, that’s gonna gnaw at you. Doubly so when you’re processing the trauma that’s been done to you, because trying to process that trauma affects you.
And you were traumatized, BBBS, by people who are supposed to love and support you. They threw you into Hell and left you to claw your way back out again… supposedly in the name of love. Now that you’re back, you’re treated like an inconvenience, a source of drama to be avoided. And to be fair: it’s not impossible that you do bring drama in your wake, both through your actions but also through your presence. Borderline personality disorder tends to come with issues like impulsive, self-destructive behavior and explosive, chaotic mood swings. But honestly? I’d be surprised if you didn’t bring the drama after what you’ve been through. I’d be fucking astounded, and wondering if things had gotten so bad that you just shut down and became the automaton that your parents seem to have wanted.
Borderline Personality Disorder is trendy right now, in the sense that laypeople know about it and are quick to ascribe it to people as they play armchair psychologist. And with that trendiness comes an equivalent moral judgement: the assumption that people with BPD are just toxic drama queens who should be avoided because they’re just shit-stirring bitches. But trauma is one of the things believed to possibly cause BPD. You may or may not cause drama that your family would rather pretend doesn’t exist, not because you’re an evil shit-stirring bitch but because you’ve been through the fucking fires of hell and you’re carrying the ashes to prove it.
And like people who’ve been tossed aside by the people who were supposed to love them, it’s easy to assume that this must be your fault; that you just weren’t good enough for them; that you need to do more to deserve their love and affection and protection. And it’s entirely understandable that you crave their validation. It’s not at all surprising that you want to be deserving of the love and caring that you’ve been denied.
Which brings me to my question for you: Why? Why keep doing this to yourself? You keep throwing yourself against this wall in hopes that someday, you may find the magic combination that makes them finally accept you, that allows you to prove that you’re deserving of their love. Have you ever asked yourself if they’re actually deserving of yours? What, precisely, have they done, that makes themselves worthy of your love, your loyalty, your devotion? What is it that leads you to throw yourself into the thresher every time?
From where I’m standing, the answer is “sweet fuck-all”. Here’s a truth: family isn’t blood. Family isn’t shared DNA. Family is love. Here is another truth: family is important. But that doesn’t mean the people you were born to are. You don’t need to love — or even be a part of — the family that you were born into. The fact that you share genetics or a last name with people doesn’t mean that they automatically deserve your love or your devotion. You aren’t required to be part of their lives or have them in yours, not when all they do is hurt you and neglect you and treat you with all the regard of a wadded up kleenex.
To paraphrase a sage: “they may have been your father and your siblings… but they ain’t your family.” Here is a final truth: your family doesn’t need to be one of blood. Family is made up of the people who love and care for you, regardless of whether you share DNA or not. Family is a choice. And when your biological family has failed you, you can — you should — follow the words of Armistead Maupin and find your logical family.
It’s time to quit retraumatizing yourself in the name of people who don’t care. It’s time to stop setting yourself on fire in hopes of warming the people who’ve failed and abandoned you. The best thing that you can do right now is simply stop worrying about deserving their love and focus on your love: your love of yourself. Your heart is a network of wounds and scars and all you’re doing is pulling at the scabs. It’s time to let yourself heal. Don’t let them push you away: choose to walk away.
You don’t say if you’re working with a therapist or counselor, but if you aren’t, that’s the first and most important step. It’s especially important to find someone who specializes in trauma and recovery, who can help you worth through the nightmares that you’ve lived through.
As you heal, it’ll be time to find your real family. You may not find them all at once. It may be a process of years, even a lifetime, as you move through this world. But over time you’ll find your logical family, your family of choice — the brothers from another mother, the sisters in all but blood, the aunties and uncles that you didn’t know you had until you met them. And not only will you finally have the people who will give you the love that you need, but they’ll be the ones who are deserving of yours in return.
You’re stronger than you realize, BBBS. You’ve crawled out of Hell. You’re scarred and you’re scared, but you have the heart of a lioness. You will heal. Life will get better.
Write back to let us know how you’re doing.
All will be well.
I wanted to start this letter by thanking you. In the past year and half I have really turned my life around after a personal crisis, and I partially attribute that to avidly reading your columns. Your positive, non-misogynistic life and dating advice stands in sharp contrast to a lot of the garbage peddled at nerdy young men like myself. In the months since my personal crisis I have drastically upgraded my style (I’m frequently called a snappy dresser now), am in much better health due to taking better care of myself, have developed new hobbies (though admittedly I could use some more hobbies that get me out to meet new people), I am maintaining what I think is a healthy social life (including reconnecting with old friends) and I have a job that I love. And it is that job that is the impetus of this letter, my dear Doctor.
Before I continue, some background on me is vital. I’m at the very least an average looking, average height, skinnier than average 26-year-old male virgin who has never been in a long-term relationship. I don’t take any shame in that, and I don’t let it define me. The way I see it, I wasn’t really ready to date in the past and up until said personal crisis I was too focused on my studies to put any effort and focus into dating, though admittedly, that’s probably not the only reason for my relative lack of dating experience.
I believe a not insignificant factor is the fact that I have a mild case of what was until recently called Asperger’s Syndrome (I’ll just refer to it as Asperger’s from here on out), and I do mean it when I say it’s mild. I don’t have any problems with starting and maintaining friendships, and I am absolutely a social butterfly when I need to be – but dating is different story. Asperger’s affects my ability to accurately read nonverbal social cues and euphemisms, two things that dating relies heavily on, as I’m sure you are well aware. Needless to say, this has made flirting extremely difficult for me. I think I tend to take things too slow and do a poor job at flirting, which I attribute to my lack of understanding of nonverbal cues and other dating customs. This has resulted me being overly risk averse in dating (and sometimes IRL too) because I’m afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing that might unintentionally offend someone or violate some norm I am unaware of. You will probably say this fear is unjustified. I will agree with you too, but ingrained habits like that are tough to break.
Because I am garbage at in-person flirting and because I currently live with my parents at the edge of civilization (I’m hoping to move to near a major city soon both for my career and to improve my dating pool), I have tried my hand at a few dating apps since early this year. Other than a couple dates it has been pretty much a failure so far; I’m seemingly no better at flirting online than I am in person. But here’s the thing—the kind of woman I’m looking for might be in front of me this whole time. The problem, if you hadn’t guessed by my tease way back at the beginning of the letter, is that I work with her.
I’ve had a crush on one of my coworkers for a while now and hadn’t dreamed of acting upon because I thought of it as perfectly innocuous one way crush…until recently. You see, Doc, I think there is a legitimate chance she may like me too. We are super tight at work, we have a lot in common, she laughs at most of my terrible jokes when even no one else will, she has hinted at meeting up at events outside of work (we aren’t really a hang out after work type of office) and we even leaned into each other when sitting next to each other at a recent company outing (literally rubbing shoulders with each other, which I swear I didn’t instigate).
This is why I brought up the whole Asperger’s thing earlier. For all I know, that entire previous paragraph could have looked like the ramblings of a crazy person because I am so poor on picking up on dating cues (the only girls I have ever briefly dated made it extremely obvious they were into me). My close friends (a few of whom are women) are insisting to me that what I have described sounds like actual interest and not me being an idiot who doesn’t understand social interactions. These close friends have even started shipping me and that co-worker, which may not necessarily be a good idea because…
I work for a very small company (about 15 people), and I work very closely with this girl on a regular basis. She’s not a superior or a subordinate, so that’s not an issue. I do think, though, that dating a coworker still might be problematic. I’ve had an even split of people tell me dating co-workers is a bad idea and people who think it can be worth it. There’s nothing in my company’s policies against dating, but I don’t want to make a huge mistake and ask out this girl if there’s nothing there. I don’t want to make things super awkward for either of us at the office. If I were to ask her out and be rejected, however; I swear I would be a gentleman about it. The words I hear people describe me as most often are sweet, genuine and sincere. Obviously that means I can handle rejection, but it probably also describes why I’m so bad at flirting doesn’t it?
So I guess my questions for you are: Is asking a coworker out in that small of a company ever a good idea? Is dating coworkers in general a bad idea? Am I just laser-focusing on this girl because online dating has mostly been a bust and she’s the closest girl who fits my type I see? Is me being hesitant to make a move on this girl smart or cowardly?
Aspie Seeking Love
A couple of thoughts, ASL. The first is simple: the fact that you aren’t socially fluent by birth doesn’t mean that you can’t learn. We call them social skills for a reason: because they’re skills, abilities that can be improved by means of practice and experience.
But you have to actually practice them. And, unfortunately, practice means being willing to embrace making mistakes and accepting that you’re going to screw up at first. Possibly a lot. It can be difficult, because failure can feel scary. We tend to assume that failing is definitional: if we fail, that makes us a failure. But that isn’t true; all that it means is that we didn’t succeed at something. Which ain’t fun, to be sure, but like the man said: sucking at something is the first step at getting good at it. Recognizing that failure is temporary, a setback that you can overcome, is part of how you build the mindset that leads you to success.
The fact that you’re on the spectrum doesn’t mean that you can’t learn or improve. I have known and coached many folks who have the same social handicaps you do, and part of how they’ve learned to move through the world is through memorization, observation and practice. Some things may come harder to you — you may have to think longer and observe more to make sure you’re reading things correctly — but that’s fine. You don’t have to be the fastest, smoothest or suavest to date; you just have to know how to present yourself to the people who want what you have to offer.
But to do that, you’re going to have to be willing to take some risks. You’re going to have to be willing to fail, so that you can learn from it. With that in mind, let’s talk about your crush at work.
This is a tough one, ASL. There’s a lot of common accepted wisdom about dating at work — the various folksy sayings like “don’t dip your pen in the company ink”, for example — that ignores an important fact: we tend to meet our partners where we spend the most time. Familiarity and exposure is a large part of how we build fondness and attraction to one another. It’s part of why actors tend to fall in love with other actors or why we tend to date classmates more often than people from other schools and universities. Since we spend most of our waking ours around or coworkers, it’s not surprising that we form crushes on, attractions towards and relationships with them.
From the way that you’ve described things, it sounds like she definitely likes you. It’s hard to say if this is a romantic attraction or a platonic and friendly one. But to be perfectly honest: there is no way to be 100% sure. The best that anyone — neurotypical or not — can do is read the scene as best that they can and make a judgement call.
So what do you do? Well, my suggestion would be to make a low-stakes bet and roll the dice. Don’t treat this as a potential love for the ages, but someone whose company you enjoy and you might like to see socially. So if and when she makes a suggestion about hanging out after work… take her up on it. Or you might suggest it yourself — “hey, there’s this thing I’m doing this weekend that I think you might really enjoy. If you’re interested, I’d love to take you.” And then see what she says. Does she agree or suggest a different day because she’s busy this weekend? Awesome: you have a date. Does she say “thanks, but no thanks?” Then you have your answer. Does she demure and give you a reason why she can’t, without suggesting a different day or different activity? Then you also have your answer; she’s giving you a soft no, to let you down gently.
If she says yes, then awesome. Just take it slowly, let yourself get comfortable and just see where things go. She’s undoubtedly awesome, but you don’t want to rush to invest in someone, especially when they’re your first real date. It’s entirely reasonable to ask yourself whether this is a solid potential relationship or just the first time you’ve met someone you like. Enjoy the process of getting to know them and seeing if there’s chemistry and compatibility. Even if this doesn’t turn into a long-term relationship, there’s value in just enjoying something for now.
But let’s say that she turns you down. How do you keep things from being awkward afterwards? It’s easy: you don’t make it awkward. People will tend to take their cues from you. If you continue to treat her like you did before, without putting on the sad puppy face or getting upset about having been turned down, then she’ll realize that you’re not going to be weird around her and things can continue as normal. And if things are a little uncomfortable at first? Well, nothing destroys the awkward like addressing the awkward.
Which is something that applies to your dating life going forward as well. The fact that you have difficulties reading social cues doesn’t mean that you can’t date, nor do you have to be so practiced that you’re indistinguishable from someone neurotypical. Let people know that hey, you have a hard time picking up on things so if you’re misreading a situation you’d like to know. Let them know that you’re learning but occasionally they may have to gently nudge you with the clue-by-four.
Straight talk, ASL: You’ve got a more challenging route than many folks, but challenging doesn’t mean impossible. You’re doing a lot of things right and you’ve got tons of potential just waiting to be unleashed. Put in your practice and take some chances. You’ve got a great future ahead of you.
Did you successfully date a co-worker? Have you found your tribe, your crew, your family of choice? 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 podcast. His dating guide New Game+: The Geek’s Guide to Love, Sex and Dating is on Amazon, iTunes and everywhere fine books are sold. He is also a regular guest at One Of Us.