Hello, you sleek sharks of Internet corruption, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only dating advice column to help cultivate your relationships in the Stardew Valley of your heart.
This week, it’s all about trust. What do you do when it feels like you were your partner’s second choice? How do you not feel like you’re the runner up after hearing all about how amazing their ex was? What about when your fiancée is convinced that you’re cheating on them… to the point of forbidding you from seeing your friends? And how do you learn to let go of your ex when seeing who even looks like them drives a knife through your heart?
It’s time to get up with the sun and plow some fertile fields. Let’s do this.
I’m hoping you can offer me some advice on an issue I’ve been facing for years. My husband and I have been married for five years, but the woman prior to me was a powerful and beloved chunk of his life. He loved her deeply, wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. She, however, decided to cheat on him and couldn’t handle the guilt of doing so. So she broke up with him.
This led to my husband wrestling with crippling depression for years up until he started dating me. In the beginning of our initial friendship, he detailed his love and longing for her. I was trying to be a friend and listened to all the reasons why he loved her so much. We weren’t dating at the time — or even talking about it — so he felt free to spill his guts out. This included his romantic feelings as well as his sexual desires for her.
Knowing all of this has made it hard to move forward. I know he’s moved on with me, I know he loves me, but I still remember all his profound words of love for this other woman. I feel like his second choice. I firmly believe that had he been given a choice, he’d have married and lived happily with this other woman. How do I cope with this?
Second Place, First Loser
You’re looking at this the wrong way, SPFL. You met your husband at what was, undoubtedly, one of the lowest points in his life. He had what he thought was the perfect relationship, and then discovered that it was nothing of the sort. Suddenly he’s having to question everything about him. Part of why break-ups — especially from long-term partners — are so hard is that we have restructured our lives around being part of a couple. When that relationship ends, in a very real way, it’s like losing a limb. We have to relearn how to be single again and deal with the phantom pain of all of those habits and patterns we’ve developed over the years we were with our partners.Combine that with the way that finding out your partner cheated can feel like an attack on your sense of self… yeah, dude was gonna be fucked up for a while.
In the aftermath of a break-up, it’s really easy to gloss over the bad parts and see your ex as this vision of perfection. It’s part of dealing with the shock of it all; you’re clinging to a golden version of the past instead of dealing with the awful reality you’re facing. So I’m not terribly surprised that he was going on and on about how amazing she was, how her farts smelled like roses and the way she chewed her food was the most adorable thing ever.
I mean, I can relate. There was a point when I thought I had the perfect job and the perfect girlfriend… then I lost both within the span of a week. For a solid year afterwards, if you asked me what I thought of my ex, I would’ve gone on about how this was the greatest relationship I ever had and I’d never see its like again.
But here’s the thing: that shit fades. As we give ourselves closure and get distance and perspective from those relationships, we start to realize that no, it wasn’t perfection. It wasn’t this idyll that only poets could properly express, it was just two people bumping awkwardly against one another and trying to make things work. While we may have some nostalgia for the we way we felt, we move on. Eventually, we find love again. It isn’t the same kind of love, because we’re not the same person we were. That doesn’t make the next relationship better or worse, just different.
The only time when this doesn’t happen is when someone can’t let go of their past and their ex. And I hate to say this, but I think the person who’s most hung on on your husband’s ex is… well, you, SPFL.
The problem here is that you heard him pouring his freshly-broken heart out to you and took what he was saying as both gospel and eternal, and neither of these were the case. He was in mourning and feeling the fuck out of his feels, and at the time, he was telling you what he believed to be true. And yeah, if at the time, someone could change his timeline so his ex never cheated, I’m sure he would’ve leapt at that so hard he’d bend time and relative dimensions in space. But they didn’t, and he couldn’t. So he did what we all do: he mourned, he found acceptance and closure and he moved on.
And in doing so, he found a trusted friend who was there for him, who helped light his darkest hour. Over time, feelings grew, love bloomed again and he chose to marry you. I want to drive that home: he chose to marry you. He didn’t sit around hoping to get his ex back. He didn’t spend all of his time trying to bring back a future that could never be. He moved on and found you and he’s been with you for years.
I’m a big believer in “deeds, not words,” and it doesn’t sound to me like he’s ever given you any reason to feel like you’re his runner up choice. You’re not what he picked because he couldn’t have her; you’re the one he wants because you’re not her. You’re who he chose because he grew and became a different person and that person loves you.
With love comes trust. If you love him, then you have to be willing to trust him when he tells you that he loves you and that he wants to be with you. If you need a little reassurance every once in a while, ask for that. Ask him to tell you why he loves you and why he’s happy to be with you. And when he does, you need to let yourself believe him. Because I’m here to tell you: telling someone that you don’t believe they actually love you—despite all evidence to the contrary—is a hurtful thing to do.
He loves you. You love him. Let yourself accept that he genuinely loves and cares for you. Otherwise all you’re doing is letting someone else’s ghosts keep you from having an amazing, wonderful relationship.
Dear Dr. NerdLove,
First, I wanted to say thanks for taking the time to drop some advice for me for my situation. I enjoy reading your responses to issues regarding relationships. It helps to reflect on what I have done poorly and things I may have missed in my previous relationships. My situation is similar in aspect to a few of those you have published recently on both your blog and Kotaku, albeit with subtle differences.
I began to date a girl earlier this year. We matched through one of the dating apps. Unbeknownst to me at the time, because she did not list these on her profile, she was recently divorced (and still dealing with the legal aspect of it), and she also had a son. These two items are preferences I avoid when using dating apps; I am the type of person who wants a fresh start with the person I am dating (i.e. never married, no kids). I was breaking a barrier with this one and wanted to just run with it.
We were messaging for about a week before we met for our first date. When we met in person, the energy and electricity was incredibly palpable. We both felt it immediately, and needless to say, almost kissed within the first 15 seconds. We also met at a time where I was in a very bad spot; I was battling through heartbreak after a falling out with a best friend of mine who I had feelings for. I spoke about this early on, so she could be aware of any aloofness on my part. She recognized it before I told her, and luckily for me it did not scare her away. I was super appreciative of her patience with me with that.
We became exclusive a week and a half after our first date. She became my first girlfriend/relationship in 6 years (due to career choices on my end) and the first woman whom I said “I Love You” to in 7 years. It was not an easy thing for me to do or come around to doing. We talked early on about the future, plans, and where we see ourselves a few years down the road. I’m not a serial dater and I want to settle down, start a life, and eventually a family, with a potential future spouse. Even though she already had a son, she wanted more kids. There was also a religious aspect in play, that she would’ve compromised on for me.
After 3 months of dating, I broke things off with her. During these 3 months, red flags were abundant from both sides because we were both on opposite ends of the spectrum with our personalities and lifestyles. But with the relationship in its early stages I wanted to be as flexible as possible knowing we were in a Struggle Stage. We clashed a lot, mainly because she is not a very good logical thinker. At the same time, our opposite personalities complemented one another cohesively. The one area we were very compatible was intimacy in the bedroom.
The final straw for me was, for the third instance in as many months, she went and made a decision; one that had a direct impact on our relationship and did not consult with or start a dialogue with me regarding the situation before acting on that decision (and no, she did not cheat on me). At the end of the day, I fully support her decision and would have done so even if she had brought it up to me before acting on her decision. Her decision truly gutted me, in a sense, and I felt the sensation of someone repeatedly stabbing me for a few weeks after we broke up. I never confronted her about it, and I am still angry about it (because I have a very difficult time letting things go).
After a few weeks had passed I was getting back to normal, going on a few dates and wound up dating another girl for a month. One evening I saw a woman who looked a lot like her at a restaurant and it triggered me into an internal rage because of what transpired at the end of the relationship. It took me a few more weeks to really calm down just from that episode.
It has now been 5 months since we broke up and I still haven’t seen her since we broke up. I do not want to get back together with my ex. I am not having a difficult time getting over her but it’s driving me nuts that I can’t get her out of my head. It doesn’t help the fact that I see her make/model car on the highway (hers is a very popular car model). I had to stop watching porn after we broke up because I would instantly think of her in the bedroom (which in all honesty is for the best because I’ve been wanting to kick the porn habit for some time anyway).
Which is why I am writing to you. I know that over time, everything settles down and eventually wounds heal. But why is it that this girl has dominantly taken over my thoughts, when I know without a doubt, I don’t ever want to be with her again? Could it be because I have a difficult time letting situations go? Is it because I did not get any closure in the final instance of the relationship? Or could it be because I feel guilty that a partner considered me as having all the qualities she wants in a future husband (and yes, she did tell me this)? I know you’re not a psychic, but could you provide some insight as to why it is taking almost double the amount of time to get her out of my head?
Ghost of Girlfriends Past
So GoGP, I picked your letter because it parallels rather nicely with Second Place, First Loser’s; she’s worried her husband is still pining with his ex. Meanwhile we have your situation, as you find it hard to get over yours, for similar reasons: you feel as though you were wronged and the fact that you haven’t gotten closure has left you with an open emotional wound.
Now before we get into what you need to do, I want to walk you through how you’ve ended up in this place, because it’s pretty damn relevant and it’s going to inform how you ultimately get over her. And this is going to sound harsh, but your first mistake was getting with this woman in the first place. This was a relationship that honestly shouldn’t have happened in the first place and almost certainly not at the pace you proceeded at.
The first issue is that she had a couple major dealbreakers that you chose to overlook. And honestly, that’s not really the problem; if you decide you’re willing to be flexible about things, more power to you. The bigger problem is that she was actively hiding these on her dating profile. Being in the middle of getting a divorce isn’t much of an issue, but not mentioning that she has a child is a pretty big one. Being a single parent has a pretty significant effect on your life, especially your dating life; it dictates your priorities and your availability. That’s something that folks have a right to know about in order to make an informed decision about whether they want to date you. Her leaving those off her profile are a not-insignificant detail.
The next issue is that you were exclusive within a week and a half and saying “I love you” not too much longer after that. That is really goddamn fast, and an indicator that this relationship is progressing to a level of seriousness that you weren’t prepared for. I get that the two of you had more chemistry than an entire season of Breaking Bad but a week and a half is the “I don’t know you at all” stage. That’s barely enough time to have had a second date. That’s a level of emotional investment that is far out of proportion to the state of the relationship, and a pretty solid indicator that you weren’t making sound emotional decisions. Whether you were lonely, feeling like you needed to lock this down before she could get away or just so twitterpated that you got carried away, this was a recipe for the heartbreak that was coming down the line.
Small wonder you broke up within three months; you didn’t know this woman at all, certainly not well enough to be making any sort of commitment beyond “Hey, brunch next Sunday?” You weren’t at a point where you knew how she takes her coffee in the morning, never mind being willing to fart in front of one another, and you’re already talking about marriage, kids and the house with the white picket fence.
The fact that you were having these serious conflicts in those three months were another indicator that this was a relationship that should never have reached this stage. You were dead-bang in the middle of the honeymoon stage, when you’re both fuck-drunk on all of the dopamine and oxytocin from the novelty of a new partner and you are constantly butting heads. If you’re in the “struggle stage” at three months, that’s not a time to “be flexible,” that’s a sign that you’re with the wrong person and you should peace out of the entire relationship.
But you didn’t, and so here we are.
The reason why I bring all of this up is because it’s exactly the reason why you’re having such a hard time with all of this. You made the wrong play and got hung up on someone who was incredibly wrong for you. If you’d just kept this to “we’re great in bed and absolutely nowhere else,” then you wouldn’t be having these moments where you freak out seeing someone who vaguely looks like her. You’d have had a few months of casual sex that would’ve burned itself out and you’d both go on your merry way.
The reason why you’re so upset right now is because you’re not angry at her, per se; you’re angry at yourself. Trust me, I know. I’ve been there, done that and printed the shirt.
(No for real; I’m setting up a line of merch as we speak.)
That whole “stab in the gut because you saw someone with her hair?” I’ve felt that. The “oh shit is that her car?” and looking for distinctive signs that it’s not just another lookalike? Yup, played that game more times than I can count.
It’s reflected anger. Yeah, she did you dirty, but if you sit and think about it for more than a few seconds, you realize that what happened wasn’t that bad. You’re more angry at yourself because you made a mistake and it’s really hard to accept it. You’re basically punishing yourself because let yourself fall for someone who you knew wasn’t right for you. That stabbing feeling is as much self-recrimination as it is “there she is, the one as what broke my heart.”
How do you get over this? Well, to start with, allow me to let you in on a little secret: you’re not going to get closure from this, because closure is something that you give yourself. Nine times out of ten, when we look for closure from our exes, what we’re actually looking for is validation. We want them to say “hey, you’re right, I was the asshole and you’re totally justified in being pissed about this.” But you’re not going to get that. Break-ups are rarely so black and white and even when they are, our exes rarely see themselves as the villain of the piece. So if you’re hoping to get the satisfaction of her acknowledging how she broke your heart… well, it’s not gonna happen.
So you’re going to have to decide that you have closure.
You have to be the one to decide how you’re going to draw the curtain on this part of your life, a way of demarcating the difference between the time before your ex and after. It may be as constructive as starting a new hobby or investing in advancing your career. It may be as simple as a new haircut, a long weekend away or just pulling the trigger on something you’ve been planning on doing for a while but have never gotten around to.
Once you do that, the next step is that you have to forgive yourself. You need to look at everything about this relationship—all those red flags and mistakes I listed earlier—and accept that you shouldn’t have let things get this far. Resolve to not make these mistakes again in the future. And then forgive yourself for loving not wisely but too well. Choose to let go of the pain and the recrimination, understand that you know yourself a little better now and then forgive yourself for being a fool for love.
And honestly, that’s not a bad thing to be.
I’ve been struggling recently with an issue I have with my fiancée of 5 years.
About two months ago I went on a work conference trip to Nashville. I usually only have this time to meet with my fellow managers because we live and work so far apart. Most of the time after we were done with “work” for the day, we would go out to bars and have dinner out on the town. I wanted to become better friends with my co-workers, so I went out to socialize. This is where the first issue began.
My fiancée did not like that I was going around all the time with one of my female coworkers. I did not understand the problem, as she is engaged herself, and that we’ve known each other for so long. We’re just good friends who have similar interests in things like video games; I have no romantic or sexual feelings for her.
After I got back from Nashville, we would text on occasion; we spent one day texting late into the night because we were discussing Fire Emblem: Three Houses and the different story options we had received. That’s when the second issue came up.
My fiancée had looked in my phone and saw I had been texting my friend in the middle of the night and became very upset. She stormed out of the house early in the morning because she did not like how “chummy” I was with my co-worker. This is when my fiancée explained that she did not like how much time I was spending my off time with her. Again, her problem was with this specific female co-worker, as opposed to the other co-workers I was also with.
My fiancée also did not like how she had asked me if I wanted to go see IT Chapter 2 with her and some of our co-workers from other stores. My fiancée summed it up by saying “if you invite someone that is engaged you’re supposed to invite their significant other too.”
I could just use some advice as to how I can bridge the subject of talking to my co-worker with my fiancée without upsetting her. My co-worker is a good friend of mine and I enjoy talking to her on occasion but now I’m forbidden from speaking to her forever it seems. Any time I tried to talk about it my fiancée would just become very defensive and offended about it and how I betrayed her trust by “talking to other girls.”
Also when I would have to go for work reasons to my co-worker’s store she would make a snide comment about having to go see her. I don’t really know what to say to her. I’d like to keep my relationship with my fiancée but also hate that I have to stone cold stop talking to my co-worker and block her number and then pretend everything is ok whenever I see her at work, on a conference call or go to her store.
First of all, your fiancée of five years? I’m wondering if you mean that you’ve been with your fiancée for five years, not that you’ve been engaged for five years.
Though honestly, if this is how she’s acting, I’m not terribly surprised that you haven’t set a date yet.
So straight up, SL: your fiancée’s behavior is appalling and unacceptable. You’re allowed to have friends and a life outside of your relationship. You’re allowed to have friends of different genders. You’re allowed to talk with them, spend time with them and even text them late into the night. As long as you aren’t neglecting your partner to spend time with your friends, you’re not really doing anything wrong.
Your fiancée, on the other hand, is crossing all kinds of boundaries and that shit ain’t cool. Snooping through your phone, giving you shit for hanging out with your friends without her, forbidding you from seeing people and complaining that you’re betraying her trust by “talking with other girls”—all of those are huge relationship red flags and honestly, at this point, I’d have one foot out the door if I were you.
If you want to try to fix things with your fiancée, then you two need to sit down—ideally with a relationship counselor—and talk this out. It may be that your fiancée is feeling neglected and that you’re spending more time with your friends, especially this particular co-worker, than you are with her. If that’s the case, then it may be possible to sort things out. She might just need some reassurance that you still love and care for her and that everything is cool. You can even bring up that your co-worker is happily engaged and that the two of you are entirely on the up and up.
But just between you, me and everyone reading this? I don’t think that’s gonna work. Your fiancée’s behavior is incredibly controlling and borderline toxic. If she’s gotten to the point that talking to women is a betrayal and going through your phone for evidence that you’re cheating on her, then the relationship’s already on the downward slide. I think at this point, it’d be better for you to take a good hard look at how your fiancée is treating you and ask yourself how long you’d be willing to put up with this, knowing it will never change. Five more years? One year? Six months?
Because honestly? That shit isn’t gonna get better. And you deserve better. You deserve a fiancée who trusts you, who lets you have your own friends and your own life and doesn’t treat you like a cheater waiting to happen.
I’m sorry you’re in this position. You’ve got some thinking to do, and I don’t envy the decisions you have to make.
Good luck. And write back to let us know how you’re doing.
Did you or your partner have a hard time getting over an ex? Have you dealt with an untrusting partner? 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.