Hello, all you electric clouds of death spores, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only dating advice column to help you with the New Game + of your love life.
This week, we’re diving straight into the heavy topics. How do you handle things when you catch feelings for your no-strings-attached friend with benefits? What do you do when your partner suddenly decides they want a baby, but you don’t? And how do you handle things when the going gets rough in your relationship and suddenly your ex is looking mighty good to you?
It’s time to load up the old save for a new game.
Let’s do this.
Hi Dr. NerdLove,
Three years ago, I had recently left a three-year relationship, preceded by a six-year relationship. I was in my mid-20s, distinctly ready for casual fun, and jumped into dating apps for the first time. I was explicitly not looking for anything serious and quickly met a man who was looking for the same. We were both up front about this on our first date. Our physical chemistry was intense and we started seeing each other at least once a week. This continued for about a year. We never really talked about it again but it was always understood that we could be seeing other people simultaneously. I did so a couple of times, but for the most part was satisfied by our un-relationship.
Here’s the tricky part: I would have been satisfied with being a straight-up, casual booty call, but from the beginning, he was always very affectionate. He would cook elaborate meals for me (he’s an amateur chef and seemed to enjoy having someone to practice on), regularly used lovey nicknames (“cutie,” “sweetie-pie” [I know - gag - but at the time it felt nice]), and we would do date-type activities at least every week or two. We shared a lot of unusual pop-culture interests and really enjoyed spending time together even non-sexually. He loved PDA, which I do too (sorry, everyone). He met all of my work friends when I brought him to my company holiday party. This continued for nearly a year and I was genuinely comfortable with our open dynamic (I wouldn’t call it an open relationship since we never used words like “boyfriend,” “girlfriend,” or “relationship”).
Then I moved two states away. I essentially said, “this was fun while it lasted, thanks for the memories!” but he said he hoped it wouldn’t be the last we saw of each other. Then, he flew up specifically to visit me in my new city a month later and we spent a fun, romantic weekend together. I knew no one in my new city and was thrilled to have this time with him. He gave me a necklace he’d bought for me while on vacation. A couple of months later, I visited his city for work, and we spent another weekend together. A couple of months after that, he had plans to visit my city again, this time in part to meet old friends, but had set aside half of the trip to spend with me. He introduced me to a childhood friend.
By this time I had started to miss him. Like, it physically hurt to be in a different state from him. During his visit I matter-of-factly told him I loved him. I said that I didn’t assume he felt the same way, but that I was surprised by how my own feelings had evolved and didn’t think it was impossible that the same might be true for him—I just needed to know either way.
Long story short, he didn’t feel the same way. He made some comment about maybe feeling in love with me around the time I moved away but he could never see himself being monogamous with anyone. He also explained that he’d been seeing someone else regularly for a while—I’ve now deduced this was probably happening the entire time we knew each other and sounds like a full-blown open relationship, although he didn’t use that phrase; I’m honestly still confused by that element but felt 90% assured he wasn’t cheating on anyone with me.
I downplayed my hurt, got through the rest of that weekend, then visited him once more in his city a few weeks later, at the end of which I said goodbye for good. He understood why things had become too painful for me to continue but still wanted to keep in touch. I really didn’t want to and haven’t.
Flash forward: my current boyfriend has been up front about being crazy about me and wanting to be with no one else from our first date. We’re a year and a half in, he’s the love of my life, and I couldn’t be happier.
It took months but I did get over the pain of that rejection. Today, I have zero desire to be with this other guy and am glad things ultimately worked out the way they did. But I hate that thinking about him still brings back the hurt and confusion of that time, and think if I could just understand exactly what happened to me, I’d be better equipped to fully let go. I need to hear what this looks like from the outside. This was the only time I’d ever had my heart broken but I’m not sure whether I think he was a jerk or if I just had an unlucky case of unrequited love.
Was I an idiot for developing the feelings I did? Am I wrong for feeling a little bit...jerked around? Am I wrong to feel frustrated that I got my feelings hurt when I went into this offering a 100% casual arrangement?
One last thought: I have a completely unfounded suspicion that this guy might have some sex/intimacy addiction issues—not only because he could never seem to get enough sex (and mentioned using dating apps to find casual company on vacations) but because of how easily he slipped into affectionate habits with me. Curious whether that possibility jumps out to you as well.
Thanks in advance for your insight,
- Recovering from a Mind Fuck
I’m entirely unsurprised that you caught feels, RFAMF. I can tell you exactly what happened: your ex-FWB was treating you like a girlfriend. For all that you two were saying that you didn’t want anything serious, that it was casual and there weren’t supposed to be any strings…well, y’all were definitely acting like a couple in everything but name.
I mean, cutesy nicknames, dates, presents, meeting your friends and co-workers, romantic weekends? That’s all couple behavior. And one of the weird quirks of human behavior is that we’re bad liars; if we behave a certain way long enough, we start to actually feel that way. That’s part of why actors who play couples in movies end up in relationships so often; go through the motions enough times and your brain takes in all that input and assumes “Oh, we must be in love!” and starts pumping out oxytocin and suddenly you’re talking about how much chemistry you have and how this must MEAN something.
This is why the key to maintaining a casual relationship is that you don’t act like a couple. It’s incredibly easy to slip into a relationship frame without meaning to by treating your get-togethers like dates. Romantic getaways, candle-lit dinners, flowers and cute nicknames all set expectations; you’re training yourself to see it like a date and your brain starts to respond accordingly.
You guys? You did all of that. And you caught feels. It was more or less inevitable.
Now that doesn’t mean that the only thing you can do is just wreck a hotel room like a couple of coked-out rock stars, nor does it mean that you just have a hit-it-and-quit-it dynamic to your relationship. Just because your relationship is casual doesn’t mean that you treat your partner casually. No strings attached doesn’t mean that you don’t have to treat your partner’s feelings like they matter. A casual relationship is still a relationship, and making a relationship work requires communication and clarity. You want to be sure that the two of you are on the same page, and if things aren’t working—or one of you is starting to feel like maybe they’d like some strings after all—it’s important that you feel like you can speak up and say things. Just because you two don’t have an expectation of commitment or a future together in the long term, that doesn’t mean anyone appreciates being treated like a sex toy with legs.
So it was with you and your beau. The fact that you two weren’t “official” doesn’t mean that you could skip that part. And as a result: you ended up with two very different sets of expectations and you got hurt.
But I don’t think that he did this intentionally. I don’t think he went out of his way to get you hooked just so that he could yank the rug out from under you or was jerking your heart around for giggles like a douchebag in a 90s indie movie. Nor for that matter do I think he had commitment issues or that there’s something psychologically wrong with him. That sounds far more like your wanting to backfill a reason for this that makes this more malicious or a flaw in him to explain things.
I think the real answer is much simpler and more banal: I suspect that it never occurred to him to act differently. This is just how he is with people he’s dating, but since y’all didn’t say the magic “D” word, then clearly you WEREN’T dating, none of it should affect you and thus everything was cool.
I think he was probably genuine in his sentiment…just clueless on how his actions were going to come across.
It’s Hanlon’s Razor in action: Never assume malice when someone’s behavior could equally be explained by stupidity instead.
The truth is, a lot of folks want a casual relationship but don’t know how to maintain it, so they treat it like a regular relationship and get confused when their partners get hurt by the way they’re acting. But the fact that they didn’t mean to hurt them doesn’t make it hurt any less.
So it was with you: your relationship felt less casual than you intended, and so you got hurt. The fact that it was out of ignorance and not malice doesn’t make it hurt less. It still sucks, but it may help to take comfort in the knowledge that this was simply human error.
Let that give you the closure you need, so you can draw the curtain on that particular relationship. The past is merely prologue, and those choices (and mistakes) led you to where you are now: happy with an incredible partner. That, I think, is the important thing to take away from this.
I’m writing to you to A) hopefully get some much needed advice and B) just to get everything out of my head by writing it down.
So the Situation: I’m a 32 year old guy from Australia. My girlfriend of almost 1 and a half years is 36 and I am madly, deeply in love with this lady.
For some background, we started our relationship as a casual non-monogamous kind of arrangement, where she remained monogamous but fully encouraged me to go out and see other people. I really didn’t feel the need to act on this, and was for the most part happy being relatively monogamous as well, but on the couple of occasions I did see other people, she was aware of this and unfazed. we also live quite far from each other so our relationship for a majority of the time consisted of messaging throughout the week and seeing each other when we could either over the weekend or on the odd weeknight if we could swing it, for an intimate rendezvous.
Recently while we were out to dinner, we discussed the possibility of children, as we have gotten a lot closer and less casual over the past year, and these kinds of things are naturally starting to come up at this point in our relationship.
She is concerned she might not be able to have kids if she waits much longer, so this is a priority for her at this stage in her life, and is something she wants to do within the next 12 months. I, on the other hand, do not want children under any circumstances, which is something I have given a lot of thought to over the past decade or so, and is not a decision I take lightly.
We had spoken about this when we first met, but I don’t think it was something either of us really thought would be an issue, as we assumed the casual nature of the relationship would have seen it run its course already, so to revisit this now and to have such a conflict in priorities has affected her a lot, and she is quite obviously upset about it.
So what do we do?
No matter what choice we make, I feel like someone is going to be saddled with the decision for the rest of their lives.
This girl means everything to me and I have never felt this way about another human being. All I want is for her to be happy, but if I compromise on this, I’ll be bringing another human life on to this planet, which I deeply ethically disagree with.
Any advice or suggestions would be greatly appreciated, as I have no idea what to do.
Before I get to your specific situation, UDN, I want to talk a little about relationship maintenance. A lot of couples will talk about their expectations and goals when they have that first Defining The Relationship talk…but what they don’t realize is that this is an ongoing conversation. Relationships aren’t static things, carved out of marble and as unchanging as the mountains. Relationships are organic, and they grow, shift and adjust over time. People change, priorities change and needs change within the relationship. This means that the relationship itself also changes, which means that the people involved need to be able to revisit what this relationship means to them.
The other thing to keep in mind is that relationships have a lifespan too. Not every love story is meant to be an epic poem. Some love stories are a short story. Some are just a dirty limerick. That doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with the relationship or that it was a failure because one of you didn’t die in the saddle; it just means that your relationship was right for you for a set amount of time, then came to its natural conclusion.
So, unfortunately, it is with you right now. I hate to tell you this, UDN: there is no way to square this particular circle. There’s no way to compromise about having kids. You can’t just have a kid for a year or two to test it out and send it back if you decide this isn’t for you. Kicking it down the road isn’t going to work either; all that does is guarantee that you’re going to be in this exact same situation, only worse because your girlfriend is feeling the pinch of time running out. Options like freezing her eggs won’t work either because…well, you’ve already made up your mind.
The cold hard truth is that one of you is going to get what they want and the other isn’t. And considering the magnitude of this choice, that’s going to be seismic for the one who has to give up their desire. And that’s the sort of thing that can take a relationship that would have been a success—because you can still have a successful relationship, even if it ended—and curdle everything into bitterness and resentment.
The thing to keep in mind is there is no good guy or bad guy here. This isn’t a flaw in your relationship or a sign that you two did anything wrong. You two were right for each other for the year and a half you were together…but now you two have grown and changed, and what worked before simply isn’t going to work now.
I wish I had happier advice for you but if you two are at an impasse here, then the kindest thing to do would be to break up. If having a baby is a must-have for her, especially within a year, then the best thing for her is to find someone who wants to have one. If you are determined to never have a child, then you want to find a partner who is also on the same page as you.
And if you’re determined that you don’t want to have a child, ever, then I strongly suggest you go and get yourself a vasectomy. Taking the ability to have kids off the table will help decrease the odds that this will happen again in the future and ensure that random chance can’t take the choice out of your hands.
Dear Dr. NerdLove:
I’m happy to find your site and how you gave advice to troubled lovers, Doctor. I want to know your thoughts about me wanting to connect with my ex.
Right now I’m in a 5 year relationship with someone who has treated me with respect and so much kindness. However he’s been having issues on his life that ultimately led to his depression. This has been going on for years now and had really took a toll on our relationship. We love each other and I want him to be happy....but I am already tired.
Last week I was with my ex, because we have the same friends. It’s been 5 years since I last saw him and now I have this yearning to talk to him and even doing forbidden things. He attempted to talk to me, but I did not engage much into the conversation because I don’t want to make my current boyfriend worry. However the more I try to forget my ex, only makes me crave more. We didn’t have a good closure. The ending was really bad. But the chemistry is still there.
I need to say these things:
I love my boyfriend but I wanted some fresh air away from all the sadness he’s in for so long.
I won’t choose to be in a committed relationship with my ex because I can’t give him the love and appreciation I’m able give to my current.
I want to cheat and this is really wrong. Help!
Torn Between Two Lovers
First things first: I suggest you go and read my previous column. What I told Dream Lover about their fantasizing about their ex applies to you too.
But the next thing you need to do is start recognizing what’s going on here. You’re frustrated and tired because your boyfriend’s mental health issues are affecting you too. That’s understandable; we don’t talk about it because it feels callous and cruel, but it can be hard living with someone who’s living with depression. It can be frustrating and exhausting because it feels like it’s on you to try to fix or mitigate things, and you really can’t. Caretaker burnout is a thing, second-hand trauma is a thing and it can be difficult to navigate because…well, you feel like an asshole for even admitting that it’s affecting you. I mean, intellectually you know damn good and well that it’s not their fault, but that doesn’t stop it from affecting you.
So you’re feeling stressed and exhausted by your boyfriend’s situation—and I really hope he’s getting treatment for his depression—and along comes your ex. And while things may have ended with fire, blood and screaming…g’damn he’s still hotter than an erupting volcano.
And like a volcano, he promises to make everything explode…messily and all over the place. Which is kind of what you’re looking for right now.
Part of what you’re experiencing right now is simply the contrast between your boyfriend—depressed, exhausting—and your ex—hot, volatile, doesn’t come with strings or complications. That difference is enticing. But the other thing that’s so enticing right now is that fucking him will destroy your relationship with your boyfriend. It’s not that you want your ex so much as that he represents an opportunity to slam your fist down on the relationship self-destruct button. Letting Mount Saint Hottie blow its top represents a quick and easy way to destroy the status-quo and leave you sans-complicated-relationship in the span of 30 minutes of squishy noises.
But I don’t think that’s what you actually want. I think that’s just the frustration talking, the voice of your shadow-self saying “fuck this, blow it all to pieces,” not what you’re actually looking for.
So I think you need two things.
First: I think you need some time away from your boyfriend. Not your relationship, but just a little “you” time. Maybe a trip with your friends. Maybe just time out of the house to do things you enjoy and let yourself recharge your batteries. Burning yourself out in the name of being a “good” partner is just a way of ending the relationship in as slow and torturous a manner as possible. Getting a little time away to recharge and recoup is good for you as an individual AND for the relationship as a gestalt whole. As the saying goes: you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you can help others with theirs.
Second: BLOCK THE SHIT OUT OF YOUR EX. Block him on social media, block his number, refuse to see him in person. The way you deal with temptation isn’t to try to muscle your way past it through sheer willpower, it’s to put obstacles between you and it so that you can’t just “accidentally” trip and land in his bed. The less convenient it is for you to get to him, the easier it is to resist the temptation. The more that the path of least resistance leads to the better outcome—not fucking this dude—the easier it is to stick to your guns.
What you’re dealing with is a temporary situation; cheating on your boyfriend—which is the path you’re going down right now—is a permanent (and messy) solution. Block your ex, go and recharge your batteries, help your boyfriend get the help he needs and I think you’ll find that this too, will pass, without your having to destroy things in the process.
Now if the time comes that you do decide that this relationship is no longer working for you? Then sure, end things. But you can end things with respect and care for your partner, not just lobbing a fuck-bomb into the mix and hoping that the shrapnel doesn’t hurt TOO badly.
Did you catch feelings for your FWB? Did you and your partner disagree about having kids? 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 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.