Hello all you horsepersons of the Twitter Apocalypse, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only dating advice column that’s the latest competitor in Smash Bros.
This week, we’re digging deep into some failing—and failed—relationships. Where did things go wrong? Is it possible to pull things back from the brink? Was it just a case of goals and lifestyles that changed, or were their deeper issues?
Start warming up your air-dashes and flex those fingers for a mid-combo cancel. Let’s see if we can keep your love life from a ring-out.
Dear Dr NerdLove,
My wife and I have been a couple for 15 years, married for almost 6, and a couple of weeks ago, she told me that while she still loved and cared for me deeply, she was no longer ‘in love’ with me and hadn’t been happy for a while. She wanted a separation and left that day.
We’ve been having some trust issues for the past 2 years, and while I didn’t think things were this bad, I knew that there were unresolved problems. Sadly, she’s saying that she’s not interested in getting counselling, which I’d be all for.
For a large chunk of our time together, we had an honest and supportive relationship that both of us were very proud of. We stressed open and honest communication and, while we would have the occasional fight, we would always deal with it in a mature and non-explosive manner, stressing love and support for one another.
The problem is this: When my wife and I first started dating, we were at, what I would call, balanced levels of attractiveness. I’m a good looking guy, but I have a life-long weight problem. My wife, who I’ll call N, was also overweight and had some other physical issues. These were never issues for either of us, but around the time that we were going to get married, things started to change.
N started fiercely controlling her diet and working out (she even became a marathon runner), she had significant dental work done, along with some minor plastic surgery. In a period of about 5 years, she went from a chunky, kinda average looking woman to a literal stone cold fox that had men falling over each other to talk to her and getting drinks sent to her from randos on a regular basis. We went from a couple of 6s to a 10 and a 6. Then she started wanting to go to clubs and concerts without me because she knew they weren’t my thing and “didn’t want to worry if I was having a good time.” This is where the trust issues started.
That new attention had a profound effect on her, and I’m sure it contributed to things not working out. So, now I’m asking if what happened here is my fault. I know I’m not as healthy as I could be, but was my reluctance to join her in a journey of self-transformation the reason I lost her? Or would it have done any good if I had?
I’m a bit lost at the moment and trying to make sense of things, so any guidance you could provide would be stellar. Thanks!
- Separated and Scared
OK, S&S I want to cover something right from the top: there’re a lot of folks who make a big deal out of the idea of “leagues” and social status, especially when women are involved. People love to make a lot of noise about whether someone is capable of dating a woman who’s “out of his league”. They’ll throw around phrases like “assortative mating”, hypergamy, social standing and the like — often without understanding what most of those actually mean — and tell you that it’s all because your wife realized that she could do better than you now that she’d ascended out of your league.
And it’s bullshit. In no small part because there’s no such things as leagues. There are people who want what you have to offer, and those who don’t. If someone wants to date you — or, for that matter, stay with you for 15 years — then you’re in their league.
Now, I’m not going to tell you that the changes that she made didn’t make a difference — they did, obviously — but not in the way that a lot of people may think.
There’re a few things that happened here. The first and biggest issue is that you two grew apart. This happens a lot in relationships, especially in long-term ones. No individual is static; we’re always changing and growing, especially over the course of years. If you’re the exact same person you were ten years ago, 5 years ago or even last month, then you’re doing something profoundly wrong. Or you’re dead. One or the other.
Just as individuals change and grow, so too do relationships. A relationship isn’t just two (or more) individuals, it’s its own entity, a gestalt formed out of the people involved like a fleshy Voltron. And the nature of your relationship will change and grow, just as you two do.
The tricky thing is that sometimes couples grow together, in ways and directions that complement one another. Other times they grow apart; their own individual needs and journeys take them in directions that the other can’t follow. And so it goes with relationships; sometimes the relationship will grow in directions that ultimately conflict with the growth of the partners… and at other times, it simply comes to the end of its natural lifespan.
This isn’t a bad thing, per se. We treat it as one because, hey, it means the relationship ends. But that happens; every relationship you’ll ever be in ends, until one doesn’t. We assume that for love to be “real” or for a relationship to “work”, it has to last until someone dies. But that ultimately devalues relationships that were never meant to be lifelong. Not every love story is meant to be an epic poem. Some are meant to be novellas. Some are meant to be dirty limericks. The fact that you didn’t die in the saddle doesn’t mean that your relationship was a failure; it just meant that you reached the end of this particular story.
The trigger in this case was your wife’s growth. She made incredibly significant changes to her lifestyle — working out, changing her diet, even becoming a marathon runner. These aren’t the sorts of changes that one can do lightly. Becoming a marathon runner isn’t something that you can just do on weekends and alternate Tuesdays. These are the sorts of things that one builds his or her life around in order to accommodate them.
That’s something that can be hard to do in a relationship when only one person is involved. It’s like the line from Pulp Fiction - “My girlfriend’s a vegetarian, so that pretty much makes me one too”. The dynamics of trying to schedule around two radically different lifestyles, prepare meals for radically different diets… those are the sorts of things that can strain a relationship to its breaking point. The fact that she went full-tilt-boogie to becoming a competitive athlete over the course of five years and you didn’t is a bigger indicator of why things ended than anything else did.
But let’s talk about that elephant in the room: the fact that she got some work done, was Suddenly Sexy and now is out clubbing and partying. Despite how this may have seemed at the time, this wasn’t a radical or unexpected turn. If you were to ask her, I strongly suspect that your wife would tell you that this was something she’d always wanted to do… but until she made those changes, she didn’t feel as though she could. This is something that I see a lot in clients I work with: they have things that they want to do, but feel that they don’t have the right to because they’re not hot enough, thin enough, buff enough, whatever enough. So it remains a dream, locked away in a potential distant future that ultimately never comes because there will always be another reason why they aren’t permitted to achieve it.
Once your wife crossed the threshold with her initial transformation — becoming a marathon runner along with the healthy lifestyle she adopted — then she felt empowered to take the next step, and the one after that. Those changes were ultimately Dumbo’s magic feather; they were just the tokens that allowed her to give herself permission to do what she always could have done.
But therein lies the conflict. Because while she was always a club girl… you weren’t a club guy. It’s just not who you are. And while having separate lives and separate interests is part of what makes a relationship work, this was one more incompatibility, stacked up on top of the others. It would be one thing if you all were in sync in most areas, so she could go out and party without worrying about you, and you could do your own thing without worrying about her. But that difference on top of those other areas where your lifestyles just didn’t sync up? Those were what ultimately showed her that she had outgrown this relationship.
So, to answer your question: no, this isn’t your fault, if there is even any fault to be had. Not every relationship’s end is because somebody did something wrong. Sometimes relationships end just because they’ve reached the natural end of their lifespan.
Now to be perfectly frank, the lack of trust likely ended things a little sooner than it might have otherwise. Yeah, suddenly getting lots of attention can be flattering. But if you want a relationship to work, you need to trust that your partner means it when they say they love you and want you. If you’re constantly questioning that… well, that’s something that can damage even the strongest relationship. Even, or especially, when there’s no reason for distrust.
But even without that issue, this relationship would have ended on its own. Not because she was suddenly hot or because you weren’t keeping up with her, not because she let all this new attention go to her head and decided you weren’t enough for her, but because your lives just grew in different directions. That’s neither bad nor good; it just is.
Yes, it’s a shame that your relationship ended. That’s something to be sad about, something that you are right in mourning. But the fact that it ended before death did you part doesn’t mean that the relationship was a failure. You’re hurting now, and that hurt is legitimate. But you will heal. And if, as you heal, you can hold onto the core of affection and respect for one another that kept you together for over a decade, if you can hold onto the memories of the times when things were good… well, that’s a sign that your relationship was ultimately a success.
Your story together came to its end. Now it’s time to turn the page to the next chapter in your story. You have the chance to shape it any way you choose.
I’m a 27 year old bi woman in a 7 year relationship with a 33 year old guy. We’ve been living together for 5 years and have a relationship that seems pretty perfect- we like doing a lot of stuff together, we both support each other’s separate hobbies, we get along with each other’s families etc etc. Besides some of the classic LTR stumbles, like not always making enough time for sex or dating, I think most people would consider us a pretty good partnership.
Here’s the issue: when we started the relationship, we were both in university and had just exited emotionally (and in my case physically and sexually) abusive relationships. This meant that we both had our guards up pretty high and took things really slow and carefully at first.
At the time, being 20, I wasn’t sure about things like marriage or kids. Since then, we’ve learned to be really close, open and honest, and my partner has been mentioning marriage frequently over the past 5 or so years, and we’ve both agreed that we would like a kid.
Why is this a problem? Well, now I’m ready for marriage and a kid. And by ready, I mean feeling like I must be going crazy because after my partner having told me hundreds of times over years that he planned to marry me, now he doesn’t want a legal marriage, and suddenly doesn’t want to have a kid in the near future, after agreeing to a set date to start trying and encouraging me to switch birth control methods to something that’s cheap and easy to stop.
His rationale is mainly that we are typical millennials who don’t have a hope in hell of buying a real house, we live in an expensive city, and my job is seasonal and therefore not the best in terms of adding to our household income. I think he wants to feel financially secure enough to have student loans paid off and to own a place instead of renting before having a kid, but I have no idea why this is a holdup on the marriage thing.
I’ve learned through much therapy to be a pretty good communicator, but all of my attempts at understanding what’s going on are just dead ends. He’s still as affectionate and supportive as ever, but if I mention wanting to get married he says things about how he’s just so happy with our relationship and life now he doesn’t see the need to change anything, and it ends upmaking me look like some kind of villain who doesn’t appreciate the good things we have.
I’ve proposed a bunch of compromises on the marriage thing, but all he’ll say is to trust him, and that if I propose to him he will say no. Besides being helpful for us financially, I really want a commitment between us and to build a family together, and I feel like I’ve either been led on and gaslit, or I’m actually a bad person who doesn’t value what is mostly a good and supportive relationship. I had started making medical changes in preparation for pregnancy, because we had agreed on a timeline, but as soon as I came home with pre-natal vitamins he told me that we weren’t actually ready for kids, I had to hide the vitamins from our friends, and he has started checking daily on whether I’m taking my birth control, despite me assuring him that I don’t want to have a child who is not completely wanted and adored.
I really only want a kid because parenting with him would be a dream, and I love him so damn much that I want us to have a family together. I don’t know why my loving and kind partner has suddenly turned into someone who won’t even talk to me about these things that are making me miserable daily. Am I some kind of nagging, ring-obsessed girlfriend stereotype? Or is this an unfixable relationship mess?
My anxiety is being so triggered by this daily that I’ve had to up my medication, which in turn has my partner saying that I’m clearly not ready to be a mother. I have the same feelings coming back that I had with my abusive ex, that I can’t possibly “win”, that I’m being held hostage somehow. If I act like I’m happy, he tells me that we’re so happy we shouldn’t change anything, if I admit I’m anxious and sad, I’m told that means we shouldn’t have a kid. To add to this situation, my father has recently had a recurrence of melanoma and I’m now facing the very real possibility that if a marriage and a kid don’t happen in the next couple years, my dad won’t be there when they/if they do happen, which I can’t even think about without falling apart. I know you can’t mind read what’s going on with my partner, but what is going on, and how can I make it better for us?
Confused and Miserable
First of all, I’m so sorry about your father and I hope that he’ll be OK.
I don’t think you’re being gaslit, C&M, not in the traditional sense of the phrase. But that doesn’t mean that everything’s kosher here. I think your boyfriend, like a lot of folks, liked the idea of marriage and children in theory. But when rubber started to hit the road and it was beginning to look like it might go from “theory” to “actuality”, your boyfriend had what those of us in the dating advice biz call “a pants-shitting panic attack”.
Now in fairness, your boyfriend’s given you some understandable reasons for not wanting to have a child yet. But the fact that he’s not making any moves to change things tells me that those are excuses that he’s handing you because he doesn’t want to tell you the truth: he doesn’t want kids, period, the end.
I don’t necessarily think he was lying to you at first when he was talking about marriage and kids. It’s easy to like things in theory. It’s especially easy to like something when it’s something that’s so far down the road that you don’t really have to think about it in more than just abstract terms. Theoretical children are television-perfect, where they grow up on soap-opera time and the inconveniences they bring to your life are minor and ultimately reaffirming.
Real children are squealing, pissing, shitting messes that will turn your life upside down, twist it inside out and make you confront things that you may not ever want to engage with. If your boyfriend is the kind of guy who has Someday dreams — he’s gonna be a professional musician Someday, he’s going to write the Great American Novel Someday, he’s gonna start his own business Someday — then the reality of a child means that Someday is likely going to mean Never.
Someday is awesome, because it’s always full of potential, just out of reach but still within sight. And as soon as he has the responsibilities of a wife and kids? Well, that’s the time when he has to be willing to let go of Someday and its attendant dreams and focus on the needs of the here and now. Being a parent means that your life is now secondary to your child’s well-being, and some folks just aren’t ready or willing to make that sacrifice.
All of that, in and of itself, is one thing. Some folks don’t want to have kids for whatever reason, and good on them for knowing that about themselves. That’s not the problem, and in other circumstances, this would be less of an issue. As with S&S up there, it would be a sign of a lifestyle conflict, but it wouldn’t be causing you as much pain as you’re feeling now.
The problem is that your boyfriend is being a goddamn cowardly asshole about it. He’s not willing to take ownership of the fact that he doesn’t want to have kids. In all likelihood, this is because he knows good and well that this is ultimately a dealbreaker for you. You want kids and you want kids with him. His saying “look, I just don’t want children” would probably trigger a break-up.
But he’s not willing to take that step. He’s trying to square this particular circle and have things both ways: you and a child-free life. So instead of saying “hey, I don’t want kids”, he’s putting this on you. He’s saying “this is why you’re not ready”. He’s using your emotional state as proof that things can’t or shouldn’t change.
You’re not a nagging, ring-obsessed girlfriend, C&M and you’re not a bad person because this relationship is making you miserable. He may be happy with how things are now but you aren’t. And it’s not because you’re being unreasonable. You went into this with expectations that the two of you agreed upon — that you were going to have kids and here’s the timeline upon which you were going to have them. Your boyfriend changed his mind, but isn’t willing to admit that he has. And because he’s not willing to take responsibility for what he actually wants, he’s hurting you instead.
I don’t think he has malign intent, but intent ain’t magic. Especially not when he’s being a selfish dickhead about things. He may not realize how much he’s hurting you… but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s doing it anyway.
To be perfectly honest C&M, and as much as I hate to say it, I’m not sure this relationship is worth it for you. It may not be bad to make your boyfriend take a seat and have a straight-up Come-To-Jesus conversation so that you can at least get confirmation about how he actually feels. But that’s more for your own peace of mind and reassurance that no, you’re not the one at fault here.
I don’t think he’s going to change his mind about having children. If this is how he’s acting about it, that’s a good thing. As much as you may love him, and as good as your relationship was? I think this is an indicator that your relationship has changed and it’s time to let it go.
Did you have to make a radical change in your life? Were you able to pull your life back from the brink… or help someone else turn theirs around? Share your stories in the comments below 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 podcast. 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.