Welcome to Ask Dr NerdLove, the column also known as the Oncoming Storm, the Bringer of Darkness, and… right, supposed to be answering your dating questions, aren't I.
This week, we're taking on a couple of thorny relationship questions - how do you handle relationships when they seem to bring out the worst in you? One reader wants to know why he seems to be living in his own dating version of Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde, while another needs some advice on how to handle trauma and jealousy issues in an open relationship. Heads up: The second letter deals with rape and its aftermath.
Let's get into it.
I recently got out of my first real long-term relationship, and now I'm questioning if I even have the right personality to be in a relationship. I've heard that a great partner can make you a better person; I'm hoping that the reverse is true, because I don't like who I became.
I'm not going to say too much about her, or the relationship itself, but briefly:
We got together due to a bunch of shared interests, and things went incredibly well at first. Think poetry, love songs, etc.. Things went, in their time, from "great" to "good," then, more slowly, from "good" to "ok," where things stayed for an extended period of time.
During the "ok" phase, a lot of other things were going on: I got a promotion at work; I bought a house (by myself), I got new pets, one of which got sick (but recovered), money started getting tighter, and I started getting stressed due to all of the above.
As the "ok" period dragged on, the relationship started getting less ok. I started dreading phone calls, which grew ever-more-frequent, which only made it worse. She was very attractive, but I was finding myself highlighting her physical flaws when thinking of her. At one point, towards the end, she made a self-demeaning comment, and I replied, "Oh, come on, you're not that fat" (I know. I regretted that immediately, but I don't think I ever apologised).
My work ethic, which I've always been proud of, started to suffer; I'd show up late for work, do a half-assed job, and go home. My temper, which has always had a long fuse, started to grow shorter. I started to become more arrogant, more narcissistic, more self-righteous. The poetry had long since stopped, and I resented her for asking or implying that I should write more. Things she did that bothered me a little started to fill my vision, as opposed to being minor distractions. Looking back, I can see signs of that transformation going back to nearly the end of the "honeymoon period."
I finally ended the relationship, and within a few days, I started to feel more like myself again. I still don't think I've fully recovered, but I've made great strides towards getting back to being a person I can be proud of.
I just want to make this clear: I don't blame her for any of this. She is a kind, charitable, friendly, talented, and altogether beautiful person, and if the relationship didn't work out, then either we share the blame equally, or I'm at fault for allowing this transformation to happen.
I suppose my story boils down to these two questions: Am I destined to become a bad person whenever I'm in a relationship, and, is there any way that I can prevent becoming this person again in the future?
Worried He's Actually a Terrible, Arsehole Misogynist Inside.
It's an understandable fear, WHATAMI, but I think you're misreading the cause.
I suspect the problem is less that you've got the wrong personality for dating and more to do with the fact that you were dealing with your first serious relationship during a time of increasing stress and fundamental changes in your life.
I mean, let's run down the list here: you got a promotion at work, which comes with increased responsibility. You bought two pets - even more responsibility - and then one got sick, which can be incredibly stressful. You bought a goddamn house! Money got tight! Your relationship was starting to go south!
Frankly, it's kind of understandable that you were increasingly annoyed and snappish with your girlfriend. There's all this profound, life-altering shit going on and you're running around trying to keep it all contained, if not actively under control. This is the sort of thing that's going to test your patience and - incidentally - your relationship.
We all have limited mental and emotional bandwidth; some of us have more, some have less, but it's a finite amount. Unless you're the Buddha himself, you're going to run out. Then your nerves are going to be on edge, your temper's going to be short and you're going to get snappish and pissy with people even when you don't mean to. You're going to pull inwards, maybe even get a little self-centered because, frankly, you've barely got enough mental energy to handle your own shit, nevermind anyone else's!
And then there's the fact that you were in your first serious relationship. That first relationship is always going to be a challenging learning experience; you're going to get in over your head, you're going to fight, you're going to experience the highs and lows, you're going to mistake the honeymoon period for the baseline of the relationship, you're going to make mistakes and more often than not, you're going to break up. This isn't a judgement on you or your ex or the strength of your relationship, it's simply a matter of experience. When you're not used to being in a relationship, you may well not have taken the levels in the skillsets that are necessary to navigate these rough patches.
Now to be clear: the fact that you were stressed as fuck is understandable, but it doesn't excuse the fact that you were a dick to your girlfriend. That's on you. But honestly, in the realm of dickishness, it sounds pretty minor and in the end, you did the right thing: you ended the relationship. This was best for you and best for her.
Notice how you said that you started going back to normal after you and she broke up? You removed one source of stress from your life, freeing up that emotional bandwidth. You had more mental energy to deal with the other issues in your life. And now that you've gone through this once and you've learned what your patterns are when you get stressed, you're in a better position to handle things the next time life throws a few curveballs your way - because it will, relationship or no.
So no, WHATAMI, I don't think that you're a simmering, latent misogynist. You're a human, flawed and imperfect as everyone else.
Here's what you do for next time: learn how to deal with stress more productively. If you need space so you can just focus on one thing at a time, ask for space. If there are things that your next girlfriend can do that will make life easier, then let her know instead of trying to give your full attention to everything at the same time. And remember that rough patches are going to happen - that's a universal truth in any relationship. It's how you and your partner handle them that determines whether the relationship survives them.
This was a learning experience. Take what you've gained from this and apply it to your next relationship. After all, that one's going to have its own unique challenges, too.
Dear Dr NerdLove,
My fiancée and I have been in a non-monogamous relationship for most of our relationship; we had been exclusive over a period of about four or five months following a minor nervous breakdown that my fiancée had suffered due to a one-night stand (apparently it had been very dubious consent-wise, but she's never really spoken about it).
From my perspective, the open relationship has worked out fantastically. I've deepened my friendship with lots of people - even people I'm no longer sleeping with, or ever had any explicit romantic or sexual connection with. I currently have ongoing sexual relationships with two other women, both of which my fiancée is well-informed about, and she's met both women.
My fiancé, however, has not benefitted from this arrangement. Besides the aforementioned one night stand, she's casually dated a few people to no real outcome... and was raped on a first date by a man she met off the internet, a little over two weeks ago.
Obviously that was huge and pretty devastating, not just for her, but for me as well; on top of my guilt that she was only in that situation because of me, hearing the account she gave to the police brought up unpleasant flashbacks to the (sometimes violent) sexual assaults that I was a victim of in the past.
Despite these issues, we've managed to resume a sexual relationship quickly; things are going well, but obviously the dynamic is somewhat changed. However, I feel that we should put non-monogamy on hold for a while; my concern is she put herself in danger because of unresolved feelings of "not keeping up with" me, and even though she won't be dating now (or at least not for a while), that those unresolved grudges are going to eat away at her. She's more or less refusing to even talk about that option, as she seems to feel that non-monogamy is something that I "need". Obviously my current concerns rest much more on her happiness than anything else.
Completely Unprepared For This
First of all, CUFT, I am so sorry for what you and your fiancé have gone through; it's a testament to her strength and the strength of your relationship that the two of you have been able to recover from this as well as you have.
Now before I get too far into this, I should say that I'm a believer in ethical non-monogamy. Traditional monogamous relationships are, contrary to what our culture tells us, incredibly difficult to perform perfectly, and many people aren't cut out for it.
However, non-monogamy in its many forms isn't easy either. It requires a great deal of trust and communication between partners, and if you're not careful it can magnify problems that already exist within the relationship. And that is why I'm telling you: close your relationship right the hell now.
Mutually open non-monogamy is not a healthy option for you and your fiancé, and the way you're practicing it right now may not be healthy for your relationship at all. Let's start with how things have been working out for the two of you.
Your relationship is actually a rare inversion of the usual dynamic in non-monogamous couples. One of the trickier issues in many open relationships is that women tend to have an easier time finding partners than men do, leading to feelings of jealousy and resentment. This is fairly understandable; men tend to be more open to having sex with a (relative) stranger regardless of relationship status because they are less at risk socially and physically than women are. And in this case, your wife has now had two dangerous encounters with other men. If you're right and she is trying to keep apace with you, then it's possible that she's taking risks with her choice in partners. But it's hard to tell if that's the case because you two don't seem to be talking about this.
It's sweet — in a self-destructive kind of way, I guess — that she's concerned about your sexual needs here. But non-monogamous relationships require clear, open and unambiguous communication, including about the potential of closing the relationship. Not being willing to discuss the possibility of closing up your relationship — whether temporarily or for good — shuts down those open lines of communication that are so vital. If she isn't willing to listen to you when you say that you're OK with closing things, that's not good.
Right now you need to close this relationship. Keeping it open as it currently stands is not going to be healthy for you, your fiancé or your relationship. I also think the two of you would benefit from seeing a sex-positive relationship counselor to see if you can sort out some of the issues surrounding how things have been going. If she is feeling pressure to keep up with you, and if that pressure is leading her into dangerous situations, then this is something the two of you need to work out together.
Meanwhile, if (and that's a mighty big if) you two do decide to reopen your relationship, you may want to consider a different form of non-monogamy. Considering your fiancé's circumstances, it may make more sense to try swinging and playing exclusively as a couple; this, at least, means that you both can vette future play partners and help ensure that future activities don't get "dubious, consent-wise".
But until then: close the relationship.
Did your relationship survive a time of crisis? Have you had any misadventures with ethical non-monogamy? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments and we'll be back in two weeks with more of your dating questions.
Ask Dr Nerdlove is Kotaku's fortnightly advice column for matters of the heart, hosted by the one and only Harris O'Malley, AKA Dr Nerdlove.
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. He is also a regular guest at One Of Us. He can be found dispensing snark and advice on Facebook and on Twitter at @DrNerdLove. Dr Nerdlove is not really a doctor.