Hello, internet! Welcome to Ask Dr NerdLove, the only dating advice column that also protects Hell's Kitchen with anti-gentrification fists of justice. This week, we're going into our heads to unscrew our emotions. How do you make sure that you're not going to wake up in the future and realise you wasted your 20s? How do you stop letting your fears getting in your way?
Sometimes the only way out of Hell is to just keep on going. Let's see if we can illuminate the path a little.
Hey Dr. NerdLove, I have a problem. Maybe you have some advice?
My girlfriend and I have a great, healthy relationship and we love each other very much. We've been together for over 5 years, we've been living together for a little over a year, and are still always lovey dovey. We don't argue often, but when we do, we can normally communicate and come to an understanding or compromise. Honestly, I could really see myself marrying her.
So what's the problem, right?
Well, it's the first serious relationship either of us has been in. I had a girlfriend for a few months in high school, but it never went very far. And I'm her first. I'm almost 24 and she just turned 20. We got together right after I finished high school and right when she started. The problem is that I don't want to wake up one day when I'm in my 30's, 40's, or 50's and think that I squandered my youth.
I find myself every couple of months crushing on another girl, usually a coworker or something. Now I feel like that might be natural, so I never act on it other than some innocent flirting and it goes away eventually. Again, we've been going strong for 5 years. But I miss those feelings. I miss having crushes, and flirting, and getting to know someone, and the first stages of dating. I've also thought about all the people my age having casual hook ups. That's not really my style, but maybe I'd at least like to try it. I think I'm mostly being selfish, but it's not all for me either. I've had a tiny bit of experience, but she hasn't had any. I think it'd be good for both of us to try other things.
The thing is, I don't want to lose my girlfriend. Like I said, she's the only person I've ever seen myself marrying. It's a case of "Miss Right, but not Miss Right Now" I guess I want to have my cake and eat it too.
We had a conversation about it when we were around two years in. But neither one of us wanted to lose the other, so we kind of swept it under the rug and never talked about it again. Personally, I know I wouldn't find anyone better than her and I would still want her in the end. But I'm a teeny bit worried that she might. Mostly though I think she's afraid that I would.
I've talked to some of my work acquaintances about it (I don't really have any friends) and they always end up telling me I should just cheat. But that's not going to happen for a million different reasons. Surely there's got to be some other way.
So Doc, have you ever heard of a long term couple taking a year or so off to see other people and then getting back together in the end?
What about a temporary open relationship? She's always spoken out about other people's open relationships, calling them immature and excuses. But I mean... do they work? She may be open to it if we talk about it.
Got any other ideas?
OK, I'm going to do you a favour and save you some immediate heartbreak: taking a break is going to turn into a break-up. End of story. Similarly, an open relationship, no matter how temporary, is not going to solve your problem. While many people's relationships benefit from some form of non-monogamy, it takes a specific kind of person and a specific kind of relationship to make that work. Not only do I think that you're not necessarily in the right headspace, but it definitely doesn't sound like your girlfriend would be down with it either. All some non-monogamous arrangement is going to do for you right now is detonate your relationship.
As is so often the case, the problem you have isn't the problem you think you have. You are doing something that a lot of people do: you're busy borrowing trouble you don't actually have. You're getting heated up about the possibility of a problem, not a problem that actually exists.
I see this all the time when it comes to relationships, especially ones where one partner or both have relatively little experience. You don't actually have a problem — in fact, you're both pretty happy — but you wonder. What if you're making a mistake? What if you're squandering your youth? What if, what if, what if?
Fun thing about what-ifs: you can basically what-if any situation. What if you wake up in your 50s and wish you'd done more screwing around? What if you take a break from your girlfriend, date around and realise that no, she really was the person you should be with, but now she won't get back together with you? What if you break up with your girlfriend and then a meteor smashes into your apartment, killing you instantly? Sure, it's implausible… but what if??
What If is the language of paralysis. It's the language of your jerkbrain poking you in your anxieties, hitting you with that little nagging voice that asks: "What if you're missing out?"
What's behind those anxieties, that fear of missing out that seems to be bubbling up when you're otherwise perfectly happy? A couple of issues.
The first is that you — as many others have done before you — are buying into a myth of monogamy: that being in love with someone means that you no longer find other people attractive. That if you find your eye (and other bits) starting to wander, then there's something wrong with your relationship. Except, here's the thing: you're going to want to screw other people. So will your girlfriend. That's part and parcel of the human experience: we all want to bang people. The question is whether we choose to or choose not to. Crushes happen to everyone, no matter how happy and satisfied they are in their relationships.
Of course, it's almost a cliché that guys (and increasingly women, although the social opprobrium and slut-shaming still exists) are supposed to screw around before getting "locked down" with one person. But not everyone wants a ton of sex partners, nor does not having had them mean you're "missing out". The thing about sex is that it gets better with practise and with trust. Some strange gets that novelty, but the more trust and intimacy you have with a partner, the more you both get out of it because you have the foundation you need to really explore.
As a wise man once said: "I hear the second time around, they let you do the weird stuff."
And here's the other thing about wanting to bang other people: there's not really this point where you say "OK, that was enough." You may get tired of the dance and the uncertainty of trying to arrange one-night stands. You may get bored or frustrated with the effort it can take to maintain a casual relationship. You may decide you want something more committed, or to raise a family. But you aren't going to suddenly find yourself not interested in banging some strange. That desire for novelty stays with you. Welcome to being a mammal, hope you survive the experience.
The second issue is some classic bullshit about social narratives and gender roles.
Why, exactly, are you afraid of "wasting" your 20s? What, exactly, is it that you can do in your 20s that you can't do in your 30s? In your 40s? In your 50s? To quote a wise man: 30 is the new 20. In fact, as many people will tell you, your 30s are frequently better than your 20s. You have more money and more experience, and a better idea of who you are. Our society worships youth. So much of our pop-culture is about people in their teens and 20s doing amazing things, so we get these ideas that we can only be amazing in our teens and 20s. It becomes part of this cultural narrative that there's only one way to adult: that your 20s are for being flighty and experimental and your 30s onward are for being boring, settled-in adults.
You can have adventures in your 30s. You can have crazy sex with strangers in your 40s. You don't have a ticking clock telling you that you have only so many years before you're required to settle down and give up on excitement and adventure. Spending time worrying about what might happen in your future means that you're not enjoying the time you have now.
And that leads to the third issue: the fact that you and she both have relatively little (or no) experience. And the problem is… what, exactly? That she doesn't know what other dicks look like? That you haven't been face-first in more vag? That doesn't have anything to do with how you feel about each other.
Hell, have you even asked your girlfriend about whether she feels like she needs more experience? Or are you just projecting onto her?
Here's the thing about attraction and relationships: there is no one perfect person out there. There are millions of people out there who you could work with. But if you're always on the look-out for what might be out there, you miss out on what you have. How much sexual experience you may or may not have had doesn't equate to happiness or a successful relationship. Sexual compatibility is what's important, not how many people you have or haven't been inside of.
But what about the novelty? What about the spark? That rush of newness that you miss? Well, you can bring that back. Part of why passion fades in a relationship is because everybody settles. You quit making an effort. Things become routine; after months of burning up the sheets, you'll pass up on sex for a night's sleep or to watch House of Cards instead. Seduction is no longer part of the game because, well, why? It's kind of a guaranteed thing, no? But if you expect more and be more, you can recapture that feeling from the beginning. Little things — like choosing to act like you're a new couple — can remind you of just how exciting and intoxicating those early days were. Changing things up, getting out of your routine, even taking separate holidays and having new experiences to share when you get back together later all help you recapture that rush.
But right now, if you decide to "take a break"? You're not going to get back together. It's going to be a break-up because that message is "you're not good enough for me right now" and that message is going to hurt. And that's the sort of hurt it's really hard to come back from.
Before you get too far into your soul searching, I'd recommend you read Esther Perel's excellent Mating In Captivity, which is all about the complications of lust, desire and social domesticity and how to balance it all out in the course of a long-term relationship. I think it will help resolve some of the anxieties and FOMO you're feeling.
You have a good thing going, dude. You're happy, with someone you love, and you're torturing yourself over bullshit "what if" scenarios. If you want to end a great relationship over the idea of what might happen… that's your call. But it's like the quote I gave Heart at War last time: "there're a lot of beautiful women in the world. But they don't all bring you lasagne at work."
Don't let fears of the future keep you from enjoying your present.
Dear Doctor NerdLove,
I've been a reader of yours for a couple of years now and I can't tell you how much your articles have helped me. The problem though (or at least one of them) is that all of this help has extended no further than my brain and my bedroom. In the sense that I don't leave my damn bedroom. For the last two years I've lived like a virtual recluse. At my worst I've gone months without leaving the end of my driveway. I've lived depressed, occasionally suicidal and supremely isolated with the exception of my family that I live with.
A little more about me so that you can have some clarity: I'm twenty-four years old and have never so much as held hands with a girl. I realise this isn't that huge of a deal in and of itself, but seeing as how I have a pretty high sex drive it occupies a ton of mental real estate. I also don't let it define me, but again it bugs the shit out of me nonetheless. Top all of this off with some lifelong depression, anxiety and some occasionally severe isolating tendencies and I am in a pretty frustrated rut.
Overall all though, things have been getting better: I've rekindled some close old friendships, I tried Tinder and now OkCupid (which are probably my first concrete steps towards getting laid ever), and am now taking my mental health more seriously. I've also realised that I have a lot of things going for me. I'm smart, good looking, and funny as long as I can relax.
My main problem and reason for writing you is that as bad as I want sex, love, or anything in between I am extremely terrified of the entire process and don't know if I should even start now when my mental health is so fragile and I have lived so isolated. Like when you live like me and have these problems where the hell is the best place to start? Should I even start? Or focus on my mental health? Or do both?
How do I develop confidence when everything involved in growing it scares the ever loving shit out of me? Sorry if I am starting to ramble, but it is really easy to be overwhelmed and very hard to know where to begin. I guess at the end of it all I am just looking for someone to point me in the right direction.
Where The Fuck Do I Start?
Here's where you start, man: you start by talking to a therapist. If you're dealing with depression, especially depression with suicidal ideation, then you need to be talking to a mental health professional, not just a loud-mouth with a column. As I like to remind people: Dr NerdLove is not a real doctor.
And trust me: I've dealt with depression most of my life. One of the best decisions I ever made was to let go of the idea that I should be able to "just deal with" it or that it was just how things were. I had to go ask for help. I can tell you: being willing to say "OK, I can't handle this on my own" quite literally saved my life.
By writing to me, I think you're showing that you're ready. That's pretty damn big, WTFDIS. That takes a lot of guts. That takes a lot of strength. That's something to be proud of.
So the first thing I want you to do is take care of yourself. That's job #1, full stop. Everything else can wait until you're in a better place, emotionally and mentally. Do yourself a favour and don't try to rush things under the assumption that you're "running out of time" or that you should get better faster than you are. Healing takes time, and trying to take short-cuts in the name of a non-existent deadline is only going to make things harder. You live your life at your own pace and your own schedule, not anybody else's.
And when you are ready to start looking for love? Take it slow. Don't start off looking for the love of your life; just go looking to meet interesting, awesome people. Making friends, building your social circle, slowly easing your way out of this isolation you've been living in… that's going to be huge. That's going to be amazing. Let that be your focus. Find the things that you're passionate about and use those passions to meet people who share them. That's going to bring you in contact with all kinds of incredible, awesome people in a natural, almost effortless way. By simply living your life, you're going to find that some of those people are folks you'll be interested in dating and who'll be interested in dating you.
I won't lie: there'll be hard times. You'll make mistakes, just like everyone else does. There'll be folks who you will fall for who won't feel the same way. There will be relationships that you wish would work with your heart and soul but just won't. You'll get hurt… but you'll recover. You'll get back up again, because you're strong, and you're resilient, and you'll realise that as sad as it was that things didn't work out the way you hoped this one time, there will be more chances to get it right.
There's going to be a lot of hard work, starting with getting yourself to a better place. But you've got the guts and the grit to make this happen. It will be scary. It may be the hardest thing you'll ever do. But you'll make it.
You've got this.
Good luck. And be sure to write back so we know how you're doing.
*** Do you have experience with dealing with temptation in a relationship? Did you have to wrestle with depression and anxiety? 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.
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