Ask Dr NerdLove: Can This Relationship Be Saved?

Ask Dr NerdLove: Can This Relationship Be Saved?

Hello all you post-Singularity orgasm-antelopes of the noosphere, and welcome to Ask Dr NerdLove, the only dating advice column that helps you speedrun through your awkward dating years and get straight to the final level of relationship success.

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This week, we’re talking about how you fix things when you’ve just done screwed up. What does it take to pull a relationship back from the brink of destruction, especially when it may be your fault? What damage can be repaired, and what is the point of no return? What sins do you need to confess to and which are better left unsaid?

It isn’t a fun topic, but it’s often a necessary one. So let’s dive in and deal with these glitches.

Good Morning, Doctor Nerdlove,

I am sorry to bother you and frankly have no idea why I am doing this… maybe I just need to vent. I have been married to a wonderful woman for five years (we just celebrated our fifth anniversary), and have been together for just over 10 years. We have three children, a girl from her former relationship who is pretty nerdy but struggles in school, and twins who are witty and smart as fuck. For almost the entirety of our marriage, there have been problems usually coming to a head near our anniversary. Some background:

Right after we got engaged I made some really bad financial choices. This sets both of us back years in terms of money and where/what we wanted to do with our lives. Simply put, I put us from mid-middle class to poverty line. A year after this happened, my job was eliminated in a corporate acquisition. I used to make as much as my wife (an RN nurse with two master degrees and a lot of letters I can’t remember after her RN) but the loss of my job hit us hard, especially with the twins so new in the world. For six months we struggled by with her pay and what little I could get from unemployment benefits but it was hard. I was eating only once a day and my wife was taking what she could get in free food and handouts at the hospital… but the kids ate and that’s the important part.

Around when the twins turned two I got a management job at a shipping company. It didn’t make as much as my previous job. At first, everything was good, it was good pay, good hours that we could use family to babysit for, and so on. However, soon my hours got switched to evenings and all went to hell.

Our problems weren’t just about money; some was my being an oversized man-child at the time. I was not nice or civil in any of our arguments about money, I belittled her, yelled, and basically threw temper-tantrums, using false equivalencies, gaslighting, every dirty trick you could think of. I also started to fall into a depression due to the fights and soon gained a good chunk of weight and stopped helping out around the house. My wife would ask me to do something (like change the basement light bulb) and it would be months before I did it. This persisted for a long time. I got less mean during fights, and eventually, the biggest point of contention was that I refused to admit when I was wrong (I used what I have come to call the Obi-Wan argument of “from a certain point of view…”).

The new job didn’t work out. We couldn’t afford me working and daycare costs after the hours switched to the evenings. Eventually, we settled on me just being a stay-at-home dad. I was (and still am) pretty bad at it. I love my children, but being put in charge of teaching them, getting them ready for their school years to come, playing with them, housework, cooking — basically successfully doing what women in Western culture have been doing since the beginning of time — was too much, and things began to slip. First, it was long spats of laundry not being done, then it was a drop in quality of food prep. Eventually, I shaped up a bit but it was too little, too late. Now if I forget a child’s sock on the floor all my past crimes are drilled back into my head.

And to me, that’s the issue: Everything I have ever done she remembers in crystal-clear detail, and I, on the other hand, can’t remember what shirt my kid wore to school today. Last week I messed up three times. My wife came at me with all the mistakes, in a very negative way, and in front of our kids I blew up at her. We tried to talk again last night and that blew up too after I asked why she was being so passive-aggressive with me… I slept on the sofa after an hour of her yelling variations of:

“Something you did in the past, fuck you, My Name”

At the moment I’m alone with the kids… I really don’t want to be with the kids; love them as I may I can’t help but place some of the catalyst of blame on them. “If they’d just learned when I was trying to teach them…” “If they’d just behaved when I was trying to do work on my Master’s…” on and on. I don’t like to admit it but I have come to a point that I resent my kids — if they weren’t around I wouldn’t have had to leave multiple decent-paying jobs. If they weren’t around I would have the time to do the work about me. I still would have fucked up the money but maybe that wouldn’t have been such a huge issue if it weren’t for the existence of children.

I am sorry… at this point, I am all over the place. Essentially, my life sucks, my marriage is near collapse, I think I hate my kids and I need advice on how to fix it that doesn’t involve marriage counselling because my wife refused utterly when I broached the subject.


Out of Time

The time to fix things was a long-arse time ago, OoT. You don’t need Dr NerdLove, you need The Doctor. ‘Cuz right now, about the only thing that can fix your relationship is going to be hopping into the TARDIS and ignoring a whole bunch of rules about not crossing your own timeline.

Relationships, like people, can be hardy things. There are relationships that can sustain biblical levels of hardship, and everyone involved can still cling to the core of love, respect and affection. Others can be as fragile as spun glass, where the slightest hint of conflict causes them to fall apart.

The thing that defines whether a relationship survives or falls apart is how the couple responds to hardship. Do you see the struggle as something that you have to endure and hope for the best, or is it something that you work to overcome as a team? Do you celebrate even the minor successes while finding ways to downplay the bad, or is it just one giant shitstorm? Couples who fight as a team tend to be the ones who come through the crisis. In fact, they tend to be all the stronger for it; they have been tested and tempered in fire.

You and your wife didn’t come together as a team. In fact, this comes pretty close to being a textbook way to not survive a crisis. You did almost everything you could to push her away. Yelling and fighting is bad, but it happens. But you made a major mistake: You weren’t fighting to fix things, you were fighting to wound. And boy fucking howdy, did you. Everything you listed — gaslighting, belittling her and those tantrums — are a horrible way to treat someone you love and a great way to damage your relationship.

I get that you were dealing with a lot of shit all at once. Working the night/graveyard shift is a motherfucker on people, your mental health and even your ability to just rest. It’s understandable how that’s going to fuck with your head, just on a biological level. Similarly, there’s no shame in things being difficult or in being frustrated or angry. For a lot of men, being The Provider is a core part of their identity as men; when that’s taken away from them, they’re at a loss. Their status as a man is threatened. Studies have actually found that men whose wives make more money than they do suffer from depression and erectile dysfunction. 

But while all of this was understandable, it doesn’t justify how you behaved. The way you behaved toward your wife didn’t just wound your relationship, it created an infection and allowed contempt to creep in. That, more than anything else, is destroying your marriage. Your wife isn’t interested in fixing things because, frankly, she doesn’t want to.

Meanwhile, you’re at a place where you see your wife and kids as hindrances as you try to fulfil a role you seem to be unsuited for. This on the whole is a recipe for a marriage that is already over. It’s just shambling along like a zombie, waiting for someone to put a bullet in its brainpan.

And to be perfectly blunt: That may be a better option right now. If you’re sitting around in a stew of resentment over your kids and your wife has decided she’s never going to forgive and certainly never let you forget, then it may be better for everyone to make as clean a break as possible. It’s a heartbreaking choice, but it may also be the kindest, especially for your children. Trust me: The kids would rather not be living in an environment of constant anger and resentment, even if it means that Mum and Dad aren’t together any more.

If nothing else, the distance may also be what you need for the wounds to heal. If you two are always relitigating old fights and reopening old injuries, then being around each other is a constant irritant. Ending the relationship may be what allows those grievances to fade instead of both of you storing them like passive aggressive squirrels stockpiling hate-nuts for the winter.

I really wish I had happier advice for you, man. Can you save things? Maybe. It’s a shot so long you might be better off just buying a lottery ticket instead. Your wife may not want to go to marriage counselling — again, she seems to have basically checked out — but you can go by yourself. Going to a marriage counsellor could possibly teach you the communication and relationship management skills that you need with the way your marriage is now. That mixed with some therapy and a whole metric fuckton of apologies and work might — and I stress the word might — mean that you could pull this marriage out of the nosedive it’s currently in.

As it is, though, you’ve lost your “but” — as in “Yeah, he isn’t great as a stay-at-home dad but he makes me laugh” or “but he makes up for it in other ways”. Once the “but” is gone from those complaints? Then it’s just a matter of waiting for the end credits to roll.

TL;DR: You screwed the pooch a few years back, dude, and there’s really no way to un-screw it without 1.21 gigawatts and a working Flux Capacitor.

Good luck.

Hi Doc,

I’ve always loved reading your columns, but now it seems I may need some advice regarding my situation.

This story involves two guys, let’s call them A and B.

A is my current boyfriend. We’ve been in a relationship for two months. The beginning of our relationship was built online, though we actually met in real life after a little more than a month.

B is a Tinder hookup I slept with a few months back. We’ve barely maintained contact.

One thing to note, however, is that I know A through B, as they have both been friends for years. A is aware that I have slept with B previously, and while he trusts me, he still feels jealous and insecure (this in itself is not a problem for me, as it didn’t escalate into anything toxic).

When I first got to know A, we crushed on each other at a pretty early stage. However, I didn’t take my feelings for A seriously; at that point as we were closer to being sexting buddies than an actual couple. During this time, B came back into my life after months of radio silence. He suddenly tells me that he wants to sleep with me again despite being aware that A and I were starting to date. Long story short I accepted, which I regretted. It was shortly after sleeping with him again that realised my feelings for A were very strong and I wanted to pursue a committed relationship with him.

Being pretty ashamed of my situation, I kept this a secret from A as our relationship gradually progressed into something serious. Maybe if I had kept silent, A would have never known a thing, but the guilt made me spit it out. A was mad that I had lied to him, but wasn’t mad at the act itself as he didn’t consider it to be cheating since we weren’t exclusive at that moment. However he made me promise I wouldn’t lie to him again.

Now this is where things get complicated. I didn’t tell him the whole truth. Knowing that A is jealous of my previous physical relationship with B, I kept the identity of the man I slept with secret, making it sound like I slept with a different guy than B. This, in a way, constitutes a lie.

All this leads to my current situation: I feel conflicted as I want to admit the whole truth to A (especially because of the promise I made him), but at the same time I am afraid the jealousy could potentially ruin the years-long friendship between A and B. Meanwhile, although A doesn’t consider my action to be cheating, I feel immense guilt: Most of this relationship having been built online, the boundary between “casual” and “exclusive” hadn’t always been clear until he officially asked me to be his girlfriend (however there had been instances before this where he would qualify me as his girlfriend).

Should I stay silent or should I expose everything? Am I actually an arsehole for sleeping with B? How do I deal with the guilt?

As always, thanks for helping us nerds.

A Conflicted Girlfriend

Ever hear the phrase “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up”, ACG? The problem isn’t that you slept with B (well, sort of… more on this in a second), it’s that you lied about it to your boyfriend.

You fucked up here. It would have been a lot better to admit that you hooked up with B again than to play word games and hope that you didn’t get caught. The immediate fallout would have been awkward and painful but something that could be worked through over time, especially as your relationship with A grew.

Now? You’re stuck with having misled your boyfriend, knowing that this is a sore spot for him. Even if it was technically the truth, technicalities only work in court. Technically correct is going to mean exactly jack and shit to A’s feelings — and Jack left town.

Plus: You slept with B, knowing that A had issues with your history with him. Yeah, you weren’t exclusive yet. Yeah, A’s jealousy is his shit to work through. That’s still a shitty thing to do. B going for someone his bro was dating is bad enough. You compounded it by doing something you know would hurt A if he ever found out.

So, yeah, you were an arsehole for sleeping with B, specifically. It’s not a crime that can never be forgiven, but it was a bad call. But it is what it is. As with Out of Time, it happened, and unless you’re sitting on a Time Turner it can’t unhappen. Now you get to live with it.

This leaves us with the question of: Now what? Is it better to stuff this down the memory hole and hope that nothing ever comes of it or pull the trigger before this becomes a case of the Telltale Hookup?

Well, there’re a few of questions that you should be asking yourself.

Which option is going to cause the least harm? Not telling A that you lied is causing you worlds of guilt, but what will telling him do? For a lot of people, confessing makes them feel better, but it ends up making the person being confessed to feel worse. Will this knowledge hurt A in and of itself? After finding out that their partner had cheated, a lot of people would have been happier not knowing, especially when it was just a one-time slip-up. Even if it didn’t blow up the relationship, there’s still value in ignorance. In this case, not knowing you went back to B — and lied about it — might be kinder to A.

So consider the potential fallout here. You might feel better, but A is going to be hurt. Not just with you but potentially with B, especially since B decided to make his play for you when you knew how you felt about your boyfriend. You may not have been exclusive yet, but that’s still a shitty thing for a dude to do to someone he considers a friend.

What’s the upside for A if you confess? He gets to know a truth that, ultimately, isn’t hurting him. Maybe this will detonate the friendship. Maybe it won’t. Maybe it will detonate your relationship with A — you did break your promise to not lie again. Both are risks you’ll have to weigh as you consider things versus just living with the guilt.

Another point to consider is what the odds are that A will find out anyway. Even if you’re able to take your secret to the grave, is B as likely to keep his trap shut? Or is it more likely that B will shoot his mouth off, accidentally or deliberately? If it’s more likely that A will find out, whether someone blabs or there’s evidence still lurking somewhere, then it’s almost certainly better that he hears it from you first.

Personally? I think that choking down the lie and dealing with the guilt for lying is the least bad choice here. A doesn’t have to deal with unnecessary pain or drama in his life and possibly lose two relationships for the price of one. You, on the other hand, may not get to unburden yourself of that guilt, but that may be for the best. Take it as penance for what you’ve done and use it to be a better girlfriend in the future.

But that’s just me, and I’m not in the middle of this. You have to weigh the odds and the stakes, make your choice and live with the consequences of having done so.

Good luck.

Did you get caught in a lie in your relationship? Did you and your partner get through hard times together? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. And meanwhile, we’ll be back with more of your questions in two weeks.

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.


  • Out of Time, I pity your wife and kids. There’s so much to say, but all I can think to type is just…

  • I hope OoT gets the help he needs, he sounds like he is in a really bad place. As for A Conflicted Girlfriend Id go scorched earth and just drop the lot and start again. All that stress and guilt is not worth it for what 2 month relationship!

  • a whole metric fuckton of apologies and work
    The problem is that OoT has demonstrated once and again that he’s unwilling to put the work necessary towards anything. He’s pretty much half-assed everything, most crucially when he should have been humbled (by having to be financially supported by his wife) into going out of his way to make sure he was going an extra mile after the first ten extra miles. Now, even though he seems to believe he’s doing better, he is still subconsciously shifting the blame (this time on his kids) which is the usual way in which someone who half-asses things justifies doing so.

    As for ACG, I’d actually recommend coming out clean. She seems to believe that keeping it shut would “protect” the friendship of those two guys, but it is clear that guy B holds that friendship in contempt. Hell, the fact that he was so brazen to out of the blue sexually propose to a love interest of a friend makes him extremely suspect of not being able to keep his mouth shut in the future. Coming out clean NOW is the smartest choice. And if it ends the relationship, nevertheless? Well sorry to say that ACG brought it up on herself and hopefully a lesson is learned.

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