Ask Dr. NerdLove: We Survived A Cult, But Our Marriage Didn't

Hello all you gentlemen bastards of the Internet, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only dating advice column that helped tame the wild, wild west.

This week, we’re tackling the challenges of marriage and long-term relationships. What do you do when you don’t work as a couple but you can’t leave your relationship? What about when one party has unilaterally ended your sex life? Are there compromises to be had, or is it time to leave?

It’s time to pay those outstanding bounties or go back to being outlaws of love. Let’s do this.

Hey Doc,

I’m struggling to not be overwhelmed and depressed with the situation I am in now. I am 26, male, and obese. I’ve been married for over 7 years and while there has been plenty I look back on with fondness it has been full of hardships, growing and learning.

Recently, my wife and I have come to the conclusion that, while we overall are great friends we each are not getting something from this relationship at this time. However there are a lot of factors that prevent a clean split.

1) She has a lot of physical and mental health problems and has not been able to hold a job for more than a few months.

2) We both came out of a cult recently and have no real family or friends to turn to for help or comfort.

3) I work full-time but I do not make much money which puts us on the lowest income bracket so moving is impossible for us to achieve at this time.

Despite all these issues, I do still love her and want to help her get every opportunity to grow and heal. I can’t abandon her due to her issues and even if she didn’t have so many obstacles I find hard to let her go, I find myself not wanting her out of my life. I don’t harbour any resentment or pain towards her.

I know I don’t want to be alone in my life, I wouldn’t do well single. While I take care of my wife, she wouldn’t mind if I dated someone else. I do want to find someone but I get depressed when thinking of the enormity of the task that will be. Besides the obvious of I’m married, we live in a rural, conservative, religious state known for its great outdoors activities and beauty.

While I like looking at the outside, I am introverted, liberal, and an atheist. I like indoor activities and nerdy things. I also have a high libido and am into some kink. I’m the opposite of most people here. I don’t doubt there are like minded people in my city, I have no idea where to start and even then I feel hopeless thinking of all the things that I would want out of a partner.

I know not to be picky about who I choose to date but I am not outgoing enough to go to bars or forward enough to message random women on dating apps. I don’t want a bunch of short term relationships, I want someone to keep growing with me and for someone to spend the rest of my life with.

I don’t know if I should just give up for now until me and my wife can sort things out with her health and our financial situation or keep trying and failing? Any advice or thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

The Great Indoors

I feel like you kind of buried the lede there, TGI. I mean, “escaped a cult” is generally not the sort of thing that one leaves as an “Oh and beeteedubs…” part of the conversation. It does, however, explain a lot of why you’re having a hard time letting go of this relationship.

One of the great misunderstandings people have about relationships is how hard it can be to end one, even when the relationship itself is fundamentally over. Bad relationships are hard to leave as it is; it’s even harder to leave one where there is no overt casus belli or major conflict or incompatibility. It’s harder still when, in a very real way, you are responsible for another person’s wellbeing.

You’re in the unenviable position of being a caretaker for somebody, with few viable alternatives. Thanks to having escaped that cult and the isolation it no doubt brought, you and your wife don’t have family or community that you can turn to to help. You’re functionally out there on your own with no real place to turn. If you were to leave… well, then your wife is, bluntly, fucked.

This is one of those times when divorce — even if you two were to continue to live together as friends and roommates — is actually not a great option. Marriage is more than just a legal contract or a ceremony in front of friends and family. It also conveys a multitude of legal rights and benefits, including next-of-kin, power of attorney and — crucially — being able to have your partner covered by your insurance and Social Security benefits.

This puts the both of you in an awkward situation. Companionate marriages exist, yes, but you’re both very young to choose that as an option. In an ideal world, you two could work to get to a place where your wife could manage some degree of self-sufficiency and the two of you could have an amicable divorce and go your separate ways. But from what you’re describing, it sounds like such an opportunity would arrive years down the line, if ever.

So let’s talk about what you can do in the meantime.

You and your wife have already talked about opening things up, which is good ... but that is ultimately just a starting point. While an open relationship would mean that you could look outside the relationship for sex, it sounds to me like you’re looking for something a little more emotionally involved.

Were I you, I would suggest looking into a polyamorous relationship, rather than just an open one. This would let you find a new romantic relationship, without necessarily leaving your wife and bringing on the hardships that would result from that.

Of course, that would have its own complications; while non-monogamous relationships are finding greater acceptance and becoming less uncommon, poly people and folks who are open to polyamory are still relatively thin on the ground. But uncommon isn’t the same as non-existent, even in rural, conservative states… especially if you’re living in one of the bigger cities or college towns. The trick is just finding people.

Before you get started, I suggest that the two of you do your due diligence on just what an open or poly relationship would entail. Start by doing your research. I strongly suggest that you and your wife read The Ethical Slut by Janet Hardey, More Than Two by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert, Opening Up by Tristan Taormino and Building Open Relationships by Liz Powell.

As the two of you do your reading, decide just what an open relationship would look like for the two of you. What are the rules, what are the limits and what are you both willing to do? Once you two have that sorted — and not before — you can start looking for a potential partner.

This is where the Internet is your friend. The key is to use it judiciously. First and foremost, you want to get on OKCupid… but you aren’t going to message people at random. One of the benefits of dating apps like OKC is that they let you filter for exactly what you want in a potential match. That includes people who are open to non-monogamy and poly arrangements.

It means that, rather than tossing out messages like darts and hoping for the best, you’ll be able to find people who’ve opted in to the kind of relationship you’re looking for. And by presenting yourself as non-monogamous, you’ll be making it possible for them to find you, too.

Another resource you should consider is Facebook. Yes, Facebook. A lot of cities with poly communities often have support groups and organised meet-ups, and many of those are organised via Facebook. If you search for “poly” and “your state”, you may find groups and communities that you didn’t realise exist — if not in your immediate area, than possibly within the distance of a reasonable commute.

You should also leverage your interests… specifically, your interest in kink. The overlap in Venn diagram between the kink community and the poly community is very large indeed. While not all kinksters are poly and not all poly folks are kinky, there are plenty who are. That would also have the benefit of connecting you with like-minded folks who share your interests, which makes it much easier and less intimidating to get to know them.

Not only could that help you connect with potential partners — either for play or for more — but it can help you expand your social circle and end the isolation you and your wife have been experiencing. As another added benefit: if not all of them are interested in the kind of relationship you’re into, they very well may know people who are.

Again, this is where the Internet is your friend. Create a profile on FetLife and start getting to know people in your area. Keep in mind: FetLife is not a dating site.

It’s closer to Facebook for folks who like BDSM ... but you can get to know people on there. More importantly, it can also help you find the local munches — the semi-regular get-together for the local kinksters — and make valuable connections that could lead to potential partners.

But while you’re working on those options, I’d also suggest looking for ways to ease the pressure on yourself as the sole breadwinner and caretaker. Start by looking into what medical and mental health resources are available to you, especially if you can plead financial hardship.

There are a number of low-cost — or even free — mental healthcare options out there, which can help ease the load you have to carry.

Similarly, while your wife may not be able to work a standard 9-to-5, are there jobs that she could take, either as part of the gig economy or on a freelance basis? Are there things she could do via Fiverr or TaskRabbit? Even a small side-hustle could help get the two of you in a place where you could finally go your separate ways.

I’m not gonna lie: you’re in a tough spot, TGI. But tough isn’t the same as impossible. It may be intimidating. It may be scary as all hell. But you have more than you realise and you’re both stronger than you know. You’ve made it through worse, and you’ll be able to get past this scary beginning and into a better, more satisfying life.

Good luck.

Dear Dr. NerdLove,

My wife is a breast cancer survivor. We both feel incredibly lucky that, more than five years after diagnosis and treatment, she is disease free. However, after chemo, radiation, several surgeries, including a bilateral mastectomy and an oophorectomy, she has zero interest in anything sexual. “That part of my life is over”, she says.

I love my wife and want to spend the rest of my days with her, but the lack of intimacy leaves a pretty big hole. And by intimacy, I don’t just mean sex – cuddling, the knowing morning hugs in the kitchen after a romp in the bedroom the night before – are just as, or more important.

Suggesting therapy, single or couples, was rejected. So I masturbate, which is pleasurable, but it’s not enough. I’ve thought about an affair, but where’s the intimacy in that? Or maybe looking for a woman in a similar situation, but same problem there.

Maybe a “Same Time Next Year” kind of relationship would work. But with any of these, I wouldn’t know where or how to start looking. Craigslist and Ashley Madison aren’t exactly known for quality results. There’s no perfect solution, but there’s one thing I can tell you ...

Celibacy Sucks!

First of all CS, I’m glad to hear that your wife is officially cancer-free! I’ve had entirely too many friends who’ve been fighting with cancer — including breast cancer — so I’ve seen just how rough it can be.

It’s unsurprising that your wife feels that she’s effectively done as a sexual being. Between the effects of chemotherapy, the way those scars may make her feel, the complicated feelings that can come from a double-mastectomy and oophorectomy ... she may feel like she’s not just no longer sexual but barely even female.

Losing not just your most visible secondary sex characteristics but your reproductive organs is going to do a serious whammy on your sense of identity, never mind your sexuality. So, yeah, I can empathise with her for decision that this part of her life is over.

The problem is that she’s ended it for you, too. And not just the sex, but any intimacy. That ain’t cool. It’s understandable — she may be worried that any of the old intimacies like cuddling or physical affection may be leading you on, or it may be dredging up painful emotions for her — but it still leaves you in the lurch.

Now, you don’t say how long this has been going on; whether this is a relatively recent thing or if it’s been going on for the full five years you’ve mentioned. If those surgeries are relatively recent — say, within a year — then it could well be that she’s still processing these massive changes to her body and sense of self. It may be that she still needs time to process — possibly with the help of a counsellor — before she can get back some sense of equilibrium and physicality. Or that may never happen. This may be her default setting from now on.

You have a right to your desires for intimacy with your wife. She is, after all, the person who you pledged to spend the rest of your life with. It’s not unreasonable to want those things from her, even if you know sex is off the table.

Just as important, however, are your sexual desires. Your wife may be done with sex, but that doesn’t mean that you are. But that doesn’t mean that you need to endanger your marriage. As I just told The Great Indoors above you, there are options out there, where you could get your needs met by someone other than your wife without needing to get lawyers involved.

Before you can explore those options, you and your wife need to have long and potentially awkward conversation about what happens now. To start with: you may want to discuss the possibility that this lack of interest in any sort of intimacy is just for now.

As I suggested to TGI, you need to do your due diligence and your research about the development, care and maintenance of an open relationship before you go about trying to start one. Having the vocabulary to discuss the issue may make it more acceptable and less threatening to your wife.

Hopefully the two of you can come to an arrangement that would let you get your needs met outside of your marriage. Maybe this will mean letting you find a potential friend-with-benefits relationship that would let you have at least some of the intimacy you miss. Maybe she will allow you to discreetly visit a sex-worker on a semi-regular basis.

Assuming that she does, in fact, give you the green light, then I suggest you follow the advice I gave The Great Indoors: the best thing for you would be to leverage the Internet and get on OKCupid, not Craigslist or Ashley Madison (which is almost entirely fake profiles and bots, by the by).

By filtering for people who are open to non-monogamy, you’d be in a better position to find potential partners who would be cool with the arrangement you and your wife agree to than if you take random stabs in the dark and hope you find someone who’d be cool with it.

Or ... she may not agree to it. At which point, you have a decision to make. Your wife has the right to decide that she’s done with sex… but that doesn’t mean that she has the right to decide that you’re done, too.

So, it may become a question of whether you’re in a position to leave her — and the attendant (unfair, inaccurate) judgement that comes with that — or if you want to do what it takes for you to stay sane and stay married.

Good luck.


Did you open up your relationship? Did you transition from a monogamous commitment to a polyamorous one? 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 protected] and put “Kotaku” in the subject line.

Harris O’Malley is a writer and dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blogPaging 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.

He can be found dispensing snark and advice on Facebook and on Twitter at @DrNerdLove.


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