Hello, all you electric love swarms, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only advice column that helps eliminate the need for crunch time to help your love life go gold.
This week, we’re taking a dive into love in the time of COVID-19 — both how to find it and how to help it survive the pandemic. How can love survive when the stress of long-distance, and the inability to see each other, is exposing the fault lines in your relationship? Meanwhile, one reader wants to know the best way to use dating apps to find dates during lockdown… while another wants to learn how to stop using them and meet people in the real world.
It’s time to squash those last bugs and hit those ship dates. Let’s do this.
Hi Dr. NerdLove,
I’m in a very difficult dilemma, as I know the “why” of my problems, but I don’t know how to make it right.
I’m a 27y/M in a relationship with 28y/F for 2 years. Both of us are doctors in residency (I’m doing general surgery, she’s doing Ob/Gyn). We started dating when we were preparing for exams, although we have known each other for years and were good friends.
I have been in relationships before, but I had not had sex until I was with her (things never were that comfortable with others, plus my exes were very conservative). I had sex for the first time with her, and it was great. We had a good sex life (or so it seemed so to me for a few months), and a pretty great relationship. Then everything went downhill.
First, I cleared my exam, and she wasn’t able to. I think she started to resent me a little, and I too started to blame myself for maybe diverting her from studies. It took some work, but we discussed and overcame that hurdle. Then I became very busy in my residency (I chose a hospital in my city so that I could be near her, my family and for future professional prospects), leaving her alone with her studies while I tried to balance my work and personal life. We used to meet once or twice a week, and I couldn’t talk much the rest of the time. We both grew very frustrated at times, trying to solve arguments by seeing who could shout the loudest. With time, the anger tapered, and we achieved some sort of normalcy. A year later, she cleared her exam. We were both very happy, although she got a hospital 900 km from me, but it was the best option for her (my hospital wasn’t available). So we entered a long distance relationship.
This time, the arguments were less, because I had seen first hand how busy one becomes in a residency. We couldn’t meet each other for 3-4 months, but then we decided to visit each other every month or so.
8 months later, during one weekend we took out as a vacation to spend with each other, I had to go back on the Saturday night (due to personal reasons) and returned on the Sunday morning. Since then she became very cold and distant. Then on discussion she said she didn’t feel like I did the right thing bailing on a hard earned weekend. I saw her point, but I couldn’t have avoided it. Then it grew into a discussion that she was not happy with her sex life, and her previous partners were better than me. I said that she knew I was sexually inexperienced and needed time to work on it, and she said that she had been trying since the beginning, but I hadn’t improved.
The next time we met, I experienced premature ejaculation (
Now, I have been trying to improve myself, but it becomes very disheartening when every week there is another discussion of how I need to improve myself and lose weight (I lost 12 kg in the first year of residency, gained It back in the second year. I weigh 79kg, and height of 5’6″). I can’t meet her anyway to show that there has been an improvement in performance, if any.
I get why I have PME. I’m trying to treat it by conditioning, but what can I do to prevent it from destroying my relationship?
There’s a whole lot more (as must be in any relationship), but this is the crux of it. I haven’t consulted a psychiatrist or psychologist as most medical professionals know me and I think my problems would get around in the whole city.
There’re a lot of ways of treating premature ejaculation HS, from topical benzocaine creams to SSRI prescriptions, adjusting your diet to include foods with higher levels of zinc or magnesium, using a stop-start technique where you stop all thrusting and sexual activity when you feel the initial onset of orgasm, even a method where you stop and your partner squeezes the glans of the penis in order to delay things.
Similarly, you could deprioritise penetration entirely, using your hands and tongue to get your partner off during sex. Alternately, if your partner needs that “got dicked down by a champion” feeling, there’re a number of sex toys that you can use to get them off, from dildos to strap-ons that seat just above your pelvic bone or that you can strap to your thigh and let your partner grind on it.
And there’s also the fact that your getting off doesn’t need to be the end of sex; just because you got off doesn’t mean that sex has to stop. You can continue to have sex, just sex that isn’t focused around PIV penetration.
But your problem isn’t premature ejaculation, HS. Your problem is your relationship.
Relationships are living things, a sort of gestalt entity that’s formed when two people come together like a fleshy Voltron. But like all living things, relationships don’t last forever. Sometimes relationships end because of the actions of one partner or another. Sometimes they end because of influences outside of the relationship — financial hardship, the death of a family member, people having to move for work or other obligations. And sometimes relationships end because they simply reached the end of if their natural lifespan.
The thing that people often don’t talk about is that not every relationship is meant to last until one or both partners die in the saddle. Sometimes they end simply because life happens. People change and grow. Sometimes those changes and growth bring the couple together, and this helps the relationship grow with them. But sometimes couples grow apart; their individual growth takes them in different directions, in ways that are no longer compatible with maintaining the relationship. This doesn’t mean that anyone did anything wrong; it just means that you were right for one another for a little while, and that time came to its end.
The problem is that sometimes couples don’t recognise this, or try to keep the relationship going past its natural lifespan. When this happens… well, things get bad. Incompatibilities start to crop up and collide with one another, like gears slipping out of sync. Resentments start to build and affection starts to curdle. Conflicts become the norm because people aim to stop fighting, rather than resolving the problem. Discussion becomes criticism as partners attack one another rather than the issue at hand. Defensiveness rises because everyone feels like they’re under attack and respect degrades into contempt.
It seems pretty clear to me that this is what’s happened here, HS. You had a relationship that was ultimately not one that was meant to last more than a few months. After all, you were both in med school, a time that’s notoriously difficult on relationships. It’s hard to maintain a relationship while you’re both trying to pass medical exams; it’s even harder to do so under the break-neck pace of an internship and residency. It becomes all too easy to, say, resent your partner when they are successful and you aren’t. It’s even easier to blame them for not doing as well in their studies, whether that’s true or not. And if you don’t resolve that issue — as it seems pretty clear that you two didn’t — then that resentment isn’t going to go away. Instead, it’s going to remain an irritant that you both try to cover up, like a passive-aggressive oyster building pearls of rancor.
Once that happens, you end up with an argument that never really ends; it just becomes something that flares back up over and over again. Every dissatisfaction adds another layer to it, every annoyance causes it grow and take up more space until there’s almost no room for anything else.
Case in point: you had a vacation together and circumstances forced you to leave briefly. Presumably — I would hope, anyway — you explained to your girlfriend just what was going on and why you couldn’t ignore it. She didn’t accept this and, instead, adds it to your list of sins… sins that she was then willing to throw into your face repeatedly. At that point, this was no longer an attempt to resolve an issue. She wasn’t fighting to fix things, she was fighting to wound. She was looking for the things that would cut you the deepest and clearly she found them.
It’s not exactly surprising that you developed a sexual dysfunction, HS because this entire goddamn relationship is dysfunctional. What is surprising is that not only do you not see this, but that you seem determined to carry on.
I need you to answer a question, HS: how do you feel when you think of calling your girlfriend on the phone or you get a text message from her? Do you feel happy to hear from her? Or do you feel a sinking feeling in your gut? Do you look forward to hearing from her or do you flinch, anticipating the next fight?
Just between you, me and everyone reading this column… is this relationship meeting any of your needs? What are you getting out of this that brings you security, happiness or satisfaction? What makes you want to stay with your girlfriend besides sheer inertia and the unwillingness to let go after you’ve put two years into it?
And how in the name of great Zeus’ goddamn butthole do you not see how miserable this whole thing has made you? This isn’t destroying your relationship, it’s destroying you. Your relationship is dead and has been dead for quite some time. The toxic, even abusive way your girlfriend treats you has put the kibosh on that. All that’s left is the shambling corpse that refuses to lie down, a rotting mockery of what you had at the beginning and it’s sucking away your happiness, your self-esteem, your health and your sanity.
You need to end this, HS. There’s absolutely no upside to keeping this relationship or keeping your girlfriend in your life. It’s just making you miserable. The relationship is long dead and it’s time to bury it.
Actually, the best thing you can do is take this relationship out to the crossroads, stake it, cut off the head, fill the mouth with communion wafers and burn them both separately. It’s the only way to be sure.
Dump her with the quickness, HS. Dump her so hard her grandparents divorce retroactively. Do that, and you’re going to discover just how quickly you recover from… well pretty much everything.
And one final note: go see a therapist. If you can’t find one in your area that you feel like you could work with, see about working with one via telemedicine. Medical and mental health professionals in pretty much every country have doctor/patient confidentiality enshrined if not in law, then at least in the regulatory and licensing bodies. Any therapist who gossips about you to their colleagues — or yours — is going to get yanked up HARD by the medical board if they’re lucky.
Good luck. And write back to let us know how you’re doing.
Hi Dr. NerdLove.
Basic info first : I’m a 31 years old straight man. I never had a relationship and I am sexually inexperienced. Physically I’m not bad looking and relatively tall, though I have what casting directors would call a baby face and a pretty severe heart condition that means I’m thin as a rail and won’t ever get that much muscle definition.
From 2014 to 2019, I was living in a middle-sized town a couple hours south of Toronto while doing my Ph.D., and while I was never Don Juan, I wasn’t doing too bad on apps like Tinder or Bumble. I never found any lasting connection, but I went on dates and got likes and replies on a semi-regular basis.
Then, last November, my Ph.D. finally done, I moved to Montreal. And since then, my “luck” on dating apps has completely disappeared. Not only did I get only 2 likes in 6 months, none of those likes responded to my message or messaged me first. I haven’t changed my pictures (I do change them from time to time, but I just haven’t had any chance to take new photos since last summer) and while I have rewritten my profile to account for the change of location, the basic gist is still the same.
Not only do I not get any likes, but I also see a lot less profiles that interest me. I still use the “swipe right on everyone without obvious red flags (no picture, there is only one picture and she is barely visible in it, her face is always hidden, etc.)“ technique I was told to use, but I’m not sure it’s working as well as it used to. Now, I knew that in a bigger city, there would be more people not compatible with me, but I also assumed there would be more compatible people and that it would balance out. Instead, it feels like the number of interesting people is the same, there is just that much more noise.
I’ve tried to meet outside of dating apps, and had a short fling that way, but we weren’t that compatible, so it went nowhere. It was fun while it lasted though, and there are no hurt feelings on either side. I was even all set to go to a “kink & boardgames” night with my best friends (not hugely kinky but I’m open to it) but then COVID-19 lockdown happened that very week. So it’s back to dating apps, but I still don’t have any luck.
So it’s clear to me I need to change something here, that the old ways don’t work anymore, but I really don’t know what I’m doing wrong. Do you have any tips, any advice? I’ve been tempted to sign up to those premium services Tinder and Bumble offer to see who liked me, but I’m afraid it would be a waste of money. Is there anything else I can do instead to improve my chances? Maybe change my swiping technique to better use the algorithm? I’m honestly a bit lost.
Thanks a lot,
Hey App-solutely Confused, before I answer your question, let me present another letter with someone who’s having the opposite problem of yours.
Dear Dr. NerdLove:
Online dating does not work for me, and I won’t be wasting another second on it. (Men don’t read my profile at all, are only interested in my looks, get mad when they find out I’m smart, send nasty unwanted pictures…hell no. Never again.)
Having sworn off online dating, where do I find a good man in the real world? There must be some good ones out there somewhere. (A lot of my interests – museums, classic movies, quiet afternoons at the library – don’t seem to appeal to many unaccompanied straight men. I have an invisible disability, so for the love of God, *please* don’t suggest that I take up hiking.)
They’ve Got Me All Wrong
Funny thing, you two: your problems are intricately related, intertwined like horny snakes. And it all comes down to a massive disconnect between how men and women use dating apps… and why that makes online dating suck for everyone.
One of the unspoken truths about apps like Tinder and OKCupid is that the gendered dynamics of dating have followed us online. Men are often expected to be the initiators, which creates an unintentional imbalance when it comes to attention. Men tend to flood women (or at least, some women) with attention: likes, super-likes, messages, and so on. Now this doesn’t mean that the attention is good or even welcome… but it means that women have an easier time finding a match. This means that they’re put in the position of sorting through all the people trying to get their attention and decide if maybe any of them are worth her time.
(Or, just as often: they throw their hands up in disgust and delete the app entirely.)
As more and more apps move to the double opt-in swiping mechanic of Tinder, the imbalance gets amplified. Men, in an attempt to maximise their matches, swipe on virtually everyone. Women, on the other hand, are incentivised by this behaviour to swipe very selectively, only swiping right on men they’re actually interested in. However, what ends up happening is that men then go through their matches and then decide if they’re interested in any of them. As a result: women are finding that people they matched with — people they were actually interested in — are often not actually interested in them.
Then, to add insult to injury, the men they match with who don’t immediately un-match them put next to no effort into actually connecting with them; they tend to respond with a message that’s 12 characters long or less.
Not 12 words. Characters. Including spaces.
This creates a dynamic where everyone is annoyed and frustrated. Men aren’t getting matches, not because women “have an inflated view of their worth” (to quote some shitty wags in various dodgy subreddits) but because the dynamics of Tinder mean that women are flooded with shitty matches. Women aren’t getting matches that turn into dates because the men who they match with either shotgunned likes and didn’t actually like them or think that “hey s’up” is a killer opening line. Or, as TGMAW said: they act like dicks and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
These are the behaviours that leave men like you frustrated, AC and women like TGMAW determined to leave dating apps behind entirely.
(And, incidentally, dating app developers know about the shotgun approach… which is why the algorithm on Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, etc. downrates people who do that. If you’re swiping indiscriminately, you’re not going to appear on as many people’s queues, AC.)
So what does one do about this?
Well, it’s a matter of adopting some best practices.
For you, AC, it’s a matter of standing out from the crowd. First, you want to polish your profile until it shines. You want to lead with your best photos and make sure that your photos tell the story of who you are. They need to answer the question of “what would life be like if someone were dating you?” You want your written section to be like Harlan Ellison: short and punchy. Give people reasons to want to message you with little hooks or challenges that make it easy for them to engage with or respond to. A question like “Where’s the best margarita in town,” a hook that intrigues them like “former professional ghost-hunter,” even a slight challenge like “looking for someone to beat me in Skee-ball” all make it easier for someone to know what to say when you two match.
You also want to avoid negativity; there’s nothing that turns people off faster than arrogance or a shitty attitude in a dating profile. The more you sound like someone who complains that women are too picky or stuck up or refer to women as “feeeeemaaaaales” like a Ferengi, the less likely you are to EVER match.
You want to swipe selectively, rather than trying to match with everyone. This has the benefit of not triggering the downrank aspect of the algorithm and it means that when you do match, you’re actually going to want to talk to them.
And when you do match, you want to make a point of connecting with your matches, without over-investing at first. That means having your first message be simple, short and relevant. What about their profile caught your eye? What is it about them that attracted you to them? Was there something in their photo that made you say “hell yes?” Maybe it was the energy of their smile. Tell them this… then ask a question about them, preferably something from their profile. Don’t look to impress them; look to find commonalities, shared interests, things that you can point to and say “hey look at these things we have in common, isn’t that awesome?”
Would shelling out for the premium service be worth the money? That’s up to you. Knowing who’s swiping on you does help you find people who are already interested and it gives you a somewhat reliable metric for the current state of your profile. Not getting as many swipes? Give it another pass; change up the photos, edit your text. A/B test your profile composition style and see what works.
And when you do connect with someone and things are going well (and, er, we’re out of lockdown)? Propose a pre-date date; let them know that you find getting to know someone over a dating app to be a little shallow and limiting. Say that you’d like to meet up for a 15 minute coffee (or frozen yogurt or some other low-investment public venue) to see if you two have chemistry in person. They pick the time and location that’s best for them.
What about you, TGMAW? Well… unfortunately, with COVID-19 and the lockdown in place, meeting people online is kind of the only safe option at the moment. It may be more worth your time to try an app like Bumble, which requires that women initiate the conversation.
But in terms of meeting people in person: focus on your passions. The things that I said to AC about finding commonalities and shared interests? That’s important; despite what Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat said, opposites don’t attract. We like people who are similar to us. The more we have in common, the more connected we feel to people.
So find your people where they live. Find ways of exploring your passions in ways that bring you in contact with other people. That might mean finding MeetUp groups for things that you love or at least find intriguing. It might mean going to classes or lectures or signing up for other group activities that tie into the things that speak to you. And if you can’t find something that directly interests you or lines up with the things you love, bank-shot it by finding things that are tangentially related. At those meetings and events, focus on simply meeting people and making friends, getting to know them a little over time. Some of them may well be men you want to date. More are likely to be new friends. Don’t dismiss those new friends, however. Even in the year of our Lord 2020, most people meet their partners through activities and through friends. As I’m often telling men, you may not meet the man of your dreams at that MeetUp… but you may well meet the person who will introduce you to him.
Good luck, both of you.
Did your relationship turn toxic? Have you had success with online dating… or did you decide to give up on it entirely? 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 blog Paging Dr. NerdLove and the Dr. NerdLove YouTube channel. 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.