Hello, all you intertube skinbeasts of sexcrime, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only advice column to help you manage your relationship in the new post-apocalyptic land we find ourselves in.
And strangely, it doesn’t involve nearly as many BDSM harnesses as I expected. Guess I should’ve kept the receipt.
This week, it’s all about making relationships work under the most trying of circumstances. How do you date when you’re technically not divorced yet and you also still live with your soon-to-be ex-wife? Is now the time when you should be looking into a common-law marriage with your Canadian boyfriend and hoping you can cross the border on a technicality?
It’s time to bust some deals and spin those wheels. Let’s do this.
Dear Dr. NerdLove,
First of all I want to say thank you for everything you have been doing. Reading your articles and advice has really helped me get a firm grip on my mental health involving relationships during a hard time. I’m a 39 year old man and my marriage was falling apart. The end started a year ago (or at least, the big dramatic ending). She cheated, there were lies, we separated, tried to repair it, didn’t work, realized we should be friends and now are living together in a home we jointly own and doing great. I recognized my part in our marriage that led to her cheating, she recognized the pain she caused and we worked through it in order to salvage our friendship. Through the separation we took time apart and now our relationship is WAY better as friends than it had been for the last three years of our marriage. Neither one of us feels romantic love towards the other anymore but we do still love each other like best friends.
During the time we were separated I worked a lot on myself, I am bi-polar and hadn’t been going to therapy for years. I delved head first into anything I could find to help me maintain my mental health in all facets. She’s dating a good man now and I’m looking forward to getting back out there myself (obviously after the pandemic is over) having not dated in 7 years. I feel confident I can do it, and in large part that is because of binge reading your columns, but there are two things I could use some advice on to prepare me going forward.
First, the fact I still live with my ex and we are still legally married. Talking it over we decided to wait until early next year to get a divorce for tax purposes. To be clear again, neither my ex nor I have any repressed hope or desire to get back together. Both of us are much happier now and don’t want or need that shit in our lives. I know to a lot of people this kind of situation would come off as odd which concerns me. When I start dating again how can I go about explaining the situation without talking all night about the intricate details of my relationship with my ex but letting a woman know that there is nothing left there romantically between my ex and me? How do I respectfully explain the house situation and how it’s a great place to live for me?
My ex and I don’t trust each other with our hearts, but we do trust each other with finances. It’s nice to live with somebody you know you can live with, the mortgage is cheap and even cheaper with our finances combined. I have a pit-bull mix (who is my favorite anything of all time) and it’s nice to live somewhere I own, with a yard, and without concern of a landlord being pissy about his breed. Currently I’m not looking to meet somebody to spend my life with, yet, I just want to try dating again when the pandemic has passed. If, and when, I find somebody special I don’t want my living situation to mess up a future relationship. Living there isn’t a permanent situation, but with the cheap mortgage and a ton of space so I can have a whole section of the house to myself it’s WAAAYYY better than me trying to find my own apartment at this time. I want to be able to convey to somebody that they have nothing to worry about but I’m concerned I may not be able to explain it in a way that makes sense to anyone else.
Secondly, I have noticed from my last two major relationships when we hit the couple-year-in sex life drop off point, it’s been hard to recover. I do expect it to happen because of the Oxytocin, dopamine and novelty wearing off and I try to correct for it. I try open communication, ask them if they are interested in trying something new, ask if there is something that no longer feels right, etc. No matter what, though, it feels like the stability of the sex life gets dumped on my shoulders completely. I feel like because they are there and allowing me to have sex with them then that should be enough effort on their part. Of course that just depresses me and makes me feel unattractive/unappealing to them which just exacerbates the problem because the depression makes me not want to instigate or even have sex. I explain what’s going on and ask if they could help. Maybe instigate once in a while just so I don’t feel like I’m the only one who wants it. I am told sure, of course, that they completely understand…and then nothing happens. Perhaps I have just had a couple bad relationships and maybe that should have been my initial sign they weren’t gonna last. Still, any advice for my future relationships on how to handle that would be much appreciated.
Thank you for all the advice you hand out, keep up the good work.
Preparing for a Better Tomorrow
The second question is actually the easier one to start with. Two experiences seems significant, but there are reasons why the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” This is more about the nature of the relationship, your compatibility with the people you were dating and an unwillingness to pronounce the relationship dead when it was clearly gone. Not every relationship is meant to be for life. Hell, some aren’t even meant to be for more than a couple of years, and that’s fine. Some relationships are only going to be for a brief period of time, when the excitement of the new is firing on all cylinders. Once that starts to fade, then it’s time to move on.
If you want to avoid having relationships that seem to wither as soon as the New Relationship Energy starts to ebb, then make sure that you’re dating someone that you have a deep compatibility with—shared values, shared beliefs and goals, not just similar hobbies and a desire to bang out on every flat surface in the house.
Which actually leads into your first question, oddly enough. Because the answer to that question is going to involve getting to know people over time.
Right now you’re in something of a good news/ bad news situation. The good news is that, to start with, the pandemic means you’re off the hook for a bit when it comes to trying to explain your living situation. Social distancing and self-isolation means that you’re not going to have awkwardness bringing anyone home any time soon because sex with anyone you’re not currently quarantined with is a bad, bad idea.
If we leave that aside, folks are more likely to be understanding about your living situation that you’d think. Living with your ex isn’t entirely unheard of. Folks in big cities with tight rental markets deal with this all the time; breaking up doesn’t mean you’re always in a position to also break the lease. And frankly, you do make a good point: living with your ex in a house that you own has financial benefits, something that’s going to be pretty important at a time when the economy is in the tank.
Plus, our current circumstance means that we’re back in the age of courtship and getting to know people over a long period of time before we can get physical with them. That works to your advantage. As your matches get to know you, bond over mutual interests and shared values, they’re more likely to listen to your story as you roll it out and understand your side of things.
The bad news is that you’re going to run into people who are going to have knee-jerk reactions to your current marital situation, period. Being married, even if it’s a technicality, is going to be a deal-breaker for a lot of people. The explanations won’t matter, if they even hear them. Married = no go. They may suspect that you still have feelings for your wife, they may feel that your being married—even if you’re in the process of getting divorced—precludes a committed relationship with them. Or they may think that you’re lying and just cheating on your wife; God knows there’re plenty of folks who insist “no, we’re separated, really,” when they aren’t.
However, because you are currently having to take things slow, that means you have a chance to roll things out on a more relaxed schedule. This doesn’t mean that you can hide it forever, but you also don’t need to give the details immediately. You’re in a position to explain things in ways that are easier for people to accept: you and your wife are in the middle of an amicable divorce. It’s just going to take a while. Why is it taking a while? Legal issues that need to be ironed out, even when nobody is contesting things.
As you and your matches get to know each other better, you can explain more about your history, your living situation and why you’re both slow-walking the divorce.
But, straight talk: while this is a status quo you can maintain while you can’t have anyone over, there’s going to come a point where things are going to come to a head. It’s going to take a particularly open-minded and understanding girlfriend to be ok with you and your ex-wife still living in the same house a year from now. If you start getting serious with somebody, there’s going to come a point where they’ll want to start talking about living together.
That can be tricky when you’ve got a roommate you weren’t married to. When your roommate is your ex-wife, it gets significantly more complicated.
While you two may not be in love or romantically entangled, you and your wife still have an ongoing and intimate relationship. There’s a good chance that any new partner coming into this is going to feel like a third wheel, despite the divorce. If you want things to work in the long term with someone new, you’re going to have to start reconsidering your living situation. Not a lot of people are going to want to sign up for what would feel like a poly relationship, even if it isn’t one.
Dear Dr. NerdLove,
I am 27F and my boyfriend is 27M, “Jim.” We have been together for seven years, but the problem? We have never met in person (and it seems even more impossible to meet during a pandemic!). Here’s the story:
Jim and I met through playing WoW as guildmates. I live in Florida and he lives in Canada. He was in a highly toxic relationship with another man when we met. His boyfriend was verbally and mentally abusive, and I was his shoulder to cry on during the whole thing. As time went on, we developed feelings for each other, and he eventually broke up with the guy and we started dating. Jim jokes that I turned him straight and that he’s now “[my name] Sexual” and he isn’t attracted to anyone but me. It feels so good that he chose me out of everyone else, even if he wants to keep our relationship a secret from our guildmates and his friends and family.
He works in the hospitality industry and I don’t work, and when he gets home we spend as much time together as possible. In fact, he gets upset when I have other commitments and can’t spend time with him, which I totally get since we don’t see each other in person. I love my boyfriend, but I don’t know how to make him understand that sometimes I need time to myself without him breaking down. He says he literally cries if he goes more than 8 hours without hearing from me. I understand his point, since I can be very self-involved sometimes.
I’m in a terrible living situation. I live at home and my mother takes advantage of me. She treats me like a maid for her house and a taxi service for my younger siblings and step-siblings. Now that everyone is home with the quarantine, I really can see upfront just how selfish and mean my mother is. I just want to escape my family and awful living situation and be with the one I love.
I love him so fucking much and I know he loves me too. We chat every day and have long voice calls (we don’t have webcams and we can’t Facetime since it’s too expensive between the US and Canada) while we spend time together playing Animal Crossing, Guild Wars 2, Final Fantasy XIV and a bunch of other games. It’s how we bond and go on “dates.” He wants to meet in person. But at the same time, I’m terrified of meeting in person, mostly because of my appearance. I’ve wanted to lose weight and be confident in myself, but I haven’t been able to make it happen in the past seven years. He swears he loves me no matter what, but I’ve been badly hurt in the past.
Lately we’ve been getting more serious about meeting in person. We got into an argument recently because he’s so good at being hopeful and seeing the best, and I’m the opposite. I always see the worst and expect the worst, because there’s always a part of me that believes I have to. If I don’t then the things that hurt and break me will do it even harder, and at least if I’m a little prepared, maybe I can keep myself together. We decided me moving to Canada and entering into a common law marriage with him to escape my family would be the best plan for taking our relationship to the next level. As an American, I can only visit for a maximum of six months, but ultimately it will be up to border patrol to decide how long I’m allowed to visit once I get there. The issue is that we have to be together for a whole consecutive year for it to be considered a common law marriage.
What should I do? It all seems impossible and hopeless, especially with all the travel restrictions. I’m worried my depression is stressing him out too.
Stuck in America
Hoo boy. Where do I start with this?
I mean… ok. Let’s just get the “Have you met my boyfriend/ my boyfriend who lives in Canada” jokes out of our collective systems now.
(I’m just glad his name’s not Albert…)
I’ll also preface this with my philosophy about fake letters: if a letter has lessons that my other readers could benefit from, then I’m not as concerned about whether it’s “real” or not. Because, real or fake, there’s plenty to work with here.
So rather than debating authenticity, let’s start with this fact: if you haven’t met in person, you’re not dating. You can be close. You can mean a lot to one another.
But you’re not dating.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying you can’t have significant relationships with people you haven’t met physically. I came up in the early days of the internet and have friendships with people that have spanned decades… and we only met in person two years ago.
But you’re not dating.
Dating isn’t just about how well you know somebody or how much time you spend talking to each other or all the secrets you share. To quote the sage: love isn’t brains, children, it’s blood. Blood inside you screaming to work its will. Dating is as much chemical and tactile and olfactory as it is about a meeting of two souls. You can be intellectually compatible with someone, spend hours every day talking, even have all kinds of crazy phone sex or hot Skype sessions… but have absolutely no chemistry in person. Why? Well, because humans are built for in person communication, and when we meet in person, we pick up on thousands of microsignals, thousands of bits of data that we’re not consciously aware of. It’s everything from the timbre of their voice, to the way they talk to the waitress at the bar, to the smell of their sweat and the texture of their skin, the heat of their body and the way their hand touches the small of your back.
You don’t get that over text. You don’t get that over voice chat. You don’t get that over high-definition Twitch streams or Zoom meetings. You only get that in person.
And that’s before we even get into the little things that come up when you’re seeing someone in person, regularly, for years. The things you never think of when you think of dating someone, from the way they shift and pop their shoulders, their habit of absentmindedly picking at their teeth with their thumbnail, the way movie theater popcorn gives them gas. The weird, intimate stuff that only comes from meat bodies in close proximity to one another.
So yeah, I wouldn’t call this dating.
But all of that doesn’t really matter, because this dude ain’t real. There’re more red flags than a military parade in Tiananmen Square. I mean: you’ve been “dating” for seven years and it’s a secret to everybody? To say that I would have questions is a fucking understatement, and those questions would start with “what the fuck?” If you’re so important to him that he cries if he goes 8 hours without talking to you, why in pluperfect hell are you a secret?
Well, we know why. The question’s rhetorical, really.
(Honestly, the “I cry if I go 8 hours without talking to you” bit is toxic, emotional blackmail; it makes you responsible for his emotional state instead of, y’know, putting on his big boy pants and acting like an adult with a sense of object permanence. Being upset that you have commitments and engagements outside of him is a giant goddamn red flag in an in-person relationship, nevermind a long-distance one. And he legitimately can’t go for that long without talking to you, then he’s not emotionally healthy enough to actually be in a relationship.)
Of course, there’s also the part of having not actually, y’know, seen each other. Which, how in the Year of Our Lord 2020 do you buy that? I hate to tell you this, but Facetime doesn’t cost money. They go over the data network, which means it deducts from your monthly data plan if you’re on LTE. If you’re on a WiFi network, then it doesn’t deduct from your plan at all.
But don’t take my word for it. Take Verizon’s.
So, to sum up: seven years of “dating” without so much as a video chat, where he’s treating you like a dirty little secret? I hate to say this, but you’re being catfished. Dude is not who he says he is and were I you, I would have blown this popsicle stand a while ago.
The only part that has me scratching my head—beyond why you were willing to go seven years without actually seeing this guy or finding an opportunity for one of you to come visit—is what he gets out of this. A seven year con is playing the long game in a way you very rarely see from a catfish.
But for argument’s sake, let’s say that he’s who he says he is—he’s just unable to get a $13 webcam from amazon.ca and is strangely unaware of how data plans work. Trying to flee to Canada is a bad idea under the best of circumstances, and especially bad now. If you don’t have a passport, it’s going to take you 4 to 6 weeks to get one, or hundreds of dollars to expedite the process. Not to mention that the border’s currently closed to all non-essential travel and “I’m going to meet my boyfriend from the internet” is not going to pass muster as “essential” travel.
But then there’s also the fact that to be eligible for the Family Class, you need to have lived together continuously for one year. Not six months on, two months off, six months on. Without, say, a provincial sponsor or an employer championing you, the odds of your getting a border agent who’s willing to give you an extra six months to marry someone you’ve never met before are so slim that I’m pretty certain we haven’t invented the math to express it.
Of course, first you have to be let in the country at all, which means we’re right back to the whole “can’t cross the border” problem.
Your family situation sucks, but “run away and get married to get away from your horrible family” is such a well known bad idea that I’ve lost track of all the songs, stories and movies written about it. All this would be doing is trading one confining situation for another; the only difference is that now you’d be in a foreign country where your residency would be entirely dependent on the guy you’re “dating.”
Who, I stress, again, you have never met nor had so much as a Skype call with.
Your goal should be two-fold: getting out of your mom’s place and into therapy. Your time, energy and resources should be going towards finding a new place to stay, even if only for the duration of the quarantine—not a literally (at the moment) impossible goal of trying to move to Canada. Similarly, working with a therapist will help you not only deal with your self-esteem issues but also help you learn how to develop and maintain boundaries with family and lovers, how to recognize toxic relationships and having the strength to love yourself.
Fleeing the country isn’t going to fix things; you’ll just have the same problems with a different view. Focus on taking care of yourself right here, right now. If your boyfriend is a) serious and b) real, then when the shelter in place orders are lifted and the border has reopened, he can come visit you first. Then you can see if the emotional connection you share has a physical one too. Then and only then can you start to see about making this long-distance thing work.
Did you date while going through a divorce? Have you had an international romance? 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.