Dear Dr. NerdLove: I am in a relationship with an amazing person whom I love very deeply. We’re about to move in together, and while that does give me some anxiety (I have always felt anxious about commitment) I do think it’s a leap of faith I want to take with them. At least, I did until “James” (not his real name) came into the picture.
Me and James met a couple months ago at work, and got on really well. We became friends pretty quickly; He’s smart, attractive, talented, and we seem to understand each other’s personalities. It wasn’t long before I was crushing on him, bad. I would do my best to not dwell on the crush, and was sometimes even able to forget about it entirely until he showed up in a dream doing something I would never allow in real life. I’d wake up next to my partner (whom, let me reiterate, I love dearly) feeling sick to my stomach with guilt.
Still, I really enjoyed spending time with James and we would often seek out opportunities to grab a coffee or work on projects together. I know I need to set some clear boundaries so it doesn’t get out of hand, especially because I suspect he may feel the same way. I am unsure of whether or not to tell James about the crush (with the idea being that I have an opportunity to set clear boundaries and give him context for them), whether to tell my partner about it, and what it all means for our plans to move in with each other! PLEASE advise!
I have talked to friends about it, and they have all said it’d be best to come clean to James and to my partner, but I’ve seen other opinions online that say it might actually be best to lock it up tight and process it behind closed doors.
P.S. There is a little part of me that really wants to tell James so that I can see if he feels the same or if it’s all in my head, and so that we can maybe understand each other more… but that also feels like a reeeeeeaally bad reason to tell someone you have a crush on them, ESPECIALLY when there’s no chance of it going anywhere other than back to friendship.
Ok, first things first, Conflicted: unless you’re hoping to actually fuck this guy, I wouldn’t bring up your crush on him. If your goal really is to just let this go away and not act on it, telling him about your crush is pretty much the exact opposite of what you should do.
The same goes with telling your partner about it. Unless they’ve already demonstrated that they’re cool about such things and understand what I’m about to tell you, all this is going to do is introduce unnecessary conflict and stress into your relationship. Leaving aside that relationships aren’t depositions and you’re not obligated to report every stray thought or feeling to your partner, your partner also has a right to not know things. This is especially true about things that might cause unnecessary stress, anxiety or upset… and a crush ranks highly among those. Consider how it might feel for them to tell you that they’re having sweaty feelings for… I dunno, Meredith in Accounts Receivable. Even if you knew that it ultimately meant nothing, would it stress you out and cause anxiety that could have been avoided? Well, there you go: keeping it to yourself is a boon to them.
Now about the crush itself. What does this mean? Well… it means you’re a primate with a sex-drive. That’s it. Developing a crush on someone just means that you find somebody attractive. It doesn’t mean that you don’t love your partner or that something’s wrong with the relationship, it doesn’t mean that you’ve betrayed them or literally anything other than “this person gets your motor humming.”
But what about those sweaty, sexy dreams? Surely that must mean something, right? Well, I refer you back to my previous answer: you’re a primate with a sex drive. And don’t call me Shirley.
Here’s the thing: humans are one of three mammal species that have sex outside of estrus, and for reasons other than reproduction. In addition, we are a novelty-seeking species, and novel experiences stimulate the increased production of oxytocin and dopamine in ways that familiar experiences don’t. And because homo sapiens’ dominant survival trait is adaptability, it means that we can get used to just about anything.
When you put those two factors together, what you end up with are people being wired to find new potential sex partners very exciting and desirable, regardless of whether we’re currently in relationships or not. And because we’re very adaptable, any circumstance, no matter how odd or exotic or desirable, can become our norm. It’s like Billy Bob Thornton’s famous (and misunderstood) quote: someone could be the sexiest person in the world but after a while it’s like fucking the couch.
(And of course the obligatory follow-up: if my couch looked like Angelina Jolie, I’d fuck it…)
You’ve been with your partner for a while. That means that they’re familiar to you, and the familiar doesn’t generate the same happy chemicals as the novel does. James is attractive to you and a novelty; that makes him exciting. That’s all.
But a crush isn’t a command, and attraction isn’t a mandate from God. The fact that you feel something doesn’t mean that you need to act on it. But you also don’t need to try to repress it; all that’s going to do is make the feelings even more intense and even harder to ignore.
Now, I’m an advocate of “just note and name your feelings and let them roll past you without doing anything about them”. When you feel those sweaty feelings, you say “ah, yes, that’s my crush on James” and then just redirect your attention back to whatever you’re doing. You don’t shove them away, you don’t try to NOT feel them or deny them, you just acknowledge them and turn your attention to something else and just focus on that.
However. If you don’t want to bang James (that is, you don’t want to break a monogamous commitment to your partner), then part of what you’re going to need to do is not put yourself into places where mistakes could “just happen”. There’s a difference between “just feeling your feels and let them go” and throwing yourself in temptation’s way. Right now, your seeking out opportunities to spend time with him sounds a lot like you’re treating this more like a date than a crush at the office. That’s potentially risky for you; it puts you in positions where you’re more likely to fail your Wisdom save and something that wasn’t “consciously” planned could “just happen.” Oops, got caught up in the moment and wouldn’t you know it, stuff happened and now you feel awful.
If you want to avoid that – and it sounds like you do – then you’re going to have to put those boundaries into place. But you’re also going to have to be the one to enforce them on yourself. That means not seeking out James for intimate coffees or hanging out, not going out of your way to work with him or otherwise putting yourself in places where “mistakes” could be made. Willpower is a finite resource, and it’s a lot easier to resist things when you don’t have easy access to them. If there’re more things that make it a lot harder to “accidentally” kiss him or give him the opportunity to kiss you, for example, you’ll have a much easier time to resist the urge when it comes up.
(To be clear: I don’t think this is something that all men and women need to do. It’s just a matter of your specific circumstances and worries. If you’re afraid of something happening, making sure that it can’t is part of how you head it off).
What do you do instead? Well, beyond noting and naming your crush and redirecting your attention, you can also take that sexual energy and excitement and plow it into your partner. Long-term relationships mean that the novelty wears off, yes, but you can add novelty back in, in a number of ways. Changing the hows, whens and wheres of how you and your partner get physical, for example, can inject some much-needed novelty and adventure back into your sex lives and channel this ambient horniness back into your relationship. If you and your partner take this opportunity to, say, experiment with getting a little freaky, exploring some fantasies or adding new wrinkles to your sex life – maybe make it a mission to find a place for the two of you to park and bang like teenagers – then you’ll be triggering the same sort of novel experience that jumpstarts the creation of oxytocin and dopamine again.
And if you indulge in some fantasies in your head while you’re with your partner? That’s entirely up to you and nobody’s business but yours. What goes on in between your ears is up to you; it’s not a betrayal, it’s not an infidelity or anything else. It’s just what’s getting you off this time.
Now the good news: crushes are like campfires. If you feed it, it’ll grow. If you starve it of fuel, it’ll burn itself out eventually. What you’re doing right now, with those coffees and projects? That’s feeding the fire. If you want this crush to go, you need to stop that.
If you just let your crush be and – critically – treat James the same as any other coworker, the crush will fade. Note the feelings, name them and redirect your attention, and plow that extra sexual energy you have into your partner. Use it as motivation to try new and different things and not only will your crush fade, but you and your partner will have more excitement and be brought closer than before. And you’ll have James to thank for it.
Hola Doc! I was The Last American Virgin from way back in 2022, back for revenge (and an update). Let me tell you about my year:
After seeing your (incredibly kind and helpful) letter I made a few changes. I worked on getting more social skills and friends, and disregarded dating stuff (which I feel was the right choice). I have decent people skills after some practice; I feel at this point it’s more of a shyness issue than a skill issue. I joined some clubs and got a bit more comfortable in group environments. I learned how to make friends, but most of these friendships didn’t last, in part because I have fearful/disorganized attachment style, which I didn’t know before. That caused me to run from otherwise good friendships mostly based off my constantly-fluctuating emotions, an issue that I’m working on now. I saw an actual doctor and he says I definitely have social anxiety, but not severe enough to be a disorder. Currently I don’t have professional treatment for it, just exposure stuff and techniques I’ve picked up.
I do have a few follow-up questions, though. The end of the school year is approaching, and the school clubs that I was in have shut down for the year, so I’m not seeing my club acquaintances anymore. I feel intimidated at the idea of making new friends right now, mostly because of plain old anxiety and apathy because people aren’t going to be nearby anyway. I wanna figure out what I should do to try to build a social life outside of school, especially during the summer. I will be doing a few summer clubs, and I do have the numbers of a handful of friends, but that’s about it. I did consider just putting my time and energy into improving my skills in my hobbies, but I have a deep feeling of guilt when I think about doing any self-improvement that doesn’t help me socially. I kind of want to spend energy on social stuff and other stuff, but those emotions are canceling each other out and I’m ending up doing nothing. What do you think I should do? Do I even have a reason to be worried?
Working Things Out
Hey, thanks for writing back to let us know how things are going WTO! I’m glad to hear you’ve made so much progress; you should be proud of everything you’ve accomplished so far.
So let’s keep that ball rolling, shall we?
First of all, there’s good news: your attachment style can be changed. The trick is that it takes work and therapy; much of changing your attachment style is to work on the issues that triggered it in the first place, and that tends to require an actual therapist to dig into them. But they can be changed into a more positive and pro-social style that will benefit you overall, especially as you become more aware of both your behaviors and your triggers.
This will also help immensely with your feelings of intimidation about making new friends; when you don’t have to worry about fighting your own brain about the things you actually want, it all goes much easier.
Now, I fully realize that at your age and being in high-school, you may not have as much access to therapy or counseling as you would in college; most high-schools don’t have the same sort of resources for students that colleges and universities do. This means you may have to work on some of this on your own while you and your parents see about the possibilities of finding a counselor for you. However, there are options; you can find a surprising number of cognitive behavioral therapy exercises for self-directed treatment, including at sites like MoodGym. These can be helpful for dealing with anxieties and intrusive thoughts. While I wouldn’t say that these are substitutes for working with a trained mental health professional, they can definitely help and be a supplement or serve for triage until you can get access.
What about the conflicting desire to work on stuff you enjoy vs. doing the things that improve your social life? Well, how about looking at it this way: what you want is to be a more interesting, emotionally healthy and well-rounded person. Taking time to do things strictly for your own enjoyment is a part of that process. Engaging in your passions and interests is a big part of both being a more interesting person, but also rebuilding your social energy and stamina.
Think of it like training for sports. Yeah, scrimmage and matches are part of the game… but you also need time for recovery. If you do nothing but train with no time off, then you risk overtraining, exhausting your body and mind and increasing the likelihood of injury, as well as reducing the effectiveness of practice.
Taking the time to do things that you love, just because you love them and enjoy doing them, is an important part of self-improvement. After all, when you are being more social and hanging out with folks, you’ll want things to talk about and things to do, right? Working on those things you enjoy gives you more chances to do them with other people, too, later on.
So really it’s a matter of “why not both?” You can spend some time working on your social life and time doing things just for you. Balancing the two is an important part of that whole “work life balance” thing that you’ll hear adults complain about. But balancing them also means that sometimes one gets priority over the other. During the summer, you’ve got an opportunity to take the time to relax, do the things you like for their own sake and recoup and regain your emotional and social energy for the fall. Then when school rolls back around, you’ll be rested, relaxed, tanned and ready to give the old campus a wedgie again.
Don’t forget: you are a priority. Your holistic self, not just any one aspect of it. Focusing entirely on one area – whether it’s trying to get swole, make friends or any other form of self-improvement – is futile if you neglect the rest of yourself in the process. Neglecting those other sides of yourself, including the ones where you just devote some time to pointless enjoyment with no particular goal, means that the work you’re doing in other areas becomes less effective. What does it benefit you to develop your social skills if doing so burns you out in the process or you have nothing to do with the people you’re being more social with? Cultivating your inner life is as important as your outer.
So my advice? Take some time and indulge your hobbies freely and without guilt. Doing so for a bit will be what makes it possible to do the things that improve your social life… and you’ll have a much better time of it in the process.
This post was previously published on Doctornerdlove.com and is republished on medium.
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