Dear Dr. NerdLove:
I’m stuck in a grudge loop that I need help getting out of. Over the course of the pandemic, I went through a bad breakup, moved to a new part of town, and started a new job. All good changes in the long run, but have left me feeling a bit isolated.
The breakup splintered my friend group, as some of them preferred him over me. Of the friends who I still interact with, they all seem unwilling to invite me to many events or attend the ones I host. My new house is less than 30 minutes from them.
Yet, when I try to host something, they say they can come and then cancel at the last minute. It hurts to clean, cook, and plan something for people who just don’t want to admit I’m not worth the drive. I have made it clear I don’t mind driving to their end of town, but that didn’t seem to make a difference.
The answer would seem to be to make new friends and try to meet new guys to date. But every time I try, I feel the old resentments bubbling up.
I recently organized a lunch to try to get know some of my coworkers. Some showed up, so I should be happy that the event was a success. But I find myself begrudging the ones who canceled last minute or made planning unnecessarily difficult. Life happens, so I would like to not to fault them for the past sins of inconsiderate friends.
How do I move past this?
Stuck In A Loop
One of the issues we often don’t talk about when it comes to break ups is how to handle the aftermath. Sure, we’ve talked about dealing with your ex after the fact and how to keep a relationship with them (if you want one)… but we don’t talk much about the rest of the fallout.
Case in point: what happens if your social circles have significant overlap and the break up wasn’t amicable.
Now before we get into this, I already know there’re going to be folks who will read this and immediately start going off about “well, doesn’t that mean you shouldn’t date within your social circle?“. Allow me to head this off at the pass: no, it doesn’t. What it means is that break-ups are frequently messy and often that mess can exacerbate fissures that may have already existed. Or the root causes of the break up – or even how the break up was conducted – can cause folks to rethink their friendships.
So with that in mind, let’s talk about an unfortunate truth: sometimes break ups affect more and reveal more about relationships beyond the one that ended. Sometimes it reveals to us that some of our other relationships may not have been as strong or as enduring as we may have thought. This doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily any one person’s fault, so much as “shit can be complicated, because we don’t live in a vacuum and what we do can reverberate outside of our immediate sphere of influence”. If, for example, the break up occurred because one partner was cheating or was revealed to be a toxic piece of shit, a lot of folks are going to side with the person who was the person being cheated on, for understandable reasons.
Other times, it just shows that maybe you weren’t as close to folks as you thought you were. This is often something that comes up when someone is brought into the social circle, rather than having been part of it prior to the relationship. A lot of times, people’s partners never fully integrate with their circle of friends. Folks may like them and spend time with them as part of the group, but they don’t necessarily have the same 1-on-1 relationships – or the shared history – that the other partner did. If the partner who was brought into the group hasn’t established relationships with others independent of being part of a couple, then they often don’t have as solid of a foundation for a post-break-up friendship.
Occasionally you’ll get the typical three-way split of folks choosing one side or the other and the people who insist that they aren’t going to take sides. This… often doesn’t work the way folks expect. Many times, the people who don’t choose will drift one way or the other and end up picking a side by default, because they’re simply closer with that person.
And still other times, shit goes down, relationships end and people will respond based on their own issues, rather than anything that someone did before or during the break up. And while there’s always that part that will make you want to say “what, you couldn’t just ask me ‘dude what the fuck?’”, the truth is that you can’t control other people’s reactions.
Here’s another unfortunate truth: if you didn’t spend time building friendships independent of your relationship – either with other folks in your social circle or with folks who aren’t connected to your partner – a break up can sometimes mean you lose more than your ex; you lose your social group too.
Now, with your situation, SIAL, there are a lot of factors to consider. The first is the break up itself. You say that it was a bad break up. That alone can affect how much folks want to see you – even people you’re still in contact with. If it was particularly ugly, with backbiting, yelling, and a lot of attendant drama, that can affect how folks feel. It can be hard to see our friends at their worst. Sometimes the feeling on the part of the friends who drift away isn’t anger or disgust, so much as disappointment. Seeing people you like act in ways that are selfish or irresponsible or hurtful can leave you with a bad taste in your mouth and wondering about how much you want to prioritize your relationship with them. Even if you (both the general “you” and you specifically, SIAL) were completely blameless in the cause of the break up, how things went down could have left your former friends feeling like maybe they don’t want to make as much of an effort to see you.
It could also be that the move affected things as well. In some areas, especially in bigger cities, folks will often stick to a particular neighborhood or district. In Los Angeles, for example, it’s a universal joke that if your friends live in a different neighborhood – Los Feliz, say, when you live in Silver Lake – you’ll never see them again. The same is frequently true for New York boroughs, Austin neighborhoods, Dallas, Chicago… if the city is large enough and traffic or mass transit is bad enough to make it a pain in the ass to see friends who live beyond a certain distance, those friendships tend to whither away.
The pandemic also changes the math. Everyone has different risk tolerances that affect how social they’re going to be and when. Some people have locked down hard, some act as though the pandemic ended in 2021 and some base their decisions on things like case numbers; a lot of people went back into 2020-level of isolation during the Omicron spikes, for example.
There’s also the ever-classic truth that your friends may just be a lot flakier and ruder than you realized and don’t have a problem just flaking on plans.
(This, incidentally, is why I really hate the “there’s no feeling better than canceling plans you’d made” memes. It’s a petty thing but it makes me grind my teeth…)
Hell, it doesn’t even need to be any one of those things; it could well be a “all of the above” sort of situation, a perfect storm of shit… and you just had the bad luck to be at the center of it.
Of course, what’s done is done and the only way to go is forward. Trouble is, it’s a lot harder to move forward when you’re still hung up on what’s behind you and letting that color your relationships with others. It’s completely understandable that you’re still sensitive right now, SIAL; the wound is still fairly fresh and you’re feeling particularly isolated. However, that pain is causing you to overlook that you’re dealing with new relationships with new people, not ones of long-standing. The fact that they’re new means that you’re still building these connections, still getting to know folks and they’re still getting to know you.
Part of what we often forget is that it takes time to build friendships; it’s estimated that it takes 40 to 60 hours to become casual friends, and over 200 hours to become close friends. This is part of why it feels like making new friends is harder after graduation; when you’re in school, you’re spending most of your day with the people who become your friends. After you’re no longer in a place that keeps you in constant close proximity with your peers for 8+ hours a day, it’s a lot harder to get the time in. Part of what you’re experiencing right now, with the coworkers who didn’t come to your event, has a lot to do with the amount of time you have or haven’t had with them to build those connections.
So with all that in mind, how do you get over this?
Well, to start with: let yourself let go of your former friends. What happened sucks. It always sucks when your friends drift away or leave you. But carrying that pain around with you into new social circles can end up causing more problems. Right now, your emotional response is predicated on the assumption that these new potential friends are guilty of the sins of the people you used to know. It’s reflected pain; the injury is over here but you’re feeling the pain in this other place that isn’t actually injured. Maybe some of these new folks are flakey assholes too, sure… but you don’t know that just yet.
Of course, one of the most irritating things about knowing that what you feel isn’t real, that it’s just anxiety and an irrational reaction, is that knowing something intellectually doesn’t mean you stop feeling it. So instead,what you need to do is learn to let those moments pass, because they always do.
When you feel that anxiety or resentment bubble up, it’s important to take a moment, take a breath (literally; focus on your breathing, with a long slow inhale, then an equally long and slow exhale) and to observe what you’re feeling. You want to note it and name that feeling: “this is my anger about being abandoned. This is my fear that any new people will also abandon me. This is my resentment for how I was treated.” Then – much as with an inconvenient crush – you want to just let the feeling be. Don’t argue with yourself about it, don’t dwell on it, don’t try to push it away. Just notice that it’s there and let your brain move on to be occupied by other things and that moment will pass. It always feels int he moment like this is just how you feel all the time. It isn’t; you have far more times when you aren’t feeling that than you realize. So just let the moment be and those feelings will pass and you’ll feel more normal soon.
The more you note, name and let those feelings be, the more you’ll notice that you aren’t feeling it as often or as intensely. Before long, you’ll realize how long it’s been since you’ve felt those unpleasant feels bubble up.
The next thing to do: change tactics. Part of what’s slowing you down here is that it sounds like you’re trying to replace your former social circle in one fell swoop. It may feel more efficient to do it that way, but it actually works against you. It’s hard to build connections with folks in large groups; most social circles are built of individual relationships that weave together into a network. So rather than focusing on connecting with everyone at once, give more attention to folks on a one to one basis. It’s a lot easier to build a relationship with one person and then let that relationship lead to another node in the network, than to try to replace a network all at once.
Now that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t host events like that lunch you planned. That’s actually a great idea. But if you want this to work, then the best thing to do is hold them regularly. With any one event, you’re going to have folks who can’t make it, folks who had plans already and the occasional flake. Having regular get-togethers mean that there’s more of an opportunity for those events to grow and for more people to join in over time. Folks who couldn’t make it to one are more likely to come to the next or the one after that. Give those events time to build momentum and soon they’ll become a cornerstone of people’s schedules.
And remember to remind yourself: the way you’re feeling in those moments of resentment is about what other folks have done. These new people in your life? They’re blank slates, fresh sheets of paper; they’re a new beggining, not the continuation of what’s come before. The more you can accept them as new without holding them responsible for the sins of others, the easier it will be to let your resentment fade.
I am aware about other nervous men writing to you about advice about being an “older” virgin. I am in that same boat and will be turning 26 this year. I am aware that virginity is not necessarily a cause, but a symptom. I was short of shy and relationship averse when I was in high school. Sadly, I had to deal with some family trauma by experiencing my mom passing away from cancer at 18 and my dad and I becoming estranged a month later.
I didn’t try to ask out many women in college because I was a bit of an emotional mess and I had this assumption that no young and vibrant college girl would want to be with someone who was very sad. When I did start to ask out some women at 21, it either lead to rejection or flaking out from a planned coffee date. After I graduated college and moved to a different city, a pandemic happened which made me unemployed and depressed, hence feeling unattractive. Fortunately, I got a job again, but it is currently in retail.
I would like to stress that my life is not totally miserable, I don’t have many friends, but I do have a few who I can just hit it off with regardless of how long I’ve seen or chatted with them. I have been able to travel to Europe and Southeast Asia and gave me the opportunity to scatter my mom’s ashes, something that I am more proud of than even graduating college with no loans to be honest.
But now, reaching 26, I feel I need to move onward in life and would like to grow my hardly existing love life. I am worried that my lack of sexual and relationship experience, as well as my lackluster relationship with my family, and my current employment status are going to be seen as potential red flags. Is there much I can do to overcome this? I’m trying to expand my horizons and social circle by enrolling in an improv class and dance lessons. Also, I am trying to save up money for grad school, but I fear my circumstances may be a potential holdup for any romantic encounters.
The Man with Red Flags
Y’know, the idea that “I don’t have much relationship experience/ I’m an older virgin” is a red flag or relationship disqualifier is one of those topics that comes up so frequently that it’s practically its own subgenre. Much like the ever classic “Am I Too Ugly To Date”, if I had a nickel for every letter I receive on this subject, I could probably buy Richard Branson’s island out from under him.
Now, normally when I get letters like this, I talk a lot about self-love, self-acceptance and recognizing that women are far more accepting of what a lot of dudes think are irredeemable sins. But today, I want to try something a little different. Instead of looking at the opinions of others – “do women think a lack of relationship experience is a red flag,” let’s take a different tack entirely
Let’s turn this around for a moment. Instead of looking at others, lets look at you. I want you to look deep within yourself and ask: would you – you, specifically, MWRF – date a woman who had relatively little dating experience? If you met a woman who you found attractive, who you clicked with and who was compatible with you in all the the ways that matter, would her being a virgin be a deal breaker for you? Would her having a less than prestigious job or being estranged from a member of her family raise red flags for you? What would you think if you found out that this person – not an ideal or your dream woman but someone who you just really liked – had little or no relationship experience?
Would you think there was something wrong with her? Would you suspect that these were signs that she was broken or faulty in some way? Or would all of that matter far less than the fact that she’s an awesome person and you dig her?
You’d almost certainly say that no, none of that’s a big deal. And why should it be? Someone being a virgin doesn’t tell you anything about them except that there’s an experience they haven’t had yet. Working retail is hardly a red flag too; it may not be seen as being as “valuable” or “prestigious” as… I dunno, being a mid-level marketing executive, but it’s honest and necessary work. And if someone’s relationship is strained with their parents… well, and? If, for example, somebody’s parent was an abusive piece of shit, or who treated their kid with disdain and disrespect, how does that reflect badly on them? That’s the fault of the parent, not some indication of something being fundamentally wrong.
If you could date and accept someone who wasn’t the most sexually experienced or who didn’t have the highest-paying job ever… why wouldn’t other people feel the same way about you? I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t exactly think you’re the Buddha, MWRF; I don’t think you’re so exceptionally open-minded and forgiving that you’re an incredibly rare gem. I think you’re just a guy trying to make it in this crazy world, same as anyone else. So if you’re capable of understanding why someone else might not be perfect, do you really think that nobody else could?
Now let’s flip this a little more. Let’s say you do meet someone and they do judge you on the fact that you work retail. In fact, they look down on you for it because… well, who cares why, they just do. Doesn’t matter that you are employed, doesn’t matter that you’re supporting yourself, doesn’t matter that you have ambitions and goals. They just see “works retail” and look down on you for it.
Would you want to date someone who thinks like that? If they prove themselves to be that snobbish, that classist, would you ever want your penis within arm’s length of them? Or would you look at their shitty attitude and say “fuck this noise” and bounce?
I’m gonna go ahead and say that it’d be the latter.
Now, I frame it like this because you seem to not realize that you’re not powerless here. You’re not at the mercy of others to choose you; you choose who you want to date just as much as they choose you. And if someone is so shitty that they think that your being an older virgin or working a blue or pink collar job, then why would you choose to date them?
If you have enough empathy and understanding to recognize that one person’s circumstances don’t permanently define them as “dateable” or “undateable”, “fuckable” or “unfuckable”, then you should be able to accept that other people – people that you want to date – have that empathy and understanding too.
And no, there is no “but it’s ok for women…” or “but men are supposed to…” qualifier allowed here. That shit is just 100% pure, uncut toxic masculinity talking. That’s bullshit telling you that your value isn’t as a person but as a paycheck or a penis. And I suspect you would never tolerate that from anyone you would date, nor from your friends. Nor is there a “well women are the deciders because men have to approach” qualifier here. Leaving the social and gender structures aside, being attracted or interested in someone – or even actually asking them out on a date – isn’t a permanent choice. You may have made the first move, but that doesn’t mean you made the last; if you were to ask someone out and then find out that they were a shitty person and bounce, then you’ve rejected them, no matter what their response was or might have been.
There are shitty people out there, sure. There’re folks who’ll judge you for the things you worry about. That’s because they’re assholes. Assholes are gonna ass, and life’s too short to care about the opinions of assholes.
The things you insist are red flags are nothing of the sort, my dude; they’re just your current circumstances, ones that make sense in the context of your life. If someone can’t accept you because of those things? That’s a red flag for you and a sign that you should drop ’em like fifth period French. Focus on finding someone who’s actually worth your time instead of wondering why you’re not “worthy” of someone who’s proven themselves to be unworthy of you.