Dear Captain Awkward:
Hey. I have done some bad things. I need to tell you about it so you can help me figure out how to not do bad things ever again.I started dating this guy two years ago, my first relationship. He was a really fantastic guy. But it slowly became clear that he had a lot of problems of the mental health variety. Since he was my best friend and I loved him and we were going to be together forever and other teenage nonsense was in my mind, I tried to help him even though I know nothing about depression. Then he became dependent on me and I became dependent on him being dependent on me, and it slowly turned into this nightmare where I spend every day listening to him talk about how much he wanted to die and I was just constantly emotionally exhausted.
Anyway long story short I finally realized how unhealthy that was and broke up with him for both our sakes. Then I spent a while feeling super guilty and sad and angry, and just really confused. Meanwhile, a younger friend (who is also really hot) started moving in, and by moving in I meant he started doing really sweet things for me and being adorable. And I, being lonely and confused, totally went for it, and he asked me out only a month after I had broken up with Guy #1 and I said yes, because I felt like I might as well.
I went out with this guy and did not feel ANYTHING for him. So I called it off. But then the post break-up guilt started again and I thought I just didn’t give it enough chance and if I just worked harder I could do it, and I just quit too easily, so I went back (I know, it was stupid.) And, well, I still don’t feel anything, except that his text messages are really creepy now. But guess what, Guy #2 totally broke down to me and it seems that he’s depressed too.
Now, I realize Guy #2 is not a good match, and I feel really bad because I’ve caused so much pain to Guy #1. So my questions are, what the hell do I do now, am I a terrible person, what do I do about Guy #2, and should I go apologize to Guy #1 to give him some closure, and why do I keep attracting these guys, and do you have any advice about dating depressed people? I just don’t want to hurt anybody.
I have read your letter several times now, and I fail to find any “bad things” that you did.
It seems to me that you dated a few people, did the best you could to be nice to them, and then broke things off honestly when you were no longer happy. It is okay that you tried out dating Guy #2 to see if it was for you. Finding out that it wasn’t right for you is a sometimes-very-sad-but-entirely-predictable result of dating someone.
That’s pretty much the best you can do by anybody. There is no guaranteed way to avoid hurting people. Sometimes what someone else wants (to keep dating you) and what you want (to not be dating them anymore) come into direct conflict. Are you going to keep dating someone who doesn’t make you happy rather than risk upsetting them? Are you going to let fear of what might happen stop you from giving something an honest try? That seems like a lot of pressure to put on yourself.
Also, while a month may feel like a short window between leaving one relationship and getting into another, we are not in Ye Olde Victorian Timez. There is no obligatory mourning period where you wear black and grieve the passing of a relationship. While it’s understandably hard to see someone who recently used to date you dating someone new, you didn’t owe Guy #1 a certain interval before going out with someone else.
My practical advice is:
- Do not apologize or otherwise contact Guy #1 because things with Guy #2 have gone south. First, I don’t think you actually owe him an apology. Second, do you want to go back to hanging out with (and emotionally supporting) Guy #1? I’m thinking no. So leave that alone.
- Break things off with Guy #2. He will be sad and hurt, but you don’t want to date him anymore, and I think you have to be true to that.
- Be single for a while and get both of these guys out of your system.
- When you’re ready to stop being single, date around casually a bit. Go on dates with a bunch of different people and see who you click with.
After two experiences in a row with guys who are pretty down on themselves and not the best at taking care of their emotions, I can see why you want to figure out how to screen future partners for people who are more likely to make you happy. So let’s talk about how we do that.
Some things to keep in mind:
- Every single person has some kind of weirdness or baggage that makes them some person’s version of 100% undateable. You. Me. Them. Everybody! Fortunately, we all also have qualities that make us just what someone is looking for.
- Attraction is subjective and unfair. You can’t force yourself to feel it when you don’t. And it’s possible to feel very attracted to people who don’t make good partners for you.
- Rejection (or lack of connection) is totally normal. You can/will meet lots of people who are perfectly fine/great/awesome, whatever but who aren’t right for you and you aren’t right for them, and that is okay. You don’t have to know that right away when you meet someone and you are allowed to take a little time to figure it out.
So it is okay to make “takes good care of mental health” a thing you are looking for in a partner, and use the process of getting to know someone to figure out if you can have a happy day-to-day life with someone.
For a less-loaded example, I spent a long time dating someone who didn’t really cook. He would cheerfully go grocery shopping and help with preparation, but he was almost never the initiator of meals. So 8 times out of 10 I was the chief decider and implementer of dinner. You eat a lot of meals together when you date someone for five years, and over time the different way we approached food became a source of tension. It wasn’t a dealbreaker on its own, and if the relationship had been awesome otherwise I would have treated it like a Price of Admission. But once the relationship died, I could admit how important that was to me.
So when I was dating again last winter, I knew that one of the things that I was looking for in a partner was a similar attitude toward cooking. I did online dating, so I put something in my dating profile about wanting someone who thinks it’s fun to scout out grocery stores and cook together. I responded favorably to people who mentioned cooking in their profiles in a way that seemed like they knew what they were doing but were also fun and relaxed about it. When I started dating my current partner, I saw that he was good company around cooking and eating and that we fit together well that way. It was a green flag in wanting to get to know him more.
If I had met someone who didn’t like cooking, I might have bailed. This is because my former relationship had taught me that cooking and eating with someone, having certain rituals around that and trading off responsibility for that, are super-important for me having a happy life with someone. Not liking to cook doesn’t make you a bad person, but in a perfect world that’s something I wanted to share with someone, so I was allowed to try to find someone who is a good fit that way.
For a more loaded story, I told this tale here in the comments once: I went on a few dates with someone who was handsome and nifty. After a little while, there was no kissing stuff, so I asked him about it and if he’d want to try that out. He came out to me as asexual and said that he would happily oblige me if I wanted sex but he would probably never initiate it. Reader, I stopped seeing him. Not because he did anything wrong, but because I know myself and I knew that what he described about how he handles sex in a relationship would not make me happy. I realize that plenty of people find ways to negotiate a happy relationship despite not having sex drives that match up, but I was also allowed to decide that I did not want to sign up for that kind of negotiation after going to the movies with someone a few times. There are plenty of people who are fun to go to the movies with and who like reading; better for us both to find people who match up well in other areas! His honesty and self-knowledge about his own desires allowed me to make a good decision about whether to get more involved.
Forgive yourself for not figuring out everything you want from your very first relationships. Now you know more than you did before about what you need. Having someone who takes care of their mental health – by seeing a therapist and going to the doctor and staying on top of those needs and not expecting their partner to be their sole source of emotional support – is super-important to you. You are allowed to actively try to figure out whether a potential partner is good at that before you get deeply involved. My partner and I both have diagnoses, and soon after we met each other we disclosed our stuff and talked about how we handle it and what the other person could expect. I left that conversation feeling like “Cool, he understands and has compassion for my stuff, and he has a good support structure in place for taking care of his stuff. Cool, we can do this.” Of course stuff happens, and you can’t always predict when someone is going to go through a crisis or how they will handle it, but when a new dating partner hits a personal rough patch, you are allowed to decide if you want to sign up for this. And if they seem to be leaning on you more than is comfortable, you are allowed to say “I think you should talk to a pro about this stuff, it’s not something that I can really handle as your girlfriend” and see what they do.
We do end up taking care of each other sometimes, and there is something amazing in the caring for someone and being cared for in return. But every single day should not feel like work. And one person should not have to serve as Emotional Rescue Squad.
I think you are very smart to figure out that there is more to life than shoring up some guy’s emotions at the expense of your own. Keep awesomeing!