Fail Better: How Nerd Insecurity Becomes Abuse

Fail Better: How Nerd Insecurity Becomes Abuse

The cover of 1994’s Mad Love by Bruce Timm. You know what they say: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. And because of this, I date a lot of nerds of a particular kind. Guess what, nice guys? I have shyly fostered crushes on a ton of you. And you know what I’ve

The cover of 1994’s “Mad Love.” (Cover art: Bruce Timm)

The cover of 1994’s Mad Love by Bruce Timm.

You know what they say: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. And because of this, I date a lot of nerds of a particular kind. Guess what, nice guys? I have shyly fostered crushes on a ton of you. And you know what I’ve found after a 15-year career as a champion nerd girlfriend? Insecurities are deeply internalized, incredibly hard to overcome, and destroy relationships.

And nerds, particularly the kind that I am/I like, are especially prone to insecurities.

Let’s start with Mad Love. You know, the Batman: The Animated Series episode or the comic book version of it: the origin story of the destructive relationship between Harley Quinn and the Joker. I think the people who tell this story are incredibly brave to stick their toes into a simplified fable of abusive relationships. Charismatic boy meets fragile girl. She offers to help him, picking apart his neuroses and shouldering some of what must be an incredible history of pain. He’s misunderstood, she tells her friends. He trusts her now. She internalizes his illness, making it her own.

When I was younger, I celebrated this story. I’ve always loved being a caretaker for people, and oh look, you have some inner agony, a discomfort that I can ease. I got an endorphin high from gaining people’s trust, and after an awkward and desperate adolescence, I reinvented myself as the girl who will always listen to you, laugh at your raunchy jokes, just one of the guys.

My world opened! Here’s a list of interests I’ve picked up because of nerd boyfriends: Magic: the Gathering, tabletop role-playing, European-designed board games, robot anime, cyberpunk short fiction, Halo, and probably a whole lot more. Sure, it would’ve been great to have a female-driven community where I could’ve absorbed more of these things, but my persona as “cool girlfriend” meant that most of my nerd osmosis was focused on whomever I was pursuing.

From “Mad Love”: Batman's too-real analysis of Harley.

From Mad Love: Too real, Batman.

It’s a dubious character to embody. If I had a dollar for every time a woman loudly announced—to me, her significant other, and anyone around—“Well, I’m going to talk about girl stuff now,” I’d have at least ten dollars. And I don’t like that kind of attention. No, what I wanted (in hindsight, to assuage my own self-consciousness) was to be a part of a safe-feeling feedback loop. You depend on me, I depend on you, and together we can feel comfortable and empowered anywhere.

But as it turns out, when you suppress your own ego to accommodate someone else’s—and yes, one of my exes did declare once that I was “accommo-dating”—you are transformed into a stack of shared interests with a sympathetic ear that’s always, always available.


Let me know if this has happened to you before. In the middle of a discussion—about anything, from cheesecake shots of Zero Suit Samus to the global economy—you suggest that your significant other is wrong. All of a sudden, you’re not having a discussion anymore: it’s an argument, and you’ve begun the worst Choose Your Own Adventure story: spiral-of-abuse edition.

Yeah, I didn’t listen to my friends either. To my detriment.

Yeah, I didn’t listen to my friends either. To my detriment.

“Why can’t you ever be supportive?” he says.

Be soothing, turn to page 51. And this becomes a protracted listing of your significant other’s failings, accompanied by meaningless apologies.

Get angry, turn to page 37: I hope you’re ready for a sarcastic merry-go-round where all of a sudden, you’re not good enough anymore and never were.

But I thought I was helping...

But I thought I was helping…

This is a positive feedback loop, and don’t let the “positive” fool you: your insecurities get amplified, harder to tamp down, and hover around you every day. Simultaneously, your significant other’s insecurities become more dramatic and easier to trigger. An ex once threw a plate of chicken at me mid-argument. He knocked the cell phone out of my hand when I tried to call for help, then wept at the possibility that he would be abusive, like his mother.

Another ex screamed at me, accused me of being a traitor, because I would not facilitate a romantic date with his old flame. While we were dating.

Too, too real, Harley!

Too, too real, Harley!

Several boyfriends into my tour of duty, it struck me: I wasn’t the Super Cool Girlfriend. I was an enabler, insulating insecure people from their own insecurities, reinforcing shitty opinions of anyone outside of the feedback loop, and validating weaknesses.

One of my exes could not afford health insurance and thus a credible doctor. He was using my inhaler so frequently (while begging me to give him cigarette money), that when I brought the inhaler to work with me one day, I had to interrupt my workday to answer to screamed charges that I had stolen from him. But still, our relationship was bolstered by our shared hobbies—because we were nerds, and we had created a fantasy world in which everyone else would reject us, so the best we could do was not reject each other.

Harley, kicked to the curb.

Oh, girl, I know these feels.

And me? I had bought into this fantasy. I had committed to nerd hobbies and assumed that my interest in them depended on the boy who had introduced them to me. For a while, I was convinced that I was only a nerd-by-proxy, that my geekiness was fake because of its romantic origin. But lo, many boyfriends later, I am still playing Magic, still eagerly following the latest Halo news, and still being exactly the person I was before: a nerd with diverse interests.

Here’s an inspirational line to frame and hang in your home: when you spend so much time as a player two, it’s hard to see yourself in a solo campaign.

I’ve fixed parts of it, and I’m fixing more. Renovating your house, when you’ve built it upon a weak, insecure foundation is a process, not a single step. Now, when arguments get heated, I refuse to continue “unless you stop and admit that I’m an awesome person that you care about, right now.” Period. I stop conversations if they become entirely about one person’s ego, instead of two people’s relationship. Period.

They say you can’t love someone unless you love yourself. It’s very, very true. Because when someone’s ego becomes entirely your own, you’re just a clown girl: face painted happy with a scared woman underneath.

Batman Adventures #3, cover by Bruce Timm

Batman Adventures #3, cover by Bruce Timm.

Jo Fu

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