Fail Better: How Nerd Insecurity Becomes Abuse

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

Jo Fu

WWAC games writer and editorial assistant, Halo devotee, tower defender, Final Fantasy tactician, Twine creator, all-around winner. Chat with me on Twitter @jozerphine, or follow my Twitch stream:

12 thoughts on “Fail Better: How Nerd Insecurity Becomes Abuse

  1. In fairness I don’t think this is exclusively a problem with nerdy guys? I see this same pattern play out with women struggling with guys from all cliques. There have just, always been guys that know if they turn on the desperate-needy-broody-broken that there are women to which that will suddenly trigger some internal instinct to care for them. So they will quite cheerfully exploit it as a means to control and dominate women.

    But very good article, interesting read. Thank you.

    1. It’s very easy for people to see their clique labels as things that immunise them from widespread problems. So it’s easy for somebody to think “I’m a nerd! I’m not like those guys who abuse their girlfriends”.

      It’s a drawn-out business, but to deny that it’s sensible to cover all bases, visit every specific subculture, is probably to be mistaken.

  2. Very well written. I’m sorry it took you as long as it did to see how valuable you are but I’m glad you know now. Don’t except anything other than things you deserve like love and mutual respect.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this. As a survivor of abusive relationships, I still struggle with falling into the role of “player two.” I still have to catch myself and say “WHOA. I can make decisions and have opinions, too.” You did a really great job of writing out things that I often think.
    I tend to hate the saying that you can’t love someone else if you don’t love yourself. It tends to imply that you are not worthy of having love unless you fully love yourself (which is a really difficult and sometimes life-long process). In your essay, I took it as you can’t take care of someone else unless you take care of yourself. I don’t know; it’s a phrasing thing for me.
    Either way, I loved this piece. It’s so important. Thank you for sharing!

  4. “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’m gonna embroider that one.

    So good, thanks for this.

  5. Ms. Fu,

    Brava, and well done. I hope everyone takes the time to read this. Bonus points for this article; everything you mention concerning dealing with one’s own insecurities are valid for both genders, and ALL of your points works for *anyone* in a relationship in which they supplant their own needs with those of their significant other.

    1. Oh, thank you so much for reading and for your kind comment! I did my best to stay gender-agnostic, because I’ve definitely seen and been in relationships where it’s not just a boyfriend who’s emotionally demanding.

  6. Jo, I can’t thank you enough for writing this. While I was insulated from this in college due to the fact that I kept my long-distance relationship in front of me like a shield, I watched it happen to others and felt helpless. I’ve known a number of women who have had experiences so similar to yours. I hate that this happened to you and to my friends, and I hope that your words here will encourage other women (and men) to examine their relationships and begin to walk that long path of healing.

    1. Amanda~ you are so kind! I think it’s the kind of thing that’s easy to see on the outside, and you’re completely blind to it when you’re experiencing this kind of dangerous adoration yourself.

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