Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. "Vibrant confirmations of your worst fears!"
I need your help. I'm a guy in my mid-thirties, and I have unrequited feelings for a woman I went to high school with. We talk maybe every year or two; we're not close. There was a time, in our twenties, when she might have dated me, or at least made out with me as an experiment, but that time is long past. She has since married and divorced, and is in a relationship with someone else. She has clearly moved on, and I can't. Please don't tell me to "just get over it." I have tried, and it doesn't work. For years now.
I am definitely not her type, and we don't want the same things from life. She likes guys who dress and live a certain way; I don't fit the description. She makes a comfortable living; I have struggled to survive for most of my life (my fortunes might be changing, but it's still touch and go). She's always had serious boyfriends; I keep most of my relationships casual. She likes bong hits in front of the TV and hanging out with her cat; I have different ideas of fun. A relationship between us would never even get started, let alone work out. But I can't get her out of my mind. She is just my favorite person ever. When we talk, I feel comfortable and happy in a way that doesn't happen often. Thoughts of her were a tremendous comfort during some difficult times, including a bad marriage when I didn't talk to her for years (my ex was jealous, narcissistic and mean; it was a lonely time).
I had a therapist a few years ago who said I should tell her how I felt. I did—and immediately regretted it. I imagine it weirded her out, and I felt terrible. We're still distant friends/acquaintances, but I tend to avoid contact with her, partly because these feelings are difficult to handle. I wish we were real friends, but that seems unlikely, given the way things stand. I think maybe I only have this crush because, in my mind, she represents safety and comfort, and because she knew me back before my life got really messed up and difficult. I worry that the years I was married have permanently ruined me for social contact with women. I sometimes date people who are more available, but my thoughts always come back to her. I just want to get on with things and live the rest of my life as well as I can. Please help!
Dear Reluctantly Lovelorn,
This fixation has you in a tough spot. You've basically been meditating on this woman for years, to the point where every time you felt lonely, alienated from other people (or from your wife when you were married), unsafe or just bored, you focused on her as the antithesis of your negative feelings: she was lovable, connected, safe, exciting. You're healthy enough to pry the reality of her (she doesn't share your feelings, she likes other sorts of guys, she's a stoner) away from your imagined, constructed vision of her, but that doesn't change the fact that your construction, this imaginary Dream Girl, plays an outsized role in your emotional life.
Similarly, your ex-wife seems to represent everything that's bad in the world. I don't doubt that she's pain in the ass, but I do doubt that that she has the power to "permanently ruin [you] for social contact with women." You've given her as much negative power as you've given your Dream Girl positive power. I have tons of sympathy for how terrible it feels to be trapped in a shitty place with a shitty person. I've been there. But keep in mind, shitty places make people behave shittily. Isn't it possible to attribute some small part of your ex's jealousy and meanness to the fact that you were still comforting yourself with this imaginary Dream Girl from your past, and that made you a little less sympathetic to her emotional state?
While I can understand feeling like someone fucked you up, chances are what they really did was turn you into a much more grateful person. You just have to tap into that part of it. I have a good friend who was married to a selfish, manipulative jerk for more than a decade. He used to worry that this jerk screwed him for life, but then he met a great woman. Now he says he's a much better husband this time around because of the shit he went through, and the gratitude that came out of it. Objectively, how much of a fuckwad was his ex-wife? Does it matter? No. What matters is, he feels grateful, and he shines that gratitude on the people in his life today.
You know how that feels, because you shine all kinds of positivity and gratitude onto your Dream Girl every day. You've created this deity who has as much to do with perfection and comfort and safety as your ex-wife has to do with pure evil. I'm not saying you can't make a qualitative distinction between those two women. But the degree of black and white that you prefer suggests that you tend to paint elaborate pictures, by yourself, rather than allowing people to be who they are. I understand and I don't mean to condemn this aspect of who you are. After all, lots of colorful, interesting, passionate people like to paint in black and white. And maybe your ex really is a certified Bad News Jane. It's not like they don't exist.
But as long as you're more interested in staying safe in your rigid perspectives and your creations, and you're too afraid to let people be who they are, then you're right, you won't have satisfying relationships with women. You have a nostalgic addiction to your Dream Girl, imagining how she'd solve all your problems, take care of you, understand you. But this effort to control your circumstances and keep yourself safe makes you feel increasingly detached, confused and unsafe. You're going to have to work hard to get yourself over this addiction, this bad emotional habit. I'm not saying, "just get over it." I'm saying: When you start to fixate on her, try to stop and remind yourself that you're not fixated on a human being, you're fixated on an illusion. You have no idea what it would be like to actually go out with her. It's just an emotional lap dance. At the end, you're worked up and psychically broke. Pay attention to how empty that feels. Then try, more and more, to close the door on this fantasy, and go meet some real, live women.
Because I don't believe you want to "keep things casual." That's you staying safe again. I think you want to find a real woman to connect with—that's what this obsession is really about. But in order to do that, you have to give up on these created archetypes, and start living in the real world, with other real, fantastic, thrilling, flawed human beings. Real human beings are much more frightening and they can seem very mean. So can you, by the way, when you try to push them away, control them, change them, mold them into something other than what they are. It's time to let some real people in, get to know them, and sift around for someone who makes a little bit of sense to you. Then, don't turn that person into an angel overnight—because any angel you create will also be transformed into a devil by you, eventually. Just let her be who she is. The results will be 1,000 times more satisfying than any time you ever spent with imaginary people.
I am in a three-month-old relationship with a wonderful doctor boyfriend, and four months out of a two-year relationship with the ex law-school boyfriend. And while I'm progressing nicely with this new relationship, and moving forward, and not contacting the ex at all after our one meet-up two weeks ago, I still have this small nugget of anxiety and frustration regarding my ex. The ex and I have friends in common, and I know that when I have asked around about the ex's new girlfriend (and try to assess how she is not as awesome as me) or how he is doing (while looking for the confirmation that he is doing less well without me) I come across as a little bitter. And I am a little bitter about how the ex has plastered his new relationship everywhere on Facebook, and had done so less than a month after we had broken up. I dated my new boyfriend around that same time, but I'm not blasting me and my new boyfriend kissing in public at a party all over social media. So, yeah, part of me wants this to blow up in my ex's face so that he recognizes what an idiot he was for breaking up with me. Because, obviously, I'm awesome and funny and beautiful and how did he so quickly move on with no guilt or regret?
Does this make me mean and bitchy?
Or just human?
Say "Bitter Much" Much?
And, as if on cue, here is that real, fantastic, thrilling, flawed woman I was just talking about.
First of all, I can't help but feel a little rush of girlish glee over the fact that you're dating a doctor now. What the fuck is wrong with me? This may be a remnant of that fact that, when I was single, I never met gainfully employed men. Then again, I was always sort of an aggressive drunk. Gainfully employed men tend to steer clear of aggressive drunks for some reason, I guess because they can't picture them doing laundry and cutting up apples all day long. Ah, but we all end up doing laundry and cutting up apples eventually.
But back to the real point: You feel a little bitter about your ex. Here he is, thrilled about his new lady, posting kissy photos all over Facebook. Maybe he didn't think you were so beautiful and awesome after all. "BUT I AM BEAUTIFUL AND AWESOME, GODDAMN IT!" your gigantic ego bellows. "WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH HIM?!!"
This is very immature and ego-driven and almost every single woman alive would feel the exact same way that you do. Are we all pathetic? Yes, we are. Because we truly believe that people we sleep with should find us deliriously sexy and funny and alluring. They should look at our fat faces every day and think "My god, it's like I'm fucking Penelope Cruz."
Let me tell you a little story. I had a very nice boyfriend once who was rarely the hottest or the smartest guy in any room, and he never had a job. He was great, I loved him, but no one ever came up to me and said, "Holy shit, where did you find that guy? You have got to marry him, pronto!" Anyway, even though we always had fun together and I was totally attracted to him, part of the reason I decided to date him was that I hoped he might believe I was the best thing that ever happened to him.
Instead, he told lots of good jokes, but he almost never laughed at mine. He interrupted my groundbreaking insights into the human condition in order to remark on Rafael Nadal's tendency to make backhand errors in clutch matches. He said things like "You look like a dyke in those pants." After I dumped him, I half-expected him to want me back. Instead, he told me how much he missed my dog.
But let's just look at this objectively, existentially, karmically: I chose someone who I thought would adore me. How ego-driven is that? And he chose someone who he thought would adore him. To him, I wasn't that great… but I did seem to think he was great, so that was something, right?
Months after I started dating someone new, I saw my ex and it bothered me, in spite of myself, how he still didn't seem remotely remorseful that someone as electrifying as me had left him behind. And guess what? It's a decade later, and he still doesn't give a shit.
Luckily, I don't either. And honestly, your ego changes when you spend a lot of time doing laundry and cutting up apples. You don't expect anyone to think you're a breathtaking force of nature anymore. I mean, I'm not a stanky side of decaying ham, but I don't need to bring all the boys to the yard with my two-day-old, melted-ass milkshake, either. I'm too old for that shit. My ex is a friend of mine. He still thinks I look like a dyke in these pants.
God, this column is long. The point is: Don't go talking to your dumb law-student ex. Don't do it! He didn't think you were that special. That is a fact. So the fuck what? It has nothing to do with your future with your new guy, and it doesn't reflect on who you are, not even slightly. Rejection isn't personal. Oh, the pain we endure, for no reason, believing that everyone should agree that we're beautiful and amazing! Yuck. We need to get over ourselves, we really do.
You don't want someone who thinks you're glorious and superhuman and then realizes that you aren't, anyway. (See the black/white scenario in the last letter.) What you're aiming for is not adoration, but true love, the kind of love where the person doesn't necessarily think you're a goddess, but where knowing that doesn't make you feel worried and bitter so much of the time. Don't try to convince yourself or anyone else that you're the most magical princess in all the land—that maneuver backfires without fail. Admit that you're human. Admit it to yourself, to your friends, to your new boyfriend. Accept that you have flaws, point them out if necessary, apologize and take responsibility for them as trouble arises. Only insecure, shaky people waste a ton of effort trying to appear perfect.
But first? Forget the ex. Unlike! Unfriend! Unfollow! He's not your guy, so you're not missing out on anything. He has nothing to do with you. He never did. He can't even see you, really. He doesn't know who you are. Let's just keep our sights on someone who does.
Previously: Ask Polly: I Don't Like My Friends Anymore
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is our new existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by Michi Moore Images.