Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

Ask Polly: Why Can't I Leave My Ex Behind For Good?

Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. "Because suspending your disbelief burns 78 calories per hour!"


Relationship. 3.5 years. 2.5 of those years spent cohabiting. 1 year into the relationship, my brother died, and my family fell apart before my eyes. Around this time, the major, major conflicts in the relationship began. Fighting. Constantly. Me taking it out on him. Him letting me because he’s a good guy. Drinking too much. Having the most epic, awful fights. Things got better, gradually, with time, us giving each other more space, and him finally realizing that he needed to be in therapy. (I was already. Have been since I was 16.)

Still, resentment lingered between us, mostly because of the unhealthy patterns we fell into as a result of my grief. Or at least that’s how I see it now. There’s a chance We’re Just Not Right for Each Other. Which I wondered, probably more than one should whilst in a long-term relationship. Still, we made each other happy. And the Good Times were really good. And we talked realistically about the future. Etc.

And then, three weeks ago, one more Epic Fight, and I decide no, I don’t want to do this anymore. We blow up. I go to stay with friends. Then we talk. We decide we need space from each other. There is no fighting whatsoever, just tears and sadness. I find a new place, move out.

But now we’re talking. And I am confused. Because now, without context, we can actually communicate with one another. I’m more patient with him. He’s more open with me. Is this just something that happens, the horrific irony of break-ups? I still have hope for this relationship, Polly. And I can’t talk to any of my friends about it anymore because they fall into two distinct camps: the “He was never right for you, you fought all the time, you weren’t happy, he acted like a pompous d-bag” camp, and the “You guys were really good together, maybe space will help you both sort your shit out and you can get back together someday” camp. Problem is, I agree with both. My head remembers why we broke up. My heart remembers why we never could before.

Am I just hanging out in denial because it’s comfortable right now? And it’s only been three weeks? Am I a fool for having hope? Do these stories ever have happy endings? HALP ME.

Full of Questions

Dear FOQ,

Many years ago, I got an assignment from some lady magazine to "live your life by chance" for a week and then write about it. I was supposed to roll a pair of dice to see where I should eat for dinner, talk to an astrologist, and consult with a "real" psychic. Yes, the whole thing made no sense and it was a stupid piece. I agree.

But anyway, I made an appointment with this psychic, who was widely known at the time as "the" psychic to all of the big stars in Hollywood, whatever kind of absurd and vaguely sad credential that is. She lived in this dreary, low-ceilinged ranch style home in the Valley and she was sort of unfriendly—not exactly the seasoned service professional you'd expect. Her demeanor was so sour, it was as if I had wandered up to some random stranger's house and rang the doorbell, then pushed my way into her living room. I was very clear with her about my magazine assignment, and she didn't seem to care, beyond hinting that the whole thing made no sense and was stupid. Then she explained that she would hold my rings in her hands, and she would probably hear voices, and then she would tell me whatever the voices she heard told her. She made it very clear that whatever they happened to say, it wasn't her fucking fault and, in fact, it had nothing to do with her at all.

So she took my rings. About one minute later, she wrote the first letter of my boyfriend's name on a piece of paper. "Who is this?" she asked. When I said it could be my boyfriend, she told me he had an addict's personality, and asked me, in the exact lilt and manner that my dead father would've asked, "What the hell are you doing with this guy?" (I had long-term boyfriends whose name my dad never knew, he just called them all "This Guy" or "That Guy.") Then, for the rest of the session, she would sit silently for a minute like she was listening to someone talk to her, and then she'd shake her head, and chuckle, and say something like, "Christ, your dad. Good sense of humor. Not easy, though. Whew. Not an easy man to live with. Wow. I can't even imagine."

Now obviously we could conclude from this anecdote that 1) this woman was schizophrenic, not psychic, 2) schizophrenic or not, she was a master fake and manipulator, 3) I was anxiously waiting for someone with some claim to moral authority to tell me to dump my boyfriend, and 4) I just might have a wee bit of baggage of my own, considering my father's apparent callousness about the stuff that was important to me. But forget all of that, because we're getting to the important part of the story. Right after she asked me what I was doing with "This Guy," I started to cry and couldn't stop. Not because of the stuff about my dad, but because I was trying very hard to think of ways to explain why I should stay with my boyfriend. I really didn't want to break up with him. The relationship was awful. But I loved him! How could I explain? After a few minutes of this, the psychic said, "Look, if you can't defend your relationship in a court of law, forget it."

That bit of advice, which has nothing to do with her psychic abilities, was what stuck with me over the years. Because it was true that I couldn't defend my relationship in a court of law. In fact, I was often haunted by the feeling I should break up with him. Every argument we had was a soupy mess of confusion—the whole relationship was a soupy mess of confusion—but I wanted to make it work, somehow, some way. I just couldn't say why.

It was only later that I knew the truth. The truth was, I loved him, but didn't like him that much. (Somehow, this remained a mystery to me while I was with him.) That's why I couldn't outline all the reasons we should be together, beyond "Everyone has rough spots, right?" and "We're just figuring out how to communicate" and all of that other stuff you say when you're trying not to break up.

But if this psychic could ask me why I'm with my husband, I could talk for several hours—about his helpfulness and his smart ideas and his pretty face and his not just tolerance but support for my deeply irritating ways of being. We had semi-regular fights during our first few years together, and he can be a pain in the ass, just like I can. But we both always knew that we should stay together. We belong together. It's obvious.

I can't begin to express what a difference it makes, to be with someone you're sure about, completely fucking sure. You've been through this terrible loss, but you're crushed, even now. You're traumatized, you're just barely hanging onto your happiness, and you're horribly afraid to be alone. God, do I understand that. But if you were with the right person, this awful grief you're feeling would've brought you closer to him. That's how it looks when you're with the right guy. Instead, you're with That Guy. As the psychic said, "I'm not saying he's a bad guy. I'm not saying that at all. But why are you with him?" You're not very convincing, when it comes to him. Your friends who say that maybe you'll work it out? They're hedging their bets, that's all, to avoid burned bridges in case you get back together with him.

I don't know you, I don't know him. But my sense is that you're anxious to move on. I know that sounds scary, but try to see the promise in that. Your grief put you in touch with some very deep, essential part of yourself that desperately wants to get the fuck out of that relationship, that desperately wants to move forward alone, without him. That part of you is courageous and vulnerable and transcendently wise. Let it talk, and listen closely. You may feel lonely and miss your ex, you may not meet anyone who seems quite as great as him for a long time. But don't look back. You know what you're doing. Trust yourself.


Dear Polly,

I've lived in New York for four years now. I'm technically pretty damn young, but I feel like I'm 40. Over those years, I've been getting dragged, basically kicking and screaming, through these painful growth stages. I haven't really gone looking for any of them, but they were just the path open to me. First it was personal (breaking up with a marriage-track boyfriend), then it was professional, then it was personal (coming to terms with the fact that relationships/emotions are messy and I am too and that's okay), now it's professional again—and I'm just exhausted. All the time.

My problem is, I'm tired of feeling like I'm jaded or dead inside or, I don't know, too weirdly self-contained to the point that I've lost the capability to share my life. Particularly when it comes to personal relationships of the intimate sort. I feel like I've left more people behind than most, and I'm at the point where I'm hard-pressed to care about it.

If it helps as background, I am currently coming to terms with a three-year friendship that just ended, with my best friend of the opposite sex. He and I were very close, and was one of the only people I felt was safe to talk to about my #realtalk personal crap. Basically, I trusted the shit out of him, cared more about him than I ever cared to admit… and then he made it clear that he saw our relationship very differently. In his eyes, the way he put it, he's been using me as an ointment to soothe his own shitty self-esteem. Whether that was his purpose, the fact that he sees it that way now means that he's not a friend, he's a manipulative jackwad who likes to keep ladyfriends around because he thinks they're into him and that gives his ego a boner.

But what scares me the most about all of this is that my emotional response has been more "meh" than tears. I'm not sad anymore, or even hurt. I'm not even capable of getting worked up enough to maintain the anger. I work too hard to have time for a ton of feelings, and I've had the emotional-support rug pulled out from under me a few times now. Sure, every once in a while I think about this case enough to get pissed. But there are certainly worse things that can happen, so mostly, I'm just resigned. Plus, I figure I'm just as much to blame. I projected my own subliminal shit on him, and he probably didn't deserve that either. I mean, I don't know, maybe this is just a hipster yuppie version of "he's just not that into you" and I'll laugh at myself in four years.

But what's really hard for me now is just the lack of trust I feel towards anyone, everyone, and myself—at the very least, my judgment, at the most, my character. People are totally fucked up, right? How can anyone possibly build a healthy relationship what with their problems and other people's problems and the bullshit psychological needs everyone is projecting onto everyone else?



Dear Meh,

Yes, people are totally fucked up. Almost half of them? So many of them that it's best not to think about it. Their egos and their all-important pride and their fears and their general-purpose chickenshittedness gets in the way, every stupid day of their lives. Sometimes it blows my mind, how weird and flinty people can be, how much projection and bewilderment and shame is in the air at all times.

Related: I went to have my blood drawn last weekend, at one of those terrible little lab franchises where all they do all day is put blood and urine and stools into tiny little test tubes and then glue labels on the test tubes and send them to some huge bio-testing factory that it pains me to imagine. So anyway, the waiting room is this closet-sized space filled with hard plastic chairs lined up too closely to each other, and it's packed with sick people and old people and pissed-off, giant pregnant women who haven't eaten in 12 hours and recovering addicts and also, people who are very worried that they might be dying. I didn't have an appointment, so I had to wait for about an hour.

But there's this guy behind the front desk. He's youngish, average-looking, Latino (do we still like that term? Are we turning on that one yet?). He isn't that memorable, except that he has these very open eyes and a really nice, faintly flirtatious smile. He somehow charms me while photocopying my dumb insurance card. And then, since there's only one place to sit a few millimeters away from his face, I listen to him cheerfully check people in, asking them for information, helping them, all with this amazing friendly demeanor that feels completely out of place in a terrible closet filled with sick old pregnant worried people.

Remarkable, right? And then, in between doing these things, he starts gently teasing the receptionist about her boyfriend ("What's his name? Ashtray?" "His name is EJ." "Ashtray, EJ, same thing."). She's a surly sort of woman who I'm sure is going to shut him down or haul off and punch him, but instead, she starts telling him about their sex life! Very quietly! I'm serious. They aren't even flirting, either. They're just both kind of young and soon they're giggling away about how she likes to fuck when she's high, but her boyfriend lives with his grandmother so they have to be very quiet about it.

The point is, this guy wasn't some kind of a guru, nor did he have some special method for making people feel relaxed. He was a comfortable, open, happy human being.

That's what good mental health looks like: alluring. Alluring in part because it's so fucking rare. Every now and then, not all that frequently, I've witnessed this kind of glowing, comfortable state—in a friend, or a waitress, or a celebrity, or a housekeeper. I employed a nanny who was like this. I bored the hell out of her—I just wanted to sit and talk to her all day long. I once interviewed Mark Ruffalo, and well, he's hot as shit, first of all. But he's also really nice, open, healthy, happy, in that way that you cannot fake (because plenty of actors try to fake it, not all that well).

I don't know that, personally, I can ever come close to having that rarefied level of extreme emotional health, and maybe you can't either. But the one key thing that I want you to note about these kinds of sanity superstars is that they're open. Being open means allowing yourself to be vulnerable to other people, leaving enough room to take them in, with all of their flaws and failures and issues. It means being brave enough to notice when something is beautiful, and noticing when it's awful and heartbreaking. It means feeling connected to the world around you.

You are in some kind of closed-down, self-protective state. You are avoidant and you're in state of perpetual alarm over the bad behavior and bad choices of others. Your opposite-sex friend is exactly the same way. He didn't even have the decency to tell you how he felt about you, he just fed you this intellectualized horseshit excuse and moved on. He should be your model for the kind of person you don't need in your life.

What about female friends? Where are they? What about people who strike you as a little soft, a little insecure, a little dull sometimes? Maybe their style choices aren't your favorites. Maybe they don't have strong opinions about the same stuff you have strong opinions about. Maybe they do. But you need more of them in your life.

Mostly, though, you've got to learn how to access your feelings again. You aren't old and world weary, you just feel that way because you've chosen this been-there, done-that mien. If you've never been to therapy, you should go. You've got to disassemble your armor, and that's going to take time. You need to cry for an hour once a week (or just talk about stuff that should make you cry, at first).

Because as long as you're choosing safety over all of these messy emotions you'd rather not allow to exist, you're also choosing MEH over love and beauty and exhilaration and magic. The way you're living now, you are choosing a dark cave over a brilliant world full of lovable, flawed, hilarious people.

People do have healthy relationships, and they accept and support each other. You have to dare to believe that. You may not have that many good examples around you. But once you admit that you're scared, and lonely, and upset, once you take the extreme risk of facing your feelings, you'll cry and tumble down a steep hill, and you'll feel beaten. And then, after a while, you'll get up and wipe off your tears, and you'll feel the sun on your face, and you'll start to look people in the eyes and really see them, and it won't be creepy or embarrassing. You'll fall in love with the whole world again, and it'll be terrifying and amazing. Once your heart is open, you'll have more good, caring friends than you know what to do with. You can get there. Shrug this off and roll your eyes and retreat into meh as long as you can, but someday, you will get there, if you want to. It's your choice.

Good luck.


Does Polly smoke meth before she writes her column every week? Write to Polly and find out!

Previously: Ask Polly: I Am Haunted By Toxic Troublemakers From My Past

Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's 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 Rick Hall.

16 Comments / Post A Comment

julebsorry (#5,783)

"I don't know that, personally, I can ever come close to having that rarefied level of extreme emotional health, and maybe you can't either."

Hint: the people you think have achieved that likely haven't, either. I'm often told I'm super happy, friendly, balanced, chatty and even "have a glow around me that draws people in." I'm a complete fucking mess. I think it's more of something people project on me than anything I actually feel myself internally. It's not usually possible to judge someone's mental state after only being around them for a few minutes.

Nabonwe (#12,500)

Whew, Polly must be in a good mood today, cause she took it damned easy on LW2. Sorry, kiddo, but I'm pretty sure that 1.) moving to NY 2.) ending a serious relationship 3.) realizing that relationships are messy and you are too and 4.) getting entangled in a yucky, on-and-off again relationship with a "friend" are the exact life stages you're supposed to go through when you're 24.

When you're FORTY – you know, the kind of really, really old person you imagine you feel like right now – common life stages include moving out of NY because you can't afford it, the death of one or both parents, divorce (you know, the end of an actual marriage, not a relationship you just daydreamed might get there someday) or having to put your own messy emotional needs to the side cause you have a bunch of kids to support.

I'm not saying you don't have real problems (okay, maybe I am) but sheesh, get some perspective.

@Nabonwe : My problems, by definition, are worse than yours.

@Nabonwe Everyone ages at their own pace. Signed, not yet 40 but pretty close and kind of ticked that you're being all one-uppy about a situation that's clearly causing this person a lot of pain.

mishaps (#5,779)

@Maura Johnston Past 40 and co-signing.

Nabonwe (#12,500)

@Maura Johnston Ah well, that came off too harshly and I'm sorry. It gets my goat when people use 40 as the delimiting number of unimaginable old age, so I suppose I didn't read the rest of the letter with a sympathetic enough eye. Guess it goes to show we could all use a bit more perspective.

doraleigh (#239,253)

@Nabonwe The "I feel like 40" comment tripped me up, too — made me more sympathetic to your original comment, but also, in a weird way, more sympathetic to the letter writer. I kind of long (in a stupid, nostalgic way) for the problems of my 20s (and 30s!) — which were real and painful and hard, but now seem like fun (boyfriend trouble! messy relationships!) — compared with you know, parenting and marriage and mortgages and whatnot. Truth is, it's all hard and it seems like you only actually get perspective past the point of its usefulness.

blueblazes (#238,044)

@Nabonwe I'm not yet 40, but I agree more than disagree with you. LW2's malaise just sounds to me like normal growing up activities and self-dramatization. This person is imagining herself in a movie montage where a power ballad is playing as she stares out a rain-splattered window and maybe Christian Slater is looking up at her and thinking about sending her some flowers. I hate to sound so old fashioned, but it seems to me that LW2 could really do with a non-self-centered activity so she can stop obsessing and start contributing. Stop playing the "I'm dead inside" card already.

Danzig! (#5,318)

I feel u LW2, for real. Bad stuff happened to me when I was a kid and it sort of… cast a pall over me? When I was very young I took on these "truths" about who I was and what I was capable of, in terms of having things with other people. I've a lack of trust in myself and it often occurs to me how vice-tight the defensive grip I have on myself is.

I've felt so out-of-sorts that I told my best friend I was out of the "meet people" game, cause how was I supposed to be going around socially / romantically with this 10-ton cart of baggage? I didn't think I could take reciting that litany over time, waiting for the people I wanted around me to reach their threshold, throw up their hands and bolt. I could barely live w/ myself, it didn't really seem worth subjecting other people to me. So I told her and she just shook her head and answered that when I see someone like me (and there are a lot of us out there), they're thinking pretty much the exact same thoughts I am, bracing themselves for the crossing of lines that's gonna cause me to drop them like a mic after something incontrovertibly true's been said onstage.

Anyway, what she was saying to me was essentially that the way to come back from giving up on oneself is to cut slack and have compassion, for others but also for yrself. That's how you build relationships with complicated people, people who worry and castigate themselves and feel like maybe their lives over because of something they were born with or something that was done to them, or something that they did, who feel like they're living but not really alive. You've got to look past those complications and tap into the things that make you or the company of others worth having around. To condemn someone is to forfeit them from your life.

I feel like I've lived a deprived life in a lot of ways. I look back on it and it seems so small and wasteful. I think everyone in our ballpark has tried cynicism, and while it might feel functional in some respects I think the truth about it is that we all know it doesn't work, and that all it does is rob us of our happiness under the guise of protecting us. That you even wrote yr letter is testament to that truth. I think I realized that when I turned 25 after years of passively thinking "maybe things will be different this year" and the possibility occurred to me that I might be thinking that same thing at 40 or 50, having that same small life and having an even greater sense of the ways in which I've failed. The only barrier between myself and that actually happening is how I decide to treat myself now. That probably sounds like self-help bullshit, but it is really honestly terrifying to me that I could be on my deathbed and realize I'd always been a scared, self-sabotaging idiot. So yeah I agree with Polly / Heather, you need to fight to open yrself up again.

alliepants (#204,157)

@Danzig! Ahhhhh you are so right THANK YOU. My family life was not exactly peachy when I was a kid, and I tend to carry it around. I know that in some ways I got really lucky and I'm doing very well–I have an "exciting" job and I'm always running around doing something–but deep down I'm lonely and feel like I've been stuck in this wheel of progressing but not really making lasting connections with anyone. And then I feel dumb for feeling sad and lonely, because it's like "think about how lucky you are, chin up stupid!"

One reason the loss of that friendship was so hard was that he was one of the few people I could talk to about some of the not-great stuff I grew up with and not feel judged, or like I was imposing or making someone feel uncomfortable with my problems.

So without him–and another one of my very close friends who just moved away–I'm a little bit unmoored.

But on a better note, I feel like writing about it broke the dam a bit. Maybe I cried all weekend without really knowing the reason, but I feel more like a human being.

laurel (#4,035)

"But if you were with the right person, this awful grief you're feeling would've brought you closer to him. That's how it looks when you're with the right guy" is persuasive.

Bittersweet (#765)

@laurel Absolutely. Ditto "his not just tolerance but support for my deeply irritating ways of being."

Annie K. (#3,563)

@laurel Actually not quite, grief pushes people inside themselves and away from each other, and this goes on for quite a while. I looked this up.

TheWalbert (#7,392)

@laurel But I think there's potential trouble in that situation as well, when a couple "trauma-bonds" over grief in a way that substitutes for actual reciprocal care. I've been in the position of caregiver when an ex was experiencing (repeated) family tragedy, and while it brought us closer for a time, it ultimately exhausted me and drove me away from the relationship. From the outside, I was sacrificing all I could for my partner's well-being, and I'm sure she felt closer to me as a result. Meanwhile, internally, I felt like my own needs and issues were being neglected, swallowed whole by this overwhelming and overarching grief.

Anarcissie (#3,748)

I had much more difficult problems as a young person (less than 40) than as a middle-aged or old person (more than 40; just adopting the curious taxonomy in use in this discussion). Besides my body chemistry running wild, I had to deal with all the b.s. people told me.

One of the things I learned was that I could have a long-term, intense romantic relationship as long as I didn't live with the other party. Or anyone else, except my cats. This may apply, or not.

solitakenny (#245,021)

Hi My name is solita Kenny just want to share my experience with the world on how i got my love back and saved my marriage… I was married for 4 years with 3 kids and we lived happily until things started getting ugly and we had a fights and arguments almost every time… it got worse at a point that he filed for divorce… I tried my best to make him change his mind & stay with me cause i loved him with all my heart and didn't want to loose him but everything just didn't work out… he moved out of the house and still went ahead to file for divorce… I pleaded and tried everything but still nothing worked. The breakthrough came when someone introduced me to this wonderful, great spell caster DR Lawrence, who eventually helped me out… I have never been a fan of things like this but just decided to try reluctantly cause I was desperate and left with no choice… He did special prayers and cast a love spell on him. Within 3 days he called me and was sorry for all the emotional trauma he had cost me, moved back to the house and we continue to live happily, the kids are happy too and we are expecting our fourth child… I have introduced him to a lot of couples with problems across the world and they have had good news… Just thought I should share my experience cause I strongly believe someone out there needs it… You can email him on

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