Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. “Because he’s just not that into anything, really, except himself.”
I met this funny, quiet, artistic, and all-around wonderful man shortly after I had escaped from an abusive relationship. We hit it off and started out a casual (albeit, exclusive) thing. I saw from the beginning that he was a bit of a flirt, in a self-deprecating, sarcastic kind of way that made women go “Oh youuuuu!” but hey, that’s what drew ME to him in the first place, so what the hell.
Fast forward 2.5 years. We’ve moved in together, gotten a cat, bought furniture from Ikea, talked drunkenly about marriage over cocktails at the local PF Chang’s. I’m in my mid-twenties and he just turned thirty, so more and more we think this is IT. It’s been fun! But it’s also been kind of anxiety-filled and shitty at the same time.
From the very beginning, things were weird. Being a bit of an anxiety-ridden shithead courtesy of my previous (super abusive emotionally/physically) relationship, I snooped on his stuff/phone and found out that he had VERY close relationships with his female coworkers. One even gave him a card that said he was the “light of her life.” Another he was still texting about her sex/relationship life, bantering to the point of inappropriateness. Couple this with the fact that he had sex with yet ANOTHER coworker, and another woman (not from his place of employment, thank god) whom he had slept with was dropping “tee he hees!” and innuendo all over his Facebook wall. (Barf.) I had to dig to find all of these interactions, he never told me up front that before we started dating, he had established these kinds of relationships with people with whom he worked 50 hours a week, or that they continued.
And yet even when things got more serious, we became an official couple, yadda yadda, I still found stuff like this on his phone or computer. I know, I was a shithead for snooping, but he was a shithead for continuing this kind of behavior even after I explicitly stated my boundaries and he said “Don’t worry, I will treat you with respect.” The climax came about a year into our relationship, when I found out that he was posting sexual ads on Craigslist. I read a few then felt so sick I threw up and sobbed with his roommate’s girlfriend until he came home. From what I read, he never met anyone, only chatted sexily with them and talked about meeting, but I’ll never know for sure. He said it was a form of porn, that he was absolutely satisfied with our relationship/sex life, that he was so sorry, etc. I, for one, was shook up. But I loved him, and he made me feel more like myself than anyone ever had, so I stayed.
⤏⤏ Think you know where this is going? Congratulations, you are correct! ⤏⤏
Even after that, he still hid little things from me, and password protected his phone and computer. I know, trust was destroyed on both ends and the snooping certainly didn’t help, but in the words of Dan Savage, “When a little snooping uncovers something big, well, it’s retroactively justified.” And Polly, I consider posting sexual ads on Craigslist as “big.” After the Craigslist fiasco we talked long and hard about the kind of relationship we wanted: one based on trust, understanding, compassion, etc. I told him that while some of his past acts were indeed boundary-crossers for me, I would have rather known about them up front. I was trying to get away from the worrywart in my head and really just open up and feel secure in my life and relationship. He seemed to agree that this would be best. We moved forward.
And yet… HE STILL HID SHIT FROM ME. By this point I had stopped snooping and was striving to trust him. I wanted to show him that I was turning over a new leaf, asking him to share his porn with me, exploring our individual fantasies, etc. I wanted him to feel comfortable sharing his life with me! For about six months, this worked. But then we decided to talk about our favorite porn sites, and he got weird and distant. A week later, I saw a sex cam website following him on Twitter. He swore he’d never do it again, etc, but I didn’t want that! I just wanted him to feel comfortable sharing his preferences with me. He said he would let me know if he felt he wanted to cam again, and the subject dropped.
In between that last big talk and now, he has hidden little things from me that I’ve stumbled on by accident, things like: taking up smoking again, going to a strip club with the guys, playing/talking with his ex fuck-buddy/coworker on Words with Friends… just stupid shit! And the topper: I was dicking around on the internet one day saw and Chatroulette come up in an article. Curious as to what the site actually was, I typed in the URL only to see that our IP address had been banned for violating the site’s code…. aka, nudity during video chats. My boyfriend had been camming for months without telling me, even though I’ve asked if he’s doing it again, and asked if he wanted to cam with me! (His answer: No, I don’t cam anymore for anyone or any reason.)
So now I feel like shit again. We talked, and he said that I am “not deserving of the anxiety he gives me” and that he “has always had communication problems in his relationships.” He also said that he doesn’t know WHY he hides things from me, only that he’s been trying not to ever since we decided to take a more healthy approach to our relationship, all to no avail. He also said that he can’t promise it won’t happen again, even after I told him word for word I DON’T CARE WHAT THE FUCK YOU DO, JUST COMMUNICATE YOUR NEEDS TO ME BEFOREHAND AND WE’LL WORK IT OUT, I LOVE YOU. He says all his needs are met, he is happy with me, he loves me. I’m shaken up again and I feel like this relationship is just one giant red flag waving in my face. Polly, I love this man. He is kind and supportive, he encourages me to go for my goals, and we still click on many levels. Should I work with him on this? Between all the crying and confessions, I said I would, but now I just feel empty and hurt. I can’t help but think that one day his secrets will escalate to an affair or some other horrible bullshit. He’s said things would never reach that level but…how can I be sure? I can’t be sure of anything he says anymore!
The Worry Wart
Dear Worry Wart,
Dump this asshole immediately. I understand that he comes across as shy, sweet, charming, supportive, thoughtful on the outside, and that makes him particularly hard to kick to the curb. But this guy is a Big Bad Wolf in sheep’s clothing. He is a pathological liar and a cheat. I’m not saying he’ll be like that forever and ever. If he works very hard at it, he might modify his behavior. He might notice that it’s impossible to have any kind of a relationship with a healthy human being if you’re not honest.
That could take a decade, at least. Waiting around for him to grow is a big, big mistake for you. He is taking advantage of your commitment to him. You started out a snooper, a jealous type, and now all you’re saying is, “Loop me in! I can accept it!” But he doesn’t want you in there. Do you understand? He does not want an intimate relationship with you. He wants to play make-believe—with his “camming,” his porn surfing, his inappropriate talk with coworkers and with you. Every other sexy woman is supposed to pretend she’s about to sleep with him. You’re supposed to pretend that you two have a healthy relationship, when in fact you’re unhappy and insecure and lonely and he’s a lying sack of shit.
And now he has the audacity to say he can’t promise to change a thing? Listen to what he’s telling you: “You don’t deserve this anxiety.” You deserve better. That’s what he’s saying. And he’s right.
Don’t overestimate his power in your life. You feel like yourself with him because you’re getting older and stronger and he’s not physically abusive like your last shitty boyfriend. He IS a shitty boyfriend, nonetheless. Trust me, you will feel even more like yourself in your next relationship. The next time you fall in love, it will be a million times more satisfying and special than this time, because you will be very careful not to choose someone who’s sneaky and flirtatious (or a physically abusive jerk).
What I’d strongly suggest, though, is that you set out on your own and steel yourself for at least a year of thrillingly independent, celebratory singledom. I’m sure that someone with your history is afraid of such a thing, which is exactly why it’s going to feel so surprisingly great to be alone for a while. You will get a therapist, and see that person every week. You will discuss your pattern of chasing men who are self-serving, ego-driven narcissists incapable of real love, either openly or beneath the surface. You will discuss your anxiety issues, and consider meditation and cognitive therapy. You will find a sunny apartment that your cat will love. You will paint the walls bold colors, and get some new music and some new books and a whimsical light fixture that your ex would’ve hated. You will rededicate yourself to your female friendships. You will meet a few new friends and take some classes and learn some new skills. You are going to be much, much happier.
Don’t stay in the apartment you share now. Too many memories! Let him deal with the old place. Find a new place or check out a roommate referral service and get some new friends in the bargain. (Be very picky in roommates if you do this—only consider those with whom you’d want to spend a long afternoon drinking coffee.)Yes, Worry Wart, I know you’re worried that you’ll be lonely. But nothing in the world feels more lonely than sleeping next to a lying asshole who’s constantly trolling for porn and making eyes at other women. Nothing. Look, I’ve dated guys who were open about their porn and their flirting. I had a boyfriend once who flirted with every living thing that crossed his path: man, woman, dog, cat, earthworm. He once walked into a Fatburger and had an absurdly provocative conversation with the 70-year-old woman behind the cash register. Don’t get me wrong, it was sometimes unpleasant. (“Can we fucking order our steak instead of chatting with this ugly teenage waitress, please?”) I wouldn’t personally recommend sleeping with a guy who beats off to photos of Jennifer Love Hewitt. But it was at least tolerable (and occasionally entertaining). What’s not tolerable is being bullshitted around the clock while your boyfriend secretly stirs up intrigue whenever you’re not around.
You’re going to look back on this guy and cringe. Believe it.
I also don’t think you should march into your next relationship announcing that you’re ok with porn and flirting and everything else under the sun. Because maybe that’s not you. Maybe, in an ideal world, you’d like a boyfriend who fantasizes about you most of the time, or who at least understands just what a slippery slope it is, chatting and emailing and Facebook-flirting with every woman in his stupid office. Maybe you’d like to be with a man who understands that it’s pretty stupid to say things like, “If I weren’t taken, you’d be first on my list.” (Um, you’d be last on my list, under the circumstances.) Even those flirts at the office probably wouldn’t date your guy, because they can see what a sleaze he is. Or, as two of the lazier little pigs put it, “Not by the hair of my chinny chinny chin. You can’t fool us with that sheep skin!”
I’m sorry that you’ve been through so much hellish worrying with this twerp. I know you love him. But you’re anxious precisely because you’re trying desperately to control something that is completely out of your control. Don’t waste another second of your time feeling sick over this dude. Put on your walking boots, pack your bags, and call your friends. Then walk straight out into the sunshine, and don’t look back.
I need to leave my boyfriend. I’ve known this, off and on, for a few months. I still love him, and I want to have a friendly, supportive relationship with him once it’s over. But he’s a heroin addict who keeps using (once a week mostly), and as much as I’ve never wanted to leave him for his addiction, I can’t deal with the pain and drama his using puts me through any more. I’ve gone from knowing he had a weakness to realizing he had no intention to get past it. It’s been hard enough to learn that I can’t actually fix somebody else. I’m really wondering whether I can fix myself.
I’ve been in this relationship for a year now. I’m 22, a pastry cook at one of the best restaurants in my city, and he’s 29, with his first job in three years building bikes, going to work three days a week, if that. He’s been living with me nearly a year and never paid rent or a single bill. I know that every thing I could say sounds like a bright red flag, but it’s hard to even say these things about someone whom I love and care about and want to help. I’ve lied awake many nights worrying about what would happen to my boyfriend if I kicked him out.
I know I have to break it off, but my problem is just how hard it is to cut that tie. For the past couple months I’ve felt too depressed or tired to do much of anything, and I’ve needed that other person to help me out or at least listen to me. I’m also a crazy hypochondriac and I really need someone else around to tell me I don’t have the bubonic plague sometimes. Plus I have my own problems with alcohol which have only been getting worse lately. It’s nice to have someone you know won’t judge you.
I used to be somebody I would respect if I met me. Strong, proud, independent, only a year ago! I would look down on the people my age who still had their parents arranging their leases. These days I can barely pay my rent, just walking to the store for cat food is hard enough. I want to live a happy, productive life, but it’s so much easier to keep things the way they are. I just don’t feel strong enough right now to live without some one I’ve been relying on. I know I’m depressed; I don’t know what to do about it. I’ve imagined breaking it off so many times and every time I picture myself completely falling apart.
How do you find the strength to be alone and successful after you’ve lost it? When I felt strong, I was a little lonely. Now, I just feel weak all the time, but at least somebody is there with me? Until he gets high and I’m alone again, or I’m with some guy who buys me drinks.
Feeling Used Can’t Keep
Your boyfriend has no hope of kicking until you kick him out. He has never paid rent or a single bill. You might as well be scoring dope and shooting it into his arm for him.
Why is everyone so afraid of being alone in their 20s? What better time to be alone could there possibly be? I felt exactly the same way when I was younger, but now I don’t get it. I look back on my twenties and all I can think about is how much happier I would’ve been, if I had just been willing to pack my shit and walk out the door the second I started to feel disregarded or disrespected or compromised. The danger, for a woman who settles for too little, isn’t that she’ll be alone forever. The danger is that she won’t be alone for long enough. Instead, she’ll leap into the next thing before she figures out just how strong she really is.
You haven’t lost your strength. It’s still there. You aren’t just a little bit lonely right now. You are desperately lonely, weak, depressed and confused. And you’re only getting sicker and sicker as you let this situation go on longer, as you poison yourself and poison him with your avoidance and your neediness.
Call a shrink, call your mother, call your friends, and set up concrete plans to see everyone regularly over the next month. Assign everyone a day of the week. Put everyone on high alert, even if there are only two people you feel comfortable calling. The second you pick up the phone, I’m telling you, you’ll feel a little bit better. You need to come out of hiding and own where you are, and you need to let everyone know that you need them to lean on moving forward. Tell them, explicitly, that you need their help to get through this, even if it pains you to say it. Then tell your boyfriend he needs to find somewhere new to stay. Give him a weekend to clear out (while you’re somewhere else) (hide your valuables before you go).
Today is the day to act. Go buy “Hestia” by Katell Keineg on iTunes. It’s about a woman who’s leaving her heroin-addicted boyfriend, and it’s maybe the saddest yet most hopeful song ever written. Listen, I feel for you. I do. I’ve been right there, postponing the inevitable, wanting to wish it away and escape into something else instead. But you can’t put this off any longer. You are actively hurting yourself and making yourself weaker. It’s time to stop.
Previously: I’m In Love But My Best Friend Is Slipping Away!
Have you stopped making sense? Write to Polly and find out!
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 of what is surely a very nice guy used here to represent the neediness of terrible men by “bark.”