I’m a 32-year-old single woman. I love my life—my friends, my job, the city in which I live. I have a creative outlet and I exercise and I have a lot of passion for living. But inside I have a problem with bitterness. I feel bitter every single day. I can’t stop thinking about the men who have hurt me, and I think about at least two or three of them every day (not always the same ones), sometimes during the day, but mostly at night when I’m trying to fall asleep. I think about when things were good, and then how they hurt me, and I wonder why they didn’t love me, and I imagine what I would say to them if I saw them again, and then I tumble into a stony feeling of grit, of wanting to be invulnerable. I have a physical response to these emotions—my chest hurts, my stomach hurts, and the pain stretches out to my fingertips. I lose my breath in the pain. I sometimes wonder if in some way I actually enjoy this awful feeling, just because it’s feeling something in my heart. But I fear that it will make me sick in the long run. I feel like it’s gonna give me cancer or ulcers just to think these sad, echoing thoughts every day.
I don’t want to be bitter, and I don’t want to be that friend everyone feels sorry for because she’s perpetually single, but that’s what I’m turning into. When things do go well with a guy, I am able to forget about my past pain and let myself believe in a future with someone I like, if cautiously. But it never works out, and I don’t know why. I’m not clingy or high-maintenance; I like who I am and what I’m doing with my life; I have my own life but I want to share it with someone, and I just keep getting hurt. With the last two guys I dated, I actually felt that elusive “click” of feeling connected to someone and like I could be myself with them and being able to see myself with them for a long time, which hasn’t happened in ages, but it turned out that neither of them were interested in trying a long-term relationship with me. And I don’t know how many instances of the death of hope I can take, or how many men will fit in my Rolodex of Men Who’ve Made Me Bitter.
It’s getting really, really hard to keep getting out there and trying, and to stay positive and open about myself and about men. I’m sick of convincing/allowing myself to let go and be vulnerable and then being crushed in the end, and I’m sick of feeling this nightly blank emptiness punctuated by the stabbing emotional pain of bitterness. I haven’t had a real boyfriend in over five years. I’m tired and I’m lonely and I’m beginning to feel like a ghost. How can I stop obsessing over the people who have hurt me, and how can I move forward in my romantic life without fear, or worse, apathy? Thanks for your help.
Alone Again, Naturally
The first thing you need to know—understand, believe, breathe in—is that there is nothing wrong with you. There. Is. Nothing. Wrong. With. You. The guys who hurt you, the guys who don’t want to date you: These people are irrelevant. They are not your mother. They are not your father or your sister or your best friend. Compared to your parents, your friends, they are nothing—flies in the room, cockroaches in the cupboard. Nothing. Fixating on them is like fixating on marrying George Clooney. They are irrelevant.
So why do they feel relevant to you? Because you BELIEVE that there’s something wrong with you, and you’re trying to figure out what it is. That belief is what’s wrong with you.
Every night you pray to the gods of rejection. Your prayer ritual involves replaying the past, loading one reel after another, footage of men who broke your heart, as if that’s romantic or special, getting your heart broken. Meanwhile, those guys—like so many—were probably just allergic to emotion or seriousness of purpose or vulnerability. I’m not being a dick about it—ask any man and he’ll back me up. Maybe they simply weren’t mature enough to handle your or anyone else. And yet, the reel footage seems dramatic, the mystery seems compelling. How did you screw it all up? What did you do to turn them away? The problem lies somewhere in you, not in them. They were rational, intelligent beings whose rejections said something important about what’s screwed up about you. If only you could figure out what it was!
Cobbling together a string of rejections by men and trying to make sense of them is like trying to read tea leaves. Why? Because single men have many, many allergies.
Most single men are gluten-sensitive, lactose-intolerant, asthmatic mutants. They can’t tolerate wheat or soy or fleeting glimpses of heaviness. When they sense substance, regrets, high stakes, potential long-term entanglements, concern, interest, a pulse, they flee in terror like neurotic dogs in the presence of teetering lamps. The smallest change in weather, the tiniest shift in cabin pressure, the most minuscule adjustment in tone or mood sends them running.
It’s not personal. It’s not even interesting. It’s certainly not the stuff of mystery, nothing to build a lifelong religion around. YOU ARE CURRENTLY PRAYING AT THE ALTAR OF THE MOST TEDIOUS RELIGION IN THE UNIVERSE. (I’m not shaming you! Sweet Christ in high heaven almighty NO, I understand. Every single woman reading this understands!) Go ask a man what he thinks about another man having rejected you. He’ll snort like even contemplating it for half a second demeans both of you. If you push it, he’ll say maybe the guy met someone on the subway, or maybe he had a bad reaction to some mussels and then he didn’t feel like explaining it, or maybe he was bored. Guys assume that other guys are indifferent unless they have explicit proof otherwise.
So should you.
Instead of digging into the reasons for this state of affairs, instead treating it as your personal fucking responsibility to root out the problem and eradicate it, instead of redoubling your efforts to be more lovable and better, always approaching some infinite ideal of the whip-smart but easy-going professional with a body like a fuck doll, you need to take a good look at yourself and accept what you see. When it comes to love, at least, you must try to stop being or seeming “BETTER.” You need to accept exactly who you are and stop wishing it would change, that you’d be more palatable to the masses. “I am a reasonably good-looking woman with a tendency to cry at the drop of a hat.” “I am opinionated and impatient and I have a bad habit of fixating on stuff I don’t understand.” “I am bored by most people, and I wish I had the money and the space to own llamas.”
When I finally decided to stop seeming cooler and more easy-going than I actually was, when I finally stopped pretending that nothing bothered me, that I didn’t need to talk about heavy stuff or express my emotions, when I finally stopped seeing tears as a weakness (being utterly unable to cry is a pretty blatant weakness if you ask me), that’s when I realized that I was trying to truss up my weird in a shiny conventional package. Guys always thought I was a Lil’ Debbie Snack Cake, but then they’d open the package and find anchovies and feel disappointed. Instead of questioning why I was spending time with guys who only craved fluff and sugar, I grew ashamed of my oily, salty nature. I tried to act sweeter, snackier, Lil’-er.
Anchovies don’t have the easiest time imitating Ho-Hos. If you ever want to go insane, try behaving like something you’re not. At my lowest points, I was (unconsciously) committed to repressing all ME-ness and approximating what I saw as my current boyfriend’s ideal woman. Needless to say, I was not convincing at this charade. But I didn’t even know that I was acting! I thought I was just trying to be less WRONG, less BAD, less CRAZY.
Why did I believe these things about myself? Because I often went out with men who liked me because I was semi-attractive and smart and funny. I often attracted these men by pouring on the charm, appearing nonchalant, appearing devil-may-care. My goal was to mask the fact that I was an extremely emotional, thoughtful, moody, obnoxious, demanding anchovy. These boyfriends wanted to make it work because they wanted a semi-attractive, smart, funny girlfriend, not because they wanted ME.
As long as you aim to please men, you don’t. The second you decide to please yourself, guess what? Everybody wants a slice of that action. I’ll never forget, right after I vowed to stop settling for mediocre, half-interested men (even if it meant becoming a dog lady, which suddenly seemed sort of appealing), I went to this wedding and I was mobbed by guys. I could finally see clearly that half of them just wanted to sleep with me, and weren’t looking for anything serious. The other half was deluded into thinking I was super fun and easy going around the clock (um, no) and that seemed like a great kind of a girlfriend to have. Maybe one of them was actually into me, but he was wrong in thinking that we’d be good together. I could see that. It was like that moment where the kid who’s never heard a single sound before fires up his Cochlear implant for the first time. My sudden ability to see attraction and rejection as a mere matter of appetite and taste and misinformation transformed my view of the world.
Strangely, everything started to pulsate with possibility! You’d think that marching around saying, “Oh, we wouldn’t work. I’m way too bossy for you” might feel a little pessimistic, but instead it felt liberating. I was curious but detached until I could get more information. I wanted to fall in love with someone. That was my goal, and I wasn’t shy about saying so. But I needed to see a real hunger for anchovies, to the point where nothing else would do.
So first, you have to break your bad nightly habit. But you MUST be totally committed to cutting this shitty religion of yours off at the knees. Before you go to bed at night, I want you to write down at least three things you’re grateful for. They could be people, or places, or experiences. If you think of more, write those down, too. Then I want you to write down at least two things you did that day that you’re proud of. If you didn’t do anything that impressive, just write down something you did that was really just pure YOU. Maybe you made up a song about armpits, or ate two cronuts in one sitting, or ran four miles and then watched a really stupid episode of “CSI: Barcelona.” Notice that you get credit for doing the so-called “wrong” thing, like napping, or eating butter bombs, or crying over a really good performance on “So You Think You Can Dance.”
You are going to fall in love with what you have, and fall in love with who you are. Do not take the so-called BAD or WRONG things about you, that boyfriends or men or even women have told you, and try to “get rid” of those things. Put that stuff on the list right next to the stuff you’re proud of. “Cried after hearing the ‘Hugs are Fun’ song on ‘Yo Gabba Gabba.'” “Slipped on the stairs and wondered if my landlord thought I was drunk, then craved a drink.” “Bailed on the dinner party and made mac and cheese out of a box instead, and it was awesome.”
Your bitterness is caused by the notion that these men form one all-powerful, critical OZ that thinks you’re not good enough. Everything you do during the day backs this up. You are rejectable. Look at how you fuck things up. Look how not-cute-enough you are. Look how grumpy. Look how not attractive your attitude can be.
You have to quiet the bad OZ voices, during the day and at night. Stop pushing back against a phantom. You are not a ghost, this creation of yours is. Maybe it’s an echo of something from your childhood. Maybe it’s just a bad cognitive habit you’ve had for a while. If it helps to map out a life alone—what could make that look better, look ok?—then do it. For me, I needed to think that, if I didn’t find the right man, I’d definitely be pouring my time into crazy interesting things. I would learn to sew my own clothes and paint. I would adopt 15 dogs. I would write poetry on the walls of my dining room. Instead of being afraid of getting “weird” and “lonely,” I needed to believe that I would engage with the world, create things, reveal myself to others as a serious freak without shame, and just generally throw myself into the world with abandon.
But I also respect your interest in sharing your life. Most of us feel the same way.
But you MUST stop fucking yourself over with this lazy, self-destructive nightly habit of yours. Do the things you need to do (show up to work, exercise, be good to your friends) and otherwise, give yourself exactly what you need to be happy, and do not punish yourself for a second. Give yourself love and attention and respect. Treat your thoughts and feelings like the precious gems that they are. Respect yourself enough to allow yourself to be stubborn, shy, recalcitrant, angry, confused. Forgive yourself for this Bitter Era, but proclaim that it’s over.
Today, it ends. Buy a pretty notebook for your gratitude and your self-acceptance, and put it by the bed. Dare to believe that this could change you. Don’t be cynical. Don’t go through the motions with this. The Bitter Era is done. You are celebrating yourself now, who you are RIGHT NOW, not a week from now, not a year from now. You are looking for someone with a taste for you, and nothing less will do. Believe that there is someone who fits that description. Believe that you deserve it, you deserve to be loved. It’s all going to work out just fine.
And when you finally find the right person for you, it will feel effortless. It will feel right. It won’t be perfect, but it will still be worlds apart from these other relationships you’ve had. But you know what? You won’t be surprised. Because once you build your own religion around gratitude and pride in who you are, at your best AND at your worst, you’ll feel better than you ever have before. It will only seem natural for people to want to be closer to you.
Look around you, the way you’re living now. Commit it to memory. Because everything is about to change.
I just started reading your memoir and it gave me an existential jolt already.
“They were young and opinionated and stubborn and overwhelmed by violent emotions.”
I am a man and I just turned 30. I definitely want to have kids, just not with the (31-year-old) woman I’m dating. I’m no longer young-young, have lost a lot of my opinionatedness, and my emotions have definitely mellowed. I’m still quite stubborn, though.
At what age should a person have kids? Should I dump my girlfriend (who also wants to have kids, but I just couldn’t with her for a whole ‘nother email’s worth of reasons)?
Please help or advise,
Keenly Inquiring Disaster-Unprepared Sir
If you know you want kids, and your life feels reasonably stable, and you don’t feel like missing the occasional late-night party is going to break your heart, I’m an advocate for having kids in the first half of your 30s. You’re still young enough that you won’t be retiring just as your kids head off to college, and you’re old enough that you won’t be a selfish, temperamental, short-sighted parent (most of the time, anyway).
You and your girlfriend are still young and have some time. But if you know you don’t want to have kids with her, you should do her a big favor and break up with her right now. Lots of women do themselves a huge disservice by playing it cool about kids and then they discover that their boyfriend has been ambivalent about them for years. Getting dumped at age 38 and feeling like you have to rush around and find the right guy immediately if you want kids? That sucks. I even knew a guy who dated his girlfriend for a decade, then married her, and then dumped her after she started doing IVF in her mid-40s. Of course she should’ve pushed the issue before then, but Jesus, what was he thinking? Once he gave her the heave-ho, he immediately met and married a 15-year-younger woman. Now that’s a scenario that justifies a pretty big dollop of bitterness.
Why bide your time with your current girlfriend if you know she’s not the one? What’s the point? Having a pleasant life with someone who’s vaguely ok really doesn’t touch having an amazing life with someone you adore. Gently say goodbye to this woman and move on. When you live an honest life, and stand up for what’s right, and try to do what’s best for the people around you? That will make you a happier person—and a damn good parent, too.
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. Beautiful little girl picture by Alan Turkus. Photo of perfectionist weirdo jerk by David Amsler.