My ex and I broke up nearly a year ago, after five years together. It was mutual, yet for different reasons: he was depressed with and questioning his life choices, which our relationship was tied to (living a vagabond life, etc.). I realized that I had been questioning our relationship, and my lack of desire for him, for some time; I was finally offered a way out. I’m not sure if I would have gone through with the break-up if it wasn’t something he wanted as well. It was sad but amicable, and we remained in intermittent contact.
Several months later, he came to me and said he “chose clarity.” He wanted to get married, or get whatever-it-was-I-wanted-if-marriage-scared-me. It was out of the blue, though not entirely unexpected. But I was not in that same emotional place. I love him, but my questions about that love (i.e. Is this the type of love that I want in my life, is it the love he deserves) haven’t changed. So I said, “I don’t know.” And he said, “Okay, I’ll wait until you know.”
We weren’t sure what that waiting would look like. I told him that waiting for me was his choice, not mine, but I didn’t tell him not to wait. Finally, after a four months (of what in retrospect was probably me “stringing him along” but at the time did not feel that way), I said no.
He still wants me to fight for him. A big part of me wants to, or perhaps wants to want to.
I don’t trust myself and have been having a very difficult time accessing what it is I want and feel. I was certainly afraid to say “I don’t love you enough.” And I’m equally afraid to say “I love you enough to try to love you enough.” The questions that have paralyzed me: was this a slump before a rise, or a symptom of an unfulfilling relationship? Were our bickering and our opposing views of the world a behavioral pattern that could be worked on in therapy, or did they reflect a fundamental divide we’d never cross? There is a hardness to him that I see him working against now (for him and for me), but is it truly workable? Many times I felt mistreated in this, spoken to in a way I never want to be spoken to. I know I want someone who will allow me to experience the world the way I experience it, without philosopher-attacking me at every move, someone who will listen softly, but I also want to be challenged. We have a deep respect for each other, though sometimes there was a lack of surface, simpler respect. We have mutual life/career goals, though I don’t know yet if I want children and he probably does.
I have been of two minds about this for so long, and I’m so tired. I feel violently ambivalent: I feel thrilled about and terrified by both scenarios (a life with him and a life without him). I’ve said no to put us both out of our misery, but now am terribly frightened I’ll regret it. I appreciate the way you’ve talked about your own marriage, how you know. But what if that’s just not the case with everyone? What if, for the rest of us less lucky fools, there is no knowing ever? What if at the five-year mark in every relationship, I get bored of sex with that person, and I start questioning everything else? (Our relationship started off without intensity, but my only “intense” experiences in love have been fleeting, not sustainable.) What if all my flaws surface in the same ways in other partnerships and I just don’t know the difference of when to work on something and when to quit? What if I’m simply afraid of commitment or making choices at all? I’m trying to meditate, to be quiet around this, and calm the head-chatter and thought-loops, to get at what’s subtle. When I am able to step away from all this questioning, I feel good and self-sufficient, and confident about myself in the world when visualizing either situation.
I’m sure the way I’m writing this story out to you (thanks for a place to do so, and being you and reading letters) is very telling. Maybe I’m trying to come up with excuses for him, or maybe this is me trying to “defend my relationship in a court of law,” as you stated in an old letter, which I feel I could do. (I admit I was trying to find a letter to you that was exactly parallel to my situation so I didn’t have to write this!) I’ve had to defend my relationship to my friends who don’t think he’s “right” for me or treats me well, and defend myself to friends who love both of us and us together. And it all makes me feel exhausted. (Not to mention guilt that comes with thoughts like: There are more important things/problems in the world I could be spending this energy on.) I’d love to hear any advice on quieting the hell down, what to do, or just how to BE.
Thank you for your time!
It sounds to me like you want to convince yourself to feel things that you don’t feel. You’re trying to come to some logical conclusion about your relationship, but logic has nothing to do with it. Your gut won’t let you move forward with him. Your thoughts are trying to override your gut, but your gut is saying “No fucking way.”
Your thoughts are telling you that no one is perfect, and leaving this man behind might be a big mistake. They’re telling you that not everyone has the luxury of holding out for True Love. But you didn’t even have intense feelings at the very start of this relationship! That alone is a big deal. You’ve already spent 5 years with someone you’re pretty wishy washy about. The only reason you’re even considering this guy is because a) you’re attached to him after all this time and b) you’ve lost sight of the fact that love can feel so much stronger and better than this—intense, exciting AND comfortable.
The amount of thinking that’s in the mix here, at the expense of feeling, is a great big red flag. You just took a page and a half to spell out your ambivalence in abstract terms. This appears to be his approach as well, based on his very clinical resolution to “choose clarity.” You listen to your head-chatter and your thought-loops, and he engages in philosopher-attacking—which, by the way, sucks. Here you are, trying to overcome an overthinker’s circular thought patterns, and everything you say is deconstructed philosophically? In my experience, that approach not only isn’t remotely helpful, it’s also not a sign of smarts so much as a sign of someone who is afraid of emotions and compulsively seeks to defuse them with a flood of theoretical nonsense.
The only whiff of emotion I can find in your letter relates to 1) the fact that there’s a hardness to him, and you don’t feel well-treated, and 2) the feeling of satisfaction you get when you’re able to step back and see the future objectively. I don’t need to ask if he’s there when you feel that way, because it’s obvious that he isn’t.
This guy doesn’t bring you peace or comfort. That doesn’t mean he’s shitty, it just means he’s not right for you. You feel confused about a future with him in part because you feel traumatized by the times he’s been careless with you. He says that he loves you, but something tells you that he also has contempt for you, so you can’t trust his love completely. You have felt attacked and not heard. On top of that, you’re bored with him sexually. Why? Because it doesn’t feel like he’s guarding your heart, or respecting who you are emotionally, underneath all of the statements of mutual respect.
I have a hunch that this boyfriend of yours is all about making statements, choosing clarity, choosing commitment, being resolute, but it never feels all that spontaneous or natural. He’s trying to lend structure to the chaos swirling around inside of him.
Fuck that. You want to be in love. You want to feel safe. You want to know that you’ve chosen the right person. And yes, if this were right, you would know it already. It’s not right.
In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever had a stronger reaction from any “I’m on the fence about this guy” letter (that didn’t include abusive or wildly dysfunctional details). You think that you’ve just told me why you should be with him, but all you really did was leak out a flood of reasons why he feels wrong for you. That wasn’t your intention, but that’s how it came out.
Based on what you’ve written here, I see you with someone who knows he loves you at a gut level, someone who doesn’t hide behind long-winded, detached, vaguely condescending stances (that I’m willing to bet aren’t grounded in smarts so much as fear). I see you with a guy who wouldn’t dream of making you feel threatened or sad. I don’t think you have a commitment problem at all. I think you’ll be very, very good at committing to the right guy. You understand commitment. You know how to work hard. You know how to accept a reasonable number of flaws. And when you find a guy who is a little softer and sweeter and kinder to you, who loves you for your weaknesses AND your strengths (and yes, guys like that do exist), you will thank your lucky stars that you didn’t settle for your ex.
You need someone who can be still with you and appreciate the moment. You need a calming influence. You need someone who is passionate but pragmatic, loving but not overly critical.
You have lots of talent and a great big brain and you need a partner who can give you lots of love and warmth and space to grow. You don’t have that now. You have someone who takes up all of the space, who makes you jumpy and neurotic and confused and angry.
Life is way to short to settle for the wrong person. You know that if you stay with this guy, you’ll not only be settling, but you’ll also be dealing with lots of harshness and frustration and loneliness. Screw that. You should hold out for a great match. And until you find it, you can enjoy the relative solitude and thrilling independence of being alone, of finally not being held back or twisted in knots by someone who WANTS to choose clarity but isn’t there yet.
You aren’t noncommittal. Resolve not to settle for less than you deserve from now on. Set those thought-loops aside and follow your heart.
I’m not sure I love my wife, which probably means I don’t—I doubt it’s love if you have to wonder about it. (Both of us are in our mid-forties, married for twelve years.) If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t marry her. So, there’s the final nail in the question of love, I guess.
She loves me, but treats me like a punching bag. If that’s love, I don’t want to love anyone. Ferocious temper: quick to anger, slow to forgive, loath to apologize when it turns out she was in the wrong. I never know what’s going to set her off, and her explanations are hard to follow. My offenses seem minor relative to the rage they cause. I’ve just never fucked up that bad. She’s not mad because I, whatever, offered her a napkin; it’s that I interrupted her, or was about to interrupt her, or wasn’t listening, or won’t admit that I was about to interrupt, or I have a bad attitude. Other people seem to like me, so it’s hard to reconcile that with my wife’s insistence that I am a uniquely exasperating person.
Sometimes, when everything is perfect, I see the funny, caring, kind person she would be if she weren’t with me. Perfection is hard to maintain, though. A few years ago, I took a hard look at my artistic career and realized that I didn’t have the commitment, working environment, or (ahem) talent to reproduce the minor success that I’d found in my home country. So, I’m not just annoying, I’m an annoying failure.
I play the role of the thick-skinned, patient husband to the ball-of-fire wife—”Sure, she’s a handful, but you know, it’s worth it.” (The last part is secretly not true. (I also have no one to talk to about this.)) What can I do? Being treated like this hurts, and pretending it doesn’t is taking years off my life. Occasional attempts to stand up for myself have not gone well. She’s more willing than I will ever be to make scenes, miss flights, go nuclear. What I am supposed to do—put her in a headlock?
We both love where we live, and she could never afford it on her own. I pay the rent, and have managed to keep a roof over our head even when I was nearly unemployed. She is awesomely frugal and has amassed enough savings to find a place on her own, but I know it would break her heart to leave. I do a lot of my work here. It would let down my business partner and employees if I had to leave, and I couldn’t afford to keep my wife here in any case. If she left, she’d move back home and beat up on her mother the way she does me now.
We have talked about marriage counseling in the past. I’ve suggested that her anger is ruining her life too, and that she would benefit from therapy. Of course, I know it would do me good as well, but I’m not sure I could go through with it—I feel like I’m cheating just writing this.
I’ve told her before that I can’t continue, and we’ve agreed to pull the plug more than once. I’ve told her, too, that my unhappiness stems from her unwillingness to control her anger.
For my wife, it’s my behavior that’s the problem. What we need to work on, then, is identifying the things I do that annoy and upset her and stop doing those things. Having grown up in a family of alcoholics, I am very familiar with this kind of thinking (though to be clear, my wife is absolutely not addicted to anything). Anyway, she’d rather get divorced than live with someone who can’t accept her for who she is, is her answer to suggestions that she change. Maybe I should move in with her mother—in a way, we’re each other’s only ally.
Anyway, this is my problem. I’ve never been happily married (irrationally thinking that marrying my angry girlfriend would settle her down). Divorce would leave a negative net balance of happiness in the universe, since my wife’s unhappiness (and that of the people she’d take it out on) would outweigh whatever happiness I’d gain. I think sometimes I could ride out the rest of my life like this, but other times I get tied up in knots thinking, what if we’d had kids? What if we had a sex life? Is this even fair to her? If she really thinks that we have a happy, fulfilling life together, how can I take that away from her? I hate to think that she’s happy to be married to a voodoo doll to stick pins in and take her anger out on. Our problems are nothing in the scheme of things. I’m lonely, but not sure loneliness is really the worst thing in the world. Is happiness worth it? What would you do if you were me?
Could be worse
If I were you, I would find a therapist and I’d talk to that therapist about my low self-esteem, my overwhelming guilt, my inability to say no to people even when I know they’re taking advantage of me, and my habit of taking responsibility for other people as if they’re my pets or my children.
If I were you, I would probably also leave my (critical, won’t budge, doesn’t want couples’ therapy, thinks the problem is you) wife. Yes, happiness is BEYOND worth it.
It sounds to me like your wife is an overgrown child who needs to be alone in order to grow up. She doesn’t respect you because you don’t stand up to her. She is taking advantage of your weakness by controlling you and bending you completely to her will. Worrying about how she’ll fare without you is commendable, but that’s what’s kept you locked into this for too long already. You can be supportive and kind and gentle and try to split up without having it get contentious. But you should not keep yourself from leaving in a misguided attempt to protect her from the truth about herself. You’ve propped her up for long enough, and now it’s time for her to learn to stand on her own two feet. In my opinion, you’ll both be happier if you break up. From what I can tell, she’s as unhappy with you as you are with her.
So that’s what I would do: guide her gently toward an amicable split, no blame, no shouting, no nastiness. Be kind and patient with her. But insist that it’s over. Then I would slowly set about rebuilding my life. Yes, you will miss her. You will wish you weren’t alone. You’ll wonder if this decision makes you a horrible asshole. That’s just how it’ll feel. Don’t be discouraged. You are making a bold choice to give yourself the things you need, maybe for the first time ever.
You can be happy. You have to believe that. You need to rebuild your life from the ground up. You need to learn to be a different kind of a person in the world. I bet you’ll find a great little apartment that you love, and you’ll start feeling really good, unexpectedly good. I bet you’ll make some new friends and have some exciting new experiences and maybe you’ll even fall in love.
You’ve only wasted the first half of your adult life with a woman who’s been brutally harsh to you. Don’t waste the second half.
Best of luck,
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.