I am hoping you might help me with a peculiar personal problem. I apologize in advance if this is a bit vague. To begin with, I am your average 28-year-old fun-time party gal who is often overly drunk/brash, ‘one of the guys,’ sensitive to criticism/weirdo childhood and thus live a smaller life which I’ve overall been happy doing with great girlfriends of my own, cool hobbies, owning my own home, working a well-paying not particularly prestigious helping-people job that affords me lots of free time to do whatever I want. I definitely need therapy & a journal, which I plan to do, soon.
I’ve lived in a certain medium-sized city since moving here after college and just last year I began dating someone (great) with a cool group of friends—I’ve had a lot of fun. Recently boyfriend’s Best Friend began dating a new girl with prior connections to the friend group; she just moved to town over the summer. The problem? Whenever I’m around New Girl, I feel like garbage; through no fault of her own. She is nothing but polite and friendly and unobjectionable in every way. Also not drunk and embarrassing at social functions. Of course, in the past, I’ve met/become great friends with women who are smarter, more beautiful, more accomplished but I’ve somehow always been ok enough with my own special-snowflakeness to preserve my baby cool-girl ego. I suppose New Girl might be my particular brand of snow, but hers is Neimans and mine is Marshalls. I went to a smart person school, new girl went to the smartest person school, I’ve always dabbled in writing, new girl was a real writer, I work in a particular field, this person is now going to school in this same-ish helping people field—to basically be the boss of me (if you get my drift). Even our looks are similar. But I feel like that’s not really it?
My boyfriend did once admit offhand that he had a crush on her, which makes me feel bad but not overly worried, as new girl and Boyfriend’s Best Friend appear to be starring in the greatest movie romance of all time. Maybe I am just jealous of her whole life. Whenever I am around New Girl, my jaw is clenched, my fur fully bristled. I have to work really hard to be friendly and not weird or rude or standoffish, while inside my head I just want to move really far away, like drop everything and high-tail it to the other side of the country. I’ve brought it up to my sister, my friends, but they’re all basically like “what’s your problem? She’s so great!” I have never had this problem with another human being before, no jealousy issues etc, so I’m pretty confused about why I’m all of a sudden cruising Craigslist housing ads in low-population western mountain towns.
Greener and Greener
Dear Greener and Greener,
God, I love letters about jealousy. Love them. Because jealousy is delicious and terrible and it’s a gift from the gods above. Yes, it will eat you alive and turn you into a monster and ruin your life. But it’s also really rich and mysterious and not unlike falling madly in love—in its own twisted, deeply dissatisfying way.
Jealousy arouses the passions within. It gives you important information about your identity, your ego, your vanities and what’s missing from your life.
You say you’re jealous of her whole life. What, specifically, do you want that she has and you don’t? Look closely at that. Maybe this small, manageable life that you’ve carved out isn’t really big enough for you, now that you’re comfortable and safe and aren’t really making giant messes everywhere you go anymore. (Um. I assume you’re not making giant messes anymore. If not, that’s something to consider fixing.)
It’s natural for women who are a little wild and unsteady emotionally to relentlessly seek safety in smallness, and in settling for whatever they can get. When I was younger, I was reckless, arrogant, insecure, and aggressive and I sometimes toggled between semi-destructive behavior and extremely hermetic avoidance. Most of all, I never dared to reach for or ask for too much. But after years of this toggling, I could see that the life I built was a little small. Now don’t get me wrong: I love small. Scrappy is comforting to me. Cool makes me itch a little. I feel slightly prickly when I spend too much time in places that aren’t a little middle/working class, a little dive bar. And I like slouching around the house in my soft pants. That’s living, as far as I’m concerned. That said, though, when you spend a good chunk of your time hanging around the concrete yard of a public elementary school, talking about random domestic trivia, you do have to ask yourself: Do I want to grow older and lumpier and more disheveled by the year? Do I want to spend the rest of my life putting together elaborate Lego Friends cruise ships and eating nachos and watching “The Voice”? (I know, nachos. Fuck yes to the nachos.) OR am I a big bright force of fucking nature that needs ambitious creative projects and very tall leather boots and grandiosity and giant icy cocktails and dancing and I AM GOING TO LIVE LARGE, GODDAMN IT, SO FUCK THIS CULTURE AND ITS COUGAR-SHAMING SEXIST HORSE SHIT.
It’s healthy to ignore the SHOULDS: I SHOULD be cooler than I am, and live in a house that looks like a Boutique Hotel. But it’s not healthy to ignore the things you truly want. I want to take on new challenges and feel good in my skin and drink a giant icy cocktail.
So feel what you feel about New Girl. That’s the first step. Let it tell you something about the smallness, the mediocrity, the compromises of your current life. Now ask yourself: What does she do better than you, exactly? I mean, fuck the smartest school. The smartest or best anything is a mirage. What else, though? What does she show you, not about what you SHOULD be, but about what you WANT to be? Write it all down.
This process alone may solve some of your troubles with New Girl. But let’s go one step further, because you’re all tight and angry around this woman. Do you think she’s full of shit and she acts like she’s happier than she actually is? What makes you so mad? DO YOU TRULY BELIEVE SHE’S A BETTER PERSON THAN YOU? If so, why? Is she more generous? Is she more patient? Does she listen more closely?
Maybe you feel like you need to grow up, finally. And maybe some stubborn part of your ego wants to be the most alluring, special girl in the room. But if you’re fixated on being the special one, the smart one, the hot one, it really does prevent you from being a person at all. You are marketing your product. You’re not living.
And when someone is in that state, everyone else knows it. I met someone like that recently. She’d ask me a question and her face would look so beautiful and interested, and then the second I opened my mouth to answer her, her face would turn snarly and ugly. It was incredible to watch. That’s what a ravenous ego-hunger does to people, when they chase down bigger and bigger ego rewards without looking closely at themselves. A lot of the celebrities have this sickness, just from being in the public eye and recognizing how tough it is to stay there. And because we see these people on our TV screens, we sometimes trick ourselves into thinking THAT’S WHAT SUCCESS LOOKS LIKE, instead of just calling it what it is: a personality collapsing under the weight of its own narcissism and ravenous ego hunger.
So you have to walk a fine line. You have to make sure that you’re honoring your desires. But you also have to give up on being the special one, the flashy one. Just be a person in the room. Let New Girl shine. Befriend her. Listen to her. Be generous and forgive her for whatever flaws she has. At the very least, behave that way and your feelings may follow. This is an opportunity for you. You are advancing to a more generous state.
But you have to accept that you are not the best, and you will never be the best. This sounds like admitting defeat, but it’s actually one of the finest victories you’ll ever achieve. Start with vulnerability, and humility, and then dare to ask for more from your life.
And keep reading, because I got another jealousy letter this week that takes this New Girl story to a whole new, terrifying level….
This question has been asked countless times before in other advice columns, but you’re my favorite and I would love to hear your take/be the recipient of your tough love. How do I stop feeling jealous of my boyfriend’s ex?
The back story: My boyfriend and I have been together for one year and it’s been great. He is the first man I’ve ever loved and we met through our shared passions (people who follow this column: accepting a lifetime alone and exploring your own hobbies/projects and truly being okay with your single circumstances works wonders on meeting kind, interesting individuals! Not just people you end up falling in love with!). My “problem” is, I’m not the first woman he’s loved. I was perfectly okay with this reality until I met his ex while we were on a wedding-turned-vacation trip a few months ago. She was beautiful and charming, well-traveled and the life of the party. After a few drinks, she pulled me aside during the wedding reception and told me, through tears, that she just wanted my boyfriend to be happy. I knew very little about their time together and was confused by her need to tell me this. My boyfriend quickly informed me that their relationship didn’t end on great terms and there was suspected cheating on her part. He reassured me that he had zero feelings towards her and he was annoyed that she seemed to think she ruined his shot at happiness. It was a really bizarre day.
The second leg of our vacation, after the wedding, was at my boyfriend’s previous city of residence. He loved it there. It’s vastly different from where we live now and he wanted to show me this part of his past. Of course, this city was the city where he and his ex lived together for a few years. He would casually reference things they did together. “This was mine and ex’s street, our old apartment is over there,” “This is where ex liked to shop,” and so on. Their old neighborhood was picturesque and perfect and exactly where I saw myself living a few years out. I found myself hating her for already experiencing the shared life I wanted with him, in this wonderful place. Ugh, it’s so stupid that I spent a significant portion of that trip thinking such negative, ridiculous, jealous thoughts. I couldn’t not think about it at the time, considering I had just met her days before and it seemed as though she was everywhere. After a few days of learning about his life in that city and hearing more about his relationship with the ex, I finally told him that I really didn’t want to talk about her anymore. He got the hint.
So, here I am months later, feeling the occasional pangs of insecurity and jealousy any time something reminds me of her. And then I get sad thinking about how he will never have to experience the same worry about my previous relationships because they were all so fleeting. That sounds kind of terrible—I don’t want my boyfriend to be jealous of anyone! I guess I just don’t like the imbalance that I’m making up in my head. I’ve heard the standard advice, “He’s with you for a reason! She’s in his past for a reason! Your respective paths crossed for a reason!” and that outlook really makes sense. He never gives me reason to doubt his love or his intentions. I guess some some days I just worry that I’m not as exciting (she was a flight attendant and they took frequent excursions to remote places at no cost, how does that even happen!) or as interesting (she’s lived all over the world, I’ve lived in various parts of Appalachia) or as sexy (my boyfriend made the terrible mistake of telling me she was a highly sexual person and could orgasm multiple times during a broader discussion of why I have a difficult time relaxing during sex, sigh). One of his friends posted a group picture from that wedding today on Facebook and in it, my boyfriend is seated between his ex and me. I couldn’t stop thinking about how they looked better together and had a way cooler relationship and that spiraled into more destructive, unnecessary thoughts. I immediately hid the picture and decided to message you to prevent further craziness.
I haven’t really talked to my boyfriend about this because I know it’s wildly unattractive to admit that you’ve been comparing yourself to a former lover. I figured it was something I would just get over and hopefully that proves to be the case in time. Polly, can you tell me how to stop fretting over something that shouldn’t even be an issue?
Sick of Feeling Jealous
Oh sweet Jesus, yes. I love your letter, not only because this situation is the stuff of nightmares, but because your perspective on this woman is all twisted. Yes, she’s charming, she travels a lot, she’s gorgeous, whatever. I mean, I get it. I don’t blame you. And maybe she and your guy do look perfect together. But I guarantee you, he doesn’t care about that, and no one else does, either. It might as well be the juicy shame-the-protagonist subplot of a girl movie. Irrelevant.
But speaking of juicy subplots, next we come to the two details that really tell us everything we need to know:
1. Dream girl was multi-orgasmic. (!!!)
2. Dream girl wants you to know that she loves your boyfriend soooo much and all she wants is for him to be happy. SHE’S NOT JEALOUS, NOT HER! SHE JUST WANTS YOU TO KNOW (sniff, sniff) HOW INCREDIBLY HAPPY SHE WANTS HIM TO BE.
So ask yourself this: Why does she want YOU to know this? Why? Why wouldn’t she just tell HIM that?
Here’s why: He does not give a FUCK about her.
And here’s why he doesn’t give a fuck: BECAUSE SHE’S A FUCKING CRAZY PERSON.
Now follow this train of thought with me, uncharitable though it might seem: This exgirlfriend is nuttier than a nut log. You have unwittingly stumbled on the Angelina Jolie of the mortal world. (Angelina’s not mortal. She’s not even human, because she’s not competitive at all, she has a great big heart and an enduring soul and she just happens to look perfect and sound perfect every single second of her life while she’s CARING FOR THE WORLD’S CHILDREN.)
Looky here. Generally speaking, we don’t call other ladies crazy. That’s called Making Bad Choices. We don’t cast aspersions on women who are just being happy and nice—like New Girl in that first letter. Her niceness makes us feel mean, but that’s our problem, not hers.
But this Angelina of yours: She’s different. And we are allowed to fucking notice that she’s a troublemaker. Because only a troublemaker corners you and starts talking about him. You have nothing at all to do with him and her, them! You didn’t know a goddamn thing about THEM or HER before now! She wanted you to think about her, to know that they mattered once, pure and simple. But she couldn’t say, “Oh Jesus, this is weird for me, but I’m happy for you guys.” Or better yet, say nothing. No. She couldn’t talk to him directly. She couldn’t merely smile at you and chat about nothing, real friendly-like. She couldn’t make a joke about his bad habits, or something casual in passing. No. She needed you to know how passionately she feels for him. She needed YOU to know that she existed, that she mattered to him once.
I mean, come on, lady! Why? What kind of a giant stupid sad narcissistic ego needs to announce itself to the new girlfriend? I’m friends with my exes and some of their wives on Facebook. I don’t send them personal notes saying that I just want their fucking husbands to be happy! I am pleased to see photos of their adorable babies and the like. Do I hope that my exes are happy? Yes, even the ones who were dicks. Do I tell their wives that? FUCK NO I DO NOT, because why would they care?
So she waves her hands around—I MATTER I MATTER!—and now you’re like, “Hold on, who is this?” Your boyfriend didn’t say a word about her, did he?
Oh, wait, hold on, he did say something… ABOUT THE FACT THAT SHE’S MULTIORGASMIC. Oh my fucking Christ. Look. First you have to know that he was just trying to tell you that he’s good in bed, really really good, so whatever you’re not feeling isn’t his fault. Not very smart of him, but that was accidental. He was protecting his own ego, not reminiscing. He was trying to say that you need to loosen up and get a little crazy, when it’s equally true that he needs to learn more stuff about how to operate your goddamn machinery.
And he thinks he’s great in bed because HIS EX IS A LYING LIAR WHO LIES.
She doesn’t really want him to be happy, and she’s not multiorgasmic. No fucking way. This Angelina of yours is a charming, perfect, world-traveler and she’s A FUCKING ACTRESS.
Now, I’m not saying I know this for a fact. Being multi-orgasmic isn’t so rare, particularly once you have a partner you really trust who adores you and isn’t constantly monitoring your response so he can stick a little gold star on his dick (ahem!). Once you know what you want and how to get it and you’re not worried how you look or act when you’re doing it, it’s possible. But the supreme hotness of sex does wax and wane regardless. I’d sort of like to know if Angelina came three or four times every single fucking time they had sex. Because if she did, I’m going to go ahead and CALL BULLSHIT ON HER RIGHT NOW.
Of course you can’t tell your boyfriend she was faking it. He’s too invested in her as a sign of his mad skills in the sack. That’s his cross to bear, I guess, one that I doubt is helping him in the skill-attainment department.
Anyway, let’s review what we’ve learned by slipping into full-on aggressive combat mode with Angelina: She’s batshit crazy and a liar and she fakes orgasms with great gusto. This explains why your boyfriend isn’t actually all that passionate about her. She annoys him. He doesn’t want her back. He may not know that she’s a faker but he does know very well that she’s a fake and she’s nuts and she’s not what he wants, not even a little bit. This also explains why she cheated on him: She’s a narcissist. Some other guy came along and flattered her a little, she had to fuck him and whip out her multiple orgasms for his benefit, so he’d know just how supremely Best Woman Ever she is. She couldn’t say no to that. She had to prove to this other guy, who didn’t even matter, that she was The Dreamgirl of the Universe.
So there’s your very uncharitable, bad-energy explanation. I don’t believe in skipping that step. I don’t believe in saying “She’s wonderful, you’re wonderful, let’s all go in peace,” immediately. This is a learning fucking moment, people! Lean the fuck in!
But now let’s try something different. Let’s assume that Angelina is trying, very very hard, to be happy for your boyfriend, but she’s struggling with it a little. She was drinking and she told YOU this because she knew HE wouldn’t care. He cut her off completely after she cheated, and that was incredibly hard for her. Maybe she is a wonder in the sack, in addition to being beautiful and charming, and because of this, men sleep with her and they almost never break up with her, but sometimes they don’t really like who she is deep down inside anyway. And that haunts her, because she IS a good person, really, but she never feels like anyone really loves her for her. Even so, she sleeps with men too soon because she can’t resist showing them her sexual prowess. She always wins them once she gets them to bed. She can’t help but pull that trigger and seal the deal, even if it means spending her entire relationship feeling like she has to prove that she’s really smart and lovable, in addition to being gorgeous and charming.
See, this story is much more convincing, and it’s also, mysteriously enough, compatible with our more aggressive thesis. She’s either a real Dream Girl or a partially fake Dream Girl, but the bottom line is that being a Dream Girl is much harder than it looks from the outside.
This woman is a robust brand. And we don’t know what it’s like to feel that everyone wants to consume you. We can’t crawl inside her skin. But she made mistakes and your boyfriend dropped her. She is jealous of you. She cried to you. She is hurting. She is in the past and she knows it.
You’re the only one who doesn’t know it.
Let her go. She doesn’t make your life more interesting, and she doesn’t make you smaller and less worthy. Give her your sympathy and release her. Let her teach you a lesson about trying to be the Best Woman Ever: It backfires, and it’s lonely and it sucks.
Here’s another lesson for you: You need to talk to your boyfriend about sex a lot more. You need to work hard to have complex, vulnerable, thoughtful, rambling talks with him about your feelings and his. He needs to let you in, and you need to let him in. He needs to know more about what you want in bed, a lot more. You need permission to be a little unresponsive until you aren’t anymore. He needs to know that you won’t get there if you’re acting or thinking you’re a disappointment the whole time. You have to start with nothing and build something together. You don’t have to go on about the ex—and if you do bring her up, I would be very clear about the fact that she doesn’t matter, except as a symbol of something. She made you worry, and wonder if you really know him, if you really know what he wants from his life, from you. You want to share yourself with him more, to feel truly deeply connected at another, more trusting level, which will help you to understand yourselves and each other moving forward.
Lean into the vulnerability that this jealousy kicked up in you. Don’t stop at “She’s fucking crazy, that ex of his!” Don’t’ stop at self-protection and defensiveness and counter attacks. Something beautiful is opening up to you now. More love, more connection, more security, more possibility. It starts with you forgiving her for trying to make herself bigger than you—and bigger than she really is. It starts with you feeling empathy for her loneliness and her need to matter to you. It starts with you forgiving yourself for not having traveled, for not being more charming, for not being gorgeous from every goddamn angle. It starts with you being chumpy and small and not all that good in bed. That’s so lovable, you don’t even know. You are not that experienced. You are not smooth and unstoppable and swaggery and special. You are thoughtful and easily upstaged and here’s the secret: When you are upstaged, the world loves you more.
He loves you more. He just does.
He needs to figure out how to show it a little better, and when to shut his fat mouth. You need to figure out how to receive it, and believe it. This exgirlfriend of his is bright and shiny, but you are solid and real and you don’t know how to shine more brightly. You don’t know how to lie, and that’s what’s nice about you. You are humble and angry and fallible. He wants you.
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 Laszlo Ilyes.