Ask Polly: My Boyfriend Is Secretly Catfishing!

Dear Polly,

I am looking for a different perspective on my current relationship. I have been with my boyfriend for six years. I just recently moved in with him about four months ago. We have a pretty good relationship in that we hardly ever argue and still have sex fairly frequently, he makes me laugh, makes me feel safe, and I enjoy being with him.

A few months before I moved in with him I had discovered something disturbing and highly confusing! I found that he had a fake Facebook account. He had pictures of a young man and was claiming he was 8 years younger then he actually is. I read messages from many girls over quite a long time frame, mostly fairly harmless convo but a few not so harmless as well (including sex and the words “I love you”). I confronted him about this, and we had a very sincere conversation about it. He claimed it boiled down to his low self-esteem (which I know he struggles with). He also said it wasn’t “real.” Ultimately I forgave him, and he agreed to stop and delete everything.

Fast forward to now and I have found him again on a different social networking site, one that is more based on dating relationships. Again, he is not on there as himself, but as a much younger guy with the same pictures. Even more recently I have found email communications between him and two different girls. These conversations are not as innocent and again use the words “I love you”—and it’s sexual. It appears he has even helped one of these girls financially.

I know he would never actually meet these girls in person, because he is not being truthful about himself (what he looks like, his age). In my mind it’s still cheating and I’m sure that’s the case in everyone else’s opinion as well. I consider myself fairly intelligent, and I know every person that I would tell this story to (I have never told anyone about this, hence why I’m writing you) would tell me to leave his ass and find someone that will not 1. lead me on for 6 years without a marriage proposal 2. have these online relationships after being given a second chance. Trust me, I am considering ending everything, which is a huge step especially since I live with him. It will be the hardest thing I will have ever done and I am not sure if I have the guts to do it.

But: the pros with my relationship outweigh the cons even though the cons are HUGE. I am a member of his family. If I break up with him, I lose them as well. He makes me happy and I appreciate him, I enjoy his company and we have a lot of fun together. I consider him my best friend. I can’t picture my future without him. We talk about marriage and kids all the time.

He doesn’t know that I know this latest secret, and now I obviously have major trust issues. In short I am a mess, and I’m struggling with acting like everything is okay.

Do you think counseling would help us? Especially him, if it is all about his low self esteem? Do you think I could use that option as a alternative to ending our relationship? Or do I just rip off the band-aid and start all over again?

Thank you.

Conflicted



Dear Conflicted,

So now you’re pretending everything is fine, and he’s pretending everything is fine. You two make quite a pair!

The fact that you and your boyfriend hardly ever argue becomes a damning detail when you throw in the fact that he’s been lying to you—multi-layered, effortful, elaborate lies involving lots of different women, even after having been discovered—and you, in turn, are prepared to make some final call about whether to work on things or leave in a vacuum of a) input from him (slightly understandable, considering the bullshit he fed you last time) and b) input from friends or family (frankly, pretty worrisome).

To be clear, though, you don’t deserve this. You deserve love and support from someone who understands that games of make-believe have consequences. But you wouldn’t even be considering staying with him if you felt, deep down inside, that you deserved better. From what I can tell, though, you don’t think you deserve to feel emotions at all.

You don’t show your real feelings and your insecurities and desires to your boyfriend (or to your friends and family) and your boyfriend doesn’t show his real feelings or the full scope of his insecurities and desires to you. You’re both bullshitters. Your life together is bullshit. You can’t make any assessment of what you two might be like together in the future based on the past, because he’s a liar and he can’t even stop lying when he’s at risk of losing you. Either he believes that risk is worth it, or he’s not afraid of losing you. Or, he’s trying to lose you. And you feel like you need him too much to risk showing him your full self.

Pretending that everything is ok right now isn’t JUST a means of getting a handle on this before you tell him what you know. You’d prefer to pretend that things are fine—not only because you can’t handle the devastation that’s about to go down, but also because that’s the way you operate in general. You’d rather lie through your teeth if it means feeling loved and safe.

My guess is that you come from a family with problems that are apparent to every passerby, and he comes from a sneakily family steeped in denial and “looking on the bright side,” populated by narcissists and pushovers and ruled by really toxic dynamics that no one will examine or talk about openly. You escaped into this relationship and were embraced by his family, who presented as “healthier” than yours. You felt safe and supported and adored for the first time. But the walls of this safe house are rotted out and they’re starting to collapse, and even your boyfriend thinks you’re desperate enough to pretend that nothing’s wrong.

You need to see a therapist alone and sort through what you feel you deserve and don’t deserve. If you go through this process WITH your boyfriend, in the hopes of keeping your relationship together, I fear that you won’t grow enough. You’re not married yet and you don’t have kids and you’re young. So take advantage of the fact that you aren’t going to ruin anyone’s life here, and get the fuck out.

Your boyfriend doesn’t know who he is or what he wants. He had a chance to clean up the situation and confront it, and he just kept lying. Even if he never intended to or couldn’t meet these women, he was comfortable corresponding with them as if he were a different person. Just think about how fucked in the head you’d have to be, to pretend not only that you’re single, but that you’re younger and better looking than you actually are.

Imagine yourself, putting up a picture of Bar Rafaeli and then approaching men online. “Ooo, I get so cold and lonely sometimes, and I long for you to keep me warm.” How fucking stupid would you feel, doing that? And then Bar sends her online paramours some cash when they need it? What?

Even if your boyfriend could never figure out a way to meet these women in person, even if he never intended to do so, someone insecure enough and deceitful enough to engage in that kind of a hobby won’t figure out how to be trustworthy and decent for years to come. How long do you want to wait around? Does it make any sense for you to wait a few years, and then have kids with him, and then find yourself in this situation again, but juggling babies while you weep into your hands?

He refuses to grow up. He wants you to know that he won’t grow up for you, no matter what you say. He doesn’t have the guts to tell you “I don’t want to stop doing this,” so he’s just going to let you figure it out all over again. But you’re not married. You’re not trapped. You can simply walk away. Or, you can actively choose to sell yourself short for the sake of a history together that’s based on lies. That’s the kind of choice that will make you feel weak, that will make you feel like you don’t deserve any better.

That doesn’t mean I’d advocate dropping a cheater across the board. If you’re married and you love your spouse and he or she screws up and is outrageously repentant, that’s a whole different ball of wax. Your situation is nothing like that. It’s only been a few months since you found out about the Facebook shit, and he’s already talking love with new women. How do you even respect someone who’s needy enough to suck love and affection out of strangers, while wearing a fucking hot-guy mask? Let’s just state the obvious: That’s some five-alarm neediness and deceit right there.

If you stay with him and go to counseling, in sifting around for answers about who YOU are and what YOU really want, you may/will likely get pulled into the far messier and more dangerous question of who he is, what he wants from you, and why he needs his ego propped up by a room full of women for things that don’t even belong to him. I feel bad for the guy, almost. But YOU shouldn’t. Once the moving van is packed up and you’ve seen your therapist a few times and you’re starting to see how much more you need in your life—trusted, supportive friends, some acceptance of your own emotions—in order to be truly happy, sure, you can look at him and say, “Poor guy. He has a long road ahead.”

But don’t get into his corner right now. If you go into counseling with him, you’ll have to take on his problems AND yours, and you might never figure out who you really are and what you really want. (I know you think you know who you are and what you want, but I think you don’t yet.) If you go into counseling with him, you might never have the kind of close friends who you can lean on when the shit hits the fan. You might never reach out to anyone in the world, aside from strangers, because with a stranger you have less shame, about your situation and yourself and your feelings.

Why would you be ashamed of this situation, though? Yes, it’s true that we live in a culture where women are shame sponges. If something shameful is happening within 10 feet of a woman, you can bet that onlookers will find a way to pin the shame on her, even if she’s just an innocent bystander. But I’m also guessing that you don’t have healthy boundaries, that you grew up in an environment where the shame of the parents got projected onto the kids, so you thought that random shit was your fault, or that you didn’t have a right to voice your own emotions. The fact that you’re trying to make the call in a vacuum is a testament to these unhealthy boundaries. You’re making a major grab for control before this issue is even on the table. You want to be the author of this narrative before the story even starts to unfold. You don’t want to believe that you are vulnerable to the forces in play here.

Notice that there’s no mention of emotion in your letter, beyond a reference to your being “a mess,” which also reflects shame. But it’s ok to feel terrible about this. You’re allowed to feel bad. It doesn’t make you weak. You need to call a friend and tell her about this whole ugly thing, without knowing exactly what your next move should be. You have to present a giant messy question mark of a life to your friend, and risk her thinking that you made some mistakes. You have to admit that you’re a fallible person, in a bad situation. Then you’ve got to find a therapist—for you—and see that person as soon as possible.

You’re a good person and you need to make some space for yourself in the world—real, true, honest, fallible space, where you can argue sometimes, and not have sex sometimes, and call people when you feel the worst you’ve ever felt, and call people when you feel nothing and you’re not sure why.

You have to give up control. Life is going to take you to some beautiful places, but you have to let go. You are allowed to be weak now. Take advantage of all of the promise in this breakdown. When it feels like the earth opened up and swallowed your life whole, those same powerful forces can be harnessed to build the kind of life you never dreamed was possible. There’s more happiness in store for you than you ever could’ve reached with this guy. You think he’s your sunshine, when really, he’s been blotting out the sun. The world you live in now is unsafe. The hostile world you imagine outside your door is full of warmth and possibility. It’s time to walk outside and feel the sun on your face.

Polly





Do you catfish, and if so, why? Write to Polly and explain it to her!

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 Steve Kwan.