Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Ask Polly: How Do I Know If I Should Break Off My Engagement?

Hi Polly,

My fiance and I have been together on and off since we were 18; we are now 26. He was my first boyfriend, first kiss and he is the only person I have had sex with. After dating 20 months I asked for a break to date other people because I thought we were too young, at 20, to be as serious as we were. The beginning of our relationship felt magical. The innocence of first love, having never felt these types of feelings before. I believed in true love and the "one" and knew we'd make it back to each other.

Six months later we did reconnect and began dating again. It lasted only a year. I felt with certainty now that he was the "one" but he now acted ambivalent. His parents had announced their divorce right after I'd ended things with him. He decided to drink away his feelings and now placed his friends above me.

I was still shocked and devastated when he dumped me. He said he still loved me and needed time to figure himself out. I pleaded with him to let us work it out together, I tried to help him see that how he was dealing with his feelings (drinking) wasn't constructive and urged him to surround himself with better people. In a sense I tried to "save him" because I couldn't accept that it was over. I struggled with the notion that someone could love you and leave you.

For the next year and a half I allowed him to come in and out of my life. He did many things to hurt me, including lying to me, leading me on, talking badly about me to his friends—and cheating on me. I look back at this now and feel that I did not show myself any self-respect because I was so hung up on the notion of "the one" and idealized our relationship. I also struggled with severe depression and an eating disorder during this period.

Eventually I cut all communication and did not speak to him for nine months. In this time I gradually became better. I made new friends, excelled in school, followed goals and grew as a person. I felt strong enough that I could see him as a friend and rejoin our group of mutual friends that I had missed. Many people would think I was stupid for taking him back after all of this. However, he truly was different and also closer to the person I had fallen in love with. He was honest with me about everything that had happened even when it hurt to hear the truth. He made the relationship a priority again. We moved in together and have lived with one another for two years. We have an easy chemistry and get along very well.

I pushed for the engagement and was initially excited about it, happy to start our future together and be on solid ground. However, a few months after becoming engaged, I started to feel depressed again and eventually entered into an affair with a good friend of mine from university who I have always had some hidden feelings for (it lasted for only three weeks). My fiance was mad when he found out but has decided to work it out with me. He says it made him realize how much he does love me. While he should be furious or fighting with me, he's been extremely compassionate and stepped up his game, making dinners and sending me cute notes. Truth be told, based on our history, I expected him to leave me. Him not leaving has been reassuring.

I know that you can't compare a long-term live in relationship to the high of an affair, but it has made me realize that maybe something is missing in my current relationship. The passion is gone and the sex is okay but not great. I fantasize still about sleeping with this other guy just to see what sex is like with someone else. I worry that I still don't know what truly makes me happy. I also worry that my depression paints things negatively and I'm taking it out on my relationship—because of this I can't make sense of my own feelings. I don't like the way he never speaks with certainty. I wish he took more interest in my career or we had more shared passions. I worry that our relationship is based on getting along and having fun and we don't go deep enough. Alternatively, am I taking for granted having a solid partner who takes care of me and loves me? Is it just depression speaking?

I am in therapy to work this out but it nags at me everyday. The more I spin it around in my head the more I feel bad. I feel bad for treating someone the way I have and for not being sure about someone who is sure about me. I can't take time off from a relationship that has had so many breaks. Either we get married or we break up for good. I've just decided to go with the flow and continue planning the wedding.

Feeling Bad

Dear FB,

I know you're tormented by your situation. But let's look at the facts on the ground: You worry that you and your fiancé "don't go deep enough." The sex is ok but not great. You pushed to get engaged, but shortly thereafter you had an affair. You've been very depressed in the past and had an eating disorder. He cheated on you. You cheated on him. You're depressed again.

Even if we limit our considerations to the mediocre sex, the wondering if there's something missing, and the suspicions about not going deep enough, this marriage gets a big thumb down from me. In my own experience, this combination of mediocrity/disappointment/shallow connections doesn't pan out well. Longing for a deeper connection is not good. Throw in blah sex to match, and you're talking about a major disconnect that's going to haunt you every single day you're together. You might be used to him, you might need him emotionally and you might be accustomed to seeing him as "the one." But that doesn't change the recurring suspicion that he's not ultimately right for you.

You fought for the relationship for so many years that you're simply accustomed to putting the relationship on a pedestal, in spite of many clear signs that you're not an amazing match. You wanted to WIN him, to convince him that he was THE ONE. You wanted to wrap things up, "start [your] future," "be on solid ground." You were depressed and needy and unsure of what your life might look like, and you thought that if you could JUST secure your relationship status, you might feel safe and sound for once.

And sweet Lordy on high, I can relate to that. Fuck yes I can. Because for me, nothing was more frightening than graduating from college and getting booted out into the real world. I didn't want to do ANYTHING back then. I wasn't excited about the adventure of it all. I just wanted to hide. And even when my life was kind of adventurous, moving to San Francisco after living in North Carolina my whole life, getting a job downtown, mingling with the big city folk, I was just meh about the whole thing. I wrote sad poetry. I went home and cried to my noncommittal college boyfriend, who was all "Ew, go away." So then I yelled, because I was a fucking crazy person. I threw the pumpkin out the window on Halloween. (I did not kill anyone on the street below, thankfully.) The next morning when I went to catch the bus to my shitty secretarial job, the sidewalk was covered in pumpkin slime. When I got to work, I wrote a sad poem about it. A BAD poem, that was also a SAD poem.

I tried to show my bad, sad poem to my boyfriend, of course, but he was all, "Ew, go away."

But if I told my husband that story about the pumpkin – again! – he would smile and laugh. He likes hearing my dreary little tales. He understands how it feels to be pathetic, to do stupid shit, to act like a fucking crazy person, to feel sorry for yourself, to laugh about it years later. And to STILL feel a little sorry for your pathetic bad-poetry-writing self.

The two of us talk about this kind of bullshit all the time. And I've had maybe one other boyfriend—out of, I don't know, fifteen?—who would enjoy a really pathetic story the way we do. The others would just want me to get to the point, or take my fucking pants off already. That kind of disconnect affects the quality of the sex you're having, too. I'm not saying you always need to make the sweet slow sensitive emo boy love. NAY. I'm saying your perception of how deep the connection is MATTERS TO A HUGE FUCKING EXTENT.

As clearly as I recognize that you couldn't give less of a shit about my stupid husband's appreciation of my bad personality, I inject this here because when I was younger, I always treated major doubts about a relationship as something to push aside or hurdle over or stuff under the bed or, best of all, eliminate entirely. Major doubts made me unhappy, so I mostly wanted them to GO THE FUCK AWAY.

I was so wrong. Because major, repeating, inescapable doubts—about things like how good the sex is, how deep your connection is, whether or not there's something missing—they are IMPORTANT. If you have giant doubts that won't go away, to the extent that you're clandestinely almost-fucking other people? You should not marry the dude.

SO: Even if you seemed totally healthy and happy and had dated 15,000 other guys, I would still say this really is not your guy. But–newsflash!–you do NOT seem totally healthy and happy and you have not dated other guys AT ALL. Instead, you seem like someone who has spent the past few years wanting to figure things out, nail things down, get 'er done, etc. And look, having been there, I have to say, you just aren't ready to make the call. You're easily depressed, you don't know what other guys are like, you're a little needy, a little rash, a little confused. This is not a good time to make a lifelong commitment. You are very afraid. You may even be so afraid that you started that affair because you thought a brand new relationship would provide you with the perfect safe escape hatch from this one. Maybe you wanted to give yourself a safe place to land, because you're afraid of being alone.

I don't think you're ready to get married to ANYONE, honestly. You have a lot of self-knowledge to gain. You need to figure out how to make yourself happy independently, without anyone in your life.

But even if that weren't the case, your doubts don't sound like a typical case of cold feet. You want a deeper connection, and better sex. You have many, many years left to find it. Breaking up will give you time to get to know yourself better, to make closer friendships, to become stronger, to clarify what's important to you.

I remember a friend of my mom's saying that I should make a list of the things I would NOT compromise on when it came to men. That made me laugh, because I'd basically never had any standards at all. It was just "Does he turn me on or not?" But do you know what turned me on back then? A whiff of escapism, or a faint hint of indifference.

You don't want to be getting a divorce ten years from now, with two little kids under your roof, because you were never sure. You need to be alone for a while and sort yourself out and grow up. Your doubts are telling you something. You aren't doing your fiancé any favors by keeping them to yourself. You spent so much time chasing him that you didn't realize that you weren't that into him after all, and you definitely weren't ready to settle down. A few years from now, when you DO finally have a deep connection with someone, when you can tell that person anything and everything, and he listens and gets it, and you have great sex and you just KNOW that you are a great pair? You will be very, very glad that you didn't go with flow way back when.

Put another way: If you were your own daughter, and she asked you, "Should I go through with it and marry this guy?"—what would you say? If my daughter asked me that, I would say "Be brave, and hold out for something that feels complete. Hold out until YOU feel complete."


Do you feel complete? Write to Polly!

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 Gabriel Saldana.

13 Comments / Post A Comment

Hush, you (#241,105)

Yesssss. Avoid getting married at this time. If you really don't want to break up you don't have to, you know; you can just decide not to get married now. Will that maybe have a detrimental effect on your relationship and lead to it ending? Maybe! But that will be OK.

Your letter sounds so deeply familiar and is extremely similar to how I got into my first marriage. (Our long break was 7 years long, rather than 9 months, and I dated/slept with other people in there, but he still had the benefit of being The First and fitting nicely into a Life Narrative about Love.) We were separated by our second anniversary and I'm so very, very glad not to be married to him anymore.

I didn't feel that way EVEN by the time I was ready to call it quits and end our marriage. You don't have to be completely doubt-free about breaking up or ending your engagement! It's going to feel sucky even if you're 100% sure. But delaying getting married is a good call. Divorce is, somehow, even uglier than just breaking up, even if everything else is the same (if nothing else, it's way more expensive and it'll make you feel like crap that you made everyone you love truck out to see you pledge commitment to someone you're leaving, should you have a wedding).

Mr. B (#10,093)

Mm, yes, continue second-guessing yourself forever.

Vincennes (#263,628)

When I read the last sentence of this letter, horror movie music plays in my mind.

wordsandears (#263,639)

I just signed up to say this is such good advice. I've been too habituated by dodgy advice columnists I was kinda expecting some "why not try to spice things up in the bedroom?!" and/or "hold on, you'll feel better after the wedding!" bullshit. It's refreshing to see a columnist acknowledge that fighting for a relationship you're not really into isn't going to make that relationship better, counter to most of our cultural narratives about sacrificing and fighting for a relationship. The only thing I would add is about the depression & eating disorder: regardless of what you decide to do, really consider getting some help for these. A therapist or counselor, a support group. Not because it may help your relationship, but because these things can get pretty serious without some support. Good luck!

Cobalt (#7,571)

Feeling Bad has dedicated how many years to hoping that the only man they've ever been in a relationship with suddenly become as involved in it as they are? That the sex will magically improve? That they'll have more shared interests because he suddenly becomes, what, an entirely different man? Here's a question: How many potentially available men are out there in the world to meet, date, have flings with, and hopefully fall in love with? And wouldn't FB rather, I don't know, just learn to do things alone, enjoy their passions alone, and go deep enough alone, than continue wasting the seemingly tireless effort on one other person who just isn't enough/right/involved/connected? I guarantee that FB gaining some independence would equal considerably less frustration/depression/mediocrity. Along the way, with some effort, guys will come along who FB will connect with deeply, who will mean great sex, who will share plenty of the same passions. From experience, if you don't feel like you are really connecting/going deep enough after, say, six months, it's just not going to happen. Sometimes there's just no "there", there, and it's only a shallow wading pool.

BeenThereDoneThat (#258,177)

I can relate so much to LW. Being there, done that. It is painful breaking up with someone that has been a big part of your life but nothing will make this right. He is who he is and you are who you are. I used to hound my first boyfriend to change, now I feel like the nerve of me, there was nothing wrong with him, we just didn't fit. Some 20 years later, I had a chance to speak to him and he is still the same person, I am single now and do not ever wish that I was back with him and I know he will take me back in a heart beat. I wish I hadn't idealized our relationship because it came at the cost of making me waste most of my 20's and making myself feel back for leaving something that just wasn't right for

PolarSamovar (#263,661)

These two sentences: "I don't like the way he never speaks with certainty. I wish he took more interest in my career or we had more shared passions." Look at them squarely. These three things will never change. Never ever. Can you accept these things bothering you for the rest of your life? Will you respect him in 40 years if he still has never spoken with certainy? Will you trust him if he never takes an iota more interest in your career than he does today?

I have to say, it's concerning to me that you started an affair right after you got engaged. Seems like some part of you inside was shouting "Noooooo!" I'd recommend trusting your gut here.

With the affair, was part of you hoping you'd get caught and then you'd have a get-out-of-engagement free card? But then he was surprisingly forgiving and wanting to work it out and now you're feeling stuck?

Even though he's being all sweet and thus you might think you owe it to him to go through with this, you don't. If you think you're likely to be unhappy in this marriage, it is kinder to *him* to get out now, as well as kinder to yourself.

Don't worry about feeling silly about the on-again-off-again-on-again thing. Don't worry about what other people might say. You are the person who has to live your life.

GailPink (#9,712)

Advice simplified. Question: "Should I marry this guy?" Answer: "No."

Tobia (#263,849)

One of my favorite things about Polly's advice (and oh there are so many) is her anecdotes from her 20's. They remind me so much of my life now, and earlier in my twenties that they give me great hope for a stable, insightful and relationship happy future self.

LW: I've been there too. Not EXACTLY where you are, but in a relationship (more than one, if I'm being honest) that I knew deep down wasn't right for me, but I don't think I trusted my own feelings enough to know to get out. Looking back at those times, I really wish I send my younger self a note (or some skywriting, or something!) telling her to trust her gut above all. Trust her gut. That moment of KNOWING he's not right for you that you later try to use logic to forget about – that moment is right, the logic is just fear talking.

paddlepickle (#8,731)

@Tobia Oh man, totally. Reading Polly has made me so, so excited to get to my 30's and 40's and I never thought I'd say that. Obviously there'll be a lot of work to get there, but having her remind me that all the having-shit-together and where-my-life-is-going stress is actually a function of being young and not, as I previously suspected, something that gets worse and worse as you age is SO reassuring. I'm so obsessed that I've started accidentally saying very bizarre things to my friends that reference Polly, such as "That boy I met was cute but I just don't think he's hungry for anchovies".

A Snood Mood (#1,737)

"I pushed for the engagement and was initially excited about it, happy to start our future together and be on solid ground."

There is no "future", there's now. Marital status, engagement status, those things don't change who you are fundamentally as a couple. "Official" jewelry and a piece of paper doesn't change how you feel about each other or act with each other, and the solid ground only comes from solid communication, trust, and mutual respect.

Help, 9 Days to Go (#281,974)

I came across this page and appreciate the upfront and direct nature of the replies. I haven't really been able to find this on other sites. Here's the bottom line — I need your help, please. You're going to be my non-judgemental 3rd party that will help me figure out if I should cancel my wedding OR press on with wedding plans so I can walk down the aisle in 9 days. Yes, 9 days. This is urgent.

I'm 27, he's almost 27. We have been together almost 8 years, since we were 19. We live together, we did the long-distance thing at the beginning of the relationship when we were young and then we moved closer to each other during college. He's my first real love. I've dated other guys but that was late high school/early college. This guy is my best friend. He's always been the one with a ton of friends, where I'm perfectly content with a small handful of quality ones. He's an only child, I'm the oldest of 4. He grew up with less discipline, where my parents held me to high expectations. His parents went through a bad divorce 2 years ago and he struggled – is doing better now. In college, we had our ups and downs/offs and ons. We took a couple of breaks (a couple months each time) due to his wanting to be single. Those were devastating times for me but keep in mind that this was years ago. After college, we settled in the city in our own place with 2 dogs and each other. Both of us have great jobs and decided a year ago that it was time to start wedding planning.

His immature behavior in the past improved as I hoped it would when we 'grew up' and weren't in the college scene anymore. I've never been able to picture my life without him. We have so many plans and hopes for the future — kids, family, house, etc.

However, for the last 6 months, I've had this HORRIBLE feeling. I went to a therapist a couple of times. I wanted answers and learned that the counselor won't give them to me. I don't want to over-analyze the situation because I DO love him very much, but just simply cannot shake this gut feeling.

You see, this past year, his behavior changed kind of. He's not immature anymore but he's gotten more aggressive. One moment, we're having a great conversation and the next second, hes having a meltdown. By meltdown, I mean…tantrum…shouting at me…calling me names…going nuts. I used to think it was 'only child syndrome' but lately cant help thinking its a behavior problem that won't ever change.

I've been walking on eggshells and know exactly what sets him off. You see, he has extreme OCD (always has), ADHD and some insecurities. He hates germs — whatever, I put up up with it. But now it's affecting day to day life. I've told him these things and he says he will get help but doesn't. I would make the appointment for him but don't want to act like his mommy. Basically, he can be set off by literally anything. His moods change rapidly. 5 minutes of amazing followed by 2 minutes of pure hell followed by silence and then he's 'all better' and his tantrum (assuming I dont press) was non-existent. Needless to say, this is stressful.

The most upsetting thing is how he would get into these rages and moments of extreme anger and began throwing things at me (soap bars, dog toys, whatever). Then, he started aggressively brushing by me so his shoulder would move my body. And then, he started shouting in my face and I would turn away or walk out…until it happened again and again. But then, he started pushing me and in February, he shoved me across our living room because I disagreed with something related to our future finances. I guess he isn't much of a compromiser unless it favors him. He needs a ton of attention. His father actually left his mother because he thought he needed more attention – I guess it runs in the family.

I'm very unhappy about what's happened in the last several months. The physical issues are very saddening to me. I'm not proud of that. He always made me feel like it was my fault. I'm a smart girl and I just don't understand how things got to be that way. My life has never been chaotic and out of control…yet, I feel it has been up until my Dad confronted him about the shoving. I told my parents about it the next day (in February) and when my Dad talked to him, he hasn't laid one hand on me — He's also calmed down with the shouting. But, who's to say it won't happen again? I guess I'm really worried. The 'best behavior' gig can only last so long, right?

My family 'likes' him and have accepted this because it's what I've wanted. But, they think I can do better and have never been huge fans of him.

Our communication is an issue and I know it's partly my fault. When he was getting angry all the time, I put my time and energy into my job. I worked late, left early, avoided him. Work was my outlet. My corner office at 27 has been pretty sweet-I've always been extremely driven and he used to love it but now hates it. He wants me home more but my job (head of a department) is demanding me also. It's not like I ignore him now, I just don't get home until 7:30 some nights and I get an earful. Anyway, it's beside the point. I used to respect him so much and just adore him. It's been almost 8 years of US…dreaming of this wedding…but I just feel resentful almost. It makes me sad to admit it. I resent him for hurting me, for saying mean things to me, for not treating me with the same respect I've always had for him. However, working with all male colleagues at my job as part of senior management have allowed me to grow intellectually and when I get home, I can't help but be bored out of my mind with yet another sports statistic. Though, I'm told all men are this way…sports sports sports.

I've had extreme anxiety. It's now to the point where I'm not sleeping. All other areas of my life are great. I can't make up my mind with him though. I guess what it boils down to is 2 options…

1. I love him and he's my best friend. We share so much. Do I marry him but accept that I'll be frustrated often forever?


2. Do I call off the wedding, inevitably end the relationship and move on…possibly regretting that I made the worst mistake ever? Not to mention the depression that will ensue…

I know I'm scared of the unknown. It's not like this might work out down the road if I call this off. It's a wedding and pretty serious stuff. I'm out of time now to figure this out. It's been on my mind almost 24 hours a day for months. I'm sad. I havent been allowing myself to get totally into this dream wedding with all the bells and whistles because I don't want to be more upset if it's cancelled.

And then, in moments of quiet when it's just me and myself thinking…I can't believe this is even in question for me. I always thought he's the one. Maybe I'm just in denial. What if I don't find a new best friend like him? How can I just close the door…ugh.

I'm sorry this is so long. Please please please pass along your advice if you have a minute. It would be incredibly appreciated.

Very Sincerely,
In 9 Days I might make the worst mistake ever.

Klee89 (#282,191)

@Help, 9 Days to Go
I am in the SAME boat as you!! I understand completely how you feel!!
My fiancé and I have been together for 5 years, we have two kids, and live together. He was my first love, met him at 19, he was 22. I am currently engagement but thinking about canceling the engagement.
Even though he is my best friend, we have kids together, ect. This engagement has been horrible. He's cheated 3 times, has been short tempered, and has been saying horrible things to me when mad.
I will say one thing:
How he acts when he is mad won't get any better maybe worst. When I met my fiancé we would NEVER argue. I'll say about 3-4 years into our relationship we started having bad arguments.
I'll say he started with shouting. Then name calling. Then it was throwing things and breaking things, putting holes in the walls. Then it was pushing and shoving me.

Even though the wedding has been planned, ect. What's wrong with putting it on pause for while and see where it goes?
I think that's what I'm going to do. My wedding is in sept. and so much money has already been spent but I just can't shake this gut feeling.
But I do know, if he had the nerve to name call,push and shove then he will do it again unless he seeks help.
Hope that helps!

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