Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

Ask Polly: I Was Dumped After a Freak Accident and I Can't Move On

mud dogDear Polly,

I was with my husband for six years before I found out that he cheated on me with a co-worker—as well as classmates and women at bars. After I divorced him, we didn't talk for almost six months. Then we were off and on for probably two more years. At a certain point, we were both tired of not working through fights like adults, and he got down on one knee and said he didn't deserve for me to marry him again, but that he'd do anything to prove it to me if we could spend our lives with each other and not like two people who just spent a lot of time together.

I was still living in our house with his dog and all four cats he'd brought home. (He was/is a very talented veterinarian technician.) After our divorce, I'd gone back to college and gotten a degree in Digital Media & Photography. He wouldn't come to my grad show because he "didn't feel comfortable around those people.” So we went to therapy, and she told us that to be together we'd have to support each other the best we could in everything. The next day, he texted me while I was at the gallery and said that he'd packed his things (except his dog—a 100-pound pit bull) and was moving out. If it hadn't been for the fact I was attached to a safety rope 15 feet in the air removing art from the ceiling, I'd have probably fallen to the concrete. Luckily, I only hit the wall w my back. I left immediately and drove home where my neighbors said he'd been packing since I'd left that morning. I was stunned. Two days later, after no contact, I drive up to our house and he's sitting on the porch crying. This man does not cry. But I wasn't having it, so I walked right passed him and he followed me inside. He begged me to take him back, that he felt like I'd leave him when I got my degree. The photos in my show were of him, but he begged, and I said "I love you, you know that, but you can't live here. I can't come home to an abandoned house because you feel scared about something you didn't even ask me about. I'm yours, but until you prove to me that you won't run, then you can't stay." He said he could live with that as long as he knew I loved him. A year goes by and we're fine, he says he wants to go to the art institute for a degree in audio engineering. He got enrolled, paid his first semester's tuition and barely passed. He's not ignorant when it comes to textbook stuff, so I encouraged him to keep trying. Another year goes by, and he had to quit the vet because they couldn't accommodate his class schedule. But he'd saved money and was finally free to work harder at his classes. Then they raised tuition; he asked if I could help him with it. “Of course,” I said, and I did. He got another job at a vet and everything was going great for him.

I'd started showing in galleries and even got a studio of my own to have shows in. He never came to a single one. But after the shows, he'd be back to adoring me and doing special things together like camping and going on hikes and things we'd only talked about doing. But my studio was struggling—artists trying to show for free and leaving me with everything to clean up after their show. So I closed the studio as far as shows went, but I still did my own work there. He said he had to study and it wasn't easy getting my own degree so I understood & didn't hold it against him. I helped him pay for a little over $7,000 towards his tuition and much more, like buying take out and any date we could find time for. We were constantly together.

Then one day—at this point we'd been together for 11 years—my brother said he needed photos taken at a ranch he was trying to promote about five hours away. I said I'd be back in two days unless he wanted to come with me and make a getaway out of it. He had a project to finish so I went to do the photos. In an absolute freak accident, I fell off a bike, dislocated my jaw, shattered a vertebra in my neck and they wanted to put me in a hospital miles from where I wanted to be which was with him. I drove all five hours back and collapsed on my couch unable to move my head or open my mouth. Along the way he was texting me, "I can't wait to see you, I hope your pretty face isn't hurt too bad."

So I'm lying there texting him how much pain I'm in but that I'm back and to please take me to the doctor tomorrow if he could. I even said, "If you have to turn your stuff in I can get my neighbor to take me but I really need you right now. Soup since I can't chew and a neck rub would be divine."

I didn't hear back and since I couldn't drive or turn my head, I called and asked what was going on. He said he'd call me right back. I opened my email and he'd sent me an email saying that he knew the timing was bad but he didn't have it in him to "get too involved" in my life right then and that he thinks the guy who lives two doors down from me would be a better person for me than him. He said I'd get over it because I was "very resilient.” He then said that if I objected to this or acted out in any way that he'd ignore it because he wasn't going to put up with any "childish" behavior. I am still stunned because childish has never been a word I've been described as even by my parents.

So I lied in a hospital bed with my jaw wired shut with a titanium disk replacement staring at the ceiling for three months trying to get him out of my mind and crying when friends who came to visit asked where he was.

I got well enough to chew hard food after four more months; got to where I could turn my head to an acceptable degree for driving and could raise my arm past my shoulder. I got a job and moved my studio down the street to a better location. I exercise everyday, pray, meditate, eat right—and not for a second in the two years since then has he answered a phone call or a text or an email. He's 38 now and I'm 34. We live one exit down the road from each other, go to the same bars, grocery store, parks, everything. Except now he's dating a 23-year-old vet tech.

Even after all this time, not a single night has gone by that I don't cry myself to sleep wondering what happened in those hours between "I can't wait to see you" to "I don't want to see you ever again."

I'm in therapy and I just feel pathetic. I've tried to go out on dates and it just makes me feel worse. Everyone is saying to go to his place (that I have to pass by twice a day) and face him but I feel like he'd only be mean and make me feel worse. Time is healing nothing and everyone is over it and I still cry everyday.

Please tell me what to do. I've traveled to see if I can just move somewhere else where our 11 years aren't staring me in the face 24 hours a day and I just ended up feeling even worse.

Please help me. My therapist says he's gone for good and to accept it and let it go, like it’s a piece of paper I can just toss out the window because it's nothing. But we weren't nothing.

Please please help me.


Dear Crushed,

It's going to be really hard for me to answer your letter, for a bunch of reasons. And I get a lot of letters, I'm not going to lie. I get 10, sometimes 20 letters a week. There's a lot of guilt that goes along with not answering a huge percentage of them. Once this guy wrote to me and asked me how to deal with debilitating chronic back pain that made him want to die every single day. Every. Single. Fucking. Day. I could not for the life of me figure out a good way to respond to that guy without sounding like a complete ignorant asshole, but it still haunts me and I haven't forgotten him. I feel so terrible for him, but every time I try to look into chronic pain treatment, everything I read is just "Wellll, sometimes, we find that acupuncture and visualization and cutting out gluten work, as long as you're taking enough morphine." Plus the guy said he'd tried all that stuff, and he was clearly becoming addicted to an absurd amount of pain medication. So I thought about addressing that, but that's, phew, a tough thing to try to sift through without presuming a lot. Normally I enjoy being presumptuous, but not in this case.

Now stay with me, because we're going to get to you, I promise. At the time when I got that letter from the chronic debilitating pain guy, I was in the middle of a two-week headache, and I didn't understand the cause of it. Since then I haven't had another one, and that one was diagnosed as a tension headache related to bad posture and TMJ and just being a toxic, slouchy, underpaid, overworked 43-year-old gas planet of slow-burn neuroticism. And maybe high credit card balances now manifest themselves as unidentified bright objects on the new super-detailed brain scans. Either that or they might mean something much worse, haw haw haw. Brains, they're so nutty. The point is, I was in the middle of experiencing a tiny slice of the pain that he felt every day. I knew how it felt to worry that it might never go away. I knew how worrying that it might never go away sometimes felt like KNOWING IT WOULD NEVER GO AWAY.

And knowing it would never go away felt like causing it, the headache, the pain. It felt like being the cause of the pain. It made me feel guilty, that I could take some pain and turn in into permanent pain like that, because that's how fucked I was, deep down inside.

So I never answered that guy. Do you see what happened there? I believed that I was a poisonous enough gas planet, at some level, that I deserved to be blamed for my own pain. This is where we start with you. You're living this "Series of Unfortunate Events" kind of Lemony Snicket existence where all of these terrible fucking things happen to you, and they're all sick and unfair and also probably all your fault.

You being you, you think I'm just being an asshole by saying that they're all your fault. But no. I'm saying that you BELIEVE that you are fucked enough, deep down inside, that you somehow caused these events to occur to you. When your husband cheated on you repeatedly with whomever, when he didn't show up for your fucking art shows, when he stayed away from all the stuff that was about YOU, all of that was tolerable because, after all, you partially caused it right? You deserved it. Then, when you had the freak accident, when you were in pain, alone, in hell and he decided THAT was when he needed to resolve to NEVER SEE YOUR FACE AGAIN, all of that must stem from you being the rotten kind of woman who gets her just desserts. Something in you made that stuff happen. Something in you sealed your fate.

You believe that you caused all of those things to occur, somehow, magically. You practically gave birth to this foul man who has no fucking heart, who wouldn't even bother to come to your aid when you were in the depths of hell. No matter what he JUST HAPPENED TO FIGURE OUT in that exact moment, to not immediately go to you, take you to the hospital, visit you there, and talk you through the fucking break-up after 11 years together? Forget everything else. That's really outperforming in the world of atrocious assholes.

And THAT guy doesn't exist, without your poison. Right? That's the key, base-level, fundamental thing that you believe right now. You CREATED that motherfucker. It's ALL your fault. ALL OF IT.

So that's where the inability to move on comes from. You don't want to face him and have him be mean to you and set you back even more, because looking him in the eyes means facing the fact that you loved this sick person, and married him and accepted him and he's still out there, this fucking destroyer of everything. You made him and he's still out there.

There's this gigantic thing in your life and you can't turn the page. You think it's your fault. You're crying, yes, but you're also all shut down and defensive. You're angry and you're blaming yourself for him, and you're angry at yourself for crying, and you're also trying hard to get over it. You are in conflict. You want to be tough, but you cry every day. You want to forget him, but you feel like you created him. You want to place all of the blame and damage on his side of the court, but you also feel like there he is, with his brand new 23-year-old, who is exactly like you 11 years ago. He gets to rewind and start fresh. Maybe you were the problem after all.

These are your doubts. The therapist needs to hear more about them. If your therapist doesn't get it and you don't feel really understood, patiently and truly, by someone who is definitely very very smart? Find another therapist. Because your particular situation is very complicated. It seems simple, but it's not simple at all.

Remember how I had a headache and I couldn't answer the letter about chronic pain? Well in your case, I knew I HAD to answer your letter, first of all because it's a great cautionary tale for anyone—man or woman—who is tempted to accept wishy-washy horse-shit behavior from someone who SHOULD be all in. Your situation beautifully encapsulates just how ugly and uglier and ugliest things get when someone who's afraid to be alone stays and leaves and returns and leaves again and is allowed to continue, on and on. Sure, as long as you're strong and you're doing great, that wishy-washy human is going to cling to the hem of your kickass coat. But the second you falter? Sayonara. He wasn't sure, and then YOUR NEEDING HIM OPENLY SEALED THE DEAL!

I mean, motherFUCK WHAT IS THAT?

So this is the other reason I had to answer your letter. I'm currently feeling a tiny sliver of the kind of pain you feel, because I had an old, tattered friendship fall apart, and another, more important one feels like it's in crisis, and I'm feeling sad about it. I'm in some kind of an open, honest state lately. I don't know how to describe it, other than my snappy song and dance with people has dissolved into something a little less…manufactured. Instead of neatly packaging things, retreating, protecting myself with a joke, waving things off, I'm feeling my feelings, maybe more than ever.

I know, I know. That sounds really slow and weak and squishy of me. BRING BACK THE TOXIC GAS PLANET, you're thinking. Bring back the evil lady ruler in the black zip-up leather jumpsuit, the one William Shatner can't decide whether to engage in showy stage combat with, or kiss for a long, long time, without tongue. But listen, I can feel things right now. I feel connected to my life in a great way. I'm writing funny shit because I'm enraged and happy and also, often, a teary-eyed pile of squash.

I feel like I'm on new ground, and I feel very vulnerable. And you know what? This makes some people back away slowly, because: YUCK. Feelings. It's not like I'm calling everyone and crying into the phone. I just have feelings rising off me like steam off asphalt, I think. And some people will only tolerate you if there's a guarantee that you'll never, ever openly question anything or say, "Hey, that hurt my feelings." And now the ambient temperature and pressure have shifted and it's clear that I might say something weird.

I have lots of old friendships that have ALWAYS been pretty healthy and open and intimate and stable. Those friendships haven't changed a bit. Those friends, I can talk to and they can talk to me and they already accept that I am who I am.

So that's reassuring. But you know what my brain does when I can see that someone doesn't really want ME as a friend, not enough to show up and fucking say what's up? It says YOU ARE POISONOUS. YOU ARE THE CAUSE. YOU MADE THIS HAPPEN. YOU ARE THE PROBLEM.

So your letter is a challenge for me, because something in the mix with you goes to the heart of where I am. It would be easy enough to just shut this whole process down, too. I've done that a million times before. I could close up and tough it out and sally the fuck forth and shrug and say, “WHATEVER MAN” and maybe answer the letter from the girl who wants to fuck her boyfriend's brother but knows she really shouldn't. (OK, NEXT WEEK MAYBE.) But I'm not going to do that. I'm making an active choice to stay open. It's harder to stay open, but it's also helping me be a better human being.

Here's what I want to say to you, Crushed: It's heartbreaking, how little people really show up for each other. It's heartbreaking, how skin-deep most people want their relationships to be. It's incredible, how little some people have to give sometimes.

But this isn't really about blame. Even this heartless ass who's formed so much of your life isn't the real point here. I don't really think you should go talk to him. Write down your feelings. I'm sure you already have. But what will he do if you show up and make a scene? Who wants that? Because even without the wishy washy on and off bullshit, he was going to leave you one day. That was predestined and it has nothing to do with you. He's terminally desperate and lost, a narcissist who never cared who you were, not really, or he would've gone to your shows and enjoyed it when people were excited about YOU. Instead, he was incapable of behaving like a regular human being. Good fucking riddance.

But paradoxically, I want you to think about how much you imagine that you created him, that his poison is your poison, that his shitty story is your story. Because in order to let him go, strangely, you have to look at how much you blame yourself. I blame myself when someone backs away from me. Some piece of me is sure that, in the end, it will just be me, telling everyone FUCK OFF YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND ANYTHING.

When you feel that way? You have to try very hard to stay vulnerable and let people in. Even though you feel so unprotected, so defensive, so angry. "Fuck you, I'm crying every night," you're thinking. But you're also pissed and prideful and you won't let go of your story. Whenever anyone tells you a specific, very detailed timeline – he did this, so I did this, then he did this – that almost always means that they want you to know JUST HOW MANY TIMES they were innocent and the other person was guilty and bad, and that means that they suspect that THEY CAUSED EVERY FUCKING THING on that timeline.

I know because I do it, too, whenever, deep down, I suspect that something is about me and my rottenness. I can't tell the story often enough. "See? See what happened? Can you believe it? Is that nuts? How did I get here? I'm good, right? I'm kind and nice, right? So why am I here?"


It’s not your fault. You are not some toxic cloud that he gets to step out of. It's hard to feel that way from a hospital bed, when you can barely turn your head one way or the other. It's hard to feel that way when you look back and ask yourself why you accepted so little, and yet HE'S THE ONE who paints you as some festering crazy volcano, he's the one who's the child, telling you not to be childish.

And even your parents wouldn't describe you as childish? You need to be childish now. That's why you keep crying. Your soul wants you to finally be a child.

You were so hurt and in need, and he told you to fuck off, even though he KNEW that you were in terrible pain. Let's be still in this moment, together, and feel how sad that is, without self-protection, without fear, without cynicism and anger. Let's not feel self-conscious. Let's just choose not to feel embarrassed and cheesy for a fucking second. Let's sit still and just feel how unbearably sad it still is—that you got hurt and then you were all alone and it was so embarrassing, so fucking shameful to be all alone with your jaw wired shut, that you were smashed down like a fucking bug. It was too much. And from then on, it was like you created the whole picture. It was like you woke up one day, and you couldn't tell the story from your soul.

But I am there with you. I'm right there with you, and so is everyone else who's reading this and understands what the fuck it means to stay open even though it hurts and it's embarrassing. At this moment, we are on your side. And the spirits of the dead are with you, too, and the leaves on the trees and the clouds and the cool breeze is with you. Listen to me: Your story is not your soul. You cry every fucking day because you want to live. Your tears mean you're surviving. You want to feel things. You are not giving up on yourself. Giving up would be shutting down, turning everything off, moving on, and sleepwalking into a sad future. This is what sleepwalking looks like: a brand new 23-year-old and an inability to take half a fucking minute to say goodbye to your exwife. God bless and god forgive that sleepwalking man. He's not worthy of a big-hearted creative soul. You always knew that. And that's the last time we're going to refer to him here, because he's too small. We have bigger and brighter and better horizons. We have the leaves on the trees and the clouds and the cool breeze to consider here.

Let's pry this shitty story away from your soul, like a sludgy mess of blood and grime and tears and loss. Let's kick it to pieces. Now all that's left is your soul, ok? Your soul is bright and sweet and sad. Listen to me. You are going to feel so grateful. Because someone out there is big like you, honest and sensitive and full of life, and good at giving, and good at feeling expansive and good at living. I'm not trying to sell you on a fairy tale. But when you've been through something this terrible? Magic happens. Sometimes, someone like you, IF YOU CAN STAY OPEN, ends up attracting the whole world to her doorstep. Because she stayed vulnerable. Because she refused to sleepwalk into a dim, sad future. Because she wanted to take responsibility, even though she wasn't responsible. Because she was bewildered and alone for a long time, and it changed her.

Your life will be beautiful. You have already come a long way. I want you to be open to people—men and women—who are can be still with you, and listen. You need more REAL friends. You need more listeners. I want you to make sure you don't hide away with the next dude. You said you were with the sleepwalker "constantly." Don't do that next time. You said artists tried to show their work for free and left you to clean up afterwards. Don't give too much and resent it afterwards. Get a used copy of "Codependent No More.” Read the whole thing. You want to take care of people. Don't fucking do it, unless it's an actual child. You like half-interested, wishy-washy types who seem tough. Fuck them. Find someone sweet who really sees you and needs you. To find that person, you have to be sweet and child-like yourself. You have to love yourself, damaged and sad, exactly how you are right now. If someone says go to the hospital, don't think about being closer to your guy instead. Go to the fucking hospital. You put yourself last. From now on, you are first.

Stand up, walk outside, and feel the air, watch the trees move in the wind. This moment is yours. You matter. You are a bright light and everything you've ever wanted will come to you, if you stay open. Build a community and embrace it. Show up for other people. Tell them your sad story and let them learn from your mistakes. Embarrass yourself as much as possible. Be honest with everyone. You already changed a few people by telling your story here, trust me. There is no shame to your story anymore.

The world is waiting for you to step out and finally see ALL THAT YOU OWN. You own the sky and the leaves in the trees. We are all waiting for you to stand up and feel how much love is here for you. Someday soon, you'll have more love than you know what to do with. Keep crying. All the love in the world will be yours. Your new life is beginning.


Do you want things, or not want things? Write to Polly and get that settled today.

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.

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47 Comments / Post A Comment

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

Wow there is a lot of painful things in this and that guy is a barely-living toxic psychopath–and again Polly is spot on with everything–but if there's one thing I will take away for myself, it's just desserts.

Nabonwe (#12,500)

Polly answered that question beautifully. But if I may address this directly:

Even after all this time, not a single night has gone by that I don't cry myself to sleep wondering what happened in those hours between "I can't wait to see you" to "I don't want to see you ever again.

I can answer that question. A terrible, hurtful, selfish person continued to be a terrible, hurtful, selfish person. Nothing changed in those hours. Absolutely nothing at all.

cardiganboots (#232,781)

Seriously. My advice is to light that dude on fire, and THEN do all the good stuff Polly said.

khutulun (#272,935)

"Let's pry this shitty story away from your soul, like a sludgy mess of blood and grime and tears and loss. Let's kick it to pieces."

This made me cry so hard. It's been a year since a devastating break-up for me, and this description was a big turning point in my (still continual) process of moving on. Disconnecting WHO you are from a shitty event that happened TO you is so so hard but necessary.

Ellen Wheels (#272,942)

This is amazing. And I wish I could apply it to my own life. I just can't seem to open up again after all the pain, though I'm trying. Lord, am I ever trying.

@Ellen Wheels I'm with you girl.

I feel you letter writer. I just ended a 7 year on again, off again relationship. It was the most painful thing I have ever done but he was very manipulative, couldn't commit and had to have everything on his terms. I was always good old reliable, ready to take him back when he felt like it. He didn't even date other people when we were in our off phases (well the last time he ended our sex because he had started dating someone but then that only lasted a week or so and a few weeks later he was already sniffing around seeing if I would be there for him). I've been in therapy and he has been one of the main issues I've been working on. I'm slowly getting better and finding myself again.

Regina Small (#2,468)

I would like to point out to the LW that her horrible, garbage person of an ex moved on with a woman a decade younger in his own field most likely because he needed to feel SUPERIOR. You want to know what the LW's role in this story is? She made him feel inferior. Not really, obviously, because this dickhead is probably dying inside every single day because of his persistent feelings of being a worthless piece of shit. (He's right, obviously, but not for the reasons he thinks.) He couldn't stomach attending her art shows because HER light couldn't shine without HIS being dimmed. He couldn't talk to her artist/photographer pals because while she loves him for all of the mysterious reasons he's supposedly special and wonderful, he'd have to prove himself to her friends by being an interesting, supportive and worthy human. But he isn't, and he knows he isn't.

She paid for his schooling, too, which is incredibly generous and he probably thought it was generous, too, on the surface. But I'm guessing that he also resented it and got caught up in a toxic cycle of needing her, hating himself for needing her and, unable to live sustainably with that kind of self-hatred, hating her for the VERY GENEROUS thing she was doing. Whether he's ever been able to articulate it honestly to himself or not, he hated her for being capable. Because it highlighted for him just how incapable he was. It also explains why he consistently put her on this fucking roller coaster. Destabilizing a stable person made HIM feel SECURE and POWERFUL. He could've just walked away after the first break-up. But going back? Upending her life over and over? He may never admit it, LW, but it gave him a fucking rush. Guaranteed. And the insistence that you not act "childish" after the last break-up? Projection. Wishful thinking that for once YOU'D be the child and HE'D be the adult.

And now he's with someone much younger in a field where HE has more experience. Dude is fucking transparent. The moment this lady shows that she might have something more going on? Something that poses a threat to his ego? He'll pull this disappearing act on her, too.

I agree with Polly that you need to confront the feeling that somehow YOU caused him to act like an irredeemable shithead, but do so while reminding yourself that it was your strength and capability that drove him away. You'll need more time with this. Two years is a long time, but 11 years is much longer. The only thing I can promise you for certain is this: someday your life with him will feel like someone else's life or like a movie you walked out on. This story – this particular story – is not THE story, it's just a story. Just one story of a shitty person turning your world upside down. But you have your work and your friends and people who love you, and that's not nothing.

If you think you'd want him back, imagine what you'd have to give up to have him. Imagine being a person who isn't strong or capable or creative or resilient, because that's what would keep him. That's what he needs. He needs you to lack. Fuck that. You can do better, and you will do better. And someday, when you hear or read his name, you will roll your eyes and think "yeah, that turd" instead of crying. It doesn't have to be today.

Sending you good thoughts until you get there.

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

@Regina Small what a great comment! I have had many relationships end after realizing that the other half is only happy if there is a power dynamic in their favor. Find someone who treats you as an equal, with respect, and can accept and give as much as you accept and give.

HeatherH (#241,099)


Antilamentation (#272,956)

@Regina Small Yes. Yes. Yes. I think you nailed it with this comment.

And also, all the nice things she describes him doing for her – or more like WITH her – in the letter? Camping? Eating the take out she bought for them? Going on hikes? Those are things that sound like they would be FUN for him anyway, so no real effort to do them. Like, it's no effort for me to eat free take out with someone who adores me, you know? The times LW really needs him to show up and make an effort for her, his fragile ego can't handle it, or he's panicked because she needs him to be a adult with an ounce of empathy and some ability to care for another fucking human being when the going gets tough. And of course he can't do that. He knows on some level he is deficient in the human being department. That is a horrible, damning thing to know about oneself. So he lashes out and hurts her the worst possible way he can, because then he can protect himself from that self knowledge by feeling powerfully self-righteous (all that stuff about LW being "childish" for having actual human needs, like an actual fucking human being – of course he can't stand that. He can't do it and he can't tolerate it in others.)

LW, him cutting and running when you're in your 30s and after 11 years is a terrible, painful blow. But imagine how it would be after another 30 years, when you're in your 60s? What if you got diagnosed with some chronic illness then, and he pulled his bullshit at that point? As terrible as this time feels, I think you dodged a bullet with him bailing on you so comprehensively. He's given you as clear a sign as he possibly can that HE'S NOT UP FOR IT. I don't just mean up for a relationship with you in particular. I mean with human beings in general. With himself, certainly, as an imperfect, vulnerable human being. In a way, I don't think you should take his actions personally. This is how he rolls. He would have done the same with anyone else (and is probably doing it with that poor new girlfriend.)

LW, I think he was right about one thing: there are guys out there somewhere who are much better for you. I don't know if it's the guy who lives 2 doors away, but I think that's the part you can believe from your ex – you can do a lot better than him. Better men exist. Better human beings exist. You have a lot of love and commitment to offer someone. Start by offering it to yourself first. Don't waste time trying to confront him – you won't get what you want from him, because he doesn't get human-being stuff. Look at his track record of giving you what you want when it requires him to practice self-reflection, or caring for others when it's difficult. Not great, right?

He's not the one who can care for you. But you yearn for care. That's how you understand how to care for others. You give them the generosity you yearn to receive (artists mooching on you in your studio, etc.) Offer yourself all the commitment and care you wanted to get from him. Offer yourself even a fraction of the care you gave him. Accept caring from friends and others who love you. When you get good at practising all that, you will probably start noticing that there are guys out there who are actively seeking an equal, caring relationship with other human beings, including you.

Antilamentation (#272,956)

@Regina Small Oh and I just thought about something else you highlighted: if that is how he views "childish", or being a child, if that is how he see the adult-child relationship playing out, imagine what kind of a godawful parent he would be! Good grief. The kind of parent who needs to feel they have power over their child, who needs to feel in control. Who can't stand ever being shown up by their child (rather than the kind of parent who is proud their kid learns something they didn't, or couldn't.) The kind of parent who will punish a child's independence and capability, by tearing down their child's self esteem in the most painful way. The kind of parent who can't stand their child being a separate person, who resents their child for having needs, being vulnerable. Someone who can't put their child first, when that is what children need a good amount of the time.

My God, LW, you really have dodged a bullet. Imagine if you had kids with him, and then your kid ended up in hospital after an accident, and HE BAILED ON THEM LIKE HE BAILED ON YOU.

Let's hope he and current girlfriend don't ever have children, because those poor kids. My god. It's horrifying to imagine.

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

LW, I am so sorry for what happened to you. Its not your fault. You gave your ex plenty of chances to make up for shitty behavior– again and again– and he never changed. You did everything that you could. You were supportive emotionally and financially. And he wasn't. But you can find someone who is caring and sweet and has his head screwed on straight. You deserve that.

Great thanks for making me cry at work POLLY.

Mama Penguino (#191,144)

I've been sharing this story with my girlfriends all afternoon. So much to learn from this. Thank you, dear LW, and thank you, Polly.

vittoria karene (#272,950)

i read these letters every week and often one thing stands out, the unhappy female has paid for her BF in some way. i, fortunately, was born knowing it is not a good idea to pay for men in almost any way. i buy gifts for my BF (birthdays Christmas and some other times and sometimes buy clothing for him like a nice shirt), but would never pay for anything major (unless of course he was dying and in need of medical help). sadly, it just doesn't work. it's something unexplainable. if your BF can't afford whatever it is, tuition, rent etc. maybe it's time to find a new BF. tuition seems like a good ide,a but it won't work. it's about emasculation, no matter how progressive people believe they are. i think a hard and fast rule about this is a good idea and also better never to mention it, just move on. if a man can't get it together financially, what can i say…. there are mysterious forces at work…

tigolbitties (#2,150)

@vittoria karene for what other letters did this happen?

sophiah (#13,210)

It's never my relationship I see reflected in these kinds of stories, but my friendships. My marriage has its own issues, but with friends I do seem drawn to people who aren't fully on board with ME and then hate myself every time they draw back or walk away, over and over. The worst thing is with friends it's rarely severe enough to initiate the dreaded Friend Breakup, so instead of dumping them like I would a lover I just die by a thousand cuts, over and over, and each one convinces me more that I deserved it.

THIS YEAR I resolved to only give my energy to people who give it back. It's really hard and I've backslid a lot in my actions, but I've had my heart in the right place and am seeing people clearly for the first time. And you know, I'm even able to be generous and sympathetic towards some of the people whose behavior has been the worst and most frustrating, because I decided it wasn't about me.

Also, for the chronic back pain guy — pot. Saved my friend's morphine-addicted husband's life.

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

@sophiah MEEEEE TOOOOO. I broke up with a friend (who cut me a thousand times, as you say) two months ago. I won't pretend that it wasn't hard or guilt-inducing, but I felt SO FREE after I did it. It was finally saying "hey, I am just as important as you. Deal with it. Oh, wait you can't deal with it? Then I'm out"

sophiah (#13,210)

@garlicmustardweed I'm impressed, I'm never able to officially break up with friends, just let relationships die out. But I am trying to do more behavior that says "no, I am valuable too, and if you don't accept that then X can't happen." (I tend to let myself get run over a lot.)

snoodles (#273,078)

@sophiah I too have been trying so hard to only put my time into the friendships where the other person gives back too, but it's a lonely road sometimes. Lately it seems like everywhere I look there are women that have these great friendships, and I am so jealous. Why can't I make that happen? Where is my "tribe"? What is wrong with me?? For so many years I accepted shitty friendships with people that walked all over me, instead of the real friends that I really wanted and deserved. I am ready to move on to a better place, but still feel lost for where to go next.

hadrad (#273,186)

@snoodles ME TOO.

Madame Psychosis (#81,523)

LW, I am so very sorry that someone treated you this way, and I hope you can take the part where Heather says she's with you, and everyone reading this is with you, to heart. You will feel better. It will take work of the mental/emotional variety, but you're clearly willing and capable of that, and YOU. WILL. FEEL. BETTER. Good, even. I promise you.

Heather…wow. I read these every week and regardless of the question I always find useful bits in your responses that apply to me or to a friend, whether I paste quotes into a g-chat or just use what I learn from you to be a better friend to someone. But this one hit home in a pretty epic way and I just want to say thank you, so much.

Tamamat (#272,959)

Please be kind and gentle to yourself. You don't have to berate yourself for still crying every night, you are allowed to be gentle and take care of yourself and allow yourself to feel what you feel. And yes, keep going to therapy and find a better therapist if this one isn't working for you, but let go of the idea that grief has a timeline and that everyone is judging you for not sticking with it. Grief does not have a timeline, and anyone who'd judge you is someone whose opinion you don't need to respect.

PolarSamovar (#263,661)

@Tamamat This is a good point. I had stuck grief once, and it was because I kept getting annoyed and telling myself I should be over it by now.

Once I gave myself permission to stay devastated and never get over it, to cry as much as I wanted to, it faded in about six months. It just wanted me to acknowledge, accept, and embrace it as real.

Shrinkydink (#272,958)

LW, Polly is spot on. If I had to venture a guess, I would guess your therapist works from a cognitive-behavioral standpoint. It seems to be just about the only form of therapy that insurance panels accept so schools tend to focus all their energies on this as it creates measurable goals and outcomes.

As a therapist who had to fight to even write about other forms if therapy in grad school (both as a MSW and a MHC). The problem is this one form fits all therapy doesn't work in your situation; it's focusing all on fixing "the problem". I will be real honest and say that 99% of the times clients who I work with in situations like yours have no idea what the real problem is.

Look for a therapist who just listens to you for awhile. Don't ask her for suggestions because that's not her job. She needs to lead you to your own answers. There is a systemic issue that goes way beyond the fucked up relationship; a good therapist will know it pretty quickly, but will help you reach your way there. Trust me, we want to scream out what's really going on all the time, but that just provides you with an answer and you've not gained any personal insight that you could have gained by having a good therapist work with you over a period of time to figure it out. It's going to take awhile. When you leave a session pissed off, sad or disappointed, be happy because it means you're on the verge of something major.

If you can, try to find a therapist who practices from a humanistic or existential prospective. Again, the therapist won't talk much at first and it may be slow going; don't worry, she's making notes, watching your every move (because every time you shift, something is going on), and making connections. She will allow there to be uncomfortable silence because it is necessary; this is your journey the therapist is just a facilitator.

Finally, it seems like in addition to sadness, I'm assuming lots of regrets and "what-ifs"; this is anxiety and you need to face it head on. Look up Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and maybe try practicing being mindful every night; I promise you it will make a huge difference. You can also monitor your breathing when you're in a state of anxiety or sadness and create some sort of breathing pattern; with my clients I start with "breathe, feeling the belly rise for 10, hold for 5, exhale fully out of your mouth for five. This will bring you into the moment and give you control over your body.

Okay, sorry for the longwinded post. Please do not consider my advice as medical advice because, without ever meeting you I can't fully know what's going on and offer professional advice. Consider it advice from someone who cares and knows what you're going through. Best of luck.

TATAbox (#249,918)

@Shrinkydink I found your comment really interesting because I've recently started seeing a new therapist, and I've found it a bit strange that she's very quiet (compared to what I'm used to) and a large portion of our session is just us sitting in silence. I feel like I need to fill in the silence but I'm not always sure what to say..

ilovebread (#273,105)

@Shrinkydink I registered to reply to this, as your response (as well as the LW's situation) really hit home for me. I went through a very, VERY similar breakup (even down to the part where he skipped out on our life while I was in the middle of dealing with a tragic event only to shack up with a woman over a decade younger than him). Working with a therapist throughout this process saved my life, and her treatment approach is very similar to what Shrinkydink describes. I threw myself into working my butt off in therapy, and it's paid back in dividends. I've discovered so much about myself that was never addressed using CBT*, and honestly? I'm a pretty awesome person who deserves to be surrounded by people who appreciate my big heart and boundless creativity.

Also, I second Polly's recommendation for Codependent No More. Reading that felt like opening a window and letting some fresh air into a room that had been sealed, dark and dank for a decade (yup, we were together for that long).

*not knocking CBT – it just wasn't the style of therapy I needed. I needed to really roll up my sleeves and dig deep into my mental wounds to clean them out and understand why they played such a huge role in my existence.

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

@ilovebread Came here to agree with a combination Psychodynamic/Talk Therapy and CBT approach. I come from a weird co-dependent/emotionally incestuous family. CBT helped as far as my day-to-day anxieties ("I'm going to die in a car accident" "This person thinks I'm awful" "I'm going to fail") and helps you figure out what your underlying "belief structures" are ("I don't deserve to live" "No one loves me" "I don't deserve success") that cause those problems. I definitely agree that you need someone to really listen to you talk about those underlying belief structures, because a belief like "I am not worthy" is something you can't really think away. . .you need to talk, have someone attend to you, and then go out an practice in the real world.

termanthomas (#272,980)


peculiarity (#93,622)

There have been some amazing comments in this thread addressing the LW and her incredibly douchebaggy ex, so I won't touch on that, but:

To the man mentioned in Polly's response, who is struggling with chronic pain: I don't know if you have tried meditation and Buddhist psychology but please look into it. I have an amazing friend who suffers from some very severe chronic illnesses. She cannot work, and is often in pain; she has no pancreas, so her blood sugar is unregulated, and she must be very careful about eating. Some foods make her sick one day and then are okay the next; she never knows what her diet can be. She has found a lot of solace in Buddha's teaching about suffering and living with pain. A great book is "How to Be Sick" by Toni Bernhard. My friend often talks about how she had to learn to accept the pain and not resist it, to just observe it without stirring it up. It has helped her a great deal, and maybe it will help you.

floodmarilyn (#273,057)


Megano! (#16,245)

LW, you are not to blame for this. He's just that super special kind of toxic asshole who finds good people and convinces THEM that they're the toxic asshole, so that he can do whatever he wants. You are WELL RID OF HIM. Feel bad for this poor 23 year old who he is going to mess up as badly as he did you.

Myrtle (#9,838)

I know this trap. Listen to yourself, saying "I can't." That's the padlock. We all trap ourselves.

Myrtle (#9,838)

"There's a reason it's called 'Self-Esteem'" -Katt Williams. (That's directed at me, too)

twinkiecowboy (#235,093)

LW, I went through a break-up like this once. Of course it wasn't exactly like your story, but the guy sounds similar. I was devastated at the time, but looking back, it was one of the best things that could've happened to me. After that I never dated guys who were less than sweet, kind, considerate, and crazy about me. Most of them weren't right for me in the end, but they treated my heart with care.

When you're with someone like this guy, you give up so much more than your single status. It must feel overwhelming to not have to tiptoe around someone else's ego anymore. It's probably going to take you a while to recover. Stay in therapy and be good to yourself.

laguapetona (#273,190)

I want Crushed to read this:

Internalize every word. You have been codependant. You are young. You don't have to waste another day of your life living the way you are right now. It's a lot of internal, honest work to get out, but normal, ahppy, functional life full of genuine love is on the other side. You must learn to love yourself WITH your flaws and weaknesses. Forgive yourself for your human frailties. Never let anyone treat you badly again. You were married to a narcissist. He is the problem. Your fault is that you let him.

chevyvan (#201,691)

@laguapetona My thoughts exactly: Narcissist. I came to that conclusion about my ex after he decided he was just too angry with me to talk to me while I was visiting my dad in the intensive care unit. Every event, every accomplishment, every social function that happened in my life, he made about him. And when I finally had a situation where it *HAD* to be me first (or in this case, my dad first), he bailed. I still do cry for the woman who went through this. It was heartbreaking. But being around friends, family, and a new boyfriend who are not emotional vampires has opened my eyes to the lie that was my ex. His whole life was a narcissistic theater of lies designed to mask his his bottomless pit of shame and self-loathing. This is what the letter writer's ex is too. He's textbook.

chevyvan (#201,691)

@laguapetona I would also like to respond to this statement: "Your fault is that you let him." This is so tricky. Narcissists don't come at you cackling and twisting their mustaches. They can be very charming. By convincing you and everyone else around you how much of a "talented vet tech" they are, you start feeling like the sun is shining on your whenever they pay attention to you. The LW bought into the idea that this was a good – no, a great! man, as we all want to do with anyone we like, but she was wrong. It can happen to the best of us.

VaricellaSundry (#248,088)

@chevyvan Definitely! Those people are not obvious villains, and the tricky bit is they kill you slowly, with periods of rescuscitation between the really messy feeding times. LW, sending you love and understanding. Love and forgive yourself, you have so much to give to yourself, to this world, and to others who truly love and appreciate you.

VioletHour (#273,328)

@laguapetona Stop with the victim-blaming. She LET HIM?!? Fuck,no.

laguapetona (#273,190)

It ain't about victim blaming it's about accountability. A hallmark of codependecy is blaming oneself for EVERYTHING, and/or blaming oneself for NOTHING.
The truth is, even if the man's a scoundrel, a trickster, the devil-in-disguise, SOMETHING in her didn't choose to create healthy boundaries with him. It's that unhealthy part that needs to go. The part that let him is the part that needs scrutiny, accountability. Acceptance of that one truth can prevent her from ever accepting shitty behavior from other foul humans again.

Speaking of… has it ever occured to you that you might not be very attuned to nuance? Were you too lazy to read the link attached up there, or to consider the surrounding context of my statement before being so utterly RUDE?
HAahahaa. YEA. LET HIM. fuckyea.

IgotthisISWEAR (#245,193)

@anthraxl rose et al, and LW: PLEASE don't blame yourself too much for letting him abuse you, and don't blame yourself at all for loving him. Yes, he was a horrifyingly awful boyfriend/person, and once you get on board with that it's easy to go "if I loved/love that I must be awful and worthless", but as human beings, we WANT to love, it's a compulsion, we can't help it. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.” I love this quote, and for me, the key part of it is: Whoever is AROUND. Not whoever deserves it most, or whoever reciprocates it, or whoever is the brightest and shiniest and best. We love whoever is around to be loved. And love is good!
Just as you need to separate this story from who you are, you need to separated the way you felt/feel about this person from the way he treated you/the way you let him treat you. It's good to look at that behavior and all the many betrayals and go, "Wow, I really let him treat me like that? Never again!" But if you still love him, all that says about you is you are a good person. Look at you! You have so much love in your heart you can even love this horrible flaily dishonest un-selfaware psychic-vampire jackass! Does that mean you should be with him? ABSOLUTELY NOT. He's a horrible flaily dishonest un-selfaware psychic-vampire jackass. But if you beat yourself up for still having "feelings" for him, and try to stamp every bit of love for him out of your heart before you can move on or feel like a worthy person, all you will do is transform all that love into bitterness. And a little bitterness is ok, and warranted. But bitterness in proportion to how much you loved this other human being for 11 years? Too much.
It's ok to have loved him. It's even ok to still love him, and feel like you can't imagine ever really stopping loving him. In my experience and observation, once you love someone it never really goes away. That's part of being a loving human being, and it sucks, but ultimately love is good and we need more of it in the world. What's not ok? What happened to you. The way he treated you. This whole shitty, devastating story. Something else that would not be ok? Ever, ever letting this fuckface, or any other flawed human being you in your beautiful capacity to love flawed human beings might love in the future, treat you this way or anything close to it ever, ever, EVER again.
Let yourself off the hook, not only for the events that happened, but for anything and EVERYTHING you may be feeling right now. You were NOT the problem. Maybe you didn't call bullshit and run as soon as you might have, but let yourself off the hook for that too. Next time you'll know. Next time, however soon or distant that might be, you'll have this amazing capacity to love AND a much clearer picture of what kind of relationship you need and deserve. You go, girl.

Datdamwuf (#242,925)

LW, Polly has good stuff for you here. As for her advice to tell your story, you might want to stop over at where many people have been through similar crap. You can tell your story there and read others. Your story is familiar to many. Totally agree with Polly that you are blaming yourself and you may need a different therapist. I found EMDR worked for me when no other form of therapy helped, you might want to check it out.

Carol Joy@facebook (#241,952)

One other thing: when we break up with someone, and they "Succeed" in getting a new lover before we do (or *long* before we do) we tend to visualize this perfect relationship. Now that they are no longer with "shitty lil pathetic" us, we assume that they finally are sitting on top of the world. But usually, they are presenting that new lover with the same crap that they offered you. Meanwhile with our road being clear of them, we can go on to have a great life. It takes time and hard work, but in the end, we are the ones who succeed.

pookiesmom (#248,639)

Dear LW,

1) Break up with your therapist.
1.5) Find a better therapist.
2) Give yourself permission to cry as much as you need to. Stop trying to "get over it" and focus on getting INTO it with as much gentleness and self-love and self-care as possible.
3) Stop making yourself feel guilty for not confronting this assbucket. You are smarter than your friends on this account. This man is not an emotionally safe person for you to confront.
4) Visualize a day in the not-so-distant future when you are not encumbered by the crushing weight of guilt, inadequacy, regret, self-blame. On this day (or these weeks, or these months) you will be struck with an overwhelming, mind-blowing RAGE at your ex. You will be absolutely right in feeling this rage. It will feel absolutely wrong but as time goes by, it will feel righter. You will not bring that rage to him, because he has not earned the honor of experiencing your anger. He would not understand it as the gift that it is. He would lash out at you for it. He is not an emotionally safe person for you to share yourself with. You will share your rage with your therapist, who will be prouder than she has ever been of you. You will share it with the friends who have earned your trust by sticking around and opening up when you needed things from them. They will love you more because you have shared a piece of yourself with them, and that is a gift.

You will begin to grieve for the fact that you shared your bed so long with someone who never saw you. You will wonder why you were ok with that for so long, why you invited it, why you blamed yourself for it. You will be frustrated at yourself for a time, until your therapist encourages you to dig deeper. You will dig and dig and dig, you will be angry at your parents and your friends and your family, and RIGHTFULLY SO. You will share this anger with those who love and respect you, and your relationships will blossom because of it.

Step into this future, LW. It's yours for the taking.

MJS0705 (#274,472)

Dear Polly,

I have been reading your columns off and on since the old days of And today I just happened to have a crisis at work that left my stomach churning and filled me with such anxiety that I thought I'd pop out of my skin.

To disrupt the fear/shame spiral, I Googled "messages of anxiety" and ended up here from another column, and this was exactly the thing I needed to see. I went through the exact same thing as this LW, except it was with my mother. And while I won't write the tell-all here, suffice it to say that a variation of the same emotional and connection issues this LW has gone through with her ex are, in major part, one of the underpinning's of my pain today.

When I got to this part of your response: "But paradoxically, I want you to think about how much you imagine that you created him, that his poison is your poison, that his shitty story is your story. Because in order to let him go, strangely, you have to look at how much you blame yourself," that's when I started crying. Because every word of it is true. I feel like I created the the reasons why my mom didn't love me; the perfectionism, the fear of making mistakes, of trying to handle problems without help, that was how I tried to destroy what I thought I created, and it didn't work then. It doesn't work now. I don't speak with her anymore, but I'm in therapy discovering how so much of my life has been an ack-bassward attempt to figure out the key of being accepted exactly as I am by someone who was and is incapable of doing so, and how I can let that all go, if I allow myself to be vulnerable to myself.

So thank you, Polly, for your words and for your vulnerability.

LW, you do not need that guy, and you know that in your soul though you've been afraid to live that knowledge. I know that feeling, believe me. But also know that you do not need anyone in your life who would diminish you or gaslight you or lie to you – starting with you. This letter, I think, was a way for you to acknowledge to yourself that, however dim and distant it seems, there is a light at the end and you can get there. I wish you healing, and peace on your journey.

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