Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit.
I’ve been dating a guy for about four months. We’re madly in love, despite being different in more ways than we are alike. Politics, education, socio-economic status, religion—you name it, we’re on almost opposite ends of the spectrum. However, we’re best friends through and through. A month or so into our relationship, he sat me down and shed a tear telling me how in love and how certain he was that he wanted to marry me. I am right there, too. Then shit started to get weird.
One night at a party, he got so angry about my friend and I laughing about this idiot we knew in high school who would whip out his dick and wave it around at us, that he ended up storming out of the party, walking five miles home, screaming at me about my sexual past (never happened with the dick-whipper-outer by the way), and then sleeping on the couch. In the morning I was like “WTF” and he was like, “I hate that you have a past.” Lots of tears (his), and lots of “processing,” and we were fine.
A week later, it started hurting when he peed. Shit shit shit shit shit. A year and a half ago, I had a horrific genital herpes outbreak. Since then, I’ve been tested in all possible ways, four different times, and doctors continue to say that it’s HSV-1 (the cold sore kind) that sometimes “jumps” for a one-time genital outbreak, never again to resurface. I even went to the doctor for the whole battery of tests a week into this relationship and she was dismissive about it—saying it would probably never come back. I should have said something to him a long time before I did, but as soon as it became apparent what was going on downstairs with him, I came clean. Cue three weeks of (semi-righteous) chaos.
He said that a) I’m dishonest and he can’t trust me because I didn’t disclose my “status” earlier and b) it’s hard to get over my sketchy past when it’s “on his dick.” It’s pretty easy for me to go into periods of self-loathing (though I do work every single day to get better about this—and your column is a huge contributor, BTW). Regardless, I cried and apologized and told him I’ll do anything to gain his trust again.
In the past few weeks, he’s had random outbursts where he’ll assume that I’m cheating on him and that I’m a terrible person who just fucks guys and hands out herpes. What provokes him is either nothing at all, or my getting a random Facebook inbox from some idiot I slept with over a decade ago—which I never so much as acknowledge. But I waver between being understanding and accommodating because I DID hurt him profoundly, and being absolutely appalled. I’ve never cheated, nor will I ever cheat. Not my thing, and, as I told him, one of the awesome things I have to offer in a relationship. (It’s worth noting that in the midst of all of this tumult, we managed to get back on track and skip while holding hands through fields of rainbows and shit.)
So as all of this was going on, I’d sit down with the intention of asking you what the fuck to do. But then I’d hear you saying something like (and obviously in a much more clever and perceptive way) that there are red flags everywhere in this situation and I’d realize I already knew the answer.
The reason I wrote today is because he’s 1,100 miles away, yet we’re at it again. Did I mention that he plays independent professional baseball every summer in some random town (he swears this is his last year), and will be gone for the next 90 days? We’re doing this long-distance thing, and one week in, shit hits the fan. Things were great. I’m at home doing the “Polly Thing” and cultivating the best parts of my life and worshipping at the great temple of ME so that I can be even better on the other end of this separation.
But this morning, out of nowhere, he said, “I have to ask you: have you been talking to XX and XX (past idiot boyfriends) while I’ve been gone?” After assuring him that I’ve blocked them completely out of my life as he requested several times before, I straight up burst into tears. “I’m sitting here thinking about you, sending you little gifts and letters, and listening to your god damn baseball games on the radio EVERY NIGHT, and you’re accusing me of cheating on you?!”
Then it hit my psychology-major brain like a zap from the Milgram machine. Borderline Fucking Personality Disorder. Yes, I know that a psychology undergrad doesn’t mean even close to a shit, but check this out:
1. Borderlines tend to “split” between idealizing someone (“I’m 100% sure I want to marry you”) and thinking they’re a terrible person (“You lied and I got herpes; there’s nothing you wouldn’t lie about”).
2. Borderlines think in black and white. (“You’ve been with more people than me, you’re a ho-bag who can never be trusted.” and then “We’re perfect for each other and we’re going to be together forever.”)
3. Borderlines fly into rages over small things (can you say “dick-waving incident”?)
4. The Borderline credo is “I hate you, don’t leave me.” This morning, in the same breath he was telling me that he could never trust me, he told me how afraid he was that I was going to leave him.
And so on.
I know. Therapy, therapy, therapy (although at $250/month and a $5,000 deductible paired with non-covered mental health services, Obamacare is making that a hard pill to swallow). And I know, RED FLAGS WAVING IN MY FACE, no my face IS a red flag.
But I love him. So now what?
Red Flag Face
Dear Red Flag Face,
Fuck. We really should’ve covered this material way back at the beginning of class. Right after our opening segment on “Kicking Tepid Men To The Curb, or How To Come On His Hampton Blouse And Move On,” we should’ve studied “Dangerous Dudes Who Look Like The Cure To Tepid Guys But Who Secretly Want To Control You And Turn You Into An Obedient Dream Barbie.”
Because, after years and years of fucking around with tepid dudes, guess what? Your immune system is susceptible to more than genital herpes; it’s susceptible to super-intense non-tepid guys who will look you right in the eyes and say, “YOU ARE EVERYTHING I’VE EVER DREAMED OF.” Typically, they’ll do this within minutes of meeting you. Typically, you won’t notice that this is insane, because you’ve finally landed in the middle of the fairy tale of your little girl fantasies. Typically, it will take months if not years to extract yourself from this situation, because you want love and this looks just like love and you feel love inside and you don’t want to go back to kicking around with lukewarm, flinchy deadbeats again.
And if you have a little self-hatred onboard (Hello, almost every smart person alive!) you are particularly susceptible to this kind of a guy. His abandonment issues seem adorable. You will heal everything! His black-and-white thinking feels like home. Wasn’t your dad a little like that? Didn’t your mom fly into rages over nothing? His love for you in spite of recognizing what a hateful slut you are feels just about right. Don’t you feel the same way about yourself? Haven’t you worked hard to love yourself in spite of the fact that, at your core, you’re just a hateful slut?
When you fall for someone who needs needs needs you, and worries that you’ll leave at any moment—but who also hates you for having existed before you met him, in a different town where you could (and will!) track down your scummy ex-boyfriends? That reflects your still very fragile, incomplete relationship with yourself. You haven’t accepted yourself yet: you’re still afraid, still at war, still unsure of what you’re entitled to. Basically, you’re in danger, because you’re not ready for a mature relationship yet. You sort of long for a codependent “You Are The Everything” love, replete with unhealthy boundaries and spitty outbursts over shit that makes no sense.
But let’s be fair: Even people who are pretty together will fall for this. It’s not all that easy to resist someone who swears YOU ARE THE ONE, cries about it, tells you everything, shows you his soft, vulnerable center. But when he shifts into anger? That’s not just unpleasant, it’s dangerous. And does any of it really make sense? I’m not sure it does. When a boyfriend is angry at you all the time for reasons that don’t make sense? That’s not a relationship that’s going to last.
I get that picking up herpes is not exactly ideal for him. You should’ve said something, clearly. But here you are. You’re at the very start of a relationship with a guy who—I’m not going to diagnose him with a personality disorder from here, but let’s just say he has abandonment issues, is very jealous, is very sensitive about your past (but somehow I doubt you’re his first girlfriend), and is prone to angry outbursts to the point where you already feel like you’re walking on eggshells, and you’re starting to burst into tears after placating him for too long. This doesn’t look good. Not only doesn’t it look good, but it looks a little dangerous. This is the kind of guy who can do a lot of damage to your self esteem, even with the best of intentions. This is a guy who tells you, “It’s hard to get over your sketchy past when it’s on my dick.”
That statement is just wrong. If you weren’t angry at yourself for your so-called sketchy past, you wouldn’t stand for that; it doesn’t take sleeping around like crazy to pick something up, least of all some oral herpes that made the jump or whatever the fuck. And if you broke up with him right now, what would happen? Would you become that slut who gave him herpes? Would that be his story? Think about the kind of guy who says things like that. Is that him? And if that is him, is that really a guy you want to align yourself with? Because if you heard some random dude talking that way, you wouldn’t in a million years dream of dating him.
Let’s not even talk about the fact that men who freak out about slutty pasts usually have some pretty fucked up regressive patriarchal notions floating around in their heads about glorious, unsullied vaginas, untouched by humpy, filthy, foul competitor dogs like themselves. No. Saying, “Your slutty past has fouled up my dick”? That alone is more than a red flag. That’s an invitation to suffering. That’s an invitation that says, “You matter mostly in relation to how good you make me look and feel, and therefore you will be blamed for every single way you fuck with my life, even as I beg you to never, ever leave me.” That’s an invitation from an overgrown, confused, pissed off guy. God bless him. He will grow up at some point, I’m sure he will. Look with clear eyes on who he is now, though, because you’re going to get deeper and deeper into this stuff as you stay, and commit, and move in together. You’re going to get stuck and you already know there’s a problem here.
Can you imagine someone who would be much better for him? A sweet little unsullied girl? Devoted, with no past? Doesn’t that say something? Let him have HER instead. Bless him and let him go find his Dream Girl Without a Past.
Let me tell you a story that once felt like a fairy tale. I had just ended a relationship with a lovable man-child. Sweet, idealistic, all clumsy affection and big bear paws and an Unfrozen Caveman inability to deal with mundane realities of life. On our second night together, his stereo woke us up, blasting “Garbage Man” by G. Love (great song, by the way). “Shit, sorry, it keeps doing that,” he said. Yes, his stereo was waking him up EVERY NIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, and gosh, what could he possibly do to fix it? Keep in mind the stereo was resting on a cardboard box, and we were sleeping on a futon covered in a sleeping bag.
So he was very young and a little immature. A work in progress, that’s all. Not tepid, just not ready yet. But he really made me want A Mature Guy Who Knew Exactly What He Wanted.
So I broke up with him and went to a party one night and ended up talking to a very intense man who looked me right in the eyes and asked me heavy questions about my relationship with my mother. It was exhilarating! He was so sure, the first night we met, that we were destined to be together forever and ever! This was a change! This was romantic! This was How It’s Supposed To Go!
I moved in with him three months later, and it was immediately clear that I’d made a big mistake. He didn’t know how to relax. He acted fascinated by me but didn’t really seem to be listening to anything I said, and his responses to important subjects were always strangely combative or evasive. Even in regular, benign conversations, I always felt like I was being subtly batted around and rerouted and cut off at the pass. He was a nice person, and I loved him. He was also the kind of guy who said things like “Whoa. Are you sure you want to eat that?” when I sliced a slab of cheese off the block. I was not a shrinking violet, either. “Yes, I will ALWAYS eat ALL of the fucking cheese, so simmer down about it,” was my answer. But I was jittery and apologetic around him in other ways. He wanted to be soft and kind, but he had anger issues that he struggled with. He drove like a maniac. He was a magnet for other full-of-rage assholes, in their cars, on the street. One guy chased us through a neighborhood and then blocked our exit, and even then, my boyfriend—fearing for his life—was condescending and combative.
One day, furious that someone had parked in “his” spot—ON THE STREET!—he pulled his car up to the bumper of the other car, so that they were touching. As we walked up to our front porch, I pictured leading two little kids by the hand, across the street, while this guy lost his shit over something incredibly small and stupid. I thought about how that would feel, to always be calming the kids down, reassuring them that daddy just had a really bad temper, that daddy just got unaccountably mad over some stupid tiny things that don’t matter.
It’s nice to be in love. The stakes are really fucking high, though. You can’t align yourself with an emotional terrorist. You can’t. It’s too hard. You might ALMOST be able to pull it off for a few months, from a distance. But once you’re in deeper? You’re living together, you’re thinking about marriage, the wedding is being planned, you’re pregnant, and he’s freaking out over something tiny, and you feel like you can’t back out anymore?
The hothead boyfriend of mine punched me in the eye, hard, when I tried to wake him up to talk to him one night when we were arguing. Nothing like that happened before, and he was immediately apologetic, and nothing like that happened for the next two months it took to break up with him. We went to couples’ therapy and he apologized, over and over and over. But look: His instinct, when I grabbed his shoulder to shake him awake, was to pound a fist into the side of my head, hard enough to give me a black eye. WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT? I felt sad for him, because I knew a lot of his anger wasn’t a conscious choice, and I didn’t want to abandon him. I thought he would be so lonely without me. Wrong! He got married less than a year later, and divorced a year after that. Then he found another girlfriend. Women will always like him. He works on himself pretty hard, and honestly, he has a big heart. I wish him nothing but happiness. But if I’d stayed with him, he would’ve made me miserable.
He’s a good example for you to hear about, Red Flag Face. Because even though he’s a really lovable person, he didn’t make sense to me. His concerns, his emotions, his rage unsettled me. Nothing added up. I was not the right woman for him; I was only going to piss him off.
I don’t think you’re right for this guy. I think he knows that, too. You both want it to work very badly. Me and the intense guy REALLY wanted to be THE ANSWER for each other. But we weren’t.
You have more growing to do, so you’ll feel stronger and more independent and you’ll naturally be the MOST attracted to men who support your strength and independence. I’m sorry! I know you’re in love. But even if you decide to stay with him, I don’t think this stuff is about to go away. You need to find someone who’s more like you, that’s all, someone who says things that make simple sense to you, who doesn’t freak out about stuff that feels wrong to you, who makes many of the same choices you’ve made—good and bad—and who understands, quickly, when you explain them, because he can relate. A guy who’s more like you would never blink an eye at your so-called slutty past, and he’d never guilt you repeatedly over something you were explicitly instructed by a doctor not to worry about. A guy who’s more like you would still be upset about the STD, but he wouldn’t keep throwing it in your face like it proved something about what an untrustworthy whore you are.
I hate to discourage two people in love. But the stakes are really high. You know something is wrong and you need to trust your feelings and be brave about this. Being in love is really nice. But being in love with someone who makes sense, who is calm and supportive and confident, who accepts exactly who you are right now, who doesn’t want you to change a thing, who doesn’t blame you for being a regular, flawed human being with a rich past and rich future? That feels amazing. It’s a love that includes feeling GREAT about who you are, with all of your little dents and shortcomings, with all of your big thoughts and dreams and insecurities and secret fears.
It’s smart to say no to something that doesn’t feel right, that can’t feel right, no matter how hard you try. You need to show yourself that you won’t sell yourself short and settle for someone who can never accept you, flaws and all. Being strong will be tough, but it will feel good. You might be lonely, but you’ll know from now on you won’t settle for anyone who isn’t good to you.
If you’re apologizing like crazy and it’s still not ok, that tells you a lot. Stop apologizing for yourself. True love doesn’t demand an apology.
Do you want to swap your giant red flags out for beautiful handcrafted tapestries made from the finest horse hair? Write to Polly and discuss!
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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