Ask Polly: Why Can't I Leave My Ex Behind For Good?

Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. “Because suspending your disbelief burns 78 calories per hour!”


Relationship. 3.5 years. 2.5 of those years spent cohabiting. 1 year into the relationship, my brother died, and my family fell apart before my eyes. Around this time, the major, major conflicts in the relationship began. Fighting. Constantly. Me taking it out on him. Him letting me because he’s a good guy. Drinking too much. Having the most epic, awful fights. Things got better, gradually, with time, us giving each other more space, and him finally realizing that he needed to be in therapy. (I was already. Have been since I was 16.)

Still, resentment lingered between us, mostly because of the unhealthy patterns we fell into as a result of my grief. Or at least that’s how I see it now. There’s a chance We’re Just Not Right for Each Other. Which I wondered, probably more than one should whilst in a long-term relationship. Still, we made each other happy. And the Good Times were really good. And we talked realistically about the future. Etc.

And then, three weeks ago, one more Epic Fight, and I decide no, I don’t want to do this anymore. We blow up. I go to stay with friends. Then we talk. We decide we need space from each other. There is no fighting whatsoever, just tears and sadness. I find a new place, move out.

But now we’re talking. And I am confused. Because now, without context, we can actually communicate with one another. I’m more patient with him. He’s more open with me. Is this just something that happens, the horrific irony of break-ups? I still have hope for this relationship, Polly. And I can’t talk to any of my friends about it anymore because they fall into two distinct camps: the “He was never right for you, you fought all the time, you weren’t happy, he acted like a pompous d-bag” camp, and the “You guys were really good together, maybe space will help you both sort your shit out and you can get back together someday” camp. Problem is, I agree with both. My head remembers why we broke up. My heart remembers why we never could before.

Am I just hanging out in denial because it’s comfortable right now? And it’s only been three weeks? Am I a fool for having hope? Do these stories ever have happy endings? HALP ME.

Full of Questions

Dear FOQ,

Many years ago, I got an assignment from some lady magazine to “live your life by chance” for a week and then write about it. I was supposed to roll a pair of dice to see where I should eat for dinner, talk to an astrologist, and consult with a “real” psychic. Yes, the whole thing made no sense and it was a stupid piece. I agree.

But anyway, I made an appointment with this psychic, who was widely known at the time as “the” psychic to all of the big stars in Hollywood, whatever kind of absurd and vaguely sad credential that is. She lived in this dreary, low-ceilinged ranch style home in the Valley and she was sort of unfriendly — not exactly the seasoned service professional you’d expect. Her demeanor was so sour, it was as if I had wandered up to some random stranger’s house and rang the doorbell, then pushed my way into her living room. I was very clear with her about my magazine assignment, and she didn’t seem to care, beyond hinting that the whole thing made no sense and was stupid. Then she explained that she would hold my rings in her hands, and she would probably hear voices, and then she would tell me whatever the voices she heard told her. She made it very clear that whatever they happened to say, it wasn’t her fucking fault and, in fact, it had nothing to do with her at all.

So she took my rings. About one minute later, she wrote the first letter of my boyfriend’s name on a piece of paper. “Who is this?” she asked. When I said it could be my boyfriend, she told me he had an addict’s personality, and asked me, in the exact lilt and manner that my dead father would’ve asked, “What the hell are you doing with this guy?” (I had long-term boyfriends whose name my dad never knew, he just called them all “This Guy” or “That Guy.”) Then, for the rest of the session, she would sit silently for a minute like she was listening to someone talk to her, and then she’d shake her head, and chuckle, and say something like, “Christ, your dad. Good sense of humor. Not easy, though. Whew. Not an easy man to live with. Wow. I can’t even imagine.”

Now obviously we could conclude from this anecdote that 1) this woman was schizophrenic, not psychic, 2) schizophrenic or not, she was a master fake and manipulator, 3) I was anxiously waiting for someone with some claim to moral authority to tell me to dump my boyfriend, and 4) I just might have a wee bit of baggage of my own, considering my father’s apparent callousness about the stuff that was important to me. But forget all of that, because we’re getting to the important part of the story. Right after she asked me what I was doing with “This Guy,” I started to cry and couldn’t stop. Not because of the stuff about my dad, but because I was trying very hard to think of ways to explain why I should stay with my boyfriend. I really didn’t want to break up with him. The relationship was awful. But I loved him! How could I explain? After a few minutes of this, the psychic said, “Look, if you can’t defend your relationship in a court of law, forget it.”

That bit of advice, which has nothing to do with her psychic abilities, was what stuck with me over the years. Because it was true that I couldn’t defend my relationship in a court of law. In fact, I was often haunted by the feeling I should break up with him. Every argument we had was a soupy mess of confusion — the whole relationship was a soupy mess of confusion — but I wanted to make it work, somehow, some way. I just couldn’t say why.

It was only later that I knew the truth. The truth was, I loved him, but didn’t like him that much. (Somehow, this remained a mystery to me while I was with him.) That’s why I couldn’t outline all the reasons we should be together, beyond “Everyone has rough spots, right?” and “We’re just figuring out how to communicate” and all of that other stuff you say when you’re trying not to break up.

But if this psychic could ask me why I’m with my husband, I could talk for several hours — about his helpfulness and his smart ideas and his pretty face and his not just tolerance but support for my deeply irritating ways of being. We had semi-regular fights during our first few years together, and he can be a pain in the ass, just like I can. But we both always knew that we should stay together. We belong together. It’s obvious.

I can’t begin to express what a difference it makes, to be with someone you’re sure about, completely fucking sure. You’ve been through this terrible loss, but you’re crushed, even now. You’re traumatized, you’re just barely hanging onto your happiness, and you’re horribly afraid to be alone. God, do I understand that. But if you were with the right person, this awful grief you’re feeling would’ve brought you closer to him. That’s how it looks when you’re with the right guy. Instead, you’re with That Guy. As the psychic said, “I’m not saying he’s a bad guy. I’m not saying that at all. But why are you with him?” You’re not very convincing, when it comes to him. Your friends who say that maybe you’ll work it out? They’re hedging their bets, that’s all, to avoid burned bridges in case you get back together with him.

I don’t know you, I don’t know him. But my sense is that you’re anxious to move on. I know that sounds scary, but try to see the promise in that. Your grief put you in touch with some very deep, essential part of yourself that desperately wants to get the fuck out of that relationship, that desperately wants to move forward alone, without him. That part of you is courageous and vulnerable and transcendently wise. Let it talk, and listen closely. You may feel lonely and miss your ex, you may not meet anyone who seems quite as great as him for a long time. But don’t look back. You know what you’re doing. Trust yourself.


Dear Polly,

I’ve lived in New York for four years now. I’m technically pretty damn young, but I feel like I’m 40. Over those years, I’ve been getting dragged, basically kicking and screaming, through these painful growth stages. I haven’t really gone looking for any of them, but they were just the path open to me. First it was personal (breaking up with a marriage-track boyfriend), then it was professional, then it was personal (coming to terms with the fact that relationships/emotions are messy and I am too and that’s okay), now it’s professional again — and I’m just exhausted. All the time.

My problem is, I’m tired of feeling like I’m jaded or dead inside or, I don’t know, too weirdly self-contained to the point that I’ve lost the capability to share my life. Particularly when it comes to personal relationships of the intimate sort. I feel like I’ve left more people behind than most, and I’m at the point where I’m hard-pressed to care about it.

If it helps as background, I am currently coming to terms with a three-year friendship that just ended, with my best friend of the opposite sex. He and I were very close, and was one of the only people I felt was safe to talk to about my #realtalk personal crap. Basically, I trusted the shit out of him, cared more about him than I ever cared to admit… and then he made it clear that he saw our relationship very differently. In his eyes, the way he put it, he’s been using me as an ointment to soothe his own shitty self-esteem. Whether that was his purpose, the fact that he sees it that way now means that he’s not a friend, he’s a manipulative jackwad who likes to keep ladyfriends around because he thinks they’re into him and that gives his ego a boner.

But what scares me the most about all of this is that my emotional response has been more “meh” than tears. I’m not sad anymore, or even hurt. I’m not even capable of getting worked up enough to maintain the anger. I work too hard to have time for a ton of feelings, and I’ve had the emotional-support rug pulled out from under me a few times now. Sure, every once in a while I think about this case enough to get pissed. But there are certainly worse things that can happen, so mostly, I’m just resigned. Plus, I figure I’m just as much to blame. I projected my own subliminal shit on him, and he probably didn’t deserve that either. I mean, I don’t know, maybe this is just a hipster yuppie version of “he’s just not that into you” and I’ll laugh at myself in four years.

But what’s really hard for me now is just the lack of trust I feel towards anyone, everyone, and myself — at the very least, my judgment, at the most, my character. People are totally fucked up, right? How can anyone possibly build a healthy relationship what with their problems and other people’s problems and the bullshit psychological needs everyone is projecting onto everyone else?



Dear Meh,

Yes, people are totally fucked up. Almost half of them? So many of them that it’s best not to think about it. Their egos and their all-important pride and their fears and their general-purpose chickenshittedness gets in the way, every stupid day of their lives. Sometimes it blows my mind, how weird and flinty people can be, how much projection and bewilderment and shame is in the air at all times.

Related: I went to have my blood drawn last weekend, at one of those terrible little lab franchises where all they do all day is put blood and urine and stools into tiny little test tubes and then glue labels on the test tubes and send them to some huge bio-testing factory that it pains me to imagine. So anyway, the waiting room is this closet-sized space filled with hard plastic chairs lined up too closely to each other, and it’s packed with sick people and old people and pissed-off, giant pregnant women who haven’t eaten in 12 hours and recovering addicts and also, people who are very worried that they might be dying. I didn’t have an appointment, so I had to wait for about an hour.

But there’s this guy behind the front desk. He’s youngish, average-looking, Latino (do we still like that term? Are we turning on that one yet?). He isn’t that memorable, except that he has these very open eyes and a really nice, faintly flirtatious smile. He somehow charms me while photocopying my dumb insurance card. And then, since there’s only one place to sit a few millimeters away from his face, I listen to him cheerfully check people in, asking them for information, helping them, all with this amazing friendly demeanor that feels completely out of place in a terrible closet filled with sick old pregnant worried people.

Remarkable, right? And then, in between doing these things, he starts gently teasing the receptionist about her boyfriend (“What’s his name? Ashtray?” “His name is EJ.” “Ashtray, EJ, same thing.”). She’s a surly sort of woman who I’m sure is going to shut him down or haul off and punch him, but instead, she starts telling him about their sex life! Very quietly! I’m serious. They aren’t even flirting, either. They’re just both kind of young and soon they’re giggling away about how she likes to fuck when she’s high, but her boyfriend lives with his grandmother so they have to be very quiet about it.

The point is, this guy wasn’t some kind of a guru, nor did he have some special method for making people feel relaxed. He was a comfortable, open, happy human being.

That’s what good mental health looks like: alluring. Alluring in part because it’s so fucking rare. Every now and then, not all that frequently, I’ve witnessed this kind of glowing, comfortable state — in a friend, or a waitress, or a celebrity, or a housekeeper. I employed a nanny who was like this. I bored the hell out of her — I just wanted to sit and talk to her all day long. I once interviewed Mark Ruffalo, and well, he’s hot as shit, first of all. But he’s also really nice, open, healthy, happy, in that way that you cannot fake (because plenty of actors try to fake it, not all that well).

I don’t know that, personally, I can ever come close to having that rarefied level of extreme emotional health, and maybe you can’t either. But the one key thing that I want you to note about these kinds of sanity superstars is that they’re open. Being open means allowing yourself to be vulnerable to other people, leaving enough room to take them in, with all of their flaws and failures and issues. It means being brave enough to notice when something is beautiful, and noticing when it’s awful and heartbreaking. It means feeling connected to the world around you.

You are in some kind of closed-down, self-protective state. You are avoidant and you’re in state of perpetual alarm over the bad behavior and bad choices of others. Your opposite-sex friend is exactly the same way. He didn’t even have the decency to tell you how he felt about you, he just fed you this intellectualized horseshit excuse and moved on. He should be your model for the kind of person you don’t need in your life.

What about female friends? Where are they? What about people who strike you as a little soft, a little insecure, a little dull sometimes? Maybe their style choices aren’t your favorites. Maybe they don’t have strong opinions about the same stuff you have strong opinions about. Maybe they do. But you need more of them in your life.

Mostly, though, you’ve got to learn how to access your feelings again. You aren’t old and world weary, you just feel that way because you’ve chosen this been-there, done-that mien. If you’ve never been to therapy, you should go. You’ve got to disassemble your armor, and that’s going to take time. You need to cry for an hour once a week (or just talk about stuff that should make you cry, at first).

Because as long as you’re choosing safety over all of these messy emotions you’d rather not allow to exist, you’re also choosing MEH over love and beauty and exhilaration and magic. The way you’re living now, you are choosing a dark cave over a brilliant world full of lovable, flawed, hilarious people.

People do have healthy relationships, and they accept and support each other. You have to dare to believe that. You may not have that many good examples around you. But once you admit that you’re scared, and lonely, and upset, once you take the extreme risk of facing your feelings, you’ll cry and tumble down a steep hill, and you’ll feel beaten. And then, after a while, you’ll get up and wipe off your tears, and you’ll feel the sun on your face, and you’ll start to look people in the eyes and really see them, and it won’t be creepy or embarrassing. You’ll fall in love with the whole world again, and it’ll be terrifying and amazing. Once your heart is open, you’ll have more good, caring friends than you know what to do with. You can get there. Shrug this off and roll your eyes and retreat into meh as long as you can, but someday, you will get there, if you want to. It’s your choice.

Good luck.


Does Polly smoke meth before she writes her column every week? Write to Polly and find out!

Previously: Ask Polly: I Am Haunted By Toxic Troublemakers From My Past

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 Rick Hall.