Ask Polly: If I Dump My Needy Girlfriend, I'm Afraid I'll Ruin Her Life!

Dear Polly,

Sometimes when I’m feeling unaccomplished I like to seek out some new, insightful, unbiased, life’s great mystery deciphering blog or news and culture magazine or twitter account and somehow this morning I wound up at The Awl reading your column. I love it. Your hyper-honest, humorous, practical approach was entertaining and, dare I say, educational.

Here’s my shit:

I am a 27-year-old male, which is probably not your target demographic, but third wave feminism says embrace the contradictions of life so fuck it, right? I graduated from college sometime in the fuzzy prehistory of my adult life and prior to moving to a new city and finding a great job I met a beautiful, charming, intelligent young woman who everyone loves, myself included. We dated as I packed up my life and saved a few grand to make the transition from my boozy college town to a city where I didn’t have pill-head drinking buddies and pot dealers on speed dial.

By the time I finally moved we had grown around each other like two house plants sharing the same window. There were ups and downs like any relationship. I’m a little narcissistic, manic-depressive and stubborn. She’s a little jealous, reactionary and clingy. But overall we had a good thing going and we decided that when she finished school (I’m a few years older) she would join me in said new city. I knuckled though some lean (read “broke”) months on my own and then she arrived — ensue happy urban life.

It’s almost 3 years later and I have been thinking about breaking up semi-constantly for the better part of a year. Adulthood, from a functional standpoint, has been pretty easy. My job turned out to be really stable and lucrative enough for us to pay the bills and rent an adorable little house in a nice neighborhood. I taught her about healthy credit card use. She taught me about working together as a couple to achieve our goals. When she didn’t find a rewarding job in her field we decided to put her back in school on a great career path. Hurrah for great long term decision making!

Here’s my issue as far as I can figure it out. When I first moved down here I was all about embracing a new, fun, cultured lifestyle. I made some friends, at and outside of work, went to lots of independent movies at the art house theatre, spent time reading Cheever short stories in hip cafés and felt well on my way. When she arrived she had some difficulty making friends. I was sympathetic and supported her through several job changes, encouraged her to take classes where she might meet like-minded people, etc. Meanwhile she hated the friends I had made. She felt threatened by the women I worked with, developing a jealous streak I hadn’t yet witnessed. We worked through it. I stopped hanging out with the guys and gals she disliked. Assured her that she was more important to me than any of them. Made new friends. She disliked them. Much of this was centered around her feeling threatened by women in these various social groups. Women with husbands. Women with boyfriends. Single women. Women who fawned over me. Women who had no discernible interest in me. Women to whom I may as well have been the sticky spot the bar back forgot to wipe off your table. She moved her way through them like someone trying on shoes. I love her and we continued to work through it, but for about a year now I have been watching myself turn away from the active lifestyle I craved to a more sedentary, domestic, melancholy bent.

And it isn’t as if I have watched her blossom and bubble with happiness. She has found some friends (of both genders) and seems to lead a confident, empowered lifestyle around them. I encourage her to feed off of this, to flirt back with the boys in her classes and spend time with the girls she seems to enjoy. But around me she has become quite negative and seemingly insecure. She complains about school, about the jobs she occasionally works. She constantly worries about her weight, which I understand isn’t novel or odd. But it’s one of those dammed if you do/if you don’t subjects where my attempts to only buy healthy food are met with initial enthusiasm, followed by cutesy antagonism and eventually disdain and combativeness. We have wildly different schedules and needs. I can’t remember the last time we both wanted to do the same thing. Her idea of a good time is going out to eat for Mexican or TGI Fridays which I find unnecessarily expensive and dull. We attempted to retreat into our tried and true college-learned alcoholism but while we each can go out for drinks and have a good time independently, she has become a bitter, paranoid, even hurtful drunk who claims to remember nothing the next day and sweetly apologizes for it.

Even at home as we attempt to spend “quality time” together, she will suggest watching a movie and within 15 minutes out comes the Facebook or fashion site. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against these things in themselves. Christ, I spent half the morning reading The Awl and trying to guess whether someone was a Wes Anderson movie character or a Jewish mobster. But these gestures are half-assed and she will wind up complaining to me about it as if I was the one who brought the laptop to “quality time.”

Now is the part where I try to take some responsibility.

1. I’m a flirt and I like meeting new people. Some (all?) of her jealousy no doubt stems from this. But my attempts to be sensitive to this have backfired. We recently went out for Halloween and she got mad at me for not being the charming, gregarious man she used to know. The same charming, gregarious man who would send her into a drunken rage when he met a spunky trio at the dartboards, one of whom was a woman. I have watched myself become nervous and reserved. And the next morning following our Halloween night out, all she wanted to talk about was some girl she claimed was “so into me” even though we hardly spoke. I’m no saint. I enjoy the attention of a new acquaintance, regardless of gender. I am probably not the most attentive companion in public. I don’t like PDA or hand-holding, but have no problem with periodic pecks or the occasional territory marking hug. But I’ve never cheated. I’ve never taken or given a phone number. I respect physical boundaries and do not touch or invite the touch of strange women.

2. Being boring is my fault, not hers. I can do whatever I want with my free time. If I want to go out with buddies I can. If I want to read novels in cafés I can. If I want to take yoga classes I can. If I want to learn to play the god-dammed concertina I can. But I always thought relationships were supposed to be platforms to help you become who you wanted, not reasons to hunker down and avoid upsetting your other in the hopes of a better time down the road.

3. Most men (I think) would have cut and run a long time ago. Call me old-fashioned, I always want to give it my all, work through problems, never say die. But I also don’t have a lot of people I can go to for advice and I am wondering whether I’m being naive or unrealistic. Our lives have become so intertwined that I fear cutting ties for the miserable time it would cause her. I fear she would drop out of school or panic and move home to an unhappy life. This isn’t to say she isn’t capable and resilient. But she does not value self-sufficiency like I do and has grown extremely dependent on me. I cringe to think of the money and time she would throw away if I were to give up on us. I care deeply about her and want her to make good decisions and be happy. But at what point is me worrying about her happiness killing my own.

4. We have communicated about many of these things. Nothing has really changed and I have, in many ways, stopped talking about the problems to allow her peace of mind to focus on school. That sounds like a terrible idea but I don’t know what else to do. She suffers emotionally from our problems in ways that I cannot even begin to empathize with. If I’m not ready to cut the cord, I feel like dragging her through my twenty-something existential issues is cruel.

This is way too long and probably unpublishable but you seemed so insightful in a funky postmodern way when I read your responses that I felt I had to reach out. Thanks for any consideration.

Domestic, Sendentary, Melancholy

Dear DSM (Haw!),

Your girlfriend sounds exactly as lame as I was for about a decade of my life, and for that reason I would strongly encourage you to break up with her.

I didn’t understand this back when I was the one wilting around the house, acting jealous and flinty and occasionally drinking too much, but when a relationship makes you clingy and weepy and angry and weird, and you can’t tolerate other women around your guy and you put a ton of time and energy into analyzing all of the women who are out there LITERALLY THROWING THEMSELVES at him, then the world is sending you a great big message. The world is telling you, “YOU ARE NOT READY FOR A SERIOUS RELATIONSHIP. You need to grow up and learn more about the wide world out there, and you’re not going to do those things as long as you’re clinging to this dude.”

It’s funny, though, because I do think you’re making a few understandable but somewhat condescending assumptions about your girlfriend. When you write, for example, “[S]he does not value self-sufficiency like I do and has grown extremely dependent on me.” I don’t doubt that she’s dependent on you at this point. But I wouldn’t assume that she doesn’t value self-sufficiency. I would bet that she values it very much, and really hates that she finds herself turning you away from potential friends and pulling you into a melancholy cocoon of two. She probably doesn’t think this state of affairs is ideal any more than you do, no matter what she happens to be saying about it right now.

We can’t really make any assumptions about the kind of person she’ll become 5 or 10 years, because she’s in a very particular kind of tortured state at the moment: She doesn’t feel secure with your love for her. Maybe she’d be insecure with anyone in the world, because she’s not grown up enough to be in a relationship yet, or maybe you two have different ideas about the world and different tastes in people and it’s tough for her to feel that you truly love her and appreciate her enough. The interesting thing about jealousy is that, many times, it grows out of ambivalence. If you think your boyfriend isn’t really, truly your type, and isn’t capable of appreciating the good things about you, then you’re (somewhat perversely) more likely to cling, and to assume that other women — particularly those who are different from you — might present a real threat to your relationship.

It was often easy for me to imagine someone better for my various boyfriends than me. One of my exes clearly wanted someone who looked down on him intellectually. Another ex obviously would’ve preferred someone dumber and bustier who wore bright red lipstick around the clock. (Poor guy really suffered under my moody, bony, unshowered reign.) And then there was the guy who was perfectly suited for an earth mother — sweet, easy-going and super-awesome (as opposed to bossy, wound up, and obsessed with life’s little indignities, like me).

It’s bizarre how I knew that these guys should be with other girls, but I still didn’t want to give up on “us.” I kept rooting us on, like a crazy person cheering for a pair of filthy, mismatched socks. And even as I remained stubbornly fixated on making things “work” for us, I became less and less self-sufficient. I was working hard for something that didn’t even make sense, and dedicating all of my time to someone who didn’t even see the point in me — the needlessly complicated analyses, the sharp elbows, the incessant whining about the intolerable fuckedness of most people and the wild injustice of living in a neighborhood with NO FUCKING BAGELS AND NO INDIAN FOOD AND JUST ONE THAI DELIVERY PLACE WE ORDER FROM EVERY GODDAMN NIGHT ALREADY.

I wasn’t exactly living my best life with these guys, is all. Your girlfriend isn’t living her best life with you, either. You sound reasonably smart and charming and are apparently attractive to the opposite sex. It may be that she’s worried that she’ll never do any better than you. Or maybe she’s just walked down this long tunnel into codependency, and you walked there with her, and put up with her shit along the way, and now she doesn’t know how to back up and rethink the whole thing. She’s invested in you, that’s all. She wants to MAKE IT WORK.

It’ll be work, alright. You’ll share a life of endless drudgery.

But I would not take her current state of jealous, depressed weirdness as a sign that she’s about to fall apart over you, and screw her whole life over in the process. Not-quite-good-enough relationships between mismatched socks sometimes becomes obsessive BECAUSE it’s not a good match. Your hesitation and doubt may have kept her thinking that she’s into you, but that doesn’t mean she REALLY is. It may be that she hates all of your new friends because she doesn’t really dig you or your taste in people or anything about you as much as she feels she should.

Even as I wept piteously over my first live-in boyfriend, I knew he was wrong for me. And I still remember when he dropped me off at my brand new apartment in the wake of our break up. He looked at me with eyes full of pity and said, “I’m really worried that I’ve ruined your whole life.” Even though I’d been crying, this made me laugh out loud. “MY WHOLE LIFE?” I said. “YOU THINK YOU JUST RUINED MY ENTIRE LIFE?! You think I’m never going to recover FROM THIS?! I’m 22 years old, dude. I’m pretty sure things are going to work out for me just fine.” He looked at me with disbelief. “Really?” he asked. I wanted to punch him in the face. It was much easier to say goodbye and shut the door after that.

I was shocked, though, because I realized that he thought that my emotional response indicated that I couldn’t stand on my own two feet without him. Yes, I was lame, and I was depressed, and I wasn’t ready to deal with the real world yet. I wanted to hide. The real world, real jobs, looked scary and terrible to me. I just wanted to eat ice cream in bed.

But even in my depressed state, I knew I was avoiding something with him. I knew I was trying not to face my life alone. I never for a second thought that I’d never meet anyone else or that I’d sink into an alcoholic haze or lose all of my friends or whatever.

I just didn’t know what the world had to offer yet. I didn’t know who my lifelong friends would be yet, and didn’t have any idea that the world was full of amazing books and incredible music and people who were weird in the same ways as me. I thought that the world was made up of terrible jobs downtown with asshole bosses, and bad bars filled with frat boys, and the alternative was fractionally less awful dudes with plastic Ovation guitars who listened to the same five Dead songs over and over and over again.

I think your girlfriend is hiding from the world, that’s all. You’re not helping her by staying with her. You’re not her savior. You won’t ruin her life. Even if she does move back home, she’ll get back on her feet and go out into the world again eventually. A lot of clingy young women can be wildly melodramatic about break-ups, so melodramatic that you can’t imagine that they’ll survive for a second without you. They’re just afraid of being alone.

The fact is, you’re not THAT important, even if she says that she wants you and only you. And you are, for sure, a little bit of a narcissist. That’s ok. You seem smart and loyal and I’m sure you’ll have lots of great women chasing you around. Fly and be free, pretty bird. Don’t take responsibility for your girlfriend’s life, because she’ll be fine. Don’t show her this column as proof that you’re blameless and she’ll be fine, either. Just be kind about it.

And one other thing? I know your girl was mixed up, but don’t ever, ever help anyone with a diet. I know, you were just stocking up on healthy food; you were just trying to help. Trust me: Just. Don’t. Someone buys me diet food, or tut-tuts when I reach for the cheese? I EAT ALL OF THE CHEESE. I had two kids and got a little round, and thanks to the fact that my husband didn’t make a single fucking peep about my roundness and my vacuuming up the Queso and the chocolate willy nilly for a few years, I independently decided that the roundness was getting old. If he had made it clear that roundness wasn’t his thing, I would’ve turned into Voldemort on the spot. An enormous Queso-vacuuming Voldemort, conflicted and guilty and resentful and rounder and hungrier than ever.

So let the ladies decide about how to manage their bodies on their own. If you no like, move on, but shut the fuck up about it.

Honestly, it does sound like you have a tendency to “help” in ways that are a little controlling. If you really do value self-sufficiency, I’d strongly recommend that you not move in with anyone or pay for their schooling or support them until they’ve demonstrated that they’re grown-ups and can develop passions and interests and friends of their own — and keep them. Sometimes propping your partner up too much, and getting all up in her business too much, and playing supportive, encouraging, boundary-less boyfriend too much just makes a girlfriend feel weaker and less capable than she actually is. You have to give your partner space to make her own decisions. Don’t urge her to pursue a career with the same enthusiasm that you’ve pursued a career, or to flirt with the boys with the same enthusiasm with which way you flirt with the girls. When you need your partner to match you perfectly, and to substantiate all of your habits, good and bad, by mirroring them back to you? That just proves that YOU’RE not grown-up enough to have a mature, healthy relationship, either.

I’m not saying you’re not a great guy. Just watch out for those tendencies moving forward, and I think the world will reward you with some grade-A independent-style, grown-up types of women. If that’s really what you want.

Um. IS that what you want, really? Because if you’re secretly into girls who need you more than anyone else in the whole wide world, who are more than willing to form themselves in your image, I think you’ll find yourself up a similar shit creek absent a paddle much sooner than you realize.

Good luck out there, Tiger!


Do you seek out unsustainable living arrangements with disposable lovers? 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. Still from “Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane” #106 by Joel Kramer.