Ask Polly: I Am Severely Chafed By My Gentle, Compassionate Boyfriend


Dear Polly,

I feel sick just writing this, and I don’t want to lose something good, so here goes:

I’m a 34-year-old single mother of a beautiful, sweet, and healthy three-year-old boy. I never imagined having kids, but accidentally became pregnant three months into a destructive relationship. I kept the child and eventually got rid of the man (with the help of a domestic violence counselor and a restraining order), which was a healthy decision.

You see, healthy decisions are not my forte. With a few exceptions, I usually date the damaged bad boy, the alcoholic who needs rescuing, or the tortured artist. I scrapped all that when I had my son, and haven’t dated since removing baby daddy from my life 2 years ago. Until recently.

Five months ago, I met a man at my sister’s wedding (one of the groomsmen), and we connected. Talked all night, laughing like crazy, connected. We hugged briefly at the end of the evening and we both felt it was worth pursuing. He lives 1400 miles away from me, and we began an email correspondence, sharing our relationship history, likes and dislikes, and getting to know each other. We have a lot in common. We fell in love. We made plans for him to relocate to my city and move in together. We decided all this before spending a great deal of physical time with each other. He’s visited once a month for the past five months, and the trips have gone from elated, nervous excitedness to awkward arguing and annoyance. He is sensitive, kind, attentive, and doting. He is so very patient and loving with my child. Because of these traits, I find myself feeling less attracted to him physically. He seems meek. It is truly something sick. I have a hard time looking at him on occasion, because every little quiver, every timid step, every noise he makes while eating makes my skin crawl. He follows me around and paws at me. He is far less experienced than I am in the bedroom, and yet I do not know how to let him know what I like, because he is not keeping up with me in that department.

I don’t have a lot going on, aside from an unsatisfying job, my son, and my love of animals. I don’t have the financial resources to pursue hobbies or interests, and this man offers stability. I love him, but I’m not sure why I’m so uncontrollably moody around him, and why he has turned me off. He is so gentle — the gentle man I always thought I wanted, because underneath it all I’m gentle, too — but I’m pushing away and I don’t know if I love myself enough to make this work. I have tried talking to him about this and he just apologizes and says he feels out of his element. He picks up on my annoyance which makes him feel uncomfortable, which triggers a neediness, which I find unattractive. I don’t want my son to have a bad boy for a father figure, but I don’t want to resent my lover over petty things. Are these petty things? Is love about being able to be annoyed by someone, and loving them anyway? I tell myself that I have a good man — and I don’t want to lose him — but how can I really snap out of this? I feel terrible, ungrateful, and confused.

Thanks for listening.


Dear Annoyed,

You are accustomed to being ignored, dismissed, and listened to only in the most cursory fashion, so this man who adores you, listens closely, and tries very hard to please seems unlovable. He seems unlovable because he makes you aware of yourself. When you’re chasing a guy who’s distracted, uninterested, dismissive, you are blissfully unaware of yourself, lost in the chase, trying to get him to love you. When someone loves you as you are, you don’t have the same luxury of not showing up completely.

On top of it all, you hate yourself for feeling repulsed by him. You feel rotten and shitty and ungrateful. And there he is, being sweet to your kid! If it weren’t for your boy, or the fact that he might support you, you might’ve given up by now.

You fell in love, which was easy. He is an easy person to love. Now you have to accept that he’s not a dick, he’s not made of magical dickhead fairy dust like the guys who disappear, who can’t listen, who don’t give a fuck about you. If you forced those so-called bad boys to stay, to be present, to help, they would seem lame, too. They would get wilty and weak upon closer inspection — they’d look much, much worse than your boyfriend, in fact. They just don’t slow down enough for you to get a close look at them.

You’re tortured by the notion that this guy will make you crazy forever, with his twitchy, timid, self-conscious shit. You know who else looks exactly like that? You do, when you’re chasing a guy. You may think that you don’t, but you’re wrong. Neediness makes people look deflated and not so sexy.

Right around the time I got engaged to my husband, he started to look like the geekiest man alive to me. We went on a trip to Spain, and day after day we would drink beers together in beautiful places, and I’d think, “I’m going to spend the rest of my life listening to this twerp talk.” He got terrible haircuts back then. He didn’t know how to dress. When he said something he wasn’t sure about, his mouth would do this weird downward-twitch thing on one side. It was the physical signal of him second-guessing himself. It was not cute.

He thought I was awesome, but I knew that I was sick inside, not good enough to be loved by him. I would scare him off and he would find some gorgeous, loving woman who was much, much better for him than me, and I would spend the rest of my life alone. All of my friends would say, “Through some miracle THAT MAN was crazy about you and you fucked it up? You really want to be alone don’t you?” They’d never listen to me complain about love again.

After trying to scare him off and hating myself for it, I finally confessed that I had lots of negative feelings and almost-cold feet. “I love you and I want to be with you, but I feel really guilty because I hate your hair. I hate the pants you wear. You’re handsome and your pants are just awful. It’s criminal, almost, how you cover up your pretty looks. And that thing you do with your mouth. Ugh. I know, I’m an asshole. I feel so shitty about what an asshole I am.”

Instead of getting angry, it made him laugh. “I do wear bad pants,” he said. So we talked about his twitchy mouth after that. I made it very clear that I wanted us to be together, that he didn’t have to change anything but I DID have to talk about this stuff, not because he was bad, but because I didn’t know how to show up and be in a relationship with a mortal human being without ripping them to shreds in my poisonous, unlovable brain.

Luckily, my husband understands the poisonous brain thing. He has an appreciation for complexity, for inner conflict, for the fact that you can say something terrible and admit to feeling things you don’t want to feel and that doesn’t change your love or your values or your commitments.

I don’t know this for sure, but I’m going to bet that if you make your love and your values and your commitments clear, your boyfriend will understand about the other dark feelings that are plaguing you. You need to be clear about what you want, emotionally and sexually. If you don’t want to be pawed, you have to say that. Men love a woman doing the dishes. Why? They can go fuck themselves. I don’t want action when I’m washing shit.

In my opinion, great relationships between smart, complicated people are only possible when total honesty is in the mix. You won’t accept this generous man in your life until you accept your own flaws enough to make them clear to him. You’re judgmental and fault-finding. So am I. But you value generosity and gentleness. And you’ll learn to tolerate neediness, even as it reminds you of yourself in ways that are uncomfortable.

This is a phase. You’re getting serious. People have cold feet when they get serious. There is a difference between FUCK THIS, I HATE THIS RELATIONSHIP cold feet, and “Oh God, he’s humming that song again, he is such a repugnant dork. I want Idris Elba instead!” Just because you have an overactive, brutal head doesn’t mean that your heart wants him gone. I think your heart knows he matches you. The matching might be awkward and uncomfortable for you right now, but it’s real. He is not an escape, like a “bad boy” is. He is right here, right now, human, normal, flawed.

If you can be open about your preferences and turn-offs, and be heard, if you can express yourself and ask him not to stigmatize or pathologize the things you desire, and if you can do the same for him somehow, then your relationship will grow past this. Visits are weird and intense — similar to spending two weeks in Spain with someone, thinking too much about every stupid little thing that they do. I think you have to be as honest as you can in order to get past this. You have to include your self-loathing, which is a huge part of this. You have to include your guilt, and your attraction, and your distaste. You have to say which things you want to go differently.

Maybe his timidity and pawing will always feel wrong. I want to caution you strongly to give yourself and him a chance before you take something small and use it as an excuse to bail. The sex, also, is all jammed up by your lack of acceptance — of him and of yourself. The sex might be amazing once there’s more honesty in the mix. You can’t possibly predict the outcome there without more time, and less poisonous, detached, confused thinking.

The stakes feel high. You aren’t used to being loved. You don’t really like being the one with more power, the one who’s being chased. You’d frankly prefer to be the chaser. I’ll bet your boyfriend prefers to be the chaser, too, and kind of likes that role. Maybe that’s something to talk about together.

Trust me, though, that this phase doesn’t last forever. If you have a career, if you have friends, if you have a full life, you don’t sit around chopping apart your partner’s flaws around the clock. You say that you don’t have a lot going on, except for your son and him. You need to work on yourself, and make your life more complete, so that you don’t make him such an area of extreme focus. Some of your discontent lies there. If you simply allow him to support you without bettering yourself, neither one of you will be happy.

But if you use the stability he’s brought to your life to make your life more full and complete outside of him, then these tiny little things that seem tragic now will just seem like tiny little things down the road. Insecure tics are nothing, when they’re accompanied by generosity and kindness and attraction. Once everything is out in the open? That’s the beginning. It either works or it falls apart from there. You’ll never even get to the starting line if you don’t express what you need.

At the very end of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this exact process begins: Two people who love and hate each other enter this crazy space of shoving it all in each other’s faces. I’m sure lots of terrible couples have stayed together a little longer after seeing that movie. But to me, it’s one of the most beautiful scenes, one of the truest and rarest expressions of real love that’s ever been created. Because when you let someone into your life, there is ugliness and shock and fear and repulsion there. No one likes to admit that. You wonder if you’ll be dragged down, dragged into someone else’s flaws and messes. You wonder if their weaknesses will take over, if you’ll spend the rest of your life tortured by their other-ness, their teensy tiny sounds and smells that fill up your space and sometimes seem to fuck with your good life. For a while, you hate the other person and you hate you and you hate the two of you, together. So inadequate, so insecure, so flinty and pushy and messy and wrong.

To me the moment of truth comes when you say it out loud: Look at me, hating you. Look at you, hating me. Look at us, how gorgeously our flaws match. How gorgeously we collide. Sometimes you have the strength to say these things, and the other person says (or, more often, implies): “No, I don’t want you like this. I don’t want the truth. I don’t accept that I’m a mess. And I don’t want to be with someone who is.” And also: “Why are you crying? What did I do to deserve this shit?” And also: “If you loved me more, you wouldn’t mention that I smell bad, or make weird noises, EVER.” I’ve been there. There’s this opportunity for connection, for acceptance, and the other person says FUCK THAT AND FUCK YOU.

Lots of people, LOTS AND LOTS OF FUCKING PEOPLE, really, truly don’t want to connect. They just want to do what they do without being challenged or being forced to show up. They want to talk about the easy stuff, keep it light, ignore the trouble, keep the peace, don’t look too hard at anything, and don’t get too honest. There’s another tier, above that: The people who want intimacy, but only on THEIR terms. They want access to an open person, sure, so they can turn that person on and off, like a faucet. Great when they happen to want you, not so great when you need something from them and they can’t handle being needed.

But there are a few people who can show up. If they see that you want them to show up, they can show up. If you’re present, they will find a way to be present, too. I think that’s what you have in this man, even if you aren’t quite there yet yourself. You’re going to have to work to catch up with him. You should not see him as inferior. You’re the one who needs to open your heart more. Because the moment that you look at another human being, and all of his flaws stand out so clearly, and you feel love, love, love? That’s a moment of transcendence. That’s real love. It’s not chasing. It’s not dickhead-fairy-dust-created magic. It’s not swaggery sureness and photogenic sex. Real love is two flawed people, laughing together at all of their flaws, their gorgeously matched flaws.

Admit your anger and repulsion. These pesky little irritations are nothing. When you tell him the truth about what you’re struggling with, if you do it with love and with the intention of accepting him, chances are good that he’ll understand, and you’ll be released from this shame you’re feeling. Once that shame and guilt stops blocking everything else, you might find it easier to feel love for him again.

This is just where you are right now. It’s ok that you’re here. There are lots of reasons you’re here. It’s not your fault. You aren’t used to this kind of love. This is brand new.

You may be on the verge of experiencing mutual acceptance and real commitment for the first time, and it feels scary. If you’re very open and honest and vulnerable right now, though, you’ll gain so much. Because real mutual acceptance doesn’t mature into compromise or settling. Real acceptance blooms into a kind of mutual celebration of who you each are, separately and together. It’s a celebration of the limitless possibilities of two people who are not afraid to honor each other’s gently used souls. As Mary says in Eternal Sunshine, “Adults are this mess of sadness and phobias.” You are flawed. He is flawed. Together, you are flawed. Together, you are amazing.


Do you wonder why you fall in love with every woman you see who shows you the least bit of attention? Write to Polly and she either will or will not yell at you!

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.