Ask Polly: A Chilling Cautionary Tale About the Dangers of Getting Involved With Attached People

the futility of living

Dear Polly,

Yesterday, I woke up to an email in my inbox with the subject “Uncontested Divorce Papers.” I need to sign them and send them back to the lawyer, at which point she’ll file them with the courts, and I’ll officially be a divorcée. In order to make the process as quick and hassle-free as possible, the reason given for the divorce is “irretrievable breakdown of marriage over a period of at least six months.” The problem is, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a complete lie.

I’d been married for fourteen months and twenty days when my husband told me he was in love with one of my close friends and that he didn’t want to be married to me anymore. The day before he told me this, he’d sent me flowers at my office. The night before THAT, he’d texted me that he loved me so much. When friends say, “Well, there must have been signs,” I ask if flowers and love poems and dates are signs of irretrievable breakdown of a marriage. Then they stop asking.

I met my husband in graduate school, where we became good friends. Deep down, I knew I had developed feelings for him, but I denied them, because he had a girlfriend. When he moved to New York after graduation, we kept in touch, talking every day for hours on g-chat. When he told me he had feelings for me, as more than a friend, I was ecstatic. He’d been telling me about problems with his girlfriend for a long time, but they were still together. I told him he needed to break up with her and then we needed to take a break before we could start dating. I assuaged my guilt by believing he didn’t love his girlfriend, that she was possessive and boring. I never asked more questions because I was too happy.

We dated long distance for a year, seeing one another almost every weekend, until I moved to New York to be with him. We adopted a dog and got engaged. After eighteen months of planning together, our wedding was by far the happiest day of my life. Though I’d felt isolated when I first arrived in New York, I eventually made friends of my own at my job (one of whom became the woman who is now my husband’s girlfriend), and got closer with his friends. I loved our life together.

One thing I knew about my husband, though, was that the same boundless ambition and creativity that made me love him was also a destructive force in his life. Nothing he did was ever good enough. My real fear was that nothing I did was ever going to be good enough either, but he assured me this was not the case. It turns out that I was right. Though he gave me no sign that he was unhappy with our relationship, I’d somehow missed the mark.

It’s been three months since he told me he didn’t want to be with me anymore, and since then, we’ve had very little contact. Every time I’ve tried to reach out for answers or to express any emotion, he hasn’t responded. When I asked him why he never gave me a chance, he responded that our “marriage was my chance,” though he’d never expressed his unhappiness to give me a chance to try and make things better.

I’ve moved back to where I lived before I moved to New York and I’m doing my best to move forward. I’m seeing a therapist. I’m keeping busy. I’m doing yoga and talking to friends and taking care of myself. We had many mutual friends, many of whom are still his friends, which is another difficult situation.

My question to you, Polly, is how do I continue to move forward when it feels like I’ve failed at my marriage, my love, the life I loved? Though rationally, I know it was his actions that destroyed our relationship, it’s still difficult to keep from feeling like I messed up somewhere along the way and that no one will ever love me again. I’m torn between anger toward him (and her) and devastation for the huge loss I feel.

And I don’t know what’s better — that sadness, or the anger? The anger feels better than the sadness but I don’t want to become bitter. Is there a middle ground?

Looking for Balance

Dear LFB,

I know this is going to sound harsh, but bear with me, because it’s necessary: You did mess up somewhere along the way. You engaged in an ongoing flirtation with a guy who not only had a girlfriend, but had the bad taste to complain about his girlfriend to you, his attractive female friend. And what were his complaints about his girlfriend? That she was possessive, and boring.

Attention, Every Single Human Reading This: If you’re flirting with someone who’s currently attached, and they start to badmouth their partner? That is a giant red flag. Even if the partner in question is verifiably not so great, it’s fucking weird for a person to hang out and whine to attractive others, rather than simply, say, dumping said malignant partner and THEN bagging on his/her irredeemable ass with vim and vigor (and with other dickish friends with weird lowercase names).

Once you dump your lame girlfriend or boyfriend, you can feel quite free to bag away. But while you’re still attached and/or living with your partner? Bitching and moaning to potential sexytime partners is really poor form. And, if a sexy human you want to sex tells you that their partner is BORING? And possessive? AND THAT’S ALL THEY CAN COME UP WITH? Run away screaming. People who fuck people then tell other people they want to fuck that the people they’re currently fucking are super fucking dull? These are bad people.

These are people who just don’t like other people. “Jesus, my girlfriend, I swear she breathes in oxygen and breathes out carbon dioxide sometimes,” they might as well say. Because when you go to bed with someone and wake up and eat together and go to bed together again and wake up? See, I’m already bored by both of you just writing it down. People get boring. An inescapable fact. PEOPLE. GET. BORING. People of all stripes, from all walks of life, get boring. Boring is not a reason for anything. You say someone you’re fucking is boring? The first thing I think is sweet god in heaven YOU my friend are BORING. Stop taking it out on everyone else.

Better yet is POSSESSIVE, as in “My girlfriend, she just gets really possessive, it’s a total drag.” Gee, that sucks, why does your miserable insecure shrew of a woman have to get all possessive and shit, when she has a guy who’s sweet and honest and opens up within minutes about what a jealous little bitch HEY WAIT A MINUTE.

I know you didn’t come here for me to bag on you, LFB. I just needed to address the fact that you presented us all with a chilling cautionary tale about the dangers of getting involved with involved people. You’re doing many readers a major service just by telling your story, and I mean that in all sincerity.

Those who’ve read through a lot of the Ask Polly archives may have already noticed that many of the people facing the most hideous and unkind breakups are also the people who were informed by these partners very early on in the relationship that their previous relationships ended when they very suddenly “got bored” with their exes. Or who told them that their exes were totally “boring” and/or “the jealous kind.” So. This is a teachable fucking moment.

I just want to add that if you’re g-chatting with a guy who already has a girlfriend for hours at a time, that guy is an escapist. He’s looking for a fix. There’s a fifty percent chance he’s using you for a fix without any intention of breaking up with his girlfriend. And there’s a fifty percent chance he’s setting you up to be a stepping stone out of his current relationship. People in the market for stepping stones typically never leave the market for stepping stones, even after they marry you. They are always on the lookout for an upgrade, no matter what their current circumstances might be. The speed with which they dump you depends entirely on the quality of goods available for perusal while you’re together. Saying “You have to break up with her, then be alone for a while, before we can date,” and then g-chatting him through the whole process, shouldn’t assuage your guilt, because you’re making it clear that you’re waiting in the wings. Plus, he still has his fix.

And keep in mind: It’s all arbitrary, with these bored possessors of the bored and the possessive. Like anxious window shoppers at the mall, they are the most bored and the most possessive of all, twitchily looking for something to possess, something that might render them less dissatisfied, less bored. And like a reverse Midas touch, they instantly render all that they possess bored and possessive. Because they are haunting humans to spend time with. They pretend that they’re accepting and loving while inside they’re tearing their hair out with boredom. Their demand for companionship dictates that they must play at SEEMING wonderful (Flowers! Adoration!) even as they lay out the next escape route.

So look. Getting dumped by this conspicuous consumer, this deeply afraid and deeply repugnant fuck, it’s a beautiful gift. Your ex-friend and coworker is the one who should feel cursed, not you. This guy was a mirage from the very beginning. He was a ghost.

That doesn’t change how you feel right now. Right now you’re devastated. I’m really sorry that you had to go through this. You feel like you failed at your marriage. But look: You didn’t have a marriage. A marriage is two people, working together, telling each other what they need, meeting somewhere in the middle. What you had was someone who pretended, who didn’t tell you what he needed. He says “You had your chance. Our marriage was your chance.” But he didn’t show up, didn’t let you know what was going on with him. Hell, he won’t even debrief you NOW. Not because he simply refuses to tell you what happened, but because HE HAS NO FUCKING CLUE WHAT HAPPENED. He might as well be a life-sized cardboard cut-out. You might as well have dragged a cardboard cut-out down the aisle.

The fact that you’re tempted, for even half a second, to view this experience as a personal failing of yours, an indication that no one will ever love you again, is a testament to the poisonous messages women marinate in during their formative years. It’s like you were attacked by a shark, and now you’re blaming yourself for being made of meat.

So that’s the (somewhat contradictory!) message I have for you: You DID fuck up by getting involved with this cardboard cut-out, this emotional vampire, this conspicuous consumer, this blatantly unjust two-timing weasel. I don’t usually say this, but I say it for your benefit, for your future path: Your situation is a clear indication that you have bad judgment when it comes to men. But: You DID NOT fuck up by being you. You weren’t eminently rejectable and repugnant in those 14 months you were married. You were just a fucking person, and this guy doesn’t want a person, he wants the flicker of promise given off by that woman over there, or that one, or that one, or that one. They all seem so EXCITING by comparison to real people.

I’m being brutally honest with you for a reason. Moving on is going to be very difficult if you’re confused about what you’re moving on from, and you’re confused about your culpability. And YOU are confused for a reason. Because you fell into something and ignored all the red flags and rationalized away your own bad behavior and gave the guy lots of empty hoops to jump through to make yourself feel better. You have to look at that stuff, not because you are BAD and you were the first woman in the world to do these things. Almost every woman alive does ALL OF THESE THINGS at one point or another. (Ideally in high school. SORRY KIDS! HIGH SCHOOL IS HARD, I KNOW.) You have to look at this stuff because you need to be in touch with reality.

Did you hear that? You need to be in touch with reality.

Here is reality: You made some big mistakes. But here’s the other side of reality: You are a good person. You are not boring. You are kind and supportive and fun. You are not someone who was destined to get ruthlessly dumped by her first husband. You are not summed up by HIS lazy, unfair, unexplained actions.

Reality will be hard for you, because part of it is harsh: You fucked up. You did. You have to keep in mind, everyone fucks up. You just had no idea you’d bumped into a predator. Maybe you’d never met one before. Forgive yourself. But look clearly at the facts, so this won’t happen to you again. Don’t allow yourself to get swept away, and don’t let yourself off the hook. Open your eyes wide and look at what happened. Look at how you sweet-talked YOURSELF into this. Look at how you let your fantasy get in the way of rational decisions. This makes you exactly like every human being alive. Have compassion for yourself, even as you’re facing this.

The other side of reality will eventually soothe you: You are still the same appealing, lovable woman you were before this happened. You are no less lovable than you ever were.

Clearly, you need to enlist your therapist’s help in moving away from fantasy, into reality. And once you’re firmly grounded in reality, you need to ask yourself: “What do I want for myself? What do I want from my life? Who do I want to be?”

What circumstances, in the future, might make you feel strong and wise and resistant to empty temptations from predators? What kind of a woman will you be in five years? Will you be the kind of woman who’s g-chatting with some dude with a supposedly boring girlfriend? Will you still be seduced by the promise of a fantasy?

Or will you be happy with who you are, open to love, but realistic and firmly grounded in the here and now? If that sounds boring, then that tells you something. But reality is far sexier and much more romantic than you think. A fantasy can seem shiny and special from a distance, but when you get closer and closer it tends to shrivel up and die. Reality, on the other hand, gets better and better the deeper you go into it. Once you start to see yourself clearly, and admit that you’re not a cardboard cut-out of Fantasy Wife, Eminently Lovable, Worthy of Lifelong Adoration, then you can finally start to breathe.

We are all tempted to be shiny. There are so many shiny women out there. We are taught — and eventually we believe, in our hearts — that shininess is the surest route to love. But aiming for shiny is like living in the dark. “Though he gave me no sign that he was unhappy with our relationship,” you wrote, “I’d somehow missed the mark.” Though he told you nothing, YOU somehow fucked up. Though he was just a mirage, YOU were the sad rejected woman who didn’t please him enough. When you aim for shiny, you become nothing but a reflective surface. At your very best, at your peak shininess, he will only see his own reflection in you.

The most beautiful, loving, poetic souls in the world know that the most beautiful, lovable people in the world are the ones who are a little tarnished, a little scratched. If you want true love in your life, you will stop trying to be a brilliant silver chalice, and you’ll aim to be a misshapen pewter cup instead. Something ordinary, that you can pick up and feel and rub between your hands. Something regular and dented and scratched.

This tragic turn in your life gouged a big scratch across you. Own that scratch, the anger and the sadness there. Tell the truth about what it did to you. Because it was a gift, this premature exit from a fantasy world. It was your passage to a better life, lived among real people with heart and substance, where tarnished things are good enough, where you are good enough. You are good enough. You are good enough, right now. You are good enough. You are.


Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) was 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.

Time to face reality: The bad news is, Ask Polly is moving to New York Magazine’s The Cut. The good news is, you can read the very first Ask Polly column for The Cut right nowish.

Photo by Mario Sainz Martínez