I started dating a guy a few weeks ago, and yes I know, a few weeks is NOTHING, but, even in that short time some things have come up and I’m having a really hard time separating what is just me being sabotage-y and too fucking sharp, chopping shit up into julienne cuts, and what might be legitimate signs that this is not a good match, which I am overlooking because I am too busy chop chop chopping.
About four years ago, I was in a pretty terrible relationship. He was bipolar, and later on, I found out he lied about pretty much everything: He had a long-term girlfriend, and when he told me that he spent three months in a psych ward where I couldn’t see him, it turns out he was actually living with her. It makes sense now. I pretty much never saw his house (he said he was living with his parents) or most of his world. It was always him in my world. The relationship eventually became abusive, to the point that I was scared for a very long time, stopped sleeping, and finally, swallowed a bottle of pills in front of him in a desperate and stupid attempt to make everything stop.
I moved far, far away, started fresh and created a great life, but it’s left me with a terrible, panicky feeling that all men are hiding something harmful. I can feel myself bracing for the rug to inevitably be pulled out from underneath me.
Since then, I’ve had a few relationships, none of which have really triggered any of this. Until now. With my last significant relationship, we hit things off right away. He lived a ferry ride away, so he’d often come over and stay for a several days, and we’d go off on little trips and adventures. Spending that kind of time with someone felt really good; it felt really secure, and it made me so happy to fall asleep and wake up beside someone I thought the world of.
This new guy, he wants to take things slow. We’ve seen each other quite a bit, and now that it’s been a couple weeks I want to sleep beside this guy. I am not talking about sex. I just mean having him spend the night or me stay with him. I can feel him get weird and flinchy about it, and it really fucks me up. That, and a few little things he does, have started triggering bad memories from my ex, and I am having a really hard time reconciling them. I tried explaining my past and why I am suddenly acting overly analytical and self-sabotaging even though I don’t want to, and now I feel as though I wish I had never told him anything. When I told him that my ex used to force me up against a wall and hold my head while he punched the wall inches from my face, his response was that his ex punched him in the face and broke his nose, but that he’s not projecting that onto me because I’m not her. I get what he’s saying, but it also made me feel diminished and like some sort of fucked up trauma pissing contest was taking place. He used a similar response another time when I told him something heavy after he had asked about it — he said I blindsided him by saying stuff like that — and both times, I walked away feeling really shitty.
Polly, normally I am pretty level headed and decisive and confident in my decisions and know what I want and what I’m about. When I’m with this guy and something comes up, I feel so fucking confused and unsettled and like I should have never said anything. I’m so scared of being mind-fucked again. This guy is really smart, and really good at arguing his points, and it makes my head hurt because I don’t know if I’m just messing it all up because I’m terrified, or if this guy maybe has some serious controlling tendencies because he won’t stay over because he says he’ll only fall asleep if we have sex, but does not want to have sex yet. He also made me feel like I should be more appreciative that he’s let me come over to his house, because even his parents have only been there two or three times in ten years. Am I just spinning in my own insecurities?
This guy you’re dating is bad news. He’s a control freak and kind of a dick to boot. The fact that he responds to your very personal, vulnerable stories not by listening and empathizing, but by one-upping you with his own traumas and then touting his relative maturity and healthy boundaries AND THEN referring to such sharing as “blindsiding”? These are more than just red flags. They’re warning signals, the way someone walking up to you and setting your hair on fire is a warning signal.
This is a guy who experiences vulnerable, expressive sharing as an assault. He’s four weeks into this thing, and he’s already making it crystal clear he doesn’t want your feelings to come into play. He wants you to feel ashamed of sharing that stuff, so you won’t be tempted to share it again.
What’s really confusing — and what makes you feel insecure, like you’re the source of the trouble here — is that what he says about how he feels about you is completely at odds with how he behaves. He might even be able to plainly and intelligently state his good intentions and proclaim himself healthy, but please trust me, all of that stuff is just him using his intellect to build elaborate scaffolding around aggressive, controlling behaviors that he absolutely fucking refuses to change. He is a smart, arrogant motherfucker who’s building an entire worldview around what he needs and doesn’t need. Guess what he doesn’t need the most of all? You, acting like a fallible human being. Guess what he really, really doesn’t want? You, showing up and telling the truth. What’s truly fucked is that HE WILL SAY THAT HE WANTS THESE THINGS. But you will see, time and time again, that he does NOT want these things. He wants to live in a bubble, safe from other people’s needs and emotions.
To be clear, I’m not even talking about a run-of-the-mill tepid dude, who’s maybe initially flinchy or distant, and then over time either gets less flinchy and falls in love (admittedly somewhat rare) or gets more distant because emotions make him feel awkward or he’s just unsure of what he wants or he knows he’s not all that interested. Tepid dudes might drive you nuts, but they are not necessarily going to make your life a living nightmare. Controlling guys who say one thing and do another are absolute hell, because they act like they’re all in, but at the exact moment when you feel the most raw and sad and flawed, they will trample all over you. They hate weakness, in themselves and others, and they don’t know themselves at all (in spite of what they say about “doing the work” and trying hard to be self-reflective and humble). And your emotions make them feel (wait for it!) BULLIED. Controlling guys act like bullies, but project all of that bullying onto you. They victimize you, and then act like they’re the victims.
I was in a relationship with a control freak a long time ago. He was instantly very into me, and very intense and sure of how he felt. He believed in me. I was amazing. He wanted us to spend tons of time together. And then, when we quickly started to clash, trying to sort it out with him was a fucking NIGHTMARE. If he couldn’t corral a conversation exactly where he wanted it to go, he would become furious and accuse me of controlling him. Everything got turned back on me. Even when I stayed calm and focused on “I” statements, it didn’t help. (He’d say things like, “Did you see what you did there?” as if my emotional experience was just another way of fucking with him.) In his eyes, everything I said or did was manipulative. I couldn’t directly ask him for what I needed. I couldn’t listen and wait and ask later. When I opened up about triggers, when I admitted weaknesses, when I broke down crying out of frustration — all of that only made him more angry. One particular week, he was fixated on how I needed to take responsibility for my own shit and be more vulnerable with him. So I admitted some big insecurities, through tears. His response? Rage. “How did we land here, exactly?” he asked. “And how can I prevent it from happening again?”
The real trap of dating this guy is that he’ll never leave you, as long as he can repeatedly deflect everything and push it back on you, until you’re convinced that YOU have to change and get “better” if the relationship is going to work. This is a sensitive guy who had a very unpredictable upbringing, which, taken alone would be fine. But he dealt with it by controlling his environment, by leaping on top of conversations and controlling them, by developing a seriously rigid outlook on the world. As long as he feels like he’s in control, everything is great. But the second he feels out of control, the world falls to pieces and he’s a totally aggressive, dismissive, awful person.
The trauma pissing match and the lack of empathy and the referring to sharing as “blindsiding” (perceiving emotions as an attack) that you describe — those things are enough to say fuck no to this guy. Because this path leads to ruin. You will feel less and less sure of who you are with him. Your self-esteem will suffer and you will become a pale shadow of your former self. No way. Fuck that.
The refusal to sleep over is its own, separate problem. It fits in with the controlling profile, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate, in a guy who isn’t dismissive and unfair, that there’s no future there. I will say that it does point to someone who’s not that flexible and maybe a little threatened by true intimacy. I have friends who’ve dated guys who disappeared regularly. They have the date of the century, and then the guy insists on 1) not fooling around and 2) going home separately. They’re six months into the relationship, but the guy can’t tolerate hanging out for more than a few hours at a time. And maybe there are women who live this way and match this style perfectly, too. But that sounds pretty bad to me. Men who do stuff like that value their independence more than they value intimacy. Fine for them, not so great for someone who cares a lot about sharing a life.
So look. I know I’m painting a grim picture. To be clear, the guy you’re dating probably has no idea what a controlling guy he is. I’m sure he wants to love and be loved like almost everyone else alive. I’m sure he thinks he has good intentions and feels like he’s just standing up for what he wants. But he has very little humility. He doesn’t know himself well, and he doesn’t really want to know you. He doesn’t want to yield to the wildness of the unknown. He wants to stay safe, stay in control, and stay protected in a carefully constructed, regimented world of his own making.
It doesn’t get better from here, either. Look, you’re already saying “Maybe I’m just overanalyzing this!” I’ve rarely worried that I was overanalyzing a great relationship. Truly great, promising relationships are actually very tough to overanalyze. Because everything is working just fine. There’s nothing to chop chop chop! But when you’re with someone who doesn’t make space for who you are, someone who keeps indicating, in different ways, that he doesn’t want to get to know the full, breathtaking scope of you? That’s a problem. This is someone who is afraid of spontaneity and uncertainty. This is someone who wants to live in a clean, well-lighted cage. This is someone who hates surprises, someone who can’t just let go and see what happens next.
This guy likes you because you’re self-deprecating and you second guess yourself a lot. He’s hoping to control you. THIS MOTHERFUCKER IS BAD NEWS. Even if he’s not punching the wall next to your head in a few months, you’ll be feeling isolated and lonely in his company. Becoming physically and emotionally entangled with someone who feels tortured and assaulted when you tell the truth, and share your past, and/or cry? That’s the definition of wrong. You’d have to hate yourself a lot to walk down that path.
And look, we all have some self-hatred on board. Forgive yourself for falling for this guy. Forgive yourself. I’m sure he’s very charming. You haven’t dated him that long, though, and you know already that this is a big, big problem. Don’t worry that you’re too paranoid. Instead, trust your instincts. I know you don’t want to give up on this. I know you’re thinking of the million and one reasons you shouldn’t bail yet. I know you’re thinking you’ll never find anyone who’s this great. I know you’re worried that you’ll keep running into the same trouble, over and over again.You’re wrong.
You will find someone who loves your wildness, your pain, your past, your ugliness, your flaws, all of it. If you stay vulnerable, if you keep telling the truth about who you are without fear, you will find someone who’s trustworthy enough and strong enough to leap into the unknown with you. You will find someone who isn’t afraid. Forgive this poor guy. He is very fucking afraid.
You are not afraid. If you stay with him, he’ll want you to become smaller and smaller. But you will never be small, so he will never be happy with you. You are big and bright and courageous. You’ll find someone who matches you. Keep the faith. Talk to a therapist, take care of yourself, trust your instincts, and above all, keep the faith, because it’ll happen. Keep being true to yourself, and it will happen.
Do you grab tree branches so hard that your knuckles turn white and your fingers want to fall off? Write to Polly, and she’ll tell you how to loosen up!
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 Adam Brill