Around a year ago, I met an emotionally crippled 32-year-old whom I fell in love with. At first he was affectionate when we were together, sending me sweet texts after we saw each other. But he quickly made it clear he was bad for me. He flat-out told me he was a mess and out of his mind and I shouldn’t like him. I’m considered a pretty passionate, crazy, intense person myself, so truth be told, maybe his craziness was part of the allure. The warning signals go on and on (starting from the first night) and yet I stayed and kept coming back to him. It sounds dumb now, but I honestly, genuinely cared deeply for him in a very pure, innocent way — I had no reason to want to be with him but he had a warm goofiness, an intelligence sprinkled with a hint of mental instability, that made him irresistibly adorable and sexy. Maybe it was because I was 21 (22 now), but I loved him really purely, and I didn’t want anything except for him to feel the same. He drinks heavily, hates his job, is in debt, lives with roommates in Brooklyn, and is basically sleeping with the whole island of Manhattan (he’s 33!), but all I wanted was for him to love me back. Of course he said he didn’t want to be anyone’s boyfriend right now and that I’m amazing, beautiful, smart, etc., and that I deserve better. But I feel like it’s all bullshit. Had I been prettier or sweeter or thinner, he would have stayed. He spent seven years in his 20s in a relationship and clearly has the capacity to care, just not about me. And I don’t understand why.
This past weekend he hurt me again and I spent the whole weekend drugged up, and could barely get up for work this morning. He treated me very poorly this year and I cringe thinking about the stuff I put up with, and yet I’m still hoping he will call and apologize. Or at the very least, I wish I could make him feel bad for what he did, because he really broke me. I swear I’m not normally this dumb (I graduated in the top 15 percent of my class, landed my dream job, and am planning to get my masters), and yet this guy who everyone keeps telling me is scum has me on the bathroom floor crying my eyes out for hours and stuck in bed on a Monday morning. My friends all recoil in disgust and don’t understand his allure, but I know I’m not alone because he sees other women and I bet they feel the same way I do. He’s very charming and honest about what a mess he is; I almost find it endearing.
What ends up happening to guys like this? I’m afraid I’m going to wake up next year and see his wedding photos with some beautiful woman posted on Facebook, and then I’ll really know that it wasn’t him, it was me.
What if I just told you, “Yes, it’s true. You aren’t good enough for him. You’re not good enough for a drunk, depressed lothario who hates his career, has a mountain of debt, and distracts himself by drinking too much and tooling around with women fresh out of college.” Would that feel like a resolution at least?
Because in his mind, you aren’t good enough for him. He doesn’t take you seriously. Why doesn’t he take you seriously? Is it because you’re not pretty enough, not sweet enough, not skinny enough? What if I said, “Yes, it’s true. If you were a little bit skinnier and a little bit sweeter, he would be madly in love with you. He would get his act together, rededicate himself to his career, pull himself out of debt, and become a wonderful husband to you and father to your adorable children.” Would that feel like redemption? ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS LOSE WEIGHT AND BE NICE ALL THE TIME! ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS BE PRETTIER AND BETTER ALL AROUND!
I’m not mocking you. I love that you summed up exactly why overachieving smart women often find themselves tangled up over aimless guys when they’re young or just youngish. “This must work like everything else in my life: I lose some weight and people take notice. I flat-iron my hair and smile more and suddenly the senior who dumped me wants to date me again. I just need to work harder and be sweeter and thinner, always.” And your fear: Some gorgeous lady will make an honest man of him, proving that it is possible! The problem wasn’t that he was screwed up, not really. The problem was that a magical princess hadn’t arrived and charmed him into submission yet! If he marries a magical princess, that proves that the problem is not that he’s a depressed alcoholic and a shameless narcissist. The problem is that YOU AREN’T A PRINCESS!
Your letter is a service to womankind. Your clarity in sketching out the basic dimensions of the smart, super-romantic lady mind is unmatched. You underscore the central, looming question that so many young women grapple with, thanks to our culture’s shitty, reductive, black-and-white fairy tales: “Am I a princess or a frog? Am I the very best or the very worst? Am I good enough or will I never, ever be loved? Am I pretty and skinny and sweet and therefore MAGICAL or am I a reject?” Forget that the prince is a vainglorious dipshit! Forget that the prize you’re competing for is not a prize at all!
But you also sum up so many wasted hours of so many women’s lives with this: “Clearly he has the capacity to care, just not about me. And I don’t understand why.” This is something stupid that smart women do regularly: They believe that they can understand anything if they just think about it hard enough. “Why? Why not me?” they ask, certain that the answer will reveal itself. “Can it really be that I’m not good enough to MAGICALLY CHANGE A NARCISSISTIC, AIMLESS, DRUNK FROG INTO A PRINCE?” None of the equations add up or make even the slightest bit of sense, but we just keep on writing them down, scribbling out numbers until our wrists ache. It’s like A Beautiful Mind except instead of winning a Nobel Prize you win a weekend of weeping on your bathroom floor.
Listen to me very closely now, Charmed: This guy doesn’t take you seriously because he doesn’t take himself seriously, yet YOU take him seriously. He doesn’t understand why! He doesn’t even know how he could EVER take himself seriously. He’s a big fake, and he knows it. He hates himself. He doesn’t know what he wants. He’s lost. He keeps going out in search of ego rewards, and he keeps getting them, because there’s something about his honesty and his self-destructive spirit that feels a little bit more electric than the blah blah blah droning of regular, sane young guys who are gainfully employed, go to bed without vomiting, go to work on time in the morning, and care about themselves enough that they don’t need random, buzzed girls fawning all over them every night.
This guy you love? He’s lost. You aren’t the one who’ll save him. You just aren’t. It’s crystal clear that you aren’t. Give up now. Yes, he might marry some beautiful woman — and he might make her totally miserable. Unless he sorts himself out thoroughly, he’ll keep chasing skin-deep ego rewards. He’ll keep feeling unmotivated by his work, but he won’t change a thing; he’ll drink himself to sleep every night instead. You think LOVE will save that guy? No fucking way. He’ll marry someone and then he’ll get lots of tail with his “I’m a naughty married man” routine: “Why can’t I behave, honey? I just want to go home to my wife and kids and be a good guy. Why can’t I do that, huh, baby?”
Of course we all get the allure of this guy. Dominic West should play him in the TV version of his life. Watch this kind of bad drama on TV, Charmed. Don’t live it. Tell this guy to get gone for good. Delete him from your phone and do not look back. Anything less than that, and you’re basically CHOOSING to get all drugged up and cry on the bathroom floor on weekends.
So let’s just assume you kick this guy to the curb, since that’s the only sane choice. Now let’s talk about you: Do you really want to be worried if you’re skinny enough and sweet enough and pretty enough for the rest of your life? You asked what happens to guys like him, and I took a guess. Do you want to know what happens to women who obsess about being skinny, sweet, and pretty for decades on end? Because it’s anything but pretty.
We’re all tempted to upgrade ourselves, to aim for prettier and skinnier and sweeter, at one point or another. And we ALL understand how women end up with eating disorders, end up fixated on their weight, end up going under the knife repeatedly, end up sloughing off all of the sharp edges to their personalities until they’re perfectly acceptable and lovable and helpful and they feel empty inside.
But it’s time to look around and admit that this is a crazy moment for us as women. Fawning about how eternally youthful celebrities are, and then biting our tongues when we encounter a story straight out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales isn’t the answer. Our cultural poisons are staring us right in the face, and it’s time we acknowledged them.
The moral couldn’t be more clear: REAL faces are beautiful. We need to work a little harder to see that — privately and publicly, alone and together. We need to turn our gaze away from the shiny reconstructions, and start celebrating what’s real. We need to look in our mirrors and acknowledge what’s there. This is not feminist boosterism. This is not a way of blaming women for their choices. Every woman has a right to her own choices about how to handle the pressures of being a woman at this ruthless time in our history.
But we ALSO need to say this together: Real beauty is unique and flawed. Perfection is not beautiful, and real beauty is never perfect. Look in the mirror and see what’s actually there. Not a comparison to some nonexistent ideal. Look at what’s there. Your flaws make you beautiful. Your dark circles make you beautiful. Once you can see how gorgeous your flaws are, Charmed, you will be transformed into something much more magical than a pretty princess, holding her breath forever. You will be FORMIDABLE.
I don’t notice pretty young women on the street these days as much as I notice confident women over 50 who move through the world with self-assurance and grace. They used to be invisible to me. I can finally recognize how gorgeous they are, in their self-acceptance and their refusal to be cowed by this brutal world. They’ll look you right in the eye, too. Every now and then I exchange a smile with a woman like that and I finally get it. We are free. That’s a sisterhood. Not motherhood or womanhood or whateverhood. Sisterhood is looking the magical oldish and youngish and chubbyish and not very sweet women in the eye and saying, “YEP, I SEE YOU. YOU’VE GOT IT GOING ON.”
You don’t love this guy, Charmed. You love his honesty. You wish you could say to people, “I’m kind of a mess today,” and have them love you anyway. You wish you didn’t have to lie all the time. You wish you didn’t have to be prettier and skinnier and sweeter by the second. You want OUT of this jail you’re in.
BE EXACTLY WHO YOU ARE. You are not a magical princess. You are not an alluring dream girl. Your peak moment in life will not be documented in professional wedding photos. Your truest happiness will not spring from inspiring a narcissistic drunk to wake up and appreciate you. Once you drop out of this princess race, you will burn with the heat of a thousand suns.
All the high-school girls tell each other to “Stay sweet!” Don’t stay sweet, Charmed. You are not hard candy. You are not a precious flower, waiting to be picked. You are formidable. Throw away the dead-end man puzzles and START LIVING.
Got a question for Polly? Email AskPolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday afternoon.
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