Ask Polly: Will My Semi-Available Boyfriend Ever Change?

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Every Friday for the next month, we’ll be serving up an extra dose of relationship-focused Ask Polly, exclusively for It’s Complicated.

Dear Polly,

I have been dating Dude on-and-off for over two years now. We are both in our late-20s. The first seven or so months of our relationship were great. He was very emotionally open, honest, fun to be around, made me feel safe and loved, etc. Then he pulled away. I’d hear from him sporadically. I’d see him at work (yeah, there’s the kicker — we worked together) and we would barely acknowledge one another. After a month or two of this, he finally broke down and told me he was using again. He’d been several months sober when we’d met, so it wasn’t a piece of his past of which I’d been unaware. I told him I’d do anything to help him and after a couple of very long, sobbing conversations, we fell out of touch again. He’d told me he needed time to work on himself, so I was giving him the space I thought he needed.

Cut to, a month after his sobbing “I want to be better for you” and my sobbing “I will do anything to help you,” my friend/colleague approaches me at work and “lets me know” that she and Dude are dating. Obviously, this came as quite a shock, given that I thought Dude and I were still dating. I called him that night and we had a two-hour conversation where he, in a nutshell, told me I looked like I hated him whenever he saw me at work, and this friend gave him attention and he liked it so … Yup.

So I spent two months working with these two lovebirds while wanting to shoot myself every day. Then he called me one night because Friend had broken up with him and he was suicidal. I talked to him all night. We talked about the breakup, the drugs, and in the morning he finally went to the doctor to get help getting sober.

A couple weeks later, I heard through work gossip that Dude and Friend were dating again. And, soon after, he asked me if I’d like to grab a drink. I said yes. One drink turned to several and he asked if I would date him again. I told him that I wanted to say yes, but given everything, I couldn’t say yes right then. We continued to hang out. He spent my birthday with me. We’d been talking and hanging out pretty regularly for about a month and a half when I heard again that he and Friend were dating. I told him that was it; I was done.

And I WAS done. I even started dating someone nice! Until two months later, when I got into some major trouble with the law. He contacted me out of the blue, told me he would help me however he could; told me he wished he’d never left me, that I was everything he ever wanted, etc. But the truth is, he did help me. Immensely. And at some point during this time of court dates and various governmental red-tape shenanigans, he asked me again if I wanted to date him. And — again — I told him I wanted to say yes, but couldn’t. So we continued our pattern of hanging out (which, at this point I suppose I should concede, includes sleeping together) and talking, going nowhere fast.

So now we’re up to the holidays and I hear through colleagues that Friend has been bragging about the “amazing” sex she and Dude have been having, and that they are sort of dating but “not really.”

I don’t talk to Dude for a month after this. He gets a new job; calls to tell me so. The next year is spent in the following pattern: I send a few texts, wanting to talk or hang out, and get no response. He, for about a week out of every month, texts me and wants to hang out and talk for several days. When we hang out, he tells me I am everything he ever wanted in a woman. And, honestly, I see him and want to go home to him every night; want him to be the father of my kids. But then he leaves me in the dust for a few weeks. This pattern has played itself out month after month after month.

But he still hangs out with me on my birthday. And he is still there with me during major life events — this time, a big career move where he expressed how proud he was of me.

I don’t know what to do because I know, on one level (all levels??), he is bad for me. When I don’t hear from him —  which is often — I second-guess myself, start feeling shitty and unlovable and fat (come on, we women know that’s a feeling) and easily left for other women. Which leads me to self-destructive behavior (drinking too much, eating too much, etc.). But when I hear from him, I am the happiest happy that ever happied. I feel like I want to be the best person I could possibly be. He has gotten his life in order and it has really made me want to follow suit. And when I’m with him I feel like nothing can hurt me. My family lives across the country and it’s comforting to have someone that I know will save me when I need it. If he answers my texts …

Help! Am I being a huge idiot here, holding onto something that will never improve? Or is there hope?


Can’t Let Go

Dear CLG,

Emotional support that’s only there part of the time and is making sweet love to your co-worker the rest of the time? You’d be better off getting support and love from a bobblehead doll.

In fact, go get yourself a bobblehead doll that looks like this guy. I’ll bet you can get one customized. Googles “customized bobblehead.” Yep, you can. But even though you’ve cast this guy in the role of superhero, I’d go with something a little more like this. Because anyone who can sleep with two female co-workers at once, one of whom views him as her primary support system, is a little bit emotionally constipated.

Plenty of women have been where you are, waiting around for lukewarm man-scraps while your life passes you by. You believe that he makes you happy simply because you’re miserable the rest of the time. It’s interesting that he’s a former addict, because you’re a current addict who feels so crummy when she’s not using that she can only see one solution to her problems. The world has gone dark and narrowed down to one thing: DUDE, aptly named. You’re addicted to his inattention as much as his attention. You’ve made him the primary barometer of your self-worth. You’ve willfully endowed a regular schmuck with magic. Even though you’re the one feeling ecstatic and rejected, gorgeous and special and then invisible, even though these emotions are all inside of you and your hands are on the control panel, you’ve crafted an elaborate story about how the magic comes and goes with him. He owns the magic, not you.

This guy, who kept going back to your co-worker, who kept you interested with a steady feed of bullshit, owns the magic? Think about how absurd that is! And you’re not even suspicious! You say he was proud of you when you got a new job, like he’s the only person in the whole world whose opinion matters. Maybe he was proud of you. Maybe he feels enormously guilty for wandering in and fucking you whenever he feels like it, using you as his own personal 7-Eleven of unattached sex and nonreciprocal adoration. But how does it feel for you, to be his sexual Slurpee machine? It feels bad.

DUDE is not the magic in this picture. He is the assassin of magic.

All it takes is a tiny pinch of skepticism and his so-called magic dissolves into thin air. When he’s with you, you feel like nothing can hurt you? HE CAN HURT YOU just by walking out the door, back to his OTHER girlfriend.

There’s some good luck in this picture, too, though. The lucky thing here is that he didn’t stay an addict AND he didn’t stay with you. Because right now, you’re confused and boundaryless enough to fall into that death trap with him. You’ve got legal troubles and you’re battling addictions and overindulgences of your own. You’re looking for comfort in all the wrong places.

But lucky for you, Dude has pulled himself out of a pit and moved forward and gotten his life together, and now he’s your inspiration. He proves that you can get your shit together and have a better life.

This may be why he’s still around. He’s here to show you that it’s possible. It’s possible to get your act together and move forward. Let me be perfectly clear with you: You need to move on. He’ll never respect you, after everything you’ve been through with him. But you can respect yourself, take care of yourself, and feel happy — truly, sustainably happy — on your own.

I get so many letters like yours, and some days it just feels like I can’t do anything to stem the tide of women who’ll sell everything up the river for half-interested, half-absent bobblehead men. I guess I’m trying to shake you out of it because even though I think you’re stubbornly self-destructive, I still remember, vividly, the sensation of imbuing unworthy men with magic. For years, I turned distracted dudes into demigods using only the powers of my own imagination. I was a creative person, that’s all, one who wanted more magic in her life. So I created magic out of thin air.

This is the important part, so listen to me: These acts of imaginative escapism were my way of coping with depression and anxiety and a lack of interest in the traditional rewards of a life well-lived. I could imagine that being loved and adored by one man would feel soothing and I could finally stop working so hard to escape my loneliness. But nothing else held much appeal. I wasn’t all that ambitious; succeeding at some arbitrary job seemed more like failing to me. I didn’t think socializing, even in the most fabulous circles, would ever feel satisfying. I was suspicious of wealth and status and its trappings. I read books and listened to music, but I couldn’t necessarily FEEL the weight of the words or the notes, because I was so protected and powered down, as a defense against loneliness and creeping, ever-present depression. Feelings had become the enemy.

I remember that, in order to really FEEL a song, I had to associate it with some guy. In order to enjoy a sunset, I had to imagine the bobblehead du jour there, sharing it with me. Nothing was worthwhile on its own merits, because the only feelings that were available to me were tied directly to some package of “security” and “safety” with an imaginary forever lover. I associated magic with “true love” from the time I was 11 or 12, and from that point forward I systematically gave away all of my own magic. That was my art, my practice: putting arbitrary guys on a pedestal and then painting a rich and elaborate backdrop behind them, and then praying to that vision day after day after day. It was my way of feeling less alone, less depressed. All feelings would heretofore be channeled through this mythical figure, selected mostly for his unattainability. As long as he wasn’t a real person, he’d never ruin my vivid creations.

Can’t Let Go, your path to letting go lies through a dark forest of feeling. You have to become vulnerable and open and appreciate this life in the absence of this man. That means you may have to acknowledge your own desperation and depression, which won’t be pleasant. But it’s here already, isn’t it? My guess is that it dominates your life in many ways, whether you want it to or not. You have to stop anesthetizing yourself with drugs and food and empty distractions, and you have to start living the life of someone who knows hope and magic outside of this one particular man. I know I sound like a broken record, but you have to find a therapist and you have to exercise every fucking day and you have to get in the habit of eating green leafy stuff. You have to do a lot of hard things.

But most of all, you have to stop giving away all of the magic that’s waiting at your fingertips. You have to see that this magic is yours, and ours. There are so many things to love in the world, so many reasons to feel passionately alive and awake, to let the sadness and the heartbreak and the small moments of tranquility wash over you.

When you feel your own feelings without escaping or distracting yourself constantly, the whole world is your forever lover, your Prince Charming, your Mommy, your hero, your best friend. Yes, the world has some dark moods, too. The word is sometimes ghastly, sometimes morbid and awful, sometimes melancholy, sometimes a little annoying, just as your ACTUAL HUMAN forever lover will sometimes be. The goal is to let the world in anyway, to tolerate its moods, to embrace it and rediscover, slowly, piece by piece, song by song, molecule by molecule, how much grace is encapsulated in a breath, in the shimmer of water in the glass, in the faint twinkling of a star outside your window at night.

Recently I was watching the Project Runway finale, because my older daughter loves fashion and I’m that kind of a lazy, no-good parent, and there was this scene where one of the contestants suffered a heartbreaking disappointment. He started crying and his aunt hugged him very close and sang a Hawaiian chant right into his ear, a chant that was all about endings and also about beginnings, was how he explained it. The guy’s face was all crumpled up, crying, and his aunt wasn’t stopping him or holding anything back, she was making these deep, throaty mournful sounds right into his ear. And all of the other designers in the room started crying right along with them, because it was startling and unapologetic and honest and WHO IN THE WORLD HAS A FAMILY LIKE THAT ANYWAY? Who ARE these honest, open creatures and why can’t we all go live in a hollowed-out tree with them forever like in Little Fur Family?

But you know what? We can all choose that life. Instead of beating back our emotions and feeling shame over them and playing it off and acting cool and then funneling all of our magic into food and drugs and men and other fixes, we can be like that spiritual weirdo aunt, unapologetically welcoming the good and the bad into the room, celebrating it all. It’s electric, that kind of bravery. It’s inspiring and contagious.

When you discover how to welcome all of your feelings in, when you discover how to be vulnerable to the world’s ugliness and its beauty, there is magic everywhere. It’s a slow process, though. When people meditate in caves for months, they’re crawling toward the magic. When people kick drugs or leave an abusive spouse, they’re crawling toward it. People who are depressed treat their feelings like mortal enemies. It takes a long time to break that habit.

You are depressed. It’s not about your bobblehead boyfriend. But he will keep you stuck. Throw that bobblehead out with the trash, and cry, loudly and unapologetically, for endings and for beginnings.


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Ask Polly: Will My Boyfriend Ever Change?