Ask Polly: Am I Being Too Paranoid?

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Dear Polly,

I started sleeping with my boss three years ago. He had a girlfriend, but the physical chemistry was so addictive that I did not care if she got hurt or I got hurt or he got hurt or the world exploded. We fit. That we should sleep together seemed like a law of nature, and every time was the irresistible last time. After many great nights and shitty, embarrassed mornings, after months of delicious secrecy, after six or seven times that he held my hand and told me gently he couldn’t be with me, I wasn’t surprised at all when broke up with his then-girlfriend and came to find me. We met five minutes later by coincidence — romantically by a canal! — as I was walking toward his house.

We were together for a month, and then his ex started calling. She didn’t know — no one knew — that he was dating a co-worker. So she flew in to find him and then he arranged to secretly meet her in his hometown. Then he came back for one night to first sleep with me and then dump me. He’d decided to make it work with his ex, he said as he dropped me off at the airport on my way home for Thanksgiving. I was too stunned to object. Because I am an idiot.

The next month of working with him and hearing him make dinner and weekend plans with HER and their friends was torture. I couldn’t eat and upped my smoking to a pack a day to stay calm. I started having fainting spells (it happens; hysteria is a psychosomatic thing). Eventually, we had an awful screaming-crying meeting. He immediately broke up with his girlfriend again and everyone was miserable for a few months. Then we got back together.

Over the past two years, we’ve struggled with his issues of shame and lying and secrecy. If he was invited to a party and I wasn’t, for example, he would just not mention that he was going. For a long while, he wasn’t comfortable introducing me to his friends and family. The following Christmas, when I asked to accompany him to his hometown for a weekend, he dumped me again. After a few months and a lot of determined courting from him, we got back together again. He said that he had a sick problem with secrecy and explained that he’d been under a lot of stress because his once-suicidal ex had recently called. Now he’s seeing a therapist. That and his commitment to make changes have made a huge difference.

We’re pretty happy now. In the cocoon of his apartment, he is kind and generous and funny and caring. He still doesn’t talk much about his feelings, but he is astoundingly sensitive and attentive. We sleep together nearly every night! We have had wonderful vacations and home time together. We’re making a lot of progress: We hang out with mutual friends, he invited me to a wedding (although looked extremely stressed beforehand, saying “normally I go to weddings alone”), and I even had dinner with his parents here in the city where we live. We’re even talking about moving to the U.S. together next year.

But wait. I am moving to the U.S. next year. I am a writer, and I know that I need to get to know other writers and editors who work in English, get some experience, and otherwise spackle the foundations of a career before I can live abroad again. He is talking vaguely about coming to visit for a month or two and “see how it is.” Reasonably cautious, because he has never lived with a partner before and his work and reputation are here [in Spain] and he’s never really lived outside his country before and has never really wanted to. But still, vague and cautious suck.

I am beginning to think I must be going crazy again. Could I be paranoid, or have I really noticed him speaking in Spanish to others about plans he’d like to make in Spain? He seems to be going behind closed doors when certain employers and friends call. But I can’t ask, because that would definitely sound paranoid. And when I bring up the future calmly, neutrally, he clams up. He’s not a talkative guy by nature, and I don’t even want to pressure him and then end up hearing more semi-committed sounds about visits.

I’m tired of being suspicious. I would love to believe what little he says, enjoy what we have now, and trust in it for the future. But I’m even more tired of being dumped. So I need to know: Is he already waiting for the relationship to end? Or does he simply not know what he’s doing yet, like all of us? Am I expecting too much? Has my thinking been poisoned by the past? Do I even need to be in the U.S. to write for a living? Am I forcing everything into oblivion out of some mistaken belief in “progress,” both emotionally and professionally? Dear Polly, please tell me the truth.

Signed,


Paranoid

Dear Paranoid,

The last time I was in Spain, I was just as conflicted as you are right now. I was hoping that my then-boyfriend would propose to me. But I was also hoping that I might scare him away forever by being moody and impossible and dismissive for three weeks straight. I had terrible jet lag and PMS and vertigo and a giant bee-sting on the back of my hand. From my warped perspective at the time, every town from Biarritz to Barcelona seemed to be crowded with the exact same international luxe-Vegas-style tourists, with their designer handbags and their leopard-print everything. I had waited too long to get to Europe, and in the meantime, the whole world had turned into one big outdoor mall that stretched from Tokyo to Ft. Lauderdale. I was visiting the most amazing cities, but to me, they all looked like one big Cheesecake Factory manned by pissy waiters with strong accents. I was too dizzy and depressed to see the sights. I wanted to abandon our reservations and our busy schedule and sit on the same beach for weeks, eating cheeses and drinking myself into oblivion.

You see, this is my version of fainting spells: I have a terrible allergic reaction to high expectations. Call it Prom Syndrome. Anything that’s supposed to be super fucking awesome but calls for extra energy and a good attitude tends to shrivel up under the oppressive dry heat of my withering mood. On the plus side, I can work wonders with most terrible situations. I will be the one crafting delightful meals out of dead pigeons and cans of mini ravioli when the apocalypse hits. But I am not good at the magical places and big events that other people rave about. I was not a blushing bride. I was a sweating profusely and swearing and weeping bride.

But I was also conflicted. Are you paying attention, Paranoid? I was conflicted because I wanted to marry my boyfriend, but I also didn’t want to marry him. I wanted to live happily ever after, but I also wanted to run away with one of 50,000 Parisian men with gorgeous noses and deep, soulful eyes carrying tasteful man-purses that held dog-eared copies of Gilles Deleuze (okay, maybe they were actually filled with spearmint gum and Hello Kitty journals).

I think you’re conflicted, Paranoid. In some ways the life you’ve constructed is hopelessly romantic — the chemistry! The canals! The jamon iberico! But in other ways it’s not — the secrecy! The suicidal ex! The whispering in Spanish to other Spaniards about happily eating aged hams instead of moving 3,000 miles away with the pretty young woman who somehow fainted her way into the middle of your life!

As a grumpy older-than-you woman, I can’t help but latch onto the terribly damning details about this guy, even as I recognize that you two have great chemistry and a reasonably satisfying life together. First and most obviously, he cheated on his girlfriend with you numerous times. (You were also an asshole in that scenario. Sorry, but the words “delicious secrecy” are just deeply wrong unless you’re talking about that movie where Jeremy Irons keeps fucking his future daughter-in-law because he’s creepy.)

Not only did your boyfriend cheat repeatedly, but he kept lying and sneaking around and toggling between two women without coming clean. Not only that, but he slept with you first and THEN dumped you. Who does that? Not only that, but did you notice how easily emotionally manipulated he is? Who will it be, the suicidal ex or the fainting American? Go read this week’s regularly scheduled Ask Polly for a close-up of the extreme of this behavior, and the extreme confusion behind it. “I feel guilty and weak and sure that I’m a bad guy, so I’m going to play along and meet this woman’s needs on the surface and then roll my eyes and complain about her and do whatever the fuck I want behind her back.”

I think it’s great that he’s dealing with this stuff in therapy. If you had said, “We talk about his issues a lot, and I’m very honest with him about my suspicions and he’s very forthcoming about everything that’s in play for him, but he’s also very clear with me about how much he loves me, how much he wants to build a life with me, etc., etc.”? Then I’d tell you all is well, you’re just being paranoid, everything is fine.

But you’re telling me you don’t want to bring anything up because you’ll “sound paranoid”? And that you don’t want to pressure him, because then he might make more “semi-committed sounds” and that’ll be disappointing? And the main thing you want to avoid is being dumped again? When you’re with someone whose central struggle is secrecy and lying, asking questions doesn’t sound paranoid, it sounds SANE.

So what you’re saying, essentially, is that you don’t really want to know the truth. You’re living in Spain, you’ve coaxed an affair with your boss into a long-term relationship, and now you want to enjoy the fruits of your investment — he’s coming around! He loves you! He’s in this for real! — without letting silly little things like YOUR SUSPICIONS AND CONCERNS AND HONEST DESIRES AND BIG DREAMS AND LONG-TERM GOALS get in the way of your good life.

Here’s the big problem with coaxing a reluctant dude into a serious relationship: You start to believe that it’s a triumphant victory just because he isn’t slipping out the door to fuck his ex-girlfriend here and there. You think that his behavior — kind and generous and attentive and sensitive — makes up for his lack of straight talk about the relationship. You’ll take whatever you can get.

But with someone who’s controlled by guilt, who has a long history of lying and secrecy, good behavior isn’t necessarily all that reassuring. I’m going to guess that he was the perfect little son to his strict, overbearing parents, and that he snuck around and did whatever he wanted behind their backs. I’ll bet he’s internalized the sense that he has to fulfill this Honorable Gentleman role in his personal life, but he never feels like he’s being himself around the woman he’s dating. I’ll bet he seems to be listening closely but rarely remembers or can even address what you’ve actually said in any detail. I’ll bet if you ask him, he has no idea what he’s actually feeling at any given time.

You asked me to tell you the truth. I think your situation is unsustainable. I don’t think you’re being driven by a mistaken belief in emotional and professional progress. I think you’re being driven by the mature realization that you’ve invested a lot of time and energy in this guy, but what you’d like now is to feel that you’re in an honest, committed relationship with someone who can look you in the eyes and tell you the truth and truly show up. You want someone who can handle honesty, who’s not afraid of growing up.

But I ALSO think you’re being driven by your own commitmentphobia. Part of you doesn’t necessarily want to drag this guy to the States and watch him freak out in slow motion. You don’t necessarily want to change a thing. Maybe you want to live in the almost-present, where you can continue to have sex every night and feel comfortable and appear to be cherished. Maybe you want to savor the fruits of your long investment a little longer.

I have to say, though, I think someone as smart and as complicated as you are needs an honest, talkative guy. I think you’re selling yourself short by settling for a guy with pretty major issues who doesn’t like to talk that much. Even if he were perfect, you’d have a hard road ahead. It doesn’t sound like you want to live in Spain forever, and it doesn’t sound like he has any intention of living in the U.S., least of all indefinitely. If you were already married and had kids, you’d be forced to sort through all of these issues — your clashing visions of the future, his tendency to hide himself from you, his potential to cheat the second things get too heavy. But you’re not married and you don’t have kids. So why make big sacrifices to keep this thing alive?

As someone who made huge sacrifices, over and over again, for the sake of deeply flawed, imperfect matches, I want to steer you away from that fate. Even though it’s true that some women set their sights way too high and expect too much from men, I don’t think that’s you. I think you’re someone who settles for whatever you get and then calls it magical.

And listen up, readers. It’s important to know if you’re someone who’s too picky or you’re someone who takes whatever she can get and then puts it on a fucking pedestal and worships it for way longer than is sane or necessary. Take a good look at the guys you’ve dated. Did other people think they were super excellent, or did they ask you, WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING WITH THIS GUY? Did they act nice but did their faces say, WHO IS THIS SCHMUCK? Do you sometimes find yourself warming up to a guy who looks like he has the potential to worship you forever and ever, maybe because he’s not quite as cute or as smart as you, and even after all of that settling — surprise! — he’s just not that into you anyway? But by then, you’ve turned him into a dashing prince in your mind, so you don’t want to lose him?

It’s good to recognize it if you’re someone who tends to settle. Because look, those skills are going to serve you well in marriage. Trust me. But they’re not going to serve you well in the meantime. Playing along and never pushing it and never asking for exactly what you want and telling yourself that if you break up with this guy you’ll be alone forever? These are not behaviors that lead you to happiness. At some point, you have to say to yourself, I WOULD RATHER BE ALONE THAN SETTLE FOR A WISHY-WASHY, INSECURE, JITTERY, SELF-DOUBTING EXISTENCE. 

When you’re thankful for whatever little scraps your boyfriend will throw you, that can feel like true love. You moon over him, and then you’re grateful that he hasn’t disappeared yet. But that kind of a relationship doesn’t age well. Once the mystery wears off, you’re left with a guy who just pisses you off, plain and simple. Suddenly you can see that you settled. Suddenly you can see that you invested a lot and all you got was someone who can barely have a real conversation with you.

If you’re not ready to move forward, that’s fine. But if you are ready to get on with it, then fucking get on with it. Be honest with him about what you want. Ask him to put his cards on the table, so you can make a rational decision about your future. That’s not “pressuring” him, that’s being smart. And even if he makes wishy-washy sounds, that’s not you getting dumped. That’s you looking with open eyes at what you have, and figuring out whether you really want it or not.

I don’t think you need to be in the States to write. I haven’t met many of my editors in person. But it is hard to take the next step forward with your career when your energy is drained by a relationship that doesn’t feel that forthcoming or energizing or sustainable. Honestly, I hate to say, “PUT DOWN THE JAMON IBERICO, BACK AWAY FROM THE SPANIARD, AND MOVE TO THE STATES FOR THE UNPAID EDITORIAL INTERNSHIP OF YOUR DREAMS.” Sometimes I wish I had made it to Europe when I was much younger, so I could’ve rolled around in salty cured meats and had a terrible creepy affair with some European in bad shoes who looked just like Jeremy Irons. You should definitely enjoy the here and now — IF you can still enjoy it.

We are complicated, conflicted people, all of us. We are full of anger and longing and secrets. Only YOU know how you want to live. But you must start living how you want to live NOW. Don’t put it off. If you want to write, then write. If you want to tell your boyfriend how you feel, then DO IT. Ask for what you want from him. The only people who get exactly what they want are the ones who ask for it. Be honest and audacious and demanding. Accept who you are, and be true to that person. There is no other way.

Polly

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All letters to askpolly@nymag.com become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.