Ask Polly: I’m Panicked That He’ll Leave Me. They Always Do!

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Hi, Polly,

It’s pretty simple: I’ve been lied to a lot, or whatever we’re calling it these days. “Ghosted,” I guess. Told I’d get a call and then not gotten a call. After everything ranging from one-night stands to what seemed like pretty promising or meaningful clumps of dates with real conversations and dudes seeming really into me. I’m not convinced I have what it takes to keep anyone interested for more than a few months before whatever it is that’s gross and wrong with me rears its head and they peace out. I was in one longer relationship; it lasted for two years and ended after months and months of being treated like a roommate at best, nuisance at worst, and I sabotaged it by sleeping with someone else, to feel a tiny bit of someone wanting me (that dude, the guy I cheated with, dumped me pretty quickly, too). So I can’t really look to him as an example of someone who really loved me, because he checked out a little ways in and stayed with me out of habit, and not surprisingly, after I cheated on him he hated my guts (as he’s totally entitled to do).

Now, I’m in a new relationship, two months and change in, with someone who tells me often that he loves spending time with me, REALLY loves sex with me, is really attracted to me, all that business. It hasn’t escaped his attention that I have dreadful self-esteem and am laughably skittish about things going awry. He calls me a “worst-case scenario machine.” If I say stuff like, “I wasn’t sure if you were gonna call,” he’ll ask what kind of horrible person do I think he is, please don’t get upset with him over stuff he hasn’t done, why am I so hard on myself, why can’t I enjoy what we have. Good points, all. I don’t know the answer. All I know is that I’ve been proven stupid and naïve and wrong whenever I’ve gone into something thinking it seems good. I can envision the way he’ll let me down, the way he’ll stop calling, the long pause during that phone call or the abashed text message that says that, yeah, this isn’t working. It makes me seize up with terror. Last weekend, for the first time in my life, I had a full-blown panic attack, thought I’d have to go to the hospital, because he didn’t call when he said he was going to and was curt on the phone when we did talk. (It ended up being fine.)

I know this is a problem I need to deal with, with or without this particular guy in the picture. HOWEVER … what you should know about this guy is, he’s also especially not great about the contact thing. He hates texting and hates the phone. He will, in fact, frequently drop the ball about getting back to me, because that stuff just doesn’t register as important to him (or, in the middle of a panic attack, I’ll think: Because I’m worthless to him). He is also hemming and hawing about defining ourselves as an exclusive couple, because — uh, “labels,” I guess. He doesn’t sound interested in being with anyone else, but oh, NO LABELS. Or, again: Because I’m repellent? Who knows.

Outside of the realm of the phone and the dreaded labels conversation, all he does is send very clear, unambiguous messages that he really likes me, thinks I’m very special, wants to be with me. I can count on that when I see him. When I don’t see him, I’m trying not to throw up from anxiety.

The last thing I’ll say is I’ve done a crazy amount of work in therapy over the past four or five years, trying to tone down anything that could be read as clingy or high-maintenance. And I’ve made big strides, I really do believe that. I shove down these kinds of anxieties as much as I can, unleashing it on my friends or, hey, in an email to an advice column — or somewhere in my body, where it translates into a panic attack. I do a lot of not-calling. I super-shame myself when I do reach out. I don’t WANT to reach out; I want him to contact me sometimes, too! I try so hard to tamp down my animal instinct to metaphorically wrap my arms around his legs and scream, Don’t leave me! It’s hard. This sucks. I’m a mess. It’s not gonna go away when this guy does.

Panicky and Dubious

Hi, Panicky and Dubious.

I don’t think you’re insanely insecure or that you’re not managing your relationships well. I think you’re a very anxious person who takes every single message (or non-message) and translates it as I HAVE TO DO SOMETHING TO FIX THIS.

Anxious people always want to fix things. They believe they can “think” their way to a better place, when in fact they simply need to learn ways of addressing and handling their feelings on their own. When you get in situations — with this guy or without him — that make your heart race, you need ways of noticing your racing heart and talking yourself down. Because these reactions can’t necessarily be “fixed” by someone else. They’re just what your body does. You take your physical reaction to stress and you translate it incorrectly. You conclude that you’re somehow faulty, that your emotions are TOO BIG and that you need help.

But what you really need is to accept that your body and brain react to stressful or uncertain situations by panicking. The more you accept that this will happen whether or not you have a man in your life, the more you’ll face these issues by yourself instead of tangling them up in a knot with your relationship, thereby rendering the relationship itself unbearably complicated and messy.

So the first step is to refocus your energy on things you can do to steady your nerves. Give yourself time to catch your breath. Practice lying down somewhere, closing your eyes, and not thinking about anything that needs to be done. Focus on calming down. Don’t speak again until you’re calm.

Next, you need to stop living on a planet by yourself and recognize that almost every single 29-year-old woman in the world struggles with some form of romantic insecurity. “Am I too much of a repugnant freak to ever find love?” I asked myself 15 million times in my late 20s and early 30s. Of course that’s not the case, for you or me or for anyone, and every date shouldn’t feel like proof that you’re either amazing and special or repulsive and awful.

There’s no mystery to solve. You are who you are. You are a worst-case-scenario-generating machine. If he leaves, it won’t mean that you actually are a freak. If he stays, it won’t prove that you are amazing and special. But until your self-esteem hinges on other things — what you do with yourself when you’re not around a guy — it’s going to be a struggle not to obsess and panic over these thoughts.

You need a different set of goals and dreams in your life. You need to pursue them with more energy. You need to say good-bye when your dude-of-the-moment leaves your apartment, and focus on your non-romantic ambitions IMMEDIATELY instead of mooning and second-guessing yourself. Pour all of those emotions and that anxiety and that high-strung energy into your work or your play.

This never changes, by the way. Even when you settle down with a guy, if you can’t find ways to shift gears and do your own thing, you’ll be a jittery mess of a person eventually. Your heart and soul never belong to someone else completely; they can’t just walk out the door with half of you. You need to build yourself up and remind yourself, every minute that you’re alone, of all the amazing things you’re capable of building in the absence of another human being.

As far as your current relationship goes, your instinct is right: If you say to someone at the start of a relationship, “I’m afraid you’ll leave me because I’m too crazy for you,” you’re making it more likely that the person WILL LEAVE YOU. But at the beginning and beyond, I think you need to consider how it FEELS to ask for reassurance. There are ways to communicate that you need to talk and be close to your guy without resorting to passive messages like, “I wasn’t sure you were gonna call.” When you paint an ugly picture like that, compulsively, you’re not only hurting yourself, you’re being disrespectful to your partner, putting words in his mouth and thoughts in his head. Don’t be an emotional-space invader like that. It’s not just needy, it’s aggressive and unfair. It sends the message that you DON’T CARE what he really thinks or feels. All that matters is what you IMAGINE he thinks and feels, in your stressed-out head.

I think it’s cool that he has a sense of humor about all of this now. He’s saying, “I like you a lot. Relax a little so we can enjoy this thing.” You’re right that he probably won’t for long. But instead of dwelling on your fear — “Oh my God I’m screwing this up me me me” — consider the actual words that come out of your mouth. Consider how they affect other people’s moods and their feelings and their ability to enjoy the moment and appreciate you. Because those words have a real impact on your partner’s happiness. Your worst-case-scenario creation sometimes amounts to a kind of knee-jerk selfishness. I’ll bet that if you were dating yourself, you’d be like, “Oh Christ, what are you saying? Let’s slow this down a little, lady, I’m getting overwhelmed.”

I used to believe self-censoring was overrated. I used to think everyone should run around exposing exactly who they were, all the time, in every circumstance. These days, I can see how often I hurt myself with that kind of thinking — by expecting people who barely knew me to immediately understand who I was or what I was all about. I forced other people to take care of me, and I made myself feel worthless in the process.

Putting your hopes and dreams first and learning to hold back some of what you’re thinking: These are ways of taking care of yourself. They’re ways of valuing yourself. They’re ways of saying, “I love myself enough not to push all of my darkest fears onto other people without knowing whether they’ll treat them with care.”

It’s time for you to take care of yourself. Take FULL RESPONSIBILITY for yourself. I know you’re anxious and you get lonely and you worry that you’re not good enough. It’s time for YOU to decide, once and for all, that you are good enough. To commit to yourself. To care for yourself.

Because right now, YOU ARE GHOSTING YOURSELF. You aren’t there for you. You can’t lean on you. You let yourself fall into a terrible, panicked state when he leaves and you’re alone. You need to stop watching his face so closely, or checking your texts so often. Stop hoping for an escape from yourself. Face yourself. Show up for yourself. Get your own back.

Learn to do that and even if he leaves, you’ll be good. Look in the mirror and say, “I won’t leave you again. I promise.”


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

Ask Polly: I Live in Fear That He’ll Leave Me