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I’m writing to you with a problem that may make me seem shallow and selfish, but it’s something I’ve really been struggling with lately. I’m 30 years old, and I feel like within the last three years I’ve finally figured out who I am as a person. My teenage years and early 20s were dominated by my own insecurities and lack of confidence in dating. When I was around 25 I finally decided I’d had enough of that and decided to move halfway around the world to pursue a career in another country. It was probably one of the best decisions of my life because it caused me to finally step up and be my own person.
My dating life was revolutionized. And I eventually met a girl I’ve dated for the last three years. I grew to care deeply about this girl, but our relationship was riddled with problems. She’s quite immature when it comes to dating, only having had one other boyfriend before me. Many of the things she does in the relationship are unhealthy and destructive, but I believe since I was coming from a lack of confidence and disastrous dating history, I chose to ignore those things for a long time, just assuming they’d go away or perhaps they were as good as things could get for me. We finally came to a point where we decided to take a bit of a break from each other to see how things go. We talked a lot about our problems, and I feel like she’s finally come to a point where she’s willing to change. And she’s communicated to me some things I need to work on as well.
However, during our time apart, I’ve met a woman who is, in every sense of the word, my “dream girl.” She’s beautiful, smart, ambitious, and matches my personality much better than the girl I’ve been dating for the last three years. We’ve been talking and sort of casually getting to know each other, but she’s made it clear she’s interested in taking our relationship farther.
Now I’m torn as to what to do. On one hand, I have the girl who’s loved and been faithful to me for the last three years, whom I definitely love a great deal, but I’m not convinced I can live with her for the rest of my life. And on the other hand there’s this new, amazing girl who treats me how I’ve always wanted to be treated, but with whom I don’t have any history yet.
I recently read an article online about men who “settle” and men who find and date their dream women. The ones who have settled seem miserable, and it’s something I dread doing myself. I’ve seen firsthand what a family is like when the husband and wife seem to resent each other because they “settled” for each other instead of going out and finding someone they’re crazy about.
Torn Between Two
Dear Torn Between Two,
First of all, I just want to thank you for writing to me today, of all days. I’ve been out of town for most of the summer, and not only can’t I remember how to form sentences, I can’t remember what qualifies me to give other people advice. Who the hell do I think I’m kidding? I am a filthy, lazy, empty shell of a human being. I don’t want to write about emotional journeys — I want to eat chili cheese fries and watch BoJack Horseman all day.
But then your letter appears and saves me. Your letter makes everything easier! It makes me feel smart! I have a million and one things to tell you, and even though pretty much anyone in the world could tell you the same things, I feel like I’m the ONE person who has the power to change your whole life and make you happier than you’ve ever been before!
See how an exhausted old crone transformed into a bubbly fairy godmother? That’s exactly how it feels to meet someone great. Everything seems easier. Instead of wrestling with emotional Rubik’s Cubes, you feel smarter than ever. Instead of feeling worn-out and angry, you have a million and one things to say, and you feel like you’ve met the one person in the whole world who has the power to change your whole life and make you happier than you’ve ever been before.
Maybe that’s magical thinking. Fuck it. If that’s wrong, I don’t want to be right. Because there’s nothing like stumbling on someone who understands you, treats you well, shares your values, and falls right into step with you, effortlessly. You look at this beautiful woman and she’s ambitious and mature and funny, and she’s everything you’ve ever wanted.
But this is also the point where you’ll be tempted to screw things up. If there are any glimmers of insecurity or low self-esteem or dysfunction in your picture, you might say to yourself, “I’m so happy right now, and that seems unfair to my ex. Even though I was never sure about her, maybe it’s wrong not to try to work things out with her.” And just like that, your guilt and loyalty guide you to a life of quiet desperation.
NOOOOO. Just no. N. O.
It’s odd, because just yesterday I was thinking about how I don’t write about my husband in this column very often. My husband is pretty amazing. I always tell people how it feels to be with the wrong person. So why don’t I spend much time describing how it is to love someone like crazy? The obvious answer is that I don’t want thousands of people to simultaneously vomit into their own hands in unison. I know some of you are at work. I don’t want you to spend the afternoon cleaning vomit out of your keyboards.
Permit me a minute of indulgence, though. I’m 45 years old. I used to think I was an incredibly charming human being. These days, I like myself, but I don’t feel like some whirlwind of special. Maybe I’ve raised my standards too much. Charm, cleverness, a sense of the absurd: These are not showstoppers to me anymore. I’d like to report that every day I high-five myself and say, “KEEP IT UP, ROCK STAR,” but that’s not how it is. This is not a crisis of confidence; I’m just underwhelmed. Maybe that’s maturity. Maybe that’s realism. Maybe I’m just in a post-summer lull. Maybe I’ll feel better once I rip the grass out of my front yard and replace it with drought-tolerant plants, since the globe is overheating. Maybe the overheating globe is making everything else seem pointless by comparison.
But my husband, he pulls me out of the mire. I know that sounds chafingly reductive, but it’s true. He listens to my long-winded monologues. He encourages me to quit stuff that’s stupid, and to pursue other stuff that’s fun and maybe less lucrative. He reminds me that I’m too hard on myself. He reads every single thing I write. He refuses to make me feel bad about being lazy, even when it affects him and forces him to work harder. He greets me with love almost every single day, in a way that I sometimes can’t manage because I’m too trapped in my own head.
He forgives me, over and over again, for being all of the things that women are blamed by everyone else in the world for being: Tired. Angry. Sloppy. Emotional. Not quite hot enough or funny enough. Not very smooth. Self-doubting. Impatient. Teary-eyed. Middle-fucking-aged. He forgives me every single time I mess up or just don’t do much of anything.
Which is crucial, really, because I almost never forgive myself. I try to but mostly fail. I say the wrong thing, and it stays with me. I reveal my flinty side for half a second, and I’m ashamed. I HOLD GRUDGES AGAINST MYSELF.
My husband forgives me, though. He makes me feel like everything lame about me is great. What the hell? How does he do it?
I’m sorry that there’s vomit all over your new shoes now. Trust me that I never sounded like a Hallmark card before I met him. The point is, there’s no way to express what that kind of gratitude does for your life. It’s beyond transformative. It colors every experience. It buoys every step.
So if you’ve met a woman who seems great and you’re happy and calm and thrilled and excited around her? Don’t think twice. Don’t back away. Don’t complicate things. LOOK HER IN THE EYE AND SAY, “HELL YES, BRING IT ON.”
Don’t hesitate. This is the point where you might second-guess this new love precisely because it’s so good. You might look closely at this dream woman and you might say, “She’s a little bit TOO into me. I’m more comfortable with someone who ignores me most of the time. I deserve to be ignored, don’t I? WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS CRAZY LADY WHO DOESN’T IGNORE ME?”
Or maybe you’ll tell yourself this woman is an illusion. Is she secretly designed to make you miserable? Should you be suspicious of your feelings? Well, if you were married and you were having an affair and you were starting to imbue your lover with all kinds of magical qualities simply because you’d never seen her sick or grumpy or scrubbing the toilet in an ugly pair of shorts, then I’d say YES, you should be suspicious.
But you are not married. You’re 30 motherfucking years old and you are on a break IN ORDER TO SEE WHAT COMES NEXT. And guess what came next? Someone who seems really interesting and right for you. Should you turn away from her and therefore be “loyal” to your ex, out of guilt? Nooooo. You should not do that. Should you pick this new woman apart and stress her out so you can see that she has flaws, too? No.
Look, it’s obvious that you don’t know her yet. She will have her own set of flaws, just like your ex does. The words dream woman could set off alarms for some, but I get that you’re trying to express that this woman is amazing to you. You don’t strike me as the fickle sort, either. You know that relationships require hard work — that’s why you were willing to work on things with your ex for years, in spite of major doubts. But now your gut is telling you that it’s time to move on.
Should you call your ex and make a plan to break up and then see her in person and feel guilty and sleep with her again and then call your “dream woman” and tell her you’re not sure and keep going back and forth until those two women hate each other and want to kill you the most of all? No. You should not do that.
You wrote it yourself. Going back to your ex feels like settling. SO DON’T SETTLE. Even your ex isn’t served by that. She doesn’t need your pity. It would be so much better for her if you moved on and let her find someone who doesn’t view being with her as settling.
Call your ex and tell her you’re sorry, but you need to break up, once and for all. Thank her for three years together. Tell her you’re grateful. Then put it behind you. Even if things don’t work out with this new woman, it’s time for you to forget your ex. She never felt quite right. It’s time to admit that, once and for all. It’s nice that you’re so loyal. That’s a great quality to have; it will come in handy when you’re married. But don’t let it lead you backward.
Instead, thank your lucky stars that you happened to stumble on someone who feels so right, who takes your breath away. Thank the frivolous gods for sending you this incredible gift. It’s a gift whether things work out or not.
Everything in the world could change on a dime. This is a pure moment in your life. Don’t cloud it up with your own noise and neuroticism. Breathe in your gratitude. Soak it in. Savor it.
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