Ask Polly: My Boyfriend Says It’s No Big Deal If We Break Up!

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Photo: Lukas Vering/EyeEm/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

A man who is high up at my company recently asked if we could meet up outside of work and I told my boyfriend, reiterating that the co-worker has a longtime wife and isn’t interested in me in any kind of romantic sense. I made sure to emphasize this because I sense that a situation like this might bother my boyfriend, whom I have always considered a sensitive person. My boyfriend responded immediately by telling me that should it go the other way and I break up with him for the co-worker he’d be sad for a bit, but would have no problem moving on at this stage in his life.

I was shocked by the answer and feel much differently. I told him I would not be okay if we broke up and he said that he’s not planning to break up at all, but he’s confident he would move on and find a way to be happy. I know I would be very upset and would miss him terribly. I would never cheat on him nor have I considered leaving him for anyone, let alone a married co-worker. I want to marry him. Instead of jealousy, he exhibited a kind of disturbing nonchalance. We’ve both had several serious relationships and a lot of experience with different kinds of people but I tend to think that as I’ve moved away from each of them, I’ve grown better at finding a mate who is a proper match, with aligned goals and a similar value system. In that sense I feel very strongly that my current boyfriend is a person I could spend much of my life with.

That said, nothing is wrong with our relationship: We are regularly intimate, act like best friends, and haven’t had any alarming fights other than the occasional couple scuffle. In fact, we’ve been talking about buying a home together and both want to plan to have a child in the next three to four years. Yet something about his statement really rattled me. Should I be worried or let it go? Is this a red flag for things to come? Do you think I should adopt a similar attitude? I also think it’s much different for women as they get older and men may feel more relaxed about finding a new girlfriend as they make more money and mature. I don’t feel as confident about finding a partner that could be such a good match, especially as I age into my 30s, but I don’t want to waste time with someone who isn’t ever going to be unconditionally committed, as I am.

Unnerved 29-Year-Old

Dear Unnerved 29-Year-Old,

Sometimes guys say absurd things like that because they’re trying to manage their own expectations. Maybe he’s afraid that he would be a mess if you left him, but he wants to will himself to be cooler and easier-going than he actually is. But other times guys say stupid things because they’re trying to manage their girlfriends’ expectations. Maybe he wants you to know that he’s feeling less and less sure that he can make a lifelong commitment, to you or anyone else. And of course, there are those times when guys are just stringing words together randomly because they’re fucking ding-dongs, and stupid dumb-shit words flow out of their mouths that bear little or no relation to how they actually feel.

Of course you feel confused by this statement! (“Hey, go ahead and fuck that guy! That would be fine with me! Whatever!”) In fact, it confuses me that you didn’t press him on this already. For fuck’s sake! You’re talking houses and children but if all that doesn’t work out and you happen to fuck someone else instead, it’s all good, no harm, no foul? That seems bizarre. Is he trying to dump you without saying the words out loud? Tough to say. Maybe he just believes that you’re too invested, or that you take the relationship too seriously, or that you’re too dramatic about how things may or may not turn out. He might believe that you’re too focused on the future and that makes him jittery. What’s stupid is that he might still want to stay with you, but maybe he just wants you to be LESS INVESTED, less attached

Unfortunately, that’s almost as bad as him trying to signal that he’s eventually going to dump you. Because if what he’s saying is “I’m committed, but I’m hoping you’ll change the basic outlines of who you are along the way,” then that’s even more fucked up for your long-term future. And the fact that you haven’t pushed on this rotten wall seems to hint that you might actually TRY to be less invested and more casual, less passionate and more easy-come, easy-go. You even ask me this in your letter: “Do you think I should adopt a similar attitude?”

Now, I’m all for practicing non-attachment as a means of feeling more balanced and less anxious about an imperfect world filled with imperfect people. But let’s look very closely at what it would mean for you to divest and step back and adopt a similar attitude: You would need to abandon your most heartfelt desires for the sake of someone else’s comfort level. You would need to do more shrugging and saying, “It is what it is.” And something tells me that, deep down in your heart, you know that this would be a major sacrifice for you. You don’t want that kind of an attitude, or that kind of a life. You don’t want to say to him, “Oh, a late dinner with your sexy co-worker? That’s cool, and if you decide to drill her afterward, that won’t bug me at all, please do drill her, in fact. Drill away!”

I’ve had serious relationships with guys who tried to convince me that monogamy was oppressive and only a totally loose relationship with zero expectations and minimal investment could keep two people happy together. Paradoxically, these guys were the most anxious, sensitive, fully invested boyfriends I dated. They were trying to cope with their own fears about what it meant to be linked to another human being indefinitely. They figured they could train me to be more “chill” and in so doing, learn to be more chill themselves. They didn’t like the idea of me looking at other men or cheating on them, so they tried to convince themselves that it wouldn’t bother them, or that all relationships should be open, or that people should only commit for a few years at a time. They didn’t like the idea of having to answer to someone else in any way, so they would talk about buying houses next to each other and never getting married.

These plans always sounded pretty absurd and impractical to me. I tried to be open-minded, but I always had monogamy in my blood, for all kinds of good and probably bad reasons. It doesn’t matter. Settling for something looser and more WHATEVER than a passionate, committed, exclusive partnership would always feel like a major sacrifice to me, and I knew that about myself. I wanted to be a different person sometimes, but I wasn’t, and making efforts to lower the stakes for some flinchy dude always made me feel like I was coaxing someone into something he didn’t really want. That felt like it was beneath me.

Some of those relationships were pretty happy ones. But somehow I got painted into a corner. I was the one begging for a commitment, I was the one pushing for a more grown-up life. At some point, I ended up thinking, Why am I working so hard for this? I deserve better. At some point, I would look across the table at a boyfriend and think, There are guys who would cut off their left arm to be with me, and here I am listening to this jackass treat me like some kind of an emotional beggar, over a dinner I’m paying for.

And now that I have a truly committed relationship, I feel even more strongly that it’s the right life for me. Because I have absolutely THRIVED under the confines and traditional boundaries of total mutual devotion. My work has thrived, my emotional life has blossomed instead of causing constant implosions, my self-esteem is … Well, if you read this column often you don’t need me to tell you how I feel about myself.

So no, don’t go trying to adopt the same fucking stupid, divested, whatever attitude. No fucking way. Is that you? Your letter suggests that’s not you. You are someone who wants to have a vivid sense that you are met, fully and completely, by another willing party.

So let’s ask this: Is he managing his expectations? Or is he trying to lower your expectations? Is he managing his anxiety? Or is he trying to cope with what he perceives as your anxiety? Is he trying to change himself, or is he trying to change you? Or is this simply his philosophy, that people should be easygoing and let each other do whatever with whoever, EVEN WHEN THEY ARE ALSO BUYING REAL ESTATE TOGETHER.

That’s great if that feels right to you. But I also want to say that a lot of motherfuckers out there don’t know what to cultivate in themselves, so they just follow their fucking whims in circles and then CREATE A LIFE PHILOSOPHY BASED ON THOSE WHIMS. I’m talking about giving yourself the right to be an animal and to follow your animal self in sniffing out whatever dumb, dead gutter-rat dinner you feel like eating at any given moment. To me, that’s what having a belief system that centers on having no structure and no belief system amounts to.

The arm’s-length nature of the internet feels dangerous to me in some ways, in its inherent talent for teaching humans capable of serious complexity to experience themselves as single-celled organisms. It’s dangerous how anxious we are, and how much control we want over our environment. Is it worth the cost of powering down our emotions, of distracting ourselves from the real, palpable, high stakes of our lives, just so things feel manageable? People aren’t apps you fucking install and remove without a second thought. Who would want to live that way? Who would want to be so horribly blasé about the outcome of their lives, so deeply alienated from the texture of the world around them?

How did you stop yourself from asking him, WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? I hate that women’s worries about being alone in their 30s prevent them from asking tough questions of partners who think not giving a shit is some kind of ideal state to aspire to. I was alone at age 34 and it was a peak experience that I remember fondly. When you say exactly what you want, you come alive, and trust me, a woman who can do that is electric AT ANY AGE.

Strong men love women who ask for what they want. You will attract an unruly mob at age 45, 55, 65 if you believe in who you are and you don’t waste your time trying to learn someone else’s dipshitty song and dance. You will always be surrounded by interested men if you know, for certain, that you deserve devotion, and you don’t immediately write off the men who are capable of giving it to you.

You want a passionate, exclusive, committed relationship, and you won’t settle for less than that. Tell your boyfriend that. Tell him you ARE invested, and if that turns him off, well, that really makes you wonder why he thinks he’s such a shitty investment. Why does he believe that he’s the sum of his impulses? Why would he, in a million years, expect you to aspire to the same meager sum?

You are not going to slow down for someone who can’t catch up. Changing yourself for someone who can’t take the risk of loving with all of his heart is a terrible sacrifice. You are not going to simplify your gorgeous complexity. You are not going to willingly stop short of the passionate life you deserve.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: He Says Breaking Up Is No Big Deal!