Ask Polly: Why Does My Terrible Ex Get to Be So Happy?

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Dear Polly,

I am a 32-year-old woman who has been very lucky in life. My boyfriend and I had a beautiful baby girl a little over a year ago. We live in a very nice home, and my career as a freelance writer is slowly moving forward after I took some time off to be with my daughter. I’ve wanted to become a mother ever since I can remember. I’m healthy, and everyone I love is healthy. I would really have to think hard to find anything wrong with my life right now.

Except (you knew something had to be wrong): I sometimes feel consumed with thoughts about my narcissistic ex-boyfriend. I by no means want to get back together with him, as he is a glistening turd of a human being. He treated me like shit for the three years we were together, like straight-up emotional abuse. He was often very cruel to me, and there were times when I feared him. He would criticize my every move, refuse to pick up his phone for days on end, humiliate me in front of our friends, blame any- and everything on me … the works. He had no empathy, and I’m certain he has some kind of personality disorder. When he eventually dumped me after three exhausting years, I was devastated. It was the lowest I have ever felt. The reason I was even attracted to this man in the first place is probably my very strained (to put it mildly) relationship with my parents and my resulting low self-esteem, but I won’t get into that. After my ex left, I cried for what felt like months and then got tougher and worked hard to make sure I never invited a tyrant like him into my life again. A year later, I met my current boyfriend, who is a lovely, kind, and loyal person. I got my happy ending, however cheesy that may sound. So why am I not … happier?

My ex has a new girlfriend, and they seem to be in love. Whenever I run into him (we have the same circle of friends), he goes out of his way to convince me that he’s redeemed himself and his life is an assembly of highlights. Today, when I checked his Instagram (ugh … I know, I know), I saw he bought a huge house with her. He is a film director and makes shitloads of money. He flies business class all over the world. When I saw the picture of their house, my heart sank, and it is NOT because I am still attracted to him or wish I were in his girlfriend’s shoes. It’s not even jealousy (I think). I’ve mulled it over, and I’m pretty sure my question is this: Why does this complete and utter shit-stain get to have everything after the way he treated me? I think the reason I’m so depressed is because I feel that there is no justice in the world if he gets to have a “happy ending” too. The thing with emotional abuse is that it is very hard to convince people of the impact it has on a person. But I have had to work very hard to get over my relationship with him and sometimes I’m still not sure I’ve fully recovered. I still occasionally have nightmares where I’m having a vicious fight with him, and I wake up feeling so, so low. The way I always used to feel when I was with him. Almost four years later.

I know I’m not God or Zeus or whatever and I don’t get to say who gets to have what, but COME. ON. I’m certainly not a saint and have made my share of mistakes. But I think I can say that I’m a good and sincere person who has always tried to do right by the people around me. I’ve never hurt someone deliberately or been cruel like he has. And now it feels like that all means nothing. Like there’s no point in trying to do and be “good.” I know this must seem very childish, like I’m on the floor throwing a temper tantrum right now and whining “It’s not faaaaiiiir.” I know nothing in life is fucking fair. I see bad things happen to far better people than me every day. And there are FAR, FAR worse problems to have. My thought process is probably flawed in that I think in terms of: good person + hard work = “success,” love, happiness … whatever. I know life isn’t a candy machine, in which you put a coin and get out what you want. I know all that. Then why do I feel so shitty?

I mean, really. Is there no justice?

Love,

Whiny McWhinerson

Dear WM,

Your challenge has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with addressing your past traumas, welcoming your feelings, and learning to appreciate the present moment. You’ve built a happy life, but you don’t feel happy yet. Your circumstances are happy, but your body and mind haven’t caught up.

After you find a good partner and have a kid, it’s easy to feel like you’ve crossed a finish line. You want to savor it. Maybe you spend a lot of your free time at home with your partner and a small human who lacks language skills. Where once there was angst and longing, now there is space to be happy. “So BE HAPPY!” says the space. But something is wrong.

You’ve spent your whole life believing that once you got the love you wanted, everything would be fixed. But you aren’t used to living in a state of peace and satisfaction. You’re more accustomed to wanting more, longing for more, wishing to be anywhere but here, and now, whenever you have a free minute, you revert to that familiar state. Your brain has spent decades running over the same grooves: Why are my parents doing this to me? Why is my boyfriend doing this to me? With no fuel for this tank, you turn to Instagram and find photos of your ex’s big new house. He isn’t even in your life, but you emerge with fuel for your angst: Why is my ex-boyfriend doing this to me?

The dreams you have about him aren’t only about him. He’s become a symbol for having felt misunderstood and neglected your whole life. He’s an easier target than your family for many reasons; his malevolence is easier to see and address. Building up your self-esteem takes years, and even though you have security and love now, you haven’t completely convinced yourself that you’re okay and you’ll always be safe. Why would you be? Your experience tells you otherwise.

It’s more palatable to tell yourself that your obsession with your ex is about morality and justice. I get that those issues feel real to you. But your letter isn’t about morality and justice. It’s about happiness and satisfaction and what “success” really means. If you were truly fixated on fairness, you could find much more horrifying examples of injustice right now beyond “Cruel Ex Flies Business Class Around the World.” A man with a gold-plated apartment who stole the election with help from a foreign leader has decided that poor old people who depend on Meals on Wheels to survive can go fuck themselves, just for one. Your letter isn’t even about envy. You don’t want more stuff, and you don’t want your ex as a partner. You want a justice-themed story that will help you explain why you’re unhappy.

You’re unhappy because you don’t know how to be happy yet. You don’t know how to stop looking for the nearest vessel for your feelings of rejection, longing, and anger. It wasn’t fair that you spent so much time being punished by this shitty human. But you took to his rejection like a seal to the water, and you’re sliding back into the water now because you’re used to assigning an external source to any unhappiness you feel.

The big challenge of landing in a calm, stable life is that the false gods you’ve worshipped and the delusions you’ve clung to and the poisons you’ve ingested over the years suddenly have room to show themselves. It’s easy to fall into self-hatred when you see the tangled mess of confused ideas about yourself and the world that you’re working with. It’s easy to feel guilty when you realize how badly built for happiness you are.

Once I finally had the life I wanted, my struggles with happiness manifested themselves in a kind of avoidance mixed with dissatisfaction. I didn’t want to do laundry and wash sippy cups around the clock, and I found myself continually stunned at the sheer volume of physical labor I was facing. I also felt disappointed in my inability to coo at my baby for eight hours a day. I loved my baby, but my restless mind did not like that kind of quiet existence. But I didn’t understand any of that at the time. Instead, all I saw was a mess, everywhere. I would clean the house and sit down and say “Okay, now I can be calm” and then I’d notice something else out of place: a dirty window, a dog that needed a walk. The work was never done. My house wasn’t clean, mind you. Mostly it was incredible to me that even when I got it halfway clean, it was instantly filthy again.

I was projecting my dissatisfaction onto the world around me. My story about what was making me unhappy was not that different from yours: I felt so grateful and so whiny and so ashamed at the same time. And I was angry at everyone. Even though I needed to address my underlying emotions and unmet desires, I didn’t even believe I deserved what I had, so I was terrible at asking for what I really needed. I was furious at myself for not being able to savor my amazing life. Sometimes when I tried to get some writing done, I’d stumble across a nice photo of my kid smiling and I’d wonder if I’d appreciated that moment at all. Probably something had just spilled on the floor or was about to spill. Probably that smiling kid began to cry a few minutes after that. Photos of babies are not the same as actual wriggling, demanding babies, but my photos made me feel like I wasn’t living the right way. I felt guilty for the many ways I was failing myself, my world, my daughter, my husband, my dogs, my destiny, the gods, the universe.

I was sure that my dissatisfaction meant that something needed to be “fixed” because I had an external locus of control. I was used to blaming someone else for how I felt. I was used to blaming myself for my blame. I didn’t love myself yet. I didn’t know how to just be in a messy room without feeling antsy. I didn’t know how to be present.

It’s not like being present is the easiest thing to master. Last year, I found myself pouring any extra sadness I could scrape up into the vessel of a broken friendship. I told myself that the injustice of how I was treated by my friend was making me sad. But I also got angry at myself for feeling so upset over my friend — my feelings seemed so out of proportion! — and that anger became part of the feelings associated with her, too. I was embarrassed that I cared so much. I kept saying, “That’s it! I’m done! I’m not thinking about this anymore!” and it would come up again anyway. So I gave myself a day to mourn the friendship. I cried. I wrote some bad poems. And then I just ran out of fuel. It turned out I only had a few hours of fucks to give. And after that, it was honestly hard to revisit the pain. I looked for it and it wasn’t there anymore.

Maybe you should take a day to lament your shitty ex. Even though he’s gone and this is all an extended story that’s masking your much more immediate inability to navigate your emotions, maybe a day of focusing completely on him would do you some good. Maybe you’re a little ashamed that you’re thinking about him at all, and this conflict is part of what keeps you stuck. Maybe if you wrote a sad song about what an asshole he is, or wrote a poem, or cried, or talked about him to your partner for a little while, or did all of the above, you’d understand how unimportant he is in the big scheme of things. You’d see how quickly it all empties out. After a few hours, thinking about my friend’s unfair behavior almost felt obscene. Yes, she was an important person in my life. But the dramatic poems that I cried while writing seemed like too much. Was she really crushing me with her rejection? And why was I expecting her to change into a different person, day after day, just because that’s what I wanted?

That’s like wanting your ex to be punished. That’s like needing proof that he’s unhappy. (The fact that he goes out of his way to convince you that
“he’s redeemed himself and his life is an assembly of highlights” isn’t enough proof?)

And even if someone told you he was certifiably miserable, it wouldn’t be enough. Your feelings and ideas and nightmares about him are a manifestation of some bigger issues you’re afraid to face in your past and in your present.

Social media offers a direct gauge of how out of sync with ourselves and our lives we are. Instagram’s smiling kids and the frolicking puppies and big windows looking out on the ocean might seem to imply that everyone involved is incredibly happy and relaxed, but that’s just the nature of stagnant images. As you yourself are learning now, security and love might set the groundwork for happiness, but you have to go the last few miles on your own — alone. And as you walk alone toward happiness and peace, you face yourself. You find out what haunts you. If you really want to feel good, truly good, you can’t hide from yourself. Whatever you’re dragging around from the past is going to show itself eventually.

You don’t have to wish punishment on bad people, in other words. They’re either working like crazy to better themselves, or they’re actively tortured by their own rage and fear. Flying business class everywhere and owning a big house doesn’t make a damn bit of difference either way. It’s true that good people aren’t always rewarded for being good. But bad people do pay a big price, no matter what. Having no compassion for others is a pretty clear sign of self-hatred, and nothing makes you more miserable and dissatisfied than self-hatred does.

I’ve never met a terrible human being who was happy. Maybe they exist, but I think you just have to trust that people who torture others also torture themselves. When your heart is two sizes too small, you can’t golf or tweet the pain away.

And when you’re struggling to figure out how to be happy, every moment you spend focusing on someone else’s relative happiness is a pure waste of time. I think you have to figure out how to feel your feelings without being ashamed of any so-called negative emotions that come up along the way. Some problems aren’t solved by getting tougher and stronger and “better.” Sometimes you have to slow down enough to open your eyes to the gifts that the world is bringing you, gifts that you might be afraid to take. What if you put down your old stories, and let your life unfold without trying to make sure every character follows their script perfectly? Stop returning to old wounds. Your happiness doesn’t depend on righting those wrongs. Let the day show you what it wants from you instead.

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: Why Does My Terrible Ex Get to Be So Happy?