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‘How Do I Leave My Lying, Cheating Boyfriend?’

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Dear Polly,

I was with this man for over five years. Two weeks into the relationship I found out he was still spending time with his ex-girlfriend and her family. He denied it at first but after a year he finally admitted they stayed together. After this it was his ex-wife. His son lied to me and brought her to confront me. She assaulted me and I took her to court. He would not go to court with me, he claimed his back was bothering him. I had to end up taking her back to court again for calling my phone — by the way, he has no idea how she got my number. Then I had to deal with his sister’s friend. She was all over him, but when I confronted him, she started with me. I told him I was not dealing with her. I was told I ruined a 20 year friendship. They picked and played like it meant nothing to him. I knew he was acting strange. I got his phone and found text messages from a girl he had under the name Adam. He was calling her every day, texting her, saying things to her he was saying to me. I took his phone and contacted her. She claims she was told I was his old fat crazy ex-girlfriend. I got in his face and called her from his phone, which he did not want me to do it. Then I found another girl’s number on his phone, he said someone else contacted her, not him. I confronted the guy who he said used his phone and the guy knew nothing about it. This man has left me so many times in the past five years. Two weeks and he would come back. I need some help. I need someone to tell me what a fool I am for wanting him.

Fool

Dear Fool,

I don’t usually answer letters like yours, even though I get a lot of them. I know it sounds unfair, but here’s what your letter and other letters like yours have in common: They are usually just one big, unbroken block of text, like they were written very quickly, late at night. There is a central villain who has committed one crime after another. There are a lot of confusing twists and turns. Sometimes these letters go on for three pages, but by the end, it’s still hard to tell who’s who. It’s hard to tell when things stopped and started. It’s hard to tell why anyone is doing what they do. It’s like being thrown into a house of mirrors, populated only by other confused people who seem like they might be out to get you, for reasons that are lost on you and on them.

How do you get out? And once you get out, what do you do?

Here’s what you do (and what other people in your position do): You go back inside. Why? Because you’re so used to living in a house of mirrors that the real world feels unbelievably empty and lonely and sad by comparison. At least when you’re inside the house of mirrors, you have something to do: Run away. Chase. Confront. Investigate. List everyone’s transgressions. Look for witnesses. Build your case.

But once you’re outside of the house of mirrors, you are alone with yourself. That feels excruciating and odd and frighteningly empty and silent. It feels that way because you grew up in a house of mirrors. There was emotional chaos around you, but it wasn’t explained to you. No one leaned on each other or trusted each other. When you reacted to the chaos with tears or vulnerability, you were punished. You would try to explain yourself, but no one listened. No one was on your side. No one stood up for you. You tried to spend time by yourself, to stand up for yourself, to create your own world within the chaos. But it was unspeakably lonely. So eventually, you found ways to join in, and create chaos of your own.

When I was a kid, the scariest thing I can ever remember seeing was this one scene in the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine. Keep in mind, I grew up in the ’70s; I saw Invasion of the Body Snatchers when I was 8 years old. But this one scene in an animated movie made me more frightened and anxious and depressed than anything I’d seen before. It was the scene where the Nowhere Man wanders around on a blank white background, as the Beatles sing,

He’s a real nowhere man

Sitting in his nowhere land

Making all his nowhere plans for nobody.

I never knew why that scene scared me so much. But when I got older, I finally understood: I had grown up in a kind of cluttered, exciting, scary chaos that felt like home to me. My parents were incredibly loving, hilarious, smart people who created fun for us. They also hated the fuck out of each other, yelled at each other, and threw things at each other’s heads occasionally. They also turned on us like angry animals if we dared to put our own needs or emotions front and center. And when they left us alone, sometimes we turned on each other like angry animals.

I know that my mom was doing her best. She was very young and grew up with an alcoholic mother. She did try to help us understand what was happening, but it wasn’t really possible to explain that level of chaos and distrust. My father had countless obstacles to overcome, including an alcoholic parent and a lot of pretty major issues. They were both incredibly emotional, sensitive people. They were at once amazing parents and very, very flawed parents, and they were trying to parent in the middle of a house of mirrors.

But the chaos was not the worst part for me. At least when there was chaos and chasing and mirrors and madness, there was something happening. There were things to try: Run away. Confront. Investigate. List everyone’s transgressions. Look for witnesses. Build your case.

The really bad part began when the chaos faded out. The screaming stopped. We all retreated to our separate rooms. We were all alone. I did not confide in my sister. My brother and I never discussed a single event. My dad would leave the house and my mom would not find us and talk to us for a long time. It was scary and empty and there was nothing to do. I was alone with myself. I could try to play, try to build fantasy worlds, but that always felt a little bit like making nowhere plans for nobody.

I knew that if I cried to my mother, she was likely to get angry or tell me that I was being ridiculous, I needed to be tougher. She couldn’t handle anyone needing her help. Engaging while we were both vulnerable wasn’t an option. She only knew how to run away, confront, investigate, build her case. The trouble was deflected onto me. I was part of the problem, somehow, when I asked for help. My job was to show up and act cheerful and make everyone laugh. Anything less led to rejection.

That’s how you get reentry into the house of mirrors, away from nowhere land: You show up and act cheerful. You forgive. You say, “I’m going to believe that you care about me again, even though you don’t behave like someone who cares about other people.” You say, “I know I’m part of the problem.” You say, “I know I was acting crazy, too.” You believe that everyone in the house of mirrors shares equal blame. That’s how the other people in the house of mirrors want it, too. There is always someone new to blame. There is someone new to castigate, confront, battle. At least you’re not alone.

You’re not a fool for wanting to enter the house of mirrors. Stop calling yourself a fool. Look at your childhood. It’s obvious that you grew up in a house of mirrors. People who grew up there recognize other people who grew up there. We make the same sounds. We’re always trying to convince someone of something. We’re always looking for backup and never finding it. That’s what happens when you grow up in a place of confusion, where everyone is to blame but no one is on your side. Everyone is very emotional and loving and charming, too, but they can’t be trusted. They turn on you, over and over again. They distance themselves when you need them. They cheat and attack and backtrack and lie. Somehow, some small part of you believes what they tell you: It’s all your fault.

But when you try to leave, you had nothing. You’re lonely. You’re depressed. How do you get out and stay out, when leaving feels like entering a blank landscape with nothing in it, except for you, a damn fool, the fool who’s to blame for every single thing that’s ever happened?

Here is the answer: You forgive yourself. You forgive yourself instead of forgiving him. You also forgive these other women. You say to yourself, “These women have been taken in, just like me. Who even knows the lies he’s told them?” That doesn’t mean you have to befriend them. That doesn’t mean you have to investigate, discuss, double back, confront, relitigate. All you have to do is forgive them in your heart.

When you forgive yourself and forgive them, that blank landscape fills up with colors. You have something. You’re not nowhere anymore. When you forgive yourself and them, you recognize how much you already have, inside of you, to help you move forward: You are ALREADY someone who knows how to give love without expecting anything in return. Do you see that? Growing up in a house of mirrors gave you that superpower. You are ALREADY someone with a rich imagination. You are ALREADY someone who knows how to argue her way out of a corner. That’s skill, and you can use it somewhere else. You can use it to bring you satisfaction and joy. You are ALREADY someone who knows how to forgive. You’ve done it over and over and over. You are filled with forgiveness. You have that inside of you. Feel it. Use your forgiveness on yourself instead of him. Point your love at yourself instead of him.

You don’t have to map out your whole future. Your job is to give yourself a little credit today. Give yourself a little love today. Watch how the landscape changes when you do that. Watch how the world outside your window brightens. Watch how you bloom before your eyes. You can look yourself in the eyes now, right? Look at yourself. Do you see how broken and how beautiful you are right now? Do you see how much power and strength is inside of you, even today, even at your absolute weakest moment?

You can leave the house of mirrors for good, if you keep this broken, beautiful self close and you love her and you stop talking shit about her, finally. You are her protector. You are her mom. You are her brother. You are her sister. You are her best friend. You are her boyfriend.

You don’t have to convince anyone else of anything. You don’t need to say another word. You can walk out of the house of mirrors and never look back. You don’t have to text anyone you left behind. You don’t have to call them. You must reach out to people who are not inside the house of mirrors for help: a therapist, an old friend. Your new protector, your new sister — YOU — won’t skip that part. She will know that you need it, because she loves you. You are strong. You have stories to tell, of course. And when you tell your stories, they won’t be limited to the last five years. You’ll see how your boyfriend links up with lots of other people from the distant past. You’ll see how the house of mirrors kept you busy. It was your full-time job.

You’re not going back to that. Know that in your heart and you don’t even have to say it out loud. The relationship that matters the most right now is the one you have with yourself. Build that relationship.

I didn’t understand what that meant for the longest time. It made me a little ill to hear it, because loving myself and caring for myself meant being some kind of sick, vain person, the kind of person who doesn’t realize that she’s the real cause of all of her problems. I hadn’t forgiven myself yet. I didn’t know that I had the power, inside of me, to change that blank landscape to a place richer and more beautiful than anything I’d ever seen. I couldn’t imagine being alone and not feeling remotely lonely. I couldn’t imagine sitting still and feeling really good in my skin. I couldn’t imagine looking in the mirror and seeing someone worthy of love.

You are worthy of love. You know that in your heart already. You’re done with living in chaos and confusion. You’re exhausted, from working so hard for so long, just to run in circles. So be kind to yourself. You’re going to live a new life now. You’re strong enough. You were always strong enough, you just didn’t know it until now.

Polly

Order the 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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‘How Do I Leave My Lying, Cheating Boyfriend?’