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‘I’m Obsessed With a Woman Who Doesn’t Want Me’

Photo: Izumi T/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

I love your writing and your outlook on life. Your book has changed my life for the better. But right now I need your unique brand of tough love because nothing else seems to be working.

I ended a two-and-a-half-year relationship at the start of this year. I loved my partner deeply, but she had issues with alcohol, rage, and jealousy. The previous year I had lost a friend to suicide, and instead of seeking comfort in my partner, I became withdrawn and stopped communicating effectively. I accept that this was wrong, but I also accept that my partner failed to support me, instead becoming paranoid and repeatedly accusing me of not loving her and having affairs. When my partner moved out, I felt a tremendous sense of relief but also enormously sad, broken, and alone.

This letter is about another woman. She was a colleague of mine, though she left my office shortly after my breakup. On learning that I was single, she broke up with her boyfriend and began texting me constantly. I was conflicted because I was very attracted to this person but I also did not want to dive into another relationship. We stayed in touch, went on a couple of dates over a few weeks, and one night we kissed briefly before going home. She told me that night that she had wanted me since the day we met and had fantasized a long time about us being together. Then at 2 a.m. that night, she texted me saying that it wasn’t the right time for her, as her ex was back in town. I was devastated, and I beat myself up repeatedly for not being more decisive early on. But I took her at her word, decided to give her space, and thought if she was serious, she would come back to me. A couple of months later, she got in touch. She told me about all the trouble she had with her ex and her new job. We had a great night out, and I lifted her spirits a little. We went out again, and I asked her where we were, to which she replied completely nonchalantly, “Oh, I’m seeing someone.” I have since learned from other sources that she has been seeing one of my current colleagues for months and they are now living together.

So this woman has clearly displayed dishonesty and a lack of empathy, as well as perhaps some rash decision-making. But the thing is, I still can’t stop thinking about her. I tell myself that I wasn’t ready. That I was hurting from my breakup and my friend’s death. That I’ve learned so much about myself from these months of being single. That she doesn’t display the qualities that I want in a partner. That I’m a great person and there are plenty of other amazing women out there.

But I can’t let her go. I wish I was the one living with her. I keep thinking if only I had of done things differently, or if only this other guy wasn’t on the scene, everything would be great. I know these thoughts are unhelpful, and I hate wasting my energy on this person. What can I do to get my life back?

Unwillingly Obsessed

Dear UO,

You have pure intentions, but they’re clouded by the fact that you’re emotionally immature. You withdraw when someone needs you, and you get needy when someone doesn’t need you. The woman you’re obsessed with might be the same way. She was interested in you when you were in a relationship. But the second you kissed her and made it clear that you were into her, she was out. Hours later, she called it off, saying it wasn’t the right time. Her ex returned to town during those hours? No. She loved her fantasies much more than she liked the reality of a human being, standing in front of her, ready to take a leap. She doesn’t seem to want a human being. She wants someone who’s always disappearing around the next corner. She prefers fantasy to reality.

I would argue that you’re the same way. My guess is that you’re struggling with some underlying depression and anxiety, but you don’t want to examine those issues. You’d rather attribute your melancholy and longing to outside forces. I have no doubt that your friend’s suicide was devastating to you. I can only imagine how hard that must have been, and how hard it continues to be. But something made you not want to lean on your partner during that time. You blame her for not supporting you, but it’s incredibly challenging to support someone who’s withdrawn and doesn’t want to be vulnerable or share the truth about how sad he is. Leaning on her might’ve made you feel more connected to her, but instead some part of you wanted to tap into your preexisting depression and sadness and drag it up to the surface for you and you alone. You didn’t want to be supported — you wanted to feel lonely in your sadness. You preferred to sink into your sadness all alone.

Maybe you didn’t trust her. It sounds like she was hard to trust. And in many ways, your desire to explore your misery and mourning alone was a healthy urge. Some part of you wanted to dig down deeper than you would’ve dug if you were leaning on your partner and relying on her support. Maybe some part of you wanted to hit rock bottom. Maybe you wanted to face some of the underlying grief and longing that began haunting you long before your friend died. You wanted to face a moment of reckoning, so you could finally live in reality.

Maybe when you met your ex, you were still an escapist. Leaving her behind was a way of trying to face yourself and live in reality for the first time. You wanted to be different from her, by facing your own isolation and sorrow. But you weren’t used to feeling your feelings, so you weren’t prepared for how miserable you’d be on your own. And once you realized how much more crushed you felt without her, that set the stage for you to want to escape into another fantasy, one conveniently provided by your former colleague.

So now you’re back to your former state, in which you struggle to live with the truth. You want an external explanation for things that exist inside of you. You didn’t want to become closer to your girlfriend after your friend’s death, but you were devastated without her. You weren’t sure you should get involved with your colleague, but once she called it off, you started obsessing about her full time. And once you saw that she was fickle and cruel, that knowledge only made you more obsessed.

Why did this woman go out with you and not mention her new relationship if she was already seeing someone else? Why didn’t she warn you that she was involved before you two went out? She wanted to milk you for all the intrigue that you were worth, in spite of the fact that you were vulnerable and she had moved on. Maybe she needs a lot of reassurance from different sources just to feel okay in the world, so she hit you up for an ego fix. Either way, she’s bad news. Somehow, that only made her more attractive to you.

I’m not trying to make you sound weak. Everyone I know has made a series of relationship choices similar to the ones you describe here. I’m just urging you to examine your motives through all of this, so you can see how many of your choices are a way of avoiding the truth about your underlying depression and your low self-esteem. Your tendency to undervalue yourself and your experience are clear throughout your letter: You only seem to feel worthy when other people embrace or chase you, and you struggle to see yourself as worthy if no one needs you. You also struggle to tell the truth and make your real needs known, and you seem to beat yourself up over small things (like not making a decisive move early on, for example, in spite of the fact that you weren’t sure you even wanted to date this woman at first).

You need to see a therapist in order to sort through the things that are quietly plaguing you, things that have nothing at all to do with either your ex or your current obsession. You need therapy because you seem a little hopeless and extremely sensitive at this moment in your life, but also because you’re more attracted to damaged people than you are to healthy ones. I’m going to guess that even though your ex was an alcoholic and was overly jealous and paranoid for a long time, you stayed with her anyway and didn’t take a very active role in the relationship. You liked the fact that she was too distracted by her drinking to draw attention to your own feelings of worthlessness or ask you to show up completely. In the end, though, part of the reason she was so jealous was that she could see that you weren’t in it completely. She wasn’t really paranoid at all, if you think about it. She accurately perceived that you would eventually dump her. There’s no blame in that observation. I’m just pointing out that you don’t seem that comfortable with taking a proactive, vulnerable, open role in any relationship. You seem very hesitant to act and seem to prefer to remain passive at every crucial juncture when you’re asked to step it up a little.

You were also passive with your current obsession. She went so far as to break up with her boyfriend over you, and even though you say that you wanted to be alone for a while, you couldn’t resist getting pulled into her tractor beam. You wanted to figure yourself out and get stronger, but those healthy impulses were overshadowed by the temptation to fall into a new relationship. Sure, you were attracted to her, but did you even know who she was? Were you interested in her personality? Because I can’t tell what you liked about her at all, before you kissed her or after you discovered that she was involved with someone else.

And maybe she’s not merely heartless and dishonest. Maybe she also figured out that being with you might just feel a lot like being alone, because you really struggle to be present. You’re very hesitant to make your true needs, opinions, and feelings known. You don’t really want to be seen or heard. You want to remain hidden. You want to get swept away in a fantasy without ever having to show up.

I don’t think you know how it feels to put yourself into the world without fear. I think you have a lot of anxiety and sadness ruling your day-to-day actions as well as your big-picture decisions. So instead of merely trying to shake off this obsession, you need to make a commitment to wanting much more than just love. You need to figure out how to accept and embrace yourself, darkness and all. You need to open up your eyes and your heart and understand the full range of experiences that are waiting for you, once you start to grapple with your deep-seated issues and your recurring fears, the ones that send you into your shell and keep you protected and remote from everyone around you.

It’s time for you to come out of your hidey-hole and face the world and yourself. It’s time for you to become a healthy human being who can seek out other healthy human beings instead of chasing confused, lonely, ego-starved people who don’t know how to value themselves without being propped up by other people. It’s time for you to stop seeing yourself as worthless, every single day. You have to start accepting yourself and cherishing your emotional experience. You have to dare to believe that your feelings matter, and you matter. Even when you’re feeling sad and small and shitty, you matter.

Your current feelings of worthlessness aren’t exotic or repugnant, mind you. They’re not your fault, either. These feelings merely make you exactly like a good third of the people on the planet. The real problem is not your feelings of worthlessness, but that you’re hiding from those feelings, day in and day out. Your obsession is another way to hide. Your mourning is, in some ways, a way to hide, too. Your self-pity is justified, but it can provide another place to hide. These hiding places sidestep the truth of how you feel. Bad things have happened, yes, but that’s not the main source of your sadness. It’s time to stop hiding and face what’s real. It’s time to face how much you dislike yourself, distrust yourself, and want other people to lead you because you value their opinions and instincts more than you value your own.

I know it sounds frightening to face this stuff. But once you stop keeping the truth of what you’re struggling with at arm’s length, you’ll realize that your life is filled with limitless possibility. You have to let down your guard first. You have to let the darkness in, and grapple with it. You have to allow yourself to fall apart. It’s not as scary as you think. You have to commit to feeling your feelings for the first time, instead of always holding them at bay.

Naturally you don’t want to feel your feelings right now. Your feelings only lead to more depression and grief and anxiety. But those sensations are like the breakers that keep you from swimming out into the ocean and exploring vast new, gorgeous worlds. Don’t be afraid of them. It’s normal to be depressed before you figure yourself out. It’s normal to feel worthless before you decide what you really value and love the most. You won’t figure out how to feel joy, though, until you feel your sadness. You won’t figure out how to swim until you’re knocked down by a few waves.

This is what I want you to know, more than anything else: You’re not alone. I’m with you. We are with you, we who spent years hiding from our own darkness. I want you to feel this in your heart: You’re hurting yourself, and you deserve to feel good. You deserve much, much better than this. This woman is a mirage. You don’t even know her. She’s a symbol of something you don’t need, another way to hide in plain sight. You think you want to be the one living with her, but you don’t want that. That way leads back to feeling lost and empty. It’s time to stop looking back. Your whole life is about to go from black and white to full color. You’re about to meet some of the most healthy, delightful, joyful, open-hearted people you’ve ever met before. But first, you have to be brave. First, you have to face your fears. First, you have to reckon with your fragile heart.

This is how your obsession began in the first place: Your fragile heart was trying to find some courage, trying to find a new path forward. Move this mirage out of the way, and continue on your way, through the darkness, but not alone, never alone. Trust yourself. Take another step into the dark. You are not alone.


Order Polly’s new book, What If This Were Enough, here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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

‘I’m Obsessed With a Woman Who Doesn’t Want Me’