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‘I Always Steal My Friends’ Boyfriends, and I Can’t Stop!’

Photo: Danita Delimont/Getty Images/Gallo Images

Dear Polly,

When I was in high school, I drunkenly made out with my friend’s prom date. Around that same time, I was the subject of constant scrutiny from one of my other best friends, who thought I was interested in her boyfriend and/or perceived me as a threat to her relationship. I would have denied it at the time, but her instincts were right; nothing ever happened between us, but it came close, and after that incident, I was careful not to see him one-on-one, especially if I had been drinking.

In college, I drunkenly made out with a guy friend whom my best friend at the time was interested in. They weren’t dating, but our hookup violated a “girl code” that cost me my best friendship and seriously damaged my standing in the larger group of friends we were a part of. The situation was complicated, and the guy and I ended up dating for over a year, but the consequences of that decision changed the direction of my life, at least for the remainder of my college years.

Now, I’m 25, and I find myself in a familiar spot: I’ve made a new friend, and I’m starting to feel some type of way about her boyfriend. It’s pretty benign, and my social life doesn’t revolve around seeing either of them on a regular basis, which does make me feel better about my ability to keep it at bay. But the little thoughts and feelings I’m having are things I would have ignored in the past, written off or brushed under the rug, until I inevitably drank too much, my inhibitions would fly out the window, and everything would come shooting to the surface like the motherf***ing Yellowstone geyser.

(I’d like to take a moment here to say I am by no means a big drinker — in fact, some of the situations I’ve described have made me very averse to alcohol, because like a lot of people, my worst tendencies are often set loose under the influence. Just wanted to clarify since these stories might paint a different picture.)

But back to the issue. I’m very frustrated by this because I desperately do not want to be someone who inserts herself into someone else’s relationship or tries to win the affections of a guy who is clearly off the market. I’m also frustrated because this seems to keep cropping up in each major life stage since high school, and I’ve developed little in the way of skills to manage it. I’ve definitely become more aware of this as a problematic pattern in my life, and yet just being aware and conscious of it isn’t making it magically disappear.

That I have this problem is no surprise to me, given my family dynamic. I’m certain the cause is rooted in my unbearably cliché “daddy issues” that stem from my dad’s overall physical and emotional absence for much of my life. I’ve talked about this and related issues in therapy, and I’m pretty introspective, but despite all that I can’t seem to stop myself from staging repeated mental reenactments of Les Miz, where I’m Eponine and my whole life is one long performance of “On My Own,” and I’m simultaneously the one person in the audience, pathetically holding a sign that says “#Justice4Eponine” and weeping softly.

What I’m getting at is, I can’t keep letting this continue. Whether it’s this unavailable crush or the next, I’m terrified that one of these days, I’ll go to a party and drink a little too much and make a decision that could destroy another round of friendships. But maybe even more than that, I’m desperate to get to a place in my life where I can be interested in people who are available to me, where I’m not positioning myself as an alternative to what they already have.

Please share your wisdom!

Fool for (Unrequited) Love

Dear FFUL,

Making out with your friend’s prom date isn’t a “frustrating situation” that you passively land in, beyond your control. Stealing away with your close friend’s crush isn’t a casual blooper that “seems to keep cropping up,” one that only has consequences because it violates some secret, hard-to-decipher “girl code.” Developing a crush on your new friend’s boyfriend isn’t a “pretty benign” scenario that you just need to “develop the skills to manage.” You’re telling an inaccurate story about how you keep falling into emotional quicksand. But you’re not a fool for unrequited love. You’re an emotional terrorist on a single-minded quest.

You actively punish every woman who dares to get close to you. You’re merciless toward yourself, so you’re merciless toward others. Instead of mostly ignoring your new friend’s boyfriend (because your focus is on your new friend — getting to know her, enjoying her company, connecting with her genuinely and honestly), you’re scoping out what she owns like a thief casing a house for valuables. You don’t go shopping for your own valuables because you only value what other people own. You want what they have because you don’t value your own experiences or your own feelings. Other people hold all of the power. Taking what they have is your way of feeling less inferior and invisible.

You don’t just have daddy issues. You have mommy issues. I’m sure your mother did her best, but something in the mix made you feel very small and needy. Maybe you weren’t supposed to shine too brightly. Maybe she had a tendency to treat you like a rival for your dad’s affections. Or maybe she just told a recurring, tragic story about how all of the power and beauty in the world left when your dad walked out the door. I’m not sure what happened in your past, but you definitely didn’t have any space to express your feelings of fear and loneliness and abandonment. In your telling, painful emotions are either “unbearably cliché” or they transform you into a cartoon of self-pitying melodrama. You don’t treat your emotions as valuable and worthwhile; they’re a sign of weakness, a joke, a sickness.

No wonder you’re so angry, at yourself and everyone else. You don’t just want your dad’s love. You want to teach your mom a lesson. You want to teach your friends a lesson. You’re on a vengeful crusade, and you don’t even know it.

Your awareness of your situation doesn’t help because it’s incomplete. You don’t just want a man who’s “clearly off the market.” You very specifically want a man who belongs to one of your close female friends. In other words, you want to compete with and then punish other women. You want to win, while they watch. You want to prove that YOU are the one who is valuable and special and the best all around. You want to prove how big you are, because no one let you be big. Maybe no one could see you at all, unless you were standing on a chair, shouting, or dancing in the middle of the room, or setting your own hair on fire. This is also why you have a tendency to drink too much, which you do need to examine closely. Drinking allows you to let out all of those wild emotions that you tamp down and hide and swallow when you’re sober. Drinking gives you permission to bring your true, angry, reckless self out in the open for a change.

You need to start paying attention to how much of yourself you hide from others, and how many of your friendships are just you going through the motions, playing the part of “friend” without being honest about who you are and how you feel.  Notice that when you describe the fallout from these scenarios, you’re not talking about missing your girlfriends — the heartbreak of that, the isolation. You don’t say that you regret causing them pain, or that you feel an enormous amount of guilt over how you made them feel. Instead, you talk about how, due to these recurring traps (“More emotional quicksand! Why me?”), the course of your life has been changed. You do the cold math on what it cost you. And today, when you’re tempted by this new friend’s boyfriend? More cold math. This could have costs. You don’t worry about losing a dear, cherished friend, you worry about losing “another round of friendships,” as if all friendships are the same — nearly worthless, really, but requiring valuable time and effort. You still lack free will, in your telling. If your “worst tendencies” happen to emerge at some point, that could “damage your standing” and feel “frustrating.”

Since you aren’t in touch with the emotional costs to others (or to yourself; we’ll get to that later), let me ask you: How do you think it feels, even now, to remember your prom as the night when your date made out with your friend? What message do you think that sent to your high-school friend? Even when you’re dressed up, so pretty, as beautiful as you can be, even when it’s your big night and you’re happy and hopeful and excited, YOU ARE NOT GOOD ENOUGH.

How do you think your best friend from college felt when you ran away with her crush? What message did she receive? Even when it’s looking hopeful, when he seems interested, when love is about to bloom and everything is about to turn magical and special and amazing, YOU DON’T STAND A CHANCE.

How do you think your new friend will feel when you happen to have an extra drink and your “lack of skills” in avoiding this “familiar spot” manifest themselves, see also: You jump her boyfriend’s bones out of the blue, like an emotional assassin? What message will she get from that experience? Even when you’re sure you can trust someone, you can’t — not women, not men, no one. Everyone is selfish and ruthless and cruel. YOU DON’T MATTER AT ALL.

Now read these messages you sent to your friends, one more time. These are the messages you received as a kid.

Even when you’re at your best — happy, hopeful, excited — YOU ARE NOT GOOD ENOUGH.

Even when everything is about to turn magical and special and amazing, YOU DON’T STAND A CHANCE.

Even when you’re sure you can trust someone, you can’t — not your mom, not your dad, no one. Everyone is selfish and ruthless and cruel. YOU DON’T MATTER AT ALL.

Do you feel anything when you read those messages? Or are you thinking about how “unbearably cliché” they are? There’s a particular type of woman who writes to me and calls her “daddy issues” pathetic. I was that type. I loved to be the first to roll my eyes at myself so no one else could beat me to the punch. I treated my friend’s emotions as hysterical and absurd: Here comes another incomprehensible “rule” from the “girl code” that I can’t figure out! Whatever, might as well just do what I want. Here comes another unfair request from a friend. I’m being insensitive. I’m stepping on toes, just by being my big, loud, entertaining self! Whatever, dude. I’m not responsible for your insecurities.

I didn’t understand vulnerability or real connection. I didn’t trust women. I trusted men more because they seemed simpler and easier. Once you were making out, you’d sealed the deal. Your magic was working. You had something special inside, something that only men could see. Women weren’t fair. Women always liked each other more than they liked you. Women didn’t want you to win. They secretly wanted you to lose. (What a projection.)

I was angry and sad and I didn’t trust anyone, so I tried to win. I thought that other people deserved to lose, really. I felt angry at them without knowing it. I lashed out at them when I drank. My “worst tendencies” weren’t just tendencies. They were the core of my being. I worked very hard to “seem” fine, to smile and nod along to ideas I thought were stupid, to chat amiably with people I was sure didn’t really love me. I felt like I was nothing unless I stood on a chair and shouted. But I also hid all of my feelings, from other people and from myself, except when I was drinking. My existence demanded constant control and discipline. My value was determined minute to minute: I had to demonstrate my worth, entertain, charm, seduce. If you became suspicious of me, it reinforced my suspicions of you.

Why? Because I believed that even when I was at my best — happy, hopeful, excited — I WAS NOT GOOD ENOUGH. Everyone was selfish and ruthless and unfair and cruel. I DIDN’T MATTER AT ALL. I would never matter. No one really loved me. They said they did, but they were lying. I was all alone.

My mom did her best. But something was wrong in my house. Everyone was ruled by shame, so no one talked about difficult, uncomfortable emotions. We were all left to ingest and metabolize these sharp, scary things by ourselves, in our rooms, alone. If you cried, if you got angry, if you tried to identify what was scary, what felt unfair, what felt wrong, then the problem was you. Experiencing “negative” emotions like sadness or anger didn’t just make you a threat, it made you invisible. What are you crying about now? You’re ridiculous. Go to your room.

Ours was just an average household in the ’70s. But these kinds of ingested messages matter. When you don’t understand your basic assumptions about yourself, particularly the ones you inherited from your parents, it’s very hard to be happy.

My damage manifested itself like this: I was extremely sensitive and emotional, but I played the part of a funny, swaggery girl who was above everything. It was easy to appeal to men. It was harder to appeal to other women. I took the easier path. And maybe, because women held their applause, I started to resent them.

I wasn’t an emotional terrorist, exactly. I preached from the bible of loyalty to friends. But I did steal a friend’s crush in college because I was ambivalent about her. I ended up having a long relationship with the crush, and I never considered it a theft. But if I ever run into that college friend whose crush I stole, who never spoke to me again, I’d tell her that she was right to drop me completely. I could’ve talked to her first, but I seized the moment instead. I didn’t trust her. I didn’t love myself. I felt small. I wanted to win.

Fucked up stuff happens when you’re not genuinely connecting with people but they’re in your life anyway. Bad things happen when you suspect that other people are cruel and selfish and you believe that you don’t really matter to them at all. People tend to do weird, untrustworthy things when you already distrust them. People act unlovable when you treat them as if they’re incapable of love.

People are not kind to thieves. Thieves are not kind to themselves.

So. You can’t simply find strategies and skills for avoiding sleeping with and stealing your friends’ crushes and boyfriends and lovers and husbands. You have to look deep into your own soul and see how much rage lives there. You have to examine your beliefs about women, about friendship, about who matters, about who can be trusted, about who deserves to be punished. You have to notice how your language reflects your lack of accountability for your own actions. You have to notice your blasé language about your deepest feelings. You have to notice your distanced, passive language about your life in general. Your language isn’t just a SIDE EFFECT of something twisted and broken in you, IT’S PART OF WHAT’S BROKEN. When your language is broken, your perception is broken and your presentation of yourself is broken. When your language is broken, the way that you speak to yourself is broken.

Your language says, “You are a cliché. You are unbearable. You are a joke: a pathetic, melodramatic character from Les Miz, a self-pitying cartoon.” Being a joke is lamentable, but it also lets you off the hook. You can’t feel anything most of the time, but when you do feel things, you become an absurd puddle of tears that can’t act. You toggle between tough and completely powerless.

Does your therapist push you? Or does she nod along, then collect her check? Does he intellectualize along with you and subtly reward you for refusing to take your emotions seriously?

Ask for more from this therapist or find a new one. Because the truth is, you’re far more savage than you know. But you’re also devastatingly sad and far more sensitive than you know. You care much more than you’re willing to admit. Your savagery is misdirected passion for the world, fumbling for a good path, struggling to truly connect instead of robbing your closest friends blind. Your terrorist acts are power grabs that don’t work. But there’s strength and power waiting for you, in your sorrows and in your pain. You need to admit how much you’re hurting. You need to admit that you’re not just experiencing a “problematic pattern.” You’re the anti-hero, seizing control from imagined foes. You’re a criminal. Look at yourself honestly.

It will hurt to recognize that you want to punish people, that you rarely trust anyone, that you expect disappointment and abandonment everywhere you turn, and that’s what makes you so grabby and unfair. But that pain of recognition and discovery will lead you to a new life, one where you’re not embarrassed to show your heart, one where your passions are constructive instead of self-destructive, one where you’re creating instead of stealing.

You’re a charming, smart, complicated explosion of a person. You already have a lot of power. You have limitless potential. Without guidance from your heart, without vulnerability, all of that beauty turns sour. You have to cultivate your compassion for yourself instead of treating yourself as a cliché or a joke. When you care for yourself, you’ll show compassion to others, too. You have to dare to connect with your friends, and recognize that these connections, when they’re honest and awkward and real, are the most sublime and valuable parts of your life. You have to learn to cherish them.

The key lies in your view of all emotion as self-pity. Start there. Feel your emotions and treasure every one of them. There are 10,000 leagues under that sea. It’s too much. You know that already. It’s frightening. Celebrate the horror of those dark waters. Celebrate the delicate creatures that live there. You are not a petty thief. You are an ocean, big and wild. You already matter.


Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enoughhere. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘I Always Steal My Friends’ Boyfriends, and I Can’t Stop!’