I’m sick of you accepting letters from women who are messes but have “a loving husband who always supports my decisions” or women who are in perfect relationships but are haunted by guilt about their exes. We single ladies are messes without the built-in safety net of a partner, and we need your help, too — even more!
In that spirit, I write to you with my sad single-lady problems about how I can’t find the loving husband who will support all of my decisions because I am too weird and difficult (exhibit A: the above, very rude paragraph).
I think lots of people are weird, of course, and still manage to find their people, but I’m worried my particular flavor of weird is so internally contradictory that finding somebody who also embodies those clashing values and interests is nigh impossible.
Everyone that I see on these dating apps is so easy. “I love hiking!” “I will eat any food!” “I enjoy going out but also like staying in.” So amenable! So low maintenance! So unfussy! They’re good vibes only.
I am not that way. Here are my things: I am aggressively feminist. It is not enough for me to date a man who doesn’t actively catcall women; I need someone who will validate me when I complain about mansplaining at work and understand that asking me to tell him what chores he needs to do his 50 percent share of is itself emotional labor that I’m not here for. I’m kinky and find vanilla sex utterly boring; I’ve tried to be more open to it, but it just doesn’t turn me on. These two things are already somewhat contradictory: someone who won’t devil’s advocate me about the gender wage gap but then finds the idea of slapping me (even consensually!) abhorrent kind of makes sense. Then on top of that, monogamy: People who are “alternative” in these ways — kink, leftist politics — also tend to reject monogamy (doubly so in the Bay Area, where I live). I do not want to be polyamorous, ethically non-monogamous, in an open relationship, monogamish, any of it. So here we have three core, relationship-foundational pieces that are already in conflict with each other.
Add onto that some more mundane things: I’m vegetarian and don’t want to make out with someone who tastes like cheeseburger, so I’d prefer to date people who are somewhat vegetarianish. Camping sounds like actual hell, and yet that’s the No. 1 thing millennials seem to want to do with their weekends. I can’t date someone who lives in a commune where four people share one bedroom. I am really having a hard time finding anyone I’m compatible with.
The last person I went on a few dates with ticked some of the boxes. He was compassionate about workplace sexism I’d experienced, was uninterested in polyamory, and while he wasn’t vegetarian, he was down to order meatless when we went out. There was even fun kinky sex. The problem, Polly, was that he didn’t wash his hands. The first time he came over to my place, I thought I heard him exit the bathroom without running the faucet but figured he was maybe preoccupied and forgot. The next time was after we had just gone to dinner and eaten pizza handheld style. We got back to my place, and he used the bathroom first; I listened for the water and didn’t hear it, and then when I went in, the sink was conspicuously dry. So I was faced with a dilemma, knowing his fingers were due shortly to be inside of my body: Do I confront him or embrace the germs as immunity-building? Polly, I was not going to have fingers covered in cheese juice plunged into my precious lady parts!
“Um, so sorry if this is weird, but I don’t think I heard the water run and then I noticed the sink was, um, dry, and I was wondering if maybe you, like, forgot to wash your hands?” My voice rising several octaves with the discomfort of having to play mother to a 31-year-old man and remind him to wash his hands after using the bathroom. Taken aback, he got defensive. “I did!” he said. And I didn’t really know what else to say so I changed the subject and asked if I could get him something to drink. We had sex and his pizza fingers were inside me and I didn’t die but I also didn’t see him again after that.
Afterward, I realized that he was the 50th person I’ve had sex with and I cried. I’ve put myself out there so many times, shared my body with so many people, tried to imagine myself loving strangers over and over again, and I’ve only been in one real actual adult relationship, and the person it was with was emotionally abusive and told me to kill myself to spare the world my craziness. Not exactly a confidence booster.
I try so hard to go into things open-minded. On dates, I channel my most fun, flirty, witty self — not faking it, but really putting my best foot forward. And most of the time it works and they like me, but there’s always a problem with them. Of course, I’ve gotten my share of rejection, most notably from a friend of nine years I confessed my feelings to last year, only to learn he didn’t feel the same way. I really thought we could be happy together.
Trying to date people through in-person connections and friendship hasn’t worked, and trying to date people from online always results in nasty surprises, so what’s a girl to do? I don’t need a relationship; I go to therapy and have good friendships and hobbies and a dog and a life, but no one to share it with. I long for someone to help me work through the lasagna I’ve been eating for five dinners already because even halving a recipe of lasagna yields too much for one person. I love your “radish” column; I even have it linked in my OkCupid profile. The problem is everyone thinks they’re a radish when they’re just different shapes of potato.
Eating Lasagna Alone Forever
You can be weird and contradictory and still find love. You can pray to God and Satan at the same time and still find love. You can be vegan on Thursdays and a carnivore on Fridays. You can sanitize a man’s dick and also have a dump-garbage-on-the-bed-before-sex fetish. You can be picky as hell in a million conflicting ways, and it’s fine, as long as you’re right with yourself.
You, my friend, are not right with yourself. That was obvious at the start of your letter, although I have to admit “I’m sick of you” made for a catchy opener. I just assumed you hadn’t read my column for that long. Then you mentioned the “radish” column, which is an ode to flying your freak flag as a single person with very specific needs and desires. Maybe you’ve also read one of the many other “Ask Polly” columns I’ve written about embracing exactly who you are as a single person, no matter how many people reject you for it. Hell, maybe you’ve even read my book How to Be a Person in the World, which has a whole (masterful!) section on this subject. (Yes, that’s some shameless self-promotion, because that’s how I’m rolling this year. Hi. Nice to meet you. Hi.)
So you know I write to single women all the time, yet the start of your letter is still “I’m sick of you accepting letters from women who aren’t single.” Which is a little bit like telling a guy you just started dating, “I didn’t hear any water running,” after he uses the bathroom. You’re scolding instead of making a request. You could say, “I’d like you to wash your hands before we make out.” But instead, you say, “I listened closely and figured out that there’s something wrong with you! You’re gross, and I’m not your mommy!” And what happens after that? You fuck the guy anyway. You’re not listening to your own heart, and you’re blaming everyone else for it.
I think you’re struggling with shame and you’re taking it out on everyone you meet (the way your abusive ex took his shame out on you by telling you to spare the world your craziness). In fact, I’ll bet you say, “There’s something wrong with you” often, to a lot of people. That’s true because you’re pretty sure that there’s something wrong with you. You scold people because some part of you is furious at yourself. And why wouldn’t you be furious? You keep doing things you don’t want to do and feeling terrible afterward. You act like you’re all about honoring your peculiar needs, but you don’t honor them. Your whole life is like making a giant lasagna and then forcing yourself to eat it for five days straight.
Meanwhile, you have no mercy for the unhappy married women who write to me, the ones who are suffering in spite of the fact that they have supportive husbands. One lesson you could take from their letters is that happiness doesn’t spring forth magically from being married. You could readjust your mistaken view that people who aren’t single are usually doing better than people who are. You could pick up on the fact that even having a great partner does next to nothing for a person, if she isn’t right with herself.
Instead, you use it as just another reason why no one understands you or gives you what you really need. You’re the one who doesn’t understand you. You’re the one who doesn’t give you what you need. When you write “I’m sick of you,” what you really mean is that you’re sick of yourself. You’re sick of biting your tongue and tolerating pizza fingers. You’re sick of fucking random people who don’t understand you. You’re censoring yourself instead of telling people what you really want. You’re sick of eating lasagna for five days straight. God only knows the other things you’re sick of, because you’re not good to yourself, ELAF. You punish yourself every single day.
Everything you wrote angrily to me is just a note to yourself. Reread your letter. You want to stop fucking random guys so badly. You’re so tired of being hung out to dry. You’re tired of leaping into bad situations.
You know that I get it. You know I’ve been there. I feel for you. I was conflicted and contradictory, too. It was really fucking hard. But the hardest part was what I did to myself. I yelled about what I wanted, but I secretly suspected that I was too much for anyone to handle, so I abandoned my principles under the slightest pressure.
There is nothing worse than that. You have to suffer through all of the drawbacks of being difficult without any of the advantages of standing up for what you want. When that guy came out of the bathroom, you didn’t have to make it about him being filthy or immature. It didn’t have to turn into another horror story you like to tell about how inadequate and disappointing people can be. You know perfectly well that lots of guys never wash their sad grubby hands after they whip their dicks around. You’ve slept with enough men to know. But because you knew you were still going to give in and fuck this guy and his pizza fingers no matter what, you had to get a little mean about it. Your voice rose an octave. “I didn’t hear any WATER RUNNING IN THERE.”
People who honor their values and principles without fear don’t have to raise their voices that much. When you’re right with yourself and you trust yourself and protect yourself, you can say, “Can you wash your hands before we make out?” No explanation necessary. And if a guy has a problem with that, that’s an excellent reason not to fuck him. No big deal, this has been fun, but I need clean hands in my business. No shame, just preferences.
Likewise, if you’re okay with your own sexual preferences, you can have a conversation about slapping that doesn’t include proclaiming non-kinky, non-slappy sex “vanilla” and “utterly boring.” The most boring things in the world can be hot and the hottest things in the world can be boring. Some people find watching other people taking off their shoes insanely hot. Does a distaste for violence really make someone dull? I’m not taking a stand against what you like, I’m just asking you to examine how you sound when you talk about this stuff. Is it possible to be right enough with yourself and your preferences that you don’t accidentally impugn other people’s tastes? I think so. People who are right with themselves tend not to describe other people’s sexual preferences as dull or plain or bland (or dirty or perverse, for that matter). They can make room for what they want without stealing space from anyone else.
No wonder you have trouble stating your preferences when you’re so brutal about other people’s preferences. Similarly, you moved very rapidly from the subject of dating a non-vegetarian to kissing a cheeseburger mouth. How did we get inside a carnivore’s mouth so quickly? Do you see how your inability to respect your own boundaries is making you panic a little and shout about what you want instead of just asking? You’re like the married woman who lives in the house behind me, who screeches at her husband about what a piece of shit he is, day after day, year after year. She’s shouting because she knows she’ll never leave him. When you don’t protect and value yourself, it makes you furious at yourself and furious at everyone around you.
You need to take things much more slowly with men. Make friends with them. Get to know them. Be patient. Practice telling people who you are and what you want before you’re in a bad situation and you’re worried that you’ll abandon yourself and give in and do something you don’t want to do again.
I know it’s hard to be single. I know it’s especially hard when you’re a walking bundle of contradictions. You’re also probably a tiny bit anxious. Have you talked to your therapist about that, or is addressing your anxiety another luxury that you don’t deserve, like the luxury of not fucking a guy you don’t want to fuck or not eating a meal you don’t want to eat?
I lived the way you’re living for a long time, and believe me, love doesn’t help. Forget finding love and get right with yourself. Getting right with yourself is as simple as listening to your heart for a change. Learn to trust your feelings instead of stigmatizing them, or making jokes, or acting like they don’t exist. Learn to notice your shame. Notice how your shame makes you clam up and encourages you to do things you don’t want to do. Once you start honoring your desires instead of living inside of other people’s imagined judgments, you’ll finally be able to make simple statements and requests without shaming other people along the way. You have to find some way out of this bad, trapped place you’re in, where everyone who isn’t exactly like you is fucking up. Because your shame is making so much noise right now. You are spreading your shame far and wide. You’re off-gassing shame in casual interactions and in friendships and on dates.
Can you start to look closely at your shame instead of turning it against other people?
I’m a little worried that you won’t because you’ll feel too stung by my words. But I want to be direct with you because I think you need more than just a hand to hold. You need to hold your own hand for a change. You’re mad at me (and everyone else) because we won’t give you what you need. But what you need is YOU. You need to stand up for your particular tangle of odd desires. You need to make peace with who you are.
That’s a long process. You need to spend some time alone, working through your feelings and looking honestly at some of your contradictions. You probably believe that you’ve sorted through this stuff already, but if you don’t do it with an open, vulnerable heart, then it’s just an intellectual exercise, a way of telling defensive stories to a world that doesn’t care enough. I would also guess that you talk about your beliefs and desires with other people in defensive ways because you haven’t examined these things enough on your own. Emotional, smart, anxious, sensitive weirdos really need to have a strong relationship with themselves. We have to have our own backs or we come across as unhinged. We need to audit our feelings a lot, because we often start storytelling in a defensive way in order to avoid being vulnerable and looking at the whole truth. We need to deconstruct our stories, asking ourselves why we tell them and what purpose they serve.
You tell a lot of stories. You think that if you can point out your flaws and contradictions, that makes them okay. But self-awareness is not the same thing as peace. Pay attention to how exhausting it is to overexplain but never really feel at peace. Notice how often you explain yourself in situations where it’s unneeded or unwanted. It always seems like you’re either biting your tongue or saying too much, doesn’t it? That’s a sign that you’re not right with yourself, too.
I know you can’t do everything in a vacuum. And I know it’s lonely. But right now, your loneliness is 90 percent you longing for you to show up and listen to your pain and your fears. You’re sick of ignoring your own feelings while pretending to know exactly what you want. You’re sick of trying to seem healthy when you don’t feel that great a lot of the time. You’re sick of you letting yourself get mauled by people you don’t even like. You’re sick of trying to explain things you don’t understand yourself.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Surprises are only nasty when you feel like you can’t say no because you don’t deserve to say no.
Get right with yourself, make peace with your feelings, and you’ll learn to say no in a calm voice. You won’t have to shout anymore or pretend you’re cool with things that bother you. You’ll stand where you are, and be who you are, and state what you need. You’ll observe other people, doing what they do, and it won’t offend you or anger you. There’s room for all kinds of contradictions in this world. Make some room for your own.
But don’t be afraid of challenging your own entrenched positions. For every single arrogant statement you repeatedly make, ask yourself if the OPPOSITE statement might also be true for you. For every weakness you fixate on in others, ask yourself if you aren’t afraid that at a deep level, you’re weak in the exact same ways. What aren’t you allowed to do? Who won’t you let yourself be? What is the most embarrassing, vanilla thing you could ever want for yourself?
Anything you routinely get defensive or heated up about, investigate that. Interrogate your desires. Deconstruct your aversions. Be open to learning. Get to know yourself a little better. Look straight into your own scary abyss, swirling with shame and fear. Your weaknesses are more beautiful than you think. Let them surprise you.
Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?, here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.
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