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‘I Send Letters After Relationships End, But No One Writes Me Back’

Photo: Matthias Makarinus/Getty Images

Hi, Polly,

I have a lot of trouble expressing my feelings to romantic interests while we’re in the thick of it, both good and bad. I can’t even seem to be honest during a final argument or good-bye. All I know how to do is put it in a letter, and I’ll only do that once the envelope on a relationship has been sealed for good.

So these aren’t happy letters. These are letters touched by conflict, injury, or rejection. I never ask for answers outright, but I suppose my letters quietly ask for healing. However, at 26, I have enough data to suggest that a soul-baring letter (email, Facebook message, etc.) is not a great way to get any healing (closure, answers, etc.).

No one has ever responded to one of these letters, and despite prevailing wisdom, the mere act of letter writing doesn’t seem to have any healing effect for me. Maybe it soothes for a week or two, up until the point where I start hearing crickets and experience that silence as another emotional blow. And all those letters … (Okay, it’s only like four or so, but still!) Are they unreceived? Unopened? Unprocessed? The suspense is killing me, from a letter I sent six years ago to a letter I sent just two months ago.

I’ve been on the receiving end of a “feelings letter” before, and each time I didn’t respond. Once, an ex-friend sent a message that ended with something like “I hope that good things come into your life,” or was it “Wishing you light and happiness”? Some sort of airy thing that would look great stitched on an Etsy pillow but probably covers up a sentiment such as “Screw you” or “My therapist told me to write this.” Her letter didn’t make me angry, sad, or happy. In fact, it left me befuddled and sort of numb. I was struck by a complete lack of concrete details about our past conflict. It felt like a trick. She was being “honest” with me, and yet there were no narrative inroads. I wanted her side of the story. Isn’t that the codex that helps us make sense of it all?

I got a letter from an ex-boyfriend once that made me angry, not numb, but there was a similar sense of subterfuge. That the letter was concealing more than it was revealing. I remember telling him in person, “But you didn’t say anything!” That’s a funny thing to say to a person who has just written down their feelings and sent them to you.

So why do I expect people to respond to my letters when I’ve never shown anyone else the same courtesy? Why do I keep writing letters to feel better when it only makes me feel worse? And why do I keep signing off (just like my friend did) by wishing other people “all the best” when, really, I want to shove them or fuck them or hug them or swallow them whole?

Ugh, what’s wrong with me? I’m rereading everything I wrote here, and anger and spite is all I see: Getting mad at people because I don’t understand them, or because I can’t control how they understand themselves. Banging on them like doors because they won’t let me in, even though I probably shut them out a long time ago. It’s weird, because I really don’t feel angry at this point in my life. I used to, all the time. Now I just feel this huge sadness without any form.

Please help me. I don’t know if I can hold these feelings anymore, and obviously, there aren’t any takers out in the world.

Return to Sender

Dear RTS,

These letters do something for you, or you wouldn’t keep writing them. Just look at how your understanding of the situation grew within the course of your letter to me. You figure things out by writing them down. The only thing you’re missing is the moral to this story: STOP SENDING THEM.

Because even though your intentions feel pure at the outset — I’m seeking clarity! I’m laying out the details! I’m offering up my side of the story! — you’re throwing down some brutal truths at the exact moment when these details are no longer relevant. You’re saying, “Sadly, I must bid you adieu, but before I disappear completely, HERE ARE ALL OF THE WAYS YOU DISAPPOINTED ME.”

That’s like throwing a brick through someone’s window right after you leave their house for brunch. Your true feelings aren’t known until you’re gone, and you’re not even around to clean it up. And then the days pass and you feel embarrassed and wonder if anyone will ever send you a bill for the window you broke.

You say you’re “getting mad at people because I don’t understand them, or because I can’t control how they understand themselves.” But you’re also trying to control how people understand you, because some part of you is ashamed of how intense you are. Overexplaining is often driven by shame, and by the illusion that you can control the narrative. But you can’t. No matter how convincing your words might be, the recipient of your letter won’t change their opinion, just as your opinion didn’t budge after getting letters from your ex-friend or your ex-boyfriend.

It’s hard not to be haunted by past relationships, particularly when they end badly. But you have to learn to let them go, put them out of your mind, and resist the temptation to fixate. Because there is truly nothing in this world that’s more erosive to your sense of self than obsessing over people who aren’t in your life anymore. The only way to know what people think of you is by having an honest conversation when you’re still in the relationship. The rest will remain a mystery.

I spent years engrossed in imaginary arguments in my head, so I know what I’m talking about. And these days, when I get a letter from someone who’s incredibly attached to laying out the minutest details of an interaction — “He called on Thursday and said this, I wrote back on Friday to say that, we met on Saturday and it was weird” — it’s often a sign that the person wants to find some way to legislate WHO IS RIGHT and WHO IS WRONG. Believing that complicated, emotional people can be categorized as good or bad with a little help from an outside judge usually indicates that the letter writer doesn’t trust her own instincts and doesn’t voice her needs within a relationship.

Your letters are a way of delivering a false verdict: THIS IS THE LAST WORD ON THE MATTER. Even though you’re secretly waiting for a reply, some kind of counterargument, even though you might find such a letter gratifying, you’re ultimately trying to get to a place where your perspective is the only logical and healthy perspective. It makes sense that you don’t already trust that this is the case, though, because it’s impossible to feel logical and healthy when you never voice your needs within any relationship.

Trying to prove yourself right after the fact is not a solution. As someone who loves to tippity-tap-type out long emails and letters and texts alike when I’m feeling conflicted, I have to tell you this in the most solemn tone I can muster: Highly detailed, wildly argumentative correspondence is never well received.

It was so hard to quit sending long letters and emails, though! Because it just felt right to write it all down. It felt important and necessary! I even told myself that writing these letters was brave. After all, wasn’t this me, embracing on my own idiosyncratic ideas of how the world should be? But I was fooling myself. I was living in a fantasy world where everyone was supposed to do things MY WAY (and understand me perfectly). In truth, it’s much more brave to learn to get along with real, difficult people, live and in person. So these days, I always try to stop and imagine how I’ll feel a day or a week or a month after I send the email. That’s part of maturing: learning to see past the immediate moment in order to protect yourself over the long haul.

You should write more letters to people who are actually in your life. Shift your focus from the past to the present. Sort through your feelings in writing, so can talk about how you feel and what you need straight to people’s faces for a change. You also need to recognize how different people are from each other. Maybe you’ve been signing on to relationships with people who are truly, deeply, abidingly not your type. You already suspect that this is true, so you censor yourself at every turn for fear of losing them.

You’re very good with words. But right now you’re hiding inside your detailed proofs of other people’s blind spots. That’s no way to live. You’re trying to gain some control without having to be vulnerable. I’ve done that so many times, and trust me, it only makes you feel more insecure and more haunted. You can keep constructing elaborate structures with your words — you obviously enjoy it! — but don’t live there. Knock them down after you build them. This is where you knock down all of your words in your letter to me:

“And why do I keep signing off (just like my friend did) by wishing other people ‘all the best’ when, really, I want to shove them or fuck them or hug them or swallow them whole?”

In your life, you’re showing up and biting your tongue when you really want to speak. You’re smiling when you really want to shove someone. You’re shrugging and turning away when you really want to hug someone. You’re blindly following and then resenting and then silently analyzing someone when you really want to swallow them whole. As long as your actions and your true desires don’t match, all of your relationships will be a murky realm of resentment and confusion.

So stop nodding along and then accusing other people of being fake. Stop getting  angry that no one can read your mind. You don’t assert yourself or protect yourself within a relationship, so you have a compulsion to set things straight after the fact, but it only makes you feel overexposed and regretful. Sure, it feels good in the moment, to crawl into your house of words, which is brilliant and gorgeous, with soaring ceilings and flying buttresses. But when you knock it all down, it’s just a pile of rubble that mumbles, “Why can’t people be more like me?”

This is where the conflicted, oversensitive writer (hello, are you a writer? You sure sound like one!) lands after silently catering to others out of a misguided sense that SHE CAN’T BE A PERSON AND WANT THINGS. She denies her right to be who she is, then she denies everyone else’s right to be who they are. Maintaining control after a breakup depends on storytelling. Maintaining control during a relationship requires silence and service. Instead of being a vulnerable, flawed human being with needs, you transform yourself into a retail professional: “Would you like another drink? How is everything tasting?” (God, I hate it when servers say that! GET OUT OF MY MOUTH, FILTHY STRANGER. I’d like to savor my own sensations without reporting on them.)

You must feel like your personal space is invaded by filthy strangers all the time, because you don’t speak up and tell people what you want. You serve others. You show up to their houses for brunch and you smile politely. You catalogue their blind spots as you sip your coffee. You do all of the dishes with a giggle and a “No big deal, I don’t mind!” Then you walk out the front door and throw a brick through their window. There’s a note attached: “You are a fucked-up piece of shit, you know that, right? I feel like you need to know that. But good luck anyway, no hard feelings.”

I could say a million and one things about these layers of denial and shame and how you might dig through them. And it would be fun for me, too! This column could go on for 20 or 30 pages! But instead, let me just say this: See a therapist. Not because you’re maximally screwed, but because you’re smart and you want to learn more about yourself and you love this stuff. YOU LOVE IT. You love cataloguing and analyzing and dissecting and building architectural wonders with your words. So enjoy that, instead of lamenting it. You also have the fuel — the rage, the longing, the fear, the deep insecurity — to keep building and building. Maybe you’re a writer! If so, celebrate that!

Remember that you’re no more disordered than most people, you just happen to be very loud about your disordered state (like most writers and artists and weirdos are). Accept that and learn how to live with it. But please, stop chasing confusing people and feed yourself more. Stop hiding all of your brilliance and then giving it all away once it’s worthless. Celebrate who you are in the moment, even when no one is listening. SWALLOW YOURSELF WHOLE.

People can be very disappointing. I get that. Feeling disappointed in other people is a core feature of being a writer and an artist and a weirdo. That feeling won’t just go away. But honestly, it’s not that bad to feel disappointed once you learn not to blame yourself for it. Frustration will be another core feature of your life, because our culture frustrates the smartest and most passionately idealistic and stubbornly eccentric among us. Our culture confuses us about who we should be, because our culture is broken. The way people talk without saying anything honest is broken, and the fact that very few people ask for exactly what they want is broken. But that’s still what healthy people do. They don’t write long letters after the fact. They ask for exactly what they want, in the moment. Calmly, without apology.

So when you’re around other people, don’t ask “How is everything tasting?” Don’t hover and wring your hands and say “I will make it tastier for you!” and then send a letter afterward that says “This is how everything SHOULD HAVE tasted, but you have no palate, you miserable shit bird!” Relish your own twisted flavor profiles in private, and it will give you more courage to stand up for who you are in public.

No one has the same palate. You can’t control that, so respect it instead. Be humble, but don’t be ashamed. Tell people what you want, and show compassion for their needs and desires in turn. It will feel awkward to be so honest, face-to-face, but that’s not your fault. You might not get what you want. Accept that, and ask anyway.

Stop throwing bricks. Stand in the middle of the floor and say, “I am here, and I’m not going anywhere, but I feel sad. I need you to see me. And I want to see 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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