ask polly

‘Men Always Disappoint Me!’

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Dear Polly,

I have always had issues with men. It stems from my dad (of course, what else?), who killed himself when I was a baby. I never thought that this actually affected me at all (besides the fact that I just didn’t have a dad) until I got older. Still, I denied it for a long time, but even my mom would tell me that I needed to fix my problems with the male population. I was always afraid of men: my chiropractor, a male nurse, the guy bagging the groceries, even my stepdad. It was like a fear/hate relationship with literally every guy I met.

I didn’t really understand my problem until I got my first boyfriend. I left for college at 17. All of my friends had had numerous boyfriends and sexual escapades already, and I felt like there was something seriously wrong with me that I was a freshman in college and I hadn’t even had my first kiss.

Enter my first boyfriend. I should have seen the red flags sooner, and I did see them, I just didn’t exactly think they were red flags. He was my first kiss, the first night I ever met him. For months and months we were practically dating, but we weren’t dating. He wouldn’t date me because he “didn’t want to hurt me and ruin our amazing friendship.” I told him I wouldn’t have sex with him unless we were dating.

I suppose that’s the reason why eventually he asked me to be his girlfriend. I was so excited I thought I was in love. And, more importantly, I thought he really liked me and cared about me. Two weeks into our relationship, he cheated on me on my 18th birthday.

The aftermath was typical heartbreak stuff: sobbing to my mom, blocking his number, you know the drill. When I went home for winter break, I felt like I had finally gotten over him. I didn’t feel resentment or anger anymore when I thought about him.

Then comes the next guy on my very short romance journey. Long story short, I lost my virginity to him and then he ghosted me. This hurt almost as much as my boyfriend cheating on me. I gave him something that I can never get back. To him, I was just another girl he could brag to his friends about fucking, but to me he was the guy I really liked and will always remember as the person I lost my virginity to.

After all of that, all of the pain from my first relationship came back. Now I’m just as heartbroken as I was before, plus a little more.

Every time I tell people how I feel, they say the same thing: “Men are garbage. There’s nothing wrong with you, you’ll find the right person eventually.” It’s not that I’m trying to find the person I’m gonna marry right now, I just want to meet a man, romantic or otherwise, who doesn’t end up being a huge disappointment.

I know that I shouldn’t feel like there’s something wrong with me and that’s why guys walk all over me, but I do. People tell me to just not feel that way, but what do I do if I do feel that way and I want to know how to feel better?

I mean, am I just completely unlovable? Why do guys only want to have sex with me, never more? They don’t even want to be my friend. I feel like I’ll never have the answers I’m looking for.

Miss Heartbroken

Dear Miss Heartbroken,

If you’re going to date men, you’re going to be disappointed. A lot of men are disappointing, period. A lot of women are disappointing, too, but it’s easier to remain fundamentally selfish and ignorant of other people’s needs when you’re a man who’s grown up in a patriarchal culture and continues to navigate a patriarchal world. Men can blunder around, barely able to communicate their feelings, barely able to employ even a shred of sensitivity and diplomacy, and people (women and men) in our culture excuse it.

In contrast, women are never excused. We aren’t excused for expressing our emotions and we aren’t excused for biting our tongues. We aren’t excused for asserting our needs and we aren’t excused for going with the flow. We aren’t excused for being high-strung and we aren’t excused for being chill. We aren’t excused for being young, or aging, or being single, or being married, or having babies, or not having babies, or doing any fucking thing under the sun. We are assumed to be confused or stupid or ignorant, or we are seen as too smart for our own good, busybodies, smartasses, bitches.

At least people talk about this now. When I was in college, hot shit, I walked around lecturing men and women about how sexist the world was, and some of the women would nod along in private and disavow it in public, and most of the men just got confused. They didn’t see it. After dozens of nights holding forth on the subject, I convinced one male friend and one boyfriend that women were demeaned and dismissed everywhere they went, and it was like they both woke up and started seeing colors for the first time. They were tormented by it. They would point shit out to me that I hadn’t even noticed. That was satisfying.

But the rest of the world was a nightmare. Now at least I’m hearing the sounds that I used to make. So, yeah, I don’t give a shit if feminism is commodified, misinterpreted, warped, muddled, boxed up, laminated, and distributed in gum machines. I don’t care if women start getting the word feminist embroidered on ass pants or tattooed across their faces. I don’t care if people huff cans of spray paint that say FEMINISM on the side. Let women own and distribute and profit from that word however they want. Just say the word feminism out loud without shame and include people of color in your vision of what it means. A world that notices how hard it fucks over women (and people of color and poor people) might eventually try to change that. Maybe. Might. It’s a start, anyway.

More on that later, but back to dating: When you’re straight and also a feminist, dating can be a challenge. I know because I am the straightest, and my dating life probably sucked more than it had to as a result. On the other hand, I do like men a lot. I appreciate them. They are pretty confused mostly, but there’s something hot about that, too. It just blows my mind that some white guys still remain stubbornly, willfully unaware of systemic inequity or hierarchies or power structures or culture, so they get pissy if you talk about these things. It’s like you’re talking about ghosts they can’t see so they assume you’re hallucinating.

And there are many, many white women who are the same way. It’s hard to think about. It hurts my fucking head to think about it.

I understand fear when it comes to men, since they can overpower you. Practically speaking, it’s sensible to be afraid of men. But confusing that brute force with personal power is a fundamental error that’s squatting on your life in a huge way. I also understand that men occupy most positions of power and have undue influence over women’s careers and well-being. But confusing that systemic power with personal dignity, strength, capability, self-respect? That hurts you. You need to start to look past your shame and your past and tune into what’s happening around you. You need to observe men in nature.

They are not that impressive. They are not that scary, for the most part. I often feel a teensy bit sorry for them, if I pay too much attention for a second, which I generally don’t. They struggle because they don’t know what they don’t know. They’re afraid of learning what they don’t know.

Will men break your heart again if you date men? Probably, but that’s mostly a matter of cultural presumptions. Men sometimes assume that a woman is very invested straight out of the gate. Because the stakes are very high for you, given your distrust, I’m sure you appear extra invested straight out of the gate. This will not help you to see reality clearly. You need to slow down and notice things. Try to stay calm and avoid going to a place of fear and anxiety when you’re around men. Find ways to be around them without actually dating them or having to speak to them one-on-one. You need to get acclimated to what fundamentally needy buffoons most guys are. Then you’ll see that it can be cute, and harmless, and even a little sexy. Or you’ll see that some guys are shitty. You’ll learn which guys are shitty, and you’ll learn to avoid those guys.

You also have to learn to use your voice. Practice saying “No thanks” to men. Practice saying “I don’t know about that.” Imagine being unimpressed. Imagine feeling love and desire but also seeing things that are clear red flags, like a need to control or own you, or a desire to control the course of every conversation.

When people tell you that you just need to get over the things you’ve been through, what they really mean is that we’ve all been through similar shit and we try not to focus on it too much. If you’ve been raped or physically abused, clearly that needs to be treated and addressed with a therapist. Obviously your dad’s death affected you and you should probably consider seeing a therapist to discuss that and everything else that’s going on with you emotionally. But there’s also a value to understanding that all women have to live in this reality, as unfortunate as it is. We all have to set our terrors and our scars and our disappointments and our heartbreaks aside and move forward with an open heart.

I lost my virginity to a complete tool, just for example. He started dating one of my closest friends the next day. I was already compartmentalizing things emotionally before that happened, so I pushed the whole event out of my mind. I decided he was an anomaly and other men would be different. Some were, some weren’t. My friend ended up dumping him, though, because he was boring and not that smart. I admired her pride and self-respect, which I lacked completely. She never let her fears or her desires block her ability to see reality, to be practical, to honor herself.

That’s how everyone should try to be when they’re dating. Open your heart while opening your eyes. Be brave, but be ready to walk. Resist the temptation to look back, over and over again, and define your whole life and what’s wrong with you based on one experience. It’s a minute-to-minute task: Resist. The. Urge. To. Live. Inside. Your. Shame.

I could tell you about 20 more bad experiences I’ve had with men. If I filtered those experiences through the prism of my shame, they would look monstrous and frightening to me. I would be sure that I was irreparably broken, unlovable, worthless. I would be afraid of men and very, very angry at them. Some of that anger would be justified. But we all have to try not to take rejection or neglect and amplify it with our shame. Rejection isn’t personal. Your shame exists independently, and you will use it to amplify almost anything negative in your life. You can obsess about anything under the sun once you bring your shame into the mix.

Resist the urge to linger in the realm of rejection and fear and hurt. Explore your shame separately: Examine its folds and creases, notice how it fires up under some conditions and subsides under other conditions. Become friends with your shame. Recognize that it will never leave you, but that’s okay. It makes you human. It makes you humble. It has nothing to do with being broken. It has nothing to do with how lovable you are.

Your shame has nothing to do with men. Your dad’s death is relevant mostly because you weren’t around men growing up. You don’t know what a man even is. You can’t just sleep with men and learn about them that way. You have to observe and get to know men in a safe environment. You have to hang out with them and watch them and resist the urge to build your life around one of them. You have to see what men are from close range, but without imperiling your sense of yourself. You need to stand on firm ground first and foremost.

When you’re on firm ground, you’ll know that men are not garbage. Men are simply enabled by our deeply stupid, unbelievably greedy, unnervingly ignorant garbage culture. They’re like babies in rolling chairs who believe that they can walk. They’re so proud of themselves! It’s almost funny, except when it isn’t funny at all. But try to get a little emotional distance. Tune in to reality. When it comes to love, reality is much less frightening than your imagination. It’s also much less dangerous.

And what about the men who don’t get it? What about the women who don’t get it? What about the men who blow you off or ignore you or make you feel small? Circumnavigate. These people do not hold important information for you that you need to unlock. They can’t tell you more about yourself. If you think their attitudes are some special, specific reflection on who you are or how broken or unlovable you are? That’s your shame telling you lies again.

Be a realist, but keep your heart open. Because love will find you eventually, and it will be very, very good to you. Keep the faith. And if you get your heart broken again? That’s part of life, like falling down when you’re trying to walk without a rolling chair. You don’t want to spend your life as a confused baby who thinks he has superpowers, do you? You want to feel pain and get hurt and grow, right? Because that’s what life is about: getting knocked down and getting the fuck back up again.

And the thing you need to know about women is that we are really fucking strong. We have a very high pain tolerance. And once you notice that, you start to welcome the pain. You say Bring the pain, motherfucker. And when you notice how cowed you’ve been by your shame for your whole life? You start to welcome shame. You can’t hurt me now, shame. Step up and try. Do you know how good it feels to step around your shame and do exactly what the fuck you want for a change? Do you know how good it feels to finally know your own power?

It’s the best feeling in the world. It shouldn’t have taken me so long to get here. I just turned 49 years old, and you know what? I can do anything. I finally realize that. I finally know how powerful I am. I want you to get here sooner. I want you to speed to this finish line. Open your eyes and open your heart and join me here. We’re in this together.


Polly’s evil twin Molly has a newsletter; sign up here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘Men Always Disappoint Me!’