ask polly

‘I Moved Off-Grid With an Emotionally Stunted Older Man!’

Photo: Sean Russell/Getty Images/fStop

Dear Polly,

A year ago, after a decade of endless casual sex, half-assed relationships, and living in fear of the L-word, I fell in love for the first time. Really, truly, madly in love. Within eight months, we had bought an off-grid farm in the middle of nowhere together and moved in. (I know. I know.) Think no hot water, no toilet, no showers, no heating, just enough power to charge your phone once in a while.

It’s been challenging, but it’s mostly fun. We’re having a huge adventure and I get to do all sorts of amazing and empowering things.

Now, my partner is thoughtful and caring and patient and I adore him. But here’s the thing: He won’t tell me he loves me, and I’m becoming obsessed. I think it’s destined to ruin our relationship (not that we’re supposed to call it a “relationship.” It’s a “situation.”) We were definitely in love at the beginning, but now we are in the day-to-day cohabiting reality where the romance is over — and I’m okay with that (it’s exhausting!) — I am really doubting whether he is able to feel love for me (or anyone).

He totally fits my pattern of hyperrational, hyperintelligent older men who are entirely emotionally crippled. He’s so rational and practical that I can’t help thinking that all of the thoughtful things he does are things that he’d do for anyone, simply because that’s what’s practical in our situation (two people living together in the middle of nowhere). And that the fact that we live together is convenient for him and fulfills his need to be super self-sufficient and sustainable, rather than a demonstration of love or commitment.

I don’t want to ask him if he loves me, because I’m scared of what the response might be. (I’m also scared because I’ve given up a lot and invested a lot in buying this place and living together). The one time I tried to bring this up, he said that he prefers actions to words, and if I really need him to express emotional commitment, he’d rather be friends. That was the most emotionally painful thing I’ve ever gone through, and while he tried to make it up to me a few days later, it still hurts to think about. I think it has more to do with emotions being unavailable to him and probably pushing him into a space of vulnerability than that he actively doesn’t love me. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t really know how to love, and emotional communication is outside his comfort zone, and while I don’t want to push him too hard, I want him to be able to feel! (And ideally, feel things about me. That would be nice.) But he’s also older (20 years my senior) and set in his ways. He won’t go to therapy, and I’m worried that he’ll never try to access his feelings.

I’m becoming obsessed with hearing those three words that independent, unconventional, non-monogamous, free-loving me used to be allergic to. I can’t get it out of my head, and I hate it. Friends tell me that I deserve to be with someone who loves me, but I’m starting to doubt whether that’s all idealized bullshit. Can’t I just be grateful that I live with a kind, clever person that I’m crazy about? Why do I — does love — need to be affirmed through words? Why do I need verbal proof that he loves me?

Please help.

Please Just Say I Love You Goddammit

Dear PJSILYG,

Okay, let me catch my breath here. Eight months of hot sex inspired you to purchase an off-grid farm with no hot water, toilets, showers, heating, or any steady electrical source, with an emotionally stunted man 20 years older than you.

Let’s just… Okay… We need to just take in the glory of this decision. We need to really soak in your devotion to an emotional version of extreme sports. Because right now, your life is like that show where athletes train to compete on an incredibly taxing and impossible obstacle course while the cameras roll, except replace the bright lights and giant foam mountains and high wires with shitting into a hole in the ground and living in isolation with someone who doesn’t believe in feelings, let alone believe in using words to express those feelings.

And really, what could be more adventurous than being completely and utterly removed not just from all of your friends and family, but also from all of the conveniences of the modern world? What could be more empowering than sitting in a cold cabin in the dark, waiting for a man old enough to be your father, who hates feelings, to say the three words you thought you’d never, ever long to hear or overvalue or fixate on for any reason? What could be more divine and perfect than living in isolated, uncomfortable filth with a mean, withholding daddy?

Has there ever been a more illuminative portrait of humankind’s attraction to the shadow?

You probably think I’m making fun of you, but actually, I relate to every dimension of your situation with every cell of my body. Your life is a neurotic emotional overachiever’s ultimate fantasy. Next-level overachievers are on a lifelong quest to overcome all weakness. One of the reasons you used to define yourself as “independent, unconventional, non-monogamous, and free-loving” is that these labels elevated you above the need for human connection, societal approval, and traditional relationship norms. Of course there were rational, intellectual arguments to back up these choices. But there was also a basic belief — let’s call it a passionate religion, actually — that human connection and human emotion were not just a tiny bit overrated but also held an exaggerated importance in our culture, or at least the conventional manifestations of human bonding did. Your central precept, whether you were aware of it or not, was that emotion itself is weakness, and that all things that blossom from emotion are, in turn, weak or deluded or broken.

So your essential philosophy was perfectly in step with your partner’s outlook. You admired how post-emotional he was from the very start. You loved that he confidently spoke of zero-carbon- footprint homesteading miles away from civilization without batting an eye over the Netflix programs he might miss. He was almost like a human cyborg! All of the so-called fragility that you’d exercised and overworked and overthought and expunged from your own body was nothing compared to the toxic human needs that this man had forsworn forever and ever! This guy was living in an airtight, sterile void, a vacuum! This guy was floating through outer space! How alluring and exotic! (The book Mating, by Norman Rush, comes to mind. Maybe you’ve already read it! It applies, trust me!)

And what in the universe is hotter than having enthusiastic sex with someone who’s completely out of reach, uninvested, beyond reproach, and untouchable? Seeing someone like that get turned on and show a pulse at all is like touching the hand of God! For the first, let me just guess, seven months? The sex alone is a like a plane swerving to write I LOVE YOU across a gorgeous blue sky, right before it falls to the Earth in a flaming fireball. Hell, even a fond casual glance here or a “Let’s consider our ecofriendliest septic-tank options!” there feels like a passionate love poem, written in the finest calligraphy and sent through the mail in an actual paper envelope, sealed with a wax stamp! Mmm, waxy stamped mail delivered by hand! What could be more erotic?

And in the throes of this enormous tidal wave of hotness, why not, I don’t know, take out a big loan and buy some land in the middle of nowhere and move right in together? When you make a decision that enormous and financially entwined at such an early date, it’s almost like you’re signaling to each other that you already know that everything will fall to pieces immediately but YOU DON’T CARE, YOU’RE COMMITTED TO THIS, THIS IS ABOUT LOGIC, YOU ARE SIMPLY A MATCH, THIS IS WHAT YOUR BRAIN HAS DECIDED YOU SHOULD DO AND YOU’RE STICKING TO IT, GODDAMN IT!

Almost no one is above this kind of next-level madness, though. By ratcheting up my disbelief and wonderment here, I only mean to draw a gigantic red circle on your paper and say THIS THIS THIS! and point to it 15 million times. Because there’s just something so incredibly seductive about doing the exact wrong thing, about making the most incorrect decision, about burning your whole life down to the ground and building an entirely new life among its ashes.

Everyone I know — every living being — is attracted to the shadow this way. We all find some form of alternative timeline alluring. Lately I’m obsessed with the statement, “He was living a whole separate life,” as in, that old story where some married man with a family also has another wife and family across town or in a different state. This scenario is quite obviously one that would only be pursued by a complete sociopath or at least an extreme escapist living in an almost hallucinogenic state of denial. And yet, after more than 14 years of marriage, I can’t think of anything that sounds more refreshing and delicious and perfect than an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT LIFE somewhere else. That’s not because my actual life is terrible. In fact, I can’t imagine a BETTER life than the one I have now.

But I can imagine a different life. And sometimes different and even probably much worse feels even more seductive than better to a truly ambitious adventurer. Why? Because think of how taxing and impossible it would be to live a different life! Think of how hard you’d have to work (Mmm, working too hard emotionally! It sounds sweaty and invigorating!) just to win the same flavors of love and attention you have now without doing much at all. Think of all the lying and juggling you’d have to do! Lying is the ultimate forbidden paradise to a married human like me, who’s been on a 15-year-long lecture tour on the importance of radical honesty to any long-term relationship. I mean, come on, lying just because you feel like it, to suit your own selfish needs? That sounds like a trip to a luxurious day spa to me.

This is the human condition, like it or not: It can be hard to feel what you have. For intellectuals and neurotics and overachievers who were raised by other intellectuals and neurotics and overachievers, this is even more true. But meanwhile, the planet seems to be dying in front of our very eyes! So even if you’re determined to encounter the people in your life with a compassionate, open heart and you’re determined to cultivate gratitude for everything you have (Shit, man, I wrote a whole book about this!), it’s still possible to emerge from a long period of soothing love and gratitude with a distinct feeling that, I don’t know, you might just be dead soon so why not have everything you’ve ever wanted immediately?

This is the shadow. Wanting everything includes wanting things you don’t actually want. Wanting more includes moving away from the things that are readily available — which, in your case, once included running water and dependable electricity and love from people who have some idea of how to translate their feelings into words, plus it means moving toward things that seem more elusive and mysterious and difficult, like, say, a hole to shit in and an old guy who fucks you regularly but treats you the same way he might treat any amiable stranger he met on the bus recently.

Again, I am mocking myself along with you here. And I want to just stand up for what you’re digging for, in this gargantuan-sea-change, shock-to-the-system of a life that you’ve created. Obviously you were trying to build something completely different from anything you’ve ever had before. Isn’t that at least a tiny bit admirable and interesting? And didn’t you stand up for your strange desires in a bold and courageous way, when everyone around you was saying, “What in the hell?” and “Please seek help”? I feel like there’s something to be said for having the conviction to thumb your nose at the world in such an audacious fashion.

I’m very into both the shadow and audacity itself at the moment. I’m very into honoring my most confusing and bewildering and deliriously irrational desires — not just honoring them, but actively stating them out loud and standing up for them and refusing to feel ashamed of them. I feel pretty strongly that you can do these things without hurting other people, if you’re honest about everything. (I mean it’s tempting to just lie, don’t get me wrong, but as a married person one lie leads to a country of lies pretty quickly. And the next thing you know, you’re sleeping on a futon in a drafty apartment and your perfectly serviceable husband is living across town with your hottest friend and your children and your pets, all because you decided to run out and grab a little bite of ass and lie about it.)

Sometimes when you’re living in fear, you believe that chasing the opposite of what you fear will fix everything. But then you do that, and the fear is still around! You replace “endless casual sex, half-assed relationships, and the L-word” with intense sex, a non-relationship, and a guarantee of zero vulnerability and zero statements of love and what happens? Are you really less afraid or are you now terrified? Or, to cite a much more common example, let’s say you’re a tiny bit dissatisfied with your very staid, normal loving life with a supportive, wonderful spouse so you throw it all away for someone who seems far less supportive and wonderful (Mmm, what could be better?). And surprise! You’re still a tiny bit dissatisfied!

This is why it’s important to stand up for your desires — and to look closely at them and savor them and also ask what they’re made of — without making sweeping changes around those desires. In your case, you can have the good sex with the intriguingly cyborgian old dude without, say, buying a house with him. You can wait and see if he learns to use words, and you can wait and see if your feelings change. In other cases, like say when you’re married, or you love your current job but you’re bored, or you like your hometown just fine but Barcelona sounds way more interesting — you circle your desires and observe them and write about them and sit with them, but you don’t necessarily act on them.

Just circling your desires can be very exciting and rewarding! You don’t have to become obsessive about it, although neurotic overachievers who tend to deny their feelings in a knee-jerk way often do land there. Perhaps more importantly, you don’t have to feel shame about your odd and exotic desires. Shame not only makes desire itself feel bad, but it makes it impossible to look closely at what you want. Shame is confusing. It muddies the water. It’s hard to tell what you want or need when shame is in the picture.

These days, people love to harp on how self-involved and shameless and awful those who trumpet the importance of living without shame and doing what they really want are, as if they’re the most lamentably selfish motherfuckers on the face of the Earth. But the truth is that when you refuse to feel ashamed of the fact that you’re a human animal with needs, it really clarifies and sharpens your values and principles. You can slow down and identify what you’re really looking for. You can recognize the shadow in some of your desires. You can see how arbitrary your needs and attractions are. And you can feel the pull of certain desires without surrendering yourself to them, because you know in your heart what will feed you and what won’t.

Doing things like purchasing property with a relative stranger after eight months is a sign that you know that a tidal wave of shame and regret is about to hit no matter what. You’re so afraid of it that you refuse to address it. You’d rather commit to a bizarre path than face the truth. You’d rather move across town and start a whole new family than tell your wife to her face that the life you’ve created for yourselves isn’t making you happy. You’d rather lie than grapple with the eventual shame and damage caused by the truth of your desires, which you want to act on without facing their consequences.

I don’t want to employ my usual self-righteous tone here, honestly, because I think I’m mature enough now to admit that these are perfectly pedestrian human failings. People make these very simple, very understandable mistakes every day, and sometimes they just call them “choices”! Revolutionary and tempting, even! Once you have a lot of compassion for people and a lot of compassion for yourself, you don’t see everything through the lens of people punishing each other. A lot of times people are just weak and confused and needy. A lot of people are in unhappy marriages, too, but they don’t know what to do about it. A lot of people are craving more love and excitement in their lives. That’s natural. It’s just important to know yourself very well, and to realize what you can and can’t live with, and to recognize who might get hurt along the way if you do whatever the fuck you want at every single turn.

It’s important to know yourself well. That requires the kind of deep self-reflection that people love to deride these days, as if it’s just a big masturbatory exercise and not something that helps people BE BETTER and MORE HONEST and MORE COMPASSIONATE.

So look, PJSILYG. I admire your bravery a lot, and I think the kind of boldness you’ve shown here is going to really come in handy in your life moving forward. But I don’t think you know yourself that well yet. All of these allergies to love are really a longing for love in disguise. You can see that now, right? You haven’t fallen in love before because you’ve never taken the risk of making yourself vulnerable to another human being before. You chose to pioneer with a robot just so you could finally experience vulnerability.

AND IT’S WORKING! Isn’t that cause for celebration? I’m serious! Now you finally know how much you value love! Now you realize that love needs to be affirmed through words! Now you know that you need verbal proof that this man loves you! Why? Because words of love are sublime and exciting and fucking beautiful, that’s why. Because words can make you feel things, and feeling things is incredible and it’s important. When someone says words that make your heart leap? When someone writes words that make your hands restless? That’s about as electric as life gets. There’s nothing better, in my opinion. It’s fucking delicious and amazing and it matters. It just does.

By blindly following your truest urges and desires without ever second-guessing yourself, by diving straight into this extreme emotional experiment, you’ve been forced into a kind of trippy therapy where you’re learning intense lessons very quickly. You are getting to know yourself very, very well in a short period of time.

Here’s what you’ve learned: You’re actually someone who loves words. You love passion. You love extremes. You love romance. Can you feel that in your bones, at last?

What’s strange is that I’ve landed on the same terrain by taking a very different path. I’ve been trying to write a book about my marriage — of all fucked up things! — and the second I sold the book, I found myself unable to write about falling in love with my husband. It all sounded sappy and dull to me. So instead, I wrote about how real-life stories recounting how two people fell in love are usually pretty boring and not all that fun to read. That chapter actually works, it’s pretty funny! But it also feels like an echo of your statement that ROMANCE IS EXHAUSTING. (But I mean, come on, is there any better way to feel exhausted? My God, it’s the literal best!)

So then I started to write about how marriage was actually a living nightmare of bad sounds, coming from the same tedious human, for the long stretch of your remaining days on the planet. And I also started to write weird humor pieces about the delights of cheating and divorce and lying, mostly for my evil newsletter but also for the book. I’ve essentially been meditating on these rancid, marriage-hating, love-deconstructing subjects for months now, while also drooling over the idea of having a completely different life for no reason whatsoever, other than it radically alters the future, and altering the future is just an exciting novelty after 14 years of marriage, whether you’re perfectly happy or completely miserable or something in between.

And somehow, somewhere along the way, not only did I rediscover my (extremely intense) love of love and romance, but I also rediscovered my love for sex, my marriage, and my husband. It’s almost like these things had been buried not by my hatred, but by my STATED GRATITUDE FOR THESE THINGS. I used to feel so grateful to my husband, every single day. And then one day I was just bored by gratitude itself. I was tired of being humble. I was tired of growing old gracefully. Fuck that shit. Suddenly I wanted to show off and be a completely ungrateful, smoking hot, disturbingly adventurous harlot. And as bewildering as it was to feel that way, I needed to allow myself a tiny bit of room to be a total fucking ingrate in order to find my way back to my truest desires for connection — emotional and physical.

Desires are frightening. Because you don’t know where the hell they’re going to lead you. Plenty of marriages are bad enough that the second you indulge your true desires, the marriage is over. Plenty of new relationships are shaky enough that the second you tell the other person the truth of who you are, they’re out the door. People hide in plain sight for pretty good reasons, actually. People refuse to feel their feelings for good reasons, too. People lie for good reasons, sadly. It’s just not that easy to stay present and tell the truth. It isn’t.

I just want you to experience this moment in your life without being hit by a landslide of shame. I know I probably heaped some shame on you by having a little fun with your predicament. (I’m sorry! Yours might be my favorite letter since those notorious nightmare parents were hell-bent on poisoning their daughter-in-law with mushrooms back in August!) But this moment in your life presents an amazing and rare opportunity to challenge yourself to sort through these lessons without shame.

Because when you clear the shame away, you can see the gifts of this curse more clearly. You are forcefully confronted with all of the things that you’re deathly afraid of: love, commitment, and being trapped by another human being’s undying devotion to you, as expressed in actual words, spoken out loud. Isn’t it ironic that you’ve trapped yourself with someone who can’t speak at all? But how could you have learned this lesson about your truest desires and biggest fears as quickly in any other situation? You’ve accumulated a giant heap of important instructions on how to move forward from here! You’ve been blessed with a divine road map! Everything you thought you hated is now on the table. Everything you thought you loved has been called into question a tiny bit.

That doesn’t mean that the perfect answer is to abscond to the big city and start sleeping with an emotionally available man ten years younger than you who drives a Range Rover to his job at the investment bank. Who knows what kind of a life you’ll design for yourself from this point forward?

Be patient with yourself. The best you can do is explore your desires without shame. The best you can do is stay open to your passions and interests and pay attention to what excites you the most, without making rash decisions that hint at the contradictory feelings that undergird everything you do. The best you can do is dive into your most conflicted feelings with the grace and open eyes of an emotional Jacques Cousteau. Dive in and open your eyes and your heart, without shame. That’s all any of us can do.

It’s less stable than moving off-grid and staying quiet about your needs. It’s less stable than powering down and pretending you don’t need more than this. It’s less stable than getting married and watching your desires dry up and blow away and never looking for them, out in the wilderness. Looking for your truest desires is inherently unstable. It means that anything is possible. This is as true for me, in this moment, as it is for you. Once you’re wide awake and completely alive and you’re sure you want to stay that way, in some ways you’re committed to living inside a giant question mark. That’s not the easiest choice.

You have a lot of exploring to do, that’s all. The first step is this: State what you want out loud, using words. When you state your desires directly and ask for exactly what you want, you are also saying, “I am a human being who deserves things.” And you’re saying, “I feel vulnerable and scared, but I’m not going to settle for less than what I need.” Plus you’re saying, “My desires matter to me, and I’m going to honor them.”

Let this man tell you that he hates your desires, if that’s the truth. It might be. But he might as well say that he hates you while he’s at it. He might as well say that he can only live off the grid with another robot, or that he sees you as a convenient and necessary source of ass and that’s all. Maybe anything else is too frightening or confusing for him. Maybe anything else means feeling things that he carefully engineered out of his life a long, long time ago.

And if that’s what he tells you? Pity him, and know deep in your heart that you never want to become like him. Know in your heart that the safety that comes from sleepwalking through life and missing all of the magic along the way is just not worth it. Joy depends on feeling the whole range of human emotions. Joy depends on drinking in this day in its limitless glory and its depths of despair. Once you make peace with the question mark, it’s all delicious. It’s scary, and unpredictable, but it feels great.

So welcome this gift of a curse. Welcome this curse of a gift. Fill your heart with gratitude, because now you know that every gift is a kind of a curse and every curse is a kind of a gift. Each day brings you more riches. Treasure all of this.

This is how it feels to no longer be a robot. This is how it feels to be wide awake and alive. Treasure it.

Polly

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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‘I Moved Off-Grid With an Emotionally Stunted Older Man!’