More than a few years ago now, I was in a fairly long-term but extremely dysfunctional affair with a married man I worked with. I fell for him hard, believing that we had a once-in-a-lifetime connection that was hindered by complicated life and financial circumstances. I was naïve, he was a lot older and more senior, and I felt like no one had ever seen me so clearly and so perfectly before. He made me feel like we were on the same page. I would have done anything for him.
But after two and a half years, when we no longer worked together, after a not particularly remarkable day to me, his profile disappeared from everything. He deleted Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Skype, emails bounced back, WhatsApps were undelivered, and that was that. The last conversation we had was about a tattoo he was thinking of getting. I didn’t know that “good night” was also “good-bye.” There was no fight. Just next day: gone.
At first, I thought he was just taking some space, and I figured he’d tell me why. But days turned to weeks, weeks turned to months. Before, the longest we’d gone without speaking was a week, so I knew something was different now, but short of turning up at his house I didn’t know how to find out what. Eight and a half months passed. Then one evening I was doing something I’d done quite a lot during quiet and sad moments since he disappeared, which was circling around the very few places online where someone he knew might reveal something. Then I discovered that his wife had changed her Facebook photo to a picture of her, very pregnant. From the comments, I learned that she was due in the next couple of weeks.
At this point, I made my own assumptions about what had happened. And I’m not looking for sympathy, because I know he was never mine to lose. But my question is: How do you heal the big hole it leaves in your heart without any closure or clarity? It’s now been two and a half years since we last spoke (the same amount of time as we were involved) and I still ache for him and worry that I’ll never love or at least feel loved that way again (because I know I wasn’t really being loved).
I can’t help but worry he’ll be the love of my life, and I’ll be waiting here, hoping he turns up with answers, and feeling like I can’t move on until he does. I know that if he hasn’t felt bad enough to explain anything to me, after all this time, he never will. But I don’t know how I’ll get over it without that. My heart hurts whenever I give it a thought — and even after all this time, I still struggle not to give it a thought. I thought by now I’d have met someone better and forgotten him. My life is great in almost every other way, but I have remained alone since. And I can’t help but see his rejection and my subsequent lack of healing as a reflection of my own deficient and unlovable character.
I can’t talk to anyone about it. Anyone who ever did have sympathy got bored a long time ago, and after a while, it gets embarrassing to say you’re still heartbroken for someone you haven’t seen in two years, who probably never really liked you anyway. I would say I’m pretty emotionally intelligent — and in my head I know I need to accept the connection was never what I’d judged it to be and that his actions speak louder than his (lack of) words — but I can’t help how I feel. It’s like my body can’t accept it until I hear it from him. Help me, Polly. How can I get over him without the closure of a conversation?
A Very Silly Girl
Dear Silly Girl,
If you’d sent me this letter two years ago, I would’ve started my reply by shaming you into the ground for having an affair with a married man. But my thoughts and feelings around infidelity (and a whole hell of a lot of other things!) have changed rapidly, and the bottom line is, life is difficult and complicated. It is always much cleaner, easier, and far more self-protective to live your values and honor your principles in all things. When you do shit that doesn’t line up with your ideals, you injure yourself and others. That said, marriage is unbelievably difficult and cheating is more than a little tempting (Yes, it is! Goddamn it sounds good sometimes!), and while I personally favor extreme honesty and marital evolution that accommodates wild thoughts and desires as much as possible, I get that not everyone is into that shit. I mean, honesty is fucking weird, really. When you tell your partner the truth about everything? That requires a lot of mutual patience and respect. I think it almost always makes you stronger and better as a couple, but it can be a rough ride.
With those disclaimers out of the way, let’s dive into your situation, which illustrates so many different erosive dimensions not just of affairs but also of ghosting and obsession in a vacuum of contact. Your situation also demonstrates what’s appealing and seductive about fucking someone who’s taken: You’re offered a distorted and fantastical experience that floats above the tedium and dirt of everyday life. You see your lover at work, showered and productive. Maybe he has a little more power than you do. Yum, power! It looks good when you’re young and slogging away in the early stages of your career. You see this man’s power in motion: Giving other people attention, behaving confidently, making big decisions. You can also, thanks to the glorious world of social media, track his thoughts and distractions and behaviors on multiple platforms.
He is always there, in your face at work, all cleaned up and grown up, functioning at a high level. He’s always there, on your screen, putting his best foot forward. There is always something to look at, something polished and delightful. Here is someone with a life. Here is someone with a lot of interests and passions. Here is someone completely unlike you, a powerless stalker who somehow cannot resist living vicariously.
Why can’t you resist it? Because it takes you away from the realities of your own life, and that can feel like taking a vacation inside your mind. Also, you don’t have love in your life like he does, and you’re a tiny bit emotional and obsessive and maybe you’re trying to avoid some difficult issues in your own life. You’re basically procrastinating by staring at him. When you stare at him, everything else disappears.
And then you start sleeping with him. So you take something that’s already exciting and infuse it with even more suspense by throwing in nice hotel rooms, cramped supply closets, whispers, and a world of humans left in the dark around you. Just a guess! I swear, I’ve never had an affair, but I can imagine it, oh yes I can. And when I say “I can imagine it,” what I mean is that if you could step into my mind, you would experience a full-color VR experience featuring the most intriguing encounters, the most provocative dialogue, the best lighting, and the most unnervingly hot sexing scenarios that I’d have you pledging fealty to the sacred land of cheating forever and ever, Amen.
It hasn’t always been this way, but something about surviving 15 years of marriage and then daring to write a book about it (never do this!) has transformed my mind into an ’80s suspense thriller, filled with fucking in hallways and closets, the dirtiest “we only have a second” fucking, but shot by the best modern DPs under the sun so it’s not all cringey and ’80s and there are no dead rabbits boiling in open pots. Instead it’s like you’re living in a surrealist painting and some fucked up song by the Knife is playing (or maybe Lana Del Rey? There are so many options) and you’re on fire and the whole world is melting.
Yes, I’ve been married for a while. But I was pretty powered-down and very, very Catholic even inside the safety and privacy of my mind for years. I didn’t really get into my imagination until recently, and I strongly recommend it, the imagination. It’s fun, motherfuckers!
So look. I doubt sleeping with this dude included a melting world and perfect soundtrack, but there were obviously several dimensions of the situation that were warped in just the perfect way to make them seem deeper and heavier and hotter and more thrilling than they would’ve if, say, you came home to your shitty apartment and found this dude in his soft pants, with his feet up on the couch, yanking his nose hairs out with unsettling focus and conviction.
I don’t want to sell you on the wholesome glories of watching someone yank his nose hairs out, year after year. I just want you to move into a full-body appreciation of the many layers of this experience that made it addictive and breathtaking and completely untethered from reality.
I also want to stand up for your connection to this man. You’re saying that you were “rejected” and he “probably never liked you anyway.” I think if you have clear evidence that he probably never liked you, or is fundamentally uninterested in who you are as a person, then fine. But from what you’ve said, that’s not what was happening. He was into you and he probably even loved you — albeit through a similarly warped, work- and internet-curated, “there’s the hot piece of ass who digs my old ass” lens. It was inherently unrealistic, unethical, escapist, and demeaning, in a way, but also fresh and vibrant and tasty and complex. It can be all of these things at once, even though we might feel a little guilty admitting it. The motherfucker was clearly into it, at least.
And did he REJECT YOU? False. I get that he was never yours to begin with. Absolutely true! It’s also fucked up and weird to own anyone in my current view. But I definitely still want to own my husband in spite of my best efforts to loosen my death grip on his life. And I definitely needed very much to own him — like lock him up and throw away the key own him — when I was first married and pregnant and then raising babies and small children with him. It’s a vulnerable time. You need your partner so deeply when your body is ballooning up and you’re growing a small alien and then feeding one, like a miracle cow! You need your partner to be there in every way. And even though you go through phases where you want MORE MORE MORE, you also return to those times when you’re vulnerable and you need someone to be rock solid. Again: It’s complicated.
Your ghosting married lover found out his wife was pregnant, and he decided to stop living a guilty, bifurcated life. He decided to show up and be a good husband and father. I don’t want to bring the righteous hammer down on him too hard for cheating. I can’t get inside his head and understand how much magic and immortality he perceived in your eyes, as an older married dude with a wife at home and a future that maybe looked like compromise and decline unto death. I get that. It’s not easy to think of yourself as a big old boring dud who’s just going to do the expected things, obediently, and then die one day, even uglier and less sexy and less interesting than you are right now. And anyway, that’s between this guy and his wife. Who knows what they have going on? Let’s not speculate.
All I can say for sure is that this dude was a fucking dick for not telling you a thing before he disappeared. That was cowardly. He decided he could erase all of his mistakes that way. And sure, we can respect his decision in the big picture: “Now it’s clean! My young lover can’t reach me! It’s almost like she never existed at all! Now I can show up for my wife and be good to her and build a family and be a great guy forever and ever!” But when you zoom in, you have to ask yourself: Did he honor you? Did he give you a handful of words to take with you, as a memento? Did he do you the enormous favor of letting you know that he did actually care, he was actually there with you, he did feel the things you felt? Did he tell you that even though his feelings might’ve fallen off a cliff at some point, all of that weird, warped, vibrant, mortality-blasting magic was real to him, too, in its own fucked up way? But he’s done now, and he’s never coming back, so please forget him forever and ever?
No. He didn’t do that for the same reason he cheated in the first place, to be a tiny bit unfair about it: He is a compartmentalized man. He is two or three or 15 different men, all packed inside one bag of flesh. He has been carrying around hot fantasies in his head since he was born. “That’s just how men are!” we’re told. And is it terrible, living inside your imagination because the reality of not just fucking real women but actually talking to them about complicated shit is, I don’t know, taxing? Because women are complex and they make you feel small a lot of the time and you don’t necessarily want all of those words and that noise just for a fuck? It’s probably at least a tiny bit understandable.
But the price of being compartmentalized is real. You move on from something like a long affair with a co-worker, and you never learn a thing. And you keep your ex-lover in the same spot of NEVER LEARNING by never telling her a thing. It’s like you prefer that no one talk or learn or get closure. Why? And on top of it all, you have no idea why you landed there in the first place. You just shut the door. You erase it. You think a body doesn’t carry the memory of that intensity around with it? Or, worse, you never felt enough, even with all of the added bonus infusions of mystery and lying and cramped supply closets in the mix? Like maybe sex is just a performance built on a lie for you?
God, so many men are so broken, and our culture is honestly not that good about mending them. It’s almost seen as distasteful for a man to examine his broken parts and try to piece them back together. Most men don’t know how to give you their words because they live inside their shame, but they don’t even recognize it. If you say the word “shame” to them, they flinch. Only weak, scary women feel shame! They don’t realize that shame is this arbitrary, soul-crushing sensation that attaches itself to every emotion you have, and amplifies everything bad about that emotion. Shame asks a man: Are you shirking your manly responsibilities? Are you being a fucking wuss? Are you on some fast track to becoming a flaccid, useless, doddering fool no woman will ever want to fuck again?
Heed my words: Men care more about remaining fuckable as they get older than women do. You wouldn’t know it by the way they dress and act, but it’s true. They project that shit onto us, and we manifest it on the outside. But they’re the source of that shame. They eat it every day and don’t even notice that it’s making them so sick that they have to project onto everyone else. Why do vanity and self-care and selfies and other so-called trivial things make so many men so disgusted? They hate the indulgences and the comforts that they deny themselves.
So, no, you were not rejected. You became this man’s shame in human form. You became the manifestation of his conflicted soul. By cutting you out without doing you the gigantic favor of honoring your connection with his words, he didn’t reject you. He rejected himself.
That’s his way of life. He rejects his own desires. He rejects the possibilities offered by total honesty with either his wife or with you. He rejected the hard reckoning he could’ve done around what his fantasies and his lies and his escapist behaviors were telling him about how he wants to live.
Men like that repeat their mistakes until they’re dead in the ground. Let’s not go too deep into that, lest you decide the poor baby probably needs you to reach out and make all of his shame boo-boos go away. That’s the burden we women carry around in dealing with broken men. The second we feel empathy for the bastards, we want to rush back in and save them.
So let’s just light some fucking sage and say a prayer for him and his wife and their new life, okay? Let’s apologize for pulling them all into a vibrant fantasy world that was really a little too real in its own stupid way. It was disrespectful to the life he already had, to invite him into a passionate supernatural alternate universe, just as it was disrespectful of him to draw you into his life. He knew you wanted true love from the start, and he wasn’t above playing the part. He might’ve loved you very deeply, but I’m sure he also knew, all along, that his love was a little bit of a farce.
It’s complicated. I mean, isn’t all love a little bit of a farce? It’s hard to put a finger on what’s real when you talk about love. My vivid surrealist fantasy worlds bleed into my marriage all the time, as do my intensely grandiose ideas about who my husband is and my dim views of where he falls short. It’s hard to honor anyone. It’s hard to show up and be honest and also bathe someone in a groovy disco ball of desire. It’s hard to make the world melt away.
All I can tell you is this: You’re an addict now. You did that good fantastical heroin and you’re hooked. If you want to kick this drug, you have to stop feeling ashamed, which means you have to stare straight down the barrel of your shame. If your friends won’t hear about it anymore, make new friends, or write about it, or create something from this. Give this fantasy and this pain a home. Write down how good it felt to live inside your twisted, wicked world with this man. Acknowledge how good it felt, how warped it was, how guilty you felt, how deliriously into it you were. Be honest with yourself to break yourself out of this dark box of addiction. Coax yourself back into reality this way.
You can still have imagination in your life. Cultivate these things a tiny bit on your own, and understand that they belong to you and no one else. All of the imagination you brought to that affair can be used to build pretty new worlds. You can savor that ability and talent without letting it take over reality again.
Look around and ask yourself what this guy had that you wanted. Ask yourself what you were avoiding. Ask yourself what you hate about showing up and speaking to a real, relatively powerless guy who is needy and fragile, just like you, in real time. Figure out how to meet someone who is also reckoning with these questions. This is the path away from addiction. It doesn’t have to suck. It can be bold and delicious. Kick your shame to the curb (or at least nudge it to the side if it won’t leave!) and you’re already on a path to a brighter reality.
You were loved. You were erased. You don’t need his words to understand anything. He doesn’t see this picture clearly enough anyway. Stop erasing yourself in his honor. Stop thinking of this picture in terms of rejection and not being good enough for him. Those are shame-driven lenses. Stop pacing like a polar bear at the zoo, following the same little path online that tells you where this ghost has been and where it’s going next. (And do not go on Facebook and look at his baby! These humans have nothing to do with you now. Make that real for yourself however you can, and then drop it forever. Every single time you spy on them, you hurt yourself. Is that who you are? Are you a masochist?)
You are at the center here. Your life is still brilliant and wild. Feel that inside your skin. How much time do you have left on this planet? Do you need me to remind you that your time is limited? You are already worthy of all the love in the world. You don’t need his clumsy words to know how beautiful you are. When you wake up to that fact, you’ll start to feel the people around you without touching them. The energy you poured into this addiction can also pull you out of this darkness. Once you understand how to use this talent constructively, you’ll feel more powerful every single day. Close your eyes and have faith in yourself. Love is all around you, always. Can you feel it?
Now open your eyes and look. It’s already here. You’re already whole.
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