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‘My Dream Man Moved On. Should I Wait For Him?’

Photo: Benjamin Storck/Getty Images/500px

Dear Polly, 

The universe has me tricked. Either everything means everything or everything means nothing or reality lies somewhere between the two extremes. I saw the love of my life for the first time in my dormitory elevator about two years ago. He was the most beautiful human I had ever seen! He had the most intricate of noses that stayed with me for months. I was in my first year of college and I knew there were plenty more fish in the sea. Still, random encounters with elevator boy kept happening. We ran in overlapping circles, so I got to observe him from afar often.

I never met him, so he lingered around as a random, beautiful face. Then I went home for the summer and ended up working with him in our mutual hometown. We became close friends that summer. Returning to college, I met all his friends and I fell in love with him. He didn’t know, but also, I think he did know. Before him, I didn’t think I had the capacity to love someone. And then suddenly I did.

He had a girlfriend for a bit, but happened to forget to inform me of that detail until a friend of mine told me. And in this period while he was dating someone, he began to start sprinkling romantic behavior into the picture, such as holding my hand and sleeping in the same bed with me. We stayed just friends while his friends tried and failed to date me, and in the spring, flowers bloomed. It’s like he was the sun, and I had this garden that was so eager to sprout for him, and as soon as he came out, my flowers wouldn’t stop. We were both single and started becoming romantically involved. His friends told me that they’d never seen him act this way, that he was treating me so uniquely. This was the man of my dreams. Still is.

Yet in the midst of it, I was confused. For some reason, at the time, I didn’t know how I felt. Looking back, I think I was just so scared to do anything to fuck it up. And so, in my state of professed confusion over him, we stopped the romantic stuff, and I was shattered because that meant losing him completely. We still talked sporadically through the next summer. Then he started dating someone else.

And then it was like he was a stranger again, and I was stuck with this garden of unruly roses, love roses that would only sprout for his sun! It is now February, a whole year since we got involved, and this has been the hardest loss of my life. To have someone who knows you and understands you the way you want to be known and understood doesn’t come by many times in one’s life. There hasn’t been a single day that I haven’t thought about him. What is he doing? I wonder if he’s happy. I hope so. Why wasn’t I good enough? I know it is silly to think I will never love again, but I do think that.

I saw him for the first time in months the other night at his house. He and his girlfriend were there, and I felt so strange. To a certain extent, I had romanticized him and us and what we shared. But that night, I saw him, and honestly, all my projections and fantasies and dreams were stripped away, but somehow I still loved him. I still loved the man who sat silently across the room, even though I could barely look at him. I loved the man who loved another woman right in front of my eyes, and loved her so well. I knew I really, truly loved him when I saw him love someone else. I get that “you never stop loving your first love,” but also, why the fuck can’t I even entertain the idea of another man? I have had several men tell me they like me and try to date me since, but honestly, even after trying to date some of them, I can’t get myself to want them or see them romantically. Will I ever get over this? Is it so silly to think that he was my soulmate?

The real question for you is, is it silly for me to wait for him?

Waiting For Never
Dear WFN,

It is not silly for you to wait for him. It is pointless and soul-crushing and self-destructive for you to wait for him.

The first line of your letter tells us that you’re addicted to magical thinking: “Either everything means everything or everything means nothing or reality lies somewhere between the two extremes.” When you’re deeply jacked into the matrix of magical thinking, you prefer to feel powerless, because powerlessness and endless waiting and romantic obsession are what bring you the magic. But you’re also ruled by shame: This is either EVERYTHING or it’s NOTHING! I am either DESTINED TO HAVE HIM or I am a COMPLETE FOOL! The stakes are very high, though, and that’s what you’re addicted to: this casino where the high stakes are always flashing and ringing in your face, allowing you to lose yourself and escape from your real life, which is far more ordinary and mundane.

If you stay inside the casino for long enough, you start to feel like desire and powerlessness are the same thing. You saw him with his girlfriend, and even though you noticed that all of your wild ideas about him were just projections, you still loved him like crazy. You subtracted the girlfriend from the picture and you saw a man who would eventually love you and see you as “good enough,” no matter what was happening right now. You still preferred your fantasy to reality.

This reminds me a little of the woman from a few weeks ago, who moved off-grid with an emotionally unavailable man. You love being invisible, because then you have to work even harder to get him to see you. You have something big to look forward to, as long as he’s never looking your way. And the fact that you can strip away your projections and still feel things somehow proves that you’re even more devoted to him than you thought you were. “I LOVE HIM, EVEN NOW, EVEN WITHOUT MY PROJECTIONS!” you say, proving random empty theorems inside your head again. You love anything that reinforces your obsession. You’re committed to fixating on this dude as long as you humanly can.

You even loved that moment when you were at the party (at his house!!!) and there he was, loving his girlfriend so well (was this a sex party? lol) and all you could feel was longing and love for him. Being at that party, seeing him with her? That was romantic for you.

Aren’t animals weird? That’s all I could think as I read your letter. And I also understood. I found myself simultaneously transfixed and sad for you. Everything you describe is fascinating and also completely self-defeating and purposeless.

I get it, of course. Returning to a state of longing is like returning home to me, because that’s how life was for me as a kid. I was always waiting for more. I was always hoping someone would rescue me from my loneliness. I knew and trusted the love around me, but there wasn’t nearly enough of it that I could reach out and grab when I needed it. I was acknowledged and supported but I often felt invisible and voiceless. I’m sure lots of people grow up that way. It turns us into longing junkies. You can kick your bad emotional habits and they might still reemerge unexpectedly, years later.

But you really, truly need to start loosening your grip on this obsession. Because the target of your affection isn’t that meaningful. You can swap this dude out for anyone else. Your fate does not depend on locating one man with an appropriately intricate nose. You’ve taken his features and his personality and his ways of moving through the world and you’ve rendered them divine. I fucking love doing that. I love turning a run-of-the-mill motherfucker into a great, glowing god. And heaven forbid he actually does have a few standout qualities. Heaven forbid other people agree on that front. I’ll run with the good and ignore the bad until my legs collapse underneath me. I’ll craft a magnificent supernatural lover out of crudest materials, using only my imagination.

You love to see it. I love to do it. But you have to notice the hours of work you’ve put into it. You’ve got to tabulate those hours and multiply them by the intensity of your emotional state. You need to recognize how much focus and imagination you brought to the project, and for how long. If you built a shed out of some old boards over the course of a single weekend, you might be able to sally forth unscathed in a week or so. If you spent a solid year building the goddamn Notre Dame, then you are going to feel some things as it burns down.

Just be aware of what’s burning. Some of it is real: time spent together, words exchanged, passionate moments. But the main fuel for this fire is your abstract idea of elevator boy, and the ways you festooned that idea with your fantasies and your longing and other decorative emotional flourishes. You wrote a story about how he was the answer to your deepest needs. Now it’s time to unravel that story and look at other ways to address those needs without pulling him into it.

You might not be able to match the particulars with the next dude: You met in an elevator! He slept by your side without making out! (My god, only a longing junkie would live that way!) His personality was delightful and made you hot! Now he has a girlfriend that he loves so well, and you’ve got a front-row seat to their love! But trust me, just as you can recognize that elevator boy is really just an ordinary man, not all that different from any other (outside of your carefully cultivated narrative about him), you can also build a million magnificent and delicious reasons to adore some other guy. You’re the engineer and the builder here. There are a lot of rough boards out there, ready to be fashioned into anything that suits your fancy.

I guess I should probably say, “Don’t do that! Let people be who they are!” But longing junkies with big imaginations love to build. Why would I block you from your truest passion? You just need to fully embrace and examine and sit with and honor the fact that you love doing this, while still recognizing exactly what you’re doing. You love a romantic scene where you can look but not touch. You love a man who stays just out of reach for a long, long time.

Notice that when you two were actually dating, you “felt confused” and became uncertain of your feelings. You’re not that into having someone show up and look you in the eyes and talk to you and want you. When someone shows up, you become too aware of yourself. You have to ask yourself how you really feel, and you’re never sure. You can only feel your feelings when you’re chasing someone who’s absent or taken or barely there.

I’m not trying to say that’s aberrant or wildly disordered, either. You can be a loyal, committed person and still have a hunger for the hunt. Maybe you just like to work really hard at things. But when you write that everything means everything or everything means nothing, that’s the sound of someone who’s drifted too far out to sea. It’s time to start rowing back toward the shore. You can stand on firm ground and still feel things, trust me. It’ll be hard to connect with reality at first, because you’re addicted to drifting right now. Be patient with yourself.

You need some grounding activities. This weekend, all of my plants fell over in the wind (again!) and a lot of my pots broke. I had to divide this giant horsetail plant using a shovel that looks like some kind of a medieval weapon. My husband kept asking if he could help and I was like, “This is what I do, remember? I’m the one who works in the yard. I can handle it!” But I think we’d both forgotten that, because I’ve been spending too much time deep inside my own head lately, writing weird shit and wandering around online and just indulging my imagination however I can. And that’s been great, but doing some concrete work made me appreciate both my creative life and my real life much more.

Life is bewildering and it’s easy to retreat into fantasy at this moment in history. When you pull yourself back from the hyper-romantic simulation you’ve created, you have to rebuild your connection to the rough realities of your life. You have to look for gifts under your dirty fucking rug. You have to sit with your unvarnished, fragile self and try to love the person you find there.

I’ve worked really hard to get to a place where I can face hardship and stress and heaviness without losing my connection to all of the blessings of just being alive, minute by minute. In order to do that, I had to learn to feel romantic about ME, ALONE. That’s not always easy for an extremely romantic, creative, imaginative, fantasy-loving woman to do. But I can’t impress upon you in strong enough terms how important it is to shine a little of your romantic sensibility and magic onto the gritty details of your actual life and what you actually own. When you greet hellish and scary and exciting experiences with the same open eyes and open heart, every single thing you go through accumulates into a richer, more beautiful life. You love yourself so well. It’s intoxicating. It’s good for you. You believe in where you are, even when you feel like you’re drowning or flailing or gasping for breath. When you value your own wild life, everything really is everything, even when it looks like nothing at all. 

You don’t need this dude to be everything for everything else to be everything. You don’t need him at all. Let him love his girl so well without you being there to witness it. It’s great that you have genuine affection for him. That won’t die. But your fixation on him truly needs to die now. It’s time to find your own sources of magic instead.

Love is still around, waiting for you. Daydreamers have no trouble finding new admirers. In the meantime, get in touch with the world around you. Plant real flowers. Sit in the sun and do nothing. Welcome all of the romance you created with him into your real life. Teach yourself how to have fun with the people you know, and tune into them. Listen and cultivate your curiosity about them.

Everyone is so goddamn lonely out there, rattling around in their heads, staring at their phones, feeling confused and shitty, all the while surrounded by other lonely people. Open your eyes and look around you. Stick your neck out. Be bold. Be vulnerable. Ask someone to hang out with you. Look them in the eyes. Be direct. If they seem uninterested or suspicious, keep it moving. Don’t take it personally. But most of all, stop treating everyone else besides elevator boy like they’re ordinary. Take some of the magic you projected onto him and spread it around.

Make your next building project this: Build a giant heaping pile of new friends. Aim for friendship, not love. Experience the romance of new friends. Because it is truly romantic to meet new people, to watch them sparkle and pop in their unique, freakish ways. Put your hard work and your imagination and your energy into that effort.

Whatever you do, though, don’t wait for elevator boy. It’s disrespectful to him, now that you can see with your own eyes that he’s fully engaged with his lady and he’s not thinking about you at all. It’s also disrespectful to you, to demean yourself with someone who isn’t giving you the faintest sign of giving a shit. Does it really make sense for someone like you to beg for scraps like that? I don’t think so.

When you beg for scraps, you start to see yourself as a beggar. That’s the opposite of building the Notre Dame. Instead, you’re building yourself a big hole and then jumping into it.

It’s time to walk away from this thing that isn’t real, that isn’t yours, that isn’t anything at all. So many people actively destroy their emotional health and shut themselves off from the richness and endless possibility of their real lives by waiting for someone who’ll never come around. Nothing can grow when you’re waiting. No one new can come along as you wait.

Don’t wait. Scrape elevator boy — an ordinary boy, the most ordinary — out of your head and your heart. You can love him in a weak way, from a great distance. I know you don’t want that. You want to keep this feeling strong. But this magical feeling doesn’t even belong to him anymore. Pry it away from him and you’ll see. You can take this magic anywhere. Take it and run like hell.


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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Ask Polly: ‘My Dream Man Moved On. Should I Wait For Him?’