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‘Is My Sexy Poet Friend Manipulating Me?’

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Dear Polly,

I’m in a pickle. I’m 26 and wildly in love with my best friend. A queer tale as old as time. She’s a poet, and we are both weird in a way that sets my soul on fire. I’ll call her E.

E. is just out of a long-term relationship that’s been dead in the water for several years. We met three years ago and have been best friends ever since. We spend many hours lying in bed and talking, and she’ll often read poetry to me while I lie in her lap. She often sends me little gifts and makes things for me. (She’s an artist, too.)

In the last year or so, I started developing feelings for her. It’s the constant touching and cuddling and hand-holding and all those romantic-but-not things. So I told her — admittedly, not at a great time, as she was still in her relationship.

I shouldn’t have done it like that, but it had been KILLING ME. And also, I never actually intended to do anything about it; it was more a matter of recognizing that I needed space from her, and realizing that having to discuss her on-off relationship was too difficult.

They’ve since broken up for good and my feelings for her still linger. We’re still a little bit co-dependent: People constantly think we’re together because we’re so physically affectionate and because of the gift-giving and whatnot. She wants to meet my family and for me to meet hers.

Frequently, when we’re alone together and we’re a little buzzed, she’ll go out of her way to instigate some kind of wrestling. Recently, she pinned me to the sofa and just looked at me — which felt like not exactly friendly behavior. Ditto the constant reading of romantic poems while I’m on her lap.

None of this is actually the issue. I don’t intend to make a move, and even then, she’s already told me no. The issue is that two separate friends (one who has met her and one who hasn’t) have pulled me aside to tell me that they think she is using me for validation or that she’s outright manipulating me because she likes that I have feelings for her.

I can’t ask you to answer that for me (you don’t know us!) but I guess my question is this: How can I tell what’s going on here, and at what point do I need to question if we’re actually co-dependent or if she is manipulating me?

Which is to say: She’s told me she just wants to be friends, but her behavior constantly feels somewhat romantic. So at what point does that become a bit mean when she knows I have feelings for her?

Bewildered Poet

Dear Bewildered Poet,

If you want to know what’s going on, you should ask her directly. Then listen to her honest answer. If she’s evasive, I would insist that she give you a straightforward reply. If she still refuses to offer you any real information, you should get a little distance from this weird tease of a friendship and stop playing around. In other words, you can gather the facts here and proceed based on those facts.

I’m not sure that’s what you want, though. Maybe your friends are the ones pushing this search for the truth because your infatuation is making them nervous. But maybe you would prefer to live inside this affectionate, romantic dream bubble a little bit longer. And who could blame you for that? But if you’re freely choosing to stay inside a fantasy world with her, it’s not really a question of who is being “mean” and who is “manipulating,” is it? You’re both engaged in the same dance. You can both use words, or you can both put off using words forever, thereby keeping this intoxicatingly lusty and wordless alternative ecosystem pumped full of oxygen.

As long as you feel good and you’re not tormented by what’s going on, I think it’s fine to do what you want without heeding your friends’ dire warnings. Sometimes friends get tired of talking about subjects that never get resolved, like difficult, sibling-like friendships, impossible marriages, or obsessions that are never going to resolve into some acceptable happily ever after. But we all have our own reasons for wanting what we want, and it’s important to know for yourself why you value certain people, what projections are in play, and how those people fail to meet your needs at times.

I do think that this relationship could undermine your confidence and well-being in ways that could compound over time. Because what you’ve described is the ultimate nightmare scenario for any hopeless romantic with highly permeable boundaries. But look, forgive yourself for landing here. It is extremely easy to slide into an odd, slightly obsessive, boundary-pushing state when strong attractions are set on a high boil by the current apocalyptic state of the world.

I mean, let’s get real: Everyone is fucking losing it out there. Just when you thought the global rise of authoritarianism and the climate crisis were more than enough to set any mortal’s teeth on edge, here comes a global pandemic, that salty dread that pairs so nicely with the acidic tang of misinformation and burgeoning fear and widespread doomspeak. Who doesn’t want to violate all social-distancing rules, shove their head into their nearest “best friend’s” lap, and demand that a steady flow of poetry usher forth from their pretty lips?

Personally, I’ve been living in some kind of a bizarre, half-fantastical realm for months now. For a while there, the climate crisis was melting into my own weird mid-life crisis and creating some kind of a simulation where life started to feel much more vibrant and full of possibility. And even though I wouldn’t have normally indulged a blurring of lines and boundaries and imagination, I was also writing more than ever and just feeling good inside of the bubble I’d created. And now? Christ, how do you even measure the toll it takes on your nervous system to watch a completely unprecedented worldwide event take place? Huge swaths of the economy are shutting down in front of our eyes and people are losing their jobs and their kids are out of school indefinitely. Suddenly, almost every single out-in-the-world plan is on hold?

That’s just the first layer of where we are (we’ll get into the rest of it in the coming weeks, oh yes, we will!). I just want to acknowledge that we’re living through a very rarefied and vertigo-inducing moment in human history, and the reactions to these conditions are going to be wide-ranging and unpredictable. It’s important to stay on top of the latest news and information, while setting limits on how much you can ingest in one day without your head falling off your neck and rolling under the table. (Headache = Time to stop before your head falls off!) And it’s also crucial to ask yourself: What do I need? What can I build from this? How can I help? What would make me feel good?

Sometimes the answer to that last question is books. Sometimes it’s video games. Sometimes it’s exercise, or music, or Skyping with friends.

But I want to dare you (and everyone else) to ask if the answer might not be a little bigger and weirder and more engrossing than that. At the risk of sounding just like the herd of people on Twitter telling us that Shakespeare did brilliant work as the plague raged across the land, I want to encourage you to use this strange, isolated time to experiment with your imagination and explore your love of words on a page.

Because I don’t think you’re just in love with this woman. I think you’re in love with poetry itself, the soulful salvation of words that lift you out of the disappointments of the mundane, into a more expansive universe of intense colors and sensations. With poetry, we dive straight into the fire, eyes and hearts wide open. “Make me feel everything!” we cry, “Make me face death! Let’s do this!” I’ve been filling a hot bath full of wild words for weeks now, and it’s delivered me out of my own twisted, circular neuroses and into some strange, sensual alternative reality where I feel so good and brave and open and connected to other people and to the world at large.

That said, when you stay in that hot bath for a long time, you start to really wonder why the fuck anyone puts on pants in the morning, and why there aren’t more orgiastic apocalypse-themed house parties on every block, and why you and your bestie or your friendy or your loose acquaintance a few states away aren’t jetting off to some pretty island together, flying to a land far, far away where no one has even heard of the coronavirus and everyone can mix up a strong cocktail in less than two minutes flat and no one has even heard of wearing pants.

It’s amazing to dive into that bath. But once your brain and your heart start getting all pruney, it’s time to get the fuck out of the bathtub and get your shit in order.

Right now, strong attraction and seductive poetry have melted all of your boundaries. You are as permeable as an amoeba in a petri dish of pure Bulleit Rye Whiskey. In other words, you might just be in danger of losing yourself completely. Maybe that’s what your friends are seeing. Maybe their worries are legitimate, and it’s easier to place the blame on the object of your affection than it is to tell you that it’s time to take a step back and get real.

So let’s talk about boundaries. What is the point of them, exactly? When you’re in the hot bath, you don’t get it. Get out of this delicious warmth? Put on pants? Who would fucking live that way? What kind of a robot would walk around talking in sentences, saying things like, “I can’t go into that at the moment” and “I don’t have time” and “Please get your head out of my lap”? Can’t you see that the world is dying, zombies? You have to … do your taxes? You have to feed your kids dinner? What kind of an unfeeling monster are you, anyway?

The internet is a kind of a hot bath that slowly coaxes us to loosen our grip on what’s real and what’s fantastical (and therefore far more delicious than reality). Living inside your own head and following its random dictates is easier now than ever. Throw in the artist’s imperative to connect and love and live in full color and you’ve got a perfect storm. You don’t even need a weirdo poet who sends you little gifts and wrestles with you and stops and looks deep into your eyes, daring you to make the first move but also insisting (once, a while ago?) that the answer is No, no way, never. A boundaryless romantic will make do with whatever they can find.

Boundaries are self-protective. I think I’ve been in some denial about this my whole life. I’ve always seen boundaries as healthy, sure, but I’ve also viewed them as a negative force that prevents people from doing the meaningful poetry reading and making out that they quite obviously deserve. (Get into this hot bath with me, everybody!) And even though I’ve craved honest connection from a young age, when I was younger, I had very strong protective boundaries and defenses and ways of staying remote from others that were largely disordered but also pretty functional. That’s something we rarely address when we talk about mental health: Some overdeveloped skills with dysfunctional origins still function in your life pretty well. Paradoxically, as I’ve become more trusting and open and creatively free and less defensive and angry and remote, I’ve also lost sight of the fact that the world is not one huge, safe, hot bath where no one will ever drown.

People don’t know what they want a lot of the time. They act without thinking. They can seem extremely straightforward and honest and still be a tiny bit manipulative without noticing it. What’s weird is, when you really think about the ways that you act with others, when you really trace your own words and your actions, you might find that you’re subconsciously or unconsciously manipulating others, too. You can see yourself as utterly bullshit free and still be engaged in all kinds of odd, almost accidental forms of seduction and rejection and engagement and retreat.

When you’re pulled into any relationship that involves attraction — let alone (gasp) poetry reading and wrestling and meaningful stares — you can easily wind up in a world of fantasy or in a shame spiral, depending on the day. It’s heady stuff. Add texting and email and DMing and social media and all other forms of internet tagging and tracking into the mix, and you’ve got a serious house of mirrors to navigate. It’s easy to get addicted to that kind of a thrill, particularly if your childhood was unpredictable and unstable and few of the adults in your life took the time to slow down and explain reality to you on a regular basis.

So even if you weren’t susceptible to unsafe, manipulative, boundaryless thrills before, because you were more fearful or defensive or suspicious, loosening your boundaries for good, healthy reasons can still land you on unstable ground. Let’s say you feel safe and confident, so you’re more okay with risks. Let’s say you’ve discovered a new love of poetry. Let’s say you have a very trustworthy, straight-talking, delightful friend who just happens to be an attractive poet who la-la-loves to wrestle with you. Now you’re playing with what you think are butter knives, but they’re really battle-axes.

I think when circumstances are very romantic (and I haven’t heard of many circumstances more romantic than yours) (and by romantic, of course I mean constrained and limited and UTTERLY DOOMED), it can be exceptionally hard to recognize subconscious or accidental or even outright manipulation. It can be very difficult to resist temptation. And it can be nearly impossible to get the fuck out of the hot bath and get a grip. Attraction and flowery words do add up to something real, too. They just do. It almost doesn’t matter what anyone’s intentions are. What is romantic love, beyond lust and pretty words?

Romantic love is one thing. Real, mutual love that lasts is something else. Real love requires honesty and trust. Real self-love and self-protection require self-respect and strong boundaries. There is an enormous difference between smoldering lust and solid, loving bonds that grow slowly over time on the very mundane landscape of building an actual life together. Becoming fully entangled with someone is not really just about reading cool words and wrestling and cuddling and sweeping each other away on some The Age of Innocence–themed wave of deeply dirty microgestures. (Isn’t there a scene in that movie where Michelle Pfeiffer takes off a single glove and Daniel Day-Lewis snuffles her bare hand and they both explode in a shower of molecules and the PAs on set have to scrape them off the ground and reassemble them, molecule by molecule, just to film the next scene?)

The problem is, there is nothing more seductive under the sun than microgestures of lust, particularly when the world might just be ending. No one will appreciate me saying this, but it almost doesn’t matter who’s the more manipulative one, sometimes. One motherfucker takes a glove off, the other motherfucker snuffles. Or no one does anything, but the energy is just there, in the goddamn horse-drawn carriage. If you don’t use that stuff up, guess what? It takes a long time to dissipate.

Boundaries. Keep your lacy glove on. In a truly doomed romantic dance of attraction and retreat, no one wants to ask the question, “What is this?,” and no one wants to answer “This is absolutely nothing,” because both parties are into the dance itself. I think you have to know that some people just like to dance, though, period. They don’t want more than that. It’s not so much that they’re fucking with you, it’s just who they are.

And maybe they’d dance with a lot of people, if they could? Maybe you’re just the one person who’s there and willing? Maybe if they really thought you were special, you’d hear those actual words out of their actual lips, accompanied by words like “What are we doing?” and “Should we actually do something about this, whatever it is?” and “Do you think there’s more to this than just, you know, empty titillation?” Typically, if you’re not having those conversations, that’s because the object of your affection does not remotely want to traffic in the mundane universe of building a real relationship with you. Insisting on some difficult words regarding reality would ruin everything.

But that’s also why you haven’t brought it up. You don’t want this to end. You’ll take whatever you can get.

And that’s fine sometimes. But sometimes you don’t realize you’re playing with a battle-axe and not a butter knife until your hand is lying on the ground and your wrist is spouting blood.

I would trust your friends. This woman is not being that careful with your feelings. But I wouldn’t necessarily call it mean. I hate leading people on and I hate playing games, personally, so I have no way of crawling inside the mind of someone who would behave provocatively without the slightest interest in follow-through. If I provoke, I am invested. I don’t fuck around, particularly in situations where I know someone is into me and I’m not into it. I just wouldn’t do that. But people are weird and confused and life is scary and stressful. What matters isn’t her intentions. What matters is that you’re becoming consumed by a fantasy that’s never, ever, going to take any real-life shape or form. It’s time to put away the battle-axe and get real.

If you feel strongly that you are NOT becoming consumed, though, you can stand up for that. And look, even if it slowly unravels you to stay inside of this fantasy for a few more months, maybe this is where you’d like to live as the world shuts down. Because what I see inside you is a poet who wants to come out. And maybe this is your way of entering the world with a brand-new spirit of bold, wild, open, experimental DESIRE under your wings. Sometimes an unrequited bond fuels real bonds in the real world. For someone who loves an absent figure more than a present one, fixating on absence and obsessing on what you don’t want can be a way of building a bridge to what you do want. I would just pay close attention to your feelings along the way, and experiment with building strong boundaries in places where being around your friend (or interacting with her via text, as might be the case during the current widespread social-distancing imperative) starts to chip away at your soul.

Your friend sounds very charismatic, and that makes it difficult. You’re going to have a lot of trouble extracting yourself from this shared simulation you’ve constructed. So think about the value of boundaries. When you turn away from her and draw a line and say, “I need space,” do you feel a little stronger? When you move toward her and ask for more, do you feel weak? Pay attention to those days when you start getting heartsick and sad. Are you fixating? Are you trying to bend reality into a sexy shape because you’re avoiding something much more concrete and difficult in your life?

Whatever you do, though, don’t give in to shame. Use what you’ve learned here. Consider what you can take with you. Are you in love with her, or do you just admire her? Are you in love with poetry? Do you want to pursue art? Can you imagine affection with someone whose forehead doesn’t have the word STOP written across it? Can you feel romance in the presence of total honesty?

I can, and I recommend it. It’s not the same as intrigue. It’s thornier. It’s more irritating and more laborious and more tedious, even. Sometimes you have to rebuild some boundaries in longer-term relationships, in order to feel more connected. Sometimes you need more walls and more poetry, more distance and more honesty, more pragmatism and more hot baths. Experimenting with what you need, in all things, is so valuable! But you don’t really get to have that balance in a real, romantic, trusting way with someone who’s not into you in the first place. So right now, you can either (1) recognize the benefits and limits of where you are and accept them, or (2) have honest talk with her about what’s real. If you want something real and she says this isn’t real and it’ll never be real, then it’s time to walk away and look for something that is. Fantasies can be fun, but balanced, boundaried, healthy love or even friendship is impossible without straightforward talk and total honesty.

If you can’t get a straight answer from her, you have to give one to yourself: Does this really work for me? Do I need more than this? Forget “mean.” Forget studying what’s going on with her, like she’s a really cool puzzle that you might waste your whole life solving. That’s some boundaryless addictive nonsense right there. You are the decider. It’s time for you to get a little mean and draw some firm boundaries in order to demonstrate more respect for your deepest desires for love and connection (or even just a healthy friendship). Ask her a direct question and be prepared to walk away. Contemplating her complicated intentions is just another way of flirtatiously wrestling with a ghost.

Love, at this very uncertain hour, isn’t easy. You have to work very hard to respect boundaries — yours and other people’s alike. Boundaries help you to feed your soul and grow into the person you want to become. Stop wondering what’s happening over the garden wall, and grow your own flowers instead. Stop waiting for her poetry and write your own. Stop fixating on one single star and swim through the galaxy with your heart wide open. There is more love for you out there. There is always more love. Believe in abundance, and give yourself what you need to thrive, every single day.


Ask Polly is moving to an every other Wednesday schedule, but there’s a new Ask Polly newsletter to fill in the gaps; please sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every other Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: ‘Is My Sexy Poet Friend Manipulating Me?’