Your advice and column have seen me through some tough times, good times, and rapid change over the past four years. Divorce, death, tepid motherfuckers, and coming out to my family at almost 30, to name a few. “You will rock it out one way or another” gave me the strength to walk away from two relationships. One with a tepid motherfucker I was absolutely head over heels for but who did not love me, and one with an absolutely perfect for me (on paper) girlfriend (seriously, my parents and friends were confused and actually a little mad at me when I ended that) who I just did not want to be with because something deep down said go. It was absolutely the right thing to do, both times.
So here’s my question. How do I translate your breakup advice during COVID-19? I love and want to be with my partner so much, and so many aspects of our relationship are incredible, unique, life changing, and “I’ll never feel this way about anyone again” type stuff. But it is also just not working in so many ways. The issues are always the same, despite therapy. Over the past few weeks isolating together, I’ve tried to put some of our issues aside and just be, while our lives are sort of “on pause.” Neither of us has the bandwidth to work through issues that come up (I am partially unemployed due to COVID, she is the busiest she’s ever been at work due to COVID). But she’s unable to just drop it or let it go.
She will say she doesn’t have the capacity to talk through stuff, but she still wants me to pretend I am fine, be just as sweet and connected, and “take care of her.” She’s needy and reactive, but always seems to expect me to be flexible and measured. My resentment builds as our unresolvable issues seem increasingly unresolvable. I don’t want to break up with her, but it feels like even if I did want to … it would be stupid? Best-case scenario, I can date again in a couple months. Worst-case scenario, we’re social distancing and therefore trapped together for another year. It seems incredibly stupid to give up sex, companionship, and just someone to help me figure out how much produce to buy and how many grocery-store trips are reasonable, especially as there is so much loss already — my job and the entire world as we know it. There’s so much grief. Does the standard advice that “You will rock it out one way or another” still apply? Does your breakup advice shift, knowing that we might be stuck and unable to access social supports and friends and bars etc. for an indefinite amount of time?
I don’t know where to turn. Help!
I love that you see “You will rock it out one way or another” as my standard advice. Boy, does that feel like a pure blast of optimism from the distant past. Wouldn’t it be incredible to believe that you’ll be absolutely fine no matter what happens next?
Somehow, in the past month, everything has changed. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how much has changed, either. Everything is different. Being in a relationship is different, having a job is different, being laid off is different, shopping for produce is different, hunger is different, time is different, space is different.
What day is it? What should we do tonight? Should we do the same thing we did last night? Why does that feel like the wrong answer? Remember restaurants? Remember how good it used to feel, to sit outside in the sunshine, sipping a drink, watching people walk by without worrying about them exhaling on you and killing you?
Last week I felt so fucking sad. I can barely even put it into words. That’s how sad I felt. I stopped and cried a lot. I cried while I was doing other things. I didn’t even need to talk about why I was crying. It was almost like a matter-of-fact sort of crying, like “Oh yes, I’m crying again, it’s raining today, same old story.”
But I also felt crushed, and anxious, and a little sick. The stress of this feels cumulative, doesn’t it? It feels like just talking about the stress is stressful. I mean, I am calling my favorite people in the world and having conversations with them about how fucked up everything is, and some part of me feels relieved to be talking about it, and another part of me feels like the pressure in the room just increased, or someone inserted a metal screw into my jaw and turned it a few times, or someone inflated a balloon inside my head. I feel queasy and heavy like a pregnant lady. I feel tired all the time. I’m always wondering if I should take a nap. I’m always needing a snack. Do you have this weird food insecurity now, like I do? Even eating has changed, hasn’t it?
And when I make it to the afternoon, and my husband asks me, “Should we try to work out?” that makes me feel angry and hopeless for no reason. I don’t want to work out. But I know that if I don’t want to feel even worse, I need to exercise. So I try to say yes. But sometimes I say “Fuck no.” And if I don’t work out, the night doesn’t go well. But if I do exercise, guess what? I feel better for about 30 minutes and then I want a drink.
“Time for a strong drink and a doughnut!” I announce to my children, pretending we have doughnuts in the house. Remember doughnuts? I fix myself a strong drink and eat a few Pepperidge Farm cookies. Maybe I finish them. Do I sound crazy to you? What does the word “crazy” mean anymore? Isn’t that a bullshit word? What’s so wrong with crazy? Where did sanity ever get us, anyway?
So look: You and your partner aren’t getting along well. She says she doesn’t have the bandwidth to talk about anything, but you’re supposed to take care of her, somehow. What does it mean to take care of someone under these conditions? Who has bandwidth for that or anything else? On the other hand, if you’re only spending time with each other, how do you just avoid discussing what’s going on? You act like you want to process things with her, but before that, you say that she won’t just let it go or drop it. So which of you is avoiding the other one? Can you even tell? Remember doughnuts? Remember sunshine? You’re living together, but you’re supposed to ignore the emotional realities in the room. How do you measure emotional reality, exactly, when your head feels like an overinflated balloon?
Everything is different. How do you navigate this? Everything has changed.
It could be a year, you say. Is it really so smart to break up right now, and wind up all alone? Who will help you shop for groceries? Who will hold your hand when you feel terrible after too much bad news at night? Why bother dumping your needy, impossible partner just to be unemployed, unhappy, horny, locked in, and lonely?
Maybe you don’t love your partner at all. Maybe you feel stuck. Maybe that’s why you’re thinking about how quickly you’ll be free from this purgatorial living arrangement. Or maybe you do love her and you just don’t want to slow down and feel what’s here: You feel like you’ve tried hard enough in therapy and it didn’t help. But maybe you really don’t like it when people need you, particularly when it seems like they don’t really care who you are. It’s almost like who you are is entirely beside the point: Take care of me. It’s almost like you’re this faceless emotional helper and you don’t have the right to needs of your own.
You’re not just saying it’s hard to talk about this. You’re saying that your partner doesn’t have free-flowing conversations about how she feels. She expects you to fill her needs, and she’s furious at you when you fail at that. But she also won’t drop it.
I wonder where her anger comes from. I wonder what she’s assuming about you at this point. Maybe she senses — justifiably? — that you’re not committed. Maybe her emotions are experienced through a filter of disappointment and longing. You feel like you can’t really say anything right because you can’t: She experiences you as bullshitting her. She reaches for you and through you. You don’t seem real at all.
Sometimes I don’t feel real at all these days. Am I an advice columnist? What does someone with that job really do? Am I capable of telling you that you’ll rock it out one way or another at this dark hour? Sometimes I feel like the people who write to me want me to fulfill a role — TELL ME IT’S ALL GOING TO BE OKAY, TELL ME YOU’RE ON MY SIDE! — instead of just being my weird, twisted, sad self.
A few minutes ago, I started to close my eyes while I was typing this answer, because I felt exhausted. I set my computer aside and put a pillow over my head and took a nap. That’s not how I usually behave when I want to get my column written. But I knew that in an hour, the five other people (FIVE OTHER PEOPLE!) who live in my house with me were going to start asking what’s for dinner.
I live with five people and two dogs. They all need things. Only two of us cook. I’m trying to avoid going to the store. But grocery delivery takes five days here. So I have to make something for dinner from the groceries we already have.
I have to take a nap in the middle of writing my column so I don’t feel exhausted one hour later when I have to make dinner for five people using, I don’t know, some cans of black beans and a bag of brown rice. Nothing sounds that good to eat at the moment. Where is my drink? Where is my doughnut?
And once I have my drink and my doughnut, then what if I feel bad after that? One thing I know about this quarantine situation is that you can’t have a second drink and a second doughnut. A second drink doesn’t help. A second doughnut only makes things worse.
So this is what I want to say about your situation: You can’t rock it out right now, anymore than I can write the most beautiful, poetic advice column under the sun right after I take a nap and right before I make a fucking shitty meal out of beans again. Our lives are narrow now. Instead of rocking it out, what we have to do is look at the one or two or five people in our apartments or houses with us, and we have to shower them with our compassion. We have to ask: How do you feel right now? What do you need from me? What will help? We have to listen closely to the answers. Instead of wondering if they’re just irrational, we have to ask ourselves if giving them what they need might make things better. We have to open ourselves up to the unknown a little.
Maybe it makes sense to say to your partner, “I am trying to show up for you, but I guess it’s hard for me. I feel withdrawn. Maybe I’m trying to stay tough and remote. I don’t know. I want to help, but I never feel like I’m doing it right.” Or maybe it makes sense to say, “Sometimes I feel like you don’t care about what I need. I know that’s not fair. I just feel discouraged. I want to believe in us again. What am I doing to stand in the way of that?” Do you feel the space of possibility that opens up inside of and around those words? Because I do. When you say words like that with an open heart, instead of out of spite, some space opens up. It’s like you have more room to play with, suddenly. It’s like a one-pound bag of dry active yeast just arrived at your doorstep. (SOMEONE SEND ME SOME YEAST, PLEASE.) Suddenly, the black bean dinner is fine, because you can make cheese bread! You can make cinnamon rolls! You could even make doughnuts!
Maybe this is your moment to learn how not to look for the exit.
Do you find yourself looking for the exit a lot? I wonder. Because you said this relationship felt like the best one yet, and then you said it was impractical to start thinking about finding someone new already. It was a short trip from Best Yet to What Next? It felt a little too short, like you don’t like to sit with things very long before you bail, like you don’t appreciate living in limbo, tolerating uncertainty, feeling slightly dependent, feeling like a big disappointment. I wonder if that’s what your friends and your family were trying to tell you, when you broke up with the last girlfriend. Maybe it was less about her being perfect for you, and less about them questioning your instincts, and more about them saying, “You need to wait for a second longer, and stay open to what comes next before you run for the hills.”
What if you’re projecting? What if you’re the one who needs a lot but doesn’t want to process anything? What if you’re the one who starts to feel distant so that you never have to feel vulnerable? What if you’re the one who defines having needs as feeling needy? What if she really is showing up and trying to talk to you, but it never feels like you’re really there?
I can’t tell from here. It’s hard to tell anything at all right now, isn’t it? All I can say is that everything is different, so maybe it’s time to try something different for a change. Maybe it’s time to slow down and ask better questions.
What’s your fantasy of the ideal way two people could spend two months locked up together? What could I say that would change everything? Can you imagine getting exactly what you need from another person? What would that feel like? What’s missing now? What do you think I’m confused about?
Do you have enough space to be who you want to be with me?
Am I asking the right questions? What do you want to tell me? Do you still want us to grow together? Do you still think it’s possible?
Sometimes human connection isn’t that complicated. Sometimes it’s just about stepping back and asking the other person: What do I mean to you? What do you see in me? Why do you think we landed here?
Most people think that love follows some triumphant story line: You meet and you’re in love and everything unfolds according to plan. But love is just two imperfect people, feeling their way in the dark together. Love is a calamity. You fall in love, and it turns out the person you’re with is deeply flawed. You fall in love, and it turns out you are deeply flawed. You think that means nothing is magical anymore, but it really means that the magic has just begun.
This is not the end of a love story. This is the very beginning.
Do you know how to tolerate uncertainty and ambivalence? Do you know how to be patient and calm in close quarters? Do you know how to work with what you have?
On that note, I’m going to finally make a sourdough starter, even though I always think they’re a little gross. They just sit there in the warm room, and I always want to throw them out and start over. Maybe that’s how you are with love. Maybe you always just assume that you’ll fail, that it’s better to start over. Instead of grappling with what’s here, you’d rather imagine what comes next.
Everything is different. Instead of throwing this out, look a little closer. Be more curious. Ask better questions. Imagine, just for a moment, that anything is possible. Imagine, just for a second, that you two will rock it out, one way or another.
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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