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‘My Boyfriend Bugs the Hell Out of Me!’

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Dear Polly,

About four months ago, I met and started dating an amazing guy. It felt so easy, like we were just right for each other. I wrote in my journal that I felt I had been walking along in my life when I met him on a corner and it seemed natural we would walk together now. I found him endearing and charming, attractive, intelligent, and kind. He has this thing where he falls over himself to help other people a bit too much, which I find kind of ridiculous and annoying, but it also means that he is so sweet to me.

When lockdown happened, we’d been going out for a couple of months and it just seemed to make good sense that I would come and live in his (slightly bigger than mine) one-bedroom flat. I was actually sick with (what we think was) COVID-19 at the time, and he was so lovely and kind and nursed me back to health. The next few weeks were occasionally challenging (I have lots of work and have been quite fraught with emotion), but he helped me through it. I fell in love with him and we were basically love’s young dream for the first month of quarantine. He’s slow to open up and sometimes I really had to pry him open. I found him to be a smooth shell that reflected me back, and I wanted more. But I feel like we worked through that, by talking, and by living together in the wildest times in the world.

There are small nagging problems. I am not as tidy as him and he does almost all the housework, making me feel stressed and unhelpful. He doesn’t have much work and I have way too much. I feel sometimes that he is smothering me and giving me too much.

About a month in, we started talking about the possibility of living together properly. It seemed silly to be paying for two flats now when I wasn’t going back, so I texted my landlord asking to be released from my lease. I hired a moving van and we moved the rest of my stuff here and cleaned out my flat. In the days before the move, during the move, and since we did it (three days ago), I have felt increasingly cold and irritated by him.

Everything he says annoys me. I hate it when he makes cutesy suggestions. I hate it when he whispers to me. I hate it when he strokes my hair. Before, we were having sex every day, occasionally twice a day, and now I can’t bear for him to touch me. We’ve had conversations that skirted around the issue: I get annoyed at him for letting me treat him badly. I’m such a bully sometimes. I know it’s impossible to win when I’m like this, but I can’t stop myself. Sometimes I think a mean and unkind response (to some innocuous thing or question) and I try and talk myself out of saying it, but I can’t and say it anyway. I think it barbs, but I can’t tell. Sometimes when I do this, I wish he would just tell me to fuck off like I deserve. Poor guy! But why won’t he stand up for himself? I’ve always thought he was a bit soft (his defense is to shut down) to put up with this. Whenever I get upset or irritated, he takes it on himself. I almost feel like an emotional abuser, which I hate. I want to stop. I know I can be an emotional terrorist. But I want to stop. I love him. I do!

I’m 28 and prior to this boyfriend, I always seemed to be in unrequited love. I haven’t had a significant romantic relationship in nearly four years. My last relationship of two years ended for a number of good reasons, but also because I just could not stand him anymore and he was sick of being put down all the time. I was starting to feel like a freak because of this, which I know is bad thinking. And I was trying. My best friend told me that it was okay, I am an easily irritated person and he was uniquely irritating — not a good match. But now I’m thinking, “What if I can’t love anyone?”

Immediately before meeting my current boyfriend, I was trying out not dating at all as a gift to myself. I was really enjoying living alone in my little flat and enjoying my life in general (many friends, interesting hobbies, my Ph.D.!, politics) when I met this boyfriend (through the Labour Party), but being single was on my mind a fair bit. I can admit that I did feel relief when we started dating, like, phew, okay, I won’t be single forever. I worried that I was leaping into moving in together (I mean I did timewise, but times are also wild!) so I sat with it for a while. Ultimately I thought I had made an active decision to do this, but now I can’t tell if I regret it. And I feel full of guilt for pushing him away.

I ended up telling him I was feeling repulsed by him and he’s asked me to stop inviting him back in and then pushing away and give ourselves some real time to see how we feel (as much as we can in a one-bed flat!). He’s said he wishes I had known myself better when I enthusiastically took this step (I booked the movers! Me! This was my idea!). I actually do feel better that he at least told me I am being a bit mean.

I’m so sad that I’m causing this pain for like … no reason! I want to let us both off this Push Me Pull Me crazy ride. I want to be easy and just relax a bit. But I am so so prickly. I am so unable to be relaxed and easy. It makes me sad. Will I always be so mean? What to do?

Sad and Spiteful

Dear Sad and Spiteful,

Your lack of kindness toward your boyfriend is rooted in your extremely negative and punitive view of yourself. He does things that you can’t do that well: Give generously, attend to others, tune into feelings, encounter vulnerability as more than just an irritant. You admire these traits in your boyfriend, but you also see them as weak. You fell in love with him because he’s safe and stable and also because you’re trying to become more like him. But that is hard.

Very hard. Incredibly hard. Nearly impossible.

What’s standing in your way of being soft and kind and generous, the kind of person who can allow other people to just be themselves instead of judging them constantly? Shame. You have an ungodly amount of shame onboard. Your shame is self-protective, and has a reflexive superiority attached to it that keeps you safe from having to consider other people’s feelings and realities. That superiority likes to tell you that you’re tough and interesting and better than most people, but your shame tells you that you’re weak and terrible and far worse than most people at the same time. You’re battered by extremes every day, and you’re also incredibly moody, so you’re very afraid of your emotions and how they take over everything when you don’t feel secure. You handle all of that chaos by trying to punitively discipline yourself into being a better, calmer, more predictable person, but all your punishment does is exhaust you and make you even more ashamed of yourself and even more afraid of the future.

This is your moment to step away from fear and shame. But you have to start by refusing to punish yourself so brutally. I’ll bet your boyfriend tells you that you’re too hard on yourself often. And that’s why I think you could have a very secure, promising future with him. Because he heals something in you. He sees you clearly, and he loves being with someone who he admires and respects and looks up to. That’s his type. He likes to please someone who is a teensy bit aloof.

But you might be more like him than you think on that front. You also prefer to spend time with someone who is avoidant or emotionally unavailable. You said you had to draw your boyfriend out a little — you probably loved that part. But normally, you’d be with a guy who was uninterested or had to be chased a little.

So this is the weird thing: Even though you feel like you’re incredibly mean, the truth is that you’re just a very young person who’s been conditioned to pay close attention to people who are barely paying attention to her, and to ignore people who are staring right at her. Your boyfriend is the same way. So in your relationship with your boyfriend, even though you APPEAR to be the one who’s getting her needs met, you’re also the one who isn’t in her comfort zone. Your boyfriend gets to admire you like crazy while you’re slightly less into it. That means he’s in his comfort zone. But you’re not. You have to tolerate someone being very focused on you. Uncomfortable! Much better to be chasing someone, because that way, you get to focus on something other than yourself and your shame!

You need to have this conversation very directly with your boyfriend. Because if you ask him, I’ll bet he’d admit that he usually dates women who are slightly aloof or whom he sees as superior to him in many ways. And when you say to him, “Could you be with someone who was focused on you constantly, who was always stepping in to help, who was always asking how you’re feeling, over and over, taking your emotional temperature constantly? Would you love that?”

He might say he’d love it, compared to how things are now. But ask him to think carefully about that. Because I’m guessing he would wriggle away from someone who paid that much attention to him.

My husband and I had that conversation when we were first dating. We’d been madly in love for months and then suddenly EVERYTHING he did was irritating and wrong to me. I was such an asshole, all the time. I hated myself for it. I thought I was going to fuck up the best thing I’d ever had. So I sat him down and said, “Look, I have to tell you the truth. I want you. I love you. But there’s all this shit about you that I want to FIX. And that’s not right. So I’m just hoping I can say something, explain where I am, make you a hideous list of things that get on my nerves, and at least then I won’t feel so annoyed and numb around you. Because I don’t think my annoyance is the most real feeling here. I think I love you, and I hate myself for being so mean about everything.”

I probably didn’t say it that well, but that was the idea. And luckily, my husband is pretty confident at some deep level (in addition to being pretty insecure at some deep level — these two things are not incompatible, most people are a mix of horribly threatened in specific ways and totally secure in other ways). So he listened and most of my TOTALLY SHAMEFUL confessions (“I hate your sideburns! I hate how you get this weird, nerdy, self-conscious smile after you ask me a question!”). He laughed at them, which felt good because THE MAIN ISSUE WAS MY SHAME. I was so relieved that he could accept that I had such negative feelings. I thought these feelings meant that I was eternally damned. Instead, my feelings for him came flooding back, and our sex life improved, and everything was good again.

We also talked very explicitly about the fact that my husband had the luxury of being the one doing a little bit MORE of the serving and pleasing and chasing, and I was the one who had to occupy the uncomfortable position of not having to work quite as hard for his approval.

This is the incredibly bizarre paradox of long-term love relationships: You both crave all kinds of strange things that you’re barely aware of. The person who seems “mean” is sometimes the one that needs to grow more, at the outset, just to tolerate the relationship’s dynamics. But you also might have a kind of sixth sense that says “THIS MAN IS HERE TO HELP ME GROW.” Because even though my husband STILL gets on my nerves sometimes, and I STILL feel like a total dick for saying so (when I do say so), we’re very good together. We have always trusted each other at some gut level. We were designed to help each other grow. It’s been taxing sometimes, but it’s never looked like a bad or unhealthy choice to stay together. It’s always looked like the obvious choice.

We’re good to each other. Challenges come up here and there, but the relationship is about as devoid of real, lasting contempt as any relationship — family, friend, lover — I’ve ever been in.

I can’t tell you if your boyfriend is really here to help you grow or not. But I do think, from what you’ve described, that you’re trying to be with someone like him, at the very least: someone who knows how to give his love generously instead of protecting himself the way you do.

And whenever you’re with a man like that, there will be irritations, because some part of you believes that vulnerability is weak. You can embrace vulnerability intellectually and still be utterly repulsed by it in real life. I’m like that sometimes, even now, EVEN THOUGH I FUCKING WRITE ABOUT FEELINGS EVERY GODDAMN DAY OF MY LIFE!

It’s absurd! Love itself is absurd and so is human nature! It’s all a fucking clown show, I tell you!

The only answer is to forgive yourself and address your shame enough that you’re able to be honest. If he lashes out and dumps you, then he might not be ready for love, either. It’s a toss-up. I mean, not to state the obvious, but you both need therapy —  to address your shame and your weird subconscious emotional impulses and compulsions.

My personal guess is that you’re a good match. And I don’t think someone who feels as guilty about herself as you do winds up remaining “mean” for very long. You just have a lot of shame to sort through. You want to learn or you wouldn’t have chosen this open-hearted man in the first place. Maybe it won’t work out with this guy, but it could work out with someone with similar qualities. I mean, personal style does matter. If my husband were any more adorably people-pleasing than he is, I think I’d be out. The irony is that I disrespect that in him because I disrespect it in myself. He and I are both hardworking, people-pleasing softies who want little pats on the head for being such good doggies. That’s why we feed each other what we need. That’s why we trust each other. We understand each other.

We’re also — both! — avoidant assholes who can get the job done and tough it out and get superior and shut ourselves off from the world completely. And then we sit down and complain about how much other people suck and also whine about how hard it is that we have to, like, make dinner every night. No fair! We have matching personalities that work well together. We are uniquely punitive toward ourselves and uniquely forgiving of each other’s flaws.

So try having an honest conversation. Let it all out. Take your ego out of it and look at reality with clear eyes. See what comes up. Be patient. Sit with it. You might decide it’s impossible. But if you gain clarity by being very honest and putting your heads together, and that clarity also makes you want to have sex immediately? That’s a pretty good sign that you’re good together.

Whether or not you stay with him, though, I want you to make a commitment to looking more closely at your shame and your unforgiving attitude toward yourself. The more you can feel that and understand it (instead of just intellectually acknowledging that that’s how you are), the more ways you’ll find to tolerate and move through your shame until it starts to subside. And the more your shame subsides (or at least gets out of the way), the more you’ll discover yourself giving your love to others with reckless abandon, without fear.

I used to be a very intolerant, perpetually irritated person who hated everything and everyone. I was very afraid and also very allergic to the world and myself. I’ve coaxed myself out of that state mostly by addressing my shame and learning to take pride in who I am, in all of my prickly, bossy, passionate, unpredictable glory. I enjoy who I am now. You’ll get there, too. But I need you to understand this: It takes a ton of hard work.

Luckily, you fucking love hard work. So sink your teeth in and enjoy this. Move closer and closer to how big your shame is. Watch how often it floods into every picture. But you’re strong! Go ahead and observe the things that trigger you, over and over again. Even as you run away, screaming, even as you hide and cower and rage and feel impossibly weak and embarrassed, I want you to repeat this to yourself: It’s okay. This is how it feels to be a human being. This is how it feels to be fully alive. You’re still good, even right here, in this uncomfortable, frightening place. You’re not doing it wrong. You’re learning, that’s all.


Ask Polly is moving to an every other Wednesday schedule, but there’s a new, free 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: ‘My Boyfriend Bugs the Hell Out of Me!’