Ask Polly: How Do I Stop Being Such a Jerk?

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Photo: Stephen Belcher/Foto Natura/Corbis

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Dear Polly,

Even if you can't give me any advice to save my current relationship, maybe others can learn how not to be a dick in the first place.

The Backstory: I'm 40, an engineer and an artist, a father of a perfect 13-year-old daughter, and my wife of 15 years had a long-standing affair with another married man that I just found about in August. I moved to Detroit and decided to concentrate on fixing the mistakes of my past. I had accrued too much baggage over my 40 years — too much stuff that I cared little about that I needed to shed. 

The Meat of the Story: For reasons of intellectual curiosity I signed up for Match.com to see what women are like in 2014. Truthfully, I had no interest in finding someone, until I met her. Nicole was smart, beautiful, witty, in her mid-30s, never married and no kids. Did I mention she was incredibly sexy? We both had been drawn to Detroit for its "can't-keep-me-down" energy. Our work backgrounds had commonality and our tastes for adventure were in sync. I wanted to open a liquor distillery and bar in downtown Detroit, and she wanted to be a part of that, no matter how ridiculous the idea was. Quickly, our texting morphed into dating, and four weeks passed quickly. I loved her and I told her. I wanted to marry her and I told her. I wanted to have kids with her and I told her. What I didn't tell her was that I was still married. 

When I did tell her, in the gentlest way possible, things exploded. I had been physically and emotionally ill over the secret. She listened to my explanation, said she understood, and forgave me.

Where I Became a Big Dick: A few weeks later, we made plans to watch a movie on Netflix. She had a girls' dinner planned for early in the evening and I suggested she use a cab service instead of driving. When she said she wanted to wait and see, for some reason I responded with emotional blackmail and ignorant remarks. Something like "what should I tell your parents when you die in a drunk-driving accident." What I really meant was that I care for her dearly and I would have more peace of mind if I knew she were getting home safely. To her credit, she called me on it and knew what I actually meant but made sure I understood that my remarks were not the correct way of expressing the sentiment. That night when we went out, for some reason I was a complete asshole. The restaurant we wanted to go to was busy and I didn't want to wait. She suggested a great Italian restaurant and I was too busy swearing at "stupid people" and trying to run them over to pay attention. She asked me if I ever spent any time on personal introspection and growth and I said I had no need since I was perfectly formed at 16. Two days later, I continued with the second act of my one-man play on being a jerk by telling some long story about something stupid and then watching TV until 4 a.m. on the couch. I also told her about doing drugs with an old roommate and contemplating our place among the stars, contradictory to a previous statement that I'd never done any drugs. A statement that I don't remember making since I used to live in the Netherlands, had told her a story about bikers and a lost shipment of cocaine, and had been addicted to Vicodin. But this wasn't the point. Her problem was that I had lied about drugs, just like I'd lied about not being married. What else have I lied about? When will all my lying stop!?!

My Thoughts: Her previous relationships had been marred by lies and manipulation. She saw the same pattern developing here. I also had responded not by being a regular person, but by turning into a big dick. Apparently, doubling-down and becoming an even bigger dick was not the way to win her back.

At some point, a previously scheduled dinner to meet her parents got canceled, and I felt this was a big blow. Her mother asked when I had filed for divorce (not yet) and this sent red flags up. This vote of non-confidence contributed to me becoming a big dick. I subconsciously knew I was not measuring up, that I had ruined everything by lying about being married, and I would never be able to recover from that in her eyes.

So, for the past three days I have had a gigantic hole in my chest. I have no idea how to fix this. I know it's 110 percent my fault. My response so far has been to concentrate on my physical training for an epic mountain-bike ride over a live volcano in December, and to quit my engineering job to be an unpaid janitor at a local distillery. I have had no contact with her and I suspect she is probably fine with that. I've decided that I should never love another woman again, nor will I ever be able to. 

Is there anything to save here, or is the well forever poisoned?

Lying Liar

 

Dear Liar,

You're still in pain over your wife's cheating. You've abruptly moved away from your 13-year-old daughter. You say that you moved to Detroit to fix the mistakes of the past and to shed baggage. I see the shedding of baggage — and people — but nowhere in your letter do I see you fixing the mistakes of the past, let alone looking closely at them. Likewise, you repeatedly say that you're lying and acting like a dick, but you don't seem anxious to understand the causes of these behaviors. Instead, you want to know if there's a way to salvage your brand-new relationship. You say you want to fix things with your girlfriend, but all you've done so far is avoid her, quit your job, and trained for a mountain-bike ride. You would rather assume that she's over you than contact her and explain yourself and try to work on things, because you can't handle the vulnerability it would take to call her and hear her out.

You're an escapist. You've probably been an escapist since you were very young. Maybe you were a sensitive child who wasn't treated with care, and as a result you've grown up to become an insecure, defensive, deeply dishonest bully. Your desires at this point are ego-driven — open a distillery, embark on an epic ride, seek adventure with an extra-sexy lady by your side. All totally understandable desires, mind you, but there's an air of fantasy in the mix. And there are so many unnerving details to your story. You're an engineer, but you want to make liquor now? Your girlfriend is already anxious to partner with you in this endeavor? What about your kid? What about getting divorced? How far away is your family? You quit your job to be a janitor? Is that a lie? Cocaine shipment? Vicodin addiction? Is this your life or a teaser for Better Call Saul?

Do you see how you're sidestepping everything in your life that requires vulnerability from you? Your ex, your daughter, your current girlfriend — they all require that you face your own mistakes. Not fix your mistakes, but face them. Face the ways that you fucked up. Face the flaws in your marriage. Face the lying you've done in the past, and the lying you continue to do in order to avoid seeming weak, to avoid looking like someone who's not in control of his own destiny.

You don't want to file for divorce because that would mean talking to your wife, facing down the enormity of her affair, admitting the flaws within the marriage, listening to her desires moving forward, and confronting the question of custody of your 13-year-old. Did you already decide to give up custody? Did you simply skip town without confronting these things? Did your girlfriend ask you some of these questions, and might that have incited your lashing out at her?

The terrible irony of escapism is that every attempt at escape only brings back all of your problems and throws them in your face. Read your letter out loud to yourself. Do you see how your story falls apart at the end? Do you see how the romance drains out of everything, but you never ask yourself any hard questions about pathological lying and cheating wives and perfect 13-year-old girls who get left behind?

The one thing that you are unable to do, every single step of the way, is show up for someone else. You can't just show up without knowing everything, without saying what you think, without covering up a big, tangled mess with your ultimate, victorious adventure. You can't admit that you are a weak person, that you are flawed, that you are broken, that you've made mistakes. You can't just say, "What do YOU want? What do YOU think? What do YOU need right now?"

As long as you can't do these things, EVERY WELL WILL BE POISONED.

But there is hope for you. Your problem is actually pretty simple, even if it'll take you a lot of time and effort and a really great therapist to help you solve it. You're terrified of weakness. Today is the day for you to wake up and realize that the strongest among us know how to accept their weakness and their fear. HUMANS ARE WEAK. HUMANS ARE FLAWED. When you turn your back on your weaknesses, you're turning your back on your humanity.

Once you welcome in the fact that you're weak and fragile and incredibly afraid of being judged or being controlled by other people, you will be free. And let's be clear: Nine times out of ten, when someone says, "Yeah, I'm an asshole, I'm a loser, I'm a dick," what that person really means is, "I can't stand for anyone else to draw conclusions about me, so I have to do it for them." It also usually means, "I'm a control freak." Once you allow other people to see who you really are — without drugs, without lies, without macho adventure stories, without fables about how you're about to save the day — you will be emancipated. You'll be able to feel your own emotions. You won't sign on to a lifetime with a stranger after four weeks, then resent that person for not being a perfect, two-dimensional sidekick for the rest of your life. You won't leave a flawed, weak (not perfect!) 13-year-old behind, feeling for the rest of her life like her dad abandoned her just when she needed him the most. You will let your ex-wife be a person who's also weak and flawed, not evil. You will let people be who they are, because you'll let yourself be who you are.

Call your ex-girlfriend and explain that you're in crisis. Apologize. Tell her that even though you wish that you could start from the beginning again, with honesty, with openness, now you need to find yourself and clean up loose ends. Tell her your marriage is unresolved, you are unresolved, your daughter needs you, and you're sorry for bringing her into your escapist fantasy. Apologize, and then listen to her talk. Listen for longer than you can stand. Apologize again. Then go back to your old town and face your wife and your daughter and find a therapist and figure out what comes next.

You are in a lot of pain. You've been running for so long, maybe for as long as you can remember, and you're exhausted. Forgive yourself for this.

Even when you feel terrible and crushed and broken — and you will — you have to keep the faith that you're in the right place. This is the year you finally found rest. This is the year you learned to be a fucking human being and not a hero. This is the year you stopped getting furious for no reason. This is the year you stopped drinking too much and living in an ego-driven dream world. This is the year you could see and feel and taste for the first time. This is the year you learned what love really is. This is the year you learned about generosity, about putting other people before yourself, about the real meaning of strength. This is the year you learned to tell the truth.

You will learn to tell the truth, always, without fail. You will learn to admit that you're wrong — not to control that story, not to say you're a dick over and over without understanding why or genuinely trying to change things. You will sit and hear that you're wrong, from someone else, and you won't even feel attacked. You'll hear it and you'll take it in and it will be okay. Everyone is weak. You don't have to control everything anymore. You can let your guard down. You can relax. You can let the world in. You can breathe.

Everything gets better from here. But you have to stop running, stop lying to yourself, stop trying to fix things, and take a very hard look at the truth.

Polly


Got a question for Polly? Email AskPolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday afternoon.

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