Ask Polly: Am I Too Controlling?

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Photo: Ger Bosma

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Dear Polly,

I always thought that being in my 20s would be the happiest and most exciting years of my life, but lately I have been fucking miserable. As a second-semester senior in college, I feel like I should be living it up and having the time of my life right now. I went through a breakup back in September that’s really getting in the way of that.

I think rationally I’ve pretty much processed everything I need to about this breakup. My ex is not a good guy. He habitually lied to me, chose drinking/drugs over spending time together, and lives with his best friend, who is the main person he uses these substances with. To clarify, I’m not some sort of right-wing nut that thinks all drugs are Satan’s doing. However, my ex’s drug use caused many problems in our relationship and I was unable to trust him.

I wanted to fix him, and so I tried to do that for over a year. He made lots of promises because “I was worth it” and I was the parole officer. I would sit with him to make sure he didn’t do drugs, drag him to the gym with me, make sure he did all of his schoolwork, and made him call his parents once a week. Despite this, he would still find ways to get high and hide it from me. About every three weeks, some sort of incident would occur and we would have this huge fight, break up, and then inevitably get back together a week later.

We broke up for good (I think ) back in September. After some grade-A flinchy behavior where my ex basically ignored me for over a week, I finally asked him what was bothering him, and he dumped me on the spot. He said I was too controlling, perpetually angry, and that I used my diagnoses of depression and anxiety as an excuse to treat people poorly. The reason why we didn’t work out was my fault — I was an emotionally abusive and manipulative person.

It’s been months and I am at a loss about how to move forward. When he said those things, it’s like they became a part of my soul and I don’t know how to separate it out. I feel so bitter, angry, and hurt all the time (it doesn’t help that I see my ex several times a week around campus). I tried so hard to help my ex and to make our relationship work out, but why doesn’t he see that? I’ve become completely shut out from our friend circle, because all of my friends took his side.

Polly, I’m so unhappy and I just want to enjoy my last semester of college. I’m paralyzed by the fear that my ex is right — that I am unlovable and abusive. How do I move forward?

Best,

Lost in the Sauce

Dear LITS,

In other words, you took a one-year, unpaid, work-study job as a parole officer, and it was worth it, because you learned a ton from the experience. You learned that it’s exhausting to keep someone away from drugs, to drag someone  to the gym with you, to make sure someone does all of his schoolwork, to make someone call his parents once a week. You learned that even when you do all of these things, the other person is still going to do exactly what he wants. His choices are beyond your control.

You also learned that when you try to babysit and “save” someone else, you’re the one who ends up feeling the most exhausted, the most crazy, the most lonely. You’re constantly worrying about whether he’ll do the things he’s supposed to do. You’re consumed by his choices. You’re completely distracted from your own concerns. All that matters is him. But as a result, it’s very easy for you to feel incredibly unappreciated and angry. Because look at all the energy you’re putting into this! Why isn’t he grateful? How dare he not be grateful for all that you do for him?

So now you have a choice. You can carry this disappointment around with you forever, wondering if you’re really a manipulative, abusive person or not. Or you can look at the facts on the ground instead: You took a job that didn’t pay. You took a job that was wrong for you. You took a job that tested your mettle, day in and day out, and all you had to show for it in the end was loneliness and despair. You gave everything you had to give, yes, and what you got in return was sadness and isolation and disappointment, and also THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON OF YOUR LIFE.

The lesson? Never sign up to be someone’s parole officer. Ever. Because you will give too much and you’ll live your life through that person and you’ll slowly disappear and one day you’ll wake up and the one person you poured all of your energy into will resent you more than anyone else alive.

Now, does this actually mean that you’re a manipulative and controlling person? Some people might interpret it that way. Certainly when you’re a second-semester senior handling an existential crisis of your own and you hear about the buzzkill girlfriend who’s always losing her shit over the perfectly amiable dude who just passed you the bong, yes, you’d tend to agree that aforementioned psycho chick is probably super-controlling. Certainly if you’re part of a big group of seniors hanging out around the clock, and occasionally buzzkill girlfriend enters stage left, all grumpy and sober, wanting things from a guy who’s just hanging out, it’s easy enough to file that under “pushy, manipulative pain in the ass.” Then again, getting worked up over anything at all will get you labeled as high-strung under those circumstances. Showing any trace of real emotion or giving half a shit about your future can be considered a buzzkill under those conditions. Groups work to maintain the status quo. Outsiders who challenge the ethos of the group tend to get snuffed out like invasive viruses.

But I doubt you’re all that controlling or manipulative. It seems to me that your heart is in the right place. You just wanted the guy to get his shit together. From where I’m sitting, he’s the manipulative one, because he kept making you feel, in private, like all he wanted in the world was to be a BETTER PERSON just for you, and then, when he was around his friends, he did whatever the fuck he wanted to do. Tale as old as time! He’s that classic liar guy who’s weak and blames everyone else for his shit but also tends to agree with whoever happens to be in the same room with him. When he’s with you, he’s convinced that he should straighten up and fly right. When he’s with the group, he’s convinced that he should just chill and everything will be fine, and he’s convinced that all the stress in his life comes not from avoiding all the unsavory tasks, but from YOU, who repeatedly remind him of all the unsavory tasks he’s avoiding. And when you’re not around and someone says something about you, he agrees with them. He has no spine, that guy. He’s a very common variety of animal, found on college campuses nationwide, and he should be avoided at all costs.

So, whatever about him. Whatever about that circle of friends, which I’m going to assume is mostly a gaggle of humans who want to fuck shit up as much as possible before they’re forced out into the real world. I was one of them, so I know how they think. They think: DUDE WHO’S SHE? TELL HER TO SIMMER THE FUCK DOWN OR GO AWAY. Real relationships are a buzzkill. Serious issues and concerns are a buzzkill. Thinking about doing stuff eventually is a buzzkill. Getting up from the couch is a buzzkill. The clock is ticking down, and these people are afraid of the future. Forgive them! You might like them a lot more in a few months, when they’re suffering the way you are now.

Oh, and they will be. MUHAHAHA. Trust me, these people are about to step off a cliff into a terrible abyss. The irony of college is that the more you dig into the carpe diem, fuck-shit-up spirit of it all, the less prepared and more bewildered you are when you have to sober up and face the real world.

So even though you now know that, as a whole, these people are not really being great friends to you (though you could probably hand-select one or two once the dust clears, if you really care about them) and that this ex-boyfriend was never a catch to begin with and his words should be disregarded wholesale, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lesson here for you, and it definitely doesn’t mean that you should openly upbraid these people for excluding you. That group is just doing what groups do. You’ll need to base your assessment of individual friendships on your relationships with those particular people. And if you don’t have individual friendships that make sense outside of the group, then that tells you something about how you were functioning within the group. Maybe you cared much more about the relationship with your boyfriend than you cared about your other friendships. Maybe you saw the other friendships as a mere backdrop to your love relationship. So you may have learned that if you want friendships with people who won’t turn on you the second it becomes inconvenient not to do so, then you need to start prioritizing friendships just as high if not higher than your primary love relationship.

But the most important lesson of all has nothing to do with how strong your friendships are or how supposedly manipulative or abusive or controlling you are as a person. The most important lesson of all is that when you become a parole officer — co-dependent, ever-alert, insecure, exhausted, overly invested in someone who seems destined to fuck up no matter what you do — you lay waste to your life. You put your boyfriend first, and you come second. You take everything good about you — your hardworking, affectionate, focused, caring, nurturing, lovable, intense, driven nature — and you give it away, and you can’t even feel proud of your efforts in the end. You bring every last ounce of your love and your strength to the job, and you’re left with nothing, and you’re blamed for EVERYTHING.

I want you to go to an Al-Anon meeting and listen to the other people there talk about their experiences. I know that sounds extreme, but trust me on this, these people are just like you — intense, lovable, incredibly focused, driven people — who took everything good inside of them and handed it to someone else. They were born to do this. Some key dimension of their upbringing made them perfect for the job of unpaid parole officer. Listen to what they have to say about taking on that role. Listen to how many different times they’ve been married to alcoholics or abusive spouses. Listen to the giant seas of shit they’ve swum through, over and over again, fueled by the purest of intentions.

Even if you aren’t controlling and manipulative at the outset, taking full responsibility for someone else who is weak and secretly wants to be babied will, nine times out of ten, transform you into someone who is controlling and manipulative.

So forgive yourself for whatever bad traits showed up while you were a volunteer parole officer. That’s not really who you are. Don’t worry about it! Recognize that it’s part of the picture. Recognize that everyone goes half-crazy when they finally start to recognize that they CANNOT CHANGE OR SAVE ANOTHER HUMAN BEING. It’s OKAY to feel ashamed of this. It’s OKAY to feel embarrassed. It’s OKAY to see that you were, at times, less than perfect. Every single human alive is less than perfect all the time. Don’t be confused by the “dude, she’s a psycho” talk behind your back. Those people haven’t accepted their own imperfections yet, and they for sure don’t have the same experience in the unpaid parole officer department that you have.

Forgive yourself, but make this solemn vow: I WILL NEVER TAKE AN UNPAID PAROLE OFFICER JOB AGAIN. That vow is important for you, because you’ll be temped to take this job again. You are made for the job. You have a special talent for it. But you won’t do that to yourself! Instead, you will seek out men who share your values and interests. You don’t like to do drugs or drink to excess, so you’ll be careful not to date guys who do. You’ll spend time with men who are already living the way you live. You will not view a man as a special project and pour tons of energy into molding him into the perfect, obedient boyfriend. You know now that you have a propensity for losing yourself in men this way.

Listen to me closely now, Lost in the Sauce. Some part of you WANTS to get lost. Some part of you wants a job that will take all of your time and energy. Some part of you would love nothing more than to find the next screwed-up guy to save. Maybe he seems KIND OF normal but underneath that he’s a big, sloppy mess who also wants to get lost. DON’T DO IT.

You’re a good person. But you’re a person who needs to be very careful if she doesn’t want to spend the next two decades in a fog of cleaning up someone else’s messes and being blamed for it, over and over again.

Build some solid friendships that matter to you, that won’t disappear when some half-interested mob changes its mind about you. Build a solid career and a fulfilling life that matters to you, that won’t get thrown over when you meet another troubled guy. Take all of the energy and dedication and love you invested in your boyfriend, and invest it in yourself. Sit with yourself to make sure you don’t date the wrong guys (which is YOUR drug of choice), drag yourself to the gym, do all of your schoolwork, and look for a job after graduation. And when you’re worried that you’re a bad, abusive person and you’ll never have any friends and you don’t deserve to enjoy your last semester of college, tell yourself what you once would have told your ex: “You’ve got this. You’re strong and you’re smart and I believe in you. I will always believe in you, and I will always protect you, and I will never leave you again.”

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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