Ask Polly: Can I Dump My Dying Boyfriend?

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Photo: Christina Ferrin

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Dear Polly,

I am in quite a conundrum. I don’t even know if I’m asking you for advice, because I don’t know if there’s anything I could do, but here goes. For reference, I’m 30, have lived with my boyfriend for four and a half years, and am deeply unhappy.

For the last year and a half, I’ve been considering breaking up with him. I took my time considering this question, because when I first started to think and feel this way, my grandfather (with whom I am quite close) was in the hospital dying, and did in fact die. His wife passed away not long after.

I was very upset, and didn’t feel like I was in the right state of mind to make major changes in my life. So I waited. I decided I was pretty sure I wanted to break up with him, and preemptively started something with someone else, a friend whom I care for deeply, and can picture myself spending my life with.

I decided my boyfriend and I will take a break, and I traveled with the aforementioned friend for a month. I decided not to talk to my boyfriend too much. Halfway through this time, my boyfriend had a cancer scare, and we begin to speak again. I should, but don’t, break up with him when I get home. He’s too panicked about his own mortality, and I do love him and want to take care of him.

Fast forward six to eight months. I have finally worked up the nerve to break his heart and break up with him — to be another person in the line of many who abandoned him, to recognize I’ve been a terrible human being and that I’m miserable, and to finally move on with my own life. I feel like the lowest person in the world, but I’m ready to push through.

Then, last week, he gets a terminal cancer diagnosis. They thought it was just in his mouth. They do some global tests and it’s everywhere, and it’s too late to treat it. He doesn’t think he wants to try. They give him 18 months.

Polly, dear Polly, what do I do? I love this person, and he has few friends, no family, no other support network than me and my family. I want to travel and move on, try being alone, and try being with this new person for whom I have real feelings.

I am devastated that my boyfriend is going to die, that all his dreams mean nothing, and I’m terrified to leave him in such a situation. He’ll never forgive me, and I may never forgive me either. I could stay and take care of him, but I feel like I’ll miss out on my life. What do I do?

Broken Hearts All Around

Dear Broken Hearts,

There’s no way I can answer this question for you. You’re the only person who can make this decision. You’re the only one who knows what the last four and a half years have meant, what kind of bond you have, how you’ll feel if you leave now, how you’ll feel if you don’t leave.

If I tell you what to do, you’ll always wonder whether you did the right thing or you just took the advice of a stranger because that was easier than working through it yourself. I don’t want you to be filled with regret over this. I want you to work through this, no matter how hard it feels.

The presence of your friend, whom you’re involved with, makes everything more confusing. There’s urgency here, thanks to the fact that he’s waiting in the wings. You say you want to try being alone, but you could’ve tried that at any point. It sounds like what you really want is to pursue a new relationship with your friend.

Obviously you’ve been ambivalent about your boyfriend for a while. How was it possible to stay with someone you were so ambivalent about? I know that’s a tough question, and clearly you aren’t the first person alive to do this. But I want you to think about it anyway, and I want you to be honest with yourself. Were you afraid to be alone after your grandfather died? The timing was bad for you then; now it’s bad for your boyfriend. Have you always been afraid to be alone?

I would caution you against making decisions based on your fear of sickness and death and helping someone through something horrifying. I’d be wary of running away from that horror. Given the story you’ve laid out, I’m concerned about your habit of running away from things that are hard.

It was hard to break up with him when your grandfather died, so you didn’t. It was hard to resist getting involved with your friend on your trip, so you didn’t. It was hard to tell him the truth about your relationship with your friend once he had his first cancer scare, so you didn’t. It will be very hard to stay living with someone who is dying, so you decide not to do that. You might want to travel with your friend instead. You might want to cut your ex out of your life, citing your ambivalence and unhappiness. You might not want to align yourself with someone you can’t have any future with. You might prefer to be with someone whom you actually have a possibility of spending the rest of your life with.

All of these things are understandable. But I actually think that saying “I already feel like a terrible person” is a way of letting yourself off the hook. It’s like saying “Well, maybe I’m just a terrible person.” It’s like saying “I know you’ll never forgive me for this, so why do anything to fix that now? It’s inevitable.”

The bottom line here is that this situation is already horrible. You don’t need me to make you feel guiltier. It’s a punishing situation. If you stay, you’ll have to slog through a lot of ugliness and deny yourself what you want. If you go, you’ll still be reckoning with this for years, even if you’re careful with his feelings and you try very hard to make it clear that you will be there for him if he needs you. And if you run away and move to another country so that you don’t have to deal with any of the ugliness, that will have its costs, too. Doing the easiest thing can be costly. I think you’ve already seen that.

I do want to stop and tell you that I’m sorry for what you’re going through, though. I know you’re not a terrible person. Please don’t start defining yourself that way. Everyone who’s reading this right now might’ve found themselves, at one point or another, in similar circumstances. Everyone, at one point or another, uses other people for what they need, and then kicks them to the curb when their value has expired.

But when you know that you’re doing that — when you’re staying with someone because you’re afraid of being alone, when you’re having an affair because you know it’ll be easier to leave your boyfriend if there’s someone to escape to, when you’re leaning on someone you know you don’t care about because you know they’ll support you, when you’re running away because it feels uncomfortable to see someone you put on a pedestal admit that they’re lost and vulnerable — you have to change what you’re doing. You have to align yourself with your real values. Maybe you’ve fallen short on this front, but maybe your boyfriend has, too. Maybe he’s been letting your relationship drag on and his heart hasn’t been in it, either. Maybe this situation clarifies just how compromised and damaged the relationship has been for years.

I know you’re suffering and it feels like nothing good can come out of this. Here is one very small good thing: You’re reminding the rest of us that our mundane choices, day in and day out, matter a lot. If your life feels unprincipled or confusing or complicated or wrong, then you have to take steps to clean things up. If you know you should quit drinking, or quit sleeping with married women, or quit dating assholes, you have to act. If you’re sure you need to break up with your increasingly codependent boyfriend, or you have to stop working for a corrupt boss, or you have to do something that feels worthwhile with your life, or you have to stop enabling your broken friend, or you have to spend more time with your kids, your mother, your sister — you have to fix that. Because you will pay an emotional price for your inaction. When your life isn’t lined up with how you believe you should be living, you pay the price for that, internally. It’s hard to be happy when you’re not doing the things you value and believe in.

I write a lot about how it’s normal to be messy and vulnerable, how it’s normal to have bad thoughts in your head and have bad days when you can’t get out of bed. It’s normal to make big mistakes. I write a lot about powering down our impossible expectations of ourselves, all of the “shoulds” that plague our brains. But it’s important to recognize the difference between rejecting the “shoulds” that you don’t actually value, and avoiding other important, valuable “shoulds” by running away or distracting yourself from such burdens.

Distraction can be necessary for survival. Working hard on something arbitrary, or just focusing on something outside of yourself, can be necessary for survival. But if you want to be truly happy, you have to face yourself and take a close look at what you truly want and need and value. You have to feel that the way you’re living makes some sense. You have to be fair to the people around you. You have to give a little more than you feel like giving sometimes. You have to face yourself, and face your fears, in order to honor the important people in your life.

Because things can get messy overnight. The world can shift dramatically, and suddenly, you can see clearly that you’ve been deciding with your head instead of your heart. You’ve been doing what was convenient instead of doing what you really value. You’ve been reacting impulsively instead of making heartfelt choices, based on your belief system. (You may not think you have one, but you do!) So you have to recalibrate, and start making choices based on your principles, based on your heart, based on the quiet stirrings of your soul.

If you don’t know yourself, if you don’t know your heart, if you don’t take time to understand how you move through the world and what your obligations to others are, if you’re not prepared to show up for the people closest to you, then you need to change the way you’re living.

This sounds like a moral message, but it’s not. It’s a message about happiness. This message isn’t aimed at punishing you, Broken Hearts. You’re already suffering enough. It’s aimed at gathering the rest of us around, to witness what happens when we put off big decisions and avoid hard things and run away from our problems and react instead of making thoughtful choices about what we truly want and who we truly are. We find ourselves with only bad, compromised choices. We can’t proceed without facing ourselves, and maybe not loving what we see when we do.

Anyone can get sick at any time, obviously. Sickness is not some moral judgment. And everyone makes big mistakes at some point. Any of us could be in your shoes, Broken Hearts. We like to think that we couldn’t, but we all could. We’ve all done things we’re not proud of. No one breaks up with anyone else the SECOND they first feel ambivalent. We all delay hard decisions. Forgive yourself. Look into your heart and decide how to move forward. Only you can do that.

Whatever you decide, though, commit to living in line with your principles from now on. Commit to facing the truth instead of running away. Make sure that your life makes sense to you. Ask yourself what you believe in, what matters the most. Honor those things, even when it’s inconvenient, even when it’s hard, even when it hurts, even when it humbles you.

What matters the most? Who matters the most?

Make a list. Tape it to the wall. Don’t let yourself forget. I’m making my list right now.

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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