Ask Polly: Why Am I Always Too Much for Men?

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Photo: Bhupendra Singh

Dear Polly,

I am heartbroken again. Someone I really cared about has told me I’m too much, again.

Our semi-relationship started from the ashes of the last one, six months ago. I was looking for a quick hookup in a city I was visiting to numb the pain of being rejected, and what started as a casual flirtation quickly evolved into a long-distance “romantic friendship” (?).

I told him all my secrets, things I had never told anyone, and he kept asking questions. He seemed more interested in me, like, as a person, than anyone ever has before.

We shared a lot of intimate things and a lot of silly things, jokes and opinions and stories and ideas. He told me from the start he could never have a real relationship, with me or with anyone. I thought that was okay because he was far away and I am moving even farther in a few months, and so really in the long run I never thought about us “ending up together.” I guess I thought that I was doing okay at not taking things too seriously. Still, in the short term, we ended up very close.

Then, suddenly, he would try to create more distance between us, I would feel rejected and jealous (we both dated around), he would apologize and say he knows he’s hard to deal with, we would have some amazing talk, and then things would be good again (if just a little less).

Well, about a month ago, I visited him for a few days. It was perfect. I have never felt so much real connection and joy. Saying good-bye was so sad. It was my original plan to stop speaking to him after this trip. But at the airport we hastily made plans for another vacation together — one last hurrah or whatever.

When I came back home, I tried to create a bit of distance for myself so it wouldn’t hurt so much, but the distance hurt too. And when we would speak again, he would say he could tell I cared too much and was in too deep.

But then, finally, I felt like the distance worked … he said he really missed me and started looking up flights to come to see me for the final vacation. Today we were meant to have a short talk to make plans. It started that way. But he had been so fickle that I wanted to make sure it was a good idea for both of us. So I asked questions. I asked if he was sure, and if he thought it was really a good idea, and if he cared about me. He said he was sure and that he cared about me. Then he said he never wanted to talk about if he cared about me again.

Then he said he wasn’t sure if seeing me was a good idea, and that he didn’t think he would have a good time, and that this wasn’t fun for him anymore. It’s over now.

I know I am an emotional person, and I did care for him, but why is that bad? Why am I always too much? Why does everyone I fall for end up seeing me as a burden?

I know part of the reason I wanted to see him again (other than the obvious reasons) is that I wanted to finally have a good-bye I was in control of. I wanted to have an ending that was sweet and not my fault. (My therapist says this is part of the reason I keep seeking fundamentally unavailable men.) Instead, I have another person who initially was totally enchanted by me ending up totally resenting my existence. It hurts so much, and I feel so humiliated. I feel so horrible that in one conversation I could repulse someone so much.

I guess my real question is this: Am I really that bad? What am I supposed to do? I feel like maybe I could have hidden my doubts and worries and kept it light and fun and I could have finally gotten what I wanted. But part of me doesn’t want to do that. I wanted something real. And we had always talked about things like that before and he had been very empathetic toward me, seeming like he was self-aware and very attuned to the kind of person I was … but now he’s just tired of me.

Am I really that bad?

I have read all your columns. I want to believe I deserve love like you say. But I always get treated like I’m bad and broken and I don’t know what to think.

Trainwreck, Apparently

Dear Trainwreck,

“Of course you’re not really that bad. You aren’t broken. He’s a dick. He wasn’t good enough for you. No one in his right mind would get tired of you or reject you. He is the one who is broken.”

I want you to brace yourself, because this is going to be hard to hear: You are not bad, but you are broken. I’m broken, too! Almost everyone is broken in one way or another. Broken people still thrive and love and do great things. But in the years before they realize that they are broken, they behave in ways that are out of sync with the world around them. They make odd or arbitrary-seeming choices in order to manage their needs and expectations. Or they power down their emotions completely. Or they drink too much. Or they create fantasy worlds and they get angry at anyone who won’t adhere to those fantasies.

I can tell you’re broken because you aren’t listening. You aren’t letting in reality. You are stubbornly asking the sun to rise at night, the sky to be green, water to taste like wine. When the sun sets in the evening, you say, “This is almost like a sunrise. In fact, I’m really enjoying this sunrise.” When the sky is blue at midday, you say, “When I squint my eyes a little, the sky almost looks green. Wow, look how green the sky is!” When your water tastes like water, you say, “It’s cool, I was only looking for a tiny glass of wine anyway, and this water almost tastes like wine to me. What year is this wine, by the way? Is it French?”

You ask the people around you to collude in your fantasy. At first, it works, because you’re meeting them in the middle: “It’s okay that you aren’t boyfriend material. We live in different places, and I’m moving even farther away! Let’s just watch this sunset that’s almost like a sunrise and drink this water that tastes sort of like wine together. I love living in the moment! When we live in the moment together, and I squint a little, I almost feel like you’re in love with me!”

And then, slowly but surely, you start to insist that everyone who is close to you (including your closest friends, probably) buy into your version of reality. “What’s wrong, aren’t you into sunrises? Why do you have that look on your face? Don’t you like your wine? I thought you cared about me! Don’t you care about me? Why am I always in this situation? Am I really too much for everyone?”

You aren’t too much for other people. Other people are too much for you. You aren’t respecting their words or their actions. You’re telling them that their words and actions mean things that they don’t mean. They’re offering you water and you’re pretending that it’s wine. That makes them feel pressured to BRING YOU MORE WINE. That makes them feel weird. That makes them feel lonely, actually, like you can’t hear them or see them at all. That makes them feel like you really are as bad and broken as you seem to suspect, based on how often you ask them to reassure you that you’re not bad or broken at all.

Listen to me: You are not bad. You do deserve love. But you ARE broken. Once you accept that you are broken, and start protecting yourself and caring for yourself the way one would protect a broken thing, you won’t feel quite as terrible anymore. But you have to take a hard look at yourself first.

Let’s start here: You are dating fundamentally unavailable men and asking them to pretend that they are available. They keep reminding you of their limits, reminding you that it’s the evening and the sky is blue and the water is water, and you say, “Yeah, yeah, it’s fine. I’m cool with it.” But then you start taking the blue sky very, very personally.

This guy told you very clearly: “I cannot give you what you want.” Your therapist told you: “You keep dating fundamentally unavailable men.” You ignored these words and told your own story instead. But even as you disrespect the true needs and desires of the people around you, you also disrespect your own true needs and desires. You wrote, “I guess I thought that I was doing okay at not taking things too seriously.” Here, “doing okay” equals not taking things too seriously. But aren’t you someone who naturally takes things very seriously? Do you see how you’re trying to train yourself to be “good,” yet being “good” always seems to mean BEING THE OPPOSITE OF HOW YOU ACTUALLY ARE?

You want to punish yourself for being who you are. You choose unavailable men because they will punish you for being who you are.

You say you’re only mad because you wanted your sweet, sorrowful good-bye. But no particular kind of good-bye would’ve worked for you, because you never wanted a good-bye to begin with. You wanted true love. You were in love and he wasn’t, and instead of admitting that and saying “I feel sad. I knew that you weren’t available, but I have strong feelings for you now, and it’s sad for me,” you asked him to play a role, to visit and show up and act like a star-crossed lover for you. And he agreed to this! He was going to visit. But then you write: “But he had been so fickle, I wanted to make sure it was a good idea for both of us. So I asked questions.”

You had him where you wanted him. He was drinking the water and talking about how good the wine was. But you were still mad at yourself and at him because it was all a fantasy world, and you wanted it to be real. So you started to ask more questions. “How good is the wine, exactly? Tell me more. Would you call it ‘robust’ or ‘fruity’? Would you say it has hints of cedar and cherry? Because sometimes I feel like you don’t know the fucking difference! Sometimes I feel like you’re just pretending!”

Any human being would turn on you under those circumstances. You are pushing people until they turn on you, as if that’s your real goal. You are hurting yourself and using other people to do it.

I know it’s difficult to read this. Please, feel me on this: My heart is with you. I know how bad it feels. And even though I’m making it sound super-fucking crazy, what you’re doing is very common and not that exotic at all. I still do shit like this, Trainwreck. I am 46 years old and I still sometimes compulsively walk over sharp rocks when I could walk on soft sand instead. This is a very human thing! I’ve noticed lately that when people have even a mild look of “meh” on their faces in reaction to me, I start talking too much or I ask abstract, conflicted questions. I want feedback, maybe, or maybe some small part of me wants to force a motherfucker to say, “There is something wrong with you!”

Maybe that’s the answer some sick part of my soul wants to hear. I think “meh” might mean “YOU ARE TOO MUCH,” because that’s what “meh” meant when I was younger. To me, “meh” meant “YOU ARE BAD AND WHAT YOU WANT IS EMBARRASSING.”

Really, though, the hard part is not the “meh.” The hard part isn’t hearing the words “I can never be your boyfriend” or “We aren’t sure you’re a good match for the company” or “You’re not someone I want to be friends with.” Every person must accept some “meh” into their lives, because even if you face yourself and grow a lot, you’ll still land in that space a million times over. Landing in that space just means that you’re trying new things, meeting new people, having new adventures, and being brave instead of hiding. When you’re broken but you’re trying new things, you will hear echoes of your brokenness. You will feel wobbly. Accept it.

The important part comes next: You hear the echoes that sound like “Am I bad? Am I repulsive? Am I doing it wrong again?,” and you try very hard to reassure yourself instead of becoming a human question mark. You say to yourself, “You are good. This is how it feels to be a human being.” Then you take a deep breath, and you feel wide awake and alive. Because you know that you’re okay and everything is fine. You know this because you’ve been talking to other people and really listening (instead of doing all the talking) and you know now that everyone feels a little ashamed and weird and broken sometimes, particularly those people who are reaching for great things.

Join us in the real world, Trainwreck, where you are a very emotional person who takes things very seriously. You cared about this guy a lot. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was you didn’t protect yourself and care for yourself. You forced yourself to pretend instead. You wanted to control reality, to turn water into wine. But you are not Jesus Christ. You couldn’t do it.

Who told you emotions were bad? Who taught you that you were too much? When you chase fundamentally unavailable men, you are re-creating the conditions behind your basic belief that you are too much. You want to play the role of savior, better than human, and then you want things to be doomed. That seems more romantic. You want the heartbreaking good-bye more than you want a mundane, imperfect HELLO.

Stop torturing yourself. Go out with men who are present, who are interested, who want more, not less. When someone reminds you “I can’t do this, you care too much,” listen to that person. And instead of trying to care less, say, “I agree, I care too much. I am in too deep.” Protect yourself. Don’t sleep around if you tend to feel worse afterward. Do things that make you feel stronger, not weaker. Tolerate that “meh” space, but don’t linger there.

Don’t get too dramatic and build a tragic story around my reply. You are exactly like almost every other woman I know, and this is merely a rite of passage. Knowing HOW you broke and loving your brokenness is crucial. I never did anything that was worthwhile with my life until I learned to love my own broken pieces. Now that I embrace the fact that I’m too much, too moody, too intense, I feel a million times stronger and bolder and wiser.

But I also anticipate situations that might be tough for me. It’s important for me to accept the weird, wilty ways I might react, and to sally forth anyway. Just five years ago, I would have hid instead. I wouldn’t have wanted the stress. Now, I say, “This will be challenging, but why the fuck not?”

Sometimes I still compulsively ask for things from people who can’t give them to me. Did you hear that part, Trainwreck? I do this because I like to work too hard and care too much. But this bad trait is also good. It’s why I’m here, writing this. I’m here to tell you about the sharp rocks I fucking crawled over to get here. But I also want you to know this: The sharp rocks didn’t make it more romantic. You can take the sandy path instead, and you’ll be just as good.

So stop asking for water and then pretending it’s wine. Ask for wine. And if your wine tastes like water, send that shit back! Don’t pretend that you didn’t want wine in the first place. DON’T FUCK THE DUDE WITH THE WATER AND THEN TELL HIM ALL YOUR SECRETS.

Ask for wine. Don’t be embarrassed that you want wine. Just say “I am someone who drinks wine now. Nothing else will do. It’s okay if you can’t give it to me. I will find someone who will, or I will make it myself. I am good and strong and I can do lots of things. I am beautiful and broken and I deserve this.”

Polly