Ask Polly: My Boyfriend’s Ex Is Torturing Me!

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Photo: Frank Bienewald/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

Last weekend, I met my boyfriend’s ex. I was in a bar having a great time, and she was awful to me from the beginning. She didn’t cause a scene, but she was passive-aggressive and childishly defensive. Even the way she looked at me was awful, as one of my friends pointed out (she immediately noted that this girl was speaking very horribly to me). She came over and started bombarding me with questions about my work (only to dismiss my answers and talk about herself nonstop) and tried to brag about her life, her amazing apartment with some of the boys, and how cool she was and how much she was part of the gang (a gang that apparently she considers my boyfriend to be part of). I happen to know (from my boyfriend) that she’s basically unemployed, just broke up with her long-term boyfriend, is probably unhappy and insecure, and is always high-strung and self-centered.

Then she started to talk to me about how they’re all a “family,” making subtly bitchy comments about another girl who was present — another guy’s date. It was clear she was talking to me like I was an intruder to the group. She also made loud territorial comments about him like, “Oh, he’s such a lightweight when he drinks he doesn’t need one more,” and her friend randomly said, in front of both of us, “It’s always so weird with exes.” She acted pretty desperate and made a fool of herself.

I’d understand it if they’d broken up recently. But they were together at college and right after, and we’re all now in our late 20s. She doesn’t get to act like they’re Ross and Rachel and the gang and I’m one of Ross’s new random girlfriends. I get to feel special and excited and like a welcome new presence in his world, like I did before I knew she was around.

My boyfriend and I have been together for over nine months, and we’re completely in love. We fell for each other really intensely and beautifully, and it’s been great ever since. We want to move in together soon, probably move to a different country even, and we envision a life together. It’s been exciting and exhilarating to make casual plans together and dream big. I am SO annoyed that this insignificant girl is occupying such a big space in my brain now and, if I’m not careful, will tip my relationship over the edge.

I need your help finding a way not to ruin this. Because I’m going to, Polly. In fact, I’ve started to over the last few months. My insecurities and trust issues have gotten the best of me and, despite having tried to rationalize everything and play it cool, I’ve blown up on a number of occasions. I am fighting really hard not to act on these feelings, but it’s taking all my energy, and I still know I might blow up. I feel like I’m letting her win. I don’t want to be in some girls fight! I don’t want to give a shit about this!

As context, I am deeply insecure. I find it impossible to sweep things under the carpet, even when it’s selfish to express those things (as I do it just to blow off steam), and I think I confuse honesty with oversharing. Either I completely vomit my thoughts on him or I keep them to me, spend a week depressed, and then blow up horribly.

I’ve been known to push boyfriends away in the past when things got too easy or when they totally fell for me. How do I not ruin the good things that happen to me? And how do I deal, moving forward, with obstacles like this (and surely worse) that threaten relationships and self-confidence? How do I let myself be vulnerable without spilling my guts out to him every time I have a meltdown? And how do I find what I want and learn to love myself without losing this relationship first?

Lost in Self-pity and Anger

Dear LISAA,

Forgive her, and give her your love. Not up-close, let’s-be-friends love. Distant, across-the-room, forgive-her-Lord, arm’s-length love. She is aggressive and sad and she’s also a few inches away from where you are right now.

Before this, she was just someone who loved attention. She dated your boyfriend, and she found it easy to plant herself at the center of his life, among his buddies. But there’s no lasting glory there, in the middle of a dude entourage. Sometimes you feel like the smartest of the lot, the funniest, the most insightful, the most interesting. But then you realize you’re just the girlfriend. And after that, you’re just the ex-girlfriend. You don’t matter at all. Everyone pledged to be friends forever, but you were the one who didn’t matter. Your brother is great friends with your ex-boyfriend, but you’re still invisible, irrelevant. Your ex gets a new girlfriend, and now you’re really less than nothing, now you’re 100 percent erased.

Unless you can make her feel small. Unless you can get under her skin. Unless you can fuck with her and cause some trouble.

I’m not saying that her behavior has been perfectly fine. You know better than to act the way she did. You know better, so you should also know better than to engage with someone who’s desperate, lost, insecure, and angry. You say, “She doesn’t get to try to make me feel like I’m stepping on her territory.” But she does get to try that. Everyone gets to try all kinds of shit. You can’t legislate “trying” out of existence, because the world is full of people trying to make each other feel things they don’t want to feel. That’s just part of the injustice of being alive.

Right now, you’re acting like she’s victimizing you. But she has no power. All she’s doing is trying. You don’t even have to convince your boyfriend of anything. He sees her clearly. You want him to examine every shred of evidence against her, but does it make you feel better to bag up evidence and label it all night long instead of just doing your own thing and having fun? No. It makes you feel petty and frustrated and insecure.

I completely get it. I have put on the rubber gloves and bagged the evidence, for days. I have bagged evidence against women I barely knew, barely cared about, wasn’t even competing with in any way. Sometimes I just want to state my case like some overeager law-school student who thinks her career will be just like Law & Order but with more breathless talk of justice. I am enraged by casual unfriendliness and sloppiness and even imprecise dipshittery, and I love making a detailed, bulletproof case against the smallest, stupidest things. I feel sure that I will burn with a terrible fire until I get my day in court. Until you let me speak, I am hauling a giant cart full of case files with me everywhere I go.

I could excuse it by saying I’m the kind of person who gets worked up about stuff, who cares a lot. That might sound pretty honorable. But lately I’m appalled by how fired up I get over seriously dumb shit. And it makes me wonder if some people just need to point and pace and haul out bagged evidence and hold forth about honor and justice every now and then. It’s just what they like to do. It’s not a higher cause at all. Everyone else moves on, but we can’t let go. We’re like that dog who can sit in a crowded room, staring at a ball for hours on end in the hope that someone might eventually throw it.

I have to tell myself to step back a lot. And luckily, I can channel that energy into my writing.

You might always be someone who gets obsessed with trivial conflicts. You’re intense. You like to be right. That’s not just insecurity. What you describe is a kind of energy, a kind of focus, a kind of emotional bandwidth that not everyone has. You need a place to put that shit! Some place that has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with your guy. You need better case files! You need to do some pro-bono work that has zero to do with competitive insecure women.

Right now, though, you have to stop believing that if you make your full, 15-hour-long case against this woman to your boyfriend, that will make everything better. You’re dragging around your case files and walking around with that fantasy in your head. But making your case won’t help, it’ll only make you feel smaller. And if you wage a war against this woman — and merely trying to seem superior to her is tantamount to waging a war, you know that! — you will destroy what you have, and you’ll become just like her.

So forgive her. And forgive yourself. Love her and yourself. Love her from a giant distance. Imagine her pain. She has so much pain. She feels like she’s getting left behind forever. She probably is. Forgive that girl.

Then turn to your guy and instead of dragging out all of your evidence bags and your Powerpoint slides, instead of scribbling on a whiteboard and saying, in a million different twisted words, SHE IS BAD!, and also I AM GOOD ENOUGH I AM AMAZING YOU SHOULD LOVE ME FOREVER (which obviously you’re not so sure about, in spite of your words to the contrary, or you wouldn’t be so unnerved by his ex), tell him the raw truth: “I am a little obsessive and I’m insecure and I’m intense. I focus on all the wrong stuff sometimes. This ex of yours gets under my skin. You’ve been so nice about it. I can’t just shake it off, though. It’s there. I’m so ashamed of the fact that it’s still there! But here’s what I want badly: I want to treat her with kindness. I want to be at peace with her place in your life. I am trying to be at peace with reality. I want to share who I am with you, without anger and defensiveness. I want to let go. I want to laugh when she tries to come at me, and maybe sometimes I’ll need to tell you about it. I trust that you’re on my side about this. I just need to tell you about it a little more often than you’ll probably want. I’m so grateful to have found you. So grateful for your patience and understanding. Most people can’t do what you do. Together, we are so fucking strong. I believe in that, but I might need to repeat myself a little to put this shit behind me.”

There is a big difference between vulnerable truth and furious detective work, between showing your true, shivering heart and holding forth theatrically for the jury. When you tell the truth with vulnerability, you’re showing that you know that you deserve to be loved, flaws and all, and that you can give that kind of love, too. Assume that he’s on your side, because he is. Own where you are, without rage, without the furious scribbling on some whiteboard. And stop aiming any of this at her. She is a symbol of your fears, that’s all. If you didn’t have her as a scapegoat, your insecurities would find a new one. That’s something we angry-lawyer types have to keep in mind. Our tweaked minds want to spar. When one opponent disappears, another one materializes.

No matter how your boyfriend’s ex acts and no matter what she says, she is irrelevant. She’s suffering enough already. There is nothing to be done. File her under: Lamentable but insignificant acquaintances to be tolerated. There will be more of those, trust me. Picture her trying to get under your skin, over and over again, while you indifferently observe her antics.

If you still feel tortured by the situation after you’ve stated your values to your boyfriend, you should see a therapist. Hell, you should do that anyway. You need to let these feelings out in a safe place. There’s more in play here than just one obnoxious ex. You’ve got to figure out what you’re afraid of. You’ve got to look at the truth of where you are and how you feel without trying to control it, without trying to make yourself “better” so your relationship will “work.”

But when you’re not in therapy or talking to trusted friends, work hard to step back from this abyss. Go out into the sunshine and get some exercise. Whenever this woman springs to mind, forgive her and refocus. What do you want from your life, beyond this guy, beyond love? Make a list. You are spilling over with fire and brimstone, and you’re using it to set trash cans on fire.

Find a place to put this intensity, this rage. Is it fueled by insecurity? Maybe. Has my whole writing career been fueled by my frustrations and my longing? Maybe. Maybe every single fucking thing I create is forged by fear and sadness from feeling invisible and powerless for years. Goddamn does it feel good, though, to use everything I have, to love everything I have. Goddamn does it feel good to dig deep and use whatever I find.

Don’t resist the truth. Dig deep and you’ll find a lot of scary, terrible things when you do. Keep digging. Take each rusty nail, each jagged stone, each shard of old blue glass, and hold it in your hands until you can feel love for it. Hold each terrible thing in your palm, and say, “This is part of me. This is who I am. I can use this.” Digging through the dirt, on your hands and knees, tears streaming down your face: This is how you win.

This is also why this woman makes you so incredibly mad. She is a mirror of who you could become, if you try to compete instead of admitting your vulnerabilities. Forgive her instead. Thank her for this gift. You can use this.

Polly