Ask Polly: My Ex Was Awful, But I Can’t Get Over Him!

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Photo: Charlie Drevstam

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Dear Polly,

I was with my ex on and off for almost three years. He was emotionally abusive and an extreme narcissist. It took a very long time, good friends, and a therapist to help me come to terms with that. But even now, there are days when I wonder if it was all in my head. He quit his job to accompany me to Europe, where I was pursuing a creative opportunity. We went on weekend trips, worked late in coffee shops side by side. We were best friends, and he was romantic and funny. At times he was wonderful, but he was cruel twice as often.

He constantly nitpicked at everything I did, even how I brushed my teeth. He yelled at me for the littlest things, like not turning on the bathroom fan after I showered, or for accidentally buzzing the hair at the back of his head unevenly. When confronted, he criticized me for being insecure or oversensitive.

Whenever we seemed to get closer, he’d bring up his “I promise they’re resolved, but I still remember loving her so deeply” feelings for his ex and compare them to his feelings for me. He openly discussed his attraction toward other women. He’d wonder out loud how much he was “still in love with me,” or if he’d ever be sure he wanted to marry me. It was torture disguised as open communication but, as he put it, necessary if I was really his soul mate. Whenever I even hinted that I was unhappy, he took on the part of a man who was just too emotionally damaged and lost to bear it, a man who was looking for real, genuine love and wanted to find it with me.

I fell for that over and over again.

One night before leaving on a trip across the country, he broke up with me (now close to two years ago), citing uncertainty about me being his soul mate. I still remember the gut-wrenching feeling of standing in our shared living room, packing up my stuff and crying quietly so I didn’t wake our roommate. For almost three months, I wouldn’t even tell him where I moved to. I was so hurt and angry, mostly at myself.

I feel brainwashed. It’s been over a year, and I’ve unsuccessfully dated other men. He’s come back a few times since then, with an aching love for me that quickly cools when he’s reminded I have flaws. I’ve put up walls and tried to block communication, but that doesn’t help get rid of his voice in my head. I don’t know how to stop craving his validation.

I have moments where it’s almost like he’s still convincing me he didn’t mistreat me, that I imagined the abuse. There are moments I feel like his quest to find true love is more important than mine, because he so frequently painted himself as a tragic hero and I a villain or a troll who unfairly tries to manipulate him into loving me. Like I was trying to steal a love that was intended for some fucking perfect princess he failed to mold me into.

But I’m actually terrified that he will find this fantasy girl and it’ll prove that I was the awkward interloper. That I was the one he practiced on, the one he could use to get all of the cruelness out of his system, before reforming himself into a Prince Charming. In the meantime, I’m holding on to the whole “jaded, emotionally damaged, so forever fiercely independent and single” thing like a life raft. It’s served me so well I don’t even know how to let anyone get close to me, let alone trust them again.

I don’t want this to be my narrative, but I can’t get it out of my head. All of the first dates with new, cute guys, all of the trips with girlfriends and self-care and hobbies I’ve thrown myself into can’t chase away his ghost. His rejection is everywhere I look, and I’m so deeply ashamed of it.

Sincerely,

Haunted by a Narcissist

Dear Haunted by a Narcissist,

If you could “get all of the cruelness out of” this guy’s system just by playing the role of the awkward interloper, the U.S. should use you as a secret weapon to defuse the explosively damaging behavior of narcissists nationwide. I can think of one particular orange-hued human it might be nice to defuse immediately.

Sadly, though, you don’t have such superpowers. But the fact that you believe that whatever he does next will somehow offer up the final verdict on your worthiness tells us everything we need to know. Listen to me: What he does next is as significant as whether it rains or not in Utah tomorrow. What he does next is arbitrary and unrelated to you in every way. And even if he does find his so-called fantasy girl, you won’t have any way of knowing whether or not they’re blissfully happy or 100 percent fucked in all of the ways you two were fucked. If you concern yourself with the behind-the-scenes psychodrama of this guy’s life, you will be concerning yourself with something that not only has zero to do with you, but that amounts to an excuse to treat yourself with pure, unadulterated self-hatred. You’re the junkie who kicked dope but who now defines herself by what she doesn’t have anymore.

In the ’90s, Paul McCartney’s wife had a line of vegetarian frozen meals called “Linda McCartney’s Meatless Entrées.” The ads, which were everywhere in San Francisco, used to make me laugh every time I saw them. It was like calling your book about feminism Triumph of the Dickless or naming your beauty store “Mrs. Beastly’s Fugly-Free Zone.”

You are not haunted by a narcissist. You are haunted by your own feelings of self-hatred and worthlessness, which you’ve very understandably started to confront thanks to this one manipulative, confused human being.

And who could blame you? What human alive has done a better job of embodying all of your fears about yourself than this ex-boyfriend has? When it comes to confronting your neuroticism and emotional challenges and cognitive bad habits and low self-esteem, controlling narcissists are IT. They have a magical way of manifesting all of your confusion with their wishy-washy, bizarre, schizophrenic messages about what makes you “good” and what makes you “bad.” They feed your ego and then they riddle you with self-doubt, thereby toying with the dormant narcissism that lies inside of all of us. They provide an easy fix whenever you feel small and you want to feel bigger, smarter, more gorgeous, more powerful. They exert a vicelike grip on anyone with permeable boundaries or anyone seeking an escape from the mundane struggles of ordinary life. Life is fucking hard, and it’s not very romantic at all in its difficulty when you’re unable to see yourself clearly or feel your own feelings. The narcissist tells you, in essence, “I hold the power to make you larger than life, like me. You can be glorious and special. You can feel important and feel loved. No one else will make you feel as loved as I do. My love is the only love that matters. Without it, you shrivel up and disappear and some other, better woman gets to bask in this glory.”

But you have to obey the narcissist’s wishes to get his love. And somehow, you’re always a disappointment. Because you’re a human being, you’re weak, you have your own needs. You can always recognize a narcissist by the way he treats your needs as if they’re a personal insult to his well-being.

The narcissist demands that you surrender everything to him: Your friends wander off. Your self-esteem is diminished. “Move in and I’ll take care of you,” he says. “Stop struggling against me and you’ll feel cared for.” You do what he says. You surrender. And then he hates you for your weakness. You give him exactly what he wants, you learn to define this as you “being good,” and he rewards you by treating you with contempt.

So this is your work: You’ve got to shake off this impression — this delusion, this drugged up, confused, junkie hallucination you have — that your ex lies at the center of all of the magic in the universe, that he’s some demigod who controls the horizontal and the vertical, that he holds the key to your happiness and also dictates whether or not you are good and special and worthy. Moving forward, when you hear that bad voice inside of you that tells you, “He’s going to find his fantasy girl. He’s going to prove that you’re the one who’s fucked up, you’re the one who’s a disappointment, you’re the one who’s lost and worthless and a loser,” you have to know where that voice comes from. That’s your regular-old bad voice — which so many of us have — amplified through the narcissist’s bullshit Wizard of Oz loudspeaker.

I spent a few years with a guy like your ex. The longer I stayed with him, the less happy I was. But I kept thinking I was the one who was doing everything wrong, and I just needed to be “better.” That was my insecurity, which was latent and hidden until then in many ways. I still remember standing in the kitchen while he told me, in response to my question about when we would ever get married, “I feel like I’m waiting for you to grow up, and catch up with me.”

Right. I needed to catch up with him. This was a guy who couldn’t sit still and relax for more than five minutes at a time. He lost his temper over the tiniest shit. He treated everything I did as an aberration and direct challenge to The One Right Way of Living, see also: his way. He would go to the bottom of the bed every night and tuck in the covers very, very tightly (he always seemed angry when he did this!), thereby turning them into a fucking tent that barely touched our legs and feet, and when I tried to loosen up my side of the bed, he’d say, “You’re fucking it up!” It was almost like he was enraged by all sensations, all sounds, all people. It was as if his ideal state of being was stoned and drunk, in an isolation tank, floating in saltwater. He experienced every little stimulus as an inexcusable offense to his senses.

Let’s think for a second about what it takes to be this man’s “fantasy girl.” This man’s fantasy girl has no thoughts, makes no sounds, asks for nothing. This man’s fantasy girl is a gaping void.

I don’t want to tell you what is going to happen to your ex, because it has no bearing on anything. And all I’m going to say about my ex is that after we broke up, he quickly met someone new and implied that he was going to live Happily Ever After with his brand-new, perfect lady because she was far more mature and knowledgeable about the human heart than I was. One year later, their relationship ended, but by then I didn’t care. Isn’t that the way it always goes? You never know the whole truth about an ex until you truly don’t care anymore.

That doesn’t make me the winner and make him the loser. This life is tough for all of us. My ex was someone who struggled mightily just to feel like he wasn’t being tortured, every second of every day. It makes me sad to think of it. He wore his pain on his face. He was not at peace. That’s a more common human state than most of us want to admit. So let’s try to forgive and feel compassion for my ex and for yours. Sure, we need to know how fucked up they are, so we can avoid them and stop torturing ourselves with them. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t trying really hard to get it right. I stopped talking to my ex because it felt disingenuous, but I hope to God he’s happy these days. I want that for him. I want him to feel calm and relaxed and at peace. I can laugh at what a dick he was sometimes and still want him to experience happiness. I can send him my love, from a distance, without wanting to be in his life.

My hunch is that you need to forgive your ex and feel compassion for him in order to move forward. That goes against the common wisdom of the moment. As a culture, we believe in pathologizing our exes until they’re our enemies. “THIS GUY IS SICK,” your friends tell you. “HE PREYS ON YOUR INSECURITIES. HE’S AN ASSHOLE. FORGET HIM FOREVER!” Sometimes we talk to our friends this way because we can see that their self-destructive narratives are repeating on an endless loop, and we’re hoping to break them out of it. Maybe if we just make it crystal clear that this guy would make ANYONE miserable, we think, our friends will wake the fuck up and move on. But just as we all need to fully mourn when someone close to us dies (because if we skip over that part, we can stay depressed indefinitely and not know why), we also (sometimes!) need to stop and acknowledge, in the company of close friends or family, just how much we care about someone who’s fucked up and broken. We need to be vulnerable and say out loud, “I still really want this, even though I know it hurts me. It still feels terrible because I still crave this person’s love and acknowledgment. And I still feel shame over how much I want it.”

Personally, I’m someone who just can’t move forward sometimes until I’m openly vulnerable about a thing that’s crawled under my skin. As long as I feel ashamed of my feelings, I can’t let them go. I can’t shake something that’s haunting me until I say out loud, a few different times to a few different people, just how inexplicably sad and pathetic and ASHAMED I feel of my love for a person or a friendship that isn’t working. It’s not efficient. I sound like a freak sometimes. But I still need to let it out.

And you know what our culture and our friends and our family hate a lot? They hate it when we sound stuck. They want to skip over the “I feel” part and go straight to the JUST SHUT UP ABOUT IT AND MOVE ON part. And honestly, even then, some stubborn part of me still wants to own the emotion, wants to drag it out and make everyone look at it, before I can put it away for good. That’s why I do this for a living. I do this because I want to make it totally fucking OK for a legion of former so-called psycho chicks and so-called oversensitive, pussy-ass men to drag their shit out on the lawn and say DUDE, THIS IS REAL AND IT DOESN’T MEAN I’M CRAZY. JUST LOOK WITH ME AT IT AND LET ME FEEL IT, WITH YOU.

So stop being ashamed of what you feel. Say to yourself and anyone else who’ll listen: “This feeling is real. I am mourning something real. You can see him as an asshole, and I don’t blame you for that. But this is still a big part of my life that died, and it hurts. I still want something that is bad for me, in spite of my best intentions.”

And yes, after you state the full truth and out yourself as someone with a giant, sensitive heart, you should try to expunge him from your daily thoughts and your imprecise narrative, and stop using him as a means of confronting your emotional challenges. But don’t do that without recognizing that your compassion for him reflects well on you. You’re a very generous person, so you’re drawn to people who need you, openly, and don’t mind saying it. But you also prefer that these needy types cover up that need by ignoring you and treating you badly most of the time.

It’s time to love someone who sees you clearly without looking away. It’s time to make room for someone who isn’t promising you an escape from real life.

Stop looking outside of yourself for a verdict on whether you’re good or worthless. That obsession mirrors the mechanics of your relationship with a narcissist, and it’s a fix that’s essentially designed to hide your true, fragile self from the world. Instead, be where you are, a broken, sad human being in the broken present. This is what the narcissist never learns to do. Forgive your ghost, and let him go haunt someone else. It’s not that fun being a ghost. Forgive him. Cry some tears for him, but let him go once and for all.

And from now on, remember that real love doesn’t feel like a fantasy. Real love feels like real life, but a real life that you can finally experience with all of your senses. Real love is a divine series of clumsy maneuvers, unnerving mistakes, flashes of joy and lust and self-doubt and fear and anger and also peace. When you’re in love and you’re seen clearly by another person whose only intention is to love you, here, in the flawed, real world. This person is not some fantasy “soul mate” with magical qualities that radiate around him and make you nervous forever and ever. And there is not only one person alive who can fulfill this place in your life. Ordinary, lovable people who can see you clearly and who understand that flaws are human and not a deal breaker are everywhere, once you start to see yourself and your own flaws the same way. And when you are finally embraced by someone who accepts your good and your bad with patience and grace, it feels strange and amazing and frightening. It is not an escape. It is not always “romantic” in the “music swelling, cameras circling” sense. You don’t get to be the gorgeous heroine. You get to be a human being, with needs, with problems, with emotions. That is enough.

Start now. Be a regular woman who has needs of her own. Don’t try to be a fantasy girl. Be an awkward interloper, someone who says the wrong thing and feels the wrong way and is all sharp elbows and mumbled words and lopsided smiles and perfectly timed mistakes. Open your heart and embrace the awkward interloper. Give her your love. She is more than worthy of it.

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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