Ask Polly: I’m Trapped With a Nice Guy in the Wrong Country!

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Photo: Wayne Lynch/Getty Images/All Canada Photos

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Dear Polly,

I’m writing because I feel really lost in life and feel like I need some help. I am 34, living in England, here since moving over for university. My plan was never to live here. I have two nationalities (not English) and have always wanted to travel around and move before settling down in a sunnier place. I moved away from where I grew up at age 19 because I was anorexic and needed to get away from my family (I get on well with them now). I spent five years in my early 20s going out with an Australian guy thinking we would move there, but he had a drinking and drug problem and was violent with me so eventually with the help of a friend I left him. A month after splitting up with my ex, I got together with a lovely man nine years my elder. He was very nice to me and made me feel looked after. He is a good man. We have been together for nine years now.

The problem is I’ve always wanted to move, and he has never really wanted to. He said because of work he’d have to stay for a few years but could eventually travel. He is English, has his family and friends here, and has no desire to leave. So I stayed in the hope it would happen eventually. He talked me into buying a house with him here, saying it wasn’t binding and we could always rent it out and move away if we wanted. Nine years down the line I feel trapped and miserable. For four years I took antidepressants (which I also took before leaving my ex), then I stopped last year and feel so lost and not myself. I have a comfortable life here, but I don’t feel like it’s me.

I can count on the fingers of one hand how many weekends I’ve had this year that haven’t involved drinking too much and doing drugs (big party culture here). I feel like I am very fond of this man and like I’ll never meet someone as nice to me, but I hate him for making me feel so trapped, and as a result I resent him and hate myself. I regularly fantasize about falling in love with someone else, running away with a friend of mine, but I kissed someone else four years ago and my boyfriend was so upset. We stayed together but I would never want to upset him again.

I don’t know what to do anymore. I can’t carry on going out every weekend to drown my misery. I know he wants kids and marriage and is waiting for me to commit. I can also see he’s tired, and so am I. I see other people getting married and having children, and I just feel stunted. I feel like there are so many chances to live around the world, but my boyfriend just says, “Why move away when life here is great?” He’s happy and I’m not. I don’t know if it’s my being ungrateful and not wanting to grow up and have children, but why do I permanently just want to run away? I am tired of feeling miserable and lost. Things were so easy when I took medication because I could just smile my way through, but I feel like now I am so lost because I was so docile and didn’t follow my heart. I don’t know if I am just being ungrateful and need to man up and see the bright side, but I feel tired of life so much I find it hard to cope.

Lost and Depressed

Dear Lost and Depressed,

Whenever a person evaluates their relationship in terms of comparison shopping — “I’m afraid I won’t be able to find someone who’s as nice as him” — that says a lot. I used to do it, too, but only when I was deeply ambivalent about my partner. I always suspected I would regret “settling” for some of my exes. Even when I was actively pushing for a commitment from them, a part of me felt like I’d spend the rest of my life knowing that I’d compromised.

To be clear, feeling ever-so-slightly dissatisfied with your partner isn’t that big of a deal in most cases. But everything in your letter supports the same thesis: You chose this man because you wanted stability and safety at a time when you felt lost and needy. You chose him because he was nice and he had a job and he wanted you. These were perfectly good reasons to choose him at age 25.

But now you’re 34 years old and this man is one of many of your dependencies. You’re dependent on his kindness and stability. You’re dependent on getting wasted on weekends, to blot out your dissatisfaction. You say your life is “comfortable,” but all of your comforts — a kind man, financial support, drinking — are making you increasingly uncomfortable. That’s the paradox of giving yourself everything you want (reassurance, Cheetos) instead of everything you need (independence, exercise). The things that are supposed to make you feel better only make you feel worse.

I don’t know if the answer is to move somewhere else. It’s hard to take a vague desire to travel the world and have adventures and sleep with other people completely seriously, when they’re set up as the “other” choice against this stable life. Both sides of the coin sound impractical: You don’t really want to stay in England but don’t seem to have a plan for what you’d do if you left. Frankly, it sort of sounds like you’ve been making the easiest choice, over and over again, while blaming your boyfriend for it, like he’s somehow responsible for your life. He “talked you into” buying a house. That language says a lot about your inability to own your choices. Let’s try this on for size: He wanted to buy a house with you, he asked you to consider it, he laid out the benefits of doing so, and then YOU decided to buy a house with him.

Likewise: He has friends and family and a job in England and sees no reason to leave. You knew that this would probably be true from the start, right? Even if he said, “Sure, we could rent it out and move away,” you didn’t press him to explore scenarios where you two could move away at that point. You didn’t say, “I know for a fact that I won’t be happy if I spend the rest of my life in England, so I need for us to make a plan to leave and move to [name of destination] in three years, where we both can find work.”

You also say you’ve stopped taking antidepressants but now you feel lost and “not yourself.” Maybe you should reconsider your choice to go off them, particularly now that you’re drinking too much and doing drugs. You say that when you’re on the antidepressants you’re just “smiling through,” but if you feel more like yourself and less reckless and less depressed when you’re on them, that says something. Clearly, this is something you need to talk to a therapist about. Set up an appointment as soon as you can, and give your therapist the whole picture, including the drugs and alcohol. You’re on a self-destructive path right now and you need outside help.

You say everyone drinks a lot but don’t mention your boyfriend. Is he going out with you, or are you leaving him behind while you go out? Because you don’t mention his drinking (but mention that the Australian ex had a problem) I’m going to assume he’s not the problem on that front. You’re the one who overdoes it. Yet you write, “I hate him for making me feel so trapped.”

He’s not really making you feel or do anything, though. You feel trapped because you’re depressed and you want to change your life but you’re afraid to do so. You’re afraid to be on your own. That’s not his fault. The fact that you say that you’re “fond of” him but you don’t say that you love him or that you can’t stand the thought of building a life without him says a lot. Maybe you’re afraid of facing the truth about your feelings. You say that you’re afraid of upsetting him because you care about him. But it seems clear that if you marry him and have kids with him, you’re eventually going to blame him for “talking you into” that, too. You’re going to blame him for “making you feel” even more trapped, when as far as I can tell, all he’s doing is showing up and wanting a life with you.

Do you want a life with him? If not, don’t blame that on him — or on the bad weather, or on the party culture, or on the millions of amazing idealized adventures you could have if you lived in other imaginary places. Are you employed? Is it also his fault that you don’t have a job and don’t know where to go?

I’m being a little merciless because I want you to wake up and see that you stopped taking responsibility for yourself a long time ago. But now, everything around you is telling you that you have to face your depression head on and face your problems head on. It’s possible that you’ll be happy in England with your current partner eventually, but right now your depression and recklessness and confusion about where you end and your partner begins is blocking your happiness. You have to see a therapist to sort this out. And eventually, you have go out into the world on your own and make a life for yourself. You need to feel strong and independent for a change.

Will you miss him? Sure! Are you taking him for granted? Definitely! Will you ever find someone as nice as him? Maybe not! But all of those things are irrelevant, because as long as you keep living the way you’re living right now, you’re going to be unhappy.

You have to make some hard decisions about what you want from this life. And you need to see that everything that your partner does “to you” is actually your freely choosing for yourself how you want to live. And what you’ve chosen is to hide. You’re not giving yourself space to breathe and dream and grow. You’re too depressed and anxious to imagine a life that’s big and bright and colorful. And I’m sure that most of the time, you feel like you’re scraping together a life the only way you know how. You’re doing the best you fucking can.

I’ve been there, and boy, do I get it. I moved in with a much-older boyfriend once for the very same reasons you did: I wanted to solve this problem of Happily Ever After once and for all. I was depressed, and I wanted to feel safe. He told me from the very start that he wanted to marry me. That felt like fate. I wanted to be loved and I didn’t care what else happened or whether or not he was perfect for me.

In his house, I was like a trapped animal. I had a job, but I dropped most of my social plans just to plant things and clean the floors over and over again. I focused all my energy on him, on the house, on building this illusion that we could make it. But our conversations were always strained. He made no sense to me. I didn’t love him enough. I sort of hated him.

Sometimes I think that for young people from semi-dysfunctional families, growing up isn’t just about learning to love yourself. Growing up is also about learning to notice when you actually hate someone you think you love. Sometimes you want someone in your life simply because they make you crazy. You enjoy the way your hatred for everything they are takes up the whole picture, every day. It’s almost like this strange kind of drug: It’s distracting. It occupies all your time. My compensations — busily cooking and scrubbing and planting, disliking my boyfriend’s ex on his behalf, telling a story about how perfect our life together would LOOK (because I knew at some level it could never FEEL all that good) — were all an elaborate way of distracting myself from the truth. The truth was that I was depressed, I didn’t have faith in my ability to make it on my own, and I really didn’t like him that much. Lots of stuff became his fault just because he was someone I never would’ve chosen for myself, and that made him seem guilty somehow. I saw him as a bad person who was torturing me simply because I wasn’t independent enough or brave enough to face the truth, which was that I didn’t want to be with him. I didn’t want to start over from zero.

That’s what people in bad relationships say a lot: I can’t start over from zero NOW! It’s too late!

It’s amazing to me that I could build a whole life around someone I didn’t like. I can’t know for sure, but I think that might be what you’re doing. That’s actually a pretty forgiving analysis, though, because it means that you’re not naturally someone who doesn’t take responsibility for herself and her choices. You’re just someone who is depressed, addictive, and attracted to people who are either addicts or who are also prone to elaborate games of denial (and therefore encouraging of yours).

I know you feel scared and weak and terrible. I know exactly how bad that feels. But you have to see a therapist and discuss your medication. You have to admit that you’re very depressed, and you have to face your circumstances with the help of a professional. Your boyfriend is not your prison guard. Look in the mirror: You wanted this. You wanted to hide. And now, your soul is telling you that you need your freedom. And you’re deathly afraid that you won’t take it. The prison walls are crumbling to the ground, but you’re worried that you’re going to stay in the cell and make babies there anyway.

If you stay, it might be that bleak. But if you leave, if you dare to stand on your own two feet and stop drinking and face your life, head-on, without making excuses or blaming other people, your life is likely to improve over the long haul. Maybe you’ll move away and build a new life. Maybe you’ll move back to England and realize you loved your boyfriend like crazy all along. But your gut is telling you it’s time to be alone. You wrote to me, so I would tell you the same thing.

Nothing is worse than hiding from your own life. You have to forgive yourself and accept your flaws without defensiveness. You have to treat yourself with care and compassion. You need a therapist. You need to stay sober, exercise daily, and sleep a solid eight hours at night. You need to make some big changes, and you need to be very kind to yourself while you make them. Give yourself some room to feel confused and sad over this, but know that this moment will define the rest of your life: You want to prove to yourself that you can be strong and independent. You want to prove that you have the courage to move forward alone.

You are brave enough and strong enough to do this. The second you take the first tiny step, you’ll see. You are going to feel much more alive very soon. You have to trust that. It’s time to face the full force of this gorgeous, scary world on your own.

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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