Ask Polly: Is He in Love With Me, or Has He Broken Me?

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Photo: Howard Pugh (Marais)/Getty Images

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Dear Polly,

I am a 26-year-old law student. This past summer, I had a job at a law firm and became close friends with a 30-year-old associate who was also sort of my supervisor. I didn’t consider anything romantic at first because he was my boss, I had just gotten out of a two-year relationship that left me feeling like worthless garbage, and he wasn’t my type physically (I’m typically into nerdier guys). But we became fast friends. He is extremely smart, and I was attracted to his brain. Pretty soon he made a move, and we slept together. The rush of attention was amazing, and it seemed like the perfect summer fling. But he had also started seeing an old friend from college who lives in another city a couple of weeks before he met me. He was open about this but insisted they weren’t exclusive. He was effusive about his feelings for me. Since I wanted things to be casual, I didn’t really care.

I was careful to maintain distance, but he escalated things quickly. He would talk to me all day at work, ask to hang out every day after work, cook me dinner, beg me to sleep over, and spend the entire time talking about how lucky he was to know me and how he wished he had met me before things became romantic with his female friend. He never wanted me to leave and was very clear about wanting to spend every spare minute with me. He talked about the future, how I was the type of person he’d want to be with long term, how smart and beautiful and magnetic and amazing I am. When I tried to laugh him off or make light of the situation — whoa there, champ, you’re also seeing someone else! — he would act hurt. I cared more than I wanted to. He was so affectionate and complimentary! He’d left a serious relationship recently and was emotionally devastated over it. We talked a lot about his feelings about the breakup, the current female friend, me. He said his friends could all tell he was happier than he’d been in months.

We had agreed not to tell anyone at the office, but then I found out that he told the head of the summer internship program. I was livid and embarrassed. He apologized profusely and said that he only did it because he felt strongly about us and wanted to see if it would be a problem, and was relieved to find out it wouldn’t be. Within the next week, he decided to become exclusive with his now-girlfriend. I told him that was fine, but it made me even more pissed off that he had told someone at work about us.

After that, I tried to keep him at arm’s length, but he slowly weaseled his way back in. And I let him! Pretty soon, he was treating me like a girlfriend — talking all day at work, walking me home, asking me to come over, cooking me dinner, pouring wine, watching Parks and Rec, etc. He would get affectionate, and I would tell him not to. He said he realized he made a mistake jumping into things with his girlfriend; it was clearly not what he wanted. Eventually, we slept together again. I felt like a totally shitty human being. He said he was going to break up with her, I tried to enforce a boundary until he did, he decided not to break up with her, then bulldozed the boundary, and this whole pattern repeated itself. He said multiple times that he knew he shouldn’t be with his girlfriend, he is an idiot, this is all his fault, he’s floundering, he feels a sense of obligation to her since they’ve known each other for so long, etc. Polly, this really fucked me up.

After the summer ended, I moved back to New York for my last year of school. He emailed, I didn’t reply. He sent a friend of mine who interviewed at the same law firm a book we had talked about with a note. He called me drunk and rambled for 30 minutes about how I’m so lovely and he is confused and in crisis and doesn’t want me to hate him. After this call, I finally asked him to please not contact me while he was still dating someone else.

Here’s the punch line: In nine months, I’ll graduate and move back to work at his firm. We’ll be co-workers in a very small group where everyone thinks we are close friends. I’m terrified. I feel broken and worthless and scared I’ll never be able to get over him. I’m trying to keep myself distracted. I’m exercising, spending time with friends, kicking ass at school, but I’m still feeling sick about this. My therapist says he is a narcissist, but that doesn’t really make me feel much better or give me a plan to feel like a whole, attractive human being again. I’m worried both that this may have permanently broken me and that I’m never going to find anyone else who I’m attracted to who actually wants me back.

Polly, I am normally excellent at reading people and situations. How could I have read this so wrong? His feelings for me seemed so real! I tried to ask him how I got it wrong, and he said I didn’t. “If you want me to say this happened because I didn’t care enough about you, it didn’t.” Then what gives? Why did he choose her? And will I ever recover? How can I protect my emotions when I’m back in a workplace environment with this person?

How do you tell tepid to fuck right off when it seems hell-bent on weaseling its way back into your life, and you’re going to have to work with it every day?

Feeling Like Garbage

Dear FLG,

What you’re describing is not tepid. You’re describing needy, confused passion. This guy is never going to choose one woman over another, because that would mean not getting all of the attention from all of the women. He needs all of it. What’s frightening is that he doesn’t even know he’s doing this. He legitimately feels like he suddenly, inconveniently fell for you. He likes whoever is closest, always. And even if he finally acts like he’s going to decide, even if he gets engaged to his girlfriend, he’s still going to confess to you late at night that he thinks he made a big mistake. It’s not just that he’ll say anything to get into your pants, it’s that he actually believes what he says. That’s what makes him so dangerous.

To get over this guy, you have to recognize how silly he is. He’s a man who wants to be widely recognized as the most handsome prince in all the land. He’s already a successful Adonis, but that’s not enough. He’s got a girlfriend and a great job, and if his girlfriend still lives far away from him, he probably has another lady at the office by now. He probably has a few women whose asses he kisses regularly because they’re married and it’s safe to pretend. He’s a guy who wants everyone to love him. He needs that love.

Think about how he acted whenever you were around. He talked to you all day. He asked you to hang out that night. He cooked you dinner. He begged you to spend the night. He had a girlfriend, but he did this day after day. Even without the girlfriend, this is the behavior of someone who’s afraid of being alone, someone who can’t face himself. If he were a woman, people would think he was a needy psycho chick. But he’s a handsome guy, so it looks like passion. He is passionate, too! He’s passionate about never having to be alone and face the giant hole at the center of his life.

This guy will always need more. It’s very unlikely that he figures his shit out and becomes the kind of person who can be satisfied with a regular, mundane life. He’s going to pledge his love to multiple women. He’s going to tell random ladies he just met that he can’t take his eyes off them. He’s going to fixate on anyone he can’t have.

There’s no doubt that when you go back, he’ll start the whole pattern all over again. It will look just like friendship at first. But, eventually, you’ll be right back where you started. And let’s just say his story is that he choo-choo-chooses you this time, after all. He’s going to break up with his lady. He’s going to marry you. That’s what it might take this time around, he knows that, so he’ll make those high-stakes noises. And then? Oh no, he thinks he probably made a mistake! Lady is moving to be with him! Oops, but it has nothing to do with you! You are perfection and grace incarnate, you are blameless and he will always love you forever!

Notice how he never burns any bridges? Notice how he actually doesn’t even know what your flaws are, to the extent that even when he needs to dump you, he doesn’t mention a single problem with you or doubt about your compatibility? Doesn’t that strike you as odd? It’s like even when he’s making his so-called final call, he never, ever wants to close the door on your affection. He wants you adoring him from afar. He wants that from everyone. So he’ll never do anything to jeopardize that.

I feel a little sorry for him, honestly. Needy narcissists who can’t stand being alone are some of the saddest people around. I’m not using the term narcissist in the casual “all he cares about is himself” way here, either; I’m saying this guy is textbook material, and will manipulate anyone and anything to get his needs met, but his needs will never be met. He remains important and never boring to women by constantly changing his mind and playing them off each other. Otherwise, you might get sick of him. He wants you on the sidelines. He needs you as a hedge, in case his other girlfriend gets sick of his shit. He’s so insecure that he needs another lady on deck. And again, if he chooses you, he’ll find another hedge. This is how his life will always be. This isn’t one moment of indecision and crisis; his whole life will be filled with indecision and crisis. That’s how he feels important and necessary.

What’s fucked is that even if he goes into therapy and faces himself and resolves to change everything, he will still be a bad bet. I’m telling you this because I’ve known people just like him very, very well. What you’re describing is not a run-of-the-mill level of self-involvement and manipulation. This guy is the real deal, the scariest and the silliest and the saddest man in town.

You need to start to see him as an emotionally arrested clown. Because the difference between a solid, stand-up guy and this guy is enormous. They come from different planets. Solid guys rarely advertise how massively in love they are, over and over again, from the very start. Solid guys don’t act like they’ve been knocked over by a tidal wave whenever you’re around. That’s some cheap imitation of something this clown saw in a movie one time. Don’t fall for that from him or anyone else. In my personal experience, men who go overboard to woo you are not to be trusted most of the time. Men who are secure with themselves can tolerate getting to know people slowly. They don’t mind being alone. They make decisions and don’t go back on them over and over again.

You don’t ONLY need to write off this sad clown, you’ve got to write off all of the sad clowns of the world. The divide between someone who’s wounded and someone who uses vulnerable people as human shields is vast indeed. Maneuvering people into positions where they can fill your needs without understanding who they are or even caring — that’s what sad clowns do. They are not tepid at all. But their passion comes from self-concern and panic and insecurity, not from true adoration and desire and a true understanding of who you actually are.

The textbook narcissist knows just how to play to the little kernels of narcissism inside of each of us. Because his world is ruled by ego and insecurity, and because he makes sounds he picked up in romantic movies, he knows how to pull you in. He knows how to make noises that will make you feel like the most beautiful fairy princess in all the land.

We all want to feel that way! It’s natural. And look, part of the strange magic of hearing that you are glowing and special and you own the sun is that it feels like this strange facsimile of happiness and confidence that you remember from childhood. There’s this odd feeling of magic and fate that kicks up inside of us when we’re outwardly adored. We remember believing that we were special enough to matter, a lot. We remember believing that the world would bend to our whims, that we would effortlessly be awarded everything we ever wanted, almost without trying.

That’s not how life will work out for you. You will have to work hard. You will be lonely sometimes. But one part of it is true. You are special. You have this magic and this happiness inside you that you’ll eventually learn how to let out, learn how to savor and enjoy all by yourself, without any help. You have to believe in your fucking magic, in a vacuum of praise and attention. You have to believe in your magic even as the prince is choosing someone else. You have to believe and keep believing.

Believing in your magic means knowing what you will and won’t accept. This clown has shown himself to you already. You won’t let him back in. If you can’t see him clearly for the clown he is, if you don’t chuckle as he tries to work his charms on you all over again, then that’s you turning your back on your own magic.

No matter what happens, no one can break you permanently. When you believe that someone can break you, that’s you locating all of your magic outside of yourself. Don’t do that. Feel this moment, though: Your eyes are tired, your hands are tired, your heart is tired, but a breeze is blowing in the window, the sunshine on the windowsill is telling you that this, too, will pass. Your darkest concerns today will be a running joke a few years from now. The future is wide open. Breathe in this moment and say to yourself, “I am lucky, so fucking lucky. I am strong and lonely and I’m alive, and that is pure luck. I am made of magic, and no one will ever take that away from me again.”

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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