Ask Polly: Why Was This Vacation Such a Disaster?

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Photo: David McGlynn/Getty Images

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Dear Polly,

I just got back from an amazing two-week vacation in a beautiful tropical country. A friend of mine, who’s been a travel agent her whole life, put together the trip. I’m tan and relaxed and have some wonderful memories and one helluva photo album. But I’m not writing you today about my friend. I’m writing you about my roommate for the duration of the trip.

There were four of us on the trip; E, the travel-y one, who roomed with S, her BFF for decades. T, my roomie for the trip, is E’s roommate back at home. I am the newest member of this circle; I’ve known E for two years, and I’ve been hanging out with E, T, and S regularly for the last six months. Of the three, I knew T the least. I knew she liked to be the center of attention, and I knew that we weren’t ever going to be super-close. T is about a decade older than I am, very into New Age spirituality, and clearly struggling with a messed-up childhood. At first I thought that T and I might be able to relate, given some common elements in our past and the fact that we’re both openly bisexual. But I knew her to be the kind of person who will pick on someone for liking something. Unpleasant and immature, sure, but not a deal-breaker.

We got to the first hotel, and T started spending a lot of time naked. Any time the door was shut, she’s naked. I wasn’t bothered, but T was clearly bothered that I was not participating in “naked-time.” I have a normal amount of discomfort with my body, as a woman who grew up in a western culture. I don’t spend time naked on my own, and I don’t seek out opportunities to hang out with other people while naked.

T kept leaving her stuff on my bed, which annoyed me. The power converter I’d brought on the trip was wrong, so I relied on hers to charge my phone and tablet. She said she was happy to share but kept her converter in her luggage so I had to ask for it repeatedly. I began to feel like there were some power games going on. The third night of the trip, in a cab, T crossed her legs onto me and pressed herself up against my side. She spent the very long cab ride flipping her hair into my face and onto my neck. I was deeply uncomfortable, but I was afraid to tell her to stop in case it started a fight or made her sulk.

The next city we visited involved a tour into the jungle, and we were joined by a whole mess of young backpacking adventurers (S, E, and T are in their late 40s, I’m in my 30s. These kids were anywhere from 18 to 24). The group includes one fellow who struck me as a “pretty boy.” T was instantly, intensely aware of the pretty boy; she turned her focus on him and shared stories about her abuse as a child with the group. The rest of us didn’t say much and felt a bit awkward. T got contact info from the pretty boy and a couple of Irish lads who wanted to go out and get wasted that night. I told T I wasn’t interested in getting wasted with strangers in a strange city.

Then things started to go really bad. After dinner, T told us she had word from the boys and they wanted to go out drinking. It’s after 10 p.m. at this point. E stepped up to T and told her, “It’s not a good idea.” T went back to the room and began to throw her things around and scream about how E treats her like a child and how it’s all bullshit. I reminded T that I also thought it was a bad idea to go out. T continued her tantrum, throwing things, shouting in rage, pacing back and forth. I pulled on my headphones and went to bed.

We were upgraded to a poolside suite, very posh, very wonderful, but it only had a king bed, so T and I agreed that we’d just trade off between the bed and the couch. But after one night, T said she can’t handle the couch, it’s too uncomfortable. So I slept on the couch. At this point, we’d stopped speaking other than the absolute necessities. I couldn’t help but find her behavior childish and manipulative, recognizing similar patterns from when I was a manipulative child. But I still invited her to breakfast with me every morning; I’d tell her when we’re going to the pool, I asked her to come to the market with me. She’d gone nonverbal with E and S as well.

I invited her out for a nightcap. She asked me, angrily, if she’d done anything to offend me or make me angry. I told her that I wasn’t angry or offended, that I’d tried to do everything I could to keep the peace so we could have a nice trip. I apologized for any friction that might have come about and apologized if she felt excluded in any way; I told her that I’d invited her to breakfast every day and asked her out for a drink that night because I was trying to include her. The conversation became amicable. But the next morning, she was right back to nonverbal responses and furious journaling, with the power converter nowhere in sight. She became actively hostile. She would walk 30 feet in front of us or 30 feet behind us. She started making harsh replies when anything was said, to the point where S called her out on it the last night at dinner. On the flight home, she refused to stay anywhere near the other three of us.

E tells me that things are okay at the apartment she shares with T. I hope that’s true. I’m afraid that the root cause of T’s behavior might have been me, somehow. S, E, and T had traveled together once before without incident, so the only outliers on this trip were the duration, the location, and me. I’m afraid to lose my friendship with E and S over what happened. E and S travel often; they have a fantastic trip already in the works for next year. It would break my heart not to be included on that trip, in the interest of preserving the peace with T; I will of course tell E that I understand, that T came first and they’ve been friends longer. But it would make me very sad to lose this opportunity to travel with experienced, worldly, funny, clever women.

Polly, I’m trying so hard to think of what I should have done differently. While S and E are both as annoyed as I am over T’s behavior, I think I’m the one who will be shunned from this little social group. S and E didn’t give any indication that they blame me for T’s behavior. But S and T share an apartment, and T has been around longer than I have. I wonder, should I have participated in naked-time in order to bond with T? I wonder what on earth could I have done differently to make T feel other than whatever she felt, so that things didn’t get as bad as they did? Or have I really been living too long on my own (seven years) and I’ve utterly missed some social nicety that might have made T feel something other than what she felt, that could have saved the trip for everyone? Please help.

Trouble in Paradise

Dear T in P,

When I got your letter, I saved it on my desktop as “THIS ONE IS NUTBALLS.” I know that sounds harsh, but you just went on vacation with a grown adult who got naked repeatedly, pushed your boundaries, pouted, yelled, threw things, and actively tried to make everyone else as miserable as possible. And now you want to know the right things to say and do so you can go on vacation with this unpleasant human being again.

T is not the kind of person you should consider befriending in any way. You don’t want her anywhere near you. Unless you’re 100 percent taking care of her and adhering to her script, you offend her senses. Not only that, but the more you try to address the situation and make it better, the more trouble you’ll make for yourself.

Your letter (which I shortened a lot here) includes a wealth of tiny details that tell me you seriously sweat the small stuff and want to keep careful track every little transgression. This is understandable — I used to do it, too. But such meticulous, detailed storytelling not only reflects a person’s natural appetite for dramatic conflict, it also suggests a Herculean effort to remain blameless, to the point where you’re unwilling to state your own needs. And when you will do anything, including subtract your needs from the picture, just to avoid trouble, you inevitably stir up more trouble instead. You hint that you were more like T in the past and you also take pains to make it clear that you didn’t insult her, exclude her, or cross any boundaries. You even told T that she didn’t offend you or make you angry.

Really? She didn’t offend you or make you angry? Yes, she did. You can’t stand her. It’s not just that she acts like a selfish, self-centered baby. You pretty much dislike everything about her. You hate her naked-time thing and her overly critical thing and her flirty thing. It’s not your style. She annoys the fuck out of you. That’s fine! OWN IT, at least in a letter to a stranger. You don’t like her!

Listen to me closely now, even if you ignore everything else I write to you: Insisting that you’re not angry when you actually are doesn’t magically fix everything. You say you recognize the tactics of manipulative children, but trying to control reality with elaborate games of make-believe is one of those tactics. When your first questions are “What does she want?” and “What do I have to do to stay in this group’s good graces?” instead of “What do I want?” and “How does this situation make me feel?,” that’s a clear sign that you’re used to shoving your experiences and feelings aside.

I’m not trying to stigmatize that reaction, believe me, because that’s how I operated with friends for years. When problems and conflicts arose, I not only played along but internalized a lot of the shame that bubbled out of those conflicts. “Sure, she’s the one who’s stepping on my toes,” I’d think. “But I must be doing something wrong. There must be something wrong with me. I just need to try harder, be nicer, make myself smaller, and then this very difficult person will approve of me again.” Ironically, this is where I tended to mess up: I didn’t tell the truth. I thought I could fix everything just by saying, “It’s cool! My toes aren’t getting crushed right now! I have no needs! I can fit right in!” I held in my feelings until they poured out all over the place when I didn’t want them to. But even if I managed to bite my tongue, eventually, it didn’t matter. Because people aren’t stupid. They can tell when you don’t like them, deep down. They know when you think they’re absolutely fucking nutballs. It’s actually pretty hard to hide that.

So it’s not all that surprising that someone you secretly dislike (even when you won’t acknowledge those feelings to yourself!) would feel that energy emanating off you and grow to dislike you in return. That part is fine. Sometimes people don’t get along, at all! That’s OKAY! Should you have told T that you were disgusted and annoyed with her? Probably not. Probably you just wanted to get through the vacation without stirring up any shit.

What’s disconcerting is that you don’t even seem to recognize that you’re angry. When T was throwing shit and screaming in your room and you had your headphones on, how did that feel? Did it feel familiar? You seem to hint that you and T both had abusive childhoods. Did T’s acting out remind you of when you were little and powerless and had to put up with chaos and there was nothing you could do about it? Did shutting it out and staying calm make you feel tough and capable? Did you think “Look how far I’ve come”?

I want to posit the notion that feeling isolated but a little superior in this way is comforting to you. You’re returning to survival skills you learned as a kid. But it’s also a way of acknowledging that you crawled out of a hellish childhood to get to where you are. That makes perfect sense, really. That said, this is not a healthy way for you to access feelings of pride and self-love. You’re propping up your ego on the back of someone else’s damage. You’re playing games of make-believe in which you’re THE GOOD ONE and T is THE BAD ONE.

You do this because you can’t feel these feelings otherwise. You can’t simply feel proud of yourself and happy with where you are in life, because you can’t feel much at all. You’re so accustomed to shoving your feelings down and being “tough” and “capable” and “independent” that you can’t remember how to take satisfaction in your accomplishments or in who you’ve become.

You have to learn to do that. You have to learn to feel your feelings. You’re a sensitive person, actually, who can’t access the best parts of herself anymore. People who can’t feel their feelings use people like T to be big and messy and explosive for them. T is actually right to feel resentment over that. “She always treats me like a child!” she says, as she screams and throws things like a child. T wants to run away from home, but she still wants her mommy, too.

It’s so sad! I feel a little sorry for her. There she is, still living with E. God only knows how often she yells and throw things. Obviously E gets something out of that. E says everything is fine with T now. But why is E even friends with T? Maybe E likes having a troubled friend around, to keep things dramatic and interesting, kind of like a Real Housewives android that she can turn on and off, thereby bringing drama with her everywhere she goes. (Make your Real Housewives android lady share a room with your newest friend and watch the sparks fly!)

But that’s their thing. Maybe there’s some strange codependent dance that goes on there, and maybe T gets vulnerable and E is understanding and they actually have a reasonably intimate and mutually supportive give-and-take. They’ve got their own mysterious marriage, and honestly, if they both feel happy with it, who are we to cast aspersions on that?

Their relationship is not your problem. But here you are, actively courting a situation that was designed to eat you alive. Even though you’ve done nothing that you should have to answer for, your boundary issues start to come into play when you talk about wanting to be invited on future vacations, presumably even if that means that you’d have to room with T again. Why would you do that? You should not do that again. If E wants to room with you or you want to room alone, maybe. But going on any vacation with T seems rough, frankly.

Likewise, what’s this about reassuring E that you know T comes first? Why would you do that? This reflects your illusion that you can control the situation. You think you can somehow get on top of this mess by addressing it with E, thereby encouraging E to trust you more than T and creating the impression that YOU CAN HANDLE ANYTHING.

I think it’s time to ask yourself why you want to stay close to these people, who tolerate screaming and throwing shit. These are grown adults in their 40s we’re talking about. You really have to examine why you want to be a part of this scene so badly.

The most disturbing thing of all is that you’re now second-guessing your decision not to get naked with T. She somehow … deserves your nakedness, even though it made you uncomfortable? And another luxury vacation with E will make it all worth it, somehow? And if you aren’t invited, even though E, S, and T have known each other longer and are the same age, you’ll be “heartbroken”? There’s this eerie undercurrent in your letter suggesting that you want to remain friends with E for the wrong reasons, because she’s clever and fabulous and worldly and she can bring good things to your life, not because she’s a close friend who matters to you. Even if you two are very good friends, you’re allowing the situation with T to become competitive. You’re framing it that way, and I’m sure T is, too. Maybe E likes it that way. Seriously, this situation is so fraught and it can only get worse from here.

Back away from this mess. You are not in control of this, and you never will be. You should not insert yourself into this situation even the tiniest bit. Let go of any future vacation plans. Don’t even speculate about it. You want their approval more than you want to truly connect with them. You want to belong. Something from your past is fueling your behavior here. You feel rejected, and you want to stop that rejection from happening. But you didn’t do anything wrong. Stop analyzing the footage. You cannot make everyone alive love you by pretending. You deserve to take up space, too.

You need to see a therapist. Because right now you’re telling yourself a really intense story about what this bizarre threesome reflects about your worthiness as a human being. Being witty and well traveled isn’t everything. What about having a friend you can trust, who would never dream of shoving you in a room with her temperamental, boundaryless sidekick?

You need to refocus your intense energy on something new that sustains you instead of eating away at you. You need to focus on friendships that feel comforting and real, not exciting and empty. You need to stop telling elaborate stories and isolating yourself and trying to stay in control of reality all the time. You need to surrender a little, explore your vulnerability, and find friends who want to know the real you. Because once you have friends who care more about connecting than they do about being entertained, you won’t have to keep all of the little details of your story straight anymore. Once you have friends who are kind and respectful and don’t mind telling each other the truth (even when it’s embarrassing), you’ll finally be able to relax and be yourself instead of acting some imaginary “right” way just to please them.

You can’t make broken people feel differently, or love you more, just through sheer force of will. Stop accepting these supporting roles. Stop folding neatly into other people’s lives.

You deserve more than this.

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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