One of the hardest things to learn about love is the fact that your narrative about a relationship is probably not "The Narrative." The official story of any two people requires two points of view, and your version is only one: The story in your head of what happened when you met someone else and fell in love/lust/like.
Of course, relationships often don't work out, and once the bloom is off the rose, the narrative diverges with the quickness. One person is seemingly out of love or was never in it. And yet, the other person is still hanging around, years later, sifting through all the evidence of the love story like some kind of detective on a cold case, trying to figure out where the wrong turn came and how to move on. This quest for the truth of a love story gone wrong is exemplified in so many pop songs, and it is the stuff of so many advice columns.
In a recent such column at The Guardian, a reader who has remained single since a split years ago writes in to ask if she needs therapy to get over her ex. The letter is too long to paste even—that is how we all know intuitively that she could probably use some therapy—but the highlights are as follows:
- They met seven years ago
- He broke up with her a few weeks into it
- A month later, he asked her to get back together
- Two weeks later he said he'd made a mistake; dumped her again
- Three months later, he said he was into her again
He then spent months where I would barely get a text from him, to "normal" days, with walks, a nice time together, flowers, smiles – with I love yous thrown in, too.
- Then he left to go abroad for two months saying he was unsure about them
- He got back and was kinda nice sometimes
- He bought roses
- Said they should think about the future
- Dumped her a week later
Reader, there are FOUR MORE paragraphs about his back and forth with her, and general reiterating via actions and words that he doesn't want her to have "false hope" that they will ever get back together, but still staying in touch and shit.
Then, the kicker:
I have since found out he got married last year. I have seen the girl in photos and thought how like me she looked. So when I saw her as the bride, it shocked me because perhaps for us it was the wrong timing.
I was wondering if therapy would help. I do tend to brood and obsess over things.
One: Was it simply bad timing? Yes, the bad timing that happens when you will never be the person someone actually wants to be with, because you were just an easy proxy for an insta-girlfriend. That is certainly a kind of bad timing.
The advice giver at The Guardian, Annalisa Barbieri, hits on some other good truths:
But you need to realise you played your part in all this because it's only by accepting responsibility for our own actions that we can change things. You were upset when he presumed you still had feelings for him because you did. You do. You need to acknowledge this, because before you can undo "the knot" you need to see it. I think it's less him you miss than the idea of what you hoped he represented. That is understandable. I think therapy would help enormously: I would try talking therapy first.
Interestingly enough, this whole dilemma is similar in spirit to a hot prob over at Ask Polly, where the reader called "Square Pegs, Round Holes" wonders if she is just a booty call to a guy who lives a block away from her, never hangs out with her anywhere but at her place, and has openly rejoiced on the stumbling-distance convenience of her location. In that relationship, there is a similar one-sided narrative where the woman is pretending to not care that much when she really does care, and then wondering why she doesn't get more out of the situation.
Polly advises, brilliantly as ever, that instead of pretending not to care and not asking for what she wants, that in order to save herself all the agony of this back and forth, she should try something different:
Instead, tell people exactly what you want. Here's my revision to text #1: "Last night was fun. Let's go have dinner on Wednesday. Are you free?" Message received. Outcome in this case? No different. But—bonus!—you don't have to feel like a sea slug on the bottom of the ocean floor over it, because you didn't sound needy or liary or crazy, and you didn't leave the tiniest door open for someone to slide their piece-of-shit Square Peg back into your Round Hole again.
In both scenarios the women were afraid to be too direct about their needs, and in both cases, they found themselves caught up very use-y scenarios for far too long.
Here is the problem when it comes to love: Gender bullshit (and all soap operas) set us up for a world where we can never say what we really think or think we have to play it cool all the time, which causes us great stress that backs up on us, and then suddenly we are demanding to know the particulars like a needy crazy person.
I think being quietly available for men all the time is a common problem women experience, in the same way that never being available for women is a common problem men experience. We all walk through the world playing a version of who we think we are supposed to be because that's what we're taught is desirable. We are also all going around a little bit crazy because of it. Trying to say what we want and alternately back pedaling when we think it makes us look too needy.
Both of these women need some therapy because the answer to whether therapy would help is yes. It is always yes. If you want to find out if you need therapy you need only ask yourself the following question:
Are you alive?
There is not a person alive who could not use some therapy. Everyone on earth has had some shit, relatively speaking, that they could stand to chat about with an impartial person. I grew up thinking that therapy was for people who could not really deal with their own problems. Now I realize that everyone is walking around patched together from the bullshit of existing just like that bathroom scene in Predator 2. Therapy is especially good if you're the brooding and obsessing type, because it will help you brood and obsess with direction and purpose.
No I don't think it really cures anything, but it gives you a language with which to understand your own bullshit, and a strength with which to accept that whatever your problems are yours to carry and that's OK and you'll get through it. One of the best things therapy helped me understand was that everyone has a story of pain they are hauling around. Everyone is dealing with some kind of shit. It's not just me, and I don't have a unique special kind of pain. I only have my story. That doesn't make it any less worth talking about or any less valid. It just helps you understand that nobody is doing this right, really, and in that sense we are all doing it right.
Of course, therapy is pricey unless you have a good insurance and the free hour every week and the copay and all that. A poor man's therapy, which I practiced for a great part of my life until I had real insurance and the courage to face my issues is to read extensively online about other people's problems. Advice columns are a great start, because they allow you to read with great distance, detachment and healthy judgment about other people's mistakes and issues and ponder how they were parsed out and measure the advice against your own situation.
Yes you will still rationalize your way through more bad choices, but over time you will begin to understand what therapy is meant to help you figure out: That you are carrying a certain kind of baggage that backs up on you in a specific way again and again. You will start to chart the pattern. You will start to accept that it's really about you and not the other person. You will begin then to stop expecting others to sort this out with you or for you. And eventually you will come to see the whole of your issues just as simply as Polly's distillation about the booty call:
So that happened. It sometimes does. But now let's try this a different way.
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Illustration by Tara Jacoby.