'My Ex is So Loving to Her New Man. I Feel Duped!'
Your anxious overachiever’s fable about your inherent inadequacy has nothing to do with real life or real intimacy.
The Mirror (1951) by Helen Lundeberg
My ex and I had a troubled but loving year-long relationship. We broke up, mercilessly, after two years. To sum it up, she began distancing when my life got hard (my dad got sick and I lost my job), and I felt abandoned and chased her affection and support until I had abandoned myself in the process. I carry a lot of shame about how badly I needed someone there in a time of great stress, and feel worse that I so determinedly sought that support from someone who shuddered at the thought of providing it.
Don't get me wrong though, Polly. My ex was (and remains) an affectionate, caring person. But she was also distant, and often did not feel comfortable feeling affectionate when she felt responsible for being affectionate. While she is a good person, she had a hyper-independent mindset due to a prior bad relationship, which caused her to spend lots of alone time within our relationship (think separate afternoons on vacation, for example), maintain separate finances, and more troublingly, struggle to accept responsibility, apologize, and communicate through conflict. But let’s not sleep on my role in this. My anxiety surely propelled her to behave this way, in the same way that her distancing intensified my anxiety.
Despite that and our subsequent split, we have stayed in touch. In fact, I recently met her and her new husband at a mutual friend’s wedding. Suffice it to say, she’s very different. She is now very outwardly affectionate with her new husband, which she had never been with me. In fact, she hadn’t ever invited me to join her when she would meet her exes during our relationship. During dinner, she referred to her and her partner as “we," and she appears to be a team player now. Out of curiosity, I asked her whether they were monogamous, as she had said she never wanted long-term monogamy when we were together, and she said that they were.
I am happy for her, truly. But I also feel... duped, as though she became the right partner for someone else, but not for me. That’s not a healthy mindset, but I haven’t found a way to shake it. I want to be the bigger person, but I also acknowledge that I feel small and petulant right now, and less than and unworthy of her new, transformed self. This may all be a mirage of course, which my friends say. This may be all irrelevant, which my parents say. But it feels real and relevant to me, at least for now. How do I work myself out of this maze?
Wondering ‘What If?’
Even the most secure humans take different shapes in different relationships. Someone can be a great partner in one relationship and a terrible partner in another relationship. This is why, when someone writes to me to say, “I’m afraid I’ll keep chasing unavailable men!” or “I’m afraid I’ll keep backing away from love!”, I have to remind them that they don’t know how they’ll be with any particular person. You think you’re completely broken and then someone amazing walks up and you feel like a superhero. You don’t always know why, or what’s working at first. It just works.
You write, “I carry a lot of shame about how badly I needed someone there in a time of great stress, and feel worse that I so determinedly sought that support from someone who shuddered at the thought of providing it.” It’s normal to look for support from your partner when you’re under a lot of stress. I’d be much more worried about you if you bottled up your emotions and refused to lean on her at all. You were tenacious in your pursuit of her support, and it thrashed your entire relationship, which is exactly what needed to happen in this case. (When I think of all the not-quite-right guys I tried to marry, and then I destroyed everything instead, I feel so grateful for my terrible personality!)
Your ex is not a person who was EVER going to tolerate your sensitivities, emotions, and deepest desires. If you hadn’t experienced that crisis, or you had acted aloof and independent in spite of the fact that you were hurting inside, you might’ve ended up even more deeply bonded to someone who is intolerant of your core personality and your core emotional needs.
It's one thing to say to yourself, “Maybe sometimes I expect too much” or “Maybe I’m too unforgiving when someone else doesn’t have the ability to meet me where I am.” Most people who are a little anxious or needy in relationships could stand to ask themselves these questions occasionally. But it’s another thing entirely to say, “Seeking support was a mistake” or “My emotions/ needs are embarrassing and shameful.”
You’re figuring out how to get your needs met. That takes time. Treating the expression of your needs as the key problem in this picture isn’t wise. You will always have strong emotional needs, and you’ll always have to find ways to meet them. Pretending otherwise will lead you farther away from yourself. Don’t fool yourself into believing that secure, intimate relationships are achieved through acting like you’re stronger and more independent than you really are.
When you write “I feel duped,” that reflects this confusion. Your ex wasn’t pretending and she wasn’t being selfish, necessarily. You two just weren’t a match. She struggled to show you support. Her hyper-independence didn’t feel good to you. Her new husband might be more avoidant, more independent, more distant, or just very secure and enthusiastic about a woman who has her own agenda. He might not be a very emotional or intense person, and that makes her feel more safe. It’s impossible to say from the outside looking in, but the bottom line is that HE IS NOT BETTER THAN YOU IN SOME OBJECTIVE WAY. The two of them simply have some combination of strengths and flaws that feels easy and works for them.
Forget them and let’s focus on you. One of the intense challenges of being a very emotional person is that many of us have trouble getting our needs met while also meeting our partner’s needs. We can become needy easily yet we’re often repelled by needy people, because they remind us of ourselves and kick up our self-hatred. We have an ability to connect on a deep level, but we also have a lot of allergies to the ways other people try to connect.
For this reason, addressing our shame and learning to love ourselves for who we are is a key prerequisite to becoming people who can love others for who they are, flaws and all. We have to work very hard OVER THE COURSE OF OUR ENTIRE LIVES in order to accept ourselves and embrace ourselves enough, and quiet our self-hatred enough, that we don’t turn that shame against the exact sorts of vulnerable, loving, supportive, intense humans that we can relate to the most. This is true in friendships and true in love, too. If what you want is deep intimate connections in your life, you must figure out how to enjoy and stand up for exactly who you are, flaws and all.
The answer isn’t to pretend like you’re a completely different person, or hope that you can trick someone else into meeting your needs. The answer is to continue being yourself and notice when people draw closer and when they back away. Don’t take these behaviors as indicators of how good and attractive or bad and embarrassing you are. Treat them as indicators of whether or not the relationship NATURALLY WORKS.
I’ve been needy with some people, distant with some, and secure with others. When I met my husband, I fell madly in love with him but I never worried that he didn’t love me enough. Within my relationship with him, I’ve always felt secure and independent. If he were too needy in certain ways, I would’ve grown antsy. If he were too distant, I would’ve become needy. He’s a secure person with his own particular flaws and strengths, but most of them don’t happen to bring out the absolute worst in me. We have our challenges, but we naturally trust each other, and more honesty always brings us closer instead of pushing us away from each other. That was something we had together from the first day we met.
Keep your heart open and forgive your ex for not being the right match for you. You weren’t duped. She was honest with you about her needs, and you were honest about yours. That relationship was a successful experiment in that way: You both emerged with a better understanding of what you wanted and desired moving forward. Instead of using that information to beat yourself up for who you are, take it to heart. You care about deep connection. You want a partner who doesn’t shudder at the thought of supporting you when you’re under extreme stress. You want an independent, capable woman in your life who, nevertheless, loves to spend most afternoons on vacation in your company.
It's okay to want things that some people can’t give you. It’s okay to state your needs out loud. Instead of turning your shame outward and blaming her for tricking you, show yourself more compassion. Take more pride in who you are. There are plenty of people out there who are thrilled to discover a partner who’s capable of sensitivity and vulnerability, who can express his needs clearly, who draws closer when things get tough.
Some of these people will pale in comparison to your ex. But you need to stop living inside the fantasy of her as some alluring trickster who’s better than you and start to see her for what she really is: a person who couldn’t show up for you at all. Reshape her inside your imagination to reflect this stark reality. Don’t let her become some idealized symbol of perfect love that slipped out of your grasp because you fucked something up. That’s an anxious overachiever’s fable that has nothing to do with real life or real intimacy.
It's interesting that you’re ashamed of being so insistent that she show up for you, because in a marriage, that’s actually adaptive behavior. My marriage never would’ve survived if I hadn’t made my emotional needs crystal clear, particularly when my kids were babies and I felt more vulnerable than I’d ever felt in my life. I wrote about this at length in my book Foreverland, because it was a turning point for us. I recognized that I wasn’t going to be happy if I stayed with someone who waved off my emotions as irrational. I had spent my childhood that way, and I wasn’t living that way again under any circumstances.
I believe that at some deep level, you recognize the same thing about yourself. You know that if you remain tied to someone who can’t show up for you emotionally, you’re going to feel terrible. That doesn’t mean everyone in your life has to drop everything at any time just to support you. It just means that there are those times when you say, very clearly, “I need this,” and your partner hears it and says, “Here’s how I’m capable of helping.”
Sometimes when you’re at your absolute worst, that’s the core of who you are, breaking out of prison to announce what you will and won’t tolerate in your life. It’s natural to feel shame over how INSISTENT AND TENACIOUS your core self can be under duress. But that’s the part of you that wants real love, that wants a true, deep connection, that wants to truly thrive and feel joy. That part of you has high expectations. That part of you is EXUBERANT. And that part of you knew that you couldn’t find joy with your ex.
Thank your core self for trashing that relationship. Thank your core self for standing up for what you need to thrive and feel fully alive. Take pride in that part of you.
Now it’s time to let your core self out of prison and bring it into the sunshine, where everyone can see it. The sunlight will make it blink at first, and other people will think that it’s crying its eyes out. Let them think that. Joy transforms us into who we’re supposed to be. Joy invites love into our lives. You can’t feel joy when you’re pretending, or blaming other people for kicking up your insecurity and shame. Learn to be who you are out in the open instead. Forgive yourself for being who you are. Love yourself for being who you are. Nothing is more courageous.
Thanks for reading Ask Polly! Let’s spread more joy today by offering yearly subscriptions at 20% off today and tomorrow. I don’t do this very often, so get ‘em while they’re hot!