Hello, beleaguered lovers! Fear not, we have a Valentine’s Day edition of Heart in a Blender just for you. In this installment, we address letters from two women: one who fears that not having been in a long-term relationship by the age of 27 means something is terribly amiss, and one who desperately needs to dump her jealous boyfriend.
If there’s a common denominator here, it’s that both of these writers suffer from a dearth of belief in themselves. Even if I don’t relate to the specifics of their individual situations, grappling with issues of self-esteem is something I know all too well. Without further ado, let’s get into it.
Dear Eve 6 Guy,
I just turned 27, and I’ve never been in a committed relationship. I’ve had a few relationships that were rather casual and never lasted longer than six months. However, I have fallen in love, and I’ve had my heart broken.
When I was younger, I didn’t feel like I was ready for a big commitment, and I was okay waiting. But then the pandemic hit, and I spent my 24th and 25th years locked inside my house. My social life died and never fully recovered. I now find myself still single but much older and missing out on experiences that are probably important for my growth as a person.
What’s more important is I realized I actually do want to have a partner and eventually start a family, and I'm very scared I won't get to have that because it's too late.
My main concern is that I’m running behind and everyone else my age is much more experienced than I am. Will guys want to date someone like me? Won’t they find it weird? At this point it's turning into a vicious cycle in which I'm really scared of what guys will think about my history and that keeps me from trying to pursue anyone. I have considered lying or exaggerating the truth, but I guess if I make up an ex-boyfriend the truth will come out eventually and it will be a disaster.
I also don’t want to be perceived as weird by my friends and family, which I know is absurd because my relationship status shouldn’t define my worth. But it’s hard to keep those ideas at bay. Actually, I have two friends who are my same age and are in the same boat, and I have many more who have been single for a long time, so I know it’s not that unusual. But I’m most concerned about my family, specifically my father, because I’ve never taken any boyfriends home. I know he wants me to be a wife and a mother and live a normal life some day, and I feel guilty about not being able to fulfill his wish. I just don’t want him to worry about me.
I guess what I need help with is how to cope with the negative thoughts that tell me I will never be able to have a steady partner because there’s something wrong with me. A part of me knows that’s not true because basically everyone gets to do it at least once. But sometimes it’s hard to imagine how it will happen.
I wish I could stop worrying about these things because it only makes matters worse, but some days it's impossible and it takes me to some really dark places.
By the way, I know I should talk about these things in therapy, but I can’t afford it just yet. But I’m starting a new job next month, and if everything goes right I’m going to seek professional help. I know it will be a long process, but in the meantime, I wanted to get your input.
—Owner of a Lonely Heart
Hi Owner of a Lonely Heart,
This record producer who my band worked with had a way of using the line “OK, let’s take a deep breath” that was somehow neither empty of meaning nor condescending. It would actually pull us out of a neurotic moment and offer us some perspective. It was a singular talent, because I’ve never known anyone else to be able to tell me to take a deep breath without it feeling belittling and antagonistic. For that reason, I’m not going to tell you to take a deep breath.
I’m going to try to offer you some perspective instead, by pointing out the cognitive errors you are making in thinking that you are weird, defective, and unlovable. What it seems to me that you are doing is this: Appraising the neutral fact that you have not yet had a long-term relationship as non-neutral and, in fact, confirmation of a kind of personal deficit.
Now I realize I’m old as shit — I’m 44 — but if 27 isn’t young, I’ll eat a plane. (Sidenote: There’s a guy who actually ate a Cessna. His name was Michel Lotito, and you can read about him here. But I digress.) Twenty-seven is young. You are not weird or defective for not having been in a long-term relationship yet, and, as you said, the COVID quarantine years are highly extenuating circumstances. I would bet real-ass money that there are millions of people your age who never had a long-term relationship pre-COVID, had their dating lives put on hold, and are now in a similar situation to yours.
All human beings deal in some way, whether consciously or unconsciously, with a sense of Not Being Enough. Some people try to distract themselves from it. People with dispositions like my own and maybe yours — i.e., naturally depressive types — sometimes look for “evidence” to make specific this general feeling of lack. We find ways to confirm and support it because we’re sick fucks.
I’ve written in a previous column about my experience with “harm OCD.” It’s a form of OCD in which a person experiences extreme anxiety and attendant compulsions over the thought that they may have inadvertently hurt people. For whatever reason, I have, since adolescence, had to contend with a surplus of feelings of personal deficit. Why? I dunno. I had a good upbringing. My parents loved me. But this feeling of shame was always just sort of there. Alcohol did a great job of keeping this feeling at bay for a long time, but of course it eventually stopped working and started to make matters worse.
What my mind does when it’s unchecked is look for ways to confirm these negative biases about myself. It tries to offer proof that I am somehow maladaptive. I think there may even be some sort of comfort in reducing this general and abstract feeling of being bad, wrong, and Not Enough to a hyper-specific thought.
In my case, that might sound something like, I am bad, wrong, and Not Enough because I may have hit someone with my car and not known it or because I may have gotten some kid sick by not sufficiently washing my hands before touching a public door handle. In your case it might be I am beyond being loved, even by my own father, because I have not yet had a long-term relationship.
I realize the respective forms of our self-doubt differ here, but I think the impetus behind them may be similar. We are funneling a larger and more formless dread into a smaller, more specific, and, at times, more manageable dread container. I say “more manageable” because I can get moments of relief by convincing myself that the specific scenarios I described above are unlikely. It can be more daunting to challenge the problem of feeling generally, fundamentally deficient.
Own your experience of never having been in a long-term relationship at 27. You don’t have to make it your whole personality, and you don’t have to shy away from it.
This is where God or spirituality or whatever you want to call it comes in for me, to the chagrin of some of my readers. It's a conception of a higher power I vaguely define as a love not of this world. I imagine the grace with which this Source looks upon me and try to, however imperfectly, extend that grace to others. In this way I am able to have a gentler perspective about myself.
If you’re not into a higher power, you can think of the way your best friend sees you. Their love for you may not be completely without conditions, but they certainly have a love for you that doesn’t hinge on arbitrary requirements like “You must have been in a long-term relationship by 27.” They see you as fundamentally worthy of love. Follow their lead here.
The truth is, Owner of a Lonely Heart, this sense of innate deficiency we experience is a faulty construct. We don’t need to meet any particular criteria to make ourselves whole human beings. We already are, whether we realize it or not.
Own your experience of never having been in a long-term relationship at 27. You don’t have to make it your whole personality, and you don’t have to shy away from it. Be open and honest with the people in your life. It’s difficult for me to ascertain without more information if the way your father feels about your relationship status is real or imagined. If it is real and he’s actually upset with you, that is 100% his problem. If you open up to him about the way you’ve been feeling, though, you may be surprised to discover a sympathetic and understanding ear.
As for your peers and dating prospects, I think you’ll find that not having been in a long-term relationship isn’t something that separates you from them, but may in fact be a place of common ground. Oftentimes our secrets are extremely relatable, but we don’t realize it because we’re too scared of rejection to say them out loud.
Lastly, do the real work of looking at yourself with equanimity. You do this by observing your mind when it’s making its snap judgments. Meditation might be really helpful for you in this regard. Notice the claims the critic between your ears is making and then notice that you are noticing them. By noticing that you’re noticing these thought patterns, you will realize that you are not your thoughts but the entity that is observing them. You can stop identifying with them.
An OCD therapist of mine would put her hand over her face and say, “This is what it’s like when you’re fused with your thoughts. It’s hard to see anything else.” Then she’d move her hand about a foot in front of her face and say, “This is what it’s like when you practice mindfulness. The thoughts are still there but there’s space between you and them, and it’s a lot easier to see the world around you.”
Speaking of therapists, I want to congratulate you on your intention to see one. It’s a shame that our healthcare system puts this possibility out of reach for so many, but I’m glad you have a job on the horizon that will hopefully allow you to get the help you need.
I’ve written an awful lotta words here, but in closing I just want to say that you have absolutely nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. Go easy on yourself, kid! I know it’s obnoxious when ancient guys like myself say this kind of thing, but you literally have your whole life ahead of you. Practice loving yourself as you are first. The rest will fall into place as it should.
The Eve 6 Guy
Dear Eve 6 Guy,
I was with my previous partner for seven years, though the relationship was not always clearly defined as “boyfriend/girlfriend.”
About a year ago, we decided to part ways because we wanted different things (me: commitment, a family; him: not that). The breakup was a huge bummer, but we both agreed it was for the best, and that we could still be a part of each others’ lives, just not romantically.
Shortly thereafter, I started dating someone who was very much not OK with me being in touch with my ex whatsoever. He insisted that I break off all contact immediately and block my ex on social media. That didn’t sit right with me — my ex hadn’t done anything wrong. If anything, he’s always been really supportive and wanted me to be happy, even if that meant us not being together. I told my new boyfriend this, but he kept insisting and insisting.
Instead of advocating for my boundaries, I’m ashamed to say I caved. Worse yet, I lied to my boyfriend and maintained contact with my ex. Nothing sexy or inappropriate, just sending the occasional email to say hi or grabbing a coffee from time to time.
I know it was cowardly and wrong to do this, but I was so hopeful about the new relationship and didn’t want to jeopardize anything. Though I also didn’t want to be forced to cut someone out of my life if I didn’t want to. It also didn’t seem fair given that my boyfriend has maintained friendships with a number of exes and former hookups.
My boyfriend eventually found out that I was in touch with my ex, after taking my phone in the middle of the night and going through it. I was very much not OK with him looking through my phone like that, but I let it go because I was in the wrong for having lied to him.
Again, he insisted that I cut my ex out of my life — and again, I argued back only to eventually cave. A few weeks later, when my ex reached out to say hi, I responded and hid it. And again, my boyfriend found out by going through my personal things without my permission. This has repeated a few times.
My boyfriend feels that lying to him about being in contact with my ex is cheating — worse, he says, than if I’d actually gone and slept with my ex. I don’t necessarily agree. I mean, it’s definitely not great, but plenty of people are amiable with their exes. Nothing was going on between us. Plus, if my boyfriend was willing to let me make my own decisions about the situation, I’d be more comfortable talking openly to him about it.
At this point, my boyfriend routinely goes through my phone, my email, and even my journal, even though I tell him I’m really uncomfortable with it. He tracks my location on my phone. He shows up to my house unannounced, to make sure I’m there. He says there needs to be accountability, and that I should want to prove to him that I’m not doing anything wrong.
He also keeps insisting that in order for him to trust me again, I need to move in with him ASAP. He’s not a bad guy; he just says the whole situation is eating him up, and he doesn't know what else to do about it.
I know I’m in the wrong, and I do want to build trust, and I get where he’s coming from, I guess. I’m certainly willing to make some concessions, but this all makes me really uncomfortable. Independence is important to me; I don’t think your partner necessarily needs to be involved in your life at every level. I don’t want to lose agency in my life.
Am I being uncooperative? Am I trying to have my cake and eat it too? Am I making excuses for myself or for him?
—A Liar But Not a Cheat
Hi A Liar But Not a Cheat,
You have what I’d call a case of Stockholm Syndrome lite. And in this scenario, your boyfriend is the captor. Put more simply, he’s an insecure, hyper-demanding asshole. When people make wholly unreasonable demands of us, lying to them is sometimes necessary.
What you need to look at is why you think a relationship with someone so starkly hypocritical and controlling has potential. You are a smart person. Your letter is well-written. I can tell that part of you is aware that his behavior is unacceptable, but you fall just short of getting it. This sounds like a self-esteem issue.
I may not be able to relate to the specifics of your circumstances, but I did spend years of my life, about a decade in fact, under the control of someone who had no business having it. The only way I can put it is that I was spiritually lassoed by this particular personality, a creative collaborator of mine. I jettisoned my own instincts and better judgment in an effort to please him. If I got a thumbs-up from him for a job well done, it boosted my sense of self-worth. It was a cycle I was trapped in.
It took others seeing it and pointing it out to me for the scales to fall from my eyes and for me to ask myself, WTF am I doing here? It’s painful to look at the time and effort we dedicate to bad decisions. It can be more comfortable to try to rationalize and convince ourselves that they are good choices. When I woke up to the fact that I had been deluding myself — that I had, of my own volition, become a sort of willful hostage — I had to do a thing I hate doing, which is take responsibility for it.
It wasn’t my collaborator’s fault that he had this power over me. I had given it to him. I decided to stop doing that. I started to assert myself. I began to listen to my instincts and not give in to pressure. He did not like this and ended up deciding to go his own way, which turned out to be for the best for everyone involved.
A good measure for when a relationship is cooked is when one partner starts surreptitiously going through the other’s stuff.
Advocating for yourself, like advocating for others, is an esteemable act. Doing esteemable acts builds your self-esteem. You don’t need to feel worthy or deserving to begin to make decisions that align with your values. The feeling of worth will follow the action.
What should you do? It’s time to break up with this dude. Not only are his demands silly and immature, but he also doesn’t hold himself to the same standards he’s holding you to. If he did there might be some room for a conversation. But because he feels justified in his “Do as I say, not as I do” posture, he earns himself zero credibility.
Also, a good measure of when a relationship is cooked is when one partner starts surreptitiously going through the other’s stuff. If a relationship has reached this stage, it’s safe to say you can pocket the money you might spend on couples counseling and take yourself shopping instead. It’s game over.
Throughout your letter, there are signs of a right-on gut instinct that you seem hellbent on second-guessing. Stop doing that. Trust your gut. Hold your personal freedom and your values sacred, because they are. You need to advocate for yourself and your principles. Revoke this jerk’s license to dictate the terms of your life. Leave his ass.
One more thing: If you decide to break up with him in person, do so in a public place. I don’t know how volatile he is, but he definitely exhibits some troubling tendencies. Just make sure you take precautions for your safety. Let friends, family, and your therapist (if you have one) know that you're going to do this beforehand and come up with a plan. For instance, if he has keys to your house, stay with a friend or family member until you can get your locks changed.
Also, block him on social media so he doesn’t continue to lurk, and block his number while you’re at it. Be decisive. Don’t look back.
The Eve 6 Guy
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