I am a proudly independent woman. I value and crave my solitude, I have hobbies and an active social life, and clingy guys turn me off! But I can’t seem to stay single for one reason: there are some things I just don’t want to do alone. I have to admit it: more than once, I have found myself settling for a really bad boyfriend if it means I have a built-in date for trying new restaurants, going to amusement parks, weddings and similar functions, cuddling in bed on Sunday mornings, making out in the park, and, yeah, well, having sex. (You know, non-BFF activities!) The side effect is that I end up staying with guys who make me feel crazy and sad.
The world tells me that I'm a square peg if I don't have a date. EVERYONE I KNOW is married or engaged. And yeah, sometimes it does come from inside my own head. Like when I lie in bed and imagine arms wrapped around me, and just cry cause they're not there. Aaah, even typing it makes me cry! But I'm not co-dependent or even lonely, so what's the dealio? Is what I wonder.
Dealio the first: I know this wishing-for-arms feeling of which you speak, but I do not think it means what you think it means. Of course, girls are taught that our deepest longings must obviously be all about love (see: every pre-Pixar fairy tale ever told). But answer me this — have you ever actually had your bad boyfriend’s arms around you and felt the same feeling, or something close to it?
I bet you have. I know I have. Arms present and accounted for, but same sad shivery feeling. Even now, when I’m mere weeks away from marrying a truly lovely man, I still sometimes find myself crying soundlessly in a dark room for no apparent reason. All of which shows that That Feeling is not about love or romance or anything other than the simplest reality of being alive — the fact that on a very fundamental level, we are always alone.
WOW I am really cheering you up here, aren’t I? Sorry! But I want you to understand this: that feeling just happens sometimes. Frequently on a monthly basis. And though there can be great comfort in being close to someone, closeness doesn’t make it go all the way away. So please don’t stay with a bad boyfriend trying to avoid it — it doesn’t work.
Dealio the second: How bad is that boyfriend, exactly? There are some distinctions to be made here — prone to playing too many video games and messier than you’d like is one thing; addicted to heroin and physically threatening is another. If your bad boyfriend is at the harsher end of that scale, please get in touch with someone in your city and get some in-person help. Please please please, right away!
If he is just garden variety not right, though — if you find yourself checked out or fighting or “trying to make things work” more than 10-20% of the time — then come along and let’s have ourselves a think about why ladies stay with bad boyfriends.
Why do they? Why do we? It’s a matter of perspective. From the outside, it is so easy to see when someone is better than what she’s settling for, and it makes us cringe so hard! Just dump him! ARGH! It is so simple!
But when you find yourself playing the role of the lady staying with the bad boyfriend — we all take at least one turn, it seems — you realize that it isn’t simple at all, because your thoughts and feelings make it all crazy and complex. Specifically, the thoughts and feelings of your lizard brain.
The lizard is your friend, but a little scary, too. She lurks deep within, operating on millennia of aggregated evolutionary knowledge, so she remembers a lot. Like how for thousands of generations, women required strong relationships with strong men in order to simply survive. How, without someone to protect them, our foremothers were vulnerable in every way. How dearly so many of them suffered for it.
So when a liberated modern gal such as yourself contemplates leaving a romantic relationship, even a middling-to-shitty one, the lizard feels she is honor-bound to make you stop, to get right up in your face and scream stuff like you’ll never do better and you’re not getting any younger and you’re lucky to have anyone at all and any man is better than no manand THESE ARE FACTS DAMMIT!
Now, given what she’s seen, her reaction is completely understandable. But it screws up your life, too! Because she ensures that even here in the future that is now, and even when you know you’d be far better off on your own, it still feels like the act of breaking up might actually kill you.
Does this sound melodramatic? Sure. But it’s also pretty accurate I think. What else could drive so many amazing women to put up with such unending amounts of bullshit from their men, from silliness all the way up to abuse? From the outside, it looks like just plain old being a doormat, but from the inside, it really can feel like life and death.
The ancient and powerful wisdom of the lizard is a lot like body craziness — it slithers up from the the dankest sub-basement of consciousnes and demands our attention whether we like it or not. And if we want to be able to operate rationally in this realm, to have enough faith to let go of bad stuff so we can find better stuff, we have to learn how to handle it.
Thankfully, this can be done! How? You just never let the lizard be in charge. She is trying to protect you in her loving creepy way, so hear her out and be sweet to her and maybe give her some nice bugs to eat. But don’t forget that she is willing to make tradeoffs that you are not. Really awful tradeoffs. For her, any man really is better than no man, and that is bananas!! So listen to the lizard but decide what to do with the rest of your brain. Never ever let her
get wet or eat after midnight or take control.
I am talking a lot about how this part of your brain works, because when you break up with this dude — and you know you have to, right? — I want you to be prepared. The lizard may rise up inside you, and you may panic. You may think you are losing your mind and not be able to breathe, and it might feel like you will die if you don’t call him RIGHT NOW so you can gloss over all the excellent reasons why you dumped him and get back together immediately, anything if the panic will just end.
But you must not do this! It’s a trap! The only way out is through! So DO NOT CALL HIM UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. Call your friends instead, distract yourself with movies and cooking and long walks and whatever else you can do to take up time, and remind yourself that the panic will subside. Because it really, really will. I promise.
It will suck for a while, but then, sooner than you think, you’ll catch yourself singing in the shower and realize that you feel tentatively better. Then you’ll go dancing and sweat out gallons of history and feel MUCH better. And then you’ll find yourself sailing down the street on a sunny afternoon, laughing at how wonderful you feel, your heart floating up inside you like you just drank a fizzy lifting drink.
Do you remember this feeling? It is called freedom, and it is exquisite, and I want it so badly for you. But the only way to get it is to earn it. So be brave and let the bad boyfriend go! Venture forth with the lizard as messenger rather than master! Stop settling for what you have when in your heart you know it blows!
Most of all, give yourself the chance to think your own thoughts and do your own thing without someone else’s thoughts and thing getting in the way — I swear it is even nicer than you remember.
Previously: Be Less Crazy About ... Weight.