Need help thinking through extreme jealousy in problematic relationship?
April 22, 2021 4:59 AM   Subscribe

I (32F) started a relationship with a guy (34M) just under 2 years ago. At the beginning he expressed concerns about my lack of motivation in my career and general low functioning which is a result of depression/anxiety. We agreed to keep it casual but due to Covid lockdown and me spending most of my time at his place during this time, it's extended to two years and started looking more serious. However, there are problems that are causing me a lot of stress and anxiety, not least his lack of commitment and his ongoing concerns about my flaws/weaknesses. I am now in a position where I am only just beginning to consider ending the relationship but I feel so unsure and alone. I find myself obsessing over his relationship with his ex and engaging in unsavoury behaviours that feel like self harm - I will explain below.

Because I am so infatuated with him - I have been motivated to get better in the time I've been with him. I look after myself more, I go running and I've started a professional accounting qualification. He is my second relationship - my first was at 26 and was long distance. Looking back, that one wasn't even a proper relationship - we weren't involved in each others lives, it was like being teenagers, just drifting along and not really investing in each other. This current guy encourages me to be a better person but it is all very conditional and I never feel good enough for him.

So this feels like my first proper relationship, my first love/infatuation and it is truly overwhelming and I feel powerless before it. I come from quite an emotionally abusive background, my father was very unpredictable and violent as well as controlling, emotionally and financially abusive. I emerged in to adulthood with debilitating social anxiety and a depression that has never left me. I think this is playing into the dynamics in this relationship.

We have had good times and good laughs together and he's been proud of how much I've developed in the time I've been with him so I want to preface this part by stating that he has brought a lot of good things to my life and tried to help me overcome some of my problems. He can be really sweet and supportive of me. He is intelligent and rational, a complete contrast to my basket case family. All the men in my family, including my older brothers are mentally unwell and non functioning. I feel like I can't live without him at this stage, however critical he is of me.

During the first few months, he mentioned his ex of a decade ago casually a couple of times like mentioning she got the one of the highest scores in the country for Maths in the final year of high school and that she was a concert pianist and barely had to study to get highest marks in the year. He mentioned that she was super organised as a person as well. This only started to really bother me, when problems emerged in our relationship and he expressed concerns that I was low functioning, not focused, inefficient and generally unreliable and unmotivated (all true). Then I started feeling like I was being indirectly compared and it felt horrible.

One morning (we were still casual at this time) she came up again and I said that I feel inferior when he mentions her. Instead of soothing me, he just reeled off a list of everything that was amazing about her. He said she was, and I quote "extremely high functioning, she could read and write really fast, she was organised and focused, she only had to do a fifth of the amount of studying and would come top of the year, she could write a journal in a day and she was a concert pianist and competitive dancer". He said "she was really talented but not ambitious", then he sighed and said "she wanted to settle down with me but I wasn't ready and I guess we want pain".

I felt sick to my stomach just to hear all of this, especially in light of how often he told me I was inefficient and unfocused. It hurt all the more because he wasn't deliberately saying these things to hurt me, his eyes went unfocused and dreamy and he was genuinely harking back to his authentic memories of her. I pathetically asked "maybe you are seeing her through rose tinted glasses" and he responded adamantly "no, every every word I said is true". He then said to me "it makes me feel bad too, I guess we are both failures".

I felt truly awful to hear these things and after sitting on it for a week or so, I angrily told him that it really hurt to hear these things and it made me feel bad and inferior. He seemed confused and said that he also feels inferior to her and that "some people are just better and you have to accept it" and "it feels like you want me to lie to you about her". He genuinely didn't seem to understand why I was so upset and said "why is she a threat to you? She's married now and isn't in my life".

Another reason I feel so awful is that when I was in high school, before my breakdown I was considered extremely smart and that's what I built my identity on. Everyone told me I was smart and would go far - teachers liked me a lot. I also wanted to be a doctor and I wanted to learn the piano, but I grew up in a religious household - my Dad snapped my sisters CD in two, took the TV away and banned music. I wanted everything his ex had....including his love and respect. But life has gone badly awry for me. So looking at her life, I feel like I could have had the things she had but have failed miserably.

Now, I know I am extremely insecure. Even before this relationship, in my previous one I became absolutely obsessed with his ex. He never ever mentioned her or compared me to her, but I still would stalk her on social media and compare myself to her relentlessly, it was all consuming.

In this relationship it is like that multiplied by a 100, because he has literally told me he thinks she is a better more successful person than me. After we watched a documentary about RBG, he said "I knew people at uni like that - powerhouses" and said again " I guess we are both failures". I absolutely knew he was talking about his ex, though out of sensitivity to me, he didn't mention her name this time. He also meant it extremely genuinely in that he wasn't saying it to hurt me, he looked sad and said he felt inferior- again this kills me because he is wholeheartedly saying both me and him are inferior to her. He has also said to me "my ex was the most efficient person I've ever known, you can eat glue" - in a "jokey" way. I think he used to get enjoyment out of upsetting me by mentioning her, but has finally stopped talking about her at all out of respect for my feelings for the past 8 months or so.

However, in that time I have been relentlessly stalking her on social media and have even looked at his old emails to her when he has left his computer on (this is terrible I know). I am consumed daily by thoughts of her, thoughts of them together and how much he loved her and respected her. Everything he said about her was true - I saw on LinkedIn that she came top 25% in the year for every year at med school and was doing lots of extra curriculars and has published lots of journals and is now working at Google in digital healthcare. She truly has succeeded in life and I feel abject in comparison.

The level to which I think about her is obsessive and is impeding on my daily life. I am actually scared about what is happening to me mentally, like I am losing my mind. I even feel like I want to meet this woman to see what she is like, I cannot get her out of my mind. I am typing all this now when I should be working. I dream about her most nights, in those dreams she is bright, happy and successful and I feel despair at how inferior I am compared to her - how much I have failed, how much I don't deserve love and praise. I have saved loving photos and emails between them and every week or so look at them and make myself feel terribly unhappy - it feels a bit like self harm. I force myself to see the love and good time they had together as blossoming young adults. The way he talks about her and goes glossy eyed when he thinks about her, I think she was a hugely formative influence on him and was the one who got away, the one he truly loves. I can't compare, I know that.

Another I am hugely jealous of, that he was having regular sex with his ex at 19 at university. I lost the years 18-25 in my own life to mental health problems, I had zero friends and no relationships - it was the most painful, lonely and difficult time in my life. When I compare that to what they had, the words despair and hopelessness doesn't even cover it. Again, something that is on my mind every single day.

I go to group therapy and have briefly mentioned it to them but they haven't said much - beyond saying it reflects a lot on how I feel about myself as a person. I feel like if I told them the extent of what is happening they would judge me, I am too scared to open up in that space.

Now I know all of you might say to me "leave this guy! He's damaging your self esteem". My sisters hate him, my friends hate him and have already said this. But I feel dependent on him for rationality in my life. I am scared I will be lost to the abyss again where I was before I met him. In addition I feel like if I could only just be good enough he might love me like he once loved her. So I still feel like I am "in the game" by virtue of the fact he hasn't dumped me yet.

I also know that these deep rooted feelings of low self esteem and insecurity are not gonna disappear just because I dump him. They will resurface in my next relationship until I deal with them. I also simply cannot imagine being so attracted to someone as I am to him. I am insanely sexually attracted to him- I didn't even think feeling this way was possible about someone. I know this is bad but it's a major part of why I have been unable to leave him - the sex is too good with him. Sexuality is something I was taught to repress and I had convinced myself I was asexual until I turned 26.

I am however, edging close to ending things with him because I am feeling so relentlessly bad. He is not aware that I am so obsessed with his ex as both of us don't mention her, if he was he would dump me straight away. But the seed was planted and has grown into something monstrous in my mind. He has no idea about all of this or just how bad I've been feeling.

I feel like the only way I can stop thinking about her is ending things with him.

There is so much more to say in all of this but I think I have covered the salient points. I just feel so so alone and am not sure what is happening to me or what to do next. I would really appreciate your thoughts and feedback, please try to be kind. I am aware that I have major major issues and beat myself up about it on the daily. If you've made it through this far - thank you for reading.
posted by Sunflower88 to Human Relations (78 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Don’t stay with people who make you feel bad about yourself. You’re competing against his idealised version of who this woman is. I feel bad for her too, he has her up on this pedestal and I’m sure you think it’s where you want to be but it’s not. You want an equal who loves and accepts you for who you are.

I know you think this guy bought out good qualities in you but they were there already and they’ll exist when he’s gone. It’s the other stuff he’s bringing out in you that’s more concerning.

I would listen to your friends and family who have met him and know the two of you. If they’re all saying the same thing, which is to run, I would be paying attention.
posted by Jubey at 5:29 AM on April 22, 2021 [30 favorites]

All those things you’ve achieved in the past couple of years? YOU HAVE DONE THOSE YOURSELF. And you’ve done them despite being in a relationship with someone who, frankly, sounds awful: negging, lacking in emotional maturity or empathy, and not in a state to be in a mature relationship. He sounds cruel, and your personal growth will be made so much easier when you are no longer with him.

That’s one of the pernicious things about being in this kind of relationship - it makes you believe that you are stuck and trapped, and that no one else will love you. But when you get out from under it, you’ll see that it was the cause of much of your feelings of pain.

Also, usual suggestions of therapy and dealing with intrusive thoughts, which I’m sure others will cover better than me.

Sending you all the very best
posted by JJZByBffqU at 5:34 AM on April 22, 2021 [34 favorites]

Yes, you're in a relationship, not a work appraisal! However you're 'functioning' in terms of career or music or maths is not something that should be so important to a caring partner. I would also advise you to listen to your friends who are not keen and trust them.

I'm in no position to give advice on self esteem and so on, but please be kind to yourself. Your question is clear and articulate, and you obviously realise that nothing good will come of comparing yourself to this other person. I'm sure you'll get lots of good suggestions here.
posted by sedimentary_deer at 5:37 AM on April 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

extremely high functioning, she could read and write really fast , she was organised and focused...

I laughed out loud at this part. Just his idea that being with someone who is able to write fast (?!) is a sign of an amazing person and fantastic relationship.

Relationships don’t need to last forever to be valuable. It sounds like you feel like you’ve grown by being with this guy. It might help you to acknowledge that, feel some gratitude for it and for him, and move on with your life as a happier more secure person.

This relationship has run its course.
posted by scantee at 5:42 AM on April 22, 2021 [32 favorites]

I don't think this is a jealousy issue. I think you have a jerk boyfriend issue.
posted by carrioncomfort at 5:42 AM on April 22, 2021 [24 favorites]

Please read about avoidant attachment and how it can manifest as comparing one's current partner to an idealized ex.

It is likely that after you break up with him, he will use you as an idealized ex to make his next girlfriend jealous. "Sunflower88 was so self-aware and always trying to improve herself. She came from a difficult background but she pulled herself up and was incredibly strong. She faced challenges head-on and could overcome anything. Both of us are weak compared to Sunflower88."

I have known friends who dated guys like this. The guy makes his college girlfriend feel insecure by talking about how his high school girlfriend was a star athlete and in such good shape. Then he makes his post-college gf feel insecure because his college gf got high grades and a good job. He makes gf #4 feel insecure because gf #3 was so sweet and kind and popular. It never ends!
posted by sandwich at 5:50 AM on April 22, 2021 [40 favorites]

What JJZByBffqU said. You've done some good work on improving yourself and that has been all you, not him. If you break up you'll still have those good things under your belt and you'll be able to improve on them.

The level to which I think about her is obsessive and is impeding on my daily life.

I'm glad you've already identified this. I would strongly suggest you find a personal therapist to talk to about the way you're using your idealised (not real!) version of this woman to psychologically harm yourself.

I expect you're going to get a flood of DTMFA and I'll add to it by saying that I have been in this exact situation in some respects (casual relationship accidentally turned serious by circumstances that forced us to live together, non-committal boyfriend who wasn't so much cruel as just thoughtless). I remember crying in the bathroom because I loved him so much and the most he could come up with was a shrug. I felt pathetic and stupid but couldn't stand to leave him. In the end he dumped me, partly (I think) because he couldn't deal with this inequality in our relationship any longer. We're friends now but at the time it was devastating and awful and the absolute 100% right thing to do.

I'll give you some pieces of advice about I wish I'd discovered sooner in that relationship:

Believe someone when they tell you who they are. Your boyfriend has told you that he wanted a casual relationship, but this has become far more than that (which isn't anyone's fault). You're happy with this but he doesn't seem as into it. This is a core problem and one good reason not to stay.

Part of your attraction (physical and emotional) to him might be because he represents a stable, solid presence that you haven't had before (you mentioned your family and other relationships being somewhat chaotic). You might not really want to be with him deep down, you want to be what he represents to you. I've been in that relationship too. In hindsight the guy I was with was kind of a douchebag to me, but I wanted him because he had his life together and I envied that. And you can absolutely do that by yourself, without him, without this added stress around it. This is another good reason to not stay with him.

I think you already know what you have to do. And that's a thing to be proud of! Be proud of how you're looking after yourself by realising that it's not okay for you to feel bad like this all the time. This is a good thing to have realised and I'm glad you're asking this question here today.

It's okay to mess up. It's okay to be in complicated, shitty relationships that don't work out. This is part of how we grow as people. It hurts but we learn from it. And this is only your second relationship ever, so please don't beat yourself up about it not going well.

Ultimately, you can absolutely be the person you want to be, I promise you. You just need some help to get there, a good therapist, maybe some assessment for anxiety and depression, and to be out of this confusing, horrible situation. All of these things are possible. Good luck!
posted by fight or flight at 5:59 AM on April 22, 2021 [10 favorites]

Agree with sandwich. Also read up on negging. Two years is plenty of time for him to accept you for who you are and where you are at.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 6:00 AM on April 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for your responses. Something I wanted to add, was that I trust his judgment, so even though others might say it's an idealised version of her - he was with her for 4 whole years and I don't think he's lying about who she is. Her achievements in life also speak for themselves. So I can't really escape from the fact that I am actually "inferior" to her in many ways, something he has been trying to get me to accept.
posted by Sunflower88 at 6:21 AM on April 22, 2021

Her achievements in life also speak for themselves

While this may be true, you're still only getting a very very small part of the bigger picture of who she is. Even someone who has been in a relationship with her won't know the whole truth of who she is as a person, especially long after they've been broken up. She might have all sorts of things going on you don't know about at all -- that's what I meant by the "idealised" version you've been dreaming about.

I have saved loving photos and emails between them and every week or so look at them and make myself feel terribly unhappy - it feels a bit like self harm.

I missed this on my first pass. I will say yes, this absolutely does sound like a form of self harm. If you feel able to, or maybe with the help of a therapist, I would definitely make an effort to clear her out of your life in much the same way as you would wean yourself off the opportunities to self harm. Delete these emails and photos, stop Googling her -- you can probably find an extension to block her name out from your internet experience entirely.
posted by fight or flight at 6:30 AM on April 22, 2021 [7 favorites]

I would bet a large amount of money that this ex would have only negative things about to say about your boyfriend and her relationship with him. There’s a very good reason she got away from him and it’s that he was holding her back. She has flourished without him, as I think you will too.
I think it’s very common to have insecurities about a partner’s past relationship, particularly if it’s your first relationship and the other person has more experience. I also think this guy set you up and tried to create this jealous obsession in you and it sounds awful! Terrible. What a creepy person. This is his idea of casual conversation, calling you names and describing in detail how another person is superior? I think you’re being really hard on yourself because you feel guilty for snooping and obsessing about her. And sure, that’s an unhealthy thing to do for you. It makes you feel bad. You should try to stop. A therapist might be able to help. I really understand you’re embarrassed to tell your group therapy the details, but what if you say the broad strokes? Something like “I’m having obsessive thoughts about his ex and I feel so bad about it.” I suggest that because I think talking about this might help with the extreme shame you are feeling. And you can’t move past it without recognizing the shame and talking about it. I also think talking about it, either with the group or a friend, might help you realize how normal those kinds of jealous feelings are, particularly in a relationship where the partner has set you up for those feelings!
Posting this was a great first step. You’re on your way.
posted by areaperson at 6:36 AM on April 22, 2021 [12 favorites]

Sorry this is happening, and sending good vibes for finding someone who appreciates you for you. It might not seem like it now but you can find someone better.

But one thing that jumped out at me from your post is your definition of success. I don’t know if being a doctor or tech big shot is automatically a success, or is automatically a recipe for happiness. I think of doctors I know who got all As but may or may not be miserable. Grass is greener.

The only objective, inarguable success I can see here is that she dumped this horrible man. Not kidding! Why not take a step towards that same objectively positive successful act of not being associated with this underminey, albeit hot, individual?
posted by johngoren at 6:38 AM on April 22, 2021 [11 favorites]

It's not about her. In the nicest possible way she might be the most amazing, driven, intelligent person alive, but that's not what makes a good relationship.

A good relationship is someone who is one your side, who cares about what you've achieved, who understands who you are and who, crucially, doesn't think you're a failure.

I couldn't tell you what's going on with him. Maybe he's deliberately trying to make you feel insecure, maybe he has a romantic dream of 'the one who got away', maybe she is the perfect person who no one else could compare to (although I would question why he didn't settle down with her if that's the case.)

I don't want to tell you to do something you aren't ready for. I really think that you'll feel better if you break up with him, and you then will be able to work through what you're feeling now to stop it resurfacing in your next relationship. My second thought, if you can't break up with him is to tell him that you understand and are sorry that he thinks he's a failure but that you need him to stop projecting that onto you.

If you can't do either of those things try reframing it slightly in your head and see how that feels? What would you like to change about him as a partner? Try bringing it up in therapy some more, a little at a time. And yes, absolutely work on yourself. But part of the work should be getting yourself to a place where you see the problems with the way he's acting, rather than just the problems you have.
posted by Laura_J at 6:40 AM on April 22, 2021 [6 favorites]

>So I can't really escape from the fact that I am actually "inferior" to her in many ways, something he has been trying to get me to accept.


oh god. No. No, no, no. I don't care how much you think you need him. I don't care how cool you think he is. No. Get this person the hell out of your life AND DO NOT LOOK BACK.

Much love to you.
posted by WaywardPlane at 6:54 AM on April 22, 2021 [58 favorites]

I once had a relationship with a man who admitted to me that he worried that I was lazy. This was when I worked full time, had my young daughter 50% of the time and did volunteer work. Looking back, that was an indicator that he wanted to be with someone who could keep up with him. He worked full time plus did skiing, hiking, etc from Friday eve to Sunday afternoon. Barely an hour of rest here and there. I could never get that admission out of my head until years later, away from him I realized there was a message not about me being lazy but about us being incompatible for the m my term.
posted by DixieBaby at 7:03 AM on April 22, 2021 [5 favorites]

What an ass. He's engaging in all sorts of emotional abusive behaviors and you need to get out now before it gets more serious.

People will tell you who they are, you just have to listen - he's telling you he's a controlling jerk that will be comparing you to his ex for the rest of your relationship and trying to control you via that comparison. If that's the person you want to date, you're in the right spot - otherwise, get out now.

Please get yourself some individual counseling if you have the resources to do so - you do seem to have some attachment issues and a good therapist/counselor can help you work through those. You deserve to be happy, and this person isn't making you happy. Just because there are occasional good times doesn't mean you need to put up with his abuse. It's totally an option to have good times without the abuse.
posted by _DB_ at 7:17 AM on April 22, 2021 [5 favorites]

I know a man who has this approach to relationships. He criticizes his wife constantly in exactly this manner, comparing her to his past relationships, his sister, others generally. He also talks that way about his coworkers - they are in his opinion unmotivated and inferior in every way. He then turns around and talks about how he gets excluded from the "fun" things those same people do. Um, duh?

For him, I think it is at least partially a cultural/familial thing? But deep down, it's rooted in his own insecurities.

Anyway, whether your guy is a jerk on purpose or just because it's his personality and approach to relationships, it most certainly not a good fit for you. There are other people who will love you just as you are, and be supportive of you without also comparing you the way this guy is. DTMFA.
posted by dpx.mfx at 7:51 AM on April 22, 2021 [3 favorites]

In life there are going to be more (and less) successful people than you and that doesn't determine your worth as a person. I am never going to be Michelle Obama (or her best friend - sigh) and yet I am still worthy of love and respect from the people I consider close to me.

You aren't getting loved or respected by this man. You are worth more than this and I hope you can see your way clear of him.
posted by Julnyes at 7:52 AM on April 22, 2021 [10 favorites]

After we watched a documentary about RBG, he said "I knew people at uni like that - powerhouses" and said again " I guess we are both failures".

To me, this says a lot about his motivations and where he is coming from. Whether he is putting someone on a pedestal or branding them a failure, it's all about power and relative status and he lives in a world where someone being successful means someone else is unsuccessful. He is going to go through life trying to exert power in his relationships, feeling bad because someone else is superior or trying to make someone else feel inferior.

You have vividly described a relationship that is-- understandably!-- doing a number on you. The hothouse atmosphere created by the pandemic, plus this guy's penchant for power games, plus some insecurity from your family background, and you're feeling really vulnerable. But join the literally thousands of people who are starting over in one way or another right now, and ditch this guy.
posted by BibiRose at 8:03 AM on April 22, 2021 [32 favorites]

Plain and simple, DTMF! The fact that he needs to go on and on about the perfect ex is cruel! He is an immature asshole who makes himself feel more successful by putting you down. Your friends and family are correct, dump him now.
posted by mareli at 8:06 AM on April 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Everyone has pretty well covered that this guy is mean, imperious, controlling, and judgmental, but I feel like it's important to point out that you've likely sought him out and feel dependent on him because he's mean, imperious, controlling, and judgmental. He is playing into both what you expect from others (based on your experience) and what you believe you deserve (based on your trauma). You have every reason to feel like you need his criticism to get "better," because you have every reason to believe that you are fundamentally insufficient and disappointing—a lot of people have told you this and you've told yourself this for a long time. But it's not true, and crucially, the more you seek out people who benefit from encouraging this vision of yourself, the more entrenched it will become. The fact that you can't imagine living without him and the fact that you absolutely need to be away from his influence like yesterday: these are the same fact.

This is tough, because to truly see (as clearly as we can see from the outside) that you deserve better treatment than this, you probably need to get away from the person who's constantly reinforcing your idea that you might someday deserve better treatment if you could become more accomplished, more efficient (?), a faster reader (??), etc. You may need to take it on faith for now! (Getting into individual therapy, if it's accessible to you, could help.) They don't call them vicious cycles because they're easy and linear, y'know? But you seem to have some distance on your father's emotional abuse, so think of it this way: if teenage Sunflower were telling you that she was worthless because she only cared about things like piano and Dad told her music was evil, would you tell her to find a different way to keep Dad happy? Or would you tell her to get away from Dad?
posted by babelfish at 8:15 AM on April 22, 2021 [23 favorites]

... the fact that I am actually "inferior" to her in many ways, something he has been trying to get me to accept.

I know I’m a stranger on the internet and you don’t know me from a hole in the wall but please, please, PLEASE believe me when I say that you deserve better than this.
posted by jesourie at 8:20 AM on April 22, 2021 [10 favorites]

read Bibirose's comment above: it nails the core of this situation.

He is going to go through life trying to exert power in his relationships, feeling bad because someone else is superior or trying to make someone else feel inferior.

This is the core of it. There are other reasons to leave this man, but this is the main one. His world view is inherently painful and INCORRECT. Success is NOT a zero sum game, and this idea will cause decades of pain for anyone in whom he instills it.

I understand you're enjoying the sex. Give yourself a big cheer for overcoming your previous difficulties with sex and learning what you like - a lot of people never achieve this. Now that you know it, you have a clear path towards finding it again or even helping another partner come up to speed.

Be like that other admirable lady: ditch this tool.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:24 AM on April 22, 2021 [7 favorites]

you know what, none of this is even about you, it's all about him. He's the one who feels worthless and unaccomplished, that's why he keeps saying "we're both failures" to you. He is simultaneously trying to feel superior to you but also to feel better about feeling inferior to others. Trust me, you're like...not even there, as far as he's concerned. Others are right that once you're gone he'll start idealizing you too in different ways to maintain his dysfunctional comfort zone. So it's a win-win for you! You get to not spend any more time with this fartknocker AND know that you'll be remembered as basically RBG II.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:29 AM on April 22, 2021 [11 favorites]

I just wanted to pop in to agree with fight or flight, especially here:

I think you already know what you have to do. And that's a thing to be proud of! Be proud of how you're looking after yourself by realising that it's not okay for you to feel bad like this all the time. This is a good thing to have realised and I'm glad you're asking this question here today.

There's a particular emotional state where, deep down, you know you are ready to move on, and you know you can catch yourself, but you are still very afraid. It's like standing at the edge of a very tall diving board and still straining to clutch the railing.

I am also glad you did this Ask, because sometimes we don't trust our own perceptions of the situation, and it is helpful to borrow others' brains. Here is my take: you are falling into the trap of looking mostly at the liabilities side of the ledger. You worry about losing your sexuality and your drive to take steps to improve your life (running, professional certifications) because you associate those things so strongly with your boyfriend. But you also have an assets side of the ledger, which provide context and the ability to work with the liabilities. Your assets include friends and family who care about you and feel they can tell you to get rid of this guy, which is fantastic.

So, to my view, start looking at how you can restructure all of your positive things (which you did yourself!) so that they are supported by things and people that are not your boyfriend (who sounds like a dick). Running? Find a running buddy. Call up your friends and ask if any of them want to exercise with you. Call up an older relative and ask if you can take them on a walk to a park. Professional certification? Talk to a classmate or find an online community - there is probably/definitely a subreddit about it. Make a list of all of the things you are afraid you will lose by dumping this guy and then find an intentional way to braid them into your life independently of him. Tell your friends and family and ask them to support you as you do this. I am sure they will be thrilled and proud. If you can find a therapist, I would do that too. Ongoing guidance in this would be an enormous help.

If you could dump him today, and it wouldn't cause an issue with housing or finances, I would. You have the whole rest of your life to feel better and lighter without dragging his shitty ass around. "Reads and writes quickly," first of all, yikes, and second of all, he's still getting a high off bragging that he dated that person? This is not your equal. This is a person who enjoys making other people feel small because he himself is minuscule. He is a bully. Wash your hands of him and pour some cleaner down the drain.

...And you do feel small, but you also understand now that you are bigger on the inside! Like a snake about to shed its skin. Take some steps to set yourself up for success, and then lean into that bigger on the inside feeling. It feels strong because you are strong, and you're going to be all right.
posted by snerson at 8:31 AM on April 22, 2021 [2 favorites]


if I could only just be good enough he might love me like he once loved her.

even by his own account, he dumped her. (more likely she dumped him, because he was, and is, a turd.)

I hope this thread is helpful. Show it to your friends and sisters, they will enjoy it and help you get ready to do the deed.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:38 AM on April 22, 2021 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: She did dump him, she really loved him apparently but he could not commit because he was too young and also he had been indoctrinated to think he should be with someone of the same ethnicity as him, which she wasn't. She couldn't handle the indecision anymore and left but apparently she did want to be with him and commit to him.
posted by Sunflower88 at 8:42 AM on April 22, 2021

Best answer: It sounds like you are grieving "what could have been" in your own life.

This woman represents alternate-universe you, the version of you that didn't struggle with mental health from 18-25, who had parents that encouraged her dreams (instead of abusive parents who broke CDs in half), who was supported in her exploration of her sexuality, etc.

It's healthy to grieve our losses, including the loss of our prior dreams. It can take months (or years) to fully work through the grieving process. When you compulsively look at his ex's photos, it seems similar to a widow obsessively replaying the voicemail greeting from her departed spouse or watching her wedding video on repeat every night for months. We all do unusual compulsive things when we're grieving.

Please let yourself process the grief. Don't add to it by criticizing the way that grief shows up within you. Grief will take its course, and eventually you'll think of it less and less. One day, you might notice that you haven't thought about his ex for a few days, then a week. Eventually you might feel quite content with your own accounting firm and hobbies, and you'll barely feel a twinge when you think of her.
posted by sandwich at 9:19 AM on April 22, 2021 [21 favorites]

I have saved loving photos and emails between them and every week or so look at them and make myself feel terribly unhappy - it feels a bit like self harm.

This is self harm. You said he hasn’t mentioned her in eight months. It sounds like individual therapy would be more helpful at this point.

One way you can be kind to yourself right now is by deleting those photos and emails. After that, block her social media.
posted by betweenthebars at 9:27 AM on April 22, 2021 [4 favorites]

Your boyfriend is not a reliable narrator. Please stop letting this woman's LinkedIn fool you into thinking that he is somehow an expert on the inner workings of a woman he dated an entire decade ago or that the only definition of and happiness and success is what other people showcase on self-curated page on the internet.

I think that in a way you feel like you "won" because despite all of this woman's apparent awesomeness, he isn't with her, he's with you. But I think that's the wrong way of looking at it. It's more like, despite this man's emotional immaturity that borders on cruelty and inability to let go of the past, he has convinced both you and himself that you are not worthy of him and that being with you is basically like doing you a favor. But what I see is that he's pulling you down with him, not helping you rise to the life you really want to live.

You are right on that this obsessive need to compare yourself to exes is probably not going to stop just because you dump this guy, but I think dumping this guy is the right step towards being able to free yourself from that behavior. Your sisters and your friends hate them -- would they help support you in leaving? Can you think about what support you'd need to keep from falling into an abyss?
posted by sm1tten at 9:49 AM on April 22, 2021 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: Sandwich, thank you so much for your comment. I feel seen.

I think this gets to the heart of the matter and why his ex is haunting me so extensively.

"This woman represents alternate-universe you, the version of you that didn't struggle with mental health from 18-25, who had parents that encouraged her dreams (instead of abusive parents who broke CDs in half), who was supported in her exploration of her sexuality, etc."

I have cried so many bitter tears and felt bone crushing grief thinking about her and feeling as though she is what I could have been had I had a loving functional family and parents. The things she has achieved are strikingly similar to what I wanted as a young girl - to be a doctor, a pianist, a dancer, to be seen as academically successful and to have a boyfriend at 18. I even bought a digital piano at 19, with money from my first job despite my Dad's disapproval and anger but I never got round to learning it because I felt it was too late.

She represents loss and the lack of love in my own life. If I had parents who paid for piano lessons instead of snapping CDs and throwing the radio & TV away, who loved me and supported me, who encouraged me to move out for university and if I was raised with the confidence to get a boyfriend at 18 and enjoy my sexuality and my uni years - where would I be now? I might be somewhere where she is. I was a smart girl too, but my potential has been stunted and malformed by mental illness.

She is out of reach, someone I could have been.

It feels unbearable, I pray one day I do overcome this.

Thinking about her is, in a roundabout symbolic way, is a way of thinking about the abuse experienced as a child and the feelings of being deeply unloved and not being supported to reach my potential.
posted by Sunflower88 at 9:50 AM on April 22, 2021 [10 favorites]

Ok, everyone has covered what an a-hole this guy is already so I won't go over that.

But this really struck me:

I go to group therapy and have briefly mentioned it to them but they haven't said much - beyond saying it reflects a lot on how I feel about myself as a person. I feel like if I told them the extent of what is happening they would judge me, I am too scared to open up in that space.

I am so glad you are in group therapy. They are there to help you. Your group are going to be people who can help you get through this fog. I totally get that you feel scared. So take it in baby steps. Next time you are at group, start really small. Something like 'I want to talk about something here, but I'm afraid you might judge me'. That can be your first step. You don't even have to mention what the issue is, just get started by addressing your fears of talking up in the group. Once you feel better about that, then you can start to talk about how hard it is to leave your boyfriend.

It seems like you have some great people in your life who will be able to help you through this. Your sisters and friends are already looking out for you, telling you that this guy is bad news. And you have your group therapy people.

And btw -- many many people have their first relationship late in life. You can probably search on this site for threads from people who didn't date or have a first kiss until their thirties or forties. It is not as uncommon as people often assume. You had your first boyfriend in your early thirties; that doesn't mean he will be your last, or that you have to stay with him if he doesn't make you feel amazing. (And people who love you care about making you feel happy, respected, awesome, and safe; not about re-making you into their own narrow vision of already-perfect.) You don't have to stay with him for that reason.
posted by EllaEm at 9:52 AM on April 22, 2021 [4 favorites]

I feel like if I could only just be good enough he might love me like he once loved her. ... I am insanely sexually attracted to him- I didn't even think feeling this way was possible about someone.

Oh dear. This is really tough. I would like to encourage you to read about the anxious-avoidant cycle (there's a lot more if you google it). I think you are desperately seeking this man's approval, and that's why you are so drawn to him: he gives you intermittent praise, and it keeps you salivating for more. Friend, he will never give you what you want. He will never make his affection for you non-conditional. He will never give you the acceptance you crave. Why? Because he can't accept himself, either. He has low self-esteem and he's projecting all sorts of failures and weaknesses onto you in order to feel better about himself.

You are experiencing what feels like love and passion, but it's really a constantly activated attachment crisis.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:27 AM on April 22, 2021 [15 favorites]

If you are so awful and inadequate, why is he still with you and not looking for Old Ms. Perfect or the next Ms. Perfect? As others said, he is an unreliable narrator on this breakup. I bet if you contacted Ms. Perfect, she'd say he was always going on about how his last ex was perfect.

You know what? CONTACT HER. Go ahead. Find out what the real truth is. The girl may have a halo over her head and shit gold like a Lannister, but she can't be THAT perfect. I bet she Has Thoughts as to what this guy was like with her. I bet they are not nice thoughts.

Also, this guy is negging you so that you always feel like shit and he somehow feels superior. That combined with "first relationship" and what sounds like you have little or no support system or people outside of him....well, you end up desperate to please a guy who likes to put you down so he can feel good. Go ahead, break up with him. The sex isn't worth feeling like complete shit all the time when you're not having sex, is it?
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:50 AM on April 22, 2021 [5 favorites]

he's been proud of how much I've developed in the time I've been with him

This is a paternal feeling and he is expressing consistently paternal responses to your behavior. Some of those responses -- like this one -- would not be abusive if they came from a father, and so they may not feel abusive to you when you compare them with his other, crueller words and behaviors. but that is because he has so successfully instituted this parent-child frame and inculcated in you such a sense of dependence. it is, in itself and all by itself, abusive. It has nothing to do with his relative age, but with his sense of superiority and dominance, in his power to give and withhold approval, praise, and blame, in a way that makes you agree with him.

I take you very seriously when you talk about the fear of descending into the "abyss" without someone close to you whom you can trust to keep you connected to reality. The thing is, you say you have a sister and friends (focus on the friends, if your sisters inadvertently remind you of bad childhood times). It would be a much harder and scarier problem if you were all alone in the world except for him, but you aren't. There are people who you can trust who care for you without being like him - who do not need you to grovel for them and cry over them. You can have connection and care in your life. without being bound to this man.
posted by queenofbithynia at 12:51 PM on April 22, 2021 [10 favorites]

Yeah, in addition to backing up what everyone's saying about the guy, I hope you're hearing what's being said about his ex. Because that seems almost like the bigger issue here, or the more fundamental one, maybe; the thing about the guy is about the guy, but your feelings about his ex seem to be what'll need working through for some time after the guy is gone. I obviously don't know her, but I feel really comfortable insisting that she's not magic. She might well be intelligent and a hard worker, maybe she really does play a mean etude. But she's a real person. She's still a mediocre pilot after years of lessons, or she's a slob, or she can be a subpar friend when her friends really need her. She has gas, and she doesn't brush her teeth on weekends, because that's her 'time off,' or she's a compulsive liar, or a secret Nazi, or an inconsiderate neighbor. Seriously, she is. She's got a complex about her weight, or she's in a bad marriage, or she's not present for her kids nearly often enough, or she's in the closet.

But she's a person. Not someone's idea of perfection. Actually, this part is about the guy too, but you've understandably internalized it, and I think that's the reason for the behavior, as sandwich suggested and you confirmed. You'll be healthier, I think, once you find whatever way works to accept that she's not real, not the way she's been presented to you. Your own life isn't any better for accepting it, but even if she were real, her childhood wasn't ideal; she had to practice piano for 10 hours a week when she could have been with her friends. She can be as 'high-functioning' as possible and still have had jerks for parents, or an eternally haunting sadness from losing her sister at a young age. For sure, grieve your own loss; it's awful. It just seems like focusing on the ex, in addition to being misguided, will only delay that process.
posted by troywestfield at 1:21 PM on April 22, 2021 [5 favorites]

Sunflower88, thank you for sharing this on the internet with a bunch of strangers. It's very similar to my own story/background/attachment profile, and so much of the advice above is exactly the kind of thing I heard from friends and loved ones that ultimately helped me get out of a damaging-but-not-quite-bad-enough FWB thing. 7 months out from the end of an 11-month affair, I'm still healing, I'm still fucking pissed off at the wasted time and pain and manipulation and negging and general bullshittery of it all, even though the sex was frequently amazing and "felt so connected!" (cough, trauma bonding).

My point being, maybe you're insecure - so what? I have insecure friends, I've dated people who are more insecure than I am about certain things, and you know what I try never to do? Collaborate with their inner voice of self-hatred. This guy is a champion collaborator with the voice of your self-hatred, and he's doing it deliberately to make himself feel more powerful. The reason it's so hard to recognize how very, very badly he's treating you is that the things he says sound like they might be true based on your childhood model of how to get love (listen to all the criticisms and make sure you Never Do That Again). The comparison to his ex might line up really well with childhood patterns like "why can't you be good/smart/socially adept, like your sister?!" Thing is, even if they *are* true, they're being said in extremely bad faith, to make you feel less-than and him feel powerful. And because you associate parental love with this project of ferreting out all the ways in which you fall short, it makes total sense that you would be fixated on his ex. TOTAL sense, completely normal human behavior that you don't have to feel any shame about. I recommend DTMFA and go permanently no-contact, take up a fun movement practice that you enjoy and has no "shoulds" associated with it, set up regular virtual visits with your friends and tell them you're doing breakup recovery and just need people around to be supportive and Feel All The Feels with you for a while, and enjoy your accounting courses! I also recommend this book: There is Nothing Wrong With You, which is a little heavy on its belief in meditation as panacea, but has a lot of good clapbacks to negative self-talk, and an etiology of insecurity that makes a lot of sense. But whatever you end up doing, you are a trustworthy judge of what's best for you.
posted by All hands bury the dead at 1:22 PM on April 22, 2021 [7 favorites]

Re. your latest update: So it sounds like you do recognise at a deep level that she was not superior to you, she was just luckier than you. That's maybe something you can hang on to as a way of reframing this situation.

Her achievements in life also speak for themselves. So I can't really escape from the fact that I am actually "inferior" to her in many ways, something he has been trying to get me to accept.

This assumes that there is a single, narrow, linear scale for success and worth, and that everyone must be either in front of someone else, or behind them. That's not the case. Some people value reading quickly, some value playing the piano, some value a traditional career. But some value being unmaterialistic, or being adventurous, or being unambitious and easily contented, or being quick to laugh, or an ability to farm llamas, or... you name it. The comparison of what can be considered 'superior' vs 'inferior' is a wide and sprawling map, with people all over the place, not a narrow line with some people high scoring and others low. There are plenty of people in the world who your boyfriend would probably class as superior in his narrow world view, who are dull as ditchwater, or arrogant, or unadventurous, or terrible at llama farming, and all sorts of things that other people would find unappealing or 'inferior' character traits.

It sounds like you've found yourself a boyfriend who values things that are particularly hurtful for you to hear valued because they're the very things you were denied the chance to do. It doesn't sound like he's interested in changing his world view, so maybe he's just not the right person for you to be with right now.

how often he told me I was inefficient and unfocused
That's just plain nasty. Why would you say that to anyone, unless they were your direct report at work and their inefficiency was losing the company money? What is he, your despairing line manager?

And finally... there is a deeply ingrained ageism at large in the world that only places value on things that people achieve when they're young. If you learn to play the piano as a child or teenager, its seen as impressive and gifted and an expression of Who You Are; if you learn as a pensioner, it's seen as a cute little hobby. That's crap. You have your whole life to learn the piano (or whatever), if that's what you want to do. It's not all over, by a long, long chalk. You still have loads of time to become who you want to be. I'm so sorry you didn't get to do these things young, the next best thing you can do is give yourself permission to do them now, or later.

On preview: Seconding queenofbithynia - I totally get the 'being with someone because they feel like a ladder and without them you'll slide back down' feeling, but how is your support network apart from him? If you can reach out to other friends and family, maybe try some new social activities that will introduce different types of people into your life who have a wider variety of values, you'll feel less dependent on him holding you up, and less beholden to his ideas of what makes a worthy human being.
posted by penguin pie at 1:34 PM on April 22, 2021 [11 favorites]

Response by poster: Just a couple of responses - he and I have discussed this power imbalance and the fact he is the parent figure. He finds it frustrating to always need to guide and lead me but we seem to have become set in this pattern

Regarding the linear definition of success, I think this is also something I have internalised growing up. Basically standard Asian parents, if you haven't become a doctor and/or rich you are a failure. I went to an excellent school and was on the path to academic success. I think he and I actually share this narrow problematic view of success because of how we were respectively raised. So I already bring to the relationship a feeling of having failed, and he merely completes and agrees with it.

Finally troywestfield, in terms of seeing the ex as human. I've tried, but she really does seem quite perfect. I saw she did a post on Facebook about 5 years ago where you write down 15 things about yourself. Amongst other things she wrote that she could read at 3, that she loves running and dancing, that unreliability bothers her and that she always has 3 projects on the go because she gets bored easily and hates time wasting, plus that she would do anything for her friends. So by her (and his) own definitions she is most definitely not a slob or subpar with friends.

I do however know that she had bulimia before she was with my boyfriend and when I asked him if she had any weaknesses he mumbled something about her being "a bit emotionally unstable", but then when pressed said he didn't want to talk about it.

I'm not really sure how else to transform her into a normal human being short of meeting her which frankly, I would really like to to get me to that stage quicker.
posted by Sunflower88 at 2:29 PM on April 22, 2021

I think this guy has specifically recruited you for a relationship because he has low self-esteem and he needs a punching bag to feel better, and you've been willing to play that role for him. He doesn't actually want to date a piano-playing doctor who reads 500 books a year, he wants to bully someone about not being one.

The book in this post on the Blue talks about anxiety as addiction, and I think it'd be really applicable to your situation. It sounds like you've been trying to soothe yourself by obsessing over your bf's ex whenever you get triggered by sad feelings. The book talks about how weirdly enough, obsessive thinking can be "soothing", like alcohol and drugs - it distracts you from your feelings and makes you feel like you're doing something, even though in the long run, it's destructive, like substance abuse. The book also addresses the "if I'm not anxious, how will I be driven to achieve?" question and debunks the myths around it.

On preview:
she wrote that she could read at 3, that she loves running and dancing, that unreliability bothers her and that she always has 3 projects on the go because she gets bored easily and hates time wasting, plus that she would do anything for her friends

This sounds to me like the writings of a person who is deeply anxious and insecure, but trying desperately to project an image of irreproachability and success. No wonder why your bf dated her; they probably fed each other's insecurities just as you and him do now.
posted by airmail at 2:40 PM on April 22, 2021 [13 favorites]

she really does seem quite perfect.

she had bulimia

he mumbled something about her being "a bit emotionally unstable", but then when pressed said he didn't want to talk about it.

Do you see that these are completely contradictory?

She cannot be "quite perfect", and have a serious mental illness, and have had a relationship with your boyfriend that leads to him describing her as emotionally unstable (this is meant as no slight to those of us with mental illnesses, we're all imperfect and poor MH is one of the ways that shows up sometimes).

The old chestnut about not comparing your insides with others' outsides comes to mind. Anyone can fashion a facebook post that makes them sound perfect from the outside. The reality is that she struggled with her mental health and despite what he claims, had an imperfect relationship with your boyfriend (either she was emotionally unstable, or she was in a relationship with someone who would later choose to describe her that way... men describing ex-girlfriends as emotionally unstable because they made perfectly reasonable emotional demands that the boyfriend couldn't or wouldn't meet is also a thing).

Your boyfriend didn't want to discuss it further because doing so would destroy the fantasy he's using to beat you up with, that he once went out with The Perfect Woman.

She suffered, she had a serious mental illness, their relationship was troubled. You know all this. She. Was. Not. Perfect.

Is there any way for you to access one-to-one therapy? It sounds like you could really use a trusting relationship with someone who could help you unpack this without fear of judgement.
posted by penguin pie at 2:46 PM on April 22, 2021 [12 favorites]

I saw she did a post on Facebook about 5 years ago where you write down 15 things about yourself. Amongst other things she wrote that she could read at 3, that she loves running and dancing, that unreliability bothers her and that she always has 3 projects on the go because she gets bored easily and hates time wasting, plus that she would do anything for her friends.

Ohhh my god please do not put any stock into what someone writes in a chain facebook post lol. This is the equivalent of hanging a Live Laugh Love sign in your kitchen, in terms of what it actually says about a person's life and loves.

Also I could read at 3 and I go running and I always have three projects going and I am a total fuckup that shit means NOTHING.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 2:49 PM on April 22, 2021 [17 favorites]

Oh dear. First of all, no one is perfect. Lots of us have become very talented at projecting an image of calm, bright, competence via social media, even if we don't mean to. I try to be pretty honest on social media, but you won't see the piles of paper I need to sort, or the dress that's been crumpled in the basement for a year because I'm not sure how to wash it, or all the unanswered emails in my inbox. She might be really good at projecting confidence even if she's not (I can say this with honesty because I am someone who projects confidence, and seems confident, even when I am not; I am not trying to do this). So it may be that your boyfriend was really taken in by her projection of confidence, since he lacks that.

I do think it would be worth talking through in therapy what this woman has come to represent to you. But first I think you should ditch your boyfriend.

I'm trying to think how I would feel if the girlfriend or ex-girlfriend of a man I dated ten years ago contacted me and said, "This guys thinks you're perfect and talked about you as his dream woman all the time. He criticized me a lot." I think first of all, I'd be glad to tell her how not perfect I am. I'd also be glad to tell her about what a piece of trash he's being for talking about me to you like that, when he wouldn't commit in the first place.

Did you see that link I posted about the anxious-avoidant trap? I think it might be helpful for you to read up on the anxious attachment cycle. And read about anxious attachment styles.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:51 PM on April 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I will be reading up on all the links shared here thank you and yes I'm gonna either bring this up with group or go to individual therapy.

Sorry I should clarify I don't know if she had bulimia per se but in their emails he mentions that she kept vomiting when they first met cos she wasn't over her high school boyfriend and that she had an eating problem. I think she didn't whilst they were together though. Not that it makes a difference really but just to say.

And either way there is something much deeper going on about what she represents to me and how I'm using that representation as mentioned above.
posted by Sunflower88 at 2:57 PM on April 22, 2021

she wrote that she could read at 3, that she loves running and dancing, that unreliability bothers her and that she always has 3 projects on the go because she gets bored easily and hates time wasting, plus that she would do anything for her friends

I don't want to criticise this poor woman who probably has no idea that any of this is happening, but I just wanted to reiterate the idea that none of this means she's somehow *better* than anyone else, and that while this kind of fb post might signify achievement to some people, to others, like me, it indicates insecurity. I find this kind of post insufferable. I read this as: this woman needs to chill. Learning to be ok with doing nothing/being bored is a worthwhile skill, and it sounds exhausting to have so many things on the go. That doesn't mean I'm right either, but what I'm trying to say is...different strokes for different folks. You are measuring her against an ideal that many people don't even subscribe to. Who cares when someone learnt to read? Who cares how fast someone reads? For many, or even most people, this has absolutely no bearing on what kind of person someone is.

Also, I got my PhD in English Literature last year and I'm a VERY slow reader, slower than most of my students. Reading fast is just so meaningless when it comes to anything at all. I know I can't logic you out of your feelings but I think that recognising that for a lot of people none of this is meaningful for what 'success' or 'achievement' or 'good person' is, might help you at least somewhat.

Finally, I don't know if this has been mentioned above but I actually think your boyfriend sounds emotionally abusive. I sincerely hope you do manage to leave him, and you do manage to recalibrate your idea of success.
posted by thereader at 4:49 PM on April 22, 2021 [5 favorites]

Okay, I'm going to share a bit more in case it's helpful. I have struggled at times with being overly attentive to the social media of a woman connected to man I had dated. In my case, it was when I wasn't seeing the man any more, and it had been a short and intense relationship that ended abruptly when I thought it was going to last much longer, and we weren't in touch but were still connected on social media. Through social media it became clear (because I was paying so much attention) he was seeing someone else and it had escalated quickly. I was quite jealous and sad because I had wanted that with him, and I was still quite shaken from the end of it all. With both of their social media open, it was super easy for me to see their posts even without following them. It was incredibly unhealthy behavior on my part, and I struggled to regulate it. I tended to be the worst about it when I was tired and had few reserves left.

But here's the important part: it never made me feel good or better. It never really gave me information I wanted to know. It never ever answered the questions I had. It did make me feel pretty bad about myself! Not because of what I learned, but because the behavior felt compulsive and unhealthy.

In the past, I had been sometimes curious about women who had dated men I was dating, and I definitely have friends who have talked about looking at social media feeds of old lovers, and sometimes it's mild curiosity that isn't too damaging. But my behavior felt like it was beyond that. It was very helpful to talk to my therapist about this behavior and what was going on. Social media really makes it easier to have compulsive behavior around things like this.

A friend of mine told me to stop doing it if it was bothering me. But it was hard to stop while I was still active on those social media platforms because their profiles were open. Ultimately, I took a break from the social media platforms as a way of regulating my behavior. It was a good move. So I want to encourage you to do what you need to do to stop looking at this woman's information online. Take a break from Facebook (even if it means asking a friend to change your password and not giving it to you for a month) or whatever social media it is; block her profiles; stop reading these old letters and emails (double delete them). And yes, confide in a trusted friend or a therapist and explore more about what needs you are trying to meet.

I think you want answers about your current relationship, and your boyfriend's lack of commitment. But I don't think that lack of commitment is about you. I think it's about him (he already told you he had the same problem in that relationship). Even more so, you aren't going to find those answers on her social media, you know? Good luck.
posted by bluedaisy at 4:52 PM on April 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: A few things came to me overnight. I think beyond grieving about lost potential, I'm deeply grieving lack of parental love. I remember quite clearly feeling envious and bitter as a young adult when I would see fathers being doting on their little daughters out and about in public. It seems to me this is a extension of that.

In my head I've conjured up that what my boyfriend and his ex had was magical and special, something I will never experience. Just like I will never experience having a kind, doting father. This is fuelled by the way he portrays it and to be fair to him, most people would be quite nostalgic for a more innocent time, at uni when you felt carefree and had no responsibilities and the future was full of hope. She would also remind him of that time and it would have been a hugely formative time and relationship for him, something he will always have a soft nostalgic spot for. She was his first love after all.

But I struggle to bear hearing that or knowing he's feeling that because I was invisible to everyone during those years and I have zero nostalgia, it was simply a horribly painful, isolated time. This is something I must simply come to terms with.

Another thing that came to mind was that I am using this obsession with the ex to absolve myself of trying to get better now, in the present. By holding her up as some impossible shining star, I am saying I can't even compete so I give up in abjection. Maybe I absolutely need this obsession to keep the real demons at bay and perhaps it's propping up an unhelpful way of thinking about myself as a "total failure" who has no hope. I read your link bluedaisies and airmail, both of them interested me greatly and are reflective of what's happening here I think. As mentioned in a post above, I think I feel the need to be seen as and see myself as inferior and having failed, partly because if I don't then I'll have to come to terms with the horror that I've wasted a decade thinking this and that it is all my fault that I haven't progressed.

I'm already getting horrendous glimpses of how if I had been more positive and hopeful, I could have gone down a very different and happier trajectory (i.e her trajectory) - if I had moved out at 18 for example. Instead, I did then what I am doing now - I felt extremely depressed and hopeless and assumed the world and people were awful and thereby fulfilled that in my reality by ending up in quite bad places, a self fulfilling prophecy.

I am jealous of the stability and confidence she must have had in herself and the world to have accomplished the things she did by that young age. And even though everyone is saying she wasn't perfect - there is no doubt that she was very smart - she aced med school easily and was a concert pianist, that she was lovable and loved by my boyfriend and that she is a more successful person than me in academics and her career. There's just no arguing with some of these facts. I agree that doesn't mean she's "better" than me, but she certainly has in real world terms succeeded where I have not.

To add some context, I went to a highly competitive girls school where we were valued on our academic success and my parents drove this home too and would compare us to each other and to people outside the family, something they do now. So I think I have a very competitive, zero sum game mindset, inculcated in me since earliest childhood, a black and white view of success and failure in narrow academic terms.

I just have to learn to co exist with the fact that she is a successful person and not have it be a zero sum game where that means I cannot be loved or succeed on my own terms.
posted by Sunflower88 at 1:42 AM on April 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

Sunflower88, I really feel for you. I related to a few things in your post, particularly where you mention "missing years" owing to debilitating anxiety/depression. This, among other things, makes us easy prey for men like this.

I was also struck by your intelligence -- you write eloquently, and some of your turns of phrase are quite beautiful, which leads me to believe you are a gifted writer.

One thing I believe in life is that we fall in love with people for who they are, not what they do. You're not responding to a job ad for an executive assistant or secretary to this man. You're looking for someone to love you for your qualities, not your typing speed or how much you studied in high school.

This ex-girlfriend is a character, or perhaps caricature is a better description. Your boyfriend inflates her image because he knows it makes you feel inferior. And whatever she writes on social media, well, surely you know about "the highlight reel". No one is going to accurately portray their shortcomings and disappointments and tragedies on Facebook. What if you did meet her and were struck by her unkindness, for example? Besides, a person's perceived value (in those terms, is highly superficial and not indicative of a person capable of genuine love and warmth), is entirely subjective.

Is this man warm? Does he have your best interests at heart? Do you feel good about yourself, genuinely, in his company?

Lastly -- you are only 32 years old. Perhaps it's time to pursue those dreams of yours. Can you not pursue your dream of being a doctor? Of taking piano lessons? Of dancing, even for joy? You are not too old, nor do you appear to be lacking in intellect or passion.

I sincerely wish you well. Please listen to those closest to you, your sisters, friends. They seem to have your best interests at heart, and that shows me that people do love and care for you. That's worth more than a boyfriend who degrades you.

Oh, and lastly -- you always have yourself to pursue a passionate sexual relationship with. And who knows, maybe the next man you meet will be even more sexually compatible with you.
posted by NatalieWood at 2:32 AM on April 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

I really agree with Blast Hardcheese: your boyfriend has issues. Like, a really deep-seated inferiority complex that he needs to start recognizing and working on asap, instead of coping with it by pretending it's rational and then trying to spread it to people he's in a relationship with. (It's either that or he's into manipulative cruelty, so I'm going with the more generous interpretation here. Generously speaking: he's got hangups way outside the range of normal.)

It sounds like you think of him as being psychologically healthier and more functional than you, so you accept this dynamic where you need to learn from him and his worldview is more correct than yours. But the person you describe is not healthy at all, hung up on some ridiculous hierarchical worldview and so caught up in his own fantasy world that he thinks repeatedly ruminating on the excellence of a previous relationship in front of a current partner, and on how both he and current partner are inferior, is somehow a thing that healthy (not to mention kind, thoughtful, caring) people do. It's not. He needs therapy very badly.

I think you can look at your current boyfriend as having been useful to you on some ways (inspiring you to make some positive changes). But it looks like his usefulness has run its course and now his stupidity has been harming you more than helping. Thank him for the good things, wish him well (he'll need it), and move on so that you can continue growing in good ways without getting sucked even further into his dysfunctionality.
posted by trig at 2:46 AM on April 23, 2021 [5 favorites]

Also, for what it's worth: When I imagine someone I'd want to date, or spend my life with, I don't imagine someone who reads fast or is at the top of their profession or whatever. I imagine someone who instinctively helps the people around them, who has fundamental warmness, decency, and generosity, who has a sense of humor that tickles mine and who I like myself around. The other factors just aren't relevant, and I can't even imagine defining a partner in terms of their professional success or academic skills.

If I found out that someone was pining for me, not for my personality, but for how I looked on paper, I would consider that bizarre and frankly hurtful, and myself as having dodged a bullet.
posted by trig at 3:02 AM on April 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: trig - I definitely get you, but isn't what we do and how well we do it indicative of our character and ability to function in the world? I think, as horrible as this is to say, a businesswoman is unlikely to date a binman for example?

That's not to diminish either ones humanity but it is simply how the world works - we are attracted and drawn to people who are in the same socioeconomic sphere, someone who we feel will be able to function in the world and protect us on a basic primal level.

I do think that defining someone only on these terms is deeply problematic and I think he definitely comes from a cultural and family background that values academic and financial success as well as status - to a level I find repulsive. I have seen messages from his Dad (unbeknownst to him) telling him to marry a "highly educated wealthy woman" so he can live in a beautiful house etc etc. I was sickened when I read them and even though my boyfriend isn't as bad as that, I can see he has deeply imbibed some of those ideals.
posted by Sunflower88 at 3:25 AM on April 23, 2021

I'm not really sure how else to transform her into a normal human

I hope posting this isn't TMI, I hope it's a close enough experience that it might be illuminating.
I dated someone like your boyfriend in college; he put me through the wringer of obsessing over his ex, obsessing over the lost social status and blow to his self esteem no longer being with her represented, criticizing me and comparing me to her, criticizing my creative and academic work, and searching for other, more successful partners who would reflect better on him and be better, for lack of a better term, trophy wives, partners whose social status would shore up and reinforce his own. Both at the time, and now, all of those criticisms were true: I was an embarrassment, I haven't succeeded in the way his other partners have, my art wasn't as good or interesting as theirs, etc etc etc. I was the weak link and both of us knew it.

After I finally broke and ended the relationship, I did find and talk with his exes, and they were all desperate to talk about the hell he'd put them through. Everything I described were things that had happened to them-- the areas of our lives or skills he criticized and compared were different, but all of us had been held up to the impossible standard of a pedestalized caricature of the last partner. We were all quite different, but the thing we all had in common was that he had treated us all like shit, that he compared all of us to idealized versions of whoever had been just behind us in line. It was a way to deal with his own inadequacies, and a way to control us, a very blatant way to keep us all in a state of desperation, wanting him rather than wanting to leave him, wanting to be as good as the one who got away so we could have a shot of earning his love and having a real partnership with him, like the perfect one he'd had with his ex(es). The talks I had with the other exes were illuminating and healing. Sandwich's answer rang extremely true to me; when the exes and I all traded notes, we all found that the only time this guy had anything glowing to say about us, it was when we'd broken up with him, being used as ammunition to make the next girlfriend feel destabilized and insecure, so that he could have all the power in the relationship.

When I read that this woman had bulimia, that her facebook updates show some textbook overachieving insecurity language, that the guy who told you to your face that you should accept being a failure/inferior said she was "emotionally unstable," that she "really loved him" but he was emotionally withholding and wouldn't commit to her because he was a racist, I get a very clear image of their relationship, and it looks almost exactly like yours. It may not show up in their emails or old photos; he never emailed me those comparisons, and everyone on the outside always thought my ex's relationships were great, too; all of the other exes and I Thad the "oh my god, I'm not crazy" moment with each other because the majority of this behavior only happened in private and off the digital record. The specifics of what he emotionally abused her over are probably different from the things he uses as levers to keep you unstable and desperate for him to love you back, but I can still see the basic shapes of them: racism, mental illness, perfectionism. She dumped him because, like you, he had trapped her in a toxic relationship where she loved him and was never good enough in his eyes for him to love her too.

At the beginning of quarantine, our school friend group had an open mic over zoom. I knew he was going to be there and didn't go. A mutual friend told me that a.) his current wife, one of those women he'd pursued as a member of the correct social class, was heavily pregnant, and b.) he recited a romantic poem he had written about me, the partner who I thought was the most embarrassing, the most inferior, the weakest link in his relationship history, when we were both undergraduates. The thought of him doing this to a pregnant spouse made me want to throw up, I was furious for days, and almost contacted her, but realized it would do more harm than good.

Your boyfriend's ex dodged a bullet. It looks like that bullet is something you have, because you are intelligent and resilient and good at pulling yourself out of bad situations, transformed from a unilateral wound into something you are using productively to heal both the wound your boyfriend is inflicting on you and the old ones of your childhood: your insight that your obsession with this woman is a way for you to process your grief over the opportunities you didn't get during your abusive childhood and college years. Keep doing that work, try to see and learn your worth while you're dealing with that grief. I think if you ever did meet this ex, she would find the questions you're asking here to be terribly familiar, and would see you as a sister, not as an inferior. Good luck reaching a place of clarity here; Sunflower, you deserve to be seen and loved for who you are.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 3:50 AM on April 23, 2021 [16 favorites]

Response by poster: moonlight on vermont - thanks for sharing, that was a very interesting read. I do know that she was very insecure in the relationship because he wouldn't commit to her and that is ultimately why it ended. He tells me now that everything else was perfect, it's simply because she was of a different race and his family had threatened that he had to marry someone of the same race, but to me this does not ring true as the only reason things ended between them.

However, a difference is that she was his first relationship and first love. So I think maybe she is the "gold standard" upon every subsequent relationship is based - in a similar way to which we subconsciously base our romantic preferences on our relationships with our initial primary caregivers as children. So I imagine if I reached out to her, her experience of him might be different than mine as there would be no ex to compare her to.

His second ex who he was with for only a year, apparently left him due to lack of commitment also - he states that both his exes wanted to get married and settle but he wasn't ready. I don't think he's lying but I think things simply cannot have been as simple as this - or rather, I don't want to believe that things were as simple as that, because it would mean he loved them way more than he did me and didn't find them problematic as he does with me.

I would be really keen to reach out to the ex but I don't know if it would be fair to her, plus she might actually inform him I have done so, which wouldn't be good. In addition, I am very very scared to reach out to her and find out that she has only positive things to say about him as it would mean this problem he has with me is exclusive to me - that I am indeed the "problem". I know that they tried to stay friends for a while after the breakup and she did stay in touch with him loosely for a few years- so things can't have been that bad between them for her to have done so.
posted by Sunflower88 at 4:13 AM on April 23, 2021

I would be really keen to reach out to the ex but I don't know if it would be fair to her, plus she might actually inform him I have done so, which wouldn't be good.

It wouldn't. I would not want to know the current girlfriend of an ex had been cyberstalking me for a year.
posted by fluttering hellfire at 7:11 AM on April 23, 2021 [8 favorites]

isn't what we do and how well we do it indicative of our character and ability to function in the world? I think, as horrible as this is to say, a businesswoman is unlikely to date a binman for example?

Gently, I'd suggest that you start trying to think about this more deeply. What sort of person are you imagining when you think of a businesswoman? What sort of person are you imagining when you think of a garbage collector? What sort of character and imaginary life are you assigning to these figures, and what factors are you thinking about with respect to their "ability to function in the world"? Does this person, for example, seem less than functional to you?

You're right that there are a lot of social attitudes about levels and leagues and whatnot. I've worked jobs where, when I told people what I did, they looked at me with admiration, and jobs where you could tell they were downgrading my importance in their minds. I'm the same person, though, with the same character, and my level of functionality hasn't correlated with what I do for a living. And the less prestigious jobs have, in my opinion, involved more valuable, more interesting, more challenging, and more ethically sound work. So am I really less "successful" when I do less prestigious work? Even when it's less profitable? And if someone else thinks so, do I really need to care? Or am I wiser choosing to surround myself with people who understand?

I am very very scared to reach out to her and find out that she has only positive things to say about him as it would mean this problem he has with me is exclusive to me - that I am indeed the "problem".

No, it wouldn't. (But don't do it anyway, that would be creepy.)

I know that they tried to stay friends for a while after the breakup and she did stay in touch with him loosely for a few years- so things can't have been that bad between them for her to have done so.

I've stayed in touch with people I disliked, people who hurt me, and people who were awful only in retrospect, for a variety of reasons. Most people have.

I hope you can surround yourself with people whose sense of the world, and of personal worth, are way better calibrated than your current company seems to be. But that's a choice you have to make.
posted by trig at 7:18 AM on April 23, 2021 [10 favorites]

Response by poster: Don't worry, I won't be contacting her ever. It was more of a thought experiment.

I would add that when my boyfriend first started mentioning her I sincerely do not believe it was to make me jealous. That he was saying things he genuinely felt. For example I told him he was quite organised and he said "I was nowhere near as organised and efficient as my ex, she was the most efficient person I've ever known". At that time he hadn't mentioned me being inefficient or anything so it didn't bother me too much beyond a twinge.

But this fact hurts me even more, if he's not saying it to hurt me then he's saying it because its true and because he values that trait.

And being messy and unorganised is a huge problem in my life. I don't even know if its depression or laziness but my mind boggles at how someone could be as impressive as her in that respect. Most 18 year olds are slobs.

My boyfriend finds this part of me deeply frustrating and I think this is where we are very incompatible because he wants a partner who is more "on the ball", I quote.

Its bad enough being told you need to step things up, but I could work with that. But when you throw a perfect ex into the mix it really screws with your head.
posted by Sunflower88 at 7:26 AM on April 23, 2021

I think you do need to find someone who you can talk this through with in person, either in therapy or with a trusted friend.

Because "being told you need to step things up" by a partner, especially in terms of your own personal development, should probably be jumping out at you as much more of a red flag. There's a lot of things going on here, but I think you're tying your own personal identity way, way, way too far into your own to be healthy at this point.

It's impossible for us to know how intentional or malicious this might be, but we can see the agony that it's putting you through. I hope you can find a way to relieve that, but I'm not sure that you'll be able to do it while enmeshed with this guy.
posted by sagc at 7:49 AM on April 23, 2021 [7 favorites]

You're right that there are a lot of social attitudes about levels and leagues and whatnot. I've worked jobs where, when I told people what I did, they looked at me with admiration, and jobs where you could tell they were downgrading my importance in their minds. I'm the same person, though, with the same character, and my level of functionality hasn't correlated with what I do for a living.

Quoted for truth. I once read (maybe on here?) that when making lists for what qualities you want your partner to have, it's good to link everything back to how it would impact the hypothetical relationship.


One could (similar to your boyfriend), state "I want to date someone who got very high marks and graduated at the top of their class." The problem there is that it's not clear why that matters to the person.

A more meaningful desire might be "I really enjoy discussing current events, and so it's important to me that I'm able to have stimulating conversations about politics and culture with my partner - and I want them to be able to challenge my own thoughts in a productive way." What's good about this version is that it doesn't rely on superficial measurements of intelligence, like marks or how many degrees someone has.
posted by coffeecat at 7:50 AM on April 23, 2021 [8 favorites]

If one day you do end up contacting his ex, keep in mind that it'll come across differently if you've already dumped him by that point, versus if you're still his girlfriend.

From her point of view, if you're still his girlfriend, that would be a silent endorsement of the way he treated her. She might see it as, "Hi, remember your ex that made you feel very insecure? I'm his girlfriend now. My love for him is overwhelming, and I'm insanely sexually attracted to him. Can you tell me about the insecurities that he gave you? By the way, I'm going to see him in a few hours for incredible sex, and maybe afterwards, he and I will have pillow talk and discuss whatever insecurities you share with me! So go ahead -- how exactly did he make you feel insecure? Bulimia? Mental illness? Insecurity about your race? What else??"

I know that's not what you would really be thinking, but hopefully it shows you how she may have a different lens on the situation.

> I think, as horrible as this is to say, a businesswoman is unlikely to date a binman for example?

That might be true in some countries, but it's not true in other countries. For example, I recommend reading this article about careers in Denmark (often rated the happiest country in the world).

"Those high taxes have another effect. Since a banker can end up taking home as much money as an artist, people don't chose careers based on income or status. "They have this thing called 'Jante-lov,' which essentially says, 'You're no better then anybody else,'" said Buettner. "A garbage man can live in a middle-class neighborhood and hold his head high.""
posted by sandwich at 8:43 AM on April 23, 2021 [6 favorites]

I am scared I will be lost to the abyss again where I was before I met him.
I come from quite an emotionally abusive background, my father was very unpredictable and violent as well as controlling, emotionally and financially abusive.

Given what you've explained about your upbringing, the attachment abyss feeling you're describing is quite legit. When your dad terrorized you, you might want to re-imagine yourself as an infant reacting to drowning, because that's what he did with those rages -- he pushed the cradle of your infant self below the water, leaving you with a lifelong feeling of engulfing emptiness (that you'll need to take charge and re-parent yourself out of if you ever want it to stop). Your anxiety and clinginess is probably about getting this feeling to stop... this nagging feeling that your boat is drowning, even in broad daylight when it is not. You may also want to consider whether you have some C-PTSD haunting you.

I lost the years 18-25 in my own life

Yeah, you're going to lose 18-25 more if you don't keep growing.

Look, this happens in relationships all the time. One partner who is willing to do the inner work simply outgrows the other, who is not motivated to take responsibility for managing their own inner work for whatever reason. This is normal.

From my own personal experience having tumbling directly into the attachment abyss you are currently trying to avoid... I would bet that one day you're going to get a glimpse of a guy who might actually like *you*. You will know because you will feel it when you meet this person, but that doesn't mean you'll recognize the feeling as "good". In fact you'll probably register the feeling as awful, and you'll go back to your current relationship, but it will never be the same. Once you have breathed the air of a man who doesn't put conditions on his love for you, it will awaken that pain you haven't truly dealt with... you know, the pain that your relationship is currently providing a functional band-aid for.

Whether you like it or not, life will bring this lesson to you one day, because there are lessons in self-love you have not finished learning. That's why the pain is still there, and especially, that fear of drowning internally.

I also wanted to be a doctor and I wanted to learn the piano

This is at least half of what the abyss feeling is about.

Knowing that this is what you wanted and needed your parents to be supportive of, is there any reason why you can't be the adult who gives this to yourself from now on? You're probably not going to med school, but there are other ways to manifest this desire to become a professional who improves the health of others. When it comes to learning music, being self-taught can be just as valuable as having been trained only under professional guidance. Most great musical works came from people who tapped into their own psyches (not from being told what to compose by "experts").

Whatever you decide, you will need a game plan for coping with the drowning feeling. Right now your boyfriend is like the one leg holding up the entire dock (when really there should be four legs holding up the foundation if you ever want to experience real stability). If he ever leaves, you are fragile such that you will feel like you're drowning. If you haven't already, start looking for an affordable therapist (or therapy solution), and start reading up on attachment behavior. Start putting into context these feelings you're having from your past that continue to contaminate your present. It's the only way to start feeling like you have any control in your life, vs experiencing your partners as having all the control.

Also: I also simply cannot imagine being so attracted to someone as I am to him. I am insanely sexually attracted to him- I didn't even think feeling this way was possible about someone.

bluedaisy: You are experiencing what feels like love and passion, but it's really a constantly activated attachment crisis.

This is worth repeating for emphasis. Not everyone realizes this is a Thing. There are emotionally immature men who learn to do this to women irresponsibly, just as there are women who learn to do this to men irresponsibly, who latch onto this power and driven by their own unacknowledged insecurities, never let go. As you get older and further master your relationship with your own sexuality, you will eventually understand how this "skill" is more like knowing how to start a vehicle (and in the case of partners who start the engine and then withhold sex, not admitting you don't actually know how to drive it anywhere). The more you adult, the more the juvenile mindset in this behavior becomes apparent. Good luck.
posted by human ecologist at 9:06 AM on April 23, 2021 [7 favorites]

I just want to note that this man is NOT a reliable narrator when it comes to what his ex was like, what she wanted in life, what she struggled with, what their problems were, or why they broke up! His perspective on both of you is absolutely twisted and mangled to put himself at the center. You don't know anything about her that one of you isn't projecting onto her. I think you've got a pretty good handle on what you're projecting (your regrets about what you feel to be time, experiences, love, and accomplishment lost to your own mental health struggle), which you absolutely should explore further in therapy; your instincts here are good. But even the things you "know" about her are mediated by social media (unreliable) and this insecure douchebag (EXTREMELY unreliable). You are not and will never be in a place where you actually know her real accomplishments, priorities, anxieties, etc. She's acting as a sort of person-shaped lint trap for some issues you should definitely investigate further, but she as an actual person is a complete cipher here.
posted by babelfish at 9:39 AM on April 23, 2021 [10 favorites]

I think you need to start looking more critically at ALL of these messages you've internalized and consider the source. You seem to recognize that your parents were abusive and harmful, so maybe start considering that abusive, harmful people actually might have lied to you.

trig - I definitely get you, but isn't what we do and how well we do it indicative of our character and ability to function in the world? I think, as horrible as this is to say, a businesswoman is unlikely to date a binman for example?

Uh, I mean, maybe? But that's a bad thing based on flawed logic and a shitty, stratified society that should be nuked from orbit. For one thing, I'm a "businesswoman" in that I have a white-collar computer job or what have you. But I guarantee you every binman in my city makes more money than I do, lol, and they have a union! My job sucks compared to theirs on so many metrics, but our society values some real stupid shit.

By your metrics the parents who abused/abandoned/terrorized you are Good People while you are a Bad One. Who do you think that whole dynamic serves, huh? Can you think of any reason why someone who wants to abuse and control you might teach you to think that you're not a Good Person and they are?
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:58 AM on April 23, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: A few things came to me overnight. I think beyond grieving about lost potential, I'm deeply grieving lack of parental love.

This is at the heart of attachment theory. If we don't understand what we didn't get from our parents, and in your case I believe your father, then we seek out partners who replicate the same dynamic, in the futile hope that somehow they will give us what our earlier attachment figure did not. It's not a coincidence that your father was emotionally abusive and inconsistent in his regard towards you and that you are dating a man who also is (I believe) emotionally abusive and inconsistent in his regard towards you. In fact, you are dating this man because your father was the same way, because the dynamic is familiar and comfortable in a terrible way, because, attachment theory would say, you are trying to get love from your father by proxy through this man.

Your boyfriend isn't doing the work. He might not be trying to hurt you or cultivate jealousy, and perhaps he's not as bad as your father, but it sounds like a similar dynamic. This is why I think you are not going to get what you want or need from this relationship.

The book Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and and How It Can Help You Find - and Keep - Love is a great book, very readable. I think it will give you a lot of insights in your relationship needs and why this relationship feels the way it does, when it feels passionate and when it hurts. It will also give you insight, I suspect, into your boyfriend's attachment style, and why he will probably never ever commit to someone, and will always be seeking the ideal former or future love.

The way we can start to move past what we didn't get in childhood isn't by repeating those same dynamics in adulthood. It's by understanding what we did and didn't get and what we need now. You are going to find answers by looking at yourself, not at this other woman. And I can also guarantee that she is not what he is telling you, or what you have built her into. She's likely less in some ways and more and others. She is just a human, not a symbol of what you are not. And guess what? You are also not what he is telling you.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:09 PM on April 23, 2021 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: I just feel so sad and don't know if I can ever be loved, as low functioning and low achieving as I currently am, in my own estimation. My previous ex never compared me to anyone but also found my mental health problematic and said he wanted an equal in a marriage and didn't want to "be someone's carer". The same pattern is repeating here.

Because I rationally have known for a long time that my father was abusive and damaging, I thought it would no longer affect my life and I was determined never to repeat that. But it looks like there is much more going on, on a deep subconscious level that no amount of rational, cognitive understanding can reach and that patterns will play out and repeat themselves.

I'll have moments of feeling strong and of seeing my boyfriend and his ex in perspective, just two human beings. But suddenly an image of her will come to my head and I will feel terribly awful and i'll hear the praise my boyfriend gave her echo in my mind. I've never had anyone love me like that or hold me in such high regard, it makes me feel a gaping sense of loss, to the point of nausea.

A deep abiding sense that if I had achieved, I could be loved by someone, the way she was and presumably is in her marriage. That is how my parents raised me, praising us only for academic success. As adults, my dad valued or respected us dependent on our income as he would siphon off the money.

My boyfriend is tapping into these unhealed areas, advertently or inadvertently.
posted by Sunflower88 at 2:15 PM on April 23, 2021

My boyfriend is tapping into these unhealed areas, advertently or inadvertently.

I agree. It sounds like he is, in some ways, a walking trigger for you.

You're doing a lot of thinking and processing here, which is good. I would urge you to not focus on trying to "fix" or find a definitive answer to any of this right in this moment, during a global pandemic where there are countless additional stresses going on. Continue to write down your thoughts and feelings, either here or offline, and discuss them with a therapist.

I'm also wondering if you've ever been assessed for Complex PTSD? It sounds as though you're experiencing a lot of the symptoms listed here, including emotional "flashbacks". An assessment and possible diagnosis might help you navigate these difficult spaces within your head.
posted by fight or flight at 5:32 AM on April 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

So many great comments above. Please do the biggest act of self-love for yourself and break up with this person. I know you feel scared and unmoored at that thought, but you already know that you need to do it. There is that voice inside you that knows what's right for you and has your best interests at heart, so listen to it. Heed that voice and take the steps necessary to break up. You already have the fire necessary in your belly as evidenced by this: "I angrily told him that it really hurt to hear these things" - keep leaning into that anger that fights for your self-worth.

I broke up with my ex of about 5 years in 2016 (and we have a kid) and I remember that first night in my own place, I felt I could breathe. I didn't even know I needed that. It wasn't an abusive relationship, but I felt stifled, unheard and uncared for all the same. I was 37. So many things changed for me after that break up - I became more myself, learned about attachment (through watching The Dark Matter of Love) and was able to release more of my own shitty childhood and get perspective on it. I also explored my sexuality more too. Breaking up was a huge thing that I did *for myself* despite society not really approving of it. I still did it anyway - it made me feel stronger about myself somehow. I was living for myself. Fuck society!

Up until that point I felt like I was living for other people and I was able to live more on my own terms, which has always been challenging for me. I think it is part of being Asian in a way, this living for others, trying to get your parents' approval, letting others define you, being compared to others, identifying people who are "better than" you, social hierarchies, etc. Been there, done that. You might want to get support from Reddit at r/asianparentstories for others who have been there, done that, or who are going through it. Now, #notallAsians and Asians aren't a monolith, but before you mentioned that you're Asian I thought you might be. I'm Chinese Canadian FYI.

In terms of sex, get Betty Dobson's book Sex for One and a vibrator (don't buy from Amazon!), and start to explore your sexuality on your own. Read erotica, write your own, watch feminist porn if you feel so inclined. Your sexuality and body are yours and YOU can enjoy it and celebrate it on your own. Just tonight I watched Ep 5 of the Headspace Guide to Meditation on Netflix - about being kind to yourself. I'd recommend it to you.

I'm sorry that you didn't get what you need in your childhood, and that you were outright abused by your parents. And yes, it fucks you up. What happened to you was NOT your fault, but the unfortunate reality is that only you and you alone can deal with the fallout of that. You didn't cause your own abuse, but you now have your own problems as a result that you have to fix. Yes it's unfair and terrible. You need to grieve, and get angry, and start processing and healing. I hope you find a good therapist trained in childhood abuse and trauma, because this is key.

I feel the need to be seen as and see myself as inferior and having failed, partly because if I don't then I'll have to come to terms with the horror that I've wasted a decade thinking this and that it is all my fault that I haven't progressed.
Definitely bring this to therapy. You're 32 now. You can definitely be in a better place 10 years from now (even sooner), when you're 42 (the meaning of life, lol). But you have to put in the work - therapy, quitting the ex's social media/photos/emails, journalling, etc. Again, self-love. Self-love is alchemy (Randa Jarrar said this in a recent talk and I LOVE this quote).

I don't deny that your bf helped you be better, but this relationship is now actively harming you. Other people have given great insight into his behaviour re: his ex, and I want to add that your bf also feels shit about himself. He compares himself to her, feels like shit, and then offloads that onto you. By saying "some people are just better than others" it gives him an excuse to not try to improve himself and self-reflect. It really isn't about her at all. It's about HIM, his insecurities, his shame at his own failures and himself, and his shitty treatment of you. And yet you stayed with him, because you felt you didn't deserve better. This is something to work through therapy as well.

she certainly has in real world terms succeeded where I have not.
Comparison is the thief of joy. I could easily look around me and pick out dozens of examples of my peers who are more successful than me. Anyone could, even if they're CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Similar to you, I was trained to to compare myself to others, think others are better than me, as if that was some kind of motivation to make me try to do better. But the goalposts keep moving - you're never going to feel good enough in this paradigm, so might as well kick it to the curb and find a new one that works better for you. One of the failures of Asian parenting because they don't realize how much this makes us feel like shit. However, I eventually chose not to do this, because I realized how harmful it was to me. You can have your own successes in your own way, and you need to define success on your own terms. Not your parents', not society's, not against the Perfect Ex. Yours and yours alone.

never got round to learning it because I felt it was too late.
I want to speak to the piano part, because I have experience with this. I had piano lessons from ages 6-17, and you can look at me and say that I was so lucky to have parents who paid for that, that I was so talented, that I did well in recitals, exams and competitions and got my performance diploma at 17. However, I was not a concert pianist. I was good, but not that good. I wanted to be one, but not really. I also never felt good enough (something that plagued me throughout my childhood, not just with piano), and the recitals, exams, competitions were a LOT of pressure. I didn't like that I could only play classical (and I enjoy classical), and that improvisation/pop was looked down upon.

I took a long hiatus and restarted in 2016, a few months after I left my ex (who encouraged me to get a digital piano in 2011, which I didn't really play at that time). Found a meetup on and we play pieces for each other monthly (virtual now in the pandemic) and it's great. Now I have music back in my life, on my terms, with no recitals, exams, competitions. I can think about the music the way that I want, not the way that my teacher wanted. I am still not a concert pianist and I never will be, and *that's ok.* That's not my metric, whether or not I've achieved a certain level. My metric is my own effin enjoyment.

I hope you still have your digital piano, which you bought on your own, at 19, against your father's wishes. That's amazing you did that. You have it in you to live your life on your terms. I hurt for you that your dad didn't encourage your interest in music and was actively against it. Who does that? Who wouldn't want their kid to do things they're interested in? Like I said, get angry about this! At him, not yourself! Anyway, NO, it's not too late to start, not at all. No, you won't be a concert pianist, but that's not the point. Even Lang Lang, superstar pianist, says the best age to start learning piano is between the ages of 2-100. Here's a good Ted Talk on learning piano as an adult. There's also r/piano on reddit, PianoWorld, Pianists and Piano Lovers on Facebook... Lots of piano communities to join you on your journey.

I have less to say about dance, other than I started adult ballet classes at around 30 and did it for a few years. Just because you didn't do it as a kid doesn't mean you can't do it now. No it will not be easy and you'll get frustrated and all that. That's ok! You're doing it! That is good enough. YOU are good enough.

I'm sad that you're so down on yourself. You really, really, do not have to live this way. Break up with this guy, find a good therapist, get a vibrator, connect with your friends and Team You, play piano, and dance. You'll have a LOT to celebrate once this guy is outta your life.
posted by foxjacket at 8:31 AM on April 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks foxjacket for your support and for sharing your experience.

Fight or flight, its dawned on me in the past year that I might have complex PTSD. I've read up a bit on it and a lot of the symptoms match my own. I've always just said I've got depression and social anxiety, as if they just emerged independently from a vacuum. But I think I'm actually quite traumatised as some scary stuff went down in my childhood and depression and social anxiety is actually a manifestation of trauma.

I'm not sure what to do about it. I don't think there are C PTSD specialist therapists as far as I'm aware.

Thank you for saying I don't have to solve this all now. I think I've been working myself up trying to "fix" everything, but just need to be a bit more patient and understanding that healing will take a lot of time, a lifetime even.
posted by Sunflower88 at 12:32 PM on April 24, 2021

He is projecting negative feelings he has about himself onto you. All the ex-gf stuff has nothing to do with you, but you’re being tortured with it. You are particularly apt to seek this kind of dynamic (which is, at the very least, unkind) because of your traumatic upbringing. You are addicted to this dynamic because it reinforces the negative feelings you hold about yourself (a product of your childhood) and keeps you in that “comfortable” space of self-doubt, depression, and feeling that you can’t have what you want because you are not good enough.
I am here to tell you that this guy is an asshole, this is a bad relationship, and you will never find the validation you are seeking from a third party. You are worthy of love and deserve to be loved. Please take a moment to really let that sink in.
Love is not a carrot to be won after a certain amount of self-improvement. We believe that after being mistreated and invalidated as kids. It’s great that you’ve done things to better your life, but it sounds like you are only proud of those accomplishments through the way you think that he sees them. He will never have the reaction to you that you think you are seeking, because he too is a depressed person who is perpetuating his issues through his relationships with other people. You are so infatuated with him precisely because he keeps you in this state of wanting.
You deserve and are worthy of love RIGHT NOW, exactly as you are. Until you do the difficult work of truly believing this, you will continue to find yourself in these kinds of relationships.
posted by key_kat at 4:59 AM on April 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

Also, I know it’s tempting to put validity onto the wonderfulness of this ex-girlfriend figure that has become a monster between the two of you, and you uphold his “genuine” manner of speaking about her as proof that she actually is some kind of supernaturally amazing creature. As others have said here:
1) This dude is not a reliable source of information. She has become an idealized figure in his head as well as yours (because she serves as a convenient symbol for all the things he/you believe that he/you lack).
2) people with his variety of immature, unresolved issues don’t consciously KNOW what they are doing to manipulate- they just see the end effect and perpetuate their behavior to continue getting a desired reaction.
3) He is not TRYING to manipulate you- his motives are likely entirely centered on himself and projecting his feelings of inadequacy onto you- note how he often indictes both of you (“we are both failures”).
4) He sees HIMSELF as a failure, due to this own unique set of issues (which have their root, no doubt, in childhood) and it’s comforting for him to make YOU feel shitty about yourself so that he can maintain some kind of control over you (because your reactions function as an ego-booster for him) and to offload some of the awfulness he feels toward himself onto another person (you).
5) DO NOT agree to function as this insecure dude’s pacifier!! You have a life of your own that needs tending to, without his negative bullshit dimming your vision and making things harder to parse out. You are viewing him as a symbol of all the things you think you want but can’t have. And the ex-gf symbol serves as “PROOF” for both of you that perfection is a real thing, and you are just unlucky and fall pitifully short. All of that is an ILLUSION created by your trauma, and the sooner you take ownership of these issues and stop allowing him to play with your insecurities like toys for his own amusement, the sooner you will get to a place where you can have equal partnership with people who are not solely able to use you as a distorted mirror for their own pain.
posted by key_kat at 5:29 AM on April 25, 2021 [3 favorites]

she could read at 3
One of my parents has made this claim about me. I don't believe it, honestly, and I would never in a million years post that as a fun fact about myself. Even if it was true, it is not something I accomplished; it is a skill that I was lucky to be born with. The same is true of being good at math, never having to study, having perfect pitch or some physical advantage that makes you good at a sport. They are not things to be proud of because those are inborn traits and not accomplishments. Bragging about that kind of thing is very off-putting. Being envious that someone was lucky enough to be born with those advantages is understandable. Those things do not make them better people! In fact living life on easy mode can mess up people's work ethic or sense of fairness.
posted by soelo at 7:38 AM on April 25, 2021

I think it is part of being Asian in a way, this living for others, trying to get your parents' approval, letting others define you, being compared to others, identifying people who are "better than" you, social hierarchies, etc.

I am an Asian woman and definitely this aspect of our cultures can be really toxic - It's often joked about and seen as a stereotype but I can personally attest to the mental health issues I have seen it cause among my group of friends - a group of so-called "academically-inclined" folks who went to "good schools". I personally have struggled with feeling like a mediocre failure for much of my teen years/ young adulthood and only in recent years have I started to make peace with my life as it has turned out (I am the same age as you).

I have a friend who on paper is very accomplished (similar to the way your boyfriend's ex appears to you)- always scoring high on tests throughout her schooling life, attended top tier universities for her masters and PhD, been published in journals, an accomplished pianist (I believe she attained her teaching diploma) and ballet dancer.

She is also one of the most deeply unhappy people I know - but this is not something that those looking from afar would see.

She is always comparing herself to others and all her achievements turn to dust in the face of what she feels she lacks in her life. It seems that she is always looking for the next milestone, the next thing to achieve. Right now it is finding a marriage partner which is giving her incredible angst, and she beats herself up for every failed relationship. Despite her incredible accomplishments, she feels regret that she did not pursue a career in ballet. She also has deep-seated issues from emotionally-abusive, highly controlling religious parents and goes from one abusive romantic relationship to the next. If she told me she was dating a guy like your mean boyfriend, I would be saddened but not surprised.

I am telling you this because those achievements you see on your boyfriend's ex's linkedin and all of those things you regret not achieving in your life- NONE of them are a guarantee against unhappiness in life, and they don't bring wisdom. You really don't know what is going on beneath the surface with some of these shiny successful people you see.

For me personally, re-discovering what brings me joy (even if they are not conventionally aspirational things) and ditching the "big" goals and focusing on the small victories in life really re-shaped my thinking and helped me through my own burnout. I hope you find a good individual therapist who can help you work through these issues and help you find peace.
posted by pandanpanda at 10:01 PM on April 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I know this is ridiculous but when I think about them together, I not only think about how amazing it must have been to be in love, at university together, seeing each other every day and how close they must have been, but also knowing that when she ended it, it totally broke his heart. He was a wreck for a good year or so apparently. Those emails that I read are full of love and heartbreak.

I've never had that, never been loved in that way. I've not been part of anyone's formative experiences, I've never even been someone's first love as I started having relationships late. As I've mentioned, those same years in my own life I was totally alone, full of self loathing and despair. I was unable to have relationships.

So I'm not just jealous/envious of her, but also of him and also of what they had together and even what they lost together. It's overwhelming how much every single aspect of what they had together (by his account) triggers me.

I've been beating myself up for not having moved out for university at 18 and all the things I missed out on. Instead I stayed in an abusive home environment until I was 28. I didn't become an adult - didn't do the cooking, cleaning and took no responsibility for my life - these are things he is now finding difficult about me. These are skills I could have learnt at university and I would have discovered there was an escape from home life. But I gave up in despair and stayed - I literally cannot bear the thought that I did this to myself for a decade.

Now I am starting to get better, the reasons for behaving in such an idiotic manner are becoming misty and vague, I can't remember how anxious and scared of people I was back then, so I just feel angry with myself because I know if I had the opportunity now, I would jump on it.

I know everyone is saying that I don't know the internal workings of this woman and I'm using her as a cipher for my own issues - which is very true.

But I do think she must be happier than me - on Instagram I've seen photos of her with her husband and dog and I know she has a really good job. My boyfriend also said she was "the most present person" he's met, someone who lives in the present can't be as unhappy as someone like me who is mired in rumination and depression.

I do think that rather than convincing myself she is unhappy or has problems, I just have to accept that some people are luckier and have happier lives and I just need to get on with making mine better within my own parameters.
posted by Sunflower88 at 3:59 AM on April 26, 2021

Response by poster: Above and beyond this whole issue, I seem to not be able to cope with not being singularly loved. I can't bear it if my partner has loved someone before me, I feel very threatened by it. Even with friends, I get very jealous. My boyfriend said to me that I seem to want him to have had a painful and lonely past. I'm also quite bitter and unempathetic, I don't want other people to do well. I don't know what's happened to me and it's frightening, I used to be a loving, warm girl who felt for others but I sense this meanness in me. I used to be confused about old people who seemed angry and bitter and I think I am turning into one of them.
posted by Sunflower88 at 4:34 AM on April 26, 2021

I know everyone is saying that I don't know the internal workings of this woman and I'm using her as a cipher for my own issues - which is very true.

But ...

Every time you acknowledge what people are telling you about this woman - that you do not know her - you agree... and then go on to reiterate things that you’ve assumed about her happiness.

You. Have. No. Idea.

Really. None. All you know is that she has done x, y and z, and that she’s smiling in some photos (I assume).

a) Please try to internalise that you have zero idea what she thinks of her life, and that there is every chance she’s as insecure or regretful or unhappy as so many other people who use social media to feel better about themselves (hi!).

b) You just have to stop comparing yourself to her, or anyone, to this extent. Easier said than done, but if it takes therapy, then have therapy. This is getting you nowhere.

I hope you find help because from your posts you’re clever, thoughtful, self-aware, and able and willing to keep on doing new things. Look forward, not back. You deserve more support and love than this guy is giving you.
posted by fabius at 5:20 AM on April 26, 2021 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks fabius. Sorry I keep repeating myself - I know I have to work on some deep seated self beliefs that are holding me back and making me feel quite bad.
posted by Sunflower88 at 9:17 AM on April 26, 2021

I listened to a great audiobook called Fierce Intimacy by Terry Real. He talks a lot about how we are raised and how that impacts how we interact in intimate adult relationships. One framing he uses that was helpful to me: "The story I tell myself is..." This framing helps take power away from our thoughts about things being "true."

For example:
The story I tell myself is that she is so much better than I am, that he was in love with her because of this. The story I tell myself is that I wasted my youth, and that I could have his love if I was more like her.

This leaves a lot of space for a correction, because it's not true, but a story:
The story I tell myself is that she is so much better than I am, that he was in love with her because of this, when the reality is that she's a human like everyone, with strengths and weaknesses, and the reality is that I don't really know what their relationship was like for him or her. The story I tell myself is that I wasted my youth, and that I could have his love if I was more like her, when the reality is that, when I was young, I did my best to deal with the trauma of abuse suffered during my childhood and I am still working through those issues, and that his love seems to be conditional no matter the woman, and that I am a good person worthy of love.

I really think you would benefit from individual therapy, and ending this relationship, and taking a break from social media and reading those letters. Truly, they are poison, and you are poisoning yourself with continued exposure. It's self-harm.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:55 AM on April 26, 2021 [4 favorites]

I do think that rather than convincing myself she is unhappy or has problems, I just have to accept that some people are luckier and have happier lives and I just need to get on with making mine better within my own parameters.

Yes. The impulse I see in so many comments here to insist that well no, secretly she must be miserable, there's no way her life is as good as it looks...that is well-intentioned and well founded (many "successful" people are secretly miserable). But it's not guaranteed. Some people just have smooth sailing through this life, at least in the broad strokes of things. For all kinds of reasons, some within and some beyond their control. It isn't fair in the purest sense.

But while I don't know that it's helpful to assume your boyfriend's ex is a miserable human hiding behind a lying mask of social media, I do remember the time a friend of mine, who is beautiful and wealthy and better-educated than I, once remarked to me that she deeply envied my skill in making a home cozy and clean and attractive; she could not choose a rug or hang a picture to save her life. She looks at my instagram and doesn't see my sad, homely face or my paltry bank account--she sees taste and cleverness and comfort in the room behind me.

Nobody has *everything,* even if some people have much much more than others. Pretty much everyone looks at someone else and sees the things they themselves lack. Someone who had an awful time in college might wish they had gone to a different school, lived at home instead, gone straight to work. Your boyfriend clearly wishes he had done some number of things differently.

Coming to terms with this fundamental unfairness, and with the irreversibility of time, is kind of the project of life.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 2:22 PM on April 26, 2021 [4 favorites]

Mod note: Few comments removed -- OP it's okay to take the answers that are helpful and leave the rest but AskMe isn't meant to be an ongoing conversation or processing exercise.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:56 PM on April 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

« Older In search of lint-free tissues or a non-tissue?   |   Note-taking recommendation: OneNote or other? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.