A 29 year old woman who calls herself Unnerved writes to Ask Polly, the New York Magazine advice columnist.
A man who is high up at my company recently asked if we could meet up outside of work and I told my boyfriend, reiterating that the co-worker has a longtime wife and isn't interested in me in any kind of romantic sense. I made sure to emphasize this because I sense that a situation like this might bother my boyfriend, whom I have always considered a sensitive person. My boyfriend responded immediately by telling me that should it go the other way and I break up with him for the co-worker he'd be sad for a bit, but would have no problem moving on at this stage in his life….
I would never cheat on him nor have I considered leaving him for anyone, let alone a married co-worker. I want to marry him. Instead of jealousy, he exhibited a kind of disturbing nonchalance.
Now, Polly, aka Heather Havrilesky shows that she is just as clueless as Unnerved. Talk about the blind leading the blind.
Polly begins by blaming the boyfriend. In effect, after pretending to know what she’s talking about, Polly curses out the boyfriend… because she would not want anyone to think that she, a fine upstanding woman, could not curse like a drunken sailor.
Polly’s brain has apparently been marinating in a mixture of feminism and psychotherapy. Heaven knows, she has no more of an idea of what is going on than Unnerved does. But, she is happy to throw some hostility toward men into the mix:
Sometimes guys say absurd things like that because they're trying to manage their own expectations. Maybe he's afraid that he would be a mess if you left him, but he wants to will himself to be cooler and easier-going than he actually is. But other times guys say stupid things because they're trying to manage their girlfriends' expectations. Maybe he wants you to know that he's feeling less and less sure that he can make a lifelong commitment, to you or anyone else. And of course, there are those times when guys are just stringing words together randomly because they're fucking ding-dongs, and stupid dumb-shit words flow out of their mouths that bear little or no relation to how they actually feel.
I will spare you most of Polly’s rant, because, after all I do not want to burden you with too many “stupid dumb-shit words.” I simply point out that both Unnerved and Polly have no real idea about what is going on here.
First, Unnerved was doing what people tell her to do. She was being open and honest. A man who is high up in her company asked her to meet outside of work. Whatever could that mean? Well, it sounds like a date to me. It sounded like a date to her boyfriend. They could have had a business lunch. They could have had a meeting. He asked her out on a date. She wanted to go.
Only the most naïve among us will believe that because he’s been married for a long time he would never cheat. Because, don’t you know, an older married man who invites a younger woman on a date never thinks in terms of cheating. How clueless is the millennial generation?
If the man has been married to the same woman for a long time he might be more prepared to cheat. Perhaps he is looking for his next wife. Sorry to say, it does happen. How often has it happened that a man in his position sits down with a comely young lass and opens his heart to her, explaining that he has a loveless marriage, that his wife abuses him… and so on and so on?
Apparently, the boyfriend’s anxiety was not assuaged by the fact that he and Unnerved have a committed relationship and that she wants to marry him. By her own testimony, she would never cheat. And yet, by going out with another man, she is effectively cheating.
Let’s be slightly serious here: if the older man asked her out on the date, he must have had some indication that she would accept. I suspect that the two have been flirting and that he has taken the risk to take it to another level. Because, don’t you know, he is taking a risk here.
We might also consider that the boyfriend saw himself competing with a company executive who could offer his girlfriend more than he could. We do not know anything about the boyfriend except that he is sensitive. So we do not know whether he might feel anxious, not so much about whether his girlfriend will cheat but because he might feel that he is not up to that level of competition.
Now, both Unnerved and Polly are seriously discombobulated over the fact that the boyfriend does not seem to be following any script that they recognize. Boyfriend understands what they do not: a woman who wants to settle down with a man, to buy a house with him, to spend her life with him… does not accept dates with other men.
The boyfriend does understand that his clueless girlfriend is putting her relationship in jeopardy. She does not understand it because she does not know how to read her own behavior. Neither does Polly, for that matter. In the real world, not in Pollywood, she is asking her boyfriend whether she can betray their intimacy.
Polly doesn’t have a clue. She tells us about her own happy, committed monogamous relationships and adds that Unnerved wants exactly the same thing. To make sure that you know how cool she is she drops a few obscenities:
So no, don't go trying to adopt the same fucking stupid, divested, whatever attitude. No fucking way. Is that you? Your letter suggests that's not you. You are someone who wants to have a vivid sense that you are met, fully and completely, by another willing party.
When she explains that she wants to go out on a date with another man she is saying that she is not as committed as she thinks she is. Polly does not get it, because her sole frame of reference is herself. Narcissism, anyone?
Now, perhaps the boyfriend should have put his foot down. Perhaps he should have objected. Perhaps he should have declared his undying love for Unnerved. Perhaps he should have thrown a fit. Perhaps he should have acted as though nothing had happened.
Obviously, the boyfriend was simply calling her bluff. Since she is totally clueless and since she is so clueless that she has written to one of the most clueless newspaper advisers, the boyfriend, who knows her better than you and I and Polly do, has found a way to show her what she was really doing. She was putting their relationship in danger. She was threatening her relationship, all the while insisting that she was totally committed. Perhaps the news has not reached the millennial generation, but you can’t have it both ways. The boyfriend is echoing Unnerved; he is showing her what she is telling him. And when he does, Polly does not have a clue about what is going on.
Undoubtedly, if his girlfriend had been flirting up a storm with a married senior executive, the boyfriend must have figured it out. One day I might tell you how to tell, but it isn’t that difficult. Such events do not just drop into a relationship from out of the blue. The boyfriend saw that Unnerved had already developed a case of wanderlust, he wanted her to understand what she was saying and to see the import of her actions.
And he saw that her commitment was looser than she thought. He was happy to know it now, before they had bought a house and had a few children.
If you think that Polly has not been sufficiently clueless, she added the following piece of conventional wisdom. She tells Unnerved that if she is sufficiently devoted to herself she will always be able to attract men. It’s like saying that if she is sufficiently narcissistic and clueless about other people, she will always attract men. It is straight-up stupidity:
You will always be surrounded by interested men if you know, for certain, that you deserve devotion, and you don't immediately write off the men who are capable of giving it to you.
You want a passionate, exclusive, committed relationship, and you won't settle for less than that. Tell your boyfriend that. Tell him you ARE invested, and if that turns him off, well, that really makes you wonder why he thinks he's such a shitty investment. Why does he believe that he's the sum of his impulses? Why would he, in a million years, expect you to aspire to the same meager sum?
If Unnerved wanted that kind of relationship, she would not have accepted to go out on a date with an older and more powerful man. When she does, she is telling her boyfriend that she does not know whether she wants to be a wife or a courtesan.
Whatever Unnerved tells her boyfriend about her commitment is belied by her actions. A commitment that only exists in your mind is not a commitment at all. In generation clueless the distinction gets completely lost. Ultimately, it’s a sad story.