From time to time I turn to New York Magazine’s Ask Polly column to check out where therapy is these days. Most of the time I am disappointed. Polly offers consistently bad advice. But her advice gives us a picture of where therapy is today. While Polly is not a therapist, she learned the language in her own treatment and talks like one.
Here is today’s case:
A law student goes off to do a summer internship. She gets seduced by a man who is supervising her. Upon succumbing to his charms, she learns that he has recently gotten back together with old girlfriend. He has no intention of being exclusive with said law student. Brimming with self-confidence and being liberated from social customs, the law student decided that it did not matter. She was liberated so she did not care. Apparently, she has not read the cautionary tales about being friends with benefits.
Stop for a second: given the choice between following her bliss and looking at the facts, she chooses to follow her bliss. She ignores the fact that he has made her his concubine and decides to go with her feelings. Don't you know: amor vincit omnia. Big mistake!
Neither the letter writer nor Polly understands the importance of calling things by their names. If this woman wants nothing more out of life than to be a sometime concubine, fine.
But, love, whether true or false, does not confer a role or a position in society. It is an amorphous feeling that may or may not be true. More importantly, it does not matter whether it is true. If the man is attached or married you are his concubine.
So, young law student intern wants to keep it casual. The man escalates the relationship:
He would talk to me all day at work, ask to hang out every day after work, cook me dinner, beg me to sleep over, and spend the entire time talking about how lucky he was to know me and how he wished he had met me before things became romantic with his female friend. He never wanted me to leave and was very clear about wanting to spend every spare minute with me. He talked about the future, how I was the type of person he’d want to be with long term, how smart and beautiful and magnetic and amazing I am. When I tried to laugh him off or make light of the situation — whoa there, champ, you’re also seeing someone else! — he would act hurt. I cared more than I wanted to.
Eventually, he manages to tell someone at work about their affair, discovers that it is not a big deal and then decides… you guessed it… to be exclusive with the ex-girlfriend. Dare we say that he is a master of emotional manipulation.
Letter writer decided to maintain a sage distance, but he wanted her back. How could she resist?:
After that, I tried to keep him at arm’s length, but he slowly weaseled his way back in. And I let him! Pretty soon, he was treating me like a girlfriend — talking all day at work, walking me home, asking me to come over, cooking me dinner, pouring wine, watching Parks and Rec, etc. He would get affectionate, and I would tell him not to. He said he realized he made a mistake jumping into things with his girlfriend; it was clearly not what he wanted. Eventually, we slept together again. I felt like a totally shitty human being. He said he was going to break up with her, I tried to enforce a boundary until he did, he decided not to break up with her, then bulldozed the boundary, and this whole pattern repeated itself.
Why is she writing to Polly?
In nine months, I’ll graduate and move back to work at his firm. We’ll be co-workers in a very small group where everyone thinks we are close friends. I’m terrified. I feel broken and worthless and scared I’ll never be able to get over him.
And, of course, she has a therapist who is as bewildered as she is:
My therapist says he is a narcissist, but that doesn’t really make me feel much better or give me a plan to feel like a whole, attractive human being again. I’m worried both that this may have permanently broken me and that I’m never going to find anyone else who I’m attracted to who actually wants me back.
One is not encouraged by this therapeutic babble. The woman needs a plan. She says so. She is asking for help. She needs to figure out how to recover from the damage that this man has inflicted on her. Her therapist is of no use, because she just wants to label the man, and to feel some empathy for him.
So the letter writer asks Polly, who is also obsessed with trying to understand the man. As might be imagined Polly spins out a narrative explanation for bad behavior:
This guy is never going to choose one woman over another, because that would mean not getting all of the attention from all of the women. He needs all of it. What’s frightening is that he doesn’t even know he’s doing this. He legitimately feels like he suddenly, inconveniently fell for you. He likes whoever is closest, always. And even if he finally acts like he’s going to decide, even if he gets engaged to his girlfriend, he’s still going to confess to you late at night that he thinks he made a big mistake. It’s not just that he’ll say anything to get into your pants, it’s that he actually believes what he says. That’s what makes him so dangerous.
Polly’s final point is salient. The man is dangerous. He is not in love with the young intern. He is harassing her. He has made it vastly more difficult for her to do her job. Strangely enough, no one points out that this is a case of sexual harassment. And that it veers into stalking.
What is the solution? What is the plan? Easy. I am sure you have thought of it already. We can only be stupefied that the woman, her therapist and Polly cannot think of it. It is: to find another job. It’s October. She will be starting work next summer. Surely, she has time to find another job. If she turns down the job that was offered, she might even tell them why.
Polly sees the danger but chooses to deal with it passively, by doing some wild psychoanalysis on the man:
Think about how he acted whenever you were around. He talked to you all day. He asked you to hang out that night. He cooked you dinner. He begged you to spend the night. He had a girlfriend, but he did this day after day. Even without the girlfriend, this is the behavior of someone who’s afraid of being alone, someone who can’t face himself. If he were a woman, people would think he was a needy psycho chick. But he’s a handsome guy, so it looks like passion. He is passionate, too! He’s passionate about never having to be alone and face the giant hole at the center of his life.
And naturally, Polly is brimming over with empathy, so she feels sympathy and compassion for a man who has treated this woman appallingly badly:
I feel a little sorry for him, honestly. Needy narcissists who can’t stand being alone are some of the saddest people around. I’m not using the term narcissist in the casual “all he cares about is himself” way here, either; I’m saying this guy is textbook material, and will manipulate anyone and anything to get his needs met, but his needs will never be met. He remains important and never boring to women by constantly changing his mind and playing them off each other. Otherwise, you might get sick of him. He wants you on the sidelines. He needs you as a hedge, in case his other girlfriend gets sick of his shit. He’s so insecure that he needs another lady on deck. And again, if he chooses you, he’ll find another hedge.
At least, Polly has a fair idea of what a decent man looks like:
Solid guys rarely advertise how massively in love they are, over and over again, from the very start. Solid guys don’t act like they’ve been knocked over by a tidal wave whenever you’re around. That’s some cheap imitation of something this clown saw in a movie one time. Don’t fall for that from him or anyone else. In my personal experience, men who go overboard to woo you are not to be trusted most of the time. Men who are secure with themselves can tolerate getting to know people slowly. They don’t mind being alone. They make decisions and don’t go back on them over and over again.
Here she is correct. And yet, the thrust of her advice is to understand the man, to try to know whether he is in love with his concubine. To which one must say, it does not matter how he feels. What matters is how he behaves.
The letter writer feels broken, because she has been broken. And the man wants to break her in order to make her a permanent concubine, to own her and to abuse her. It does not matter whether he is in love. He wants her to believe that she is worthy of nothing better than concubinage.
She made a mistake and her therapists are inviting her to compound the mistake. Such are the perils of following your bliss and of indulging in the wisdom on offer from the therapy culture. As I said, her best first step is to find another job.